Monday, November 09, 2009


As further evidence that haiku's popularity has spread all over the world, and continues to both inspire new writers, and new haiku-like forms, we present the Filipino-born variant on haiku, the hay(na)ku.

A brief history, taken from the publication blurb of an inaugural anthology of poems in this form:

The "hay(na)ku" is a poetic form invented by Eileen Tabios, as inspired by Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, and Tabios' meditations on the Filipino transcolonial and diasporic experience. The form is deceptively simple: a tercet comprised of one-, two- and three-word lines. Many poets also created variations from the basic form, attesting to its paradoxical suppleness despite its minimalist orientation. Inaugurated on June 12, 2003 (Philippine Independence Day), the form swiftly became popular and since has been used by poets all over the world via the internet.

(A bit more about the form can be read here.)

There is something universally appealing about compressed, minimalist poetic forms. The haiku and its many related forms, in both Japanese and other languages, as well as new haiku-ancestral and -inspired forms, continue to ripple out in all directions. The appeal of compression and minimalism is in part the challenge to see how much can be evoked in poem using minimal means. But it's also about using least means to to reflect on life existentially. And it may also be popular in contemporary poetry because of the influence of Imagism on modern (and Modernist) poetry—which was in part a reaction against the florid overwriting common to much poetry of the 19th Century. Victorian poetry in particular, even in blank verse, was given to extremely decorative overwriting. Sometimes a poem just needs to say what it wants to say, and not pretty itself up. And thus, compression is seen as a virtue, and minimalism as a means to channel that virtue.

When I was first introduced to this new form, the hay(na)ku, I experimented with it for awhile, as one does, writing études if not finished pieces. I haven't kept it up, because in some ways it's almost too minimal, even for me, and in recent years I've been mostly finding the open-ended combination form of the haibun to be most congenial. Some new forms become popular fads for awhile, then fade away, except for enthusiasts. I've certainly invented my share of new forms; although I've rarely tried to get other people to write in them. It's most for my own sake, as I find myself on a regular basis desiring to discover new forms rather than write in pre-existing ones.

Nonetheless, to stretch one's writing skills, which really means to stretch one's mind a bit, I find it useful to play in other inventors' sandboxes as well as my own. Not all writing is about technique; a great deal of it is about practice. Writing in a specific form can become a useful tool for writers who find themselves feeling stuck or stale. Nothing breaks up bad habits like lighting out for new, undiscovered territories.

So here are a few hay(na)ku I've made since first being introduced to the form. I encourage any interested writers to play with this form, and see what they can teach themselves from it by doing so.

the rain
on cold cornfields

gnawed spices
a burned dinner

thudding outside
poets on vacation

joy paused
on flowering vines

on white
the fatal x-ray

amongst tallgrass
the boy wanders

Like haiku, or more properly, like renga, hay(na)ku can be chained, each poem commenting on or modifying the previous one, gradually shifting focus, tone, and topic, along the length of a chain. Perhaps returning, in the last stanza, to the original, as was common practice for renga-composing parties attended by a group of poets.

UPDATE, with some further thoughts:

One limitation of this new form which I struggle with is that its extreme compression gives it little space in which to achieve what haiku can do. Haiku is often two juxtaposed images, out of the dynamic between which meaning can be interpolated. In six words, there is barely room for one image. The haiku aesthetic allows for the reader to "complete" the poem out of their shared human experience, to add meaning to the poem by reading their own self into it; this new form certainly has that potential, yet doing so within such extreme compression would be a challenge.

Granted, one is supposed to slow down and appreciate each texture, each moment, take one's time, really absorb the poem. (True of any poetry, really, but obvious in shorter forms in particular.) It's possible that a real master of this new form could make it dense enough, even in just six words, to make the slowing-down, the contemplation, genuinely rewarding. Yet most new poems I have read so far in this new form are not that satisfying. They're rather superficial, and they don't seem to readily invite that slowing-down.

Ultra-compression is a fashionable trend in contemporary haiku-writing, but it is not always a justifiable fashion. When you compress too far, you lose the haiku. When does it stop being a haiku and just become something small, compressed, and other? It's been argued that certain one-word visual-poems can contain the haiku aesthetic, but I think that's highly debatable. Is a one-idea poem, a gimmick-poem, really a haiku? Not in any classical sense.

Ultra-compressed poetic forms can make haiku seem like they have all the elbow room of an epic. I grant that this new form is not strictly a haiku, but since it is labeled as explicitly haiku-inspired, I think it's fair to discuss it from within the viewpoint of haiku aesthetics.

So as I re-read my own exploratory attempts above, I see some examples that approach full density, approach containing two images. But most are only one image, one thought. Such an ultra-short form usually allows a poet to say only one thing—which can lead to aphorism and bluntness rather than nuance. Poetry is about resonance, and depth, and layers of meaning. In such a short form, perhaps it's possible to make a resonant image, but how do you create layers? There's almost no room for it. Such a short form lends itself to "first thought, best thought" writing, which can generate a lot of throwaway one-liners that don't really last. Some are pithy one-liners, some are trying to be profound. But is there enough room to achieve profundity? I have my doubts.

Perhaps the failing is mine, and I just haven't encountered some greater poet's hay(na)ku that can achieve all these hoped-for effects within the constraints of so small a form.

By contrast, the haiku-descended forms which I have invented myself tend to be expansive: to add more layers of possibility, or to use the aesthetic of haiku within a longer line. The post-haiku forms that I've invented and worked with verge on the prose-poem, at times, because they are also influenced by the haibun form. The haiku idea has been so influential on me as a poet that I doubt I'll ever cease exploring this material.



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