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Montage #39


Montage #39,
presented by Allan Burns,
is now up
on The Haiku Foundation website.

“Confessions” (Montage #39) features ku by Nick Avis, Roberta Beary, and John Stevenson.

she raises the hem
of her new dress
           the day now longer
— Nick Avis

                                                                                third date—
                                                                                the slow drift of the rowboat
                                                                                in deep water
                                                                                — Roberta Beary

one last look
through the old apartment
a dry sponge
— John Stevenson

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. oh, there is always the next page to turn where interpretation is concerned! When I read: “hating him/
    between bites/ of unripe plums” I think, among other things, of Catullus’s odi et amo, which focuses on feelings of “crucifiction” in the lover-poet because of the love-hate ambivalence. So this intertextuality, both very short poems which sort of levels the playing field, certainly is part of my experience of the haiku. As others have suggested, one may ask “why” is the poet/speaker eating unripe plums? If I revert to the form of haiku derived from Basho and explained by Shirane in terms of vertical/horizontal, it’s because I’m not satisfied with a completely open ended interpretation. Is there a way to limit the “reasons” the poet is eating unripe plums? Do we see it as a form of self-hate? That would reactivate the sense of form — the fold in the poem between the “hating him” part and the rest of it, the unripe plum part: just who does one hate when one hates? In the Catullus epigram, there’s self-loathing because of the pain; and this self-awareness is one of the great themes of Catullus and the Latin elegaic poets. I’d like to think that theme is present in Beary’s poem, but the univocal first part : hating HIM — may limit the possibilities; but maybe not.
    Another intertextual note is “plum” — in American haiku (that is, putting aside for a moment all the plum blossoms in Japanese haiku!), we might recall the “plums” in the famous WCW poem, so sweet and so cold. The opposite of the unripe plums!

    Great poetry EXCLUDES interpretations — cuts them off at the pass as it were. Just as good similes and metaphors make poetic use of the areas that do NOT apply to the target object. One reason Shirane’s model is useful is that it provides grounds for seeing the single line as a DELIMITING factor on interpretations of the narrative base.

    In any event, it’s fascinating to see the alertness of the conversation to so many factors in interpretation. Fascinating and bracing! The conversation should bear real fruit in the practice of haiku, writing and criticism alike.

  2. That sentence about “humor” should have read that “it can be extremely hurting as well as healing…” Sometimes my fingers get ahead of themselve.

  3. Allan, This is a wonderful gift you have given us…at least for me. It not only provokes thought, but it opens up doors I never would have guessed haiku could open up to. I don’t know if this makes any sense to anyone but all I can do is throw it out there to see. Tonight I was listening to the jazz song, “Love For Sale”…and I had been thinking about the way these haiku rely on a certain amount of humor in them. Now I know enough about humor to understand that it can be extremely hurting as well as hurting and not only in ways we intended it to be. But these haiku seem to me to be by poets who have come to love the human condition so completely…to love their fellow man/women (and I don’t mean that in a sly way – no pun intended!) but to love the “other” so completely fully understanding the transgressions of the “other” that they suddendly could see the humor at the point of the breaks where objectivity entered in. I know that John and I had a marriage that was about as perfect a union as you can get. John’s faults were exactly what I needed and mine were exactly what he needed to make us whole. We used to laugh together all the time. Believe me that is sorely missed in my life today. But we saw the humor in some of the most atrocious situations and that kept us sane. I find that kind of tenderness in all of the above haiku. Even in Roberta’s “hating him”, Nick’s “i remember the lie”, and John’s “Father’s Day”… Hurtful yes, but enough love there to find the turn…to turn things around.
    These are not easy haiku. But they beg us to turn the hurt around. I love these guys!

  4. Well, I’m glad this gallery has proven, as Tom D’Evelyn described it, “provocative”. 🙂 I don’t feel I can add much to what I’ve said already and am content for readers to walk away with what they find or don’t find here.

    Thanks, again, to all who have troubled to comment on this week’s effort.

  5. Hi, I think lorin’s put her finger on it. There is a humor that saves us from ourselves. There is that flash of understanding that we are all indeed human and caught in this human drama that can either destroy us or save us. The poet that can present the depth of that drama and yet still show the way out of our condition, is indeed a poet that it seems good to me to read. Perhaps I’ve had enough grief in my own life and come to some understanding of where the healing dwells. I think lorin’s got a good point about there being something in haiku that makes that possible, whereas in Western poetry the “breaks” are not so easily discovered and it’s those breaks that allow the objective, “impersonality” as lorin calls it, to enter.
    Great comments here. Lots to think about. Thanks all. And thanks Allan for such great topics!

  6. Hi Allan, I’m familiar with ‘Skunk Hour’ and yes, it’s a haunting poem and rightly considered one of his best. There is nothing in your brief explication I could possibly disagree with.

    Perhaps, not being American (though having myself been influenced by American poetry in youth) I’m not using terms precisely enough or in a manner you can relate to. What I attempted above, in response to your ‘I do have to say, Lorin, that I’m having trouble finding “impersonality” in “hating him/ between bites/ of unripe plums” ‘, was simply to give you an idea of what I meant by ‘impersonality’ in Roberta Beary’s ‘hating’ haiku, to attempt to demonstrate. I don’t mind being told I’ve used a term incorrectly or have the wrong idea; my main aim is to communicate, to listen and digest and try to come to a better understanding of what the other (you, in this case) is saying and then to consider the issue further.

    I do not confuse ‘confessional poetry’ with religious confession (religious confession is supposed to be ‘true confession’, ‘confessional’ poems may or may not pertain to the author’s ‘real life’ and are as open to artifice and invention as much as any other style of poem, or for that matter 🙂 the gaudy American pulp magazine of the era, ‘True Confessions’, which I admit to having read in my adolescence) I agree that there are great and ‘immortal’ poems from the ‘confessional school’ (so named, and we’re stuck with the name).

    As you write in your introduction, Allan:

    “It’s not truthfulness but the mode of telling that makes this poetry.”

    I can’t make as clear a connection as you seem to do between the ‘mode of telling’ in the ‘confessional’ poems I’ve read and these haiku.

    I find it difficult to make a direct connection between the American ‘confessional’ poets and haiku. The only clear connection I can make between the ‘confessional’ school and the poets you’ve featured in this Montage is that they’re all American. I’d welcome further education about this, though.

    I do not have any particular position to defend.


  7. Hi, Lorin (& all).

    Just to continue the conversation…

    First, I think in any sort of writing about the self or personal experience there will necessarily be some distance between the writing/remembering self and the self (re)constructed through that writing. In that respect I don’t think haikai can be distinguished from other genres of lit.

    As for “impersonal”, my Oxford dictionary defines it as “not influenced by, showing, or involving personal feelings”. I would say “hating him” is certainly influenced by, shows, and involves personal feelings.

    Also, we should be very careful not to oversimplify, caricature, or underestimate the aesthetic strength of confessional poetry. Take as an ex. Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”, the brilliant final poem from Life Studies (1959), the collection that “established” the confessional mode. For those who want a slightly deeper understanding of confessional poetry–as opposed to religious confessions or whatever–I suggest reading it. (It’s easy to find the text online.)

    Like the haiku in this latest Montage, it’s a work of art first and foremost. The first four stanzas do not concern Lowell himself at all but rather his neighbors, a hermit heiress who thirsts “for/ the hierarchic privacy/ of Queen Victoria’s century”; a summer millionaire who vacationed and vanished; a homosexual decorator who’d rather marry than work. But little details in the descriptions of these characters and their environment create a psychological atmosphere: “The season’s ill”; “A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.”

    Only starting with line 25 does the poem shift toward Lowell himself, as he climbs “the hill’s skull” looking for “love-cars.” Really, the only direct “confession” comes in line 30 (“My mind’s not right”) and the stanza that follows, concluding “I myself am hell/ nobody’s here–“. (An allusion to Paradise Lost, of course.)

    The final section of the poem turns its attention to “a mother skunk and her column of kittens”. The poem concludes: “She jabs her wedge-head in a cup/ of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,/ and will not scare.”

    Really, so much of the poem’s meaning is implicit, carried at the level of image and atmosphere and through a direct engagement with the strange untidiness of things. In these respects, even though the poem is 48 lines long, we’re really not far from the techniques of haikai poetry. And if one objects that “My mind’s not right”–which seems, startlingly, to burst almost from nowhere–is an instance of “telling”, well there’s also a good bit of “telling” in the haiku from this Montage (“longing to be near her”; “i remember the lie”; “hating him”; “it must have been lonely/ living with me”; etc.). Telling, actually, can be quite artful in the right context.

    My point is just this: What we mean by confessional poetry can be quite subtle and artful and indirect (i.e., not necessarily clear about “what is being confessed”), and, yes, humorous.

    Also, from the vantage of late 2009, I think it’s far too easy to take for granted the ways in which confessional poetry expanded poetic subject matter to deeply “personal” matters. It’s that legacy Montage #39 traces.

  8. In response to Lorin’s points, and in defense of Robert Lowell, the poet I most associate with the confessional poem:

    Lowell had a talent for taking a step back, even sometimes in the eyes of his bipolar storms, and making cerebral observations that are very much about the “narrating I” versus the very imperfect brilliant man. “Impersonal” writing is, I think, as impossible as objectivity, and it helps to keep that in mind when we strive to keep the “self” in check, as we haiku writers usually do.

  9. Upon closer reading I see where this haiku by Nick could be called “confessional,” the admission of a lie. The crocus in midwinter adds to the unnaturalness of the lie. Yet, it’s just a glimpse, a teaser because of the brevity of the form.

    i remember the lie
    i told her
    crocus in midwinter

    This by Roberta is really someone else’s confession, not the poet’s.

    rainy season
    again he tells me
    she means nothing

    This by John could be a confessional haiku, the admiration of another man’s wife, although just admiration alone is not strong enough. The reader must imagine more if that’s the poet’s intention, which isn’t clear. I think a confessional poem or confessional writing of any kind has to be clear as to what is being confessed.

    a long look
    at the winter stars . . .
    someone else’s wife


  10. Allan, ‘impersonal’ in the sense that there seems a distance between the self that’s ‘hating him’ and the self that’s noticing/ observing that she’s ‘hating him’ ( the narrating I), and in that observing, noticing that even this extremely strong emotion isn’t continuous… that when her attention is elsewhere (tasting the sourness of unripe plums) she isn’t hating. She has to resume hating, ‘between bites’! Well, I find it insightful and funny. It’s about the self, but a rather astute and wry observation, as I read it, and so it becomes quite humorous (the least I’d expect of a poem with ‘hating’ in it) Why is she eating unripe plums? (she might next ask herself) What might eating unripe plums and hating have in common? (possibily they both taste sour and are likely to give you a tummy-ache?)

    This haiku begins with ‘hating him’ but, far from dwelling there or indulging the emotion, it continues and implies an insight or awareness. It is that ‘standing back from’, observing awareness, that I find goes beyond the personal and the confessional (or what comes to mind first when I think of the ‘confessional poets’… Plath’s ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’ and ‘Daddy’ spring to mind). Can one observe oneself impersonally? I think we can, sometimes. It can happen suddenly and accidentally, too, and we have to smile about our humanness and having ‘caught ourselves’ in the act.

    One thing that ‘confessional’ poetry never gave me was a good laugh, and that’s where this haiku/ senryu of Roberta Beary’s leaves me…smiling.


  11. I’m noticing a kind of pattern to the reactions this time.

    I do have to say, Lorin, that I’m having trouble finding “impersonality” in “hating him/ between bites/ of unripe plums” (for example), but I do certainly agree about haikai being a different “mode…of expression” than longer free verse forms. Sometimes, though, a quick glimpse can be quite revealing.

    Thanks to all for your comments!

  12. Well, it’s interesting to see haiku considered in relation to ‘confessional poetry’ and this week’s Montage is thought-provoking. In the sense that the so-called ‘confessional’ poetry of the mid C20 opposed the immediately prior school (‘new critics’?) based on Eliot’s argument for ‘impersonality’ in poems, I suppose these haiku might focus on details from the private or personal life of the poets who wrote them, yet to me they don’t seem confessional in the ‘confessional poetry movement’ sense at all.

    There is a quietness and ‘impersonality’ (perhaps even in Eliot’s meaning of the term) that may be inherent in the restrictions of the haiku framework itself. There is little room for the haiku poet to emote or to engage in self-examination, let alone (seem to) let it ‘all hang out’.

    All of the voices in all of the haiku Allan has chosen for ‘Confessions’ have this kind of impersonality, the impersonality of an observer. Even when the haiku seems to be most directly about the self and the personal/ emotional, as in Roberta Beary’s

    hating him
    between bites
    of unripe plums

    or Nick Avis’s

    i remember the lie
    i told her
    crocus in midwinter

    or John Stevenson’s

    seeing it her way
    it must have been lonely
    living with me

    there is this impersonality: the self is the subject of observation rather than of explication, indulgence, embellishment, romanticisation or projection.

    So I’d say that if the American ‘confessional’ poetry of the C20 has had an influence on English-language haiku ( and I’m not yet convinced it has) then what is left of ‘confessional’ has been completely changed, moved into a different mode of experience as well as of expression.


  13. Perhaps not confessional, not autobiographical, but personal. I would accept “Personal” haiku rather than “Confessional” for these poems. A result of my growing up Catholic I guess.

  14. Hi, Guys, I realize that I may be splitting hairs here. And I realize that I may not be explaining what I feel intuitively here adequately. But I do feel that there is a very fine distinction to be made between those poets who are moved to document human relations, and those poets who feel moved to document their own distruction as perceived to be caused by those relations. The former give us good insights into the realities of life, ourselves and the “other”. The latter have always affected me as (for the better way to describe how they affect me this may seem an extreme example) but they affect me as suicide bombers. And it may be that all of these poets should be called confessional (although to my own feelings confessional goes much deeper than poetry can comprehend.) Poetry after all will classify things as it will. But the poet who can enter these waters of human relations and illuminate these situations without letting it destroy him/her I feel deserve a more noble classification if classification is at all possible at all. I may be allowing myself to be drawn into a discussion based upon my own feelings in this. I just know that I owe a great debt to those poets who can actually do it right. I don’t argue the poetic ability and merits of poets like Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton…I have read them all. But I have been warned by what poetry has extracted from their lives. I realize that these are dangerous waters. Those who can navigate it without being destroyed by it I feel deeply deserve a greater recognition for what it was that gave them that strength and insight.
    I am extremely glad for Allan’s good grace in allowing discussions like this to take place for they are so valuable for the understanding of these deeper issues and the psyche’s not only of the poets but of the readers of that poetry as well. Many thanks, Allan. What you are doing is so very valuable.
    In gratitude, Merrill

  15. I think the layers of information Merril desires can be found in a larger body of work. Take for example Roberta Beary’s The Unworn Necklace. I’m not suggesting the individual poems can’t stand alone or that the book should be read as an extended sequence. It is possible, however, to read the group as a larger work in which Beary reveals her deepest feelings about divorce, illness, death, romance, parenting and many other inner and outer details of her life.

  16. Christopher makes an important distinction between aesthetic and religious uses of the term “confession”; certainly, the former (aesthetic) is intended here. “Confessional poetry” is a very well-established term in modern literary criticism, and its use seemed quite apt in this context.

    I don’t believe “autobiographical” works as a substitute for two reasons that point in different directions. First, “confessional poetry” isn’t always strictly autobiographical (and it’s worth adding that one very prominent haiku/senryu poet associated with this mode has “confessed” to me that much of that poet’s work is based on fantasy). Second, “autobiographical” in a haiku/senryu context doesn’t really distinguish this kind of work from most other haiku and senryu, which are, typically, records of personal experience (even if, say, “nature-oriented”) and therefore “autobiographical” in a real sense. “Confessional” is a good bit more specific, as used here, than merely “autobiographical” would be.

    The key to “confessional poetry” is indeed set forth in the passage that Christopher quoted in part: It’s poetry that (seemingly) “reveals intimate details of a poet’s personal life pertaining especially to relationships, sexuality, and private feelings or states of mind.” The haiku and senryu I’ve collected for this gallery do fit that definition, I think.

    “Admitting mistakes,” the religious concept of “sin,” and supplying complete information about one’s past aren’t part of the literary-poetic meaning of the term; it’s simply a matter of using certain “personal” subjects as the basis for poetry.

    As adapted to a haiku/senryu context, the “information” the poems supply is, of course, going to be rather slender, with much left to the imagination, as is the case with all haiku and senryu; but nonetheless we do learn about specific longings, relationships, separations, custody battles, feelings of loneliness, sexual encounters, and so forth from these poems.The skill of the poets is, of course, manifest in how much they convey by saying so little. Consider, for instance, how packed with meaning the image of “deep water” is in Roberta Beary’s “third date”. It suggests everything about the stage the relationship has reached and the potentially serious decisions that lie ahead.

    The “thesis” for this gallery, if you will, is simply that American “confessional poetry”–which expanded the range of subjects available to poetry into areas previously regarded as “taboo”–has exerted some influence, direct or indirect, on the development of certain strands of American haiku and senryu. The evidence lies in the poems themselves.

  17. Perhaps like “confessional” poetry in the Robert Lowell/ Sylvia Plath sense, these haiku — well, two out of the three — focus on the opacity of the subject. In that case, the haiku suffer by comparison with the great confessional poets, it seems to me; the smallness of the form strips the occasion of adventitious detail which so often elevates confessional poetry beyond solipsism. On the other hand,, Stevenson’s haiku transcends the subject without losing depth: in fact, the image of the sponge captures and configures (re-presents in a verbal design) the sense of loss appropriate to the setting, the ego itself, of that time and place, nothing more than a desiccated sponge. The image is both a marker of the subject and a judgement that completes the experience. The work of art – – and this haiku is that — transcends the “moment” implicit in the narrative by making possible a moment of understanding in the reader open to such transcendings . . . It’s really not enough for a poem, is it– even the shortest– to simply release multiple narratives in readers? This issue has been addressed for decades in reader-response theory. Provocative montage!

  18. I agree with Adelaide. I feel that the lable “confessional” is a bit of a misnomer here. Autobiographical is a much better term. I also feel that the poets under review have a great deal more emotional maturity than many of the poets sited in the heading. When I read these autobiographical notes they seem to me to be scenes in a movie…the movie of our lives. There are generations of influences that go into each life and the causes are so complex that there certainly isn’t any where near the information required to call personal haiku “confessions”.

  19. Whether or not these are called confessional or autobiographical, these haiku reveal something personal about the poet. I prefer not to call them “confessional,” as for me a confession means telling the truth about a past indiscretion, omission, sin, fault, etc. A confession is not merely telling of true events in one’s life, be they joyful or sad, but of admitting one’s mistakes.


  20. Dave – perhaps that makes such haiku poets “trailblazers” of the confessional movement: Masajo Suzuki and co. having written poems of a confessional style long before the term “confessional” existed. Similarly, haiku poets could be said to have written “modernist” poetry before any such term was applied to poems in the West.

    Merrill, I think part of what you say actually highlights haiku’s greatest beauty: that it never attempts to state anything in a complete way and invites the reader to make their own personal sense out of what is written. As you have experienced yourself, there are a great many ways in which the same haiku can be understood. I think that this is exactly what Basho was getting at when he said “a good haiku leaves 60% to the imagination, a great haiku leaves 80% to the imagination” (or words to that effect!).

    On a separate note, I wonder if you have mistaken the meaning of “confession” in this context. “Confessional” poetry is simply poetry that “reveals intimate details of a poet’s personal life” (as Allan expressed it in the preamble to this week’s selection). I get the impression you are taking “confessional” in either a religious sense, or at least the sense in which one might make confessions on, say, their death-bed.

  21. Another possible thread . . .

    I think it’s natural for those of us familiar with confessional poetry to apply that label to haiku that seem to reveal person details. Tio me, the haiku in Issue 39 do seem to have a kinship with longer poems in the confessional mode. But unless I am mistaken, Japanese haiku poets—and not just radicals—have been doing this for a long time.

    Masajo Suzuki has haiku such as:

    luck with husbands
    is something that eludes me—
    autumn kimono
    (Suzuki/Gurga & Miashita)

    Shugyo Takaha has haiku such as:

    our breath streaming white,
    we love each other
    we hate each other
    (Takaha/Pinnington & Hoshino)

    Even Basho has a few haiku such as:

    You could turn this way—
    I’m also lonely
    this autumn evening.

  22. In regard to confessions there is something that I learned: the confession is only one small piece of the elephant. It is a condensation of a particular event in a long list of occurrences. You really have to literally know the whole of a person’s life to understand the true nature except for the yearning a confession evidences of a desire to make things right. It is only a desire and it may or may not really be fixing anything that may or may not deserve to be fixed. But it is not the whole story.
    A haiku I have discovered can be read in many ways. Some of my own haiku have astonished me to find how they have been taken. It seems a futile task to ask of haiku to be able to present a confession in its full context…and while each of these authors have truly developed the ability to set a drama in their haiku in such a way that it rings of truth, I for one have never felt that there is a sufficiency in the words to actually bring about what a confession desires…
    You have to know the whole story and that can go back decades.

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