Notes on form: Haiku

Lately, I’ve been perusing Jane Reichold‘s essays, insights, and wisdom about haiku. I’ve especially been inspired by “Some Thoughts for Rethinking Haiku,” which posits a series of questions about the form. Since haiku often result as part of my small stones practice, I decided it would be a fun exercise to respond to these questions on my blog. So without further ado…

Should there be a better term for poetry written in English that is the result of admiration and emulation of haiku?

Not one that I can think of.

Is the so-called “haiku moment” any different from the seconds of inspiration that occur with other works of art?

For me, it is. The haiku moment seizes me very suddenly when it happens. It’s a moment of clarity that forces me to stop and write. Even if what I put on paper isn’t a haiku in the proper form, it’s the impulse, the words themselves, that matter. With a standard poem, there is less of a triggering moment. Other poems come to me gradually, over time. They’re less sudden. (I would love to hear from other writers as to their answer to this question.)

It is traditional that a break occurs between the two phrases of a haiku; either after the first line or after the second. Do you miss this in haiku that read as a run-on sentence?

I do. I find myself very attached to line breaks, and less engaged when a haiku is written as a run-on sentence.

And haiku one-liners; how do you feel when you read them?

It’s harder for me to focus when the haiku is just one line. I like the tiny build of three lines. I like the way my brain responds to line breaks.

What about those where a break happens at the end of each line? Or the phrase breaks are mid-line?

This is the way I prefer to read haiku, probably because I have spent so many years reading poetry with line breaks, so my brain expects things to be a certain way.

Do you feel haiku need punctuation? If so, where and how much?

Sometimes a comma, semicolon, or em-dash might be necessary, but it depends on the poem. I definitely think haiku should have as little punctuation as possible for the poem to make sense.

While reading haiku can you see a link between the images in each one? Are there two “poles”, pulling your mind in opposite directions before the “snap” of the spark that joins dissimilar things?

In a well-written haiku, yes. This is something I actually try to achieve in all of my poems, not just haiku. (I often say that I’m primarily inspired by haiku even though I don’t write in the form all the time; I like the compression, and the way connections are expressed in such a small space.)

What makes a haiku different from other three-line short poems?

Honestly, I think the syllabic requirements, and not much else. I call many of my small stones haiku even though they don’t meet form requirements, though often change that designation when submitting work, because editors don’t always agree with me.

Do you miss a reference to nature or is that less important than the way the linkage works?

I think the linkage is most important. Nature is part of traditional haiku, and still has a place in contemporary haiku, but from my personal aesthetic, I find the linkage more compelling. The expanse of nature is not the only thing that can be expressed in a confined space.

Do days go by when you are too busy to write haiku until a pressing deadline forces you to look! and there they are haiku all around you?

At this point in my life, I’m glad to say that I’m never too busy for haiku (or small stone, depending on your definition). No matter how busy my day is, I am able to carve out a few minutes to reflect and write one of these brief poems. Haiku are all around me, no matter how busy I am, though they seem to be more easily observed before noon.

How often have you thought of a good haiku and neglected to write it down?

Probably fairly often in the past, but since I neglected the moment, I’ve forgotten about it entirely. These days, I don’t care what I’m doing. I whip out my notebook and jot it down. If for some reason I don’ t have paper and pen available, I type it into an Evernote document on my phone. I no longer make excuses for missing a moment.

Do you miss the time you are not open, searching for the crack in the reality of this world where you can slip in to find haiku?

I’ve become adept at taking time no matter what, though on busy days, when I can spare at most ten minutes, I feel frustrated that I don’t have longer.

What activities bring you into a state of awareness where haiku occur?

Seated meditation. Walking outside. Dancing, or watching people dance. Watching my dogs run around and play.

Would you like to spend more of your day in that consciousness?

Most definitely yes. The 40-hour workweek is not conducive to it, though.

What can be changed to accomplish this?

Setting up a meditation ritual, and sticking to it.

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Notes on form: Abecedarian Sonnets

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Barbara Hamby‘s poetry. (I have three lines from her “Nine Sonnets from the Psalms” tattooed on my arm, in her handwriting. If that’s not extreme poetry fandom, I don’t know what is.) I remember the very first time I read one of her poems. “Who Do Mambo” appeared at Poetry Daily, and within minutes of reading it, I’d ordered a copy of  All-Night Lingo Tango from BookWoman.  When I read it back in 2009, I was amazed at how well Hamby made use of the abecedarian form, especially abecedairan sonnet (a 13-line poem that starts with a and ends with b, etc.). Hamby has twenty-six abecedarian sonnets in All-Night Lingo Tango, cycling through the entire alphabet. The following is one of such sonnets, which also appeared in StorySouth.

Venus and Dogberry,
A Match Made in New Jersey

Venus, you are a major babe, your hair way big, and wow,
x-ray glasses are not needed with that see-though foxy
zebra print chiffon bra and matching thong. Fucking-A,
beautiful, I am not like that pansy Adonis. I want a bionic
diva in my king-size vibrating bed. Come on over here,
fair maid. Ain’t that the way youse guys talk? Thanksgiving,
Halloween, Christmas—everyday’s a holiday with you. I
just can’t believe I could get a goddess in the sack.
Let’s toot a few lines tonight, my little summer plum,
nip out for a juicy steak in my new candy-flake Eldorado,
play footsie under the table. No Miller High Life and bar-b-q
ribs for you, baby. Only the best. Put on your high heel sneakers,
toots. I’m a Sherman tank with guns blazing for you.

The few attempts I made at regular abecedarians (I didn’t consider myself skillful enough to try something other than the standard type) fell flat, in part because I wasn’t very motivated to write formal poems during that period of my writing life.

Last month, I was browsing through Wingbeats for an exercise to use as a springboard. I felt drawn to Hamby’s exercise on abecedarians, and after working through some of them, I felt compelled to write my own abecedarian sonnet series, twenty-six poems, each city based on a city or town in Texas whose name starts with the designated letter. Of course, there aren’t any towns in Texas that start with X, but I’ll figure that out as I work my way through the alphabet.

So far, I’ve written six of the sonnets (Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Houston, Laredo, San Antonio). Five are still in-progress, and the one about Dallas I consider complete, and is out for submission. I know I’ll be writing about Bastrop and Terlingua in the coming days. And even though this project is still in the very early stages, I’ve already learned a lot about abecedarian sonnets, and why I think they’re making me a better poet as I work through them

1. Writing an abecedarian sonnet is like playing chess
More so than with any other form, abecedarian sonnets require me to think at least three lines ahead. When the end of one line has to be a word that ends with d and the next line absolutely must start with  and end with f, and the line after that must start with g and end with h, you can’t just put down any old word that ends with d and decide you can fix it in revision. You’ll never get a coherent first draft. Abecedarian sonnets force me to think ahead, to know where the poem is going. And I find that, after I’ve let the draft sit, what results is more coherent than poems I’ve written where I’ve been writing blind.

2. Writing an abecedarian sonnet forces you out of linguistic complacency
When you’re writing in a form that forces you to end lines in q or j, standard English isn’t always going to cut it. You’re going to have to get creative and go exploring. You have to consider abbreviations, brands names, or other variations you might not otherwise put into your poetry. You have to explore other languages, make sure you understand the meaning of the word if the language is one you don’t know, and also make sure the word serves the purpose of the poem. You have to consider whether or not you’re going to fudge a little bit (i.e. “pool cue” if the letter is just not going to fit). So far, I’ve tried not to make those compromises, but with twenty poems left to write, I’m not sure how well I can sustain that desire.

3. Writing an abecedarian sonnet requires fastidious revision
Revision has been one of the most difficult things for me to learn as a writer. To know when something is truly great, versus good enough, is an art form unto itself. Abecedarian sonnets do not let you get away with that. The words that start and finish each line must be the absolute best ones. But the words that make up the rest of the line have to pull their own weight, too. Which is not to say that this isn’t true of other poetic forms, but the abecedarian sonnet really calls attention to that fact. There is so little room for error with word choice in this type of poem, and that means reading aloud (the part of revision I hate) over and over, questioning each word choice, and refusing to cut corners or settle.

Writing these sonnets is one of the best challenges I’ve undertaken in a while. I’m not sure what the end result will be, but I’m learning quite a bit as I go, and honing my craft in the process. I don’t imagine these sonnets will be completed anytime soon; there’s going to be a long road of revision. But I can’t wait to see how they turn out.