HAIKU: short trips into big spaces, III

Trends & Culture - March 31st, 1989

Haiku-meister Jack Stamm continues his word adventures

On being shown this haiku
Among silent graves
an owl regurgitates
a ball of mouse bones —

the monk Dozen gave me an encouraging pat on the head with a slipper he had handy and uttered this profound comment: “Shut up with the silence already!”

I lied. I don’t know any monk Dozen. The haiku is what I call a Bulwer-Lytton haiku. We will now have a digression inside a parenthesis:

(Bulwer-Lytton was a fine and eminently read­able 19th century writer of gothic novels whose strange fate it was to live in English literature through the opening sentence:

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

There is now a Bulwer-Lytton Contest for im­probably opening lines, e.g., “‘Scheisse mit Lakritz!‘ Obersturbannfuhrer Franz von Sollberg cursed ineffectually in German.” What makes the above haiku a “B-L” is that it invites the reader to think about a noisy grave and to imagine the writer examinig owl urp for mouse bones. End of digression.)

For quirky, advanced haiku writers I recom­mend writing B-L haiku as an exercise. Writing a bad haiku comes naturally to all of us; writing a bad and funny one is not easy. Try it and see. The mouse-bone masterpiece crept into my mind toward the end of a five-hour Greyhound bus ride into the wilds of northern California. I had been thinking about what I have written here before: that the heart of a haiku is the silence around it.

And also how often I have come across the silence buzzwords in haiku: stillness, quiet and quietness — and silence, of course. I then set myself the task of thinking up a haiku where the word “silence” is both justifiable and necessary, and remembered an experience from some years before, at the place I was on my way to. I was being romantic by moonlight on a bench over­looking the Pacific when suddenly the lady and I simultaneously froze —

Profound silence
watching a polecat strolling
before my bare feet

As an alternative, the lady from Texas offered:

stomping the dead leaves of autumn.

See how writing “dead leaves of autumn” for “autumn leaves” gives the heavyish plonking sound so desirable in a bad haiku. “X’s of “Y’s” can be powerful in English poetry — “If I were tickled by the rub of love,” wrote Dylan Thomas but the juxtaposition had better be good. The reason so many thingies of thingies occur in Eng­lish-language haiku is probably because of the influence of translations from Japanese. In that language there is a grammatical particle — “no” — which shows possession.

But it’s not “of — it works like a similar Chinese construction which Pidgin English translates as “b’long.”  Basho’s famous poem’s

“An old pond
a frog jumps in the sound of water”

last line is “mizu no oto” — water (b’long) sound.

OK. In a haiku when you pull out the silence stop too far, it’s going to sound as if you read a book about Zen and want the world to know it. Thingies of thingies, if not handled with care, will make (he poem sound like something out of the Mysterious East.

I’ll now try to make a haiku that innocently does both:

By a still pond
a kitten playing with
the shadows of leaves.

In this poem, the pond — loudly insisting on its silence — murders to next two lines. Here’s why: The shadows have to be in motion; a kitten is not programmed to chase stationary objects. If the leaves arc moving, there is probably air in motion which is going to make ripples — good­bye “still pond.” (If the ripples were caused by something else, say a fish mapping at a fly, the kitten might go after the fish or the ripples and you’d have a different haiku.) “Playing” is too general a word; weak words have no place in a haiku. And we do want the reader to feel some silence.

Kitten pawing the reflection of leaf shadows is by no means a great haiku, but it has two good points. The kitten is doing something definite; pawing, reaching out — for the reflection of sha­dows. For a nolhing-of-nothing, if you want to get philosophical.

There has to be a pond to reflect the leaves’ shadows-mirrors don’t grow in the wild. And knowing what we do about the nature of cats, the leaf shadows are in motion. Proba­bly from a small breeze; a stronger wind’s ripples would obscure the reflection.

After all that, we need some relief. Here are haiku by two Australian kids.

Slow the garden snail
Creeps over the lettuce
In silent gardens.

This elegant poem by Sonya Stephens, a 7th grader, is ex­citing because she did all the right things by breaking rules. You don’t explain things in a haiku: we all know snails are slow. She repeated the word “garden” (and got a “silent” in there, too!). She could have written:

Thin silvery trails
creeping over lettuce
in morning gardens.

I don’t know why tier’s is so much belter. My not knowing why is why I like it. That first line “Slow the garden snail” sings!

Another 7th grader, Eric Stafleu, saw snails more di­rectly.

Plant-eating snails
Slow-moving around your
French delicacy.

All right, Eric’s talking about escargot on the hoof, but just this moment. I got another, downright hysterical image. There are these snails, see, sashaying around the garden, slow and polite. “Apres vous …” “Non, Non, apres vous, mon cher…” Absolutely French delicacy.

Boy eats chewing gum
Spits it out into the sea
I watch it sinking.

(Michael Rossi, 6th grade)

Look at that. The boy casu­ally threw off those lines. But a grown person can look at them and look at them and feel an awful lot sinking along with that blob of gum.

Kids do that now and then —come up with haiku as good as any of the great masters… or maybe it’s the other way around. The best haiku often have what looks like a child­like quality. This is because the poet is seeing as a child sees: everything for the first time — or maybe like a happy old man or lady, taking a last look.

All right there, snail
time you got a move on
go climb Mount Fuji

Issa Kobayashi is 13 years older than the United States, one of Japan’s legendary haiku poets, and a damn good snail man himself. An American poet has called Issa the great­est poet ever on the subject of fleas, lice, flies and hugs in general. In the West, Issa might have been a figure like St. Francis of Assissi. In one haiku he warns a cricket that he’s about to roll over in bed; in another, he worries whether his fleas, too, are feeling the boredom of a long night. Issa wrote a haiku about a nightin­gale — sitting on a fence and being rained on.

Issa influenced beat poets like Jack Kerouac. Some rea­sons why —

autumn night
a man on the bum


hill village
full moon reaching
into the soup


the milky way
my star where is it
crashing tonight

(These translations are my own. Don’t want trouble with publishers of previous trans­lations. ..)

Guess I’ve rambled a little. And you may notice what seem to be contradictions. It all boils down to that you can write haiku any way you want. But let each word count. Don’t strive for effect — if the haiku is good, the effect will be there. Hey, maybe next time I’ll tell you something about Issa Kobayashi.

Goodbye now, with one of my own haiku; the original is in Japanese:

“see you around…”
pringtime wind cold
against my neck