Thursday, August 30, 2012

I Don't Understand Haiku

I mentioned before that I do not understanding haiku.  What I do recognize about it is that Japanese poetry is just not as lavish as English poetry.  And really, in traditional English poetry, lavishness of language is as much a part of our poetic tradition as rhyme and meter.  These days, of course, rhyme and meter often give way to free verse so without lavish language, what is left of poetry?

That was my problem when I first learned about haiku in late elementary school and junior high.  My teachers explained that haiku was a type of Japanese nature poem without rhyme or meter, in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.  So I tried to write it and got the 5-7-5 pattern right.  But I tried to fit the lavishness of English poetry into those 17 syllables and was never able to.  And besides, whenever we heard or saw real haikus, they never had that kind of lavishness.  In fact, they seemed kind of dull and mundane. 

Looking up haiku in the Wikipedia, I find that it need not be a nature poem, only to have a seasonal reference.  Still, traditionally it has been about nature, so I am going to compare it with descriptions of nature in English poetry.  Wikipedia gives some Japanese classics.

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in

water’s sound

the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw

how many gallons
of Edo's rain did you drink?


Compare that, now, with some admittedly extreme descriptions of nature in early 20th Century English poetry.

The Highwayman (Alfred Noyes)
The wind was a torrent of darkness amid the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor.

Comparing that to haiku, the first thing that occurs to me is that any one of those lines could probably make an entire haiku.  The next is that the haiku would probably not contain anything as fantastic as a torrent of darkness.

The Skater of Ghost Lake (William Rose Benet)
Ghost Lake’s a deep lake, a dark lake and cold;
Ice black as ebony, frostily scrolled;
Far in its shadows a faint sound whirs;
Steep stand the sentineled deep, dark firs.

Once again, you could probably make a haiku out of either of the couplets.  It also occurs to me that I was wrong in saying there is only so much lavishness you can fit into 17 syllables.  Each line in The Highwayman is 15 syllables; each couplet in Ghost Lake is 20.  And they contain a lot of lavishness. 

These poems also point to the importance of meter in English poetry.  Meter can be quite complex; it gives poetry a rhythm that immediately distinguishes it from prose; and it can be use to invoke an image –a highwayman galloping on his horse in The Highwayman, or ice skating strokes in Ghost Lake.   In both poems, the nature description is merely setting the scene for the longer, narrative poem.  The description is not really there for its own sake, but mostly to set an atmosphere – eerie in Ghost Lake, extravagantly romantic in The Highwayman

To my English-trained ears, Japanese haiku seems flat and prosaic by comparison.  I have to wonder how the lavishness of English poetry sounds to Japanese ears.  Is it powerful and vivid, or comically over the top?  Certainly, I will acknowledge that poetic language can be too lavish, especially when lavishness of language makes it hard to understand what the poem actually means.  In high school, the entire class, including the teacher, was baffled when Ghost Lake said:

Ice shooting fangs forth – sudden – like spears:
Crackling of lightening – a roar in their ears!

Only in looking up the poem on the Internet to prepare this post did I get an explanation – the skaters skate out onto thin ice and it cracks underneath them.  How would one express that in haiku?  Without “ice shooting fangs forth,” I am sure.

The Highwayman  and Ghost Lake are admittedly extreme cases.  Most English poems are not quite that lavish.  But consider a more restrained description of nature, like William Cullen Bryant’s To a Waterfowl:

Whither ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day
Far, through their rosy depths dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?

Vainly the fowler’s eye
Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
As, darkly painted against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.

This is not as lavish as the previous two poems, but has some dramatic  images – glowing heavens with rosy depths and the figure of migratory bird “darkly painted against the crimson sky.” 

When I first tried to fit the lavishness of English poetry into 17 syllables of haiku, I did not include any “torrents of darkness,” or “ribbons of moonlight,” let alone “ice shooting fangs forth – sudden – like spears.”  But I did try to convey something like Bryant’s glowing colors of sunset with a dark figure against it – a bare tree in my case.   But trying to create a lavish image in 17 syllables just didn’t work and wasn’t like real haiku at all.  I might attempt it now in plainer terms:

A black silhouette
Of a leafless winter tree
Against the sunset

That contains the requisite syllable pattern and is not too lavish.  I do not know enough about haiku to know if it is any good.  But I do know that it does not really convey what I want to say.  The beauty of the sunset is in its glowing, formless blend of colors.  The beauty of the tree is in its sharply defined, colorless form.  And although we usually see the beauty of a tree in its leaves and regard a bare tree as looking dead, barren, and ugly, against the sunset a leafless tree is suddenly more beautiful than one with leaves because they no longer obscure the clarity of its outline.  I doubt that I am a good enough poet to convey that no matter how many syllables you gave me.  And I don’t know if it is conveyable in haiku at all.

And that is perhaps why haiku baffles me so much.  I expect a nature poem in English to create a visual image, like trees bending in the wind, or fir trees around a winter lake, or a bird outlined against the sunset.  The classic haiku do not appear to be painting a visual image.  And I do not understand what it is they are setting out to achieve.

So here is my plea to any readers out there who understand haiku better than I do.  Can you convert any of those English poems into haiku.  And can you explain how to find the beauty in poetry without lavishness?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Complete Lunacy

The Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division has officially been topped. Many thanks to David Frum for pointing out the Mad Revisionist, the ultimate in satirical lunacy. Yes, the Mad Revisionist denies the existence of the moon. No, not the Apollo moon landing, the moon itself. Really. (Though of course, not seriously). 

Why, you may ask. Well, apparently a conference of historians retorted to Holocaust deniers (or, as they call themselves, Holocaust Revisionists) by calling for serious study of the Holocaust, presumably on the theory that the more extensive and detailed the study, the more indisputable. Someone asked why the conference never explicitly affirmed the existence of the Holocaust. Exasperated, the leader said that for a conference of historians to affirm the existence of the Holocaust was like a conference of astronomers affirming the existence of the moon. To which the Mad Revisionist said, “[W]hy did this scholar single out the moon? Why would a scholar, so familiar with academic standards of evidence, use such language to imply that the existence of the moon, unlike any other issue was a given and not subject to proof? What, in other words, was he trying to hide?” And further:
But don’t all qualified scientists and astronomers agree that there is a moon? Indeed, but shouldn’t one be suspicious of such unanimity, when universities are supposed to be forums for open debate of controversial issues. Even a layperson like myself knows that scientists are not supposed to approach issues with preconceived notions. Yet this principle is cast aside when the moon is at stake. You will never see the revisionist perspective on the moon being taught in institutions of higher learning, even as a controversial opposing view. In fact, in order to even become a recognized scientist in the current atmosphere of academic repression, one must pay lip service to the establishment’s orthodoxy. Could you imagine a student who argued the revisionist viewpoint on the question of the moon being awarded a degree? He would be hounded out of the university in an instant! How can one explain such behavior from institutions that are supposed to serve as forums for the free exchange of ideas, except to conclude that the establishment has something to hide? 
Needless to say, no attempt is made to explain what this so-called “moon” that we think we see actually is. Mad Revisionist contents himself with attacking the theory of the moon’s existence. It ends with an offer of $100,000 for anyone who can prove the existence of the moon.

Mad Revisionist apparently came up with the site specifically as a satire on Holocaust deniers, but let’s face it. It works just as well to mock creationists, truthers, birthers, Birchers, people who think the moon landing was faked, people who think Elvis is still alive and really, anyone who is unwilling to let mere evidence stand in the way of belief. 

Perhaps, though, I was wrong to say that The Moon: A Propaganda Hoax tops the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division. Both are brilliant and hilarious works of satire, but in different ways. Dihydrogen Monoxide is meant to be convincing. Scientifically illiterate suckers are actually supposed to fall for its scary-sounding pronouncement and realize they have been punked when they find out what H2O really is. The Moon, by contrast, is intended to sound just like conspiracists, yet offer a satire so broad that no one could possibly fall for it. Consider it an attempt to refute Poe's Law. I guess we will see if it succeeds.*

*Not that I think anyone could possibly be convinced that the moon does not exist. But could anyone be convinced that someone is seriously arguing that? To just from some of the responses Mad Revisionist has gotten, the answer appears to be maybe.

Is it Just Me?

When I read about the upcoming Republican Convention, I kept hearing that a tropical storm was brewing and that it might escalate into a full-fledged hurricane.  Am I the only one who had to remind myself that the news reports meant that literally?


 know I have not been posting in over a month.  Personal issues have been taking most of my time and energy.  Will attempt to get back to it, but no idea how much time or energy I will have to spare.