Haiku, “Rules,” and a Recommendation


Haiku, that Japanese form which took hold in English about 50 years ago and has continued to be of interest to many, is a great example of the role of “rules” in poetry.

I particularly like a haiku posted recently on the blog, Five Reflections:

soft subtle mantra
hoes the garden of the mind
new poem blossoms

I was delighted by the contrast between the mantra described as “soft subtle” and the hardness of a hoe.  But then my inner critic sounded alarms:  “the ____ of the ____” the critic complained.  “Couldn’t he have avoided at least one of those empty words?”

I keep my critic busy checking my own work for unnecessary cases of “the” and “of the.”  But was he (or is my inner critic a she?) right to complain in this case?

There are two schools of thought about haiku, those who insist on a 5-7-5 syllable structure and those who argue for shorter, tighter lines.  The 5-7-5 imitates the Japanese form.  But the second party asserts that those Japanese “syllables” are not all words, some are signals of other kinds, so the 5-7-5 structure is a poor substitute.

The Haiku Society of America takes no official position on this question.  Their definition a haiku reads: 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.  I have noticed, however, that the winners in their annual contests are more often of the shorter style.

I had a workshop with a person of the “shorter is better” school.  He ruthlessly cut down my already short attempts.  I was persuaded that he knew what he was talking about.

Now, I’m not so sure.  “the garden of the mind” has a gentle flow to it that appeals to me.

On the other hand, does this haiku fulfill the Haiku Society’s definition that it “convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season”?  “The garden of the mind” is completely metaphor.  No actual garden, no hoe.  What should I make of this?

My favorite of the haiku I have so far seen on Five Reflections is this one:

sea smoke illusion
ancient seafarer ghost ship
grandpa’s story time

What I like best about this poem is the turn in the last line: the misty sea scene is suddenly transposed to an indoor scene, warm and cozy, where “grandpa” tells his story.  I didn’t even notice at first that this poem has nary a “the” nor an “of.”  This poet knows what he is doing, which further confirms my suspicion that sometimes those “lesser” words are the right ones for the flow and mood of the poem.

In summary, the following, sometimes contradictory, “rules” are apparently made to be broken by skillful haiku writers:
“Always use a three line construction of 5-7-5 syllables.”
“Don’t waste syllables on lesser words like “the.”
“Start with or focus on nature.”
As one who finds haiku challenging to write, I’ll take these “rules” as suggestions, refusing to be bound by them.

To read more at Five Reflections, click on the link in the blogroll in the column to the right of this post.  Enjoy!



Road Tripping


We are on the road again.  Each year we drive across the country from Las Cruces, NM, to Maine and back.  Ten years ago we would have made no reservations and looked for a place to stop as we went.  We’ve minimized the adventure since then.  We’ve chosen one hotel chain which gives us what we want: nice towels, a box, not a pocket pack, of tissues, continental breakfast and internet connection―and every so often we get a free night.  But there are still unexpected experiences.

I was staring out the window of our hotel in Quincy, Massachusetts, when a very long red trailer truck appeared.  I watched as it was maneuvered, with the help of several people around it, into parking along the back edge of the lot.  All I could read from my window were the words “75th Anniversary” at the front and “Meals on Wheels” at the back.  What appeared to be an enormous granite rock was strapped in between them.

75th Anniversary of Meals on Wheels?  This did not seem likely.  I went over to investigate.

The truck is the 72 foot long project of the Idaho Potato Commission, called The Famous Idaho Potato Tour.  It’s the Commission’s 75th anniversary.  The “rock” represents a giant potato: one that would take 10,000 years to grow, were nature capable of doing that.

Famous Idaho Potato Tour Truck

Famous Idaho Potato Tour? I conclude that it is the potato, not the tour that is famous.  But if Idaho potatoes are already famous, why all the publicity?

An Idaho potato in the hand gives pleasure: solid, attractive in its usefulness, it is a good base for a healthy meal.  The Idaho Potato Commission seems to have caught a serious case of the “more is always better” syndrome and gone over the top.  It’s marketing supersized.  I found the Famous Idaho Potato Tour Truck at once charming and disturbing.  Why pretend a potato could grow so long, so large?  Why not demonstrate how real potatoes grow?  That “giant spud” still looks like imitation granite to me.

The four crew members must be having a great time traveling the country, though it’s a mighty long rig to handle.  Wouldn’t it have been enough, and saved a little gas, if it were 60 feet long instead of 72?    In the month since I saw it the truck has moved south into Georgia and Alabama.  Then it will be heading west.  For more information check their website: http://www.bigidahopotato.com.  They may be coming to a parking lot near you.

Juxtaposition and more of Levi Romero


I have a long-enduring fondness for the word “Juxtaposition.”  In an early poem using that title, now justifiably forgotten, I wrote “things touch at their edges.”  Where things touch, they affect each other; that’s juxtaposition, whether in nature or in art.  In this entry I juxtapose a piece of my work with a little more of Levi Romero’s work

Levi Romero’s book, Poetry of Remembrance, focuses, as I discussed previously, on stories and the past, but he includes other more current facets of his life: as teacher and leader of workshops and as an architect – an architect who cannot expect to be welcomed into a home he has designed.  In a poem he titles “Juxtaposition” he describes a visit to one such building as it was being built:

may I help you?
I am asked by the realtor
standing at the door,
thinking that I may be the guy
who mixed the mud and pushed the wheelbarrow . . .

I once was asked by a home magazine journalist
if I felt insulted by such incidents
well, no, I said, my mind mixing for an answer
a good batch of cement is never accidental

Romero has learned to live with  kindness but close attention on the edge of a culture where others assert that he does not belong.

This “outtake” from my own recent writing uses the term to describe juxtaposition in nature:

juxtaposing gypsum
deposits, playa, crystals, wind,
forms rolling dunes of white
sand in a brown desert.

in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico, gypsum washed down from bands in the mountain collects in Lucero Lake, then crystallizes as the lake goes dry, is worn away by wind, and blows into the dunes of White Sands National Monument. 

When I think anthropomorphically about God (and sometimes I do, knowing that all language about God is metaphoric) I picture an artist putting different elements of nature together to see what will happen.  The result may be wild or wonderful―and totally impractical.

What a powerful word!  “Juxtaposition” has taken me from society through poetry to nature and theology.  This may explain why I can’t seem to categorize my posts.

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