Daniel Barth is the poet Laureate of Ukiah, California, which you might think was an inconsequential title until you realized the size and quality of the literary community in those parts. I’ve invited him here to Writer Working to share some his considerable prowess as both a writer and observer of the contemporary poetic scene.
Dan’s also a friend and relative (almost) and he’s pretty opinionated about his Haiku, as you’ll see from the article below. We’ve all tried our hand at Haiku at one time or another. It’s fun, doesn’t take much time, and enables even the semi-poetic among us to produce a moment that will, if not take your breath, at least make you stop for a second and take a new look. For the more accomplished among us, such as Dan Barth, Haiku is a serious occupation whose results can actually spin you around and sit you down at the marvels of the mundane.
Here he is in a recent article in connection to the Ukiah Haiku Festival, and if you think you can’t get worked up about Haiku rules and regulations, read on:
Friday night I went out and heard some good music at the Ukiah Brewing Company (ukiahbrewingco.com/). The band was The Blushin’ Roulettes (blushinroulettes.com/), a folksy group from the Mendocino coast. They played and sang lots of good tunes. The lead singer, Angie Rose, a petite brunette who has a nice way with a song, was into talking about haiku. She asked how many people had entered the Ukiah Haiku contest. A few folks raised their hands, so she asked for some samples of haiku. A couple of girls came up to the stage. One recited hers. It was about Montgomery Woods and wasn’t bad, but ended with something too editorial and sweet. It went something like:
the majestic redwood trees
I feel wonderful
I would drop the article, and change the last line to something else about what is really going on, more like:
majestic redwood trees
banana slug slime
The other girl chickened out. An impromptu haiku occurred to me, so I came up to the stage and said:
tuning their guitars–
Johnny Cash’s birthday
Not great, I admit, but not too bad in the spirit of the moment. It was generally well received. Angie commented approvingly on the association of Blushin’ Roulettes and Johnny Cash, but the bass player pointed out that the syllable count was not 5-7-5, which is true. There was a bit of discussion and the consensus seemed to be that it was an acceptable haiku. I had returned to my seat by this time, and shouted something toward the stage about the difference between Japanese sound units and English syllables, but this was pretty much lost in the general barroom cacophony, and probably too academic for the time and place anyway.
Later in the evening, after much good music, good cheer and cold beer, there was more haiku discussion from the stage. An effort was being made to think and talk in 5-7-5 format. Again I tried to point out that 5-7-5 does not a haiku make. Some of my fellow inebriates agreed. Others demurred.
So what about it, haiku lovers? Does a haiku have to be 5-7-5? It’s certainly a widely held perception. But I’m here to tell you that the leading edge of the modern haiku world leans more and more toward discounting the importance of 5-7-5–even in Japan!
The thing is . . . you receive these cute e-mails, right? Computer techie “haiku,” a bunch of somewhat funny doggerel written in 5-7-5 format. Is this haiku? For the most part, no. Your Twitter correspondent only tweets in 5-7-5 format. Haiku? Afraid not.
So what is a haiku? I’m glad you asked.
The old Beat poet Michael McClure says, “A haiku isn’t a haiku if it doesn’t have wabi. (Wabi being old-fashioned gnarly countrifiedness.)”
I tend to agree. If Johnny Cash doesn’t have wabi, I don’t know who does.
Other sources talk about sabi, which translates more as an awareness of the happy sad nature of life, aware (ah-wah-ray), a feeling for the impermanence of all phenomena, and wabi sabi, an attentiveness to the beauty and power of the natural world. (For more on these and other Japanese terms, check Still In The Stream.
Different authorities offer varying rules or guidelines, but basically:
* A haiku should at least have some reference to nature. Human nature is included.
* A haiku should be in the moment, about something that is happening right now. Use verbs in the present tense.
* It most often should be three lines in two “parts,” one of the lines offering a contrast to the other two. For instance:
of late night sleet–
dog licking its paws
–Leonard D. Moore
Almost all the “rules” get broken by accomplished haiku writers, but it’s good to have an idea of what they are.
So stop counting syllables, kids. It’s haiku season. And you live in haiku country. Go forth and find them in their natural habitat. May wabi sabi be with you.
Dan Barth is an organizer and judge for the Ukiah Haiku Festival, and is the author of Ukiah Haiku: Journal of a Year, Coyote Haiku and Fast Women Beautiful: Zen Beat Baseball Poems.