Monday, April 25, 2016

Finding Room to Grow

Finding Room to Grow

In previous posts I have written about a slowly growing awareness among those interested in syllabic, formal, haiku that they need their own journals, their own online spaces, etc., to share their haiku.  There is a sense of a parting of the ways, that syllabic haiku needs to go its own way.

I think a useful metaphor here is ecology.  Syllabic haiku is crowded out by other types of haiku such as free verse, one-liners, and consciously avant-garde approaches.  It is sidelined and left malnourished.  The specific skills, needs, and approaches of someone wanting to take a formal approach to haiku are not nourished in a free verse context and for this reason formal haiku tends to wither in a free verse setting.

Not all plants can grow in the same garden.  And not all forms of poetry flourish in the same setting.  To show what I mean by this I would like to contrast two series of haiku.  Think of them as excerpts from hypothetical anthologies.  I have chosen to use hypothetical anthologies because there is, at this time, no anthology of formal, syllabic, haiku.  So I wanted to contrast the two anthologies on an equal footing.  First, here are some haiku from a possible free verse haiku anthology:

in my silver
wedding shoes
. . spider webs

          Carol Montgomery
          (Haiku Moment page 138)

Slow swing of willows through my own fault

          Patrick Sweeney
          (Haiku in English page 239)

The sky is all black
then light comes slowly, slowly
while the cat watches

          Edith Shiffert
          (The Light Comes Slowly, Preface)

low tide
all the people

          Anita Virgil
          (Haiku Anthology page 243)

a single shoe
in the median
rush hour

          Elizabeth Searle Lamb
          (The Unswept Path page 140)

I have gleaned these haiku from published anthologies, with the exception of the haiku from Shiffert, which is from a collection of her haiku.  My purpose was to create a sequence that does not reflect my own taste.  All of these haiku have passed editors’ criteria of what makes a good free verse haiku.

Compare the above selection with the selection that follows:

Water registered
the quarrel of clouds and moon
with sudden blackout –

          Helen Chenoweth
          (Pageant of Seasons page 85)

The boys are in school;
fall leaves – the only swimmers
in the swimming pool

          Margot Bollock
          (Borrowed Water page 81

The sky is all black
then light comes slowly, slowly
while the cat watches

          Edith Shiffert
          (The Light Comes Slowly, Preface)

Night below zero,
And the long valley’s echo
The sound of the stars.

          David Hoopes
          (Alaska in Haikupage 65)

What makes them do it –
jaywalkers in dark clothing
at night, in the rain?

          Mary Jo Salter
          (Nothing by Design page 60)

Both series share the haiku by Edith Shiffert, the third one that begins ‘The sky is all black’.  In the first series the Shiffert haiku is surrounded by free verse haiku.  In the second series the Shiffert haiku is surrounded by formal haiku.  What effect do the different surroundings have on the Shiffert haiku?

In the first series the Shiffert haiku reads like a free verse haiku.  If you do not perceive this, try to look at the series through the eyes of someone completely new to haiku in English.  Because all of the haiku in the first series have different shapes, because none of them share any common formal features, the formal nature of Shiffert’s haiku is lost.  Someone new to haiku would not be able to discern the formal foundation of Shiffert’s approach.

In the second series all of the haiku share the same formal shape.  They are all syllabic.  They all share the three line 5-7-5 syllabic contours.  If someone completely new to haiku were to read the second series they could quickly and easily discern the formal nature of the poems.  In terms of Shiffert’s haiku, the formal connection to the other haiku is revealed, and therefore the underlying commitment to a formal approach emerges.  This adds a dimension to the reading which the first series does not have.

What I want to suggest is that the ecology of the two series differs.  The first series is an ecology that is defined by free verse.  It is an ecology that validates and encourages the growth of free verse haiku.   When a formal haiku in 5-7-5 is placed in such a series the particulars of formal haiku are lost and overshadowed by the surrounding free verse poems.  That is why it is so unsatisfying to have a formal haiku placed in an anthology of predominantly free verse haiku, or placed in a haiku journal that consists predominantly of free verse.

The ecology of the second series, in contrast, is an ecology that encourages formal haiku and the methods that give rise to formal haiku.  The syllabic structure, the underlying rhythm, the foundational counting, are present as dominant, even essential, features.  There is a sharing of these features as you move from haiku to haiku in the second series that is absent from the first series.  And there is a sense of communal understanding as to the nature of the haiku form implicit in such a series.  There is no sense of shared understanding in the first series.

From a free verse haiku perspective the need for distinct regions for formal haiku doesn’t make sense.  The free verse view is that they do, in fact, publish 5-7-5 haiku, so what is the problem?  The problem is that free verse has a corrosive effect on the form; the reader, particularly the new reader, cannot see the form because of the surroundings.  In a free verse context the 5-7-5 syllabics is perceived as adventitious and arbitrary.  In the context of a series of formal haiku, the 5-7-5 syllabics as seen as the ground from which the individual formal haiku blossom.

For a long time now, formal haijin have accepted the dominance of free verse haijin in ELH organizations and journals and have routinely submitted their haiku for publication and have, sometimes with reluctance, participated in such organizations.  But the felt uneasiness with this situation has become more articulate.  Formal haiku cannot grow in the ecology that is offered to it by organizations like the HSA and publications like ‘Modern Haiku’.  Formal haiku begins with different procedures, has different esthetic criteria, and presents itself in different ways. 

Slowly some spaces are being opened where an ecology in which formal haiku can grow is being found.  This is a two-step process.  The first step is the realization that free verse haiku and formal haiku have, over time, diverged to such an extent that they have, in fact, become different forms of poetry.  The second step is to follow through on that realization and create actual places that cultivate a formal approach to haiku.  This second step is just beginning; it is tentative and a little unsure of itself.  I think of it is a sunrise, a slow dawn, where details of the landscape are still being discerned.  Over time, I think, it will become clearer as the ecology which supports syllabic haiku emerges.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Eastern Structures -- A Review

Eastern Structures – A Review

For the past maybe three to five years I have noticed that poets who are interested in a syllabic approach to eastern forms, such as haiku, tanka, ghazal, etc., have expressed a need to find locations, spaces, venues, where a formal approach to these forms in English is emphasized instead of undermined.  Almost all poetry journals and poetry societies dedicated to Eastern Forms are controlled by poets who use a free verse approach to lineation.  To pick a good example, English language haiku associations and journals are, without exception, devoted to a free verse approach to haiku in English even though haiku in Japanese is formal verse.

I think the first explicit expression of dissatisfaction with this situation was in the ‘Introduction’ to Ravishing DisUnities by Ali where he criticizes the tendency of contemporary English poets to write free verse versions of the ghazal.  Ali’s criticism is sharp, but it is also one that is knowledgeable of the traditional ghazal form and that this form has potential in English.  Ali was fluent in English and was comfortable writing in it and for that reason he was speaking from personal experience with the form in the English language, even though English was not his native tongue.  Ali was not saying that the ghazal has no place in English language poetry; rather he was suggesting that if English language poets are going to compose ghazal they should map onto English the formal features of that traditional form.

In ELH (English Language Haiku) the dominance of a free verse approach in official haiku organizations and publications is almost total.  The result is that those who take a syllabic approach to ELH find themselves gradually alienated from those official organizations.  Most of them simply move online and find others of like mind there.

The felt need for those taking a formal approach to these types of poetry to find their own spaces and journals has been gathering energy for some time. But exactly how to go about this has not been clear.  With the publication of Eastern Structures this inchoate feeling has finally born fruit in something concrete.  Published by R. W. Watkins, Eastern Structures is dedicated to a formal approach to such Eastern forms as Haiku, Tanka, Ghazal, and Sijo.  The first issue packs a lot of material into its 32 pages of 8-1/2” X 11”.  The ghazal are finely crafted and formally focused.  The haiku are seasonal, syllabic, and rooted in the traditional syllabics of the Japanese.  The article and examples of tanka are similarly focused.  I would say that the only weak section in this first issue is the section on sijo, the Korean form.  Watkins notes that he had difficulty contacting people who have written in this form, so if you are interested, or know others who are interested, forward information about this new poetry publication to them because they now have a place to publish their efforts in the sijo form.

Watkins has done a fine job with the layout and other publication matters.  Watkins has published poetry zines before (particularly for the ghazal) and this experience has served him well for this first issue of Eastern Structures. For example, the cover is of a famous skyscraper in Malaysia, the world’s tallest building; a reference to the name of the magazine, Eastern Structures.  And the back cover is a picture of a farm woman holding a lynx; a clever reference to Lynx, which was published by Jane and Werner Reichhold for 30 years, a poetry journal that emphasized the same forms that Watkins is interested in.  I like the way Watkins gives the Reichholds a bow in this picture.

The poetry is a pleasure to read.  I have some of my own work included in the section on tanka and I hope others feel the same way about my contribution.  The essays are thoughtful, sometimes funny, and in general optimistic about the potential for a syllabic approach to these forms. 

If you are interested in a formal approach to Eastern forms in English, this is a great resource.  If you are a poet who is writing in these forms, Eastern Structures is a great venue for you to publish in.  If you have essays, reviews, or thoughts to share with this focus, this is the place to share them with an appreciative audience.  You can send submissions to:

Watkins has decided to use print-on-demand to publish Eastern Structures.  It is available from Amazon for $5.99 – a great deal.  Buy a copy for yourself, buy copies for friends, and post reviews at Amazon. 

In closing I want to express my appreciation to Watkins for taking the time and effort to bring forth this publication.  As someone who has published poetry magazines in the past, I know how much time and energy goes into such an endeavor.  All of us who are interested in a formal approach to haiku, tanka, sijo, and ghazal can applaud this effort.

Eastern Structures
Editor: R. W. Watkins
Available at Amazon
ISBN: 9781530638406