Finding Haiku: Nighthawks by Katherine Hastings
The place that syllabics occupies in English poetry seems to be subtly shifting. What I am observing is that syllabics is slowly becoming an option among poets of various persuasions. That is why you will find poets, in the middle of a collection, writing a series of syllabic poems. I first intuited this when I ran across some fibonacci poems in the collection Olives by A. E. Stallings. I never expected to see Stallings compose in a syllabic form because she is so skillful and secure in the traditional metrical approach. Nevertheless, she decided to apply her skills to a syllabic form.
Syllabics seems to occupy a congenial middle ground today and is, therefore, able to attract the interest of poets who are rooted in very different approaches to poetry. Metrical poets, like Richard Wilbur and A. E. Stallings seem to be at ease composing in syllabics. I think this is because syllabics are, in a sense, formal, meaning constrained by counting. This is recognizable by traditional poets and gives them a point of entry into a syllabic form.
Free verse poets, such as Haydn Carruth, find syllabics congenial, but I think the point of entry differs. For a free verse poet it is the lack of required rhyme or metrical emphasis which resonates with their own usual approach. For a free verse poet the aspect of counting is new; but there is enough that is familiar that the counting doesn’t seem to be too much of a hindrance. I’m speaking from personal experience here as I started out writing free verse and then moved to a syllabic approach.
Katherine Hastings is a free verse poet who, in her latest collection, Nighthawks, has ventured into composing syllabic haiku. Hastings is the Poet Laureate of Sonoma County and hosts a poetry series called ‘Word Temple’. Like other free verse poets who venture into syllabics, Hastings brings her honed skills in writing free verse to her syllabic haiku.
Nighthawks appears to contain two centers of attention. The first are poems centered on nature, and the second are more personal, more first person, even when the first person pronoun is not used.
A good example of Hastings’s nature centered poetry is ‘Moonrise’:
The fog lying in over the mountains
is black. Is lined with ice. Is its own
mountain of snow.
Ten p.m. One planet to the southwest
shimmers copper and rose.
The mockingbird is silent as the night
lights up like day and the moon asks
who is braver.
The poem moves from this naturescape to a contemplation on how our lives are in mists and shadows and shrouds, drawing out the connections between the landscape and the lives we live. It is an elegant metaphoric exploration. And there are wonderful sonic resonances in the poem, like the near rhyme of ‘snow’ and ‘rose’. Three of the lines end in the ‘er’ sound: braver/matters/silver. The poem draws you in to your own interior and the way one’s relationships always have a mysterious and hidden dimension.
Here is another of her nature centered poems, ‘A Walk in the Park’:
All day the yellow sun falls on the hills.
bunchgrass and blueberries pour down the slope.
Last night coyotes trotted past scattered oaks
climbing to sky, sang of the catch. Rabbit,
rabbit, possum, fawn.
The quatrains of this poem are basically ten-syllables, with plus or minus 1 on occasion. It is constructed in a manner that leads the reader from one quatrain to the next; only one quatrain, out of eight, ends in a period. Yet the run-ons don’t feel disruptive to the form. Partly because of sonic resonances used to signal the end of a line: the slope/oaks in the quote above is an example.
Like ‘Moonrise’ this poem moves from a landscape into the human dimension, both personal and social. And again this is done gracefully, the reader doesn’t feel this as a disruption. In addition to the move from the realm of nature to the human realm, there is also interwoven in the poem a sense of the dream dimension woven into the fabric. The poem ends by returning to the landscape:
I walk until the lopsided moon begins her weaving
over and under, under and over,
interlacing her lightfall of peace,
I walk until the nighthawks cry.
The focus on nature is a good foundation for composing haiku. The book is divided into four sections and the haiku are found in the fourth. There are eight haiku under the title ‘Haiku Clouds’. I read this as a haiku sequence. I mean that each haiku can stand on its own, but when placed together they form what I think of as a ‘haiku collage’. ‘Haiku Clouds’ continues with the features of the other poems in the collection; nature is emphasized and finding meaning in nature is a focus. And, again, the dream realm appears to be interwoven in the haiku sequence. This interweaving of realms is one of the aspects I find most attractive in her poetry. Here is the first haiku in the series:
Inside the blue eye
clouds like the ocean, the wind
Lone, pale survivors
The last line turns the haiku into a rich metaphor. The first two lines are descriptive, and like line 3, use metaphor, as well as simile, to enrich the experience; in the ‘blue eye’ of the sky we see clouds like the ocean. The wind is moving the clouds. Then line 3 gives us a turn and we move from the realm of nature into the human realm and the experience of being a ‘survivor’. It is an intriguing turn to subjectivity. The word ‘survivor’ is an intense word with many resonances. There are personal survivals that we have endured, and social survivals from events like war that we hear about even if we are fortunate enough not to have participated in them. The way Hastings uses a naturescape as a way of launching us into our own interior is characteristic, but in a brief haiku the transition is more startling. This is a good example of juxtaposition in haiku, where two contrasting elements are brought together and illuminate each other.
As noted, in this haiku Hastings uses both metaphor and simile to enrich the overall effect of the haiku, increasing the complexity of meaning, turning the three lines into a multivalent fabric. In other haiku in the series she uses personification and further metaphor as well. I like the way Hastings integrates such poetic devices into her haiku in a way that feels natural.
Here are the two closing haiku in the sequence:
All day the clouds sing
under a sun like summer
a song high and vast
Sky’s purest children
form moonlike blooms overhead,
fetch myriad dreams
Spuyten Duyvil, New York