Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Is It Haiku or Lowku?

A woman
Reading a letter by moonlight
Pear blossoms.



A camellia falls—
cock-crow and another
camellia falls



In my hut this spring,
There is nothing—
There is everything!



Carlos Alcala of The Sacramento Bee, bless him, rings an occasional bell for poetry in that struggling newspaper, sending out calls for poems and otherwise writing an article about it here and there. Yesterday there was an article on the front page of the regional section. Poetry needs all the friends it can get, and we need to thank him for such attention.

I just wish Carlos and many others would watch how they use the term, "haiku". (Yes, here I go—this is one of my pet peeves, and if you know me long enough, you're bound to trigger it sooner or later!) Many people look no further than the 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, missing entirely the finer definitions of this ancient form and often confusing it with a senryu. Worse, they teach children "haiku" because of the easy syllabics, entirely missing the rest of it. I have nothing against writing in 5-7-5 syllabics—or any others, for that matter—just don't call it haiku unless it follows some of the other rules of haiku. (As you can see from the definition below, the 17 syllables are not the defining nature of haiku and are probably not translatable to English.)

As for the "deep metaphor or symbolism" of haiku, while it may be beyond definition, as the society says, it remains important to true haikuists: roughly, it is a moment of awakening/epiphany (in Buddhism, kensho) that "turns" the poem at the end, the frog on the lily and then the "splash" being the classic example. A contrast, maybe, that makes a surprise. A camellia falls (death), then the lively call of a rooster (life), then death visits again. The temporality of reading a letter (and maybe even love), then the timelessness of pear blossoms and the seasons. There is nothing in my hut—there is everything! Like the definition says: the juxtoposition of two images.

Here is the Haiku Society of America, Inc. definition:


Report of the Definitions Committee
Adopted at the Annual Meeting of the Society New York City, 18 September 2004


Definition: A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition. Those who wish to learn more of haiku must read the best haiku they can find, not merely definitions of haiku. The numerous "Haiku Collections" on the HSA Web site, at http://www.has-haiku.org/haikucollections.htm, are a good place to start.

Notes: Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today's poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements. In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen "sounds" (on) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximates the duration of seventeen Japanese on.) Traditional Japanese haiku include a "season word" (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a "cutting word" (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem. In English, season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues. The most common technique is juxtaposing two images or ideas (Japanese rensô). Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word. Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are commonly avoided. (Haiku do sometimes have brief prefatory notes, usually specifying the setting or similar facts; metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently. A discussion of what might be called "deep metaphor" or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of a definition. Various kinds of "pseudohaiku" have also arisen in recent years; see the Notes to "senryu", below, for a brief discussion.)


Definition: A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.

Notes: A senryu may or may not contain a season word or a grammatical break. Some Japanese senryu seem more like aphorisms, and some modern senryu in both Japanese and English avoid humor, becoming more like serious short poems in haiku form. There are also "borderline haiku/senryu", which may seem like one or the other, depending on how the reader interprets them.
Many so-called "haiku" in English are really senryu. Others, such as "Spam-ku" and "headline haiku", seem like recent additions to an old Japanese category, zappai, miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse (usually written in 5-7-5) with little or no literary value. Some call the products of these recent fads "pseudohaiku" to make clear that they are not haiku at all.


So for our Seed of the Week, let's tackle the sharp imagery of haiku—fiddle with the form and send me your best two or three. Or maybe you'd rather write senryu. And no, I won't blow up at you if you don't "epiphany" at the end. I don't even care if you 5-7-5—a construct that, in light of the above definition, appears to be rather unnecessary in English.

If all this seems kind of slippery to you, then good! It is, and I guess that's my point: it's tricky and hard to move from Asia to the U.S., a bit like boning small fish. As the form has migrated across the Pacific, it has changed a lot and lost its rigid structure, true.

But I guess what I'm really asking is that you read the definition and ponder it a bit and understand that 5-7-5 does not a traditional haiku make. If nothing else, it's nature images—maybe two contrasting ones—and often some clue as to the season.
Perfect for spring, yes? (And I'm not sure I agree that there's rarely metaphor—look at the three above examples.)


Fanning out its tail
in the spring breeze,
see—a peacock!



Great Japan
and willows!



The peony bud
When opening,
Shoots forth a rainbow.



Today's LittleNip:

My span of years
Today appears
A morning-glory's hour.




SnakeWatch: What's New from Rattlesnake Press:

Rattlesnake Review: The latest Snake (RR21) is now available (free) at The Book Collector, or send me four bux and I'll mail you one. Next deadline is May 15 for RR22: send 3-5 poems, smallish art pieces and/or photos (no bio, no cover letter, no simultaneous submissions or previously-published poems) to kathykieth@hotmail.com or P.O. Box 762, Pollock Pines, CA 95726. E-mail attachments are preferred, but be sure to include all contact info, including snail address. Meanwhile, the snakes of Medusa are always hungry; let us know if your submission is for the Review or for Medusa, or for either one, and please—only one submission per issue.

Also available (free): littlesnake broadside #46: Snake Secrets: Getting Your Poetry Published in Rattlesnake Press (and lots of other places, besides!): A compendium of ideas for brushing up on your submissions process so as to make editors everywhere more happy, thereby increasing the likelihood of getting your poetry published. Pick up a copy at The Book Collector or write to me and I'll send you one. Free!

NEW FOR APRIL: A SpiralChap of poetry and photos from Laverne Frith (Celebrations: Images and Texts); a (free!) littlesnake broadside from Taylor Graham (Edge of Wildwood); and Musings3: An English Affair, a new blank journal of photos and writing prompts from Katy Brown. Now available from the authors, or The Book Collector, or (soon) rattlesnakepress.com/.

WTF!: Join us on Thursday, May 21 at Luna's Cafe, 1414 16th St., Sacramento for the unveiling of the second issue of WTF, the free quarterly journal from Poetry Unplugged at Luna's Cafe that is edited by frank andrick.
Next deadline, for issue #3, is July 15. Submission guidelines are the same as for the Snake, but send your poems, photos, smallish art or prose pieces (500 words or less) to fandrickfabpub@hotmail.com (attachments preferred) or, if you’re snailing, to P.O. Box 762, Pollock Pines, CA 95726. And be forewarned: this publication is for adults only, so you must be over 18 years of age to submit. Copies of the first issue are at The Book Collector, or send me two bux and I'll mail you one.

ALSO COMING IN MAY: Join us Weds., May 13 for a new rattlechap, Sinfonietta, from Tom Goff; Vol. 5 of Conversations, the Rattlesnake Interview Series by B.L. Kennedy; and the inauguration of a new series, Rattlesnake LittleBooks, with Shorts: Quatrains and Epigrams by Iven Lourie. That’s at The Book Collector, 1008 24th St., Sacramento, 7:30 PM. Free!

Medusa's Weekly Menu:

(Contributors are welcome to cook up something for any and all of these!)

Monday: Weekly NorCal poetry calendar

Seed of the Week: Tuesday is Medusa's day to post poetry triggers such as quotes, forms, photos, memories, jokes—whatever might tickle somebody's muse. Pick up the gauntlet and send in your poetic results; and don't be shy about sending in your own triggers, too! All poems will be posted and a few of them will go into Medusa's Corner of each Rattlesnake Review. Send your work to kathykieth@hotmail.com or P.O. Box 762, Pollock Pines, CA 95726. No deadline for SOWs; respond today, tomorrow, or whenever the muse arrives. (Print 'em out, maybe, save 'em for a dry spell?) When you send us work, though, just let us know which "seed" it was that inspired you.

Wednesday (sometimes, or any other day!): HandyStuff Quickies: Resources for the poet, including whatever helps ease the pain of writing and/or publishing: favorite journals to read and/or submit to; books, etc., about writing; organizational tools—you know—HandyStuff! Tell us about your favorite tools.

Thursday: B.L.'s Drive-Bys: Micro-reviews by our irreverent Reviewer-in-Residence, B.L. Kennedy.
Send books, CDs, DVDs, etc. to him for possible review (either as a Drive-By or in future issues of Rattlesnake Review) at P.O. Box 160664, Sacramento, CA 95816.

Friday: NorCal weekend poetry calendar

Daily (except Sunday): LittleNips: SnakeFood for the Poetic Soul: Daily munchables for poetic thought, including short paragraphs, quotes, wonky words, silliness, little-known poetry/poet facts, and other inspiration—yet another way to feed our ravenous poetic souls.

And poetry! Every day, poetry from writers near and far and in-between! The Snakes of Medusa are always hungry.......!


Medusa encourages poets of all ilk and ages to send their POETRY, PHOTOS and ART, as well as announcements of Northern California poetry events, to kathykieth@hotmail.com (or snail ‘em to P.O. Box 762, Pollock Pines, CA 95726) for posting on this daily Snake blog. Rights remain with the poets. Previously-published poems are okay for Medusa’s Kitchen, as long as you own the rights. (Please cite publication.) Medusa cannot vouch for the moral fiber of other publications, contests, etc. that she lists, however, so submit to them at your own risk. For more info about the Snake Empire, including guidelines for submitting to or obtaining our publications, click on the link to the right of this column: Rattlesnake Press (rattlesnakepress.com). And be sure to sign up for Snakebytes, our monthly e-newsletter that will keep you up-to-date on all our ophidian chicanery.