Saturday, August 02, 2008

Shedding Haiku from the Wagon

disturbed dreams
shift into waking daylight—
which is more solid

the rock emotions of dream
or the sun’s hard searchlight?

I'm in a fallow period following some life-changing experiences, not writing much poetry at this time. Still, every so often I shed haiku and tanka in my wake, like leaves falling off the back of a wagon, even when I’m not writing anything else. There never seems to be any limit to making haiku; they arise, spontaneous and quick, even when everything else is silent. Things I meant to say as prose suddenly take on this poetic form, and become more highlighted, more sharp-edged, more profound. This morning, feeling wraith-driven by disturbing dreams just before waking, I intended only to note that in my journal; instead, it comes out as an acceptable tanka.

I suspect many poets shed poems in their wake, this way, even when nothing else is working right.

There are times when not only are you not writing—perhaps it's a fallow period, or perhaps some root-deep transition—but you're not thinking about it much. Some life event demands all your time and attention, perhaps, or there are distractions too pleasant to ignore, such as love, sex, wining and dining, all of life's good things. (Of course, the labile writer finds ways to convert his pleasures into his writing, and subsist on those for the nonce.) Shedding poems in our wake is an indicator that the creative pipes still have water in them, even if they're rusty and leaking a bit, so they can be trusted to eventually flow freely again.

doves in the eaves
coo to each other plans
for nests in my pines

A lot of haiku are simply observational: perfect moments captured; little moments captured; things that happen around you as you sit at your writing desk in front of the window, that catch your attention. The world comes in the senses, and comes out as a short, quickly-made poem. (And putting the world back into perspective. The pleasure of haiku is how deep and resonant the poem can be, even in so short a form.)

Let me say as an aside that a writer's desk should always be in front of a window, or near a window that you can turn to and stare out of as the juices boil over inside. A writer should always be able to look out into the larger world. Not necessarily as a means for inspiration via observation, although of course that too, but as reminder of the bigger world going on about its business outside your hovel, beyond your desk. It's always good to keep this perspective, that whatever we're doing, when we write, isn't that important or interesting to most of the world. This shouldn't cause despair, and if it does you need to check your ego at the door, but it might be a perspective that is liberating, so you can do your work without caring so much about doing it that you cripple yourself with self-importance. Being able to gaze out into the outside world gives you something to look at besides those inward-gazing reflections on your own corneas, and perhaps thereby avoiding the example of the perambulating philosopher who was so caught up in his mental cogitations that he fell down a well and broke his leg.

The spirit of haiku, in complement to the technical mechanics, emphasizes spontaneity and observation as aesthetic practices in poetry. But this is also the mind of poetry in which one writes haiku, this spontaneity and openness to the world. Part of the poet's daily discipline and practice ought to be about finding this mind of poetry every morning and evening at the writing desk, even if nothing congeals into an actual poem. This is the discipline or readiness, of being prepared for the poem. You never give up readiness, even if nothing happens for months on end, because when something does happen, your tools need to have been maintained, kept sharpened and clean.

Haiku writing can be an artist's sketchpad, a way of continuing the writing discipline even during fallow periods. Some poets practice the art of writing a poem a day—which is fine, as long as you keep in mind that probably most daily poems are insubstantial, shallow, and inconsequential, and thus should be mined for material rather than presented as finished pieces. (That important distinction between the sketch and the finished artwork.) Writing a poem a day can keep the juices flowing.

Other poets may have other forms in which they shed poems behind the wagon.

I suspect a self-aware poet would quickly notice that whatever form one sheds is a default form, a familiar home-plate comfort-food form. I would imagine most poets would use simple forms in their shedding, although I for some the sonnet is home-plate. I can't imagine that, because for me a sonnet is too complex and too restrictive for me as a form; I would get lost in the technical mechanics, and lose the spontaneity. This is why haiku are perfect for me; I have long since mastered the mechanics, and can go directly for the spontaneous moment. I'm sure for some other poet the sonnet must have the same internalized spontaneity, but I confess my limitations in that I can't imagine that.

The whole notion of a home-plate that you keep shedding even when nothing else is happening relies on the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It must be noted here that stupid refers to oneself as a form of address. It is not a directive to keep the poem simple and stupid as a poem, or poetic form, rather it is a directive to remember our stupid and stubborn tendency to over-think and over-complicate matters that have no need to be. It's too bad a well-known sportswear corporation has co-opted the phrase Just Do It, because that is a remarkable guideline for life in general, and the writing life in particular. Few writers escape the trap of over-thinking what they do.

So, here's a few more haiku, tanka, or haiku-like poems, that I've been shedding by the wayside, even though I'm not writing anything else.

suspended over
depthless green black void, we float:
warm mineral springs

near-naked man lying
on grass, stretches arms and necks:
skimpy blue swimsuit

he knows he's being watched by
all the women, and some men

small crabs skitter
away from his shadow—
great white heron

turned to the wall,
a pillar of old scrapbooks—
landslide of memory

sunstruck stone and sea:
strands of kelp across tidepools
radiate sunglint shards



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