Monday, December 13, 2010

Notes towards an egoless poetry 15: Why I'm not submitting haiku to journals

Late night thoughts on why I'm not submitting haiku to journals lately:

• I find it hard to submit haiku to journals. It's something that seems to take a lot of effort, the submission process, for usually no reward. One could often say the same about poetry in general, of course. When it doesn't tax my patience, I do it. And it's not the most important thing in my life right now. It's not that I don't want to submit haiku, it's that it's not very high priority. My resources are curtailed right now. Writing is more important than submitting.

• I sometimes find it hard to take haiku publishing seriously. There are an awful lot of haiku journals out there. Even the best of them sometimes give you so much material that you don't have time to sit and savor each poem. You find yourself browsing among huge piles of haiku, not really getting anything more than a shallow draught of each one. It's not as if there was one great haiku journal, which would be essential reading, and a few lesser journals. There are in fact literally thousands of them. So much that no one could ever read, much less collate, them all. You could spend all your time writing haiku, submitting them, having them published, and still go completely unnoticed. The market, as it were, is seriously glutted.

• Everybody writes and writes and writes, but few actually read. It's as if the reason for living, for most poets, was self-expression, even if there's not much there to be expressed. The world of poetry often excludes the non-specialist reader nowadays, by either being too insular or hermetic, or by being too willing to lecture rather than listen. A rare encounter with a lover of poetry who isn't also a practicing poet is entirely refreshing. I remember one National Park Ranger in the Southwest who I met, on one of my photography roadtrips, who could quote long lines of poetry at me from several favorite poets; a true reader, an interested reader, an enthusiastic reader.

How many poets actually read poetry without a glimmer of competitiveness in the eye? How many haiku writers read and love haiku by total strangers, poets who are still alive, rather than the revered masters? How many haiku writers read many haiku that they didn't write themselves.

Poets give readings all the time: performance is an expectation, after all. But it's the rare poetry reading wherein a poet reads poems he or she didn't write. When it happens, it often awakens the drowsing audience, because the reading is infused with enthusiastic love. Are poetry readings meant to market poetry, or are they displays of ego, or are they moments of shared performance of things one loves?

• A lot of haiku I read lately are fairly shallow. They seem to be tossed off quickly—which is no bad thing in itself—and seem not to have been given a lot of gestation or contemplation. I am not a fan of extensive rewriting of haiku: if you can't get it right in a few tries, it's best to abandon the poem and try again from scratch. The spontaneity does matter; yet in the greatest haiku, it is the effortless effort of one-point attention that shines through. That is what makes them memorable, that spontaneity that takes much effort to master.

Shallow haiku by contrast are very forgettable. You read them once, and they evaporate. "Dew drops on a maple leaf." A haiku that could be a comment on haiku-writing. Haiku are perhaps not meant to be immortal—and they are rarely written from the pretentious expectation of immortality that suffuses much epic narrative poetry—yet there is something lacking when you forget a poem immediately. What did I just read? Even in those enormous haiku journals, you find yourself re-reading, because the poems didn't stick to your ribs.

• Topical, news-generated poems in haiku form are not actually haiku, but senryu. It's like the annoying American habit of calling flowers infused in hot water "herbal tea," when in fact there are no tea leaves whatsoever in the concoction. If what you're sipping doesn't actually have any leaves of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) in it, don't call it tea. If your poem looks like a haiku, but contains none of the traditional elements and essences of haiku, perhaps it's best to not label it as a haiku. Of course, people can and will do whatever they want. But don't give me "herbal tea" and expect me to drink it as tea.

• I don't want to contribute noise rather than signal to this already glutted environment. I make haiku all the time, most often lately in response to my own photographs. It seems natural to respond to some photographs, or sequences of photographs, with short, imagistic poems—a task for which haiku are eminently suited as a form. I practice carefully the principal of avoiding a literal description of the photograph in the poem: I want each to illuminate the other, not merely caption.

This principal of illumination rather than simply restating the contents lies at the heart of haibun, as I understand the form. I have in fact had several haibun published over the years in various rather prestigious journals devoted to the form; but again, haven't submitted anything of late. (In one case, editorial personal politics seems to be an insurmountable issue.)

Haibun can be described as sections of dense, poetic prose, followed by or interspersed with haiku. The haiku reflects upon the subject contents of the prose surrounding it, but from a fresh angle, without simply repeating what the prose has already presented. You look at the room in a new light. You comment on the historical moment just narrated. You see the night sky with new eyes, the scales removed.

When I write haiku to my photographs, my goal is make it seem as though either the image or the poem might have come first. Or that they arose at the same moment, indistinguishably. They illuminate each other, and hopefully merge into one presentation, indivisible. I don't want the poem to simply comment on the image; I don't want the image to simply illustrate the poem. I want that sideways thinking that can arise when you look at a moment, or an archetype, from several directions simultaneously. Relativity: the observer's position changes the perception of what is observed. Indeterminacy: by observing some moment from more than one angle, it becomes more nuanced, more complex, less fixed, less certain of itself.

• In the current world of poetry, in which everyone calls themselves poets who can manage to put two words together in sequence, overstimulation is the rule, rather than contemplation. I would not add more noise. I would prefer to evoke more silence.

So I am generally content to be a haiku-monk in my hermitage, making the poems I make, sharing some of them with those who might find them interesting, and presenting others to the world in general with no expectations that anyone is listening. I think of Thomas Merton in his hermitage, making pen drawings, writing poems, certain that Someone was listening, not caring otherwise, evoking a deep inner silence in everything he made. You could do far worse for a role model of having a proper attitude towards making your art.

When I encounter a genuine haiku, it seems to me to be a poem of contemplation. Not merely insight, not merely observation; rather, deep contemplation. The silence behind all great poetry rises up through the poem, like a deep crystal well of sweet spring water; to get at the water itself, all you have to do is break through the crust of ice covering it, which is the poem itself. Genuine haiku have that feeling of depth, of resonance, of life-force power.

That sense of depth is something I often miss when reading many contemporary haiku, which often seem to be just short-form versions of the usual self-regarding post-confessional lyric. Many haiku are not actually haiku, but personal observations. The goal is to make the self disappear into the poem, not be reinforced thereby. Haiku is unique in contemporary poetry in that it craves egolessness. Not more personality in the poem, but less. If you can't find the poet in the poem, except perhaps as an evaporating trace of humor as in the case of Issa, congratulations.

Contemporary poetry suffers from too much ego as it is, even in those genres which claim to remove the author from dictating meaning. The "absence of the author" in some cases serves only to reinforce authorial direction, which in some cases leaves the reader out of the loop, struggling to understand just what's going on. Paradoxically, the poem becomes even more about the author, rather than less.

Even the haiku journals suffer from this. Lots of newly-minted haiku don't get past this egotism, or transcend it, to enter that crystalline space in which pure sensation is bell ringing in an empty sky. We ought to be able to look into the mirror of haiku, and see that the mirror is empty: even this form is illusory. Form is just the ladder we climb to reach the mountaintop. Kicking the ladder away is that last act of liberation.

So I suppose, in some poets' minds, I am demanding that haiku be part of some universe of pure perception, pure appreciation, pure sensation, mindless and absolute. Like the Platonic world of pure forms. They suppose wrongly: it's not the universe of pure forms I think haiku is path towards entering, it's the emptiness of no-form, no-thing, no-self.


• Westerners often misunderstand Buddhism in this same way, because they cannot stop getting hung up on the construction of ego, rather than its dissolution. Talk to them about neurosis, and they get it in an instant; talk to them about egolessness, and you get blank stares. You can read endless books by Americans who have converted to Buddhism and see this again and again: the rehearsal of ego, the depiction of neurosis and its concomitant rehearsal of generated suffering. Endless chapters about personal failure, all of it illusory in the end. (Why do so many American Jews convert to Buddhism? An interesting history in itself, perhaps.)

I despair sometimes of explaining this inexplicable truth, which can be experienced in silence but not easily described in words. Haiku comes closer to encapsulating it than most other poetic forms. Yet most haiku we see published in all these journals do not capture the silence at the end of practice—for poetry, as Basho said, is after all, a Way—but rather tend to rehearse the formulae of practice without capturing its essence.

If I could make that one pure haiku, in which the silence, the cool crystal waters, the egoless void, were all contained, I might still not submit it for publication, knowing full well it would be lost in the general noise. But one keeps practicing haiku as a Way, making effortless effort to achieve that pure poetry. These are drops of clean water one lets fall into into the pond, which gradually will displace and cleanse the muddy water. A few drops at a time, over a long time, will replace the muddy water from even the most turbulently clouded of ponds.

And so it is with the mind, as well as the poem.

• I am aware that my criticisms here are nothing new; if anything, they're an eternal recurrence of some of the same criticisms Basho made of poetry in his own time and place. I merely restate them in my own words, metaphors, and analogies, as both reaffirmation, and as meditation on original principals.

After all, making the haiku is a Way, while submitting the haiku to a journal may be a detour. Not an invalid detour, not a wrong road, just a detour, no more than a side-bar, a distraction if not actually a pitfall. I would never say: Do not submit your poems. (Although I would say, do not submit your uncontemplated and unfinished poems.) I would never counsel any haiku writer to keep their work to themselves: withdrawal from the fray is just another flavor of vanity, after all, and thus is as bound up with ego as is self-marketing. You cannot transcend the ego by pretending to ignore it.

I would, however, say: Use the discretion learned from practicing the Way of Poetry, or the way of haiku, to guide you through the fray. Remember the lessons of silence, of humility, and of being the one-point observer who takes it all in without need to comment or judge. Practice non-attachment from outcomes. Practice letting the poem itself arise from silence in its own way and time. Let your discipline be one of attentive listening, and let others who would be life's loudspeakers do so.

Earlier essays in this series:

Notes towards an egoless poetry 1: Visibility of the persona

Notes towards an egoless poetry 2: Practical matters

Notes towards an egoless poetry 3: the hermit hut

Notes towards an egoless poetry 4: the removal of the "I"

Notes towards an egoless poetry 5: the paradox of removal

Notes towards an egoless poetry 6: Showing versus telling

Notes towards an egoless poetry 7: Some quotes

Notes towards an egoless poetry 8: Art or Botany?

Notes towards an egoless poetry 9: Mental Illness & Poetry

Notes towards an egoless poetry 10: first person stranger

Notes towards an egoless poetry 11: Kenosis

Notes towards an egoless poetry 12: Changes

Notes towards an egoless poetry 13: Something Other

Notes towards an egoless poetry 14: Nondual Awareness

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Blogger Rachel Cotterill said...

I make no claim to be a poet, although I enjoy reading ... at least, when I can find something that grips my heart and turns it upside down. It can be hard work to wade through the mire to find those, though, so I tend to stick with poets I already know and trust. I wrote a single haiku when I was at school, aged maybe 10 or 11; it wasn't much but I still remember it word-for-word.

4:12 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Rachel, and thanks for the comments.

I agree it's hard work slogging through lots of chaff to find those few poems that grip us and ignite us and make it all worthwhile. I guess that it's still worth it, though, most of the time, when we DO find those gems. And you're right, that once you find some poet who has come through before, we tend to go to them again.

12:43 PM  

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