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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

In the Cottonwood Tops
by Lee Gurga
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Lee Gurga is a highly respected poet, the former editor of the magazine Modern Haiku, and author of one of the most perceptive and comprehensive manuals on haiku, Haiku: A Poet's Guide (Modern Haiku Press 2003).

Some of his topnotch, fresh, memorable and sometimes ethereal haiku in In the Cottonwood Tops are what I expected to find. The poems resonate and bring to mind haiku penned by some of the Japanese poets who gave us the genre. Yet at the same time -- and without losing the basic components of nature and seasonal reference that characterize the Japanese haiku -- some of the moments Gurga selects smoothly incorporate contemporary material as well as local color specific to the American mid-west area of Illinois where he lives.

last bale of hay -
we sit down on it
and watch the moon

the sound of rain
moving through the wheatstubble;
a night of love

opossum bones
wedged in an upper fork -
budding leaves

blackberry picking -
the first breath of morning
in the cottonwood tops

mountain cherry -
from branch to branch
the photographer

the philosophic drunk
finally runs out of gas . . .

the smell of the iron
as I come down the stairs -
winter evening

school bus gone;
the old cedar
in & out of fog

In his Poet's Guide Lee Gurga states:

"Season is the soul of haiku, as simple as that. [p. 24] . . . Season is a crucial aspect of haiku. Haiku do not simply mention the season - the season must actively contribute to the poem . . . The season and the moment must interpenetrate to create a nexus of poetic power. At its root haiku is nature poetry." [p.32]

Again, Gurga in his article "Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku," declares:

"One of the original and enduring characteristics of haiku is the seasonal or nature reference. In addition to brevity, this nature reference has been an essential element of haiku since its beginnings." I could not agree more.

But, there is a problem. The word "HAIKU," in big letters, is the heading on every page in Gurga's book. (This is glaringly reminiscent of and about as useful as Kenneth Yasuda's 575575575575575575 declaration that tops all 232 pages and frames the title page in his classic text, The Japanese Haiku [Tuttle, 1957].)

The problem is that not all of the poems that fly beneath that banner are haiku! In actuality, almost 50% are excellent quality senryu, e.g.:

candlelight dinner -
his finger slowly circles
the rim of his glass

professional conference -
in the restroom all the dentists
washing their hands

class reunion -
with my old girlfriend
her girlfriend

grandma's funeral -
shaking hands with the cousins
I don't remember

In each of these, I am left to ponder as many readers will: And where did haiku's all-important seasonal references go?

A Poet's Guide, published only two years before Cottonwood Tops, contains an illuminating, if astonishing explanation as to why Gurga determined that his poem "graduation day" [see below] is a haiku. It exposes how even talented and usually perceptive poets and editors can really trip themselves up and perpetuate the confusion surrounding the separation of haiku from senryu.

"Often a haiku moment will occur because the poet is already in a state of heightened consciousness. In fact, the very intention to write haiku can create a special kind of awareness. Sometimes the significance of a moment becomes apparent only later - that is, in our memory. Paradoxically, the 'aha' that occurs in the writing . . . can be more profound than that of the original experience. . . .

"On the day of his eighth grade graduation, my oldest son asked me to teach him to tie his tie. We stood together at the mirror while I took him through the knot, step by step. . . . I realized that an important moment in our lives had just occurred. Here is how I remembered it in a haiku [emphasis mine, RW]:

graduation day -
my son & I side by side
knotting our ties

"This experience provided an important lesson. I can't recall a single thing about the graduation ceremony - the true rite of passage for me took place not in the auditorium but in front of the bedroom mirror. Haiku, by helping us to maintain this kind of awareness, enriches our lives." -- Lee Gurga (Haiku: A Poet's Guide, p. 35)

It is evident that Gurga has confused the state of heightened consciousness in a moment with being the sole property and identifying feature of a haiku! (I would suggest it provides the impetus to ALL poetic utterances.) This poem, as are the four others above, and many more in the book, are excellent senryu. The sole focus in all of them is on humans. Moreover, there is no seasonal reference in them - nor is it necessary. (Yes, a very few senryu do include a seasonal or nature reference, but it is used to a different end in those cases.) Gurga's graduation poem captures with heightened awareness a significant moment in the relationship of father to son, the charm of their mirrored behaviors, a moment of perfect unity between them which also has a certain undertone of humor in the duplicate gestures.

It is not the haiku alone that "helps us to maintain this kind of awareness, enriches our lives." The senryu with its equal imperative for acute awareness of a moment regarding the human condition does the same.

Here is Gurga once more:

"They [senryu] have a commitment to the truth of the human condition." ("Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku")

Absolutely. Isn't Gurga's graduation day poem a perfect example of this?

Haiku and senryu are two [more often than not] distinct though closely related genres of Japanese short form poetry. It is now an acknowledged fact that there still remains much confusion in the English language Japanese short form poetry world as to which is which. This confusion came about primarily from the lack of distinction made between the two genres by editors of English language journals (who do what Gurga has just done in Cottonwood Tops) and publishers of English language poetry books and chapbooks. Inadequate study of senryu has lain at the bottom of this problem far too long.

Is there any wonder that Gurga and other well-known poets and influential editors, because of their own uncertainties and inconsistencies of logic, share a conspiracy of mindset against making distinctions between the haiku and the senryu? They are reluctant to take a stand on what they have not yet fully understood.

That there are mediocre poems that do not compare in quality with the fine haiku and senryu contained in Cottonwood Tops was another disappointing aspect of this collection, adding to the unevenness evidenced in this book.

call after call.
finally, my six year-old's
"Lee Gurga!"

Thanksgiving Day -
the whole family silent
watching a football game

There is no question that when Lee Gurga is 'ON' he is really on in his haiku. And in his senryu -- whether or not he chooses to identify them as such. The resulting confusion caused by this avoidance behavior regarding senryu is unfortunate, given Gurga's generally excellent track record.

In the Cottonwood Tops
by Lee Gurga
Drustvo Apokalipsa (2005)
ISBN 961-6314-80-7