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Sailing 14.5 How Do You Spell Haiku?

Started by Peter Yovu, May 26, 2011, 04:13:24 PM

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Peter Yovu

                                              How Do you Spell Haiku?

Have you read Martin Lucas' essay "Haiku as Poetic Spell"? What he discusses there has great relevance for what we've been looking at, and beyond. What I've been referring to as "sound image"--  (how a poem is experienced or felt prior to being taken up by the conscious mind), he calls "Poetic Spell". They are not exactly the same thing, in part because while Lucas speaks of the importance of sound (including, and emphasizing, rhythm) he also includes image, and says "It's possible to approach the Poetic Spell through both imagery and language". But he seems to give primacy to sound.

So one way to look at what we've been calling "vigorous language" (or "living language"), is to say it is language which casts a Poetic Spell. Of course, Lucas' essay is all about what that is.

Here's Jim Kacian's poem again, with some of Lucas' criteria for Poetic Spell below.

        the high fizz nerve the low boom blood dead silence

There is a "significant contribution of word music/language effects, notably rhythm"

It is "essentially irrational—prose paraphrase not possible"

It "cannot be analyzed in terms of information content alone"

It is "an oral form, readily memorable"

He gives other elements as well, but from these alone, I daresay he would include Kacian's haiku with others, such as Duro Jaiye's

      hatless the seeds of winter in the morning sky


      sharpening this night of stars distant dogs

by Stuart Quine,  as casting a Poetic Spell.

He says: "That's what I mean by Poetic Spell. Words that beat; words that flow". And, "This is what I want from haiku: something primitive; something rare; something essential. . . . It's not the information content that counts, it's the way that information is formed, cooked, and combined. Poetic spells don't tell us anything, they are something, they exist as objects of fascination in their own right". (My italics).

By the way, Lucas presents all this in opposition to what he calls the "International Formula" approach to haiku. But to learn more about that, you'll need to read his essay.

So, what do you think about this orientation to haiku? Or to any of the points Martin Lucas makes? Do you know of haiku which fit his view of the Poetic Spell?

His essay is included in Evolution, the latest volume from the Red Moon Anthology series. Or you can nibble the link below and find a version which, however, does not include his criteria, ("battle positions") contrasting the "International Formula" with Poetic Spell.



Peter, yes I have read this and also I was fortunate enough to be at the 4th Pacific Rim Haiku Conference when Martin & Stuart first gave this as a paper. It was delightfully uplifting and humorous as well as being a welcome revelation.

seasonal ref'rence --
then two lines of contrasting
foreground imagery

Ouch! But I like the droll humour.

I do agree that EL haiku might pay more attention to the sounds and rhythms of the English language, as Martin suggests. The sounds and rhythms are the 'body' of the poem and connect with our bodily senses. Yet this often goes against the 'minimalist' thread of American haiku.

ok, I'll give one of Martin's and one of Stuart's which for me fit with 'Poetic Spell', in their different ways:

after rain
they're visible—the faces
in the trees

-Martin Lucas – UK, NFTG Vol 1, issue 4, March 2010

march winds wildly spinning the windbell's tongue

- Stuart Quine – UK, NFTG Vol 1, issue 4, March 2010 

Also , from the 2010 Presence comp, this, one of the 2nd place winners, appeals to me because of the way that it enacts the sound of those upset coins; this is 'poetic spell', the words do not merely signify, but conjure up the experience of the sounds, allow me to experience that sound which can be either or both showery 'spring rain' and the random sound of coins scattering. It makes me listen, and I hear the silence before and after as well:

Spring rain
I've upset
the little stack of coins

Stephen Gould (USA)

- Lorin       

Jack Galmitz

I hate to sound too pedantic, particularly as I am no linguist, but as to language bearing a primeaval meaning based on sound alone, I don't think such an animal exists. I mean there are morphemes, made of of phonemes, but the sounds have either semantic or distinctive meaning based upon a speaker's need to differentiate sounds based upon that language's rules or order and assemblage for meaning purposes.
As to the importance of sound related to meaning, that I agree is quite important.  Language is a sound/meaning entity and how we write is as important as what we write or mean; but it differs from musical notation in that language is meaning bearing, whereas musical notes may affect us but not with meaning per se.
That is why Basho suggested to writers to repeat to themselves over and over and over the haiku; so they got the sound/meaning right.  This is in direct contrast to Blythe, who was the first, I believe, to state that it was the goal of poetry to resemble what it was "about," whereas this was not the case with haiku. I didn't agree with him, but not speaking or reading Japanese, I don't know why he drew this conclusion.
I would also add, as a personal rejoinder, that I think Jim's poem is rational and can be paraphrased and it is not bearing its meaningby its sound alone.  But, that perhaps at another time I'll be prepared to discuss.

Peter Yovu

Jack, thanks for taking this up. Yes, I'm no linguist either (though I sometimes feel addicted to morphemes) and it may be that in some of what I've been saying I'm mostly promoting a preferred way of seeing things, but which does not hold up to scrutiny.

First of all, let me say that from my current understanding, it would be more accurate to say that haiku which partake of Poetic Spell (I'm capitalizing as Lucas does) are not exclusively irrational, but have an irrational element which is what is lost in paraphrase. (This will remind of Frost's "Poetry is what is lost in translation", of course).

I do not know if Lucas would agree, but I feel that this quality is inherent in a poem, and explication (which cannot present something but can only represent something) drives it away. This means, essentially, that Poetic Spell (the body of the poem) indeed does not operate at the level of linguistic meaning, but closer to the way music operates, affecting us, but "not with meaning per se". I said in the intro above: it is "how a poem is experienced or felt prior to being taken up by the conscious mind". This doesn't mean that it should not be taken up by the conscious mind, but rather that if the conscious (rational, left-brain) mind takes it over and insists on only grasping it, much is lost.

Maybe what is helpful is to do two things at once: grasp a poem in your right hand, but keep your left hand open to the sky.

So Jack, I may not be saying anything very different than what you are saying—just placing a different emphasis.

And Lorin—wonderful examples you provide. Can we have some more? And maybe some where the "irrational" element is apparent (but not dominant)?

Minor edits for clarity.


after rain
they're visible—the faces
in the trees

-Martin Lucas – UK, NFTG Vol 1, issue 4, March 2010

This one, to me, is an example of a ku where the "irrational" element is apparent but not dominant. It might not seem so, on the surface, but though the trees I enter this poem through are the sinewy, wind-bent Australian natives, Coastal Ti-tree, and Martin would've had an English species in mind... perhaps Blackthorn... many people, even today, will have experienced the shift from the ordinary, prosaic and rational world to the borders of a different reality where trees of different kinds have presences which seem animate.

These faces in the trees in Martin's ku are compelling. They cannot be rationalised away. Sometimes they're invisible, but sometimes (after rain, in a certain slant of light. . .) they're visible. What are these faces?

Elaborate esoteric cultures have been formed around trees, not least in Anglo-Celtic history. These faces in the trees have a deep history from before Roman Britain, before Christianity. They are part of a sub-strata which still persists in modern Western consciousness. Even Shakespeare had Prospero release Ariel from the tree (a 'cloven pine') where he had been trapped by sorcery. 'Faces in the trees' belong to the world of what we might call Nature Magic, a quite other way of being in the world and experiencing it than the rational.

Very lightly, the poem shows that the modern, rational way of experiencing the world is not the only one, has not been the only one, and that older ways of being in the world are still there as part of our consciousness which we inherit from long ago ancestors. This poem takes me, as far as bodily sensations go, to a place which is a bit spooky; the awareness is in the chest/ heart area, rising to the back of the neck. Rupert Sheldrake and 'the sense of being looked at' occurs to me and the Indonesian word for danger, 'hati-hati', which basically says 'watch out for your heart'.

This is a haiku which creeps up on you!

- Lorin

modified: added last sentence

Mark Harris

Thinking about haiku as spell, as vigorous language, as words locking into place in unexpected, sometimes inescapable ways that make their own sense, build their own worlds, resonates for me. Thanks for offering a new angle on this subject, Peter.

[edit added here] Lorin, my post was more cursory than it should have been; you might feel I ignored your point, and the poem you put forward. Will try use words now. I don't disagree with any of your observations about Lucas's haiku, and the poem works for me as it does for you, with interesting suggestions and ideas below the surface. However, the poem's face and interface use a different strategy than the ones Peter's navigations suggest to me. It points the way, for me, more with finger than body--look at how faces become visible in the trees after rain--that doesn't do justice to a fine poem, merely demonstrates how one can make sense of the words. In Lucas's poem, what Peter calls the "irrational element" is to be found in us, not so much the poem.

for what it's worth, here a few compelling haiku that also, imo, disrupt the rational mind

morning-glory folds into herself into her folds

         Marlene Mountain

one step back in the river's voice

         Scott Metz



to get

         John Martone

the river the river makes of the moon

         Jim Kacian

Peter Yovu

Okay friends, how shall we proceed with this? What would be useful?

Mark Harris

thanks, just modified my last post in an attempt to be more useful. I've noticed we're all on not quite parallel tracks, which is okay with me but sometimes derails the conversation

Jack Galmitz

Folks, I think it is questionable to begin by stating that poetry is irrational or has an irrational element and from there to jump to the conclusion that it operates pre-linguistically or without reliance on linguistic rules.
I think what we have here is a face to face encounter with poetry (as the Russian formalists found it) as an entity to be studied by its own rules.  Roman Jacobson thought linguistic theory in its entirety applied to poetry; others of this school thought poetry should be understood only by its own language laws.
But, I think we do ourselves a disservice by suggesting that poetry is more akin to music than language per se.  Poetry operates by usages most of which we are familiar with and sound as meaning, as influencing meaning, is one of them.
I'm afraid Mark that I don't find the examples you present as being irrational as being so at all; I think once we are in language as an art form we are in language completely and although poetry doesn't pretend or aspire to be rational it still offers meaning via language in its own way and signifies in this way.
Without language and its general rules and poetic usages we would be lost in sensorium, drowning in it.What think you?

Mark Harris

hi Jack,

I don't think saying the poems disrupt the rational mind, by which I mean the part of us that wants to make sense of what we encounter in short order, is the same as saying the poems are irrational. They are rational, and rationally created. Methinks.

Jack Galmitz

Yes, you're right Mark, that is an important distinction.  However, in that portion of my commentary, I was more addressing Peter's overall view of poetry; however, it did apply somewhat to your comments, so I stand, if not corrected, more sophisticated.
How about this: Roman Jakobson described literature as "organized violence committed on ordinary speech." Literature constitutes a deviation from average speech that intensifies, invigorates, and estranges the mundane speech patterns.

Mark Harris

That Jakobson is good; and yes, I'd not be disappointed to ban the use of rational and irrational from my part of this conversation. I'm not well-armed in a discussion of signifiers, although I think I see where you're going and am interested.

[name sp. correction]

Jack Galmitz

Just a note in passing: the poems presented all seem to personify nature.  This is something I think is common in haiku and something I myself on occasion use (or am guilty of).  Personification, of course, is one of the formalistic devices of poetry per se, and yet it fell into disuse or disfavor some time ago, because of its relationship to colonialism, to the usurpation of the universe by human beings, what was called then the human universe.
These remarks are meant to take up Peter's more important and direct question: where to go from here?  What would be useful?
I think if we want to be serious about it, we need a larger parameter than "vigorous language," because the living nature of language is bespoken every day on the street by every person; from what is called  Langue, which is the universal depository of language, to parole, which are the individual utterances made from Langue, we have the living nature of language.  Besides, every poem, every mood does not entail a wild or nature language-think contemplative poems for instance.
I think, if we are to be serious, we need to think of what our mission is: and I quite agree with Lukas that we want to get away from that universal formulaic haiku of seasonal reference followed by two lines or phrases explicating or contradicting or coordinating with it.
Do we want to exercise ourselves in the creation of an aesthetic?  A reasoned attempt at what poetry and haiku is and aspires to?

Jack Galmitz

Or, upon reconsideration, perhaps we should be aiming towards a goal that is not as ambitious as an aesthetic, but as important.
My question is what are we doing with this art in the 21st Century?  It is divorced from the historical roots of its ancestry in Japan; its beginnings were offered by first Imagists and then the Beats and their Buddhist inclinations, and in both cases then abandoned as a passing experience and experiment.
Peter's views on language and vigorous language are an important contribution; Mark Harris's observations are always important, as are Lorin's thoughts on many subjects.
But what are we doing and where are we going?
Personally, I like Ban'ya Natsuishi's view of his own work:he calls them modern cultural myths.  The mythopoeic power of language is and always has been a indispensible element in any important poetic ventures.  Why not ours?


"...the poem's face and interface use a different strategy than the ones Peter's navigations suggest to me." - Mark

ok, Mark, that makes sense to me.  :)  I also think that Martin's concerns (mainly, when it comes down to it, that we might consider haiku's potential as poems more fully than many of the more formulaic haiku demonstrate) show that it's time that the haiku community woke up to the variety of strategies possible in poetry. I really don't think that Martin is advocating a new formula of 'disruptive techniques' to take the place of the old formula, but rather a broadening view of the possibilities.

Poetry is not aimed at the rational mind, or poetry does not aim at the rational mind alone but at our wider capacities of perception. We are required to willingly 'suspend disbelief', to put the rational mind 'in neutral' perhaps, but not to turn it off completely. We are asked to participate more fully than with just the rational mind.



to get

          John Martone

This poem which you cite, as much as Martin's, brings a mythology, a world view & the concepts of that mythology/ world view into consideration... Buddhist instead of Druid. It is actually a more intellectual poem, relying on a concept and the reader's knowledge of that concept, than Martin's 'faces in the trees'. To me, its strength is that the concept  (emptiness) is given life and, yes  8) plausibility, by that comparative image of the unearthed earthworm twisting instinctively to get back into it's sustaining habitat, the earth.

So how does this poem "disrupt the rational mind"? It suggests, imo, to the rational mind that the true dwelling place of the mind is emptiness (the Buddhist concept of emptiness). In my view it engages the rational mind rather than disrupts.

But you're probably right that I don't understand the direction that Peter would like discussion to go in.

Am enjoying reading the thread, though.  :)

- Lorin

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