World Economy in Word Economy
Sometimes, when I read the haiku journals, I wonder how much current world issues impinge on our lives and are expressed in our poetry. It often seems that our haiku are inspired by our current experience, but experience that is essentially personal and not linked to headlines in the newspaper.
I also wonder if most of us are writing from a vantage point of economic security, resulting in a middle-class slant—and perhaps limitation—to our poetry. We do have haiku poets among us who write from other than most middle-class experience, such as Johnny Baranski’s poems from his time in prison for protesting a nuclear weapons system or Cor van den Heuvel’s poems that sound as if they were written by someone down on their luck and hitchhiking on a lonely road. And certainly not all of middle-class life, even if relatively secure economically, is a bed of roses without thorns. Witness the many powerful haiku written out of the pain of separation or divorce, or the illness or death of a loved one. But we mostly have a place to live, enough food, leisure to subscribe to and read haiku journals, and to travel and meet together as we are today.
When the issue of Modern Haiku, Volume 41.2 arrived in our mailbox after mid-May, I decided to try an experiment. I read through the haiku in that issue and in the most recent Frogpond, Volume 33:1, with an ear cocked for any current issues finding their way into our work, and any written about or from the perspective of people not in a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps it was just coincidence in these particular issues, or the inclination of the editors. But I hadn’t read more than a few pages in Modern Haiku when it seemed that the world economy, the economic downturn, had slipped into our haiku. That’s why I’m calling this presentation “World Economy in Word Economy.”
If we start where the headlines crescendoed, in the stock market, Tom Tico, Jeremy Pendrey and Pall Ingi Kvaran were aware and maybe there. The downturn overtones of Ash Wednesday, a funeral motorcade, January rain, autumn, and closed curtains are unmistakable.
Ash Wednesday foreheads
here and there
in the financial district
through the financial district
shuts his drapes
The worldwide nature of the downturn may be echoed in this poem from Japan.
The ongoing malaise from the economic downturn lingers on, not in the big banks that our tax dollars bailed out, but in the job market.
in the compost pile
What a powerful image, feeling like some thing not chosen, thrown out, not to be used but decomposed! The repetition of the “aw” sound in Bill Kenney’s poem fits the feeling exactly.
at the mall
You may think I’m reading too much into the following haiku, but the autumn wind here seems to blow in the direction of a layoff. It reminds me of a time when the dean in my department wanted me to start an environmental education center and leave the position teaching undergraduate ecology that I was enjoying. I distinctly remember the discomfort of his arm around me when he was trying to persuade me.
my young boss’s arm
For those without jobs, the lure of easy money can pull them into a downturn in their lives, as happened on our block:
a dealer paces
The ripple effect of such a downturn on the lives of our children and grandkids comes through with an economy of words in this haiku:
in the park opposite—
For those with hard low-paying jobs, the downturn means being job scared and clinging to what employment they have. John Stevenson hints that larger denomination bills are scarce for some people, and that it is not only the dollar bills that are growing wrinkled and worn.
for the waitress a fan of hard-used ones...
Even employment that pays well may feel like a trap when the job market is thin.
people rushing home to change
into other lives
A very visible aspect of the downturn has been the loss of homes by low-income families lured into mortgages they could not sustain. Note that each of these haiku contrasts something heartwarming with the same powerful single word last line.
no foot prints
in the snow
Before the next haiku, I’ll share what Google says about “American Beauty.” It is a hybrid perpetual deep pink and strongly scented rose, bred in France and introduced in the United States in 1875. A ragtime composition, the 1999 film and the Grateful Dead album are all named American Beauty, and it is the official flower of the District of Columbia.
So if people lose their homes, they may have to turn, reluctantly, to friends and relatives.
trees bared my welcome wearing thin
The next step is homelessness. Here in Seattle, whole families are turning up in our third tent city, named Nicklesville after the former mayor. This too is a world phenomenon.
under the only light
the homeless start to gather
In a downturn we think more carefully about how to save what we have.
the browning edges
of unbought flowers
high school reunion
we all talk about
at grocery store orchids
Or if someone is down to nothing to spend:
There is a sobering overtone to this last haiku. The poet is noticing and cynically concluding, as I confess I have also thought at times, that people begging may not be honest. When I have those thoughts, I have a deep feeling of unease that there, but for many strokes of luck in my life, I might be. And yet I’m writing that person off as dishonest.
This unease and alienation from others is just one of the modern social problems portrayed in a fascinating book that came out last year with the subtitle “Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.” The British authors found in a thirty-year study that the degree of material equality among members of a society was the factor most strongly linked to health and happiness. It was not wealth, resources, culture, climate, diet, or form of government, but equality. And our country, by most measures the richest on the planet, but with a huge spread between rich and poor, has per capita shorter life spans, more mental illness, more obesity, and more people in prison than any other developed nation.
I won’t launch into a long discussion about where our tax dollars go, but over half of our discretionary federal spending goes to the military, not to closing the gaps between rich and poor.
Titan missile silo
the sign warns
In conclusion, I am impressed by how many of our haiku are tuned in to the global economic crisis and the people caught in it. By being aware of our emotional response to the crisis—emotions that include worry, fear, empathy and caring—we are writing effective haiku about it. Because we write in the haiku form, we are capturing those emotions with admirable brevity. So yes, world economy in word economy! I’ll close with one of mine—the only one quoted here that isn’t from 2010.
food bank line—
a pigeon picks up crumbs
too small to see