Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bonbons and tiny Truffles

HOW TO READ A HAIKU (and get drunk)

Butterfly floating
over an orchid-
perfuming its wings

You ever been at a poetry reading where the poet reads a haiku and everyone else goes “Hmmm” and you’re sitting there with three Question Marks floating over your head? Or (more likely) ever read a haiku in a book or magazine and went “Huh”? wondering where the rest of the poem was, or why you didn’t get it? Well. Me too! (Granted, I was three years old and just learning to read, but still.) How come come haiku are these strange little treats that some people really seem to enjoy, but that whiz by too fast or seem to not really have much filling for you? Well, the Right Reverend DJ Renegade is here to help you with that.

First, crack the shell and separate it into two parts. Then place it softly on the tongue, close your eyes, rub the juice of it across your gums and let the moment marinate. Hold your breath to fully savor the aroma. Then slowly, swallow and exhale.

But seriously, since haiku are poems, the first rule of reading a haiku is the first rule of reading any poem: if you come to the poem like you come to any other kind of writing (a story, an essay, a text message, this article) to find out what the words mean, then guess what? YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG! Because unlike other forms of writing, the meaning isn’t the central purpose of a poem, which is not to say that it is of no importance, just that there are other things; rhythm, sound, and alternate meanings, that are just as important. So if you don’t come to a poem to find out what the words mean, why are you there? To find out what the words do. How do they feel in your mouth, roll off your tongue, shimmer in the air? What kinds of things do they make you see, hear, smell, feel, recall? And last, but not least what possible meanings do they convey, not meaning in the singular, but meanings (you don’t have to choose between them). What do the words do, in all the ways that they do them?

So what do haiku do? Or at least, what are they trying to do? Before we can answer that question, let’s start with what they are (or aren’t). Your Sixth Grade English teacher told you that haiku are seventeen syllable Japanese poems about nature, written on three lines in a 5-7-5 syllabic format. And she (or he) was wrong. Well, the Japanese part is true of their origins at least. Actually, everything except the three line part and ‘the about nature’ part, are mostly true of haiku in Japanese. But we aint reading and writing in Japanese, so that doesn’t really help butter our biscuits. So forget 17 syllables, forget 5-7-5. forget three lines. Most of the poems you will encounter in English that are written in this format aren’t actually haiku. They might be funny, they might be insightful, they might be really well written poems, but they aren’t haiku. What are they then? They’re really, really short skirts. I mean skits, I mean, (wait what?) They’re epigrams actually. 5-7-5 epigrams, which are sort of like telegrams, (except they’re better written and cheaper to send). 
So what do real haiku do? (And why is this longwinded bastard with the big feet and the powdered sugar all over his shirt taking so long to make his point?) The first thing you need to know is that haiku recreate a specific moment in time, a moment that the poet experienced (or imagined) and is trying to recreate. A haiku is about a specific instant and your job as a reader is to relive (or imagine) that particular instant in time. What happened in that instant? I’m glad you asked, what happened is that the poet saw (or imagined) two images, two real concrete things that they then experienced as a contrast or comparison or as being associated in some way. And yes, at least one of those images must come from Nature (a ‘kigo’ or ‘season word) for the poem to be a haiku. Which is very different from the poem being about Nature, but we digress . . . Your main job as the reader of a haiku is to hold up those two images and see, hear, taste, feel them in one moment of time. To reconstruct the “Aha!” moment the poet had. In order to do this, you must be able to separate the poem into its two parts. Haiku in Japanese have something called a “Kureji”, a cutting word, that signifies a break in the poem. But we’re reading in English where there is no such thing, so haiku poets in English often use a dash (-) or multiple spaces to signify the break. Once you know where the break is, you know what the two parts of the poem are, in a three line haiku, (one part is usually two lines and the other is a single line, but either section can come first). And once you know what the two parts are, you know what you’re supposed to be comparing or contrasting or associating. Often times the contrast is in what you expect and what you get. For example;

into the sunken hearth
they're swept-
red leaves

translated by David Lanoue

One expects maybe dust or ashes or trash to be swept into a hearth, but not leaves. Leaves we expect to be swept into piles and sometimes burned, but not in that particular place. One expects the red in the hearth to be flames, not leaves. And of course the red of the leaves will some feed red flames. The poem is also a comment on the passing of time and the impermanence of all things.
So you do it, and then you too can go “Aha” or “Hmmm” or “Ooooh!” and be intoxicated with a moment by being filled with whatever emotion; joy, sadness, loneliness, surprise, amazement, gratitude, sense of solitude, frustration, or wonder that the poem was trying to convey. And while it’s true that haiku by rule can’t contain simile or metaphor, that every image be real and concrete, that doesn’t mean that one or both of those concrete images can’t also function as a metaphor or symbol beyond their literal meaning. And so what a haiku is “about” is sometimes very different than what one might expect from the images involved. Sometimes the images can even function like a Zen koan or riddle which illustrates a larger philosophical point. The most famous koan is probably “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” And since one hand can’t clap, the answer is- Silence. So don’t worry if you don’t necessarily “get it” right away, just enjoy the moment, it may come to you at some later point. Let’s take a look at a few haiku to put our new knowledge into practice.

Awake at night--
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold.

-Translation by Robert Hass

Ever notice how when you can't get to sleep it seems like every sound is magnified? Here the water in the jar is freezing which expands and causes the jar to crack, what breaks the jar breaks the silence too.

Moon at twilight- a cluster of petals falling from the cherry tree


Here we have the moon rising as the cherry petals fall. Next up;

Navajo moon
the coyote call
not a coyote

Garry Gay

Here we have a seemingly idyllic scene until we realize there is a human (most likely a hunter) present. What other emotion does this create for you, dread? Excitement?

What haiku do is create a pool of words for the poet’s thoughts to be reflected in. And currently in English, serious haiku poets don’t worry too much if those words have exactly 17 syllables total, (although they don’t exceed that number) 15 is fine, as is 12, or 10. They also don’t worry about the 5-7-5, they just make sure that if it’s written in three lines that the middle line is longer. But one line or two lines is perfectly fine. There are a ton of haiku available on the Web, also check out the Norton Anthology of Haiku. And in case you were wondering (I know you weren't, but it's a pet peeve of mine) the plural of "haiku", is "haiku."  One more before we go;

out of a peony-
a bee


So, now there’s one more thing for you to ponder and one less thing for you to not understand. And, until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon).
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