Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Haiku of Bill Albert

The Haiku of Bill Albert

One of my ongoing projects is to recover some of the haiku written in the past which have now all but vanished.  Now and then I take time to see what is available from used book sites and then, using my intuition, select what I think might be valuable.  At other times I will notice in an older essay on haiku that the author mentions in passing a haijin or book I have never heard of.  This then sends me on a search.

That is how I discovered a small volume called Haiku by Bill Albert.  It was published in 1991.  As far as I know it was never reissued.  And I am not aware that Albert’s haiku have ever been placed in any anthology that I have read. 

The collection of haiku is truly excellent.  They have a secure basis in the traditional syllabic shape of 5-7-5, they are seasonal, and they are elegant in their use of language.  Most of the haiku are in two parts though the sense of juxtaposition is muted.  I appreciate this.  Using renga parlance, the two parts are ‘close’, which means accessible.  Often the two parts are divided along sensory lines.  Here is an example

The frost-sharp window
shatters the violet dawn –
The garbage truck squeals.

Lines 1 & 2 are visual; they also set both the season and the time.  Line 3 shifts to a sonic sensation that is strident, merging with the verb used in line 2, ‘shatters’.

Here is an example where the two parts focus on two sonic elements:

A sapling’s branches
patter against the window –
a car not starting.

‘Sapling’ is a season word, so line 1 sets the season.  Line 2 introduces the sound of branches against the window; implying a breeze.  Line 3 introduces a sonic element of a car turning over but not starting.  The two sounds are similar and the reader can hear them merge.  This is a nicely contrapuntal soundscape.

Here is one I particularly like:

A full moon tonight . . .
all of the light in my room
comes from a street lamp.

It’s a nice setup.  The ‘full moon’ is a season word indicating autumn.  The reader is set to think of a room flooded with moonlight, and then Albert puts in a little twist.  Instead of moonlight in his room it is a streetlamp’s light that fills the room.  There is a contemplative and lonely mood to this haiku which continues to resonate with the reader long after reading it.

Albert’s approach to lineation interested me because he effectively uses certain means that I often find fault with.  For example, Albert will end a line with a preposition:

Two crows rise from
the hollow of scrub-oak
the northeast wind.

Here the count is 4-6-4.  Line 1 ends in the preposition ‘from’.  Normally I think lines ending in prepositions are careless; but with Albert I found myself seeing how such an approach can work effectively.  In a way this haiku is a list haiku; each line has its own image.  The ‘from’ links two of the images together and I think that is why it works to end line 1 at that point.

Here is another example of line ending usage that surprised me:

Awakened by the
sudden cold of the spring night –
The frogs singing.

Line 1 ends with ‘the’ and, again, normally I think of such usage as sloppy.  Here Albert makes it work by having line 2 be a self-contained image so that the word ‘the’ acts as a kind of link in the same way that the word ‘from’ does in the previous haiku.  I found this to be skillful.

A few times Albert uses a single line approach to his haiku:

Branches lattice the chipped moon.

This is a striking image.  It is one of the very few single line haiku that I have resonated with.  Most single line haiku are infected with obscurantism and self-conscious displays of avant-gardism.  Albert’s single line haiku are, in contrast, accessible and striking.  My sense is that Albert now and then, not often, experiments with the haiku form, but that his overall approach is strongly rooted in the traditional 5-7-5 syllabics and the necessity of a seasonal reference.  For this reason his experiments still retain some connection with the haiku tradition.

According to the ‘Publisher’s Note’ placed at the end of the book, Albert died in 1988 at the age of 37.  The ‘Note’ does not tell us the cause of his early passing.  But I get the impression that it was some kind of degenerative disease.  This is a pattern among haiku poets: think of Shiki and Richard Wright.  Of course not all great haijin were chronically ill; most were not.  But it is still intriguing how, at times, really good haiku comes from those whose lives have been circumscribed by a long illness.

In any case, Albert worked on his haiku and left a modest number of notebooks.  His friends gleaned what they considered to be his best and published the haiku as an offering from their friend on their friend’s behalf.  They had to do this for Albert because Albert seems to have been disinclined to publish on his own behalf.  The ‘Note’ says, “He was without worldly ambition, made no effort to publish or otherwise promote himself.  His ambition, turned inward, was purely aesthetic: he was aiming to write the perfect haiku, and in the best tradition of the form, wanted to write it anonymously.”  Albert seems to have been a modern Emily Dickinson in his distrust for the more worldly aspects of poetry, such as publication and promotion.  What is remarkable, given Albert’s attitude, is how many friends he had who participated in the publication of this work.  The list of people who donated to get the book into publication is over 200.  It seems that Bill Albert made a significant impression on a wide group of people in spite of, or perhaps because of, his reclusiveness.

I am grateful to the friends of Bill Albert for taking the time to publish these haiku.  It is a rich and rewarding collection.  It deserves to be reprinted and more widely known.  Readers may be able to find a used copy on amazon or

Children stop chasing
fireflies to watch shooting stars --
the porch light flickers

No comments: