Friday, January 14, 2011

Modern Haiku, Autumn, 2010

Learning about oneself through reading may certainly be a way, a Way to transcendence that is.  Obviously, this is a function of how we read as much as what we read.  I want to suggest that the act of reading itself can be every bit as important and every bit as creative as the acts of writing, painting, and playing.

What I'm dancing around here is I've continued to learn a lot about myself through the conversation of reading, the conversation between the writer and the reader. Admittedly, at first one might think it a bit one sided.  Still, in many ways, all discussions we have with others are really a way to talk to ourselves.

The conversation we have with a writer/poet via their work can very much serve this function.  You will never change their opinion, but you may come to a deeper understanding of it and your own. Focusing  particularly on haiku challenges the reader to simultaneously view the vastness of the outer world and the equal vastness of the inner one.

Hence, these Friday reviews.


Modern Haiku is one of the finest haiku journals available today, whether we are talking about traditional or experimental (or a combo thereof) outlets for haiku.  Whenever I settle in to read a new issue, I find it an never-ending source of wisdom, humor, and inspiration.  This week I thought I'd take a look at a recent issue.

In the Autumn 2010 issue, comprehensively edited by Charles Trumbull,  I noted 70 (!) haiku, of an astounding 400 in this issue, to return to for review.  In my experience, that percentage of good haiku is almost unprecedented, in either book, journal or online resource form.

my dad beneath the old tree
Michele Root-Bernstein

This is a beautiful poem in its ambiguity; one could make a case for it being about a living father walking away, or about a dead father being buried beneath the old tree, leaving in an only slightly more figurative sense.  A third possibility, predicated on the word heartsick, is that the father is being observed visiting a lost love one and is heartsick with grief.

In the case of the dead father, I get the very moving feeling of a continual present in the verb leaving; though he is gone permanently in death, he is also always leaving, at least in an organic way, and most definitely in emotional and psychological ways.  If one is dead and buried beneath the tree, one will become part of the "old" tree itself and there is something heart-full about that reading.

The essential question, no matter what the reading, is what is the observer/narrator seeing and feeling.

Poppy field
Men at war
Daniel Py

Ever since World War I, the poppy has become a memorial for those who died in service.  This poem is subtle in its possible meanings.   The word forever acts as a hinged door that swings both ways: the poppy field is forever, men at war are forever.  There is an irony in the essential truth, underscored in their linking, impling that men and poppies are forever what they are.

Here is the four line poem that Moina Michael, who conceived of the idea of the poppy as a memorial, wrote about her idea of the poppy and humans at war:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

dew evaporates
on the stone, which also
will pass
Umberto Senegal

Many traditional haiku compare incongruous elements, usually the very large and the very small (seeing the entire Milky Way through a torn shade, for instance).  Here Senegal extends the notion to time itself, the dew evaporating instantly, the stone over decades or centuries or longer.   All things pass, even the rock, even the mountain, even the earth.

No prayer necessary
just listen
to the rain
Umberto Senegal

A brilliant poem by Senegal, this one beautiful to the point of tears.  Nothing is left out of this poem, everything that is needed is included: all of life and the whole universe.

my logical mind
of no value
among the red leaves
Michael Fessler

For the persona here, the logical mind won't do.  Though s/he may use the logical mind to measure, catalog, and analyze the red leaves, for the true value none of this is necessary.  The poem turns on that value and the red leaves are in every sense as the rain is in Senegal's previous poem.

the swan's wake
touches both banks
choices I have to make
Michael Ketchek

On one level, this seems to me to be a very complex haiku, indeed.  In some traditional haiku, there is a 2 line image/event and a 1 line resolution or comment; in this haiku, it is the image which brings the wonderful complexity.  The reader sees that there are perhaps two choices that emanate from one source, there are two banks touched.  Are the two banks really different?

The waves of the swan's wake, emanating as they do from one source, do they not suggest that either or perhaps both choices are correct?  The image is so beautiful I would argue for it to be implying the harmony of all things, the harmony of opposites: the non-duality of life itself.

But I'll wager I could be very wrong.  Sometimes reading good haiku is like viewing a Jackson Pollack; I'm sure of what I "see" in it, but are you sure of what I see in it?

the pianist's
slightly parted
Eve Luckring

This poem reminds me, in its precise, beautiful image, of Bashō's haiku of the woman wrapping dumplings, brushing back a stray hair with a finger.   Such gorgeous music here, one can almost hear it.

a sin of omission bright autumn leaves
Peggy Willis Lyles

What has the speaker forgotten or left undone that the consequences might be at once dire and brilliant?  You tell me.

evening bell
swallows fly through
the deep tone
John Martone

I imagine a swallows path changing when they encounter the sonic wave of the bell.  The patterns of sound and the waves are united in such a way that one can hardly imagine mere words would even be capable of.  Martone is one of our important poets and this is a truly fine poem.   Here is another by John:

by these dim eyes
the distance
between stars
John Martone

As alluded to above, many fine haiku deal with apparent incongruities, large contrasts that at first seem irreconcilable.  The poet here shows us how it's done.  Caught between the diminutive space between two human eyes is the distance between two far off stars, two worlds.  Not only that, be the viewer's eyes are dim, emphasizing strongly their diminutive nature (via a neat pun) and the extra difficulty which is overcome all the same.

All is one, all is one.

he says a word
I say a word
autumn deepens
Takahama Kyoshi

This is another fine and full poem.    It is at once literal and figurative, practical in its observation and philosophical in its resonance.  Like Martone's haiku, their is a sense of unity and timelessness, a poem that transcends any age or interpretation.

And one final poem, I'll let speak for itself:

gnats swarming
   the setting sun
      finding each one
Carl Mayfield

When it comes to haiku, I am certainly no expert.  Part of the practice of haiku is reading long and deep, both the classic poets and contemporaries.  It is a way of talking to ourselves, talking to each other, talking to the world. Besides simply stepping outdoors (or looking very carefully within), I can think of few better ways of experiencing haiku than a subscription to Modern Haiku. 

You won't be disappointed. 


This week's feature poem comes from Lilliput Review, #132, July 2003.  Enjoy.

Hinges creak.
Dung beetles work.
The prayer wheel turns.
Mark Jaworski

mountain mist--
the beautiful voice
of the dung-hauler
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Charles Gramlich said...

I'm always thrilled to remember that I had a couple of haiku in Modern Haiku back in the day. One of my most prized publications.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Yes, indeed, something to hold your head up about - a fine mag.

The word verification code as I type this, Charles, is especially for you: laniess.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

[the] evening bell
swallows [a] fly through
the deep [thoat]

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks for the ku, Glenn ...

Conrad DiDiodato said...


your haiku selections & readings are superb.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, Conrad, for your kind words ...

I feel the work teaches me so much, each and everyday.