21st Century Butterfly, 19th Century Net: Fourteen Years in Haiku

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Can you really write a poem a day for fourteen years? Yes, if the poems are very short, and if you think that someone will read them. I began writing daily haiku in 1999, inspired by a Soft Skull Press anthology called The Haiku Year, in which seven friends, including Michael Stipe of REM, agreed to mail each other a haiku a day on a postcard for a year. An anthropologist friend was my first haiku correspondent, inking her poems on delicate aerogrammes mailed from her fieldwork site in Papua New Guinea.

My companions see
that the sea-turtles are mating
and put their spears away.
Melissa Demian (1999)
Like most Americans, I was first introduced to haiku through an Orientalizing lens of false timelessness. My elementary school teachers — relieved to offer a lesson that matched the attention span of their students — explained the so-called “ancient” art of haiku by spelling out its rules. A haiku poem has three lines. The first line has five syllables. The second line has seven syllables. The third line has five syllables. Each haiku includes a seasonal reference.
Wrapping dumplings in
bamboo leaves, with one finger
she tidies her hair.
Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)
In The Haiku Year, Tom Gilroy’s forward discusses mid-20th century roots of Japanese-inspired American haiku: “Jack Kerouac and Michael McClure and the San Francisco poetry Renaissance started the concept of Western haiku…little three-line poems aiming towards a kind of Zen enlightenment. The Beat Generation was the right time to make a transition to a new kind of haiku, with all that pot-smoking and coffee-drinking and scatting and Japanese haiku books laying on couches next to Whitman and William Carlos Williams. A kind of combustion.” Gilroy follows the Beats’ lead by relaxing the 5-7-5 rules, explaining that the seven friends who wrote The Haiku Year were shooting instead for poems of three short lines each that included a seasonal reference. He added however, that they were attempting to write poems that offer both “the moment seized and rendered purely, captured in an instant of Buddhist (or Zen) enlightenment,” and “reflections on the particular consciousness, or point of view of the author, his or her loneliness, or comedy, or anger.”
boy smashing dandelions
with a stick.
Jack Kerouac (1959)
When I began writing daily poems fourteen years ago, was I writing authentic, Japanese-style haiku (a form I will indicate with italics), in contradistinction to Western-style, Kerouac-meets-elementary-school-classroom haiku (a form I will designate with Roman type)? Nope. But what I was writing excited me. I had wanted to write poetry for years, but couldn’t: nothing in my life seemed truly poem-worthy, which meant that when I did encounter love, for example, or death, I had no poetic muscle with which to tackle it, and wrote flabby clichés instead. Writing daily haiku unblocked me as a poet.I didn’t have to wait years to let myself write a poem (which of course would have to be the best poem ever); my job was to go through each day looking for just one poem, any poem. I felt like I’d been locked indoors for years, leafing through a field guide and wondering if someday I’d find that special butterfly that would be named after me. Suddenly I was standing outside with a net and the command to just catch something, anything, every day. Suddenly there were butterflies everywhere.
Bartlett pear blossoms:
these long-wristed girls
punch crisp holes in the blue day.
EA (1999)
Rethinking what counted as poetry and poem-worthy freed me to write some terrible haiku, but it also freed me to write a few good ones. Moreover, it has led me to realize that the poem itself is not the point of writing poetry. Instead, I forged this new definition. Daily haiku writing is a practice of attentiveness, the major byproduct of which is a seventeen-syllable poem.
String hangs from a branch.
The moment of wanting to tug it:
that’s the bell.
EA (2012)
As the years pass, I have departed increasingly from the elementary-school form. First I dispensed with the obligation to include a seasonal reference in the poem. Then I jettisoned syllable counts for each line. Although since 1999 I’ve annually made a booklet of each year’s haiku and sent it to friends, most recently I’ve been sharing these poems daily on the internet. Facebook and Twitter made my line breaks look precious rather than effortless, which spurred me to let go of the requirement that a haiku be a three-line poem at all.
Night. The drag queen at the corner pauses, wonders: Walk home, or cab it?
EA (2009)
What remains? A seventeen (or fewer) syllable poem that tries to capture a unique moment in time as freshly and simply as possible.

The revelatory pleasure of listening for a poem in each day led me to develop an exercise for my creative writing students that encourages them — as writing daily haiku encouraged me — to stop fretting over what counts as worthy subject matter. At the beginning of the semester, I ask them to choose someone in their lives, and then each day throughout the semester they have to write that same person a postcard that captures a moment from the day. (They also have to type up their postcards and turn them in to me.)  Although this exercise is designed to help perfectionists stop beating themselves up, it differs from freewriting or journal-keeping in two ways: it emphasizes selectivity over exhaustive production, and it also forces students to consider what it means to write for publication — even if one’s “public” is just one other person — as opposed to for oneself.
Winter Surfer
…No regard for frozen pain
Cover me in neoprene…
…Urine is my warm lover
You’re in my wonder winter-land…
–Columbia student (2005)
When I apply this question of publication to my own haiku practice, although I’d be over the moon if a press picked up my haiku, I find I shy away from sending a manuscript to publishers.  In researching the origin of the actual, Japanese, italics-intended haiku, however, I’ve come to wonder if my hesitation has something to do with the form itself.

A relatively recent predecessor of Japanese haiku is renga, multi-authored linked-verse poetry of the ninth century to the present. Renga began as an aristocratic pastime, and though the ranks of renga poets has become somewhat more democratic over the centuries, the form remains a hobby rather than a profession. Historically, renga groups usually consisted of people who already knew one another, be they a master poet and his (or her) disciples, monks or nuns belonging to the same sect, or simply a group of friends or colleagues. Groups numbered three to six, though sometimes included as many as twenty, and tended to meet at one another’s houses, with the duty of host (which included preparing a banquet and hanging seasonally-appropriate art) rotating from member to member. Poets had only a few minutes to compose each verse, and no time to rewrite: the point was not to create and publish a masterpiece for the ages, but to show off one’s talent with a fresh-sounding verse, one’s erudition with a verse that referenced older poetry, and one’s ability to keep an eye on the big picture with a verse that linked well to its predecessors, all in front of a handful of people who might be able to further one’s political or mercantile career.

Renga can be of any length, though well-known forms include 100-verse, 36-verse, and 18-verse poems. The verses of a renga alternate between two and three lines in length, the two-liners containing seven syllables each, the three-liners following the 5-7-5 pattern we now associate with haiku. A renga always opens with a 5-7-5 three-liner, known as a hokku, while all the subsequent links of verse, each by a different author, are called haikai. In the late 17th century, renga poet Matsuo Bashō began composing hundreds of verses in hokku form that were in fact designed to stand alone, a practice echoed by later poets Yosa Buson (1716-1784) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827). In the late nineteenth century, a renga poet named Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) championed Bashō, Buson, and Issa’s hokku verses as well as the practice of writing stand-alone poems as 5-7-5 three-liners. Shiki renamed these short poems haiku, fusing the terms hokku and haikai, the opening verse and its subsequent links.
The old pond:
a frog jumps in—
the sound of water.

I was surprised to learn that the word haiku, far from being ancient, is roughly the same age as Yeats’s Celtic Revival movement, which similarly engaged modernity while keeping one eye reverently on the past. Shiki’s invented word haiku suggests “The Opening Verse Is the Whole Poem” poetry, “Alpha-Omega” poetry, “Look No Further Than This” poetry. Shiki coined the neologism haiku in order decouple these short poems from their roots in renga, a form perhaps better suited to producing social relationships among poets than to producing poems. Unlike renga, which Shiki claimed was “not literature,” haiku were meant to be considered on their own terms. Half a world away, meanwhile, Walter Pater, the idol of the Aestheticist movement, was making similar arguments against judging art by what it could do for its producers or consumers, in language that revived the early nineteenth-century battle cry of Art for Art’s Sake.
The tree cut,
dawn breaks early
at my little window.
Shiki invented the word haiku during the cultural upheaval that attended Japan’s rapid Westernization in the late nineteenth century. Shiki, though known for his love of baseball and Western civil liberties, does not appear to have read Western poetry, no more than Gwen Stefani appears to have read Japanese in order to write her pop song “Harajuku Girls.” But he lived in a Westernizing milieu, and his friends included novelists Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai, themselves engaged in incorporating and rejecting aspects of Western literature into their work.
Smoke whirls
after the passage of a train:
young foliage.
To repurpose an anthropological term, renga can be considered a “high context” art form: its individual links of verse are not designed to stand alone, and the point of the renga is not the finished product, but the collaborative writing process, which involved an exclusive coterie of fellow-authors and the sharing of food and liquor. The Western poetry that Shiki’s contemporaries would have encountered it, by contrast — published, portable, single-authored works produced and consumed in private— could be described, on a relative scale at least, as “lower context.”
Buying leeks
And walking home
Under the bare trees
How do you pitch radical Westernization to a nation of proud traditionalists? Tell them it was their idea in the first place. In 1887, when the Empress decreed that all the women of the court would henceforth wear Western dress, she did so by citing ancient precedent. In a gesture that probably appealed to nostalgiacs and forward-thinkers alike, Shiki’s invention of the term haiku both heralded a new form capable of being appreciated alongside works of Western literature and asserted that form’s antiquity and cultural purity. Weren’t Bashō, Buson, and Issa writing haiku long before Commodore Perry’s black ships reached Japan?
All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
   killing mosquitoes.
Identifying how Shiki’s new (or “new”) haiku form rejected two key aspects of renga — its linked and participatory nature — helps me understand how those aspects live on in my own haiku practice, and in particular in my haiku publication practice. Where eighteen, or thirty-six, or even a hundred linked verses of renga constituted a poem, now one solitary verse of haiku stands in its place. While I love locking down a startling, purely-experienced moment into seventeen syllables as much as the next haiku poet, there’s also a way in which the poems don’t feel finished until they’re gathered into an annual collection, where the good-haiku-day poems balance out the blah-haiku-day ones, and the funny ones can inject breathing space around the solemn ones. The linked whole tells the story of a year. Meanwhile, the participatory nature of the form that morphed into haiku survives as the pleasure of hearing back from friends to whom I’ve sent each year’s collection, and of posting each day’s poem online. While I have had a few magical experiences of writing haiku in a group (such as the Hailstone Haiku Circle in Kyoto, led by Stephen Gill, or Rachel Simon’s poetry group in Yonkers), the sociable aspect of the renga banquet lives on more frequently in the “likes” and comments I get from friends online, and in the rare and delightful seventeen-syllable reply I receive.
Reading lines like recipes. 1 tsp wimpled nuns. 1 C river.
Holly Rae Taylor (2013)
When I read The Haiku Year and started writing and exchanging daily haiku, I didn’t know just how young the form was, especially given the long history of the renga from which it was cut loose. Though more than a century of vigorous Japanese production and consumption of haiku indicates that Shiki’s innovation was a success, my own experience suggests that the linked and participatory aspects of renga that Shiki tried to pare away re-adhere to haiku with remarkable ease. Much as I love writing haiku for haiku’s sake, I have let many aspects of the form fall away: the seasonal reference, the number of syllables per line, even the line breaks. What persists, however, is this: It’s as parts of a whole, an art-for-connection’s-sake whole, that these seventeen-syllable verses keep me coming back for more.
Old pier.
Late sun lights the gray wood gold.
You are still not tired of beauty.
EA (1998)

Image via Wikimedia Commons

A Year in Reading: Ellis Avery

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The LA Times called her “The finest British writer alive.” Julian Barnes called her “the best English novelist of her time.” Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) began publishing at the age of fifty-eight and produced nine novels, three biographies, and a book of short stories by the time she died at eighty-three. Her third novel, Offshore, won the Booker Prize in 1979, while her final novel,The Blue Flower, was named Book of the Year by nineteen British newspapers in 1995 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s images enter the reader’s mind with crystalline precision, yet simultaneously, they make you want to re-read what you just read to make sure that what you think happened really happened. Her slim historical novels are the result, one realizes after the fact, of hundreds of hours of research, yet how does she manage to wear her learning so lightly? I first encountered Fitzgerald eleven years ago, thanks to Joan Acocella’s brilliant roundup of her work in The New Yorker. Each novel I read made me want to send the author a fan letter, but I held back, because I felt like I ought to read all of her books before I bothered her. As it happened, she died halfway through my reading jag, and I still regret having been so punctilious.

In the spring of this past year, I curated an eight-author memorial tribute to Penelope Fitzgerald at Manhattan’s KGB Bar. To prepare for the event, I re-read seven of Fitzgerald’s slyly devastating novels. If pressed to name a favorite before re-reading them, I would have said my top three were At Freddie’s, set in an acting school in London in the 1960s, The Beginning of Spring, set in Russia just before the Revolution, and Human Voices, set in the offices of the BBC during World War Two.

This spring, however, I found myself especially drawn to Fitzgerald’s eighth novel, The Gate of Angels, first published in 1990.

The Gate of Angels is a novel that pits science against religion with the lightest of touches, simply by reminding the reader that there are forces, desire among them, larger than our rational selves, which have the power to overturn all our best-laid plans. In this novel, set in Cambridge, 1912, Fred Fairly, the son of a poor country rector, lives in genteel poverty thanks to a Junior Fellowship at Cambridge, where he resides in the tiny College of Angels. To keep his fellowship, not only does Fred have to lecture in physics, not only does he have to serve as steward, treasurer, librarian, and organist for the College of Angels, he also has to abide by the College’s rules, the most exacting of which requires that he never marry. Of course Fred falls madly in love, and worse, with a girl not of the so-called “marriageable classes.” Daisy Saunders is a working-class girl on the edge of destitution, with whom Fred has little in common except, as we discover, his generosity of spirit, which with typical modesty, Fitzgerald characterizes as an inability on both Fred and Daisy’s part, when asked for help, to say no.

Fred’s troubles are twofold. On the one hand, it’s never clear whether he even has a chance with Daisy at all, until you reread and realize that Daisy can’t love a man until she feels sorry for him. On the other hand, Fitzgerald makes Fred choose between his fellowship at Angels and the girl without whom, in his words, he cannot live. If he marries Daisy, he’ll lose his job and his home. However, as Fitzgerald says, “if Daisy wouldn’t have him, he didn’t see that he would be able to go on at all.” Fred is basically ruining his life by pursuing Daisy, but Fitzgerald crafts a plot in which the reader cannot help but cheer him on.

In an interview with Kerry Fried, Fitzgerald referred to The Gate of Angels as the only novel of hers in which she pulled off a happy ending. Just at the moment when you can let yourself dare to hope that things might work out for Fred and Daisy, Fitzgerald stops, leaving you as breathless as the would-be lovers themselves. Beautiful.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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