Monday, October 3, 2011

The 500 Haiku of the Carpenter: A Review

The 500 Haiku of the Carpenter
By Peter Britell
ISBN: 9781460927359

The distinctive feature of this book is how the author handles haiku lineation. The consensus among western haiku poets is that the haiku form consists of three short lines. For those taking a syllabic approach to haiku, the three lines are in 5-7-5 syllables, for a total of seventeen syllables. This mimics the syllabic structure of Japanese origin. Haiku poets who are strongly under the influence of contemporary free verse tend to abandon a specific count and consequently line count can vary among this type of free verse haiku. Free verse haiku has much more in common with western free verse than with the Japanese haiku.

‘The 500 Haiku of the Carpenter’ is a collection of 500 syllabic haiku. That is to say the haiku are written in 5-7-5, for an overall count of seventeen syllables. But the author takes the second line of seven syllables and using a unique approach to lineation, divides that line into sub-lines. Here is an example:

In the falling snow
     I saw the face
     of a girl –
she smiled your smile.

(Number 57)

Here the second line is divided into a 4 + 3 structure and both parts of the second line are indented. Here is another example of a 4 + 3 structure for the second line:

Full moon of July,
     sliding over
     silent pines –
we hear your music.

(Number 129)

Not all of the second lines are divided into a 4 + 3 structure. Some use a 3 + 4 division:

Ghost schooner, tonight
     I sail to
     moonbeams ending;
moon-wind fills my sails.

(Number 289)

Sometimes the author divides the second line into 5 + 2, as in one of my favorites:

Loud cherry blossoms
     on this still April
     morning –
I see temple bells.

(Number 388)

As you can see from these samples, most of the haiku in the book preserve the seasonal element of classic haiku. There are some haiku, though, that are non-seasonal:

An iced cold beer
     slowly guzzling down
     my throat –
hospital day dream.

(Number 385)

The author’s non-seasonal haiku tend to be introspective, though there are also some that are humorous:

Why do the children
     put beans in their ears?
     What place
is better for beans?

(Number 326)

This has a senryu quality to it.

Still, most of the haiku are specifically seasonal and the author seems to be consciously striving for a traditional haiku feel.

The division of the middle line mimics the Japanese, and East Asian, concerns with mid-line pauses. In traditional East Asian poetics, both five and seven syllable lines are supposed to have a pause a specified locations and it is part of the craft of Chinese and Japanese poetry to become skillful at placing those pauses in the right place. The pause is like a grammatical pause, or the pause one has when adding an aside. This is an aspect of East Asian poetics which has not been emphasized in the west because it is very difficult to map onto the English language. Yet here, Britell is doing exactly that with the way he is structuring the second line. The technique of lineation used in this book retains the overall syllable count found in the Japanese original, and at the same time offers a solution for the pause that traditional poetics asks for in the seven-syllable line. I think this is an elegant approach and it works well in the hands of this haiku poet. Here is the author speaking about haiku and how he feels about the form:

Hear the clear music
     in seventeen
     syllables –
wind chimes in short words.

(Number 328)

Having spent some time with this collection, I have an overall admiration for the author’s skill and unique voice. His haiku do indeed have a wind-chime like quality to them; by that I mean they are attractive not only to the mind, but also to the ear and the other senses. I also appreciate that the author feels free to use a wide variety of poetic techniques to enhance his haiku. Here is an explicit use of metaphor:

Without you, this house
     like an empty
     ship sailing
in a windless sea.

(Number 405)

There are haiku in this volume about work, love, aging, children, and, of course, the overall theme of the flow of the seasons permeates the work. The layout is regular; all the haiku begin with a capital and end with a period, emphasizing that this author’s approach is to express a complete thought, or present a complete picture, in the seventeen syllables of the traditional form. The regularity of the layout gives the collection a steady flow as one moves from one haiku to another. The author, I believe, has taken some care in the sequence of the haiku and although each haiku is complete and framed by the opening capital and the closing period, yet I found a sense of ease in the way the reader moves from one haiku to the next. It reminded me of well-crafted paragraph writing where the sentences easily link to each other.

This book seems to be an ongoing project. There is an earlier edition called ‘The 400 Haiku of the Carpenter’. Perhaps there will be more coming in the future. I look forward to that possibility.

In closing, here is another of my favorites:

Old age came walking
     down the snow-
     covered street –
“Keep walking,” I said.

(Number 472)


The Carpenter said...

This review is itself a work of art, one of the best critical pieces I have read in many years (put aside that it is about my book). You have captured the essence of my haiku. For me - and clearly for you - words and the structure of language are the central elements of creativity (in my case, influenced by by Caesar, Virgil, Ovid, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Eliot - and later Basho, among many others). Writing has always been a defining experience for me. (I also write nonsense novels (under the name P. Nonsensibus) and legal treatises (under my own name). I thank you for your great insights and for this incredible review. The Carpenter.

P.S. Sorry for the short earlier note. It was spur of the moment enthusiasm.

Jim714 said...

Thanks for taking the time to send your flattering response. That's interesting to hear about your other writing experience. I suspect it informs your haiku composition in ways not immediately apparent. I look forward to reading more of your work.


P.S. I don't recall receiving an earlier note; perhaps I missed it.