Friday, May 22, 2015

Finding Haiku: 'Nighthawks' by Katherine Hastings

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

Katherine Hastings
Spuyten Duyvil, New York
ISBN: 9780923389116

Friday, May 15, 2015

Cowboy Haiku

Cowboy Haiku

I have a fondness for Cowboy Poetry.  I enjoy the fact that overwhelmingly Cowboy Poetry is written by dedicated amateurs; a spontaneous appreciation for their way of life in the form of poetry.  Almost all of Cowboy Poetry is rhymed metric verse.  And most of it consists of ballads, storytelling.  Some if it is didactic and opinionated, but for the most part Cowboy Poetry tells stories, both thoughtful and humorous, about the poet’s life.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled across a collection of haiku in an anthology of Cowboy Poetry.  The book is Cowboy Poetry National Gathering: The Anthology, edited by Meredith Dias, sponsored by the Western Folklife Center and published by Lyons in 2014.  The subtitle is ’Celebrating 30 Year of Wrangling Words’. 

The poems in the anthology are arranged by author.  The haiku are written by Carolyn Dufurrena (beginning on page 53).  In the brief bio it says that she lives on a ranch in northwestern Nevada and notes that she has published a number of books.  The haiku are all on a single theme found in the title, ‘Notes on Starting Colts’.  Here is an example:

The days are quiet,
Mares go to winter pasture.
Colts finally settle.

His ears flick forward.
Paint muzzles for a mouthful,
Trusting his teacher.

Loop sails over neck.
She won’t be like the others.
Up, up she rises.

All of the haiku are about training colts.  Reading this one is given an intimate glimpse into the life of a rancher and her interaction with her colts.  Most of the haiku are seasonal; and the few that didn’t speak to me of season probably do so for a rancher in similar circumstances.  The approach to haiku is syllabic; they are all 5-7-5, with a few plus or minus one syllable.  Dufurrena capitalizes all the first words of all the lines, using the traditional approach of English poetry.  Most of the haiku are in two parts, though the juxtaposition effect is minimal.  Full sentences are the norm.  More than a few of the haiku contain two or even three full sentences. 

The haiku are in what I think of as a ‘plain’ style.  There are no metaphors or similes, no figures of speech.  None of the haiku rhyme.  They are like snapshots of the author’s moments of training her colts.  There are 21 haiku arranged in five groups.  Each group is focused on an aspect of training.  Taken together the haiku tell us a story, though each haiku can stand on its own.  The story is kind of a sketch, an outline, but it is there. 

I am fascinated by how pervasive the 5-7-5 tercet has become in English language poetry.  You find it in unexpected places; like an anthology of Cowboy Poetry.  This tercet has become a major vehicle for poetic expression in 21st century English.  You can even find it out west among the ranchers and their colts.

She leads easy now.
This season’s work is finished.
Until springtime, then.

Cowboy Poetry National Gathering
The Anthology: Celebrating 30 Years of Wrangling Words
Project Editor: Meredith Dias
Lyons Press
ISBN: 9780762796847

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Ghazal by the Sea

A Ghazal by the Sea

The summer sun on the sand by the sea,
I shade my eyes with my hand by the sea

Lovers enjoy each others’ company,
The future for them expands by the sea

The long day ends, it will not come again,
She roams through realms that are grand by the sea

It is night and the bright moon will rise soon
Shining on the cliffs that stand by the sea

I had a dream, I don’t know what it means,
A white owl gave a command by the sea

Lost in the dark there’s a path in a park
On the gently sloping land by the sea

I, Jim thy friend, can see how it will end,
Standing next to darkness and by the sea

Monday, May 11, 2015

Haiku Midrash

Haiku Midrash

Haiku are short.  Their brevity is part of their appeal.  And part of that appeal is that they naturally give rise to discussion and comment.  A few years ago I began to think of the commentarial literature on haiku as in some ways comparable to the tradition of Midrash found in Judaism.

Midrash consist of commentaries on Jewish scripture by noted Rabbis.  These comments have been collected and often stand next to each other in Midrashic collections.  Often these comments do not agree with each other; instead various opinions and rulings on the meaning of a verse from scripture are offered.  And these various opinions are used to stimulate further engagement on the verse by those reading the commentaries.

I first felt this connection with Midrash when reading Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary by Makoto Ueda.  In this work Ueda has collected a significant number of Basho’s ‘hokku’ (Ueda uses the term that Basho would have used).  Following the hokku, Ueda lists short commentaries by various Japanese authors or scholars; typically there will be somewhere between five and ten comments.

The layout is as follows: first a translation of the hokku.  Second, the Japanese in romaji.  Third, directly underneath the romaji, a literal English translation of each Japanese word.  Fourth, a brief ‘Note’ explaining any cultural items that the reader might not be familiar with.  These first four items are at the top of the page.  Fifth, filling the bulk of the page, and sometimes going over to the next page, a list of comments with attributions.

I began to make the comparison to Midrash because not all of these comments agree with each other.  Most often the disagreement is over what the hokku emphasizes, though sometimes the evaluation of the worth of the hokku will differ.  But Ueda makes no attempt to reconcile these various opinions and comments.  He simply lets them stand, allowing the reader to enter into different dimensions of observation that the hokku has brought forth in the minds of various readers. 

I am not suggesting that Ueda was thinking of Midrash when he collected these comments.  Rather, I am noting what I think of as a cross-cultural similarity.  More likely, Ueda was thinking of collections of koan found in the Zen tradition such as The Blue Cliff Record.  These collections begin with a brief, pithy, story of an ancient Chinese Zen Master interacting with a student.  There follows a question, or koan, about the incident.  In The Blue Cliff Record the koan question is followed by comments from various Zen Masters, most of which are cryptic.  There is some resemblance here in that the different comments are left as they are without an attempt to reconcile them.  But because the comments in The Blue Cliff Record are often obscure, they seem to serve a different purpose than the ones found in Midrash or in Ueda’s collection of commentaries on Basho, as neither of these cultivate obscurantism.  Again, I doubt that Ueda had familiarity with Midrash and it might seem inappropriate to make this kind of cross-cultural comparison.  I can only say that this is where my mind was lead and I found the comparison personally illuminating; perhaps others will as well.

Midrash developed systematized approaches to commentary consisting of various levels of analysis; the literal, the prophetic, the historical, the analogical, etc.  Haiku commentary, at least the little that I have read, have not developed these kinds of analytical schemes.  Commentaries on haiku seem to be more spontaneous and off-the-cuff.  A good example is The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki by Robert Aitken.  In this collection Aitken collects brief, single page, comments on Japanese haiku he enjoyed and admired.  His comments, for the most part, consist of instructive lessons.  Here is an example:

The Voice of the Spider

kumo nan to/ oto won an to naku / aki no kaze

With what sound,
with what voice, oh spider
the autumn wind.

This verse is not an in-joke like “The Bagworm,” which I quoted some time back, but a profound question in an altogether different dimension.  Spiders do have a voice, a way of communicating with each other.  “What is it?” Basho asks.  “I want to hear it.”  He is the ultimate environmentalist.  Without a trace of anthropocentrism, he still feels alien, and he wants to enlarge himself to include the spider world.  “Me too,” the earnest entomologist would murmur.

(Page 47)

Aitken was an American Zen Master who taught for many decades in Hawaii.  He knew R. H. Blyth; they were interred together in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during W. W. II.  As a Zen teacher, Aitken uses haiku as an occasion to offer a moral, or homiletic, observation that is consistent with his purpose to impart the Buddhadharma to his students.  Because Aitken’s purposes are homiletic, we do not find any poetic analysis.  For example, the fact that line 2 is a long count line is not mentioned, because it is not part of the context that Aitken is speaking from.

I enjoy reading Aitken’s commentaries and the commentaries found in Ueda’s collection.  But what I want to suggest here is that commentary is a central part of the haiku tradition and it is a signal that haiku is sinking roots in our culture that there is slowly developing a tradition of English language haiku commentary.  In The Haiku Apprentice by Abigail Friedman, the author describes her apprenticeship with a haiku teacher while she was a resident in Japan.  Friedman describes how the haiku sensei will read a haiku and then give a talk about it.  My sense is that these talks are often storytelling, with some formal observations also being made. 

This aspect of storytelling, of using haiku as an occasion for commentary, is, I think, one of the things that make haiku so appealing.  Because of their brevity, haiku invite us to fill in, or expand, the observation, and to consider the meaning of what is being offered to us. 

There are other collections of haiku commentary emerging in English.  Haiku Mind by Patrician Donegan is a good example.  And Blyth’s work often contain commentary that could become part of a Midrashic style collection.

I think this is all to the good.  And perhaps we can develop, Midrash style, different approaches to commentary.  For example, one approach would be formal which might include the syllable count, the overall structure (single sentence, juxtaposition, list), and poetic devices such as alliteration, metaphor, simile, etc.  Another approach might be sociological and biographical, discussing the author’s place in society and how this impacts their haiku (e.g. Edith Shiffert as a woman and Richard Wright as a black man).  Another level of commentary might be to use the haiku as an occasion for storytelling and/or offering some kind of life lesson.  This is the approach taken by Aitken and Donegan.  Explicitly religious interpretations, sometimes offered by Blyth and Donegan, are also an approach which can offer us some insight.

This seems to be happening on its own, as a natural outpouring of interest in haiku.  These elaborations enrich our understanding, lead us to dimensions of the haiku we may not have considered, and help us to comprehend the power that words have for our hearts and minds.  I look forward to seeing more of this kind of writing.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Haiku, Time, and Allegory

Haiku, Time, and Allegory

I have posted here before about haiku that involve a shift in time.  They are my favorite kind of haiku.  Shift in space is more common and in manuals for haiku composition I have observed that this kind of shift is encouraged.  The idea is, for example, to start with a tightly focused observation, and then there is a shift to a larger spatial context.  It is effective, readers enjoy this feeling. 

The same pattern can be applied to time, though it happens more rarely in haiku.  I think it is more difficult to pull off.  The idea is to have a specific observation and then place that observation into a broader temporal context. 

One project I am working on now is to pull together my essays and commentaries on Richard Wright’s haiku.  My hope is that there is enough for a book.  I have also been working on a concordance of Wright’s published haiku.  In preparing the concordance I have been going through his haiku at a slow pace.  I discovered that Wright has a few haiku that involve this kind of shift in temporal placement.  Here is the first:


A spring sky so clear
That you feel you are seeing
Into tomorrow.

Line 1 gives the seasonal reference and a minimal skyscape.  When I read it I picture a cloudless sky in March or April.  Lines 2 and 3 expand on the momentary experience of viewing the sky.  It is an intriguing expansion of the moment into a larger temporal field.  The moment of viewing the clear sky is not an isolated moment; rather it is embedded in the field of time and opens into the near future, ‘tomorrow’. 

Here is a second haiku where Wright uses a temporal shift:


This still afternoon
Is full of autumn sunlight
And spring memories.

Notice that the time shift in these two haiku happens in the opposite directions.  In 301 the shift is to ‘tomorrow’, but in 305 the shift is to a previous season; from autumn to spring.  301 shifts into the future, while 305 shifts into the past. 

Both 301 and 305 begin with a skyscape and explicit seasonal references.  301 is spring and 305 is autumn.  In 305 the shift in time is larger than the shift in 301.  In 301 the shift is to a ‘tomorrow’, and in 305 the shift is to another season; from autumn to spring.  But when I read 305 I don’t see ‘spring memories’ as referring necessarily to the previous spring, the spring that would be just six months away.  Rather my sense is that this haiku is an allegory for beginnings and endings.  Autumn is when the world is becoming colder, plants and insects are dying, and energy is withdrawing from the world.  It is the season of growing yin energy.

Spring is the season of beginnings, when things start, when things are fresh.  Allegorically, ‘spring’ refers to youth, starting projects, growth, optimism; it is the season of emerging yang energy.

Read as an allegory the ‘still afternoon’ is a moment of contemplation where the trajectory of one’s life is seen in overview, from its beginnings to its coming conclusion.  I believe that a haiku like 305 invites an allegorical reading because there is minimal explicit imagery.  Notice how in 305 no specific object is depicted; no person, no plants, no animals.  The closest 305 comes to describing a specific thing in the world is ‘sunlight’.  And it is ‘afternoon sunlight’, which is sunlight that is declining in sympathetic resonance with the autumn season.  We are not used to allegorical interpretations of haiku, or literature in general, these days.  It used to be a more common, and acceptable, way of approaching literature.  Augustine in his book ‘On Christian Doctrine’ gives allegory pride of place and this had a big influence on subsequent ways of interpretation for a long time.  But over the last few centuries taking an allegorical approach has lost favor in preference to a more literal approach.  Perhaps we have lost something here.  The human mind naturally tells stories.  And the human mind will naturally take the smallest hint, such as a haiku, and weave it into a larger framework.  The less specific detail in a haiku, the more likely that is to happen; but I think even in the most focused and detailed haiku the allegorical feeling and tendency will still be present.  At one level you can read 305 as describing a moment someone is having in autumn while recalling something that happened last spring.  That is still a time shift, and a pleasing one for the reader.  At another level, that moment is a symbol, or allegory, for the way things in general appear in the world, how they emerge, and how they fade.  It is the simultaneous presence of both these dimensions that makes a haiku like this both individually applicable and resonant of a universal truth.  The bridge from the individual experience to the universal truth is what allegory allows us to do.