Sunday, May 15, 2016

Notes on Haiku, Tanka, and Rengu

As I pasted some haiku notes below a poem I wrote in March, it got out of hand, and I realized what I wrote should have its own blog page. After all, this is cyberspace. There's plenty of it.

This morning I was explaining to a Facebook friend, a Facebook memory I had posted from May 14, 2010
Seen on a Richmond overpass: Free Leonard. 
Made me sad. How long has Leonard been in prison?
Which led to a lively discussion on Leonard. I posted a note on how I wrote my Free Leonard Peltier haiku, back in March, and she asked if she could share the poems. Which led to momentary panic. OMG, they're not very good, I need to rewrite them, or at least write something about the process... I must deflect, deflect. The gift of the gob at work.

This was the poem that kicked off my counting jag: a neighbor sat in his car smoking as I pulled out the driveway. I'd finished that thought, realized there were more poems coming and that I needed to write them down. No way I was going to remember that many haiku all at once. It was a traffic jam of haiku stacking up. Then I saw one Leonard sign on an overpass, and another wedged in a tree.

I was stuck in a colossal traffic jam at the Richmond Bridge, so I kept calm and carried on, but I was betrayed by my fingers madly counting syllables on the steering wheel to pass the time. And then I saw the third Leonard Peltier sign.

It got me thinking of Leonard in prison counting the days, 40 years of endless days. That's 14,600 days he's been in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Please, Obama, do the right thing: please pardon Leonard, who was a scapegoat to appease the FBI's wrath. And so the poems tumbled out, written fast and furiously, my fingers thrumming in time.  FREE LEONARD HAIKU 

But I want to explore the form—if only as a reminder to myself to try a new poetic art form. I feel guilty about my writing, and certainly for what passes as haiku. I keep thinking I really should learn to write tanka, instead of my loosely linked 5-stanza linked poems in quasi-haiku format. You know, real writing.

I must admit I do feel a bit like like Rain Man madly counting away when I compose them, but once I start counting syllables, I can't seem to stop. The poemettes come nearly intact, and unbidden, especially when I'm driving. So it's some sort of a rhythmic mind game. Maybe haiku is the poet's sudoku.  As Rainman said: Fart. Definitely, fart.

Monte Rio poet Pat Nolan was always trying to get me to join in on his renga games. Pat was the grand poobah and illustrious founder of The Miner School of Haikai Poets. A renga is a linked pass-around chain poem. I participated a few times, but I always got off kilter, endlessly stuck in that 5-7-5 format. I couldn't seem to play nicely with the other poets. Always missing deadlines.

Also, in those days, you had to type the pass-around poem on a manual typewriter (onion skin paper), then snail mail it onto the next poet. The poem traveled to Oakland, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Pacific Grove, Montreal, Monte Rio. And if you missed the 24-hour deadline, you held up all the other poets. They got pissy. Sadly, it was a a missed opportunity. They carried on without me. I probably have several starving half-finished group poems buried in my old papers.

I lacked confidence, and it stymied me, freezing my words, mid-mind. I became mute. I'm trying to remember who was in the renga group: Keith Abbott, Michael Sowl, Maureen Owen—and maybe also Steve LaVioie, David Gitin, Phil Coturri, come to mind....  It was an avalanche of poems arriving daily in the mail, I got confused. One poem line bled into the next arriving poem, and I was all in a muddle.

Then, there's Renku, a bawdy form of linked verse.....maybe it was a really a renku group... We were a bawdy bunch of poets singing euphonies, and all. But I stubbornly stuck to my linked haiku, counting 5-7-5.

Bawdy poets send
renga verse tersely written—
golden onion skins

Sauteeing their words
sizzling in olive oil—
wilted syllables 

For the next poet
to puzzle over their lines—
waiting for the end

Of the line, last word
pulsing for a rebuttal—
a full glottal stop. 

Lick that final stamp
and put the poem to bed—
incestuous words.


Some standard definitions:
"Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as morae though often loosely translated as "syllables"), in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 on respectively. A kigo (seasonal reference), usually drawn from a saijiki, an extensive but defined list of such words.  The essence of haiku is "cutting" (kiru). This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji ("cutting word") between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related. A kireji fills a role somewhat analogous to a caesura. In English, since kireji have no direct equivalent, poets sometimes use punctuation such as a dash or ellipsis...." —Wiki
Got it. OK. Three phrases, like brush strokes, one line should contain a seasonal reference, and the Aha! the cutting word—a pivotal juxtaposition where the poem turns on itself.  That's were I often flail. Haiku not about counting syllables. Besides, Japanese packs a lot more information into its ideagrams than we can possibly do with our sound-based Latin alphabet.

But I still can't stop counting. And I rarely remember to add the kireji, or in my case, the use of the long em line—. Besides, it's so easy to cheat at haiku with those pesky articles and particles. We're so attached to making sense in English, it's a leap of faith to leave out those conjunctions.


Old mossy pond
Frog jump!
Water sound.

(I'm trying to remember how this translation came about, was I working with Bob Hass at the time? Anyway, it was group boardwork, distilling something down to its primal essence. It's the translation I prefer.)

What: Invoke a hoku (a stand alone line) 
use one or more of the senses—often a memory from the past,  
Where: a sense of place—use images from nature
When: include a kogu, a seasonal reference (or a signal word)

No "I" should inhabit the poem. Think epigrams, three snapshots or telegrams reduced down to a bare minimum of words. "Little drops of poetic essence," as Sir George Sansom called them. Then there's the hidden dualism: the idea of near and far, foreground/background, then and now, past and present, sound and silence, temporalness and infinity.  

Two Haiku for Poetry Month
—MH 4/21/2009

Counting syllables
is silly; Japanese count
words, not syllables.
Anglo Saxon words
paint a much broader canvas
than Latinate ones.    

words too cumbersome to count
English albatross.

I have more haiku buried in this blog. This haiku link will list the most recent 18-20 entries in a search format (I'm up to 38 linked haiku entries). It's a problem with Blogger's search format, it only displays one page, newest first. You will have to dig month by month for older work. I always use CAPS for poems, and I try to put HAIKU in title as well.

OK, more standard definitions.
"The Tanka poem is very similar to haiku but Tanka poems have more syllables and it uses simile, metaphor and personification. There are five lines in a Tanka poem. Tanks poems are written about nature, seasons, love, sadness and other strong emotions. This form of poetry dates back almost 1200 years ago."  (Check out the chart)  5-7-5-7-7   —How to write a Tanka poem
"Renga (連歌, collaborative poetry) is a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry. A renga consists of at least two ku (句 ) or stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku (発句 ), became the basis for the modern haiku form of poetry." —Wiki
"Renku (連句, "linked verses"), or haikai no renga is a Japanese form of popular collaborative linked verse poetry. It is a development of the older Japanese poetic tradition of ushin renga, or orthodox collaborative linked verse. At renku gatherings participating poets take turns providing alternating verses of 17 and 14 morae. Initially haikai no renga distinguished itself through vulgarity and coarseness of wit, before growing into a legitimate artistic tradition, and eventually giving birth to the haiku form of Japanese poetry."—Wiki
Then there's Haibun, a combination of prose and haiku, often autobiographical or written in the form of a travel journal. Sort of like this journey.

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