Monday, July 26, 2010

Song of the Egret -- A Review

Song of the Egret – A Review

Song of the Egret: Haiku Poems
Milton D. Heifetz, M. D.
Published by Authorhouse
ISBN: 9781449040345
Published 2009 -- $10.49

Available through, Amazon, or through your local bookstore.

Here’s an interesting addition to the world of syllabic English Haiku. Dr. Milton Heifetz offers us a collection of Haiku that are highly formal. By “highly formal” I mean that Dr. Heifetz’ Haiku do more than adhere to the classical 5-7-5 format. Dr. Heifetz also adheres to the traditional seasonal placement of the Haiku and the Haiku in his book are grouped together into four chapters of the traditional seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.

But there is more. Dr. Heifetz has developed, and then articulated, a specific way of arranging the three lines of the traditional Haiku that divides the Haiku into two parts. The first part consists of Lines 1 and 2. The second part consists of Line 3. Lines 1 and 2 are concluded with a period; a full stop. Line 3 also ends with a period, full stop. Nearly all, with a few exceptions, of Dr. Heifetz Haiku are written in this manner, with the two sections each having a full stop period. Here are some examples so you can see what I mean:

As dusk descended
the sun slowly widened.
A nighthawk’s faint call.

As water dripped
The stone walk slowly darkened.
A welcoming warmth.

Hungry chickadees
scurried towards the scattered seeds.
Snowflakes seemed to pause.

Almost all of Dr. Heifetz’ Haiku are in this formal arrangement. My first reaction to this highly constricted formal approach was to think that this might make the Haiku somewhat dull and/or repetitious. Fortunately, I was mistaken.

First, the effect of having nearly all of the Haiku in the same strict formal arrangement makes for a smooth, even elegant, reading experience. Once you get used to the way Dr. Heifetz approaches Haiku form, there is a kind of steady rhythm in the phrasing which carries you from Haiku to Haiku. This consistent formal arrangement resembles the pulse in a song that carries you from verse to verse. This is true for any collection of Haiku written syllabically and is one of the virtues of a syllabic approach to Haiku. But in this collection the feeling of pulse is even stronger due to the way Heifetz consistently parses his Haiku into two units of consistent length as one moves from Haiku to Haiku. The occasional deviation from the dominant formal structure, both syllabically and in terms of two-part structure, offers just enough variety to keep the reader interested in the rhythmic flow.

Second, Dr. Heifetz has a good sense for phrasing and his Haiku are in accessible English; that is to say they are not minimalist Haiku. Dr. Heifetz is inclined to use the standard articles of ordinary English, along with the standard modifiers and prepositions; it is instructive to note that when Dr. Heifetz deviates from the 5-7-5 syllabic standard he seems just as inclined to add a syllable as to trim one. This gives his Haiku a conversational feeling. It’s not that each of the two parts is necessarily a full sentence; often the second half is a sentence fragment. But when they are fragments they are the kind of fragments one often hears in ordinary conversation. I mean to indicate that Dr. Heifetz’ Haiku have the feeling of having a friend tell you about something they saw the other day.

I have never seen a collection of Haiku arranged in exactly this way, with such a strong adherence to a particular formal structure. I have seen Haiku divided in two before, they often are; but I have never seen English language Haiku divided quite like this and carried through from beginning to end so meticulously. So I began to wonder how Dr. Heifetz came up this kind of arrangement. I don’t know Dr. Heifetz and haven’t interviewed him, so the following is speculative.

The brief biography of the author in the Introduction and at the back of the book tells us that Dr. Heifetz is a medical Doctor of some standing including being Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. He has served at Harvard Medical School and has taught ethics at Oxford and Boston College Law School and Brandeis. He has invented several surgical instruments. In addition, Dr. Heifetz has an abiding interest in astronomy. He writes in the Introduction, “These poems reflect poignant moments in my life as a neurosurgeon with a deep interest in nature study and astronomy.”

All of this came together for me when I re-read his Haiku in this way: the first two lines of Heifetz’ Haiku present a situation while the third line either offers a diagnosis, or a conclusion, or additional crucial information based on Lines 1 and 2. In other words, I think Heifetz has transferred his diagnostic skills, honed in a medical environment, to the composing of Haiku. In a sense, the first two lines are ‘evidence’, and the third line is either a conclusion, reaction, or additional ‘evidence’.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

The cougar crouched as
the faun froze in position.
A barricade of fear.

As winter nears and
snow falls, the maple leaf blushes.
Life ebbing away.

In both of these Haiku, Line 3 is a kind of summation, or conclusion, based on the observations made in Lines 1 and 2. Line 3 is a kind of diagnosis of the scene. Sometimes this connection is explicit:

I walked into sadness
as mother held her child’s hand.
I had to operate.

Here his role as physician, and his integration of that role into his Haiku composition, is stated upfront. Not all of Heifetz’ Haiku have a Line 3 that is explicitly diagnostic:

The fawn was nursing
near a quiet waterfall.
A leaf drifted by.

Here Line 3 is an added detail. I still suspect, though, that the physician’s mind is behind a Haiku like this one in the sense that a diagnostician will look for little details to guide the physician’s understanding of what is happening.

Sometimes Line 3 is a comment rather than a diagnosis or an added detail:

Our baby’s softness
with toe between lovely lips.
What pure tenderness.

Here Line 3 tells us how Dr. Heifetz felt about what he was seeing, his emotional reaction to the scene.

One of the surprising aspects of Haiku is how a very short form can still embody differing personalities. The Haiku written by Basho contrast strongly with the Haiku written by Issa; they have different concerns and modes of expression. And it has often been remarked by critics how strongly visual are the Haiku of Buson who was a painter in addition to being a poet. And it is true; Buson’s visual sense is unmatched among Japanese Haiku poets I have read. Buson is a good example of how a habit of mind developed in one area of life, such as Buson the painter, will inform how the author approaches and composes Haiku. Dr. Heifetz, like Buson, also shows us how the person’s individuality will necessarily manifest in even very short forms of poetry.

I think this is a fine collection that deserves wide readership. It demonstrates that it is possible to actually increase the formal constraints of Haiku beyond what one normally encounters and still compose excellent Haiku. I’d also like to suggest that the way in which Heifetz divides his Haiku is an approach which others could use; we might call it ‘the Heifetz approach’. In closing here are some I personally enjoy:

The swan spread its wings
in the damp mist of silence.
Awakening dawn.

The grunion appear
as the moon and tide join forces.
Mystical rhythm.

Arriving grandson
shadowed the anguish of loss.
Fading memory.

With descending fog
we drifted into silence.
Forboding darkness.

In my boyish dream
I flew to the autumn moon.
It smiled at my touch.

The swallows return
exactly on time.
Hidden forces.

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