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Messages - a sweet machine

Field Notes / Re: Field Notes 7: Off-topic #2
March 23, 2017, 02:33:07 PM
A significant amount of space here has been given to the question of whether one, two or three words can make a haiku. It all reminds me of the introduction to Don Paterson's anthology, 101 Sonnets (Faber & Faber, 1999). I hope you'll excuse my quoting the first three paragraphs here in full:

Quote"If people can tell you one thing about a sonnet, they'll tell you it's a fourteen-line poem. But poets will tell you that a fourteen-line poem isn't necessarily a sonnet. There's a word, 'quartorzain', meaning a stanza of fourteen lines, that is also trundled out whenever someone wants to make the distinction between the sonnet 'proper' and the fourteen-line poem, though it's occasionally used just to take a poem with sonnet pretensions down a peg or two. Amongst people who have time for such things, the 'is-it-a-sonnet?' debate can rage on with all the fervour and pointlessness of country-and-western- music fans trying to decide whether a record is truly 'country' or not.

   The truth, these days at least, is that the sonnet is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. The form has diversified to the point where its definitive boundaries are so blurred that it has effectively ceased to exist. All we can say with any certainty is that sonnets often demonstrate certain characteristics. But these characteristics are frequently described as if they were laws: sonnets have fourteen lines. Well, actually some of them don't. They're written in iambic pentameter. Only a lot of them aren't. They rhyme according to a particular scheme. Though many of them don't, and some don't rhyme at all. They have a 'turn' – a shift in direction or tone, often further emphasised by a stanza break – between lines 8 and 9. Though a lot of them don't. And so on. In a desperate effort to clarify things, US universities have produced statistical studies which tell us, for example, that, 'in a random sample of 7,000 sonnets, 32 per cent had the ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme.' It might be more useful if they said, 'in a random sample of 7,000 sonnets, 6,878 were found to be terrible.' You might even go so far as to say that every really good sonnet seems to ignore at least one of the so-called 'rules' governing the form. A great sonnet, and I hope you'll agree there are many in this book, will often surprise you by doing at least one thing it's not supposed to do. Though we should remember that the poet had to learn the 'rules' before they could deliberately break one of them.

   So, in summary, one of the most amusing things about all the po-faced or bloody asseverations on what constitutes a 'true' sonnet is the fact that no one can agree on anything but the fact that it has fourteen lines. Probably. This fact still doesn't prevent certain poets and academics – even at this late hour – advancing definitions so fascistic that they would cheerfully exclude all the work of Shakespeare or Wordsworth. The only qualification for entry in this book is that the poem should have fourteen lines. Two or three poems here are probably not sonnets in anyone's book, but they are in this one: apart from being fine poems, they'll serve to show just how fuzzy the definition is."

Sound familiar? I'm also reminded of Jim Kacian's essay, UFOs in Haiku (MH 45.2), where he describes how a poem's form should contribute to the sense of it being "a composed whole". So the question with these two-word poems is whether their form contributes to their completion and, if so, how?

My personal opinion is that the fewer words used in a poem, the more important it becomes to present those words effectively (I should qualify all this in advance by saying I only ever write haiku of the terrible kind). Tundra, for example, relies on the white space of the empty page around it to trigger the visual impression of a wide, sparse landscape. Bunched up alongside other haiku, would it be as successful in provoking that response? Similarly, Peter Yovu gave the example of M.C. Richards' two-word poem, titled 'Poem'. The title is clearly a cue for the reader. Presented without a cue the poem may have been interpreted as a printing error, as an image/space between the other more recognisable poems in her book. It may never have become more than a question mark.

Going back to the doublets provided by George, I'm inclined to agree with Alan in presenting them as a list. For me, the list-form brings a sense of tabulation, of words as opposites or as literary objects intended for some kind of statistical analysis. The word-content and their context are then clearly disjunctive, whilst the incantatory effect of reading them this way invites us to reconsider, or review, the text as a whole. Perhaps all I'm saying is the text's presence as a whole would be greater.

But this leads us too far from haiku specifically, and I'm minded to return to the HSA's definition. What is the poem doing to make it a haiku – is it using imagistic language, is it conveying an experience of nature or the season, does it invite or provoke an intuitive response linked to human experience or the human condition? My personal opinion is that if the poem is presented as a haiku, and the reader can create a coherent and conversable narrative explaining why it should be considered so, then it stands. If you can't justify the text, then it remains a question mark. Going back to FN5, this is why criticism is important; to make a space around our literature so we and others can understand it and appreciate it.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts, as jumbled and incoherent as they are. Here's my limp little effort at a two-word haiku for consideration:


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