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April 2019 Vol. 15 No. 1

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Jim Kacian

Innovation in Haiku

CHO Editor's Introduction

The following is an excerpt from “Finding Its Direction,” an article about innovative haiku that appeared in South by Southeast (2003), a haiku journal that has ceased publication.

The article presents Kacian’s selection of what he considered “cutting-edge” haiku that appeared in the journal. The original article in full can be found here: “Finding Its Direction.”

In Kacian’s words: “I think SxSE has been particularly good in attracting and showcasing work that we might call innovative work that lives in the cracks and outside the boundaries of its more mainstream relatives. This is a particularly useful and interesting niche to have curried, in this time of flux in the definition and practice of haiku. It is also somewhat dangerous, since when things are changeable, many false starts will be made, and in a marginal economic venture such as a literary journal, false directions can prove costly in terms of resources, energy and willpower.”

And as a preface to discussing the haiku Kacian selected, he wrote: “I am pleased to have been asked to supply my personal choices for what I might consider to be a retrospective of 10 years of great work.”

As a caveat, Kacian offered: “Any retrospective will reveal the tastes of its selector(s), and I'm certain that my choices here will prove no different. And it was impossible for me to choose only 10 poems (as I was asked) because I feel so much good work has been brought to light in these pages. I hope you will find this excursion through the recent past to be as enjoyable as I have, . . .. Enjoy!”

The Poems Selected by Jim Kacian

1. The Self-aware Poem:

One kind of poem that I think SxSE has been particularly blessed with publishing is what we might call the "self-aware poem". It is difficult to find a good balance in this subgenre since in haiku we are attempting to maintain an objectivity, to take a larger view. So the poet must be sufficiently disciplined to consider the self as an other, to import none of the subjective coloration that is usual in self-regarding poetry.

Of the many excellent examples to be found in the pages of SxSE, my favorites include Thom Williams’:

thinking the same thoughts
thinking the same thoughts
the yearly pruning (5:1)

The juxtaposition of the routines of outer and inner nature works to particular advantage here, and the self is seen to be allied with all else in nature, and the better for a salient trimming. In the same vein is Carolyn Hall's:

morning shower
finding just the right word
I was looking for (8:1)

Here the emphasis is decidedly human, but the immersion in one of the basic elements is enough to permit a "flow" in the mind as well. And there is a rich vein of significance to explore in terms of the purifying effect of the ablutions, as well.

From very early on, I have liked Christian Aspegren's

the deep hole –
my daughter's small hand
lifts me out (3:1)

This sort of material, with its figurative language and temptingly sentimental theme, must be handled with great delicacy. I feel that Aspegren manages this quite well here, without coming across as so cold as not to recognize the emotional metaphor he is conjuring.

2. The Message Poem:

Another successful field of enquiry that SxSE has realized is the "message poem". These are very difficult to write well—that is, in an artistically successful way—because most often there is a decision that the poet must make, to be true to the poem or to be true to the message. They do not line up with each other so often as one would think, and compromises are very rarely satisfying to the poet or the reader.

All the more reason to appreciate such a poem as George Ralph’s:

then I knew the way
the day lily
leaning (4:2)

Here the poet has allied his own sense of willingness to accede to a direction with what he perceives to be the harbinger of that direction. That's fine as far as it goes, but what makes the poem work is that we as readers grant it the same power.

A somewhat different approach is James Tipton's:

Canada Geese
suddenly in the heart
the field takes wing (4:1)

This poem utilizes a bit of word play to realize its effect, and a difficult one to pull off: "heart" is such an overburdened word that it could easily fall into cliché here. The fact that we are pulled up out of our chairs at reading this poem is testimony that the poet skirts this potential difficulty and instead makes us feel the moment, and the word, anew.

William Ramsey allows us to discover the ripples of his point by making his poem a mystery to be solved:

slave cemetery
I scrape the moss to find
no name (3:1)

By sharing the moment of insight with the poet, we move through the thought process with him as the poem "explains" itself, arriving at much more than we might have expected when we started scraping that moss.

Much the same sort of technique is used by Tom Painting’s:

in wildflowers . . .
the logging road (5:3)

But the topic, and message, is a good deal more overt here, and it is a credit to the poet's skill that we don't feel preached to, but rather sympathetic to the cause. This is undoubtedly due to the secondary level of understanding we must achieve before we realize how we arrived at this idyllic scene.

3. The Identification Poem

Then there is the "identification poem" wherein the poet and the subject matter become one. This is a much more traditional sort of haiku, but still somewhat different from the "self-aware poem" in that here the poet isn't aware of himself as apart from the poem, or from nature. We might say that one is the obverse side of the coin from the other. Put another way, we can consider that the images in these poems are symbols of the poet's conscious, and that whatever becomes of one, becomes the other. Consider, for instance, Miyako/Tamasudare's:

dozing in spring –
a butterfly emerges
from my palm (9:1)

The dozer is the butterfly is the poet; and the one emerges from the other in every sense. Yet at the same time we have not lost the moment of actuality-the scene of the event can be readily envisioned and shared.

Equally effective, to my mind, is Fred Donovan's:

crow's caw
its shadow passes
through mine (4:2)

The mingling of the dark essence of beings cannot but fascinate us, and the writing here is so effortless and plausible that we must identify the one with the other, with ourselves. And much the same can be said of Larry Kimmel's:

snake released –
the feel of it
stays in my hand (3:3)

4. Experimental Poems

These kinds of poems, at their best, are not written simply to tweak the form. Instead, they respond to a need for articulation in a way that the form has not yet discovered. It is not too much to say that all the great poems in the form have been explorations of the edges of the form: what we retain is not the fact that they were in any way controversial, but rather the way they perfectly utilize the energy inherent in the form, even if no one had discovered it before. Consider Peter J. Larson’s:

trying to sing
like an iris (7:1)

The way the poem makes me imagine is its success: does the mockingbird manage to pull it off? What would it sound like? If anyone could do it, the mockingbird could. The metaphor here simply reinforces the unlikely effort.

Marian Olson's poem works in a similar fashion, and adds a bit of misdirection:

first snow
I keep losing
your face (5:2)

We might have expected any number of things after the second line here, and they all would have been factually plausible and convincing, but hardly poetic. But Olson's solution is truly poetic: the shifting transigence of the snow is too much to lay hold of even what is known, and known well. Will she recover it when the snow stops?

5. The Senryu

Senryu, particularly the more serious sort we have cultivated in the west, is yet another “edge” form. Consider John Stevenson's:

much read, her Bible
no longer closes
completely (5:1)

And the rueful sort of effect which Kay F. Anderson's poem has upon us:

her unsigned donor card
a bookmark (6:2)

But there is plenty of the light side, too, as evidenced by Paul Watsky's:

early appointment
the analyst's office full
of yesterday's heat (4:1)

And Mike Laroche's telling aperçu:

the first mistake
wonderfully (7:2)

And Tom Clausen's seasonal senryu:

another full moon
my checkbook still
unbalanced (8:3)

6. Good more-standard poems

And for all that, there are plenty of just good old-fashioned excellent haiku. Here are a few of the many haiku which have appeared in the pages of SxSE which have become staples of the haiku repertoire in English:

front door opens –
its redness enters the house
before us
Dorothy McLaughlin (3:2)

a flock
of wild geese passes –
the sky stays behind
Gary Hotham (3:2)

spring sun
a calf walks away
from the cow
Jeff Witkin (6:1)

vase of sunflowers
their heads facing
in all directions
Karen Klein (7:3)

just enough rain to moisten the lips of the wild lily
Marlene Mountain (8:2)

on a day with no messages
– scattered showers
Jane Wilson (9:2)

I would be remiss if I didn't add a couple of my own, poems which are particularly important to me and which first appeared in these pages:

ground fog
up to my ankles
in moonlight (5:1)

the lake laps all night the same quiet thoughts (3:4)

shifting clouds –
a school of minnows
becomes one shine (9:3)

6. Concluding Remarks

So what remains? Our high expectations that the second decade is so full of inspiration and serendipity as the first, and that we are able to glean so impressive a collection from those pages, and with the same enthusiasm. Keep up the good work!

Editor Emeritus
South by Southeast

Reference: South by Southeast: Haiku and Haiku Arts. Stephen Addiss and the Richmond Haiku Workshop, editors. Midlothian, Va.: Richmond Haiku Workshop; 1994 ; 3x/year. ISSN: 1089-9421.