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Sailing 14: What kind of sword do you carry?

Started by Peter Yovu, March 06, 2011, 01:20:09 AM

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The idea that the words should not bring attention to themselves has many applications in various modes of writing. In haiku, it seems to have something to do with meditative experience; but of course that just opens another can of worms. And what about the concept of "voice": the lovely haiku by Lenard D. Moore in Frogpond 34 in memory of Peggy Willis Lyles ("autumn clouds -- / I read To Hear the Rain / for her voice" certain packs a range of ways words "stick out" from the surrounding reality. I think this haiku shows that haiku can carry several dimensions at once and still be haiku.

snowbird a/k/a Merrill Ann Gonzales

I love that haiku of Leonard's alluding to Peggy's voice... So much to think about on such good posts here.   Thanks.   


Hi Chris,

Chris said:
Quote from: Chris Patchel on March 08, 2011, 10:58:37 PM
There are a myriad haiku that strike me as vigorous use of plain language for one reason or another:


as well as many gendai examples which are extreme in every way (and which don't float my sailboat):

twenty billion light years of perjury      your blood type is "B"

I picture that one being screamed out at a poetry slam.

Actually I've read this often, and probably haven't performed it as it doesn't need to be said loud.  In fact the last time I read it out I would have looked very silly screaming it as it was at the Sign Poetry Festival, and I think the Signer would have also shown it didn't need "shouting" even in Deaf language.

But I have seen Death Metal bands sing lullabies, so I guess anything can be screamed to put a twist in things.  I just don't think this haiku needs extra treatment.  Perhaps it's just me, I seem to be the only Westerner to identify with this strongly (I also have a rare B blood type, so that helps <grin>)


Peter Yovu

  The question of voice is certainly an interesting one, and may deserve it's own Sailing or appreciation on some other venue. It would be interesting for example to present a series of unidentified and lesser known poems by variety of well known writers and ask participants to match name to poem. I think there are relatively few haiku poets who have a readily identifiable "voice". What does this mean?

For now though, relating to the subject of vigorous language, I want to present a poem by Michael McClintock, and I apologize if I seem to be offering an end of chapter exercise.

a little inn
with a swinging sign-board
the evening chill

I have seen one or two responses to this which were at variance to mine. More later on that. So here is the question-- do you believe this poem demonstrates vigorous language? In what way? And, how do you feel the language contributes to how the poem "means"?     


Quote from: Gabi Greve on March 10, 2011, 01:13:10 AM

Translating is a difficult job. Should we stick to the original as much as possible?
Should we paraverse it to fit a certain purpose or point we are trying to make?
Should we give various possible versions, as Robin Gill usually does?



As a reader, I like to read a literal translation (or as close as possible to literal) along with the poem translation. I think it's probably impossible to translate a poem from one language to another and keep the literal meaning of the original, yet have it remain a poem. Jorge Luis Borges was well aware of this, worked with the one EL translator he felt understood his intentions best, and himself collaborated in changing the EL translations if the effect in English wasn't what he wanted.

Basho et al are of course not in a position to do that!  :)

What's most important, imo,  is that the poem remains a poem in the language into which it's translated. It follows that a poetry translator needs also to be a poet!

- Lorin


Quote from: Peter Yovu on March 12, 2011, 06:38:57 PM

For now though, relating to the subject of vigorous language, I want to present a poem by Michael McClintock, and I apologize if I seem to be offering an end of chapter exercise.

a little inn
with a swinging sign-board
the evening chill

I have seen one or two responses to this which were at variance to mine. More later on that. So here is the question-- do you believe this poem demonstrates vigorous language? In what way? And, how do you feel the language contributes to how the poem "means"?     

Hi Peter,
              'vigorous' is a word which brings up physical associations for me...energetic, healthy, etc. yet it can also apply to mental exertions. Verbs are the most 'vigorous' words, I think, but this seems out of context when speaking of haiku. It's interesting that whatever word 'vigorous' was in Japanese, Basho backed it up with that sword metaphor. What does a sword do? Cut. But a wooden sword is a plaything, it doesn't cut. One thing good haiku does, whether in Japanese in Basho's time or in English now is "cut to the chase". (That expression is from the language of film making, but is applicable to haiku, I think) So perhaps what Basho might've meant is that it's best to choose the words that get the job done best. I'd say that Basho's use of 'vigorous' in context of that 'seashell game' might mean a vigorous application of the writer's use of the tools of language. Something like Coleridge's "the best words in the best order".

What the "best words in the best order" would be would differ with different subjects, different moods, different insights, so is not prescriptive about what kind of language (though plain & clear has the advantage) but it indicates that the language needs to be effective rather than decorative.

My sword  ;D. . . as long as it's a metaphorical sword, if I had a choice, I'd choose a laser sword.

a little inn
with a swinging sign-board
the evening chill

I'd say that this haiku is an excellent example of effective use of language in poetry. That sign board can be heard as well as seen (the assonant repetition of the small i sounds seem to enact the small sounds of a swinging sign in the wind) The language is 'natural', by which I mean it seems clean & unforced, there is nothing 'chopped' about it nor are there any 'slack', any unnecessary or merely decorative words. McClintock has chosen "the best words in the best order".

Interpretation is another thing altogether. I believe that this haiku can be interpreted in a couple of ways at least. I might interpret the images as a sign of great relief and a welcoming promise of hospitality one day and in a Hitchcock-ian way another day. What the inn and its swinging sign mean is indeterminate, 'swinging', like that sign. We don't know for sure whether the inn is inhabited or not, open or closed. I think we can assume that it's in an out-of-the-way place and that there is a decision to be made. . . to approach the inn, or not to. The poem is effective because it succeeds in focusing the attention, so that the reader enters the poem and experiences the author's sense of "not knowing".

(that's my take on it, anyway  ;) )

- Lorin


Hello, Lorin,

[You posted on another topic whilst I was typing this, so this goes back to your reply to Gabi san.]

Whenever I read a translation (from War and Peace or Madame Bovary right on over to haiku), I always wonder what the writer was really saying.  Even a literal translation, it seems to me there are idioms and cultural touchstones and overtones that can be easily missed.

I never realized how difficult translation was until I tried translating my own haiku into French for the bilingual Haiku Canada members' anthology.  Yikes!


PS, I agree with everything you said re: Michael McClintock's haiku.  "Language needs to be effective rather than decorative," right on!
"Nature inspires me. I am only a messenger."  ~Kitaro

John McManus

Lorin's post was an excellent read, this is how I interpreted McClintock's haiku.

For me the first line clearly shows a little inn, now when I think about a little inn I think of it as being a rather modest or cheap establishment, (perhaps, because I live in a town full of b&b's.) but even though the inn is cheap to stay at we find ourselves outside, staring up at the swinging sign board, which indicates to me a kind of groaning noise (creating a sense of despair.)

I think it's also worth noting that there seems to be only one person outside the inn, which must logically bring in to play some sense of loneliness that is further intensified by the concluding evening chill.

So now not only do we have the physical ordeal of being outside in the cold when we would much rather be inside but also we have the longing for company and perhaps the warmth of a smile.



For language full of vigour, we must not go past our Moderator on this board:

a case of bird skulls
my ears torn by such
little scissors

snow I know everywhere to touch you

broken stitches
               crying in the wind

- Peter Yovu, from his collection Sunrise (many others to choose from too).

John McManus

not meaning to jump on the bandwagon, but I agree with Sandra alot of Peter's work is full of vigourous language. I think this one from the last issue of roadrunner is a good example

gored but out of these shattered ribs a bull



A pen...

(come on poets... you should know which is mightier!)

Speaking of shouting and reading outloud...

A case (happens to have happened to my poem [apology for using an example of mine]) at HSA in Hot Springs 2010 Regional, during the kukai ranking of one poem each submitted by the attendees; and, as I did not know that the poems were to read outloud I wrote as best as I recall a poem with L3 being:

lip ice stick

Now, upon the speaker reading outloud a poem I had thought would be only read (but not outloud) an interesting and unexpected thing happened... the speaker had to re-read the poem several times outloud, giving a different emphasis to L3... this of course confused and confounded the audience (not through any fault of the readers efforts given this poem was not composed to be read aloud, neccessarily).  I garnered one vote out of 21... being surprised I placed at all given the "performance".

As it turns out... no one except one person had heard of "lip ice" and given the vociferation of the speaker on each try... there were interpretations of which the basis emphasized "lip", "ice", and "stick" separately.

The fault, dear reader/listener is not in our sounds but in myself... I perhaps should have written, "lip-ice"  but then would it have made any difference if the reader did not have the time and means to know that this phrase is considered regional?  I doubt so, as, "lip-ice" is now commonly known as "lip balm" or "chapstick" (archaic) or "lip protectant sunscreen" (written in ad-speak).

A trivial example of the affect of reading outloud, granted, but, it really happened (as if that truly matters) in ESP or ESH or what-ever-the-genre will be called in literary record.

Yours in poetry (written not read outloud)


PS... In a Japan (now every iota trembling after the 8.9, tsunami, and nuclear power plant partial meltdowns) all haiku have the potential of being read outloud, (homophonic puns and all).  So in the final analysis a note should be attached to any poems with such vociferation peculiarities to assist the potential reader in oral delivery.

Peter Yovu

So I've been asking myself what vigorous language is, and how it serves haiku. A general response is-- language which, by various means including rhythm and the play of sounds, embodies the life inherent in what it conveys. A poem lives on two levels (and probably more)-- the level of sense, which is what its words signify, apprehended by the mind; and the level of sound, which is "understood" by the body, as another, but inseparable level of meaning.

I think McClintock's haiku beautifully illustrates this, and Lorin has already said much of what I have to say. The poem exists as a kind of indeterminacy-- any interpretation is likely to involve preference on the part of the reader-- but I believe the life of the poem and of its language will unsettle any preference and keep us in a moment which swings between two worlds-- in unknowing, as Lorin says, and uncertainty. Much of this is embodied in the short vowel sounds, and one could ask, how does my body respond to them prior to assigning     meaning? There may be no rational response to this. Another way to ask it-- how is the life in me changed by the language of the poem?  


"a little inn
with a swinging sign board
the evening chill"     
             --M. McClintock

"How is the life in me changed by the language of the poem?" You ask a great question and a hard one to answer. . .

I am reminded of life's ephemeral nature, caught as I am when I read this poem,  for a moment, hanging in the swing of that breeze-blown sign, its implied creaking sound a music all its own. The song is sad to my ear because of its relentlessness--all those short little "i" sounds. Like a string of ifs.

The little inn is a quaint, inviting image in L1 to my mind
counter-balanced with the somewhat haunting feel of L3
that frames an opening for the reader to be wedged right there in the middle of the road, so to speak, caught off-balance as so often we are in life.

The language is vigorous in the poet's pursuit of this end, hammering home a short-lived enchantment. That's what my ear tells me.

--Peter Newton

Peter Yovu

 Another question is whether or not you feel that the language of McClintock's poem creates its own image.
The answer for me is yes. Because for many of us the dominant sense is vision, and because we have a pretty good vocabulary available to describe what we see, it may be harder to talk about the effect of sound and rhythm in a poem as they are often more subtle. But I for one consider it important to try. Another difficulty is that sound is usually felt-- the body responds, but the mind, (the wish to want to see things) can get in the way. So the experience of a sound-image may elude us. But I would say that McClintock's haiku definitely presents a fairly complex sound-image which underscores, and juxtaposes, and perhaps unsettles the "visual" or descriptive images.

In a realized poem the sound may be more trustworthy than what the words "mean", if only because the body, which has a direct response to sound and rhythm, does not equivocate.

To me, if the haiku culture primarily encourages the value of images which are apprehended by the mind and not by the body, a great deal is lost, and may contribute to the confusion many have around whether or not a haiku is a poem. I am not saying that descriptive images cannot be felt by the body or will not affect the heart, but that trust in the actual body of the poem itself, in the very stuff and vigor of language, needs to be considered.  

Here's poem by Peggy Lyles which shows, I feel, an implicit trust in sound. The descriptive images I find rather unremarkable, but the sound-image carries the day (right into the night). Do you agree that the haiku uses vigorous, or living language:

pine tops
against deep twilight
a bob-white's call

Just to be clear, by sound-image I mean the actual sounds and rhythms the poem makes, not reference to sound, or descriptions of sound.  


Peter Yovu

My sense of these conversations is that they are much like conversations in the "real" world: something is usually said which does not get immediate traction but may resurface later. I think this topic may indeed return to what now is clear as the use of unusual, or powerful individual words, words which may or may not "call attention to themselves". I'll step in as moderator now and say, let's come back to that at some point. I hope to continue a bit with the exploration of what for now I'm calling "sound-image", how the life or vigor of language itself, sound and rhythm, informs or is a factor in the totality of a poem. When I can, I'll bring in more examples-- but anyone can do this, of course.

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