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Thoughts on Alan Pizzarelli’s haiku

I first learned about Alan Pizzarelli from the Cor Van Den Heuvel anthology. His poems had spark; they felt modern. I could relate to them, but also they were respectful of the past.

I can always tell when a novice writer thinks the world began with them. There are no predecessors in their art, leaving their own attempts full of holes. This was not the case Alan’s haiku and senryu. He knew exactly the spaces he had to fill in and the gaps he had to close.


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  1. Pizzarelli is good at what Pizzarelli does best: writing comedy one liners he labels senryu.
    His haiku can be good:

    the old pond
    calms into a reflection
    of the yellow rose

    This is an excellent activity (koto/objective)biased haiku. It doesn’t tell all, and
    leaves room for multiple interpretations. Pizzarelli’s last line is unexpected and open-ended. It is top notch.

    They can also be boring and far from memorable:

    sunday afternoon
    as the ball game ends
    geese return to the outfield

    In this baseball poem, Pizzarelli leaves zilch for readers
    to interpret. There is no contrasting of the high with the
    low, no unearthing of the unsaid. He has painted a painting
    we all have seen, and says nothing beyond the obvious. This
    is boring. I don’t read haiku to see paintings. I want the revelatory
    depth found in haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa, Chiyo-ni, Marisova,
    Bartra, and Kacian. Word pictures are all to common.

  2. This evening (when I should be packing) I would like to interrupt my thoughts on Alan Pizzarelli’s haiku and express some thoughts about Mr. Swist’s comment.

    There are significant poets who have had significant character flaws. What relationship does (or should) a poet’s character have on how their poetry is viewed? To paraphrase Yeats’ “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” — how can we know the poet from the poetry?

    I have thought about this from when I first came across the infamous anecdote regarding Wallace Stevens’ remark about Gwendolyn Brooks. I first encountered this anecdote in an American Poetry Review essay about Stevens, probably sometime back in the 80s. I was flabbergasted to say the least. I heard the anecdote mentioned again by Elizabeth Alexander (the poet who read at President Obama’s inauguration) at a 2009 panel discussion on the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards, who had heard it from Major Jackson. Here is the anecdote, taken from the Academy of American Poets website:

    Annie Allen was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950—the first book by an African American poet to be so honored. Wallace Stevens was said to have remarked when the 33-year-old Brooks arrived at the banquet, “Who let the coon in?”

    [note: I have heard a slightly different version of the remark, in which the n-word was used rather than “coon”]

    Does this cast any kind of shadow on Stevens’ work? Should it?

    Then I was once at a panel discussion at which Derek Walcott’s poetry was being discussed. A young woman asked a question from the audience, of which the gist was that since Mr. Walcott has had some allegations of sexual harrassment lodged against him when I believe he was a teacher at Harvard, should this affect how we view his work? As I recall, the general consensus from the panel of distinguished writers was that no, it shouldn’t have any bearing on how his work is viewed.

    Then there is the case of the Japanese haiku poets who supported the militarist Japanese government, from the invasion of Manchuria through the end of WWII. One source of information on this subject can be found at:

    Here is an excerpt from this article:

    Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), one of the two main disciples of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and the leader of Hototogisu, became the President of the haiku branch of the Imperial‑fascist government culture‑control/propaganda group known as “The Japanese Literary Patriotic Organization (JLPO) (Nihon bungaku hôkoku kai),” which devoted itself to censorship and persecution, and other war crimes of various sorts. There are a few scholars who defend Kyoshi, suggesting that he was used by the fascist government, stating for instance that, “Kyoshi resisted the war via his attitude, in that he did not directly treat the war as a subject of his haiku in any way” (Asai, 146). This point of view will be discussed in some detail within the Addendum following this main text. It is an incontestable historical fact that as well as being President of the fascist JLPO Haiku Department, Kyoshi prominently served the causes of fascist cultural organizations and activities, and was deeply committed to the culture-control/ propaganda movement.

    [end of excerpt]

    Does this cast a shadow on Kyoshi’s haiku? Should it?

    I can only answer that I have mixed feelings on the subject of how much can we separate the poetry from the poet. Part of my mixed feelings is that I do think a poet’s character, including the flaws, can’t help but seep into the poet’s work in some way, however subtly and hard-to-distinguish that way may be.


  3. I’ve met Mr. Pizzarelli. In fact, I once partnered with him briefly for a writing exercise at a Northeast Metro Haiku Society quarterly meeting.

    Popularity and crowd-pleasingness sometimes coincides with quality in the arts, but not always. Time often winnows out what is worthwhile.

    I don’t own any of Mr. Pizzarelli’s books, so my exposure to his work is limited to a couple of anthologies he has appeared in, and some online examples. In my opinion, the defining characteristic of a majority of his work is cleverness. Cleverness is currently a much-appreciated aesthetic in many artforms, although from my reading in the history of English-language poetry, and in the history of Japanese haiku (in English translation), mere cleverness does not often seem to have lasting value. I think Mr. Pizzarelli is at is best when he does not rely so heavily on cleverness.

    What do I mean by saying that Mr. Pizzarelli often says too much or says too little? First, let me mention some of his haiku that I think are very good, where he says what seems to me like (paraphrasing Goldilocks) just the right amount

    Here is one from the Mainichi Daily News Haiku in English column from March 1, 2002 (No. 633):

    the old pond
    calms into a reflection
    of the yellow rose

    –Alan Pizzarelli

    This is a ‘clever’ response to Basho’s haiku that transcends mere cleverness. Mr. Pizzarelli makes an indirect reference to frogs jumping into the water–ruffling it– by stating that the pond eventually “calms” so that it can reflect Kikaku’s suggestion of pairing the frogs-jumping-in water sound with “mountain roses” as the opening phrase (which Basho rejected, using “the old pond” instead). All three elements–old pond, frogs-jumpin-in water sound, mountain/yellow roses–can all co-exist in the same experience as our minds superimpose Mr. Pizzarelli’s haiku on Basho’s haiku. Mr. Pizzarelli’s haiku expands the experience.

    Well, it is getting late, so I will try to find time (since I am packing for a move) to continue this discussion tomorrow, if I may be so indulged.


  4. Alan Pizzarelli wrote a threatening letter to me twenty-five years ago after I had published what I had intended to be a balanced and fair review of a chapbook of his basseball haiku in Modern Haiku, where I was Book Review Editor.

    He threatened to hunt me down and he promised that he would take care of me.

    Robert Spiess, after reading the letter, barred him from publishing in Modern Haiku while he was editor, at least.

    It is significant for poets practicing in any genre to learn to be integrated human beings first, and if we are fortunate, after immense hard work, poets after that.

    Allan Pizzarelli, for me, does not qualify for either.

    Most Sincerely,

    Wally Swist

  5. Well, obviously Larry, I think he is very good at what he does. Aspiring writers can learn a lot from his work. He came to see me read one day and he read in the open reading (something many established writers feel they are too cool to do). Every single poem he read got enthusiastic applause. He even tried to tone it down and politely suggest that the audience didn’t have to applaud after each poem. They did anyway!

  6. A thought on Mr. Pizzarelli’s haiku: he often says either too much or too little. I guess that makes him ‘modern’, especially when he says too little.

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