Milestones and Paths Untangled
The first meant-to-be haiku I ever wrote, in 1978:
Thirty-three years ago on a dairy farm in South America, I opened a hand-sized volume of Issa's poems (translated into English), thus taking my first conscious step into haiku territory. That sultry afternoon a tienda across the way sold me a small, hardcover notebook with Industria Paraguaya stamped in red on the back. I filled several lined pages with my verses, carefully imitating the style of Issa's poems—the translator's style, that is. Eventually I submitted ten or so to an American journal, received a polite rejection, left Issa on the coffee table, and put away my own efforts. Eighteen years later in Orlando, Florida, I found the notebook at the bottom of a pile of photo albums. On a whim, I did a Web search with the word "haiku" and found the Shiki Haiku Salon. A weathered, jasmine-entwined sign pointed to a somewhat tangly but enchanting path. And there I was, ready with my faded little notebook.
When I first read the letter inviting me to write an article for
Frogpond, I must have held my breath while thoughts rico- cheted inside my skull, because my head began to feel as if it were filled with helium. Me? I may have honed a balancing act while standing on giant shoulders, and surely that is a talent in itself and requires some work ... but... it was only a few years ago that I lacked the courage to offer my haiku to any journal. What do I know?
Over the ringing in my ears, an edgy inner voice replied: You know how you got here from there (when you took those first steps into haiku land), and the milestones along the way. And it hasn't been a few years, it's been about fifteen years since you received that first acceptance note. Remember your on-lline school in the early... by the way, how long have you been an associate editor for The Heron's Nest?
Oh. Fugit irreparabile tempus.
And what haiku poet's oeuvre would be complete without her very own last leaf?
After finding the Shiki site, I began churning out what I believed were haiku and posting them to the list with requests for feedback. I came to understand that a surfeit of capital letters and rampant punctuation were not requisite. Though at some point I realized that neither was a 5/7/5 syllable count demanded by a haiku deity, by then it had become an unbreakable habit, automatically kicking in whenever I put words together in haiku format. I counted in private and in public, in my head, whispered or silently, on my fingers, tapping a fork, spoon, breadstick, pencil, or toe. I could not finish a poem without counting.
In addition to the haiku happening all around every day, a life-time of haiku were inside me, waiting for expression. I penned hundreds of hopefuls, a thousand and more, in the course of a year. I ate, drank, slept, worked, played, and spoke haiku, though what I wrote was often not...
"Madame Spider" became an ongoing project.
Through the Shiki mailing list, peers and seasoned mentors encouraged new haiku poets, taught us through their examples, and helped us lay the foundations upon which we would build our haiku "careers." During those early years I learned to dissect a poem and discover how the skin and bones and sinews of Western haiku hold it together; how to select naturally occurring elements from an unexpected moment of discovery and fit them together in a haiku. Incredibly generous haiku scholars supplied the tools and instructions—ZOT!—via email. And I continued to nag my first-born...
My first major breakthrough occurred when our dear Francine Porad offered kind, constructive evaluation of another gem from the little notebook.
That linear statement merely tells my opinion, goes nowhere, and reveals no entryway for readers. It offers nothing concrete for readers to grasp. Those three lines don't make a haiku (Francine put it more tactfully). When the penny dropped, I felt as if until then I had been viewing haiku through a blurry glass door. Suddenly the glass disappeared and I was through the open doorway. Always generous, Francine sent me a list of journals, including the submission guidelines for each. A couple of months later, I received my very first haiku acceptance.
It wasn't long before I gratefully embraced concision with a slight lean toward minimalism; I had not quite, however, given up talking to animals.
Yet a poem with prescribed, carefully counted syllables and plenty of capital letters and punctuation became my first contest success, winning first place in the 1998 Alabama Sakura Haiku Competition.
I soon knew that the only kind of haiku I wanted to write were those grounded in reality, coming from my personal experiences. For me, there's no point in writing made-up haiku. When I want to let my imagination soar, I turn to other genres.
That same year a fellow poet culled a list of what he considered my best poems and urged me to submit them to Modern Haiku. I did, and dear Robert Spiess accepted six for the summer issue. That was the first journal I ever held in my hands that had my name and my haiku in it. Of those six, these two with coincidental "lappings" remain my favorites.
In those early days I often made the same mistake that many new haiku writers make, confusing insight and layered meaning with linear facts and a wish to teach readers something. I didn't yet understand that observing an amazing, weird, awful, or wonderful thing for the first time, while indisputably a "Wow!" moment, is not the same as the "Aha!" moment. I hadn't completely grasped the idea that the revelation of meaning for the haiku poet and the discovery that awaits a reader are most often created by the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated things; and that such combination implies meaning that cannot be found in either thing alone. For example, the first time that I saw jellyfish changing colors at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it was a fantastic experience. The quickly scrawled image of those coelenterates became the entire haiku.
That falls pretty flat. No matter how strange and beautiful these creatures are, no matter the depth of my enchantment, no new awareness lies beneath the imagery or between the lines in that poem. But there was more to my experience than the first-time viewing of the incredible marine dwellers. The combination of circumstance and imagery might suggest that a good marriage keeps its glow.
Another first draft that I came to realize lacked depth:
Juxtaposing the religious significance of the time of year during which the eggs hatched allows readers entry into the haiku and my emotion. With revision, the two parts of the haiku complement each other, together reinforcing the sense of a time for inner reflection and new beginnings.
I learned how to read the haiku of others, to move beyond the surface imagery, to go deeper and find my own interpretations, drawing from my accumulative knowledge and life experiences. Timothy Russell's haiku parsings taught me how to spot the illusion of drama where none actually exists at the haiku's core—such as the artificiality often created by the popular use of inverted syntax. His work confirmed for me the value of effective juxtaposition and taught me how to recognize its presence—or absence. With Tim's brilliant and addictive dissections at my fingertips, I began to understand which of my haiku lacked clarity or were incomplete or one-dimensional. I was eager to take them apart and rebuild them.
reached maturity as
During the late Nineties and at the beginning of the new millennium, Elizabeth St. Jacques taught me that there is something to be learned, some morsel of insight in every sincerely expressed haiku, no matter a poem's perceived weakness or roughness. From her example, I learned the value of humility, a sense of humor, and an open mind when given the privilege of appraising another poet's work. Elizabeth's selfless, joyous presence in my life, perhaps more than anything else, helped shape the teacher and editor that I would become. By then I had given up on Madame Spider's home-repair problem and moved on to one of her kin, with better success.
As my confidence and courage grew, so did the number of journals and contests to which I submitted my work. Continually studying and writing, I explored haiku and related genres, including rengay, renku, sijo, tanka, and haibun. After constantly practicing the concision of haiku, I found that writing sijo often felt like overindulging in a rich dessert.
However, there is one whose last line moves me to tears, affecting me far more strongly today that it did when I wrote it in 2000.
Humbly and happily I joined The Heron's Nest in late 2000. For the next few years I juggled those duties with editing an on-line haiku column, while preparing lessons and conducting my school of Western traditional haiku. The column and the school have retired (though perhaps not permanently). I am still wearing Heron's feathers.
I am sometimes asked what, more than anything else, informs my work as a haiku poet. My answer is the same as it would have been thirty-three years ago, if I had known enough to be able to put it into words: the continual experiences that give me new insight into our enduring bond with nature. This awareness is the essence of the haiku I most enjoy reading and writing.
I would like to emphasize, however, that does not mean that I find haiku written with a blend of humanity and nature generally more appealing or valuable than haiku purely of the natural world. I feel that all-nature haiku often do not get the recognition they deserve. A haiku containing no reference to humanity can nevertheless remind us of our bond with nature. I did not reference humanity in "heat wave," but I hope that readers may intuit the poet's sense of connection to the purely natural world, and that the poem itself may even be read as metaphor for human circumstance and emotion.
heat wave one raindrop at a time shakes the passionflower
My incessant talk of haiku nearly drove my family crazy, un- til in self-defense they began writing haiku too—and getting them published. My world was complete.
As a few folks know, I have completed a haiku guidebook that compiles all my formal lessons, some of which were presented on-line in The Hibiscus School, and others that have never appeared in public. I believe that among its many example haiku from poets around the world are some of the best ever published. I know that the lessons work, that they do the job they're supposed to. I know this because I've celebrated with the dedicated writers who, guided or goaded by the discussions and exercises, ambled, flew, or leapt into the thick of the haiku jungle and emerged as exemplary, well-published, award-winning haiku poets.
Nearly every tutorial was first a private lesson tailored to fit the specific needs of someone who had hit a snag (or brick wall) and asked for my help, and with nudges in the right direction then found his or her way around or through the sink-holes and brambles. And of course I've often worked with poets who originally believed that at least a few of the following "rules" were writ in pokeberry dye (try washing that out!):
Semper fi. The author of these two raw works kindly gave me permission to share them, but with anonymity:
The second one, hackneyed and clunky as haiku, seems a great senryu. It makes me laugh every time I read it. End of the line indeed for leaf and arachnid—but not for its talented author who quickly found her groove and whose work appears in leading haiku journals.
I once wrote the rather labored analogy, "Just as a waltz is meant to be danced with a partner, a haiku waits for an astute reader to recognize its music and accept the invitation. When the partnership is successful, a reader will hear the music long after the dance is over." So, if the reader can't follow the music, the partnership is a nonstarter. Whose fault is that? Well, perhaps the poet is not hitting the right notes. Or maybe the reader is tone deaf and jus' got no rhythm.
After its first and only submission to a publisher, I later withdrew my guidebook manuscript in order to refine it further. Paying close attention to the words of a number of wise and generous people, including Christopher Herold, Peggy Willis Lyles, Paul W. MacNeil, Dr. Randy Brooks, William J. Higginson, John Barlow, and Dr. David Lanoue, I made crucial revisions in 2005 and 2006. In the years since, I've continued to revise but hesitate to again pronounce it finished. Maybe, like those who make a career of college, I can make a career of everlasting edits?
That is not an entirely frivolous thought. I admit to sloth as I attempt to keep up with every journal, every article that comes my way, and it's surely possible that I missed the handwriting on the wall, failed to hear the pendulum swing. Already I fear that a few of my manuscript's principles are on the way to becoming passé. I worry that the basics of haiku rooted in tradition that I have taught for the last twelve years, the fundamental qualities in which I place my trust, may be depreciating in some camps.
Oh, what a weight it is to know that I have not read nor yet unearthed even a smidgen of everything available on all things haiku, by the best of teachers both here and gone; have not heard even one hundredth of one percent of all the discussions and conclusions by fellow poets; that what I taught five years ago may be out of vogue this year—or worse, that one of my "don'ts" has become a "do." How I sag, limp with chagrin, whenever a whiff of such change wafts my way. Read "whiff" as the baffling poems I now and then find published as haiku in the top journals, and as the question I often get from serious and respected haiku poets about one published poem or another: How does this pass for haiku?
And I wonder . . . before I offer guidance to any trusting haiku poet who requests it, should I first step outside and test the air, lift a wetted finger to the wind? Do I lay too much on the agreeable folk who ask for haiku writing tips, for dependable guidelines, reliable do's and don'ts? I don't believe so, for I simply share tools that have done the job for a multitude of poets,including me. I stress that the criteria I offer are not carved in stone, but that surely they are a fine starting place. Styles and trends may come and go, offend or thrill, may morph and evolve, the burden of proving their worth ultimately devolving upon haiku editors and critics. Skirmishes occasionally break out over what some old hands may view as mutant haiku. But I have always told new haiku poets that they must eventually choose their own paths. I've encouraged them to study the different schools of thought, try them out, make excursions off a beaten path and see what they find.
If newcomers to English-language haiku wish to experiment or deliberately bypass one or more time-honored elements of haiku, I believe they can strengthen their work by first becoming grounded in the basics and understanding their value; that before they stray from tradition they should know why they are doing so and what results they expect. I suggest that they also become comfortable reading and writing traditional Western haiku, learn how to self-edit and how to parse haiku, their own and the work of others, and discover why a poem does or does not satisfy.
Western haiku had already gone through basic changes in its brief history by the time I discovered it in 1978. Overall, I believe that innovation has been beneficial and exciting, fortifying and enhancing the very fundamentals of this genre. Still, when inspired to hike a new trail, I will keep a reliable compass in my pocket. Tradition will continue to be my starting point for reading and writing contemporary English-language haiku.
Credits for poems used in this essay
Gilli, Ferris: "while I sit musing," Cicada 1997. "A full moonlight kiss" 1st Place, 1998 Alabama Sakura Haiku Competition. "the quiet" and "water lapping," Modern Haiku, XXIX:2, Summer 1998; Shaped by the Wind by Ferris Gilli, edited by John Barlow (Snapshot Press, 2006). "Yom Kippur," Acorn #8, Spring 2002; Shaped by the Wind (Snapshot Press, 2006). "winter solstice," Frogpond, XXV:1, 2002; The Haiku Calendar 2000, edited by John Barlow (Snapshot Press, 1999); Shaped by the Wind (Snapshot Press, 2006). "company coming," Poetry in the Light, 2000; Shaped by the Wind (Snapshot Press, 2006). "the ruby glimmer...," Sijo Blossoms, April 2000. "Passion done...," 1st Place, Florida Poets Sijo Competition, 2000. "fireflies," Acorn #23, Fall 2009. "heat wave," Snapshots S10, 2002; Shaped by the Wind (Snapshot Press, 2006. "cherry blossoms," Best U.S. Poem, Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival 2008. "open door," Riverwind 30, Summer 2010. Gilli, Harry: "tiny pie-billed grebe," Modern Haiku XXIX:3, Fall 1998; 2nd Place, The Herb Barrett Award 2000. Hoffman, Susana Chelli: "rain drips off," Modern Haiku XXX:3, Fall 1999.