Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Is, Is not, Is, Is not, a Haiku. Is, Is not. Is.

The haiku was virtually unknown to English writing before the twentieth century. Some readers see haiku in William Blake, William Wordsworth and many others, but if they are haiku they are there by accident rather than design. It is today the most common form of English poem, unless you define free verse as anything without end rhymes.

Peter Porter was the first person I know to raise complaint about there being too many haiku, his words turning into the usual ker-plop of the frog into the pond of despond. Porter’s complaint was probably based on the judgement that there is too much bad haiku circulating about, and possibly that it is too easy to produce such stuff. Porter was anything but a curmudgeon, no scrooge muttering bah humbug at haiku. His expectations for poetry were always high, even with the lowliest of forms. His own poetry, for example, is a result of the Audenish belief that the forms exist to make something new, surprising, and different. Auden himself went haywire on haiku, for a time.

Like everything, to know what’s going on requires an understanding of history. Two names are crucial: the publishing house Tuttle & Co. and the self-styled beat Jack Kerouac. After the Second World War, Tuttle published translations of haiku into English that reached an American readership, in particular Americans, which proved to be momentous. One of the readers of these books was Kerouac, who took the basic idea of haiku but messed around with the structural components. As he writes in ‘Blues and Haikus’ (1959):

The American haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again . . . bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.

Thus the scene was set, the attitude adopted, the sensibility transgressed, that led to our current tsunami of little poems. How many of these poems are genuine haiku seems to depend on how closely we believe in the pure rules of the Japanese masters or, alternatively, on the freed-up form positions of crazy-as-a-daisy Kerouac. At least two rules of ancient Japan have been lost along the way in English haiku. The first is that the poem must have at least one word that connotes one of the seasons. This may even be a sound, as we hear in the effects of Basho, Issa, and others. The second is that the words describe, or are connected to, the “Void of Whole”, i.e. the Zen awareness of existence within nothingness, which has its roots in the koan. They exist and express the present continuous. Haiku in fact stem historically in time from the practice of koan, which is probably why the quintessential English translator of Asian literature Arthur Waley regarded haiku as an inferior form, a cheap trick almost, when stood beside other sacred Japanese poetry of olden times. Waley was not exactly a snob on this matter, he was simply fortunate enough to have read across the literature and craved works of greater depth. He seems to have avoided doing much translation of haiku himself, but would not have denied that haiku are part of classical Japanese literature. 

The rest is literature. We recognise haiku instantly and join in the game. Whether it is a poet of rare East-West awareness like Gary Snyder or W.S. Merwin, comic lunatics like Paul Muldoon, or anyone in between or beyond, the haiku’s apotheosis in the early twenty-first century is manifest.

Even down to this recent excuse for an excursion. My review of the recent love poems collection edited by Mark Tredinnick includes mention of singer Paul Kelly’s short poem:

Time is elastic
Together, days disappear
Apart, seconds crawl

Apparently dispute has erupted on Facebook claiming that this simple enough (some would even say, romantic) statement is not a haiku. I don’t do Facebook, so the only way I can join the conversation is if someone creates a link to this page. Evidentially, Kelly’s poem has seventeen English syllables, so it passes the Syllable test. The poem creates a sense of the present moment, thus getting at least an A for the Present Tense test. The poem does not contain a word that quickly reminds us of a particular season of the year, so on this count flunks the Season test. It does, in my judgement, pass the Kerouac test, for the same reason, or even reasons. It will never pass the Waley test. I have no firm word that Kelly practises Zen, but other information in newspapers suggests he does not live in a monastery. Who knows if these comments will cure the blemishes reported on Facebook, or only cause further viral outbursts.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Australian Love Poems 2013

This review first appeared in Eureka Street in early November:

Saying we love someone can take all our courage, all our wisdom, all our foolishness, and often we don’t know how to say it. When we do get to say we love someone, sometimes we reach for the pitch known as poetry. Of all the art forms, poetry and song relay love most immediately. A book of all new work (Australian love poems 2013, edited by Mark Tredinnick. Inkerman & Blunt Publishers ISBN 978-0-9875401-0-2) shows how poetry can stretch the message to screaming point, or say it all in a few seconds. Poetry allows us to say just how silly we feel or can make of a simple admission, something sublime. Michael Sharkey asks profusely

The sky that falls in children’s tales,
the tide that ebbs, the moon’s Swiss cheese,
Nijinsky’s dance. Stravinsky’s Flood;
what if I said you’re all of these.

While Petra White forces a needful perspective:

Hogging both time and world,
soul of another’s
body, making us
as we make it,
no fighting for it,
it blasts doubt out.

And the singer Paul Kelly opts not for the big ballad this time, but the minimal haiku:

Time is elastic
Together, days disappear
Apart, seconds crawl

Anyone writing love poetry needs be aware of the pitfalls of sentimentality. “When we kissed,” claims Michael Crane, “peach trees in China / did not blossom.” He distances himself further by considering
Maybe there is no genius
in a kiss, just a hunger
a thousand centuries old
and a need for comfort
willow trees can not fathom.

Sentimentality though is not to be confused with sentiment. Every poem in the book expresses sentiments, from the passionate to the objective, the innocent to the experienced, the idealistic to the cynical. Peter Rose’s Catullan persona says of love-making, “It’s more intimate / and exacting than one of his feeling lyrics.” And indeed, love poetry expresses by knowledge and a little art the desires and experiences that necessarily remain inexpressibly personal to the individual. Anne M. Carson writes about “ honing / the human, so we too become vast, / and all that is paltry in us, blown away.”  

It is true to say that most poems are written for love’s sake, for what the Greeks call agape; still, most of this collection is tangled up in eros. The book confirms the given that love poetry in English means the erotic before other forms of love, i.e. affective and familial love, love of nature and nation, let alone the supreme love of God. Be that as it may, we are not alone when we read Bronwyn Lovell:
Outside the world is silent
after a light fall of rain that
must have come while we
were not looking or caring
for anything more
than each other.

Nor can we ignore the truth in Cate Kennedy’s ‘Ode to Lust’:

It doesn’t need to have a bed;
its teeth pull off your underwear;
it likes you driven from your head,
legs round neck. Clothes over there.

Freud was not the first person to advise that eros doesn’t last. Relationship is about communication and change, so the poems are arranged to track different states in love’s life. Poets talk things through to themselves, yet they talk to us. Poets talk to the one they love, or to us about the one they love, so it can get tricky. Quietly they let us in on secrets, or other times let it all hang out. Reading 200 love poems at once, we start hearing people talking to each other. We wonder if Poet A is actually mad about poet B, if Poet Y wants to take Poet Z to Paradise, or dearly wishes them in the other place. The book sets up such connections and moods.

Anthologies reflect the character of their anthologists. This book was shaped by someone who knows first loves and losses, resolutions and fresh starts. He likes the variety of forms, favouring clear expression, strong images, and striking analogies. Mark Tredinnick has cited Hafiz and the Sufi tradition as a guiding principle in creating the collection. This is spoken voice poetry from the heart, direct speech but heightened, tending to the ecstatic. We hear its poetic example in the deep breath lines of Anne Walsh Miller: “You’re written in me in the before antiquity language of snowflakes. / Landing everywhere on me so thickly that you’re on me and in me and on my tongue / (you on my tongue is why I talk beautifully like snow under a streetlamp).”  

Are Australians Persians? To judge by the evidence of this book they are more forthcoming than might be assumed, at speaking of love. Trademark laconic is there, but also a delight in syntactical play and unexpected words. Gender and orientation are not issues, even if relationships are. Shyness and bluster live as neighbours with bubbliness and raunch, but then also melancholy and regret. Survival, like love found, is a good in itself. There is an intelligence at work frequently in the use of allegory and trope that is almost courtly. But one conclusion is certain: when 632 Australians submit 1501 new love poems to a tight deadline, it has to be said, they’re up for it.