Hooo-eee, it’s hot. After an unbelievably beautiful summer–I can count the number of 9o+ degree days on the fingers of one hand–the heat has descended … in September.

If you live here in Baltimore, you know the gallows humor that accompanies the heat. As the temperature rises, so does the murder rate. Summer is when Baltimore, Maryland becomes Bodymore, Murdaland, as David Simon impressed upon us so indelibly in The Wire.

If you look at the statistics, winter is the slow season as far as homicides are concerned, and then things ramp up as summer hits. (We had an unusual spike in homicides in January this year, but that’s a story for another post.)

Baltimore Sun graphic.

And here is the temperature graph for this year:

Graph from Weatherspark.com.
Graph from Weatherspark.com.

All week long we’ve had oppressively humid weather, with highs in the 90s, relentless sun, and a thunderstorm in the late afternoon to keep everything nice and steamy.

We’ve also had five killings in the first five days of September.

Based on the Baltimore Sun’s handy crime map, I am pleased to see that two people were shot in the past two weeks within a mile of where I live, and another two stabbed to death within a mile of Loyola. Nice.


It may amaze those of you who live in less exciting parts of the country that I actually do not live in a state of abject fear. I really don’t. In fact, I absolutely love living here. But I understand why people aren’t beating down the doors of the over 15,000 vacant houses in the city (this piece, it turns out, was written by a recent and extremely talented Loyola English grad, Andrew Zaleski ’12, when he was an intern at Technical.ly/Baltimore.com. Strange coincidence! Did you know Baltimore is also called “Smalltimore”? But that, too, is a subject for another post.)

The heat aside, I’ve also had a productive but frustrating week working on How the Other Half Laughs. I’m nearing the end of the draft of my chapter on black comics and their emergence in the first decade of the twentieth century, but it has been a long, hard slog. I am so tired at the end of the day that I can’t see straight, and can barely put a coherent sentence together. My right forearm has been numb all week, I think from the hours I’ve spent at the computer. I desperately need this chapter to be finished … hoping it will be done by the end of this coming week. Then I am going to take a couple of personal days :-). Doing something cool.

In the meantime, the Weekly Poem Project continues. I’m glad I picked haiku for this week, because seventeen syllables is about all I’ve got left in the tank. We all know it’s a poem of Japanese origin, and we all know the basic rules of the form: three lines, containing 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. I’ve also been told by students that haiku are always about nature. I did a bit of poking around to see what else I could find.

Interestingly, none of my poetry books say anything about it. And while there are millions of parodies written in the 5-7-5 form, there seems to be a lot of leeway about what haiku actually is. A lot of the problem has to do with translating a Japanese form, which depends on concepts of Japanese language that don’t really exist in English. For example, what we think of as the 5-7-5 syllable structure actually comes from the Japanese concept of on, or “sounds,” which doesn’t neatly transfer into syllables. For example, I’d say the word “on” itself correlates well to the Japanese on, but a word like “choose”– which has a single syllable in English–seems to be made up of several distinct sounds, two or three, I’d say: the hard “ch,” the long “oo,” then the final fuzzy Z sound of the S at the end. My guess is that a Japanese person would pronounce this word more like “choo-zuh,” separating it into two “sounds.” (Any of you linguists out there … or Japanese speakers … please feel free to help me out with this!)

So the end result is that many “real” haiku in English are in fact much shorter than 17 syllables. Here’s a cool one by Jack Kerouac:

Snow in my shoe
Sparrow’s nest.

If we look at Kerouac’s poem, it also fulfills other characteristics of the haiku:

  1. It juxtaposes two images–not as an explicit metaphor, but in a way that creates an interesting contrast or, ideally, a mind-blowing synthesis or paradox.
  2. It contains a “cutting word,” or kireji, that marks the division between the two images. In English, the “cutting” can be performed by a word (“Abandoned,” in Kerouac’s poem), a line break, or punctuation (dash, comma, period).

The poem–yes–often contains some sort of reference to nature (but need not be about nature per se). Some also believe that it should be a poem that can be spoken in a single breath. Kerouac’s poem fulfills both of these criteria as well.

With this more nuanced definition of haiku, you can see that Ezra Pound’s famous (infamous?) poem “In a Station of the Metro” is actually quite like a haiku, even though it only has two lines:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I love the implicit comparison you are forced to make as a reader between those faces and the petals, and the juxtaposition between the wet, steamy darkness of the subway tunnel and the rain-soaked tree branch. It’s not quite a metaphor, yet much more than a metaphor at the same time. Imagism, of course, took a great deal of inspiration from Japanese forms like the haiku, and now I am happy to say I have a much clearer understanding of why that is so.

So here is my haiku. Actually, I’ve done it twice, once using the rigid 5-7-5 syllable structure we all learned in grade school, and a revised version, applying my newfound understanding of the form. Here’s the 5-7-5 version:

Summer’s last, hot breath
Haze veils the city skyline.
Anger clenched in fists.

And here’s the modified version:

Summer’s last breath
Settles over the city —
Teeth on edge.

I think the second one is a much stronger haiku, don’t you? I am going to try some more haiku for next week, in part because I’m also trying to finish that damn chapter!

It’s supposed to cool off tomorrow— can’t wait.


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