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Field Notes 7: Off-topic #2

Started by Field Notes, August 25, 2014, 03:57:47 PM

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Lorin Ford

Quote from: Peter Yovu on August 29, 2014, 09:19:07 PM
In her book Centering, first published in 1964,  M.C. Richards included a two word poem:




In the book there was a greater distance between the words. The space is, of course, integral. Interesting that she titled it "POEM". Just to be sure.

Can two words be considered a haiku? Can one, or three?  I think it is possible to be clever and feelingful at the same time— why not?

The MC Richards poem above is both I would say.

POEM    Hands     birds

What does it mean if we erect a sign 'POEM' above anything, whether that be a couple of typed, printed or painted EL nouns or a red ribbon on top of a pile of bones we've scavenged from a beach?

What does this piece do for me? It reminds me that recently I noticed that my always impatient (& not gay) son has developed a new-to-me affectation, fluttering his hand in an overtly camp way above something he wants me to take my hand off so he can put his on it (a computer mouse, in this case). Speech, it seemed to me, might be becoming redundant in some quarters.

Does the fact that I can make a connection between the words mean it's a poem, despite authorial insistence? (leaving out the 'what is a haiku?' question altogether )

Other people might think of pegging out the washing with their hands, etc. etc. Does this mean it's a memory prompt? An old-fashioned psychological 'free association' test? (especially if there were a list of these)

A second thing that comes to my mind is a prompt for a creative writing class:

"In 300 words or less write a story in which these two words have a meaningful connection:

                                        hands                        birds                                                "

If we speak of two words being clever and full of feeling, do we attribute the cleverness and state of feeling to the composer of the two words or to the reader who makes a connection between them...any connection? If reader, which reader? The one who comes up with the most inventive or imaginative or most surreal connection?  Or are the two words, placed in a space, to be judged more or less successful a poem according to how many different stories result from the prompt?

What about this one-worder? (it might've been George who wrote it, I'm not sure)


There's no doubt this one was clever, in context. The context was Cor van den Heuval's


known as a 'concrete ku', taking into account its placement on a white page.  The 'core' ku, as well as punning on the name of the author of 'tundra' seemed to be expressing the position of minimalism: only the core is essential, all else is excess baggage.

But is this so?

That said, I can appreciate the wit of some extremely minimalist ku, and there's the example of a one-worder by LeRoy Gorman in the forthcoming issue of A Hundred Gourds.

- Lorin


Here is my best-known two-word piece. It has been published at least 16 times from Cicada, 1979 to embryo: eye poems, 2103. Some editors (e.g. for Cicada, Eye To Eye With A Frog, 1981) have considered it to be an haiku. Others (e.g., Kaldron, 1990, The Wilson Quarterly, 1997) have treated it as a visual poem.


m ss ng

In either case, we are dealing with the continent of poetry where borders separating the different genres move back and forth depending on the era and its prevailing attitudes.



Thanks for your insights.

In answer to your query, I arranged lovers/bacteria into three lines with an audience in mind, that is, I wanted a pause to occur after each of the first two lines before the (presumably) surprise ending.

a sweet machine

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:


you are now
an enormous hailstone,
so I hug you

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