Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Borrowed Water: A Review

Borrowed Water
A Review

I have been discovering that there has been a lot of syllabic Haiku published in the past, but which has now faded from view.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, poetry is a niche market which only a small number of people are interested in.  And Haiku is a niche in that niche.  The consequence of this is that poetry rarely gets reprinted and that includes reprints of Haiku.  An exception to this would be Richard Wright and his collection of Haiku which has been in continuous publication since it was first printed.  I suspect that is due primarily to his fame and reputation as an author of fiction and biographical works rather than the public  being specifically interested in Wright as a poet or as a Haiku poet.  

A second reason, I think, is that many people associated with what I refer to as Official Haiku have taken to a free verse approach and are no longer interested in those who composed Haiku using a syllabic approach.  Often a syllabic approach is configured by Official Haiku as an embarrassment from the past, something which has now been overcome.  With this kind of attitude there is little interest in past Haiku publications that used a syllabic approach.

One such book is ‘Borrowed Water: A Book of American Haiku’.  It is an anthology put together by the Los Altos Writers Roundtable.  It was published in 1966, making it one of the earliest anthologies published.  The publisher is Tuttle and as an aside, Tuttle during the 60’s and 70’s seems to have been interested in publishing English language Haiku that used a syllabic approach.  The first book of Haiku that I read was ‘Alaska in Haiku’ and it was published by Tuttle as well.

There are 13 contributors to ‘Borrowed Water’.  The Haiku are  arranged in the traditional four seasonal chapters, with one concluding chapter of ‘Miscellaneous’ Haiku.  The personalities of the 13 haijin come through as the reader gets to see how each haijin handles each seasonal theme.  Each contributor has a unique and distinctive voice.  I liked this way of putting together the anthology better than the style where each haijin has only a few Haiku, often arranged by author rather than by theme.  I enjoyed seeing how the different poets spoke.

The approach to Haiku in this anthology is consciously syllabic; this distinguishes the anthology from more recent anthologies which tend to give prominence to free verse lineation.  But there is another significant feature of this anthology: there is no minimalist impulse in evidence.  All the Haiku are written in standard English using articles, prepositions, modifiers, etc.  From my perspective this makes this anthology esthetically a cut above more recent anthologies of Haiku.  Here’s an example of what I mean:

A leaf flutters down
to the basket of shade
you planted years ago.

First, note that L2 and L3 are both six syllables.  This makes the overall count 17 (5 + 6 + 6), but with a slight change in the syllable distribution.  The group seems to have held this kind of relaxed approach to counting rather than a rigid or uncompromising approach.

Note also that this Haiku is a full sentence; again I find this approach often in the anthology.  There is no minimalist scalpel at work here.  A contemporary, minimalist, approach might rewrite this Haiku as follows:

falling leaf --
the shade you planted
years ago

Personally, I prefer the original; it is more lyrical and more conversational.  It is more considerate of the reader.  It is more English.  The minimalist version is what I refer to as ‘Haiku Hybrid English’ or HHE for short.  There is a thud-like quality to the second version.

Here’s a portrait of autumn:

The boys are in school;
fall leaves – the only swimmers
in the swimming pool.

I like the way the author breaks the second line; it works because the third line is a full prepositional phrase and has its own integrity.  I also enjoyed seeing an early example of the use of rhyme (school/pool).  Again, notice that there is no attempt at minimalism; there is a full portrait here of fall through the interweaving of the human and natural worlds.  I think this is a very skillfully done Haiku.

Not all of the Haiku in this anthology are, to my mind, successful.  I observed some Issa influenced Haiku that are somewhat cloying in their use of personification.  On the other hand, that kind of Haiku could find a good home in a collection for children, accompanied with good illustrations.

Here is a thoughtful Haiku on the classic topic of the moon:

The pond lies placid;
night unpacked its darkness there,
two moons hover here.

This is nicely mysterious and captures the eerily mirror-like quality of a placid pond.  The personification of ‘night’ works effectively, as if night were a conscious force.

And here is an example I particularly liked:

Seeing the thin elm
this dismal morning,
I think of yellow.

Notice the short count; fifteen syllables.  But it works; it doesn’t have a minimalist feel and isn’t written in HHE.  Notice the use of modifiers ('thin', 'dismal') which HHE eschews.  This is one of the most significant differences in the esthetics of a syllabic approach and the minimalist approach of HHE.  In a syllabic approach modifiers are encouraged because they are a part of normal English usage and they give the Haiku specificity.  I enjoyed the way the author shows the effect that the natural scene has on his interior mind.

There are a lot of used copies of this collection available at a reasonable price.  For those who are interested in syllabic Haiku, I think this is a collection you might want to become familiar with.  This anthology from the 60’s can be built on and learned from.  I think you will enjoy it.

A crescent moon
is bent on following the boat
around the small pond.

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