Tuesday, May 4, 2010

American Haiku for Beginners

American haikus are full of surprises and this may be why I like them so much.  The trick to appreciating one of these haikus is taking time to read each line on its own.  Haikus will do nothing for you if you speed through them like any old romance novel.  Let an imagery-filled feeling be solicited by the first line of the poem, then read the next line.  Usually, the pow of the poem hits you in the last line.  Sometimes all three lines are so well balanced with imagery that you can delight in each line separately--then hold them together in a way that fashions an entirely new meaning.  If you participate in the creation of the meaning of the poem by giving your imagination time to fill in the meaning, the poem becomes something like a magical flourish.  The meaning morphs before your eyes with each passing line because you allow it to capture your imagination.  Try the below poems out for size!  I have modified the structures of the first couple to give you some practice on focusing on one line at a time.

Through the slats

                                             of the outhouse door


-- Margaret Chula


Neighbor's children leave...

casually the cat slips out

of the hall closet

--  Patricia Neubauer

Deep within the stream

the huge fish lie motionless

facing the current.

--    J. W. Hackett

Where to Find These and More Haikus
These poems have been borrowed from The Haiku Anthology compiled by Cor van den Heuvel (Norton 1999).  I never thought I liked haikus until I read this book.  I think the reason is that Japanese haikus are loaded with Japanese cultural associations that are not part of the common American imaginary.  Because the lines are so brief and because there is hardly any exposition, finding my way through a Japanese haiku was laborious.  These haikus, on the other hand, delighted me thoroughly.  They didn't come across as prim and ideal, even if each one held up a moment as if it were a sacrament of everyday life.  Moments that would typically go unnoticed the poets distill into profound clarity, without appearing fussy.  This is a genuine art because I cannot imagine anything is as fussy as writing a haiku.  It is like attempting to communicate the power of an operetta into three slight notes.  However, some critics consider this book to be a roughshod run past haiku because many of the "haikus" in this book do not adhere to the strict haiku guidelines (5-7-5 syllables).  Some critics also suggest that the flips of meaning are a tongue and cheek nod to the real deal.  While this may very well be, I think for a beginner this book does a great job capturing the reader's imagination.  I certainly needed this allure, which persuaded me to dip my toe in water too deep or too obscure for my liking.     

Lest the above selections mislead you, some of the haikus produce more than a wry smile:

too quick to reply
cutting my tongue
on the envelope

    John Stevenson

alone at last
i wonder where
everyone is

    George Swede

the haiku 
completely gone
by the time I've dried my hands

    Karne Sohne

Some also hit on traditional haiku subject matter through their reverence for the natural world:

Down to dark leaf-mold
the falling dogwood-petal
carries its moonlight
    O. Mabson Southard

About the Picture
This picture was taken by me of a blooming apple tree in Washington Park, Albany.

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