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Haiku Clinic #4
William J. Higginson [email] [bio]

Finding that it takes some time for responses to any given Haiku Clinic column to come in, in this issue I skip back to responses to Haiku Clinic #2, which dealt with a number of intitial problems. In the following, I take those which drew reader response in their original order in the column. Please note that this will end the discussion of these examples. In the meantime, in preparation for our Spring 2005 issue, readers may wish to look over Haiku Clinic #3 and offer some one-liners.

— 5-7-5 Problems —

In the following, the original 5-7-5 presented us with a number of problems.

.....partings whispered like
.....sweetly dropping silky dews
.....of dawnlove—pearls gleam

I had pared it down and cleaned up the language through several revisions, and offered this as a tentative final version:

.....partings whispered the light of dawn
.....dew gleams

From Chandigahr, India, Angelee Deodhar wrote, "How about this version of the first haiku you discussed in the second Haiku Clinic? I think it reads more smoothly. It also focuses on the time and emotion better."

.....dew gleams the light of dawn
.....whispered partings

.....Angelee Deodhar

I think that Angelee's version emphasizes the erotic ("dew" is often a euphemism for sexual juices), while the earlier order suggests a subtler remembrance of that eroticism in the departing lover's mind. Depending on one's taste, the preference could go for either order. In either case, the order of the poem is the order of perception—one of the main things Harold Henderson suggested we pay attention to in composing our haiku.

Further on, in another case of simply rearranging the order, I had slightly reworked this original 5-7-5 draft:

.....I can't find a way get my sled up that hill this howling storm

into this proposed final:

.....this howling storm
.....I can't find a way to get sled up the hill

Roberta Beary took up the challenge of this poem, offering a number of possibilities for our consideration. On her first attempt, she presented this version:

.....howling storm—
.....the uphill battle
.....of my backward sled

.....Roberta Beary

I responded to her, "I'm a little curious as to how to interpret 'backward sled'—as if pushing it up the hill backwards? Somehow, this doesn't quite gel for me."

Roberta replied, "In rereading my version, I see why you were confused. I was trying to convey that each step uphill resulted in a bigger step back down the hill. This often happens to me after a snowstorm, since my sled (a Flexible FlyerTM) is too big and heavy for me to get up the hill. I make even less progress when it's still snowing. Not sure if these work any better but thanks for getting my brain working on the haiku clinic." And she offered three more, of which I particularly like the last.

.....howling storm—
.....the uphill battle
.....of my backsliding sled

.....howling storm—
.....with each uphill tug sled lets me down this howling storm
.....the distance between
.....sled and hilltop

.....Roberta Beary

From Detroit, Michigan, Ed Markowski took up the same poem, saying "As regards the 'howling storm' poem, why not some mystery? I would drop the I & the internal monologue of 'I can't find a way', etc. Yes, remove the poet from the poem. Also, something other than 'howling storm.' Ed suggested several more versions, of which I think the following are most interesting.

.....driving snow . . . the foot of the hill abandoned sled

.....blizzard . . .
.....abandoned sleds the base of the hill

.....Ed Markowski

These two are essentially the same, except for the singular versus plural "sled(s)". They aptly illustrate the problem common in translating Japanese haiku, for almost all nouns in Japanese do not distinguish between singular and plural. Here, a preference for the singular seems obvious, if one wishes more emotional impact. Pluralizing the sleds just makes the storm a whole lot worse, rather than deepening the pathos. At least it seems so to me.

On another tack, Ed shifted to third person, with these results.

.....dragging his sled
......the hill fades wind-driven snow

.....pulling his sled
.....the hill steepens wind-driven snow

.....Ed Markowski

These intrigue me, because he makes the hill the most active element in these poems, and such an approach may work. But both of these examples also illustrate the dangers of "-ing" in haiku, especially introductory phrases beginning with a verb in -ing form. Literally read, both of these poems have the hill dragging/pulling "his" sled through the snow. Obviously, that is not what the author means, but since it is what the poems say, we'll have to drop these.

In a follow-up message, Ed said, "I don't think my revisions were all that great, but they were a bit closer to the mark," and offered one more version, combining elements from both of his earlier versions:

.....abandoned sled
.....the hill steepens wind-driven snow

.....Ed Markowski

Bull's eye! This seems to build nicely from the static sled through the perceptually active hill to the very real action of the snow. The exterior sled and interior sense of the hill steepening both become wrapped in that violent snow, giving a strong impression of the mind's domination by the senses and the storm.

Interesting that both Roberta and Ed came to a kind of storm-bound inner monologue in the end. Each of their final solutions is quite different from the other; I find them both more satisfying than my earlier simplistic rewrite, and grant Ed's a slight edge in going to a deeper interior place.

— Ambiguity and Cliché —

We had one poem under this heading, which poem originally read:

.....deep under snow the top of my head

Eliminating the trite simile, I had proposed:

.....the world deep
.....under snow . . . I stare
.....into the mirror

Gillena Cox, of St James, Trinidad, wrote, "The roop tops, if they are 'deep under', then they would not be visible; 'like the top of my head' is a clear similie–of another genre of poetry; 'the world deep under snow' is stretching things a bit far, and isolates the persona as if he/she was the last person on earth."

I have to interject here that some haiku poets do use similes—even some Japanese haiku poets—but similes have to be extremely apt and fresh, or they don't seem to add very much to a haiku.

Gillena simplified the poem considerably, to this:

.....deep snow
.....a view
.....of the rooftops

.....Gillena Cox

She explains, "To bring some semblance of credibility into this moment, as well as to heighten the sense and degree of the snowfall and to include the persona's wonder at the scene I have edited to: Line One, the situation; Line Two, the persona's place in the moment; Line Three, the extent of situation. And, the persona's perception and wonderment from Line Two carries into Line Three, as one line pivots into the next."

For me, this version introduces a new problem, in that if the snow is deep the rooftops presumably cannot be part of the view. (This sounds like what Gillena said in the first place.) I suppose this view could be metaphorical, as in "another, different kind of view" of the rooftops. Maybe I should have kept the rooftops, as in the original and as Gillena did. Accordingly, I'll amend my own last version, thus:

.....the rooftops deep
.....under snow . . . I stare
.....into the mirror

This also gently reasserts the materials of the original simile without shoving them in the reader's face as a simile. I think we will let this one stop here.

— Simple Logic and Hyperbole —

Under this heading, one poem came at us this way: a.m.˜
.....the darkness in a corner grows
.....still darker

. . . which I quickly condensed to

.....a corner darkens

and said "but something else, either foreground or action, seems needed." Larry Bole made a relatively simple suggestion that certainly qualifies:

.....autumn afternoon
.....corner by corner
.....the room darkens

.....Larry Bole

Of course, this changes the time of day of the original—which was basically eliminated in my stripped-down version, so we cannot blame Larry for that!

In New Jersey, Martin Cohen took up the challenge, offering a number of suggestions, saying "I'm sorry for so many revisions, but I thought it might be informative, even if these attempts don't work."

.....the moonlit wall darkens a corner

.....passing cloud
.....a room's corner darkens the moonlight

.....summer grass—
.....the room's corner darkens the moonlight

.....Martin Cohen

These were all warm-up exercises, and working from the last of these Martin soon began to push toward something he had actually experienced. He said, "I wanted to bring in the smell and juxtapose it with the room's darkening corner. I remember how strange the sweet smell of what I thought was poison sumac and the room's partly shadowed corner darkening in the fading moonlight. Way too much stuff, I suppose. Don't I need to identify what kind of corner . . . street corner, attic corner . . . ?" Playing with the lines, he experimented with

.....a room's corner darkens in the moonlight


.....a corner darkens in the moonlit cabin

.....Martin Cohen

Explaining more, he wrote, "I experienced this myself, up in the Catskills as a kid. My mother would take us each summer up to Greenwood Park Bungalow Colony where postal workers would get a group discount and send their families there for the summer. The workers would visit on the weekends." He pushed on with further variations; he sent so many over the course of a few days, I may not have the order right, but here they are:

.....the room's corner darkens in the moonlight
.....summer grass

.....moonlit screen
.....a corner darkens with the smell of sumac

.....Martin Cohen

I notice how he experiments to see if something more specific than just a "room" might work, and finally, I think his best effort comes to this (I add the linebreak after "darkens"):

.....moonlit cabin
.....a corner darkens
.....with the smell of sumac

.....Martin Cohen

A very satisfying poem; Martin's comments above reveals how particularizing something based on memory can be a very effective revision tool. For me, at least, this peculiar and very specific odor does bring into play the age-old question, "Is this 'poison sumac', or the other kind?" to produce the strong sense of a summer place toward the end of the season, and the faint threat of danger that enlivens such tentative approaches to the wild as our vacation cabins. What a fast-disappearing feast of experience such vacations were, living in flimsy cabins with untamed vegetation near to hand, and who knew what else? Something is lost now as more and more of the landscape becomes "bedroom communities" and "apartment complexes" and the woods and cabin life recede further away from our common experience, to be replaced with RV life and all the amenities on wheels.

Another poem originally in the "Ambiguity and Cliché" category, which read

.....flood of tears
.....sends water over dam lost block

and which I reduced to

.....a block lost
.....the baby cries

drew suggestions from Izabel Sonia Ganz. I had said, "The trick here will be to add something without just making a list of three different objects or facts." She replied, "One way to go about it is:

.....a block lost the earthquake—
.....the baby cries.

.....Izabel Sonia Ganz

Izabel continued, "I think the ambiguity is quite attractive. Where is the baby? Is it a real earthquake, or just one experienced by the baby when a door slammed in the apartment? What 'block' is lost in the earthquake?"

Izabel also suggested a blackly humorous alternative:

.....a block lost
.....the baby cries—
.....Heimlich, quick

.....Izabel Sonia Ganz

which she says is "both unequivocal and unexpected." But I think I like best her final solution:

.....a block lost
.....the baby cries—
.....her voice gets hoarse

.....Izabel Sonia Ganz

She tells me that this version suggests "An abandoned baby, in an empty house, no one to hear her," and goes on to ask, "Who abandoned her and why? Or is the father drunk and asleep, or the mother murdered in the next room by robbers?" I don't see any need to envision such dire events, but indeed, this clear situation and hearing the baby's voice grow rough suggest that something is awry. By prolonging the action, from the initial situation of the lost block through the baby crying and now the effects of crying for a while, this haiku stretches time provocatively. Not yet the stuff of nightmares, but drawing close.

Izabel signed off, "I think I could go on a long time, very evocative beginning of the haiku. Thanks for the fun!"

And indeed, I thank all of our contributors for taking off on my often not-quite-there versions and bringing us all fresh and rewarding haiku, while giving us a good look into the kinds of thinking found in poets' minds as they wrestle a poem into being.

For those who want to play, please see Haiku Clinic #3, focussed on one-line haiku, and respond to the invitation there. We will take a look at those results in the spring issue.

Bill Higginson, Haiku Clinic Editor