Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Haiku of Susan August

Susan August
A review of her Haiku

Haiku Applecart
ISBN: 9781430323402

Haiku Building
ISBN: 9781435701595

Haiku Chance
ISBN: 9780557046577

Haiku Distance
ISBN: 9780557204243

All books are $12.95
Available from http://www.lulu.com/

Author’s website: http://www.haikuapplecart.blogspot.com/

I take the time to explore new or ignored books of syllabic poetry, including books of Haiku that are focused on a syllabic approach to Haiku. I have been surprised and gratified to discover that there is a lot of fine work being published by syllabic Haiku poets. Poets who take a syllabic approach to Haiku are, for the most part, locked out of official Haiku associations because most of these associations have a strong commitment to a free verse approach to Haiku lineation. Authors who pursue a syllabic approach to Haiku have taken advantage of the new print-on-demand services. Among those that offer these services lulu.com seems to have a large number of syllabic poets.

I discovered Susan August while searching print-on-demand services for Haiku books. Lulu allows me to look at sample pages and in this way I can find syllabic Haiku. I liked the sample pages of August’s books so ordered all four of them.

August arranges her Haiku in chapters and all the Haiku in a chapter are on the same theme. In three of her books the seven chapters are the same: in season, here and there, at the table, creature features, at play, two legged beasts, at work, and whatnots. These chapter headings are used in Haiku Applecart, Haiku Building, and Haiku Chance.

Haiku Distance features a different set: aam, baud, cubit, ell, fresnel, gamma, horsepower (these are all technological terms; a Fresnel equal 10 to the 12th cycles per second, ‘aam’ means ‘air to air missile’, and ‘ell’ means an extension placed at right angles to the original building). Haiku Distance is, I believe, the second volume in the series so I suspect that August found the original grouping of chapters attractive since she returns to them in her third (Haiku Chance) and fourth (Haiku Distance) books.

August groups the Haiku in each chapter in such a way that they form a sequence. At least I read them that way. I found that August seems to take care in the placement of her Haiku so that the flow is easy and the linkage between Haiku is clear. Here’s an example:

30,000 roar
as two baseball dugouts clear
all fists and hormones

so unexpected
this love that shifts the world off
its spinning axis

(Haiku Distance, page 86)

The line ‘all fists and hormones’, followed by ‘so unexpected’ is a very good link and the two Haiku work well together. Here’s another example:

the monarch, the tree
tracing sunlight on the bark
and then it is gone

hovering above
the pale winter hawk patient
for rustlings below

(Haiku Chance, page 46)

Line 3 of the first Haiku moves smoothly, effortlessly, to Line 1 of the second Haiku. There are many examples like this, although it is not always the case, and this kind of linkage makes the reading smooth. I found that I would read a chapter at a time, from start to finish.

The seven topics shared by three of her books are a good way of categorizing Haiku. This topical arrangement appears to be an update of the seven topics that are traditionally used in Japanese poetry to group Haiku together. August has a chapter on the traditional seasons, nature is the focus in the chapter on animals or ‘creatures features’ and humanity is the focus of three chapters; at play, two-legged creatures, and at work. And finally August’s chapter ‘whatnot’ allows for a ‘miscellaneous’ collection.

When August writes Haiku on traditional topics, such as the moon or seasons, she does so in a way that I found new and refreshing:

fidgeting full moon
waits for her turn to jump rope
with the power lines

(Haiku Applecart, page 14)

Here is another lunar Haiku:

the pale winter moon
beneath a veil of thin clouds
watching, opening

(Haiku Change, page 7)

And a final lunar Haiku:

tickling midnight hour
a lake forming in the street
moonlight on raindrops

(Haiku Applecart, page 11)

This last one is very plain, but notice how all three Haiku use personification, which seems to be a major approach to Haiku in August’s work. The moon fidgets or watches, the hour tickles. This is an approach that threads its way through all the books and chapters. I particularly liked the image of the ‘fidgeting’ moon; I haven’t run across quite that image before and it brought out for me a new way of looking at the moon.

August at times uses the pivot line technique to good effect:

leaving her lover
tonight under a full moon
the swing set squeaking

Line 2 is a perfect pivot, and this Haiku is, I think, really excellent in many ways. The interweaving of the traditional topics of love and the moon is done effortlessly.

Sometimes August can be humorous in a droll kind of way:

dozing in their chairs
cats question my sanity
as I keep jogging

(Haiku Building, page 83)

And sometimes the mood is more serious, contemplative:

I will remember
the moment of her kindness
and forget her name

(Haiku Building, page 82)

August’s Haiku are written in a plain style. There is no punctuation, the lines are centered on the page, and no use of initial capitals. There are no titles for individual Haiku. Each page has four Haiku and each chapter begins with a thematically related graphic. This simple design adds to the ease of access and ease of reading.

I haven’t counted the syllables of every single Haiku in all four books, but as far as I can tell they are in 5-7-5. None of them feel wordy or overdone; yet none of them fall into the trap of minimalism. They have a sense of being written in a natural English. In this they remind me of Wright’s Haiku which also read as if Haiku were a native English language form. This isn’t meant to conflate Wright and August as their voices are distinct.

One of the benefits of keeping with a syllabic count is that when the Haiku are arranged in sequences, as they are in these books, a pulse begins to appear. The regularity of the form creates a current, a rhythm, in time. It’s like the current of a river under a canoe that carries the canoe along. When there is a regular syllabic structure that regular structure carries the reader along, like the underlying time signature in a song. This is reinforced in August’s Haiku because her approach to lineation is also steady and regular. By that I mean that run-ons are just about non-existent, each line has both syllabic and grammatical integrity. This adds to the sense of pulse, which at times almost becomes metrical, in the sequences.

Taken together these four books represent a significant addition to contemporary Haiku. They are also noteworthy for demonstrating that the creative energy of syllabic Haiku introduced to us by poets such as Richard Wright and James Hackett continues to flourish. August has a keen eye for detail and a poet’s sense of craft. Her Haiku are beautifully shaped and I suspect I will continue to learn a lot from reading and studying her Haiku.

if you look closely
winter’s hard buds are dreaming
of tender blossoms


Dan Gurney said...

Thank you for this informative review of Susan August's haiku. I think I'll order myself a copy of one of her books.

Jim714 said...

Great. I look forward to discussing August with you.


sea said...


I am truly overwhelmed by your generous words. Thank you for nudging my haiku a bit farther out into the world.

With gratitude,

Jim714 said...

You are welcome, Susan. Glad to be of assistance.