I have two haiku for you. Without further ado, here’s the first:

Two blue eggs
In a thicket of twigs.
Raindrops fall

And numero dos:

Pulsing behind the eyes

Talk about compression! I can see now why haiku has such a devoted following. I had always thought that people who were really into haiku were sort of like people who go to the Renaissance festival– you know, people who fetishize another time and place, imagining it to be some sort of lost ideal. Geishas and tea ceremonies and cherry blossoms in spring! How romantic! (Not!)

But I’ll go easier on haiku, now that I understand–better–how it works. The gap between the two images is where the meaning lies; the gap is where the reader makes meaning, the place where that magical feeling of being “in” a poem or “getting it” happens. In a way, the hard part of writing haiku is the not-writing of that gap. You have to sort of anticipate what a reader might put there, and do what you can on either side of that gap to try to shape that response without exerting obvious control.

Speaking for myself, the third line of each of the poems I wrote (each of which contains the second image) is where I encountered the trouble. Things seemed either too obvious or too prosaic (“bland,” as my students would say ;-)).

And that whole idea of on (“sounds”), as opposed to our rather mechanical notion of syllables, really made me think about how the words I was choosing sounded together and how they felt in one’s mouth when spoken. While I wasn’t really conscious of it when I was writing them, I can see now that I chose words because of their consonant and vowel sounds (to risk getting technical, I am now noticing the t’s, th’s, and short i’s describing the bird’s nest in the second line of the first poem, the hard g sounds at the ends of the first two lines, and the contrast between those truncated g’s and the long “ahl” sound at the end of the poem). I can also now see that there are rhythmic patterns and “shapes” in both poems, even though again, I was not conscious of them when I was writing.

I’d love to get your comments on how you fill the gaps I left for you … & we can see how they match up with what I was trying to convey.

I had already decided to take on the tanka after the haiku, not knowing a single thing about it, except that it, like haiku, is a Japanese form. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it also depends on the juxtaposition of two ideas or images. As with haiku, a tanka has two sections. The “upper phrase,” or kaminoku,  consists of the first three lines, structured in 5, 7, and 5 on (“sounds” in Japanese, roughly but not wholly corresponding to English syllables), just like a haiku–but without the kireji, or “cutting word.” The whole phrase treats a single idea or image. The “lower phrase,” or shimonoku, has two lines, of 7 on each, that turn to a second idea or image.

So– to summarize, the tanka is a five line form, like the limerick and the quintain, but with a 5-7-5-7-7 on/syllable structure, unrhymed, whose ideas or content can be subdivided into two sections, lines 1-3 and lines 4-5. Here’s an example by Philip Appleman, called “Somber Girl”:

She never saw fire
from heaven or hotly fought
with God; but her eyes
smolder for Hiroshima
and the cold death of Buddha.

Even this relatively conventional tanka takes some liberties with the strict form, beginning the shimonoku a bit early, in the middle of the third line instead of at the fourth line. But I think having the shimonoku start early give those last two lines on Hiroshima and the spiritual death of Japan greater impact. The gaze in the girl’s eyes interrupt, cut short, the stereotypical views of the Japanese presented in the first two and a half lines.

I ran across this intriguing fact: while both the haiku and tanka forms were embraced by early-twentieth-century modernist poets in Europe as well as the U.S., the tanka has an especially interesting history in America. It was widely taught to schoolchildren after World War II (as Appleman’s poem, above, might indicate); but many of the Japanese who were imprisoned in the U.S. internment camps during WWII also wrote tanka as a response to their internment. Camp poet Yoshihiko Tomari writes that for the internees, writing tanka became “an active spiritual and cultural force for his people.”

Here is an example by internee Sojin Takei that was published in Poets Behind Barbed Wire, edited and translated by Jiro Nakano and Kay Nakano (Bamboo Ridge Press, 1985?). I give both the Japanese transliteration and the English translation. It’s poignant, to say the least.

Toki wa kitarinu
Ame no yoi
Kokoro sadamete
Kutsu no oto kiku

The time has come
For my arrest
This dark rainy night.
I calm myself and listen
To the sound of the shoes.

Did any of you write tanka in school? If so, what were you taught about it? I would love to know. And do tell me what you make of my haiku. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to fit something interesting into 5 lines over the next week.


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