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Montage #34


Montage #34,
presented by Allan Burns,
is now up
on The Haiku Foundation website.

“Halloween Masque” (Montage #34) features haiku by Clement Hoyt, Tomas Tranströmer, and Ann K. Schwader.

A Hallowe'en mask,
            floating face up in the ditch,
                       slowly shakes its head.
— Clement Hoyt

                                                                                A corrosive wind
                                                                                blasts through the house in the night—
                                                                                the name of demons.
                                                                                — Tomas Tranströmer

razored through
to the void
— Ann K. Schwader

This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. Hi, Guys, Just stopped by for a moment..
    Any “art” that touches us…is truly art. But each person has different things that “touch” them. I have read many haiku over the years that I thought were really good…but the ones that linger…the ones that seem to reveal something to me …teach me something about myself that I had no clue I knew… These are the haiku that I treasure. There is a diversity in haiku that I think is good and healthy as long as there is mutual respect and one of the things that make this blog so valuable…the extraordinary respect everyone goes to to try to comprehend what the other is getting at.

  2. Hello, Dave, re the general Poetry journal 😉 yep. Or Billy Collins or Gary Snyder or… any ‘known poets’.

    Totally in agreement with your reasoning re the context of haiku definitions, too.

    Recently, at a ‘general audience’ poetry event in support of the Yarra River’s Heron Island, I had time to read out one ‘long poem’ and a series of haiku (on the theme of ‘rivers’) Just as I begun the haiku series, a bloke in the second row with a very loud voice interrupted with , ‘What is haiku?’ Yikes! I only had time for about a 5 second answer! But in that context, that was all that was required, thank goodness. This is what came out::

    ‘Haiku, in the English language, are very short poems adapted from a traditional Japanese form of poetry. Their focus is usually on the natural world.’

    (then I quickly began to read, before any more questions came)


  3. Just thought of another consideration in regard to the importance of haiku definitions — context. We all know this: I’m just adding a little to the conversation.

    If I’m introducing haiku in English to a group of people, and I don’t want them to become totally exasperated with me, a simple definition of haiku is important.

    If I’m reading a collection of poems by people who usually know what they’re doing, and the editor has deliberately included work that challenges a simple definition of haiku, a simple definition is not that helpful to me. But if i then get into a conversation about this collection and talk turns to whether a poem is a haiku or not, our respective definitions become important in the conversation.

    If I am an editor of Poetry magazine, my working definition of a haiku might be “A kind of brief poem we do not publish unless the work seems to fit with the other poems we’ve selected for that issue. It might help if the work was by someone we’ve heard of, like Tomas Transtromer.”

  4. I agree with your responses, Dave. Genres are elastic and difficult to define. That’s part of what makes them powerful and compelling. Just try to define not only “poetry”, “the novel”, “music”, “painting”, usw, but “art” itself.

    Christopher asks: “How can [editors] begin to assess whether a submission of haiku is good AS HAIKU?”

    I would say they can only do so the same way as everyone else, through the hard work of becoming fluent in haiku and its traditions.

  5. I found one difference between haiku and other art forms . . .

    Most people assume that music, poetry, and other forms of art cannot be simply defined. But if you suggest the same thing about haiku, people often get cross.

  6. Christopher,

    I agree that it can be tricky for editors to judge a haiku as a haiku, but isn’t it just a tricky to determine whether a free verse poem is in fact a poem and not lineated prose? Or whether a canvas of squiggles is art? Or a collection of random noise is music? I don’t think we can save ourselves or anyone else from the good work of determining whether something is worthy of consideration as a haiku.

    I think simple definitions of haiku are about as useful as simple definitions of music or painting or any other art. I think definitions are important, but only as a starting point and an occasional point of reference . . . or departure.

  7. Hello Allan,

    wow, the third time I’m addressing you in a single day! On a different topic this time though.

    Yes, I understand what you are saying. Indeed, I do already conceptualise haiku in the way you suggested.

    “Sometimes very interesting and striking haiku defy norms and tendencies in artful ways”

    – I absolutely agree.

    “I have mixed feelings about some of the Tranströmer haiku”

    – I feel the same about this too.

    “It’s just at such junctures that we become more aware of our own self-imposed limitations and how we might successfully transcend them”

    – Again, I thoroughly agree. And I also agree that the Transtomer haiku are worth pondering for the reasons you suggest.

    But I am probing for more, and not without reason. What I wonder is if part of the reason for haiku struggling to find their way into broader poetic acceptance is that there is so much uncertainty about what one is. Even we, who cherish haiku and spend hours discussing and reading them, cannot be completely sure of what a haiku is, or so it might seem. So, how are all those poor poetry magazine editors meant to understand? How can they begin to assess whether a submission of haiku is good AS HAIKU? We must make their lives very tricky! (Unless they simply ignore the issue altogether – probably the more common solution).

  8. Cherie, I agree – seems we’ve had this discussion before regarding a damsel fly? Thanks Allan for that Spiess quote.
    And turning to the search engines on the internet open so many doors for me. Many thanks.

  9. Fascinating analysis of the Mainone haiku, Cherie. I’m glad you posted it. I think this is certainly a direction our haiku could explore more–i.e., alluding to scientific theories and models of knowledge. It’s a very modern way of creating a “vertical axis”. I can imagine some might object on grounds that they feel haiku should be more intuitive than intellectual–but I think there are ways of balancing the two tendencies, as Mainone has done.

    As for specificity, there’s a fascinating essay titled “Specific Objects in Haiku” published by Robert Spiess way back in American Haiku 5.1 (1967). He argues that “Intuitive suggestion cannot be evoked by vagueness; it can only be triggered by particularity and individualization” and points out that “Perceptive haiku poets and readers figuratively find night and day differences between a birch and an oak or between a maple and a spruce, and between the color, size, and flight characteristics of a swallowtail and those of a sulphur.”

  10. Science nerds unite! I was on the other coast in Cambridge, MA. …a lifetime ago.

    What delights me so much about this haiku is it combines two of my passions—science and art.

    It also raises the question of specificity, a topic that has been debated in haiku for a number of years. If the writer is too specific, he/she runs the risk of losing the reader, of frustrating the audience with non-relevant details. If the writer is too generic the reader will get bored and not care. It’s a fine line. I err on the side of specificity. It’s okay to call that butterfly a mourningcloak. It has richer connotations.

  11. Strange coincidence Cherie, my sister worked with c. elegans in Cynthia Kenyon’s lab. I’ve written a haiku (not published) inspired by that particular worm. Haven’t received MH yet, so this is a sneak preview. I didn’t at first get the reference to the primordial soup, thanks. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with readers scratching their heads and then maybe, if they’re sufficiently curious, visiting the library to do extra reading. I’ve read poems I haven’t “gotten” until years later.

  12. In the most recent issue of Modern Haiku there is a haiku that caught me by complete surprise.

    my haplogroup
    shows the sponge gene—
    distant lightning
    Robert Mainone [Modern Haiku 40:3(2009) 62]

    I read it and then I read it again. For several years I worked at the lab bench mapping genes in C. elegans—one of the first organisms to have its entire genome mapped. Haplotyping is at the cutting edge of molecular evolution and genetic genealogy. DNA/RNA is used as a “molecular clock” to study species divergence. Robert Mainone’s third line goes even further back to the beginning of life—the theory that lightning discharged into the primordial soup of chemicals recombined them and formed the building blocks of the first one-celled organisms. This reference for me was like lightning striking again. Eight words and I’m looking into that stormy sea for signs of life. There is a molecular record of every divergence and convergence balled up in the nucleus of each cell. WOW!

    As much as I enjoy this haiku and applaud Charlie Trumbull for publishing it, how many readers will be left scratching their heads?

  13. Hi, again, Christopher. I certainly don’t have definitive answers to your questions, but I’ll try to point toward a way of conceptualizing the issues. Maybe instead of thinking in terms of “rules” and “definitions” and “should/shouldn’t” it’s better to think in the relative terms of “norms” and “tendencies”, objective presentation and implicit meaning (“showing”) being among these. Sometimes very interesting and striking haiku defy norms and tendencies in artful ways. I have mixed feelings about some of the Tranströmer haiku, but I think all, including the one you’ve cited, are certainly interesting and worth pondering, esp. for the ways they diverge from our common practices. It’s just at such junctures that we become more aware of our own self-imposed limitations and how we might successfully transcend them.

  14. Let me just clarify that, as it may be unclear…

    Is it too much of a statement, and does he make things too explicit? Is he telling when he should be showing? And are these things I’ve just mentioned principles which haiku should follow?

    Resulting from these questions there’s another tired old question, but still one worth asking – does the “show don’t tell” idea we often talk about in haiku form part of our definition of haiku? And if not, what are the limits that make what we speak of haiku rather than (in the case of one-liners) monostichs, or otherwise simply very short poems. The old definition problem is probably still the one which most haunts haiku.

    So, any thoughts or comments?

  15. Merrill, great first comment and I also found David’s explanation of the space in Transtomer’s work very interesting.

    My question, as a result of all this, is what status something like the following, by Transtomer, has as a haiku:

    Rugged pine trees
    over the same tragic moor.
    Ever and ever.

    In a poetry often defined on the basis of its concrete, objective approach to communication does this contain too much of the abstract?

    I’m not taking one side or the other myself – but I want to know what others think and I’d like to form a clearer idea about this in my own mind.


    “Ever and ever” seems incredibly abstract. Calling a moor “tragic” is also fairly abstract, although I think much less so and probably within the more usual bounds of haiku.

    I’ll leave it at that for now. I don’t want to add much more of my own thought – I really want a sense for what others feel rather than a response to what I feel.

    As I said, I’m not on one side or another right now, I am just making an observation that the poem contains a lot of abstraction which is usually / often looked on as a weakness in haiku.

    What do others think about this?

  16. Mark, I see your point, but there seems to be a transferance of that trepidation onto the raven…whereas the other two still internalize it.

    Tonight I was searching for an old poem I loved years ago by Eugenio Montale (translated by William Arrowsmith) from his book Cuttlefish Bones:

    Maybe one morning, out walking in air like dry
    glass, I’ll turn around and see the miracle occur—
    nothingness at my shoulders, the void
    behind me—with a drunkard’s terror.

    Then, as on a screen, the old illusion:
    hills, houses, trees will suddenly reassemble,
    but too late; and I’ll thread my way among men
    who don’t look back, quietly, with my secret.

    I know, it’s not haiku, but there it is again….

    You gotta admit, Allan has selected some pretty good stuff for our Halloween spook.

  17. Thanks Dave, that helps flesh out my intuition. I enjoy Transtromer’s leaps between cuts.

    ….and Merrill,

    razored through
    to the void

    could be read more than one way, but whether physical or metaphysical, I’d say it contains plenty of psychological trepidation.

  18. I am just struck by the seeming (seeming to me anyway) of the psychological trepidation I find in both Clement Hoyt and Tomas Transtomer…like making our way in dark rooms in a long deserted house, while on the other hand Ann Schwader’s haiku seem fully in the cold light of day…she seems quite at home and comfortable with her ravens. While the other two give me the feeling that they’ve seen things that might just give us pause to consider…

  19. I agree Mark.

    Robert Bly wrote of Transtomer’s longer poems: “One of the most beautiful qualities in his poems is the space we feel in them. I think one reason for that is that the four or five main images which appear in each of his poems come from widely separated sources in the psyche.” (from Friends, You Drank Some Darkness).

    The feeling I get from these three line haiku is like that.

  20. I’m not sure how to read the Transtromer poem Merrill mentioned above. The revelation of the 1st line is not, I think, about the tree or sea, but a separate (or related only in part) thought he’s commemorating. The way he incorporates the product of his mind into the scenery, as if he’s observing it in the same way, I find intriguing. His use of periods at the end of each line adds to the sense that the revelation is frozen in time, life-altering, an end and a beginning.

    On the other hand, I might be way off the mark. Any more thoughts?

  21. A three-part haiku (such as the last two I’ve selected by Tranströmer) is a rare creature, and difficult to pull off. I leave it for readers to decide in these instances. Buson, who experimented quite a bit with form, took this approach on occasion–

    yanagichiri shimizu kare ishi tokorodokoro

    The willow’s bare
    The stream’s dry
    Here and there, stones.
    (trans. Takafumi Saito & William R. Nelson, 1020 Haiku in Translation, BookSurge, LLC, 2006)

    Hoyt’s work takes us back to the early days of the ELH “movement”. Despite the 5-7-5 norm and through-phrased structure, I find many of his images indelible and wonder whether other readers feel likewise. It’s possible a measure of “historical imagination” may be necessary to read him sympathetically. Certainly, though, I’ve never forgotten his Halloween mask slowly shaking its head in the ditch or the door slamming and slamming in the empty house, usw.

    Ann gives us, as it were, “Seven Ways of Looking at a Raven”. Not all too familiar either, as her Scorpion Prize-winning–

    razored through
    to the void

    The Lovecraft excerpt I’ve used as the headnote is a mood-setter and alludes, albeit rather indirectly, to Jim Kacian’s idea of haiku as anti-story. It’s also an “inside” reference to Ann’s Lovecraftian mythos poetry. By way of explanation….

  22. This collection surely reveals the diversity of haiku…even ELH.
    With Clement Hoyt we have the sentence haiku…and with Tomas Transtomer several different forms…Look at this one:

    A revelation.
    the crooked apple tree.
    The sea is close by.

    So many subjects…or is the first line a title? Does it matter?

    And with Ann K. Schwader we come to a more familiar form and expression.

    To my mind, each is haiku, and the ghosts of doubt can go on and haunt anyone who thinks differently! Boo!
    Happy Halloween everyone!

  23. Go soft as the rain,
    meet the whispering leaves.
    Hear the Kremlin bell!

    How much of our lives is directed and controled by powers and forces beyond our control! In a haiku like this I find a documentation of the cultural circumstance this human finds himself in as well as the power of words to lie there dormant in the minds and hearts of others as a warning… How we each heed that warning is up to each of us…but he has sounded the alarm… It is enough to change things I think, as others understand more completely through these words what we are creating in our cultures.

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