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Field Notes 7: Challenge

Started by Field Notes, July 19, 2014, 06:43:19 PM

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Field Notes

Anyone who is serious about poetry knows that to write a good haiku, be it in a traditional, contemporary,
or experimental vein, is no easy thing. It can be a great challenge. The same goes for reading haiku: no matter the "style" in which it was written, no matter the era, each presents the reader with a challenge--
some it would seem, more than others.

Challenge is the theme of Field Notes 7. Here are some questions we hope you will find
both stimulating and challenging:

In what ways, as a reader and as a writer, are you challenged by haiku?

What is your personal challenge?  As a writer, where do you feel you need, or want to go, to further your art and craft?  Is there a new approach toward which you are leaning? An old approach you want to explore? Subject matter? 

Can you show us, and talk about, one or more poems which you find personally challenging?
Challenging, here, may mean difficult, or different, or new and in some way compelling your attention, whether one is looking at a poem by Buson or an avant garde contemporary.

We've asked a few poets to get this ball rolling.

Field Notes


In what ways, as a reader and a writer, are you challenged by haiku?

Poetry requires unblinking presence and courage. You can't have an internal edit button regarding what you observe. My haiku of the past tended to be more pretty and contrived. Now I realize they have to be honest or else nothing. True haiku are not an escape, and do not resist life. My challenge is to not resist life, either through sentimentality or habit. Thus the challenge I face when writing haiku is the same as the guiding barometer of my haiku "Truth": The question of whether I have looked deeply and courageously enough into life.

With compassion as my tool I am better equipped for what I might see, or at least that is my hope.  Compassion dispels fear and allows one to move beyond projection or sentimentality as a defense. Compassion requires humility, an open and receptive stance, and deep listening. It is a way of entering into resonant communion with the observed.  Compassion is direct engagement with life, and, in terms of haiku, when effectively actualized is at its heart.  I would say, then, that I am challenged to keep my heart open in this way as I walk through this world.

Can you show us, and talk about, one or more poems which you find personally challenging?

There are other means to deeply engage truth, as evidenced by trends in contemporary haiku. Currently haiku and senryu that employ mind and convention-bending linguistic experimentation and/or aspects of surrealism AND are still able to maintain a healthy compassion are the poems that challenge and interest me the most.

Some examples that come to mind:

the blood rushing through my blowhole winter stars

-- Scott Metz 

which shocks with its direct identification of the observed, and:

in the deep bosom
of a sniper –
myrtle blossom

-- Onishi Yasuyo (trans. Richard Gilbert and Ito Yuki)

war dead
exit out of a blue mathematics

-- Sugimura Seirinshi (trans. Richard Gilbert and Ito Yuki)

This last haiku is in itself an effective argument for experimentation in art.  Didn't the French Surrealism of the 1920s grow, at least in part, out of the existential insanity of WWI, which many of its originators had experienced first hand? They were witness to the extremes of the "mathematics" of our rational minds, that has everything neatly identified, categorized, and tied up, i.e. our linear, left-brain culture run amok, that can lead to such violence upon ourselves and our world. The harsh light of war can help us to recognize that we are perhaps never more dangerous than when we know everything there is to know.

This kind of radical experimentation, although demanding for the reader, is healthy and has infused contemporary haiku with new vitality. It often forces us to engage more intuitive channels in order to relate. There is value, and life, and courage in tripping up the habitual mind (and habitual form) just enough to bypass ego and reason, if only temporarily, so that new realities can be allowed to penetrate awareness. The intelligence of the heart can recognize truth even when the mind cannot (and can help us transcend the sometime arrogance of reason). 

To sum up, "We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are." (Anais Nin). I live for that moment when observation, external and internal, is allowed to newly inform my being-in-the-world. What about the moments when we do see the world a little bit more as it is, and it raises our consciousness, lifts us up and informs our choices and perceptions? What happens when we take the risks necessary to see something new that might actually change us? This is a personal challenge, and it is one of haiku's greatest gifts.

Michelle Tennison



There is not an aspect of haiku that I'm not in some way or other challenged by. I suppose, if I think back, the least challenging time was when I began as a novice, because as one comes to anything new there is an innocence regarding dimension. I think this is true whether we're talking about the craft of writing, other art forms, sports, cooking, learning how to play a musical instrument, and so on. We approach the "activity" out of interest and perhaps a desire to learn more. For those who want to reach beyond form and haiku as a 5-7-5 frivolity, the challenges are endless, the frustrations tedious, and the rewards beyond measure.

Regarding specifics, I find it difficult to write a really good all-nature haiku. For me, those require a certain kind of quietude, awareness, and sensitivity that is often hard to come by in a world where the mind and body need to be on task just to exist daily. I find that the challenge is to get the "self" out of the way as much as possible and find a place of "centering" where the ego isn't circling the camp. There are many who have done and do this with seeming ease (though we can guess that isn't the case):

heat lightning
the heron's toes
grip dead wood

Peggy Willis Lyles (Modern Haiku 19.3)

night of the comet
the eye of a crow
turns to the light

paul m. (wanderlost)

whispering through the dead-nettles the sides of a vole

John Barlow (Frogpond 37:2)

a color between
flesh and bone

Eve Luckring (Frogpond 37:2)

This is not to say that I'm not equally challenged by other aspects of haiku, especially as the art form continues to evolve and expand through subject matter, content, approach, interpretation, pushing the boundaries--all of which I as both reader and writer find exciting. There is, however, still a part of me that doesn't want to let go of the desire to explore the mysteries of the universe in the vein of a leaf.

Francine Banwarth



Brevity releases language as darkness releases a star.

Harold Bloom writes of the experience of poetry (for him at a very young age) giving  " . . . the pleasures of excited thought, of a thinking that changed one's outer nature, while opening up an inner identity, a self within the self, previously unknown".

The challenge is to stay true to that inner identity, to be its scribe as it explores itself, as it changes, as it challenges one's everyday narcissism.

Cid Corman called it "livingdying".

A picture reminds. An image minds. Mind is a flowering of body.

So much of what is new and genuine and primal is subsumed by imitation. It is a challenge to sort out the original from the echo in ones own work and in that of others. Imitations can be persuasive, but one should not be so easily persuaded to publish.

Scott Metz' poems often challenge the idea that haiku are concerned with the here and now. They locate us
in a mythological or psychological somewhere.

He is explicit about it here:

fireflies are
    eating rhinos

(The fact that this is explicit tends to make it more of a picture than an image, which means it is soon exhausted, but nonetheless it is helpful in leading to other considerations).

Here is a more implicit somewhere:

in the basement
of a snowflake
blackbird and i

It is as if someone had asked a 5 year old Wallace Stevens: "What's at the bottom of a snowflake and what do you see there?" The thing is, you have to ask the right question, and of the right person— "the self within the self"—which is always a challenge.

The challenge for the writer is to present to the reader his or her own sense that there are somewheres within us that require such language, usually metaphorical, usually imagistic, strange only because they are new to us. Here and now after all.

Otherwise, we experience only dissociation, language in rigor mortis. A good poem reveals ears in us we didn't know we had. The difficulty is that the strange is easy to imitate.

With originality, the depths embrace and utilize surface.  And yet surface may co-opt depth, as imitation. The simplicity of many of Burnell Lippy's poems belie their depth and originality. And yet how many haiku that are structured in similar fashion, or use similar vocabulary, feel two dimensional?

deep in the sink
the great veins of chard
summer's end

squash vines
long and hollow
the last late evenings

summer dawn
of the egg's taper

The root remains in darkness, held in depths of earth, so that its leaves and flowers may image forth in the light, visible but unattainable. The ordinary is strange.

Peter Yovu



A Tale of Two Haiji

[Truth is] not a stream that flows from a source, but an agreement of components.  In a poem, these components are not the words and the images, but the relation between the words and images.

- Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry

Haiku sequences have intrigued and often mystified me, so this past year I decided to try a rengay.  I contacted a poet whose work I'd long admired with an invitation.  As luck would have it, she had also never done one, so we proceeded to flounder together.  And how:  Each figure/ground poem was either ground or figure to the next poem's figure or ground, with constantly shifting options; at times it felt more like that amusement park ride, The Scrambler, than the neat set of semantic nesting dolls I had envisioned.  My habitual anxiety of influence alternated with a fear of straying too far from my partner's voice.  At number 5, I got stuck on, among other things, not repeating the word "the" in all the poems.  And when I did land an inspired haiku—one of those all-wave-no-walls experiences–-my partner gently pointed out that it didn't fit our theme. 

Collaborating took one of my biggest challenges with this genre—the agreement between the fragments—and multiplied and reality-tested it.  My journals are brimming with half-haiku in search of a true partnership; like a nun who gets married because she's having a hard time communing with her God, I wasn't slated for success.  My collaborator (to whom haiku came in her half-sleep) and I inspired each other, but, within the sequence, we compromised more than we alchemized.  I wonder if all relationships—whether of a word and image, or of two fragments, poems, body organs, people—hinge on this tension between compromise and alchemy?   Put another way:  Did you ever begin to enjoy your predicament?

I've tried to piece it out, but I can't exactly say why intra-haiku relationships challenge me more than those in longer, looser, or didactic poems.  Or prose.  It just sometimes feels unnatural, like cramming my feet into toe shoes for a pas de deux when I'd breathe better doing contact improv. 

At any rate, as I was in my back yard thinking about all this, a crow broke the branch it was trying to land on.  With its wings still spread, it flew to the next branch.

And so it was that from the rengay that couldn't shine, we salvaged a net slew of single, unincorporated haiku and a hard-earned haiku friendship.

Sabine Miller


Field Notes


I'm challenged by writing haiku (within for the most part a nature connection) by Pound's dictum, "Make it new." There are limited subjects and many have been done to death or worn out (assuming that nature itself has not been worn out, as it seems sometimes, in the postmodern condition, with an apologetic bow to Pachamama). Such haiku seems easy to write but it isn't. Instead, linguistic and long overdone poetics elements have entered the scene, with "ordinary" speech and inflated reliance on overblown (for the small haiku form) infusions of sound poetry, surrealism, psychobabble, and the like. Far from being a Hallmark greeting, haiku drawn out of nature with some depth and a developed sensitivity to nature continues a valid and significant (perhaps more so now) focus as it always has been.

Bruce Ross
Hampden, Maine



Few things have challenged my haiku mind set more than the Martin Lucas essay "Haiku as Poetic Spell". Not since Robert Spiess rejected my entire first submission to Modern Haiku have I been so driven to reconsider almost everything I thought I knew about haiku. The Spiess rejection spurred me to an in-depth study of current and vintage haiku literature. That eventually led to publication and a certain sense of accomplishment over time. Then Lucas opened the blinds and I had to ask whether that sense of accomplishment is devolving into "conformity, complacency and mere competence"—with a tendency toward formula. Just because I've written some "good haiku," I'm not off the hook. In fact, that somehow drives the hook deeper. Any success increases responsibility. But this makes writer's block inviting by comparison. Better to suffer angst over a notebook of blank pages than to consider major surgery on notebooks filled with possibles that have lost some of their luster. Not that I'm discouraged. I return to the Lucas essay often, examining the keys that might open all the doors and windows – maybe even knock down walls. It's the ultimate challenge to any writer: forget past success; aim for the uncomfort zone.

Billie Wilson



    Why? Where? When? How?

I've written a number of articles on poetic creativity such as: Poetry As Therapy (Waves, 1975. 4:1), "Poetic Innovation" (in Larissa Shavinina, ed., The International Handbook on Innovation, 2003),  "Why Haiku?" (Simply Haiku, 2005, 3:4), "Why Do We Write?" (Simply Haiku, 2006, 4:1). Two of my books also deal with the subject: The Modern English Haiku (1981) and Creativity: A New Psychology (1993).  But, on reflection, I find my metaphorical attempts to understand cut closer to the bone.


sharply into focus     the blur     of my existence      (Endless Jigsaw, 1978)

Needle and Thread

With this pen
the needle
and these words
the thread
each day
I mend
the new holes
I find
in my head                     (As Far As The Sea Can Eye, 1979)

History Is A Tapestry

I want to be woven
into its design.
Just a thread—
red.                        (Night Tides, 1984)

She's bent over
a cryptic crossword
I over a poem—
both of us lost in our
own puzzle of existence               (Gusts, 2005, No. 2)

A new hand-held gizmo—
now even fewer will
read the poems
over which we labor
and find sustaining joy               (White Thoughts, Blue Mind, 2010)


Thoughts escape via fingers and tongue to what they imagine are freedom and fortune.

driftwood still wet—
the sea unseen beyond
the vast tidal flat                  (Frogpond, 2014,  37:2)

From Where and When?

hiding somewhere in this room  a good idea      (Endless Jigsaw, 1978)

at the end of myself pencil tip            (Eye To Eye With A Frog, 1981)

full of good ideas I weigh no more            (Eye To Eye With A Frog, 1981)

Writing a poem
of longing for her
I'm irritated
by the interruption
of her phone call                  (Tanka Splendor, 1991)

With so many
thoughts and emotions
I burden
this lone red rose
in the garden                  (Wind Five-Folded, 1994)

ant haiku
my writing
grows smaller                  (Simply Haiku, 2013,  No. 3)

Old grocery list:
perhaps on the back
I'll write
a memorable tanka
about eggs and bread               (American Tanka, 2009, No. 18)


Why Poets Become Outlaws

An image
can be more real
than what it
stands for

That's why
the imagination
certain images

And why
poets become
outlaws                     (Holes In My Cage, 1989)

Rhinos And Fedoras

The best poems
wear fedoras
and can outstare
a herd of rhinos

The next-best
describe thoughts
rhinos have
about fedoras

The rest
should be impaled
on the horns
of rhinos
wearing fedoras                  (Holes In My Cage, 1989)

Into recycling
a sheaf of poems
better off as
menus or flyers—
last snow gone                  (White Thoughts, Blue Mind, 2010)

Not there
the critical mass of neurons
for a poem—
the leaves shimmer
in the wind's metaphors               (Ribbons, 2010, 6:3)

the apple's crispness
       i put an x thru
       the new poem                  (Frogpond, 2104, 37:2)

My decision to divide the poetic process into three parts might be over-analytical as well as redundant.  Maybe this is all that needs to be said:

the answer we are
     is the riddle
   we search for                  (Joy In Me Still, 2010)

George Swede



My latest challenge is the commitment to write for Field Notes.

Recently I wrote a couple of posts for Soundings. Writing out my thoughts, as opposed to leaving them to pass unexamined in stream of conscious, clarified, amplified and simplified them.

To quote Australian architect Glenn Murcutt: "I see simplicity not so much as a disregard for complexity, but as a clarification of the significant."

Separating my mind's significant points from its more seductively complex ramblings can be daunting.

Concrete/language-based poetry presents another challenge.

From the current edition of Modern Haiku:


-Roland Packer, Modern Haiku, summer 2014

My initial reaction was "I don't get it."  Instead of shrugging and moving on, I asked myself, "what do you notice?"  The misspelling of "coin" ...  that the first three letters spell "koi"...  AHA!  Coins and koi in a pond ...maybe a bit of homage to "Tundra"?  Clever. What makes this haiku is that, within the context of a haiku magazine, it does what haiku does

This is similar to how I taught myself to "get" those traditional verses that I found more difficult in the beginning, like this one:

pencil box
the silk worm
cool to my touch

Yu Chang, Frogpond, Fall 2006

Is there an old approach I want to explore? Yes! Going back to the basics. Again and again and again.  Playing with distance in haiku that use juxtaposition. Leaving more unsaid.  Saying one thing while saying another. Trying to be more subtle.  Experimenting.

I am writing more one-line verses and I am more open to language and gendai influences, which paradoxically have opened me more to the beauty and subtlety of traditional haiku. I am writing more traditional haiku too.  Experimenting.  

Subjects and techniques that are used in classical haiku/renku that are seldom used in ELH interest me. Language, metrics, rhythm ... these too interest me. Experimenting.

Two books presently on my bedside table are, Haiku Enlightenment and Haiku: The Gentle Art of Disappearing, both by Gabriel Rosenstock.

I am also rereading A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver and Rules for the Dance, a Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, also by Mary Oliver. Teaching myself to scan is a BIG challenge.
Blyth's Haiku Volume 3 (Summer-Autumn) is also on that bedside table as well as various haiku anthologies dipped into at random and selected books by favorite haiku authors.

John Sexton is a poet who has influenced me. Here are a few of his verses:

lightening bug lantern Issa latches a gate in the cloud

the new grass stretches to the rain / tyrannies are subtle

snailed / rainbows spill at the thrush ford

they eat an eye each the gingerbread man sees no evil

(All verses above by John Sexton posting on Facebook as Jack Brae Curtingstall)

Field Notes posed a question asking what haiku poets can learn from other forms of poetry and vice versa. Another way to put that question is: what can haiku poets who write in a traditional style learn from poets who write in a gendai style and vice versa?

Perhaps the only universal limit applied to haiku is that it must be short. Once a subject is chosen a second "limit" emerges. Whatever one chooses automatically un-chooses everything else. Our limits are determined by the choices we make. The more we learn, the more our choices multiply.

"Limits" can be seen as tools. Some function as trowels "to apply, spread, shape, or smooth loose or plastic material," in this case, the plastic material of experience, memory and language.

This view of limits leads to the ongoing challenge to "make things difficult for myself," to search out those techniques that do not come naturally to me; to work with my least dominant senses; to read poetry that is more difficult for me to "understand," etc, etc, etc.  There are so many ways to cobble together hurdles to jump and/or stumble over.

I recently won third place in the Under the Basho Haiku Contest for this verse:

evergreen almost touching evergreen sound now water now wind

Vision is my strongest sense. Hearing is my least developed sense. I like this verse because it captures a moment that was difficult to capture. But mostly, I like it for something that is just out of reach. I like it because in a very real way, I do not understand it.

The greatest challenge for me, and maybe for all of us, is to grow rather than to metastasize.

Karen Cesar



Basho's example always inspires me to raise my standards both critical and creative. I spend a lot of time blogging on poetry, and a return to Basho restores my energies.  This happens especially when I return to David Barnhill's presentation "Basho's Haiku" (SUNY 2004). His Introduction, translations, and notes leave no doubt as to WHY I feel so challenged at the thought of Basho. He talks about the "assumptions" behind Basho's vision, and they are all relevant today. The assumptions transform our idea of nature: "there are authoritative experiences of nature. Some experiences are 'truer'—more deeply insightful of the essential nature of things—than others." Basho's haiku preserve his "authoritative experiences of nature." An example of this may be seen in Barnhill's comments on the old pond haiku. My own study of haiku has made me hyper-observant of the asymmetry of the two parts: two lines comprising a setting/narrative, one line presenting a moment's insight into the nature of things.

Now, with Barnhill's insistence on how the sequence of imagery creates a meaning I hadn't seen before: "a frog jumps in / and the water sounds:/ an old pond."
The essence of this poem is the sound of old water. To  hear that one must use one's imagination. One must find space in one's own oldness to hear  that sound; one must let that sound speak from within. Sure, old water is usually thought to be silent, but, if disturbed, it makes a special sound. I can't help thinking about how as one ages, one's mind becomes thick and opaque and incommunicative. Until a frog jumps in!
Haiku challenges our assumptions about the duality of man and nature. It challenges our assumptions about the deadness of the past. It challenges our taste in poetry, which tends to value verbal ingenuity over raw insight. Spending time with Basho raises my standards and quickens my spirit.

Tom D'Evelyn



Haiku: A True Challenge

I want to write one true thing. I think Hemingway said that. My challenge as a poet is to maintain an authentic voice throughout a poem. Perhaps that's why I have assumed the role of a haiku poet. Its brevity. Its tight quarters. Its ego intolerance. Its lack of wiggle room.

                                                to begin in ink the end of a pencil

For me, one challenge is to remove myself from the poem. Not that me, my or I are bad things in haiku but they inject a human presence I'd prefer to downplay. Recently, I read a line by the poet William Stafford: "The wider your knowledge, the milder your opinions." I guess I sometimes feel my poems can tend toward opinion pieces. I'd like to think I'm a better reporter on the beat than that. Just the facts ma'am.

I'd like to narrow my subject to the natural world. But that means no dragonfly poems or mentions of the moon, shadows, autumn wind, spring breezes, either solstice or any other possibly overused seasonal references. Cliches are brambles. Tricky territory. I'm all for nature but want to explore a new nature. The new/old relationship we have with nature. To reflect the increasing urgency. Haiku agenda? Is that allowed? No, not really but haiku is what we make it. A poem's gotta matter.

year spent studying
the fall
of snow

Potential subject matter for future haiku: The dire circumstances confronting the natural world in 2014. That giant Texas-sized dump of swirling plastic particles in the Pacific. The loss of the great tusked elephants to poachers. The virility-starved Chinese consumers of shark fin soup. Is the iceberg shrinking or is it business as usual--or simply mankind's expansionist habits at work.


There is no solution. I hold a dim view of man's willingness, ability or inclination to change. Poetry is a spotlight on the issue. Haiku is a pen-light. Perhaps a laser if done well. Language can be that precise. That glaring in the face of complacency. So that's my challenge. Write a poem to change the world one reader at a time.

No problem.

                             star-gazing the minutia moments I don't count

Peter Newton


Don Baird

@Tom: :)

I enjoyed what you have written; it sparks a clarity of what I am generally pursuing with my more recent writings.

So, my notion is "what if there was no pond, no frog, while the sound of plop (water's sound) was in Basho's mind (Hasegawa Kai)? What if none of his story is truth, in a way, yet truth in another? Is imagination also truth? Could be. Over the years Basho has listened to frogs, he's heard rocks skip and/or drop into water-sound ... he's dreamed of these events ... imagined them, witnessed them ... in his world where imagination and truth combine — a threshold that Basho crashed through with his frog poem -- the interplay between truth and imagination becoming his inspiration -- changing hokku/haiku forever.

It is this that challenges me -- to pair truth and imagination in haiku to achieve poems that exceeds readers' abilities to understand (reader resistance; Richard Gilbert) while luring the same readers to "read again for deeper meaning." This technique of separating/joining (toriawase) is traditional. I'm encouraged. I asked myself at some point, why not separate and combine truth and imagination? But, the question already had its answer via Basho's frog. I just couldn't see it clearly.

This is my latest challenge in writing haiku -- to keenly separate and join these two parts -- for stronger vertical axis of meaning, with decent reader resistance to keep things interesting, and to become fresh once again in style. :)

My haiku:

nagasaki . . .
in her belly, the sound
of unopened mail

... is a product of this thought process -- a product of Basho's wisdom and insight, of which I've attempted to understand through the narrow road to my brain (resistant as it is) and develop my most recent approach to writing haiku, hopefully exhibited by my humble attempts above and below:

dried in the rain her ego

kamikaze —
flying into the sunset
of a regime

Thanks Tom for prodding me to finally write my thoughts. This FN had me stumped -- as haiku does in general!  8)

*kamikaze - spirit wind/divine wind - English translation, roughly.
I write haiku because they're there to be written ...

storm drain
the vertical axis
of winter

Sabine Miller

Cool, Don – I hadn't noticed the parallels between your Nagasaki poem and the old pond.

The posts in general, and in particular, Don and Tom's explanation of insight/imagination has helped deepen, or quicken, my appreciation for this exhilaratingly challenging poem:

late winter –
the dragonfly world
of a snowflake

- Donna Fleischer, Under The Basho 2104 Haiku Contest

Here, would the insight would be the dragonfly?  Just as Basho/ Basho's reader/the frog experiences an "old pond" essence from the sound of water, Donna/ Donna's reader/the snowflake distills late winter to a "dragonfly world."  This stopped my mind for a moment.

Or is it late winter?  The dragonfly and the snowflake both experience late winter-ness, a kind of urgent stroke of impermanence.

...I've been thinking about vertical axes, fractals, Cid Corman's "Life is poetry/and poetry is life – O,/awaken children!" and Kabbalist Wallace Berman's transmission-film, "Art Is Love Is God"...

Maybe it's a twin-insight poem.  The polarities give it a sense of the infinite and eternal.  When, through re- and rereading it, I experience a feathery ice crystal experiencing its first/last day on Earth as a winged dragon with compound eyes and killer jaws, I could almost burst with love and hunger for this life.

Darkness releasing a star, indeed.

PS Two hours later: guess who just spent a while flying around in the big white wintry skylight?

Sabine Miller

"Compassion is direct engagement with life, and, in terms of haiku, when effectively actualized is at its heart.  I would say, then, that I am challenged to keep my heart open in this way as I walk through this world."

One Buddhist definition of compassion is "wisdom in action." 

In the past few weeks, thinking about this forum and reading A Thousand and One Arabian Nights (talk about experience+imagination=truth) for the first time, I have been looking for haiku that challenge my person-in-action.

Here two of Jim Kacian's that did, from his book where i leave off (from my notes to the Field Note):

                   the nightingale sings his throat open

Martha Graham says, Keep the channels open.  Even in the dark, even when you are singing someone else's tune...the body will body...

                the war has a new name today jim

I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,/ a remote important region in all who talk:/though we could fool each other, we should consider–/...the darkness around us is deep .- William Stafford, "A Ritual to Read to Each Other"

Mark Harris


I heard Vincent Tripi say something close to this a few months ago, "Every poet carries with them a poem they can never write." His words stayed with me, and for me they are true. How often have I tried to write down something every part of me yearns to express, and failed? Other poems will emerge. They approach what I want to say.

Sometimes the poem I cannot write wants to be a haiku.

English-language haiku has an affinity for naming and describing. While some of the poems generated from that way of thinking interest me, I'm looking for a different sort of experience. My favorite poems are about what can't be named.

Here's one by Raymond Roseliep, from his book Listen to Light: Haiku (Alembic Press, 1980). Since my first encounter with this poem, it's been a key for me. A key to what, I'm not sure—disembodiments leading to an embodiment, illumination.

nor lover's breath
disturb my candle

So soft-sounding, so quiet and gentle, the wistful reverie of a man of the cloth. Almost everything he gives in this poem, he takes away. The moth has its own line, is briefly there, a pale and flickering specter with beating wings, and then dispelled by the word neither, itself omitted.

With modest and knowing humor, Roseliep dismisses the presence of his imaginary lover in line 2. His irregular use of the word nor, combined with the line break after moth, makes for a "cut" in space and sound, a placeless place "pregnant with Nothing" as Meister Eckhart put it.

The final line mentions a candle, and yet isn't a flame the focus of this poem? Why doesn't Roseliep name it, I wonder? Because, I think, his flame can't be seen or known. Felt, perhaps, if only through a leap of faith.

What can be taken away, and what remains? What is it I am trying to say? I don't know. I suppose that's my challenge, Peter.

Paul Miller

I recently finished pasting up the haiku for the next issue of Modern Haiku, and it wasn't until I had finished that I realized its relation to this question.

Every poem I read is a challenge to my idea of haiku as well as my practice of haiku. Some poems ingrain my ideas while others break them apart. But the real challenge is to inhabit that confrontation with each poem because each confrontation changes me. Some confrontations I can make sense of; some I can't. Both are equally important. But it begins and ends with honest immersion. I write my little essays (one on gendai for lack of a better word, and more recently one on war haiku) because I am confronted by something I don't understand and hope through examination to better understand it. I also selfishly hope to use some of these new ideas in my own work. Not because they are new (new doesn't necessarily mean better) but because there is something in some of them that I value. I would like to have more humor in my work; trust in more simplicity; find true lightness; conversely, be more surreal.

Lately I am seeing a lot of very modern haiku or poems that border on haiku. Another challenge is where is that line? Some will rightly argue that such a question isn't important, but as the editor of a "haiku" journal it is for me. To borrow from Michelle's examples above:

     war dead
     exit out of a blue mathematics

     -- Sugimura Seirinshi (trans. Richard Gilbert and Ito Yuki)

I have pondered and pondered this haiku, approaching it from a number of angles, and I think it fails. It is a bunch of twenty-five cent words when five cent words would have done. One challenge in this poem is to stand up to the new orthodoxy and point out its lack of pants. Yet...

     the blood rushing through my blowhole winter stars

     -- Scott Metz

is delightful and invites new readings. Only today do I read "blowhole" in another way. Metz interests me because through his work I often feel as if I am approaching a corner from whose other side I hear the sound of a brass band (for example) only to turn the corner and discover an orange tree.  In looking at the posts above I see a number of the "new haiku" as examples, which is great, but there are equally challenging haiku in the traditional vein. One challenge is to find them, and confront them as well.

Those who know me know that I don't feel like I am ever on solid ground, and I believe that through  my interactions with the world (haiku being the documentation of those) I will better understand this place; but I also suspect that these confrontations will reveal it to be less stable than previously believed. My challenge is to keep turning the corners.

Paul Miller

Richard Gilbert

The Elsewhere Community — Home, Haiku and Personal Challenge

(What is your personal challenge?) Poetry and haiku in particular are a means that may make visible, touchable, present what has been sensed yet distant, un-reachable, hidden. Haiku — both mystical and mundane, depending on your own equation regarding self in relation to society. The "mystical versus the mundane." To note those poetic works that touch one to the core — of unknown lands roamed as home, in Greek oikos from which is derived "ecos," ecology. The challenge of living what haiku poses, explores for the reader. A certain sense of music, the taste of love, in or out of time. What does imagination seek? Where do we really live?

(Can you show us, and talk about, one or more poems which you find personally challenging? Discuss the work of a given poet, or more than one poet, whom you find challenging?) Selections from The Disjunctive Dragonfly [DD] (RMP, 2013):

sore to the touch his name in my mouth

Eve Luckring, 2011,
MH 42.3 (DD p.34)

"Luckring presents a complex texture of perceptual near-synesthesia, as pain (mixed with bliss?) combines with touch, metaphor and identity - also within an intimate context, yet one given ambivalently, as it may be read with multiple (and mutually exclusive) readings."

in tune with its obstacles, rain

Eve Luckring, 2012,
MH 43.3 (DD p.35)

"A sense of musical analogy and aural space inhabits Luckring's ku, with the sound of rain shaping the sense of what those obstacles may be: physical, emotional, psychological? The disjunctive paradox of "in tune" offers notions of harmony."

a long hard lie swells into perjury. spit or swallow?

Eve Luckring, 2012,
RR 12.2 (DD p.59)

bleeding under my skin the American dream

Eve Luckring, 2010,
RR 10.1 (DD p.63)

throbbing stars
the tilt
of my pelvis

Eve Luckring, 2013,
FP 36:1 (DD p.68)

"Here, the "stars" become ambiguous, as the slang "seeing stars" versus literal stars. As well, stars may seem to throb; "misreading as meaning" is likewise strongly present."

deep in the thrust where another day breaks

Eve Luckring, 2012,
RR 12.2 (DD p.71)

blue moon
her milk
comes in

Eve Luckring, 2010,
MH 41.2 (DD p.77)

or a nun bared to the bone shined night

Eve Luckring, 2013,
RR 13.1 (DD p.91)

inside a bat's ear
a rose
opens to a star

Eve Luckring, 2011,
RR 11.3 (DD p.99)

Breaking through the illusive dream of false images and maps we live within. Alice through the mirror steps into love, into bliss? To kiss the sky, to hook up? That poems are prayers, chants, gifts, only partly bidden — and what of the breath, a word which means "psyche"? On the edge balanced, breathing; gendered, utterly embodied. Sensuous as Lucifer the "light bringer," Eve Luckring finds the Elsewhere community, "where another day breaks, bared to the bone shined night." Challenging in the best way, waking up to home again, refreshed, having crossed the Alps, taken the Grand Tour.

Richard Gilbert

The Elsewhere Community, by Hugh Kenner (2000; pdf, excerpt)

Hugh Kenner and the Invention of Modernism, by Marjorie Perloff (Modernism/Modernity, 12, no 3, September 2005: 465-70.)

Philip Rowland

Can you show us, and talk about, one or more poems which you find personally challenging?

One that springs to mind is by John Ashbery, the last of his "37 Haiku," which can be found in A Wave (1984). A number of these are memorable, but for almost two decades, one in particular has stuck in my mind, challenging me to come to terms with it, which may be partly why I find it so compelling. (Which is not to say that I find it opaque; enigmatic, yes, but compellingly.)

       I inch and only sometimes as far as the twisted pole gone in spare colors

Here's what I wrote about it in the late 90s, in an essay presented at a conference in 2000. The essay explored the idea of "avant-garde" haiku in English, taking as a starting-point the notion that the avant-garde must be in some sense "unacceptable." Roland Barthes' Empire of Signs was also a point of reference. "NEH" refers to "The Nature of English Haiku," a pamphlet distributed by the British Haiku Society (BHS) at the time. I'm not satisfied with my take on the poem here, but put it forward again as possible starting-point for discussion:
For Barthes, the quintessential haiku's "propositions are always simple, commonplace, in a word acceptable (as we say in linguistics)"—as Ashbery's plainly are not:

        I inch and only sometimes as far as the twisted pole gone in spare colors

Commonplace? Acceptable? The apparent absence of any concrete outside reference draws attention away from the "natural world" and towards—in the poet's own words—"the experience of experience." Does such abstraction necessarily preclude "evocation of haiku spirit" (NEH)? Arguably—again with reference to the terms of the BHS consensus—Ashbery's work bears witness to "the continuous flow of experience" that is intrinsic to the "haiku moment" precisely by incorporating the mediation or "interference" of language in the experiencing of that flow—or as he himself puts it, "the way a happening or experience filters through to me." This practice does of course tend to displace more concrete subject matter, but also yields flashes of particular insight into the poetic process. "I inch"—well don't we all, "only sometimes" realizing a negative capability by virtue of which the unsaid (or unpainted, "gone in spare colors") can be left to speak for itself.
[Complete essay available here:

More could be said about the sound and rhythm of the line, the rhyme between "far" and "spare," for instance, which helps the long line unfold and resolve into "colors". It's also worth noting that Ashbery's writing of these haiku was inspired by his reading of Hiroaki Sato's one-line translations of Basho in the anthology In the Country of Eight Islands; there are clear echoes; they also remind me of Sato's translations of Hosai Ozaki's haiku, which "sometimes sound like fragments of a prose monologue or something insignificant and vague" (Kyoko Selden). Sato's dedication of the Hosai translations to John Ashbery is also worthy of note.

I very much agree with Peter Yovu's point about the challenge of avoiding imitation or getting bogged down in orthodoxy, new or old. This (here I go again) is why I think it's important for haiku in English to appear in broader poetic contexts, to help keep things in perspective, and allow readers to encounter haiku afresh, relatively free from the orthodoxies that cannot but heavily inform (as Paul Miller points out above) more "specialist" journals.

Incidentally, another challenge, I've found in editing NOON in particular, is whether a haiku can stand alone as compellingly as a longer, short poem. I was surprised to read some "complaints" about space being wasted in Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years where single poems are presented on their own pages; would have thought that haiku poets and readers, more than most, would appreciate the space allowed for haiku to "breathe" (to devour the surrounding space, as it were, and extend out). In some cases, it would be a shame, I think, to shove a poem up against others, particularly if the others aren't quite as outstanding. (And at risk of getting off-topic, the challenge of engaging with the poems that are there, rather than those that aren't or other matters of editorial approach, seems to be one that few – including reviewers in specialist journals – have taken up.)

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