Chester Creek Ravine
By Bart Sutter
The variety of approaches to haiku in English can be confusing. Newcomers, in particular, can find it difficult to negotiate the different approaches and the various arguments, and dogmatics, used to support conflicting claims of how haiku should be written in English. One way of looking at this, an approach I have found useful, is that there seem to be two main approaches. One approach to haiku is to deconstruct the English language along theoretical lines so that the language conforms to some view. The belief, for example, that haiku ‘captures a moment’ is applied as a rule to English grammar. And the result is a kind of attack on standard English usage such that certain verb forms are considered bad form. The minimalist ideology that is foundational for a number of haiku organizations is another example: when it is applied to the English language redundancies are questioned, modifiers reduced or eliminated, etc.
The second approach takes the English language as a given and then seeks to shape the language in accordance with certain standards: like the 5-7-5 syllabic shape. In this approach English poetry is seen as a resource upon which the haiku poet can draw so that traditional poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, assonance, etc. are integrated into the haiku form. One of the most significant poetic devices in English language poetry is rhyme. In the second approach I find that rhyme often makes an appearance; whereas in the first approach it seems to be actively discouraged. (Now and then I have found rhyme used in the first approach. It is rare, but it does make an appearance. Sometimes it is used humorously, and sometimes affectively. On balance though, its presence is unusual.)
Rhyme moves into the foreground in the haiku stanza poems of Richard Wilbur, who rhymes the first and third lines of each verse. Wilbur’s haiku stanza poems are among the finest haiku written in English.
A recent example of a poet who takes advantage of rhyme for the haiku form is Bart Sutter, the author of the newly published Chester Creek Ravine. In this collection almost every haiku rhymes.
Wood smoke on the breeze
The heavy-headed grasses
Bow as summer passes.
In the haiku quoted above Sutter rhymes lines 2 and 3. Often Sutter will rhyme 1 and 3:
The crow above the creek
Keeps cursing flowing water
In a fit of pique.
That snowfall was a beaut.
No sound now but chickadees,
The creaking of my boots.
The effect that the use of rhyme has is to make the haiku more memorable and to give them a sense of rhythm. The use of rhyme also clarifies lineation. In addition, the use of rhyme links Sutter’s haiku to the great tradition of rhyming English verse. Also traditional is Sutter beginning each line with a capital letter: this is standard for the vast majority of English poetry and a lot of English language haijin that take a syllabic approach use it as well. There is something inherently attractive about these little, rhyming, vignettes; there is an elegance about them that draws the reader in.
Sutter arranges his haiku in four chapters following the standard seasonal arrangement of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. All of his haiku contain seasonal references and in that sense they are traditional haiku.
Though 5-7-5 seems to be a starting point for Sutter’s haiku, a large number of them go over that count. Here is an example:
Spring at last? It has to be:
A pair of woolen mittens
Stuck in a leafless tree.
Here we have 7-7-6, for an overall count of 20. I haven’t counted all the haiku, but a longer count seems to be what Sutter leans towards. I suspect that metrics plays a role here.
There are some haiku with a short count:
A stem of lupine
Left on the sign
For the hiking trail.
Here we have 5-4-5, for an overall count of 14. Sutter’s counts fall into what I have observed as the overall range that syllabic haijin allow themselves. The standard seems to be 5-7-5 with a plus or minus 3 count giving a range of 14 to 20.
Sutter’s haiku are written in full sentences. The haiku are either a single sentence or two sentences. Here is an example of a single sentence:
Out here in the cold,
The woodpeckers tap telegraph,
But we can’t crack the code.
And here is an example of two sentences:
Way back in there,
Tiny songsters. Doesn’t it sound like
They’re sewing in the air?
Sometimes in haiku with more than one sentence Sutter will have one of them run over to the next line, like the one above. At other times the sentences are matched to the line:
How the dog’s tail wags!
I bring home wildflowers
And windblown plastic bags.
The back matter states that Sutter lives near Chester Creek Ravine. These haiku, then, are the poet’s observations on a local ecological feature that he has grown familiar with. They are rooted in place.
I enjoyed this book. The rhyme is pleasing and the author has absorbed the significance and importance of the nature-centeredness of haiku. There is a lilt to these well crafted haiku. Many of them are cheerful, but a significant number also have a thoughtful dimension. The world Sutter shows us is filled with many aspects of nature, but he also takes time to introduce us to neighbors, offer thoughtful observations on the state of the world in a way that is subtle (like the above haiku that mentions plastic bags), and there are haiku that have resonated with me for days:
I thought I was alone,
But I hear women’s voices,
Water over stone.
I think this is a fine collection of haiku. They are well-crafted, picture perfect, pleasing to the ear, and thoughtful for the mind.
Chester Creek Ravine