Monday, November 09, 2009

Unenthusiastiku, or Wordplay in Haiku

An aspect of haiku that often gets overlooked by beginning haiku poets, or haijin, is that even though classical haiku is a profoundly observational and open form, there is ample room for wordplay and humor.

Nonetheless many beginning haijin don't understand the the difference between haiku and senryu. They see a few of Basho's haiku that are humorous, or gently ironic; or they read several of Issa's playful animal or insect haiku:

Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house


Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.

and they imitate the tone without understanding what led the poet towards that tone. This is surface-level imitation. They may read Issa's very personal haiku, and his gently playful tone, which indeed is one of his main modes, but they often miss the profound sadness and longing underneath, and Issa's committed Buddhist worldview. Love the world, suffer the world, wish to be free of the world, can't let go of the world:

this world of dew
is just a world of dew—
and yet . . . and yet . . .

These are true haiku.

Senryu are poems in haiku form, but they are typically about human failings and quirks. They are often darkly humorous, even cynical or satirical. One central distinction between haiku and senryu is that senryu are human-centered, anthropocentric, and therefore rarely transcendent or ineffable. Satire is a mode that "lifts off" but rarely into something more than itself. Haiku may take a moment of observation, and "leap" from the moment into something universal or numinous; haiku is a form that is at least as much about the spiritual and emotional aspects of incarnate life, as it is an observational form, or mere nature poetry. (Actually, that haiku is "nature poetry" is yet another common beginner's misconception.) A simplistic but useful definition is that haiku are focused on nature, while senryu are focused on human nature. For example:

Catching him
you see the robber
is your son.

It's in haiku form, certainly. But it's about human foibles. It mocks the poet's own pretensions, too.

Senryu as a form is named after Edo period haikai poet Senryū Karai (1718-1790), whose collection Haifūyanagidaru launched the genre into the public consciousness. Note that this was a spin-off from classical haiku as established by Basho in the previous century. Senryu took Basho's work in a new and poetically interesting direction; however, he also moved away from Basho's stated purpose, that poetry can be a way of enlightenment. In Japanese poems, some of the conventions of the haiku form are relaxed in senryu; for example, the use of a kigo, or season-indicator word, is often absent from senryu. It's one way to tell them apart.

In English haiku-writing, these distinctions have been often conflated, misunderstood, or outright ignored, and so many American haijin produce human-centric poems without labeling them as senryu. It's true that the distinction can be tenuous, subtle, and somewhat subjective. Still, I find this situation often problematic: sloppy and thoughtless at worst, ignorant and ahistorical at best. That's because, and this is purely an opinionated judgment on my part—I find senryu less interesting than haiku, in part because I find human-centric poetry less interesting, generally, and poetry that is solely human-focused in particular to be uninteresting. The post-confessional lyric is a bane on contemporary poetry; except for the details of form, many contemporary senryu are indistinguishable from confessional lyrics.

Thus, senryu can be thought of as poems of human self-awareness, self-mockery, satire, and irony.

So much for definitions.

Now, what about humor and wordplay in haiku? One problem with the distinction that's made, when it is made, between haiku and senryu is that some haijin assume that all humor belongs in senryu, and haiku are purely serious. That's a bit too hardcore adult for my taste. In fact, there has always been room for wordplay in Japanese haiku—as examples from all the classical haiku masters demonstrate, most especially Issa.

Where I'm going with this is wordplay itself. Wordplay and humor are innate aspects of most of the world's poetry. There are definitions in world literature that describe a poet as someone who plays with words; and that is a valid definition. "Fooling with words" is an important aspect of making poems: it's one way to discover unforeseen yet precise metaphors, to freshen up the language, to think in new directions, to consider some familiar experience as though it were brand new to you.

Wordplay is worldplay: in the parlance of Zen, change the way you think about the world, change the world. It's a way to stay afloat in beginner's mind, to dance on the lip of a dynamic balance.

At this point, I want to make a detour into discussing expert's mind and its pitfalls.

The biggest problem with expert's mind is that it thinks it knows all there is to know, and takes itself far too seriously. We've mentioned that many beginning haijin go for the humor, and ignore the spirit of the haiku form. There is another, opposite tendency that some beginning haijin get trapped in, which is take it all too seriously, to regard haiku as High Art. This can lead to a certain snobbishness about haiku, and about one's idea of the "correct" way to write haiku; but more seriously, for our purposes here, it can lead from fooling with words into arcane puzzle-poems and mazes of ungrounded thought-forms that lead nowhere. If no one understands your poetry, that doesn't necessarily mean you're smarter or more learned than they; it may only mean that you've disappeared up your own arse poetica.

What am I getting at? Behold:

Poetry is an artform that uses words as its constituent elements, but also as its meta-linguistic medium. One thing about poetry criticism that can be a problem is that it can get itself tied up in knots in that it's words talking about words being used as words in poems talking about experience in words that use words to describe more words rather than the experience. Got that?

Words are signs, not actual things: they are indicators, that point to the world, that describe experience, that at their best are capable of transmitting or conveying a thought or experience to another. Poems are made out of words, but when they let go of what they are pointing to and become purely signs, referring only to themselves or each other, they risk losing all contact with the ground. Words are beautiful illusions that can fool us.

In other words, the main pitfall of poetic discussion is that it's recursive: both the elements of the art and the tools used to discuss or describe the art are the same elements. Using the same tools to both make the artwork and to discuss it. Sloppy critics don't bother to tell you when they're discussing meta-poetry versus poetry. Sloppy poets tend to be paradoxically inarticulate: words fail them, and they cannot tell you what they're doing, or why. What I'm doing here is para-poetry: the aura of thoughts around the poem-making itself. This can lead to insight, of course; but it can also tie you up in silly knots. Poets love words—and no one can betray you quite like a lover.

All this by way of preface.

A couple of years ago, when I was still involved with an online poetry workshop forum, I was dared to write a haiku using the word "unenthusiastically." I wrote:

he always responds
the sick grey parrot

Now, this is not a great haiku. But it did lead to some wordplay, some fun-with-words. And it generated a discussion that I'm going to paraphrase here because it highlights how wordplay can be very interesting in haiku. (I paraphrase rather than quote because I've lost contact with most of the discussants. Putting their responses and ideas into my own words requires my gratitude, which I freely give, but not their overt permissions.)

Okay, so I won the dare, but . . . not a very good poem.

The question was then asked, Would it possible to use that word and write a better haiku? The general opinion was, probably not, but perhaps we might be proved wrong. With the norm for haiku in English being 14 syllables or less, this 7-syllable word takes up too much space in the form.

A lot of normative English-language haiku fall into a 4/6/4 syllable form, since English is an inflected language in which two-syllable iambs are a basic unit. This differs from the original 5/7/5 form in Japanese, which is an uninflected language by comparison. But I am opposed to normative rules about the haiku form. We limit ourselves as English-language haijin if we stick to the literal inheritance of the haiku form—thus haijin these days are constantly shifting away from the 5-7-5 of the inherited form. Yet if we can break the "norm," which we usually do in the direction of shortening the line, once or twice breaking the norm in the other direction by lengthening won't kill anybody. I sometimes write heyokaku, or reverse-haiku, in a 7/5/7 form. But I have no problem with a 5/8/4 form, for example. The rule about the number of syllables per line in haiku is the rule I think must be most readily let go, in English-language haiku.

At this point in the discussion, a really good re-phrase of the initial challenge was given:

What if we could write a haiku (or re-write this one) which evoked an atmosphere of unenthusiasm? This was far more interesting, as we wouldn't have to use the 7-syllable word, but would try to evoke the feeling without using the word explicitly. And thus began the wordplay, filled with playfulness and experiment.

For example:

that parrot's dead!
lack of enthusiasm?
a python's colours

(Evoking an allusion to The Dead Parrot Sketch from Monty Python.)

piles of laundry—
hitting the floor

That certainly evokes a tone of unenthusiasm, in my book. Few things I like doing less than household chores, most days.

The Monty Python Dead Parrot take on the poem led to several playful variants. I contributed:

I sketch
dead parrots, unen-

Which generated the reply:

sketch an ode to death,
parrot-style: feathers scatter,
Monty would be proud

And another contributor added:

early April—
I shuffle tax forms

And a more explicitly language-oriented bit of wordplay appeared soon after:

I cut syllables

The next two haiku were my commentaries on the wordplay of the haiku discussion so far—literally, a kind of meta-poetry about the poetry at hand:

constant raising of
unenthusiastic eyebrows—
here we go again


defined by fiat
newly-converted poets
always keeping score

Following up on that, I recursively commented about what had appeared so far. I wrote that I liked the non-parrot unenthusiastiku best. Or are they playku? Perhaps they're nonku. In the case of eating an Indian curry meal with flatbread, they'd probably be naanku, but that could be accused of trying to curry favor. Puns are a form of wordplay, and puns are one way in which finds new ways to say familiar things, or add layers of meaning to what otherwise be plain and ordinary.

At this point I want to more explicitly quote one contributor to this playful thread. He was someone I considered a good friend, a Western man who got into writing haiku during a long, protracted illness; he has since passed on, but I have saved several of his best haiku as exemplars of what a brilliantly playful mind can do with the form. he wrote:

You are one brave soul; "unenthusiastically," is a factual observation; a vet would tell you that much; but that's not the problem: it is an adverb and, used in haiku, it might raise eyebrows. . . . Maybe "... without enthusiasm."

Then he continued, in direct response to my last two haiku attempts, above:

Really I have no problem with "unenthusiastically." Oh, and I always practiced poetryicism as a religion; now that I converted to "haikutholicism," I feel saved. And the "Trinity" (three lines) in this form satisfies me.

Will that parrot be okay?

I replied to that with:

Actually I've been immersed in old Stan Freberg recordings the past few days, I'm sure that's affected my attitude. So, it was just one or two satireku thrown off the cuff. Satireku (which some would label senryu offhand) can be so fulfilling. Or perhaps just filling.

Glad to see you've take up The One True Faith, Haikutholicism, and become Saved. Now, go to confession and practice your Hai-l Mary-kus.

Ahem. The sillier aspects of the wordplay were getting a bit thick by now. (My fault, of course, as it was I who brought in the dead parrot originally.) So one of our more dedicated haijin correctly pointed out that the "dirty laundry" haiku was so far the only one presented that genuinely evoked the word "unenthusiastically." So he contributed:

another day
of lying about in bed—
I let the doorbell ring

Which I think is a good place to end.

Well, except to say that I got the last word in, which also generated some last laughs:

reading comments on
boringku on apathy?
naw, can't be bothered . . .

Ahem. Anyway.

An an exercise to loosen up your haiku-writing, I do recommend that one periodically engage with this kind of playfulness. Humor is one way in which we make the world anew, and see it with freshened gaze. It's good to play, and to not take ourselves so seriously—especially as poets.

Labels: ,


Anonymous Swanee said...

One of my all-time faves, from Willard Espy:

Haikus show I.Q.'s.
High I.Q.'s like haikus. Low
I.Q.'s -- no haikus.

(I found this online at Haiku-a-lypse Now,

6:57 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yet he sounded so enthusiastic about it. . . .

8:16 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home