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May 2009  Issue IX:2

"El Alacran" by masako © 2009

The Scorpion Prize of Issue IX:1

As a poetics

As a poetics, haiku have an uneasy relationship with sense and depth. The nonce poem and epithet lie just around the corner, and it’s but a short step to the declarative sentence. As a reader, I am usually in doubt, with expectations often unmet. The youthful innovator Shiki, even as he reframed what he was to term ‘haiku,’ felt that this over-brief poem would soon meet its demise, with limitations too severe, permutations too few.

Shiki might be surprised to find how precocious the haiku has become, and how viral. Haiku have been penned under extreme duress, the threat of torture and death—as with the anti-war haiku of the New Rising poets, in wartime Japan. Likewise, the haiku of the Balkans, selections published in the landmark anthology, Knots: The Anthology of Southeastern European Haiku Poetry (D. Anakiev & J. Kacian, eds., Red Moon Press, 1999) arise from a similar landscape of genocidal war. Haiku out of the garden.

In a formal sense, the haiku has needed to move beyond realism (but a brief movement in Japan), and beyond restricted themes of ‘season and flowers,’ primarily in order to swerve into or collide with the modern. Collision seems apt; Basho’s 17th century ‘old pond,’ his signature work, is celebrated as the first in his ‘eye-opening’ style, a radical departure which deepened and widened the field of haikai. In terms of technique, Basho discussed kire (cutting; disjunctive technique) and kireji as primary technical (and aesthetic, and spiritual) aspects of the poetics. Although modern sensibility has extended the field of haiku possibility in numerous ways, the bones of its method continue in this lineage, forming a literary conversation with ancestral works as well as the play between convention and its subversion.

At this point in time, haiku in English has entered into a new era of experimentation, and novel possibilities for the genre are becoming apparent. If haiku are to remain vibrant and vital in English, this extension into possibility seems both necessary and timely. Yet, as experimentation proceeds, it seems useful to discuss distinctions between what is haiku and what may be a short-form poetics; between what partakes of a lineage, and what goes beyond or outside of it. At the edges of the form, in the play of subversion, the poem may move beyond ‘type’—yet distinctions remain valuable if there is something to be recalled in relation to lineage in reader-experience.

Within the century of poems presented in this issue, some I respond to as short-form poetry rather than haiku — yet they exist within the guise of haiku, so to speak, as they are found in the ‘haiku’ section. It will be up to editors and readers to codify differences and contrasts. I welcome this edge, and find it compelling. The haikuesque—short-form (or longer) poems utilizing haiku techniques and sensibility successfully, is a new development, seen most prominently and effectively in NOON: Journal of the Short Poem (Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo). It’s my hope that the haiku world can extend itself—to further consider and nourish such new borderlands. Perhaps distinction is the next critical challenge. As a reader, I constantly return—to a certain passion as well as formal expectation, including the expectation of subversion. To subvert is to refresh—language, poetry, thought.

As others have done in this space, before mentioning my first choice, presented are selections which particularly inspired (in read order):

 

sun on the horizon
who first
picked up a stone

 

For its concision, topic, subtle posing of question, and rhythm (paul m.). The sun becomes multi-dimensional: realistic, historic, mythic, as does the timeline and origin of man. And,

 

the moon outside —
a moment
before I bleed

 

for its immediacy, and humanity (Ian Daw). Note that these two haiku utilize a long-short-long stanza, and I find a 2-2-2 rhythm of strong beats (rhythmic play which is not possible in the one-liner).

 

I see the iris
and its stamina
and am blue

 

Again there is immediacy, yet also language play (I-iris; stamina) that refreshes, the last line evoking for me the vocals of Billie Holiday (Charles Trumbull). So much depends on ‘blue.’

 

red gold water
the trout’s footprints
crossing a Bedouin sun

 

Sensuality, fantasy, color (Clare McCotter). Each succeeding line extends in length, drawing further into its dream. The intriguingly surreal image, ‘trout’s footprints’ remains understated, enfolded, cohesive.

 

leaf shadows on
the ground sway from
the secrets of war

 

A dark sense of quietude, and skillful, fragmented rhythm, as well as semantic ‘fragments,’ as prepositions end the first two lines (Chris Gordon).

 

I’ll linger here knowing the type of star you’ll settle on

 

The one-line form is demanding and technically limiting (in English). Reading is fast, rhythmic and semantic elements compressed (Paul Pfleuger Jr.). When compression yields dimension, and the poem resists sense (having to puzzle it), requiring re-reading, I go along. This poem plays with time in its use of ‘linger’ (temporal length) at the beginning, contrasting with ‘star you’ll settle on’ at the tail, with its contrastive ‘s’ consonantal rhythmic rapidity.

 

windfall apples
what I think about
what I think

 

Recursive iteration delights here (rhythmic substitution), which, nautilus-like, curls consciousness in upon itself (Carolyn Hall).

 

twilight in the arrangement of stones

 

An abrupt simplicity which evokes a strong image of depth (Patrick Sweeney), and

 

this early darkness quitting time

 

acts similarly, with societal implication (John Stevenson), and also to mention Stevenson’s subversively anti-romantic,

 

pretty sure my red is your red

 

Another example of image concision in the one-line is,

 

where am I here

 

which takes the form closer to a formal limit, while retaining familiar haiku elements (Peter Yovu). Similarly,

 

trees free of tree free of trees

 

grazes the nonsensical—I find in its semantic language-play an innovative ecopoetics (Helen Buckingham). A reminder. Would that this poem find its way to banners. Last in this list, the surprise of:

 

A snail
Dreams of a blue dream
On the back of a leaf.

 

Blyth’s haiku finds a suitable new home in contemporary company. The above 13 poems reveal a fair degree of range, technique and topic, and it’s difficult to select out a single haiku. These three, ‘sun on the horizon,’ ‘I see the iris,’ and ‘trees free’ are my finalists, though all in this group are excellent. Of this group, I find,

 

sun on the horizon
who first
picked up a stone

 

by paul m. most compelling, and award it the Scorpion Prize.

Richard Gilbert

 

 

  “NEW RISING HAIKU: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident,” Itô Yûki, Simply Haiku Journal 5(4), Winter 2007 http://www.simplyhaiku.com/SHv5n4/features/Ito.html; Monograph: Red Moon Press, May 2007, ISBN 978-1-893959-64-4.

 

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