Spring Cleaning – Playing Catch Up with Haikus

There’s always an excuse not to write, but I find travel to the best bad excuse, insofar as all the between time, the not only unavoidable, but intentional waits to ensure check-ins, flights, drives, and plans don’t all pile on top of each other and collapse, these should be so much more conducive to a quick scribble than they really are. But it’s April, which is way too long since my last post and also National Poetry Month, and I can’t let the month pass without jumping back in.

I’ve had a mix of work and fun travel lately, including the annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, which brought me back to Washington, D.C. last month. There it was unmistakably spring, meaning rain on Monday, snow on Wednesday, and shorts temperatures on Friday (but you can’t actually wear shorts, because that would be so gauche in the nation’s capital).

In the capital, the spring weather brings out the cherry blossoms, perennially disappointed crowds, and the Golden Triangle’s Golden Haikus. Now, I love griping tourists almost as much as I enjoy the cherry blossoms themselves (which never bloom on the weekend the out-of-towners planned to visit), but I think I love the haikus the most. In spring, these little yellow and pink signs pop up in those urban squares of earth beside lonely trees and bloom in front of light poles across downtown D.C.

I love them because of how bad they are. They are so bad that they become delightful. For example, this year’s winner juxtaposes a twitching cat and the sudden appearance of a spring drizzle and in the context of the name of the competition, I have to believe they knew what they were doing. My favorite so far, just for being bad, is the third place winner. With only seven words, over half of the poem is wasted on a throwaway phrase, “from there to here.”

Now, I do understand that within that phrase is packed (if you already know the history) connotations of Japanese-American relationships and a far off island nation being brought closer through the act of gift-giving. There’s a lot in four words, but I would argue those four words are the most boring way to suggest all of that.

The Washingtonian also stuck its collectively upturned nose in a bit farther than merited but in jumping to the defense of the haikus, and gets some things right. Worrying about getting exactly 17 English syllables for a poetic form built around the Japanese language is probably pedantic at best and easily creeps into jingoism. However, while the haikus may be acceptable in form, it doesn’t make them legit.

So what does make a haiku legit? Amidst all of this Poetry International recently posted a haiku that grabbed my attention better than any of the Golden Haikus and made me want to tackle the haiku for this week’s poem. I also hoped that inspiration might hit and allow me to get a couple out at once and make up for some lost time—even while expecting this to be misguided, the lune did come together relatively quickly.

Before I get into the technical aspects of haikus that I found, I usually try to get to the poem a little quicker, but I had to share the Golden Haikus. If you haven’t seen them in D.C., it’s hard to really convey how amazing it is to see the city suddenly littered with bad poems. Maybe these two won’t rise above them but here are my two contributions.

Haiku 1

Fat rains, the guard’s chin
taps on his chest, the thief’s foot—
steps hide between drops.

Haiku 2

The guard’s chin
—nodding with the rain—
thief walks in.

And I should note, that since haikus do not traditionally have titles, the numbers have been added for reference, not really as titles.

As with previous poems, I started with the Writer’s Digest post on haiku, which had actually been edited and pointed to posts by Keiko Imaoka and Michael Dylan Welch for more information. I took that as a pretty good indicator of the amount of discussion and misconceived notions swirling around the form. Here are a couple points that I pulled as guidance:

  • KI: 11 English syllables is a suitable approximation of 17 Japanese syllables
  • KI: Japanese haiku are composed of two major parts of varying lengths
  • MDW: What matters most is kigo (season word), kireji (cutting word), and objective sensory imagery
  • MDW: A haiku also centers structurally on a pause or caesura (“kire” in Japanese)

Because the question of syllables was both downplayed and yet a recurring topic, I gave myself the longer 17 syllables in Haiku 1 and kept Haiku 2 to only 11, but tried to create a scene on the same subject in both.

While creating the poems, I noticed that any time I deviated from describing the scene at it is, to describing how I wanted the reader to feel, the haikus would become more like koans, short snippets of would-be wisdom. The longer haiku gave me more room to play with poetic juxtaposition, such as the guard’s chin and the thief’s foot, and even break a possible kireji, footsteps, into two words and more possible implications. However, I’m not sure if the extra layers make the poem better or too baroque.

Haiku 1, the shorter poem, really forced a level of poetic negation that I rarely achieve—the tightness of the poem squeezes the poet out of it. Each word has to do more work, which I like, but some of the logic of how the thief sneaks is lost and he becomes almost a nonchalant guy strolling in. I like, though, that the middle phrase lets me seesaw the poem—is the cut on the chin or after the rain?

Leave a comment, I’d love to hear if you have a preference for one haiku or the other.

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