Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Richard Wilbur's Haiku Stanzas

Haiku Stanzas

Haiku is the most successful syllabic form in English today.  It is written by a diverse population ranging from ordinary people without any background in poetry to professional poets who earn their living teaching literature and English.  It has developed a broad appeal.

One development from this broad interest is the emergence of the ‘Haiku Stanza Poem’.  By ‘Haiku Stanza’ I mean a poem of more than one verse, in which each verse follows the standard syllabic form of Haiku: 5-7-5.  This is an interesting development.  It opens up the possibility for longer poems that still use the Haiku rhythm of 5-7-5.

Three-line stanzas are already a part of English poetry; take, for example, the Terza Rima.  So using the three-line Haiku form as the basis for stanza construction isn’t that big a step.  From the perspective of traditional Haiku, though, it is an interesting question as to whether or not the use of the form to construct a longer, stanza-based poem, still falls into the category of Haiku.  From a syllabic perspective, that is to say if you define Haiku according to its syllabics, the answer would be yes; because it follows the syllabic contours which, again from a syllabic perspective, define Haiku.  From the perspective of free verse Haiku, not so much.  It would be more difficult for free verse Haiku practitioners to incorporate a longer, stanza-based, extrapolation of Haiku into their esthetic.  Not so much because of the syllable count, although that is relevant.  More important would be the minimalist esthetic which free verse Haijin have adopted; this would raise a barrier to lengthier types of Haiku. 

The Haiku stanza construction is found in the poetry of Richard Wilbur.  Wilbur is a metrical poet of great skill, widely admired.  But Wilbur does venture into syllabic construction, though not often.  Wilbur has, for example, composed a number of Tanka following the traditional syllabics of 5-7-5-7-7.

Wilbur has written a number poems using Haiku stanza construction.  They are ‘Alatus’,  ‘Thyme Flowering Among Rocks’, ‘Zea’, and ‘Signatures.  Wilbur uses rhyme in his stanzaic constructions.  The first and third lines of each stanza rhyme.  ‘Alatus’ is, according to Wikipedia, a shrub native to East Asia which is very colorful in autumn.  It is used in many gardens.  ‘Alatus’ is Latin for ‘wings’.  Here is a portion from Wilbur’s ‘Alatus’:

The supply-lines cut,
The leaves go down to defeat,
Turning, flying, but

Bravely so, the ash
Shaking from blade and pennon
May light’s citron flash;

And rock maple, though
Its globed array be shivered,
Strews its fallen so

As to mock the cold,
Blanketing earth with earnest
Of a summer’s gold.

Interestingly, Wilbur’s poem is a poem about nature and I wonder if the nature centered, or seasonal centered haiku esthetic perhaps had an influence on Wilbur’s topic or even his choice to compose in Haiku stanzas.  The poem is a scene from nature, but more extended than what a traditional Haiku, consisting of a single stanza, would allow for.  The use of rhyme is typical of Wilbur’s skill.  Sometimes the rhyme is used to define a run-on line (Line 3 to 4, Lines 7 to 8), at other times the rhyme matches grammatical construction (Lines 6 and 12).  The skillful balance of rhyme defined run-on lines with rhyme that is matched by grammatical construction keeps the reader/listener aware of the overall shape of the stanzas without the effect becoming too predictable or tiresome. 

In ‘Thyme Flowering Among Rocks’ Wilbur gives us another example of his use of the Haiku stanza.  In ‘Alatus’ the East Asian connection is implicit because of the East Asian origins of the plant.  In ‘Thyme’, Wilbur opens with an explicit reference:

This, if Japanese,
Would represent grey boulders
Walloped by rough seas

So that, here or there,
The balked water tossed its froth
Straight into the air.

Again, notice how this is a seasonal poem.  What Wilbur is offering the Haiku practitioner is the possibility of keeping within the parameters of classical Haiku esthetics, yet at the same time extending the form into a stanza based construction.  I think this is a fruitful possibility.  Again, Wilbur balances his use of rhyme between rhyme defined run-on lines and rhymed lines that are grammatically in sync.  Here is an example of the use of rhyme-defined run-on:

One branch, in ending,
Lifts a little and begets
A straight-ascending

Spike, whorled with fine blue
Or purple trumpets, banked in
The leaf-axils.  You

Are lost now in dense
Fact, fact which one might have thought
Hidden from the sense,

Run-ons include ‘straight-ascending/Spike’ and You/Are.  The last quoted line ending in ‘sense’, brings the reader back to having the grammatical structure and end-rhyme as synchronous.

‘Alatus’, ‘Signatures’, ‘Zea’, and ‘Thyme’ are rich with detail.  They are all seasonal nature poems, all centered on plants.  They have imbibed the Haiku esthetic to the full.  Here is the closing of ‘Thyme’ where, once again Wilbur makes the East Asian connection explicit:

It makes the craned head
Spin.  Unfathomed thyme!  The world’s
A dream, Basho said,

Not because that dream’s
A falsehood, but because it’s
Truer than it seems.

These are really beautiful poems.  I find ‘Thyme’ exquisite.  Out of a meticulous observation of nature, in each case a specific type of plant, they point to larger contexts and our placement in the cosmos.  Wilbur’s Haiku stanza poems have opened the possibility to English language Haijin of longer poems that are still rooted in the sense of season so important to traditional Haiku.  I think the Haiku genre is immensely enriched by this possibility.

(Note:  The quotes of Wilbur’s poems are from “Collected Poems: 1943 – 2004”, Harcourt Books, Orlando, Florida, 2004.  ‘Alatus’ is on Page 81.  ‘Thyme Flowering Among Rocks’ is found on Page 219, ‘Zea’ is on page 31, and ‘Signature’ is found on Page 40.)

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