Favourite Haiku by Karen Cesar

I have chosen the following haiku, among scores of others I might have chosen, partly because they illustrate one point or another in an ongoing internet discussion about what haiku is – or could be. I hope that you enjoy the haiku and that my thoughts lead you to write your own ‘appreciations’ of favourite haiku/senryu.

I have chosen this first haiku for its loveliness. John does not shy away from being “poetic”. Jack Brae Curtingstall is the pen name of John Sexton. (Note that the slant is included in the original.)

she-otter in the dowry field/ a veil of moths rises

– Jack Brae Curtingstall, posted on Facebook

Another favourite haiku by John Sexton:

rain the guttering given voice

– Jack Brae Curtingstall, posted on Facebook

Some of what I appreciate in this verse includes:

Onomatopoeia – the verse itself gurgles. Between the more drawn out sounds of “rain” and “voice” are the staccato sounds of, gu/ter/ing/gi/ven. “r”, “g”, “v” and “n” repeat. One hears the rain/guttering/voice’s rhythm.

Notice the synthesis between “rain”, “guttering” and “voice”.

There is a multiplicity of possible meanings/ readings depending on how one mentally punctuates the verse or where one places the emphasis. Some possible readings are:

rain/ the guttering-given voice
(where the rain and the sound coming from the gutters are synonymous)

rain/ the guttering (is) given voice
(the rain is the giver of the gutter’s sound)

Too, there is the movement from gutter(guttering) as inanimate object to gutter as animate being.

The past participle “given” in conjunction with the noun “voice” might lead one to see personification in this verse and yet … this poem leads me to question whether certain qualities attributed to humans might not more broadly and less ego-centrically be attributed equally to other beings, animate and inanimate?

In this verse I do not feel the distance I usually feel in verses that employ personification. Rather than as an instance of personification as narrowly defined, I see ‘given’ more like this:

Serving Like The Mountain Stream by Allan Watts

I was taught when I was a little boy that it was good to be unselfish and loving, and I used to think that I should grow up to serve other people. But after a while I found out that unless one has something to give people, there is nothing one can do to help them. Just because I thought I ought to help, it didn’t mean that I had anything to give.

Gradually, over the years, as I understood what it was that I had received of significance from the world, I realized that these things were never intended as gifts to be given in the usual sense of the word. However much one enjoys the song of birds, they are not singing for the advancement of music, and the clouds are not floating across the sky to be painted by artists.

In the words of a Zen poem: The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection; The water has no mind to retain their image.

When a mountain stream flows out of a spring beside the road, and a thirsty traveller comes along and drinks deeply, the traveller is welcome. But the mountain stream is not waiting with the intention of refreshing thirsty travellers; it is just bubbling forth, and the travellers are always welcome to help themselves. So in exactly that sense I offer my ideas.

A long- winded way of saying: this poem disrupted my ordinary way of seeing.

This next verse, a senryu, also disrupts one’s ordinary way of seeing:

a useless novelty –
each of us already has
a chattering skull

– John Stevenson, Modern Haiku, Vol. XXXII, No. 1 Winter-Spring 2001

There’s much to love in this senryu. First off is its gentle self-deprecating humour and the way it captures two facets of human nature with which we are all familiar – “chattering skulls” and a tendency to be attracted to “useless novelties”.

There is its dramatic tension and delicate timing. The first line opens with an unnamed object in a general category. It is set off with a dash indicating a longer pause/separation between the fragment and the phrase which follows it. It is also the image we come back to after reading the phrase.

Line two builds on line one. The “useless novelty” is something we already have, but we still do not know what the object is. Line three names the object we all have but with a twist or double meaning for “chattering skull”. The “chattering skull” is both something akin to the old wind-up chattering teeth popular at Halloween and our restless never-quiet monkey minds.

One then circles back to the “useless novelty” – which can also mean either a material object or a novel but useless thought – to complete the verse’s deeper meaning.

The reader is drawn into the verse and involved in mentally constructing it. With both a surface structure and a deeper structure, this is an altogether satisfying verse.
Similar in structure to Stevenson’s senryu is this haiku:

sunlit jar
the beekeeper’s gift
on the doorstep

– Carmen Sterba, The Heron’s Nest, III:6, 2001

Notice that here the addition of the dash at the end of line one would detract rather than enhance. The cut provided by the line break and the article at the beginning of line two are sufficient.

In line one, one imagines a jar in sunlight. Line two fills the jar with honey. But, rather than using the word “honey”, Sterba tells the reader something more about the jar’s contents and allows the reader to infer that the jar contains honey. Line three rounds out the image by showing where the jar was left.

This last haiku is unusual and can be interpreted in many ways:

nude tree

– Takazawa Akiko, translated by Gabriel Rosenstock, from Haiku Enlightenment (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009)

“Numbers become beings” – Dr. Richard Gilbert in discussing Marlene Mountain’s ‘kittens’ poem.

In Takazawa’s haiku, nowhere are leaves mentioned, yet, as with MM’s ‘kittens’ haiku, the numbers become something else – the last 5 leaves on a tree? Or is 5-4-3-2-1 the countdown for something else that is about to happen? Or both? In which case, is the number of individual leaves, or groups of leaves – or if there are leaves at all – less determinate? Is the season autumn? winter?

What is the time value of the numbers and of the periods? Are they equal?

Writing out the haiku in words:

five. four. three.
two. one. zero.
nude tree

The effect is completely different. So too is the effect different depending on how long one pauses at each period. How long does one pause at a period anyway?

“A punctuation mark (.) indicating a full stop, placed at the end of declarative sentences and other statements thought to be complete … ” (Richard Nordquist, PhD.)

What does it mean for something to be “complete”?

So much openness is effected by a creative use of numbers and periods … Can this deceptively simple-looking haiku be said to be disjunctive? Does it reverberate with meaning? Does it have something to say about ‘rules’ and the deeper meaning of definitions? What about symbol and sign? What about language and how a word/sign/symbol can take on opposite and/or multiple meanings depending on context and function?

Eventually each person reading and/or writing haiku makes an independent determination, based on what s/he has read, absorbed, been taught or come up with on her own, how s/he is going to write and what theories are applicable and under what circumstances.

Technique is not necessarily time conditioned. Some translations of early poems appear to be less nuanced than they are simply because we do not share a frame of reference with the poet who wrote them. If someone asks me why I have written a given haiku a certain way, I am happy to share my rationale and what theory or theories I (currently) write under, but this does not mean that these methods necessarily apply to others.

When I sit down to write the following poem comes to mind:

choosing a swimsuit –
when did his eyes
replace mine?

mizugi erabu itsu shika kare no me to natte

– Mayuzumi Madoka, translated by Makoto Ueda, from Far Beyond the Field, Haiku by Japanese Women (Columbia University Press, 2003)

Because so much has yet to be explored and developed in haiku, I hope that like the poets in this article, everyone reading this allows him/herself the breathing room to develop theories and voices of his/her own.

Editor’s note: Much of this selection first appeared under the Soundings heading at The Haiku Foundation and is published here with the author’s permission.

Karen Cesar has been writing short-form Japanese style verse since 2006. She won a joint first prize for a solo Shisan Renku in the 2011 Journal of Renga & Renku Shisan Contest. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, John and Italian greyhound, Shadow.