A hop, skip and a jump in tiny verses from medieval Japan to Eastport

Posted Sept. 18, 2011, at 6:46 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 19, 2011, at 10:42 a.m.

“All That Remains” by Catherine J.S. Lee; Turtle Light Press, Highland Park, N.J., 2011; 30 pages, hand stitched, $17.95.

Haiku, if you ask me, occupies kind of a peculiar spot in the American imagination. Schoolchildren learn that a haiku is a little poem of three lines with five, seven and five syllables each. For a lot of people the knowledge does not progress much further. And so even for some who are paying attention, anything with three lines and the right number of syllables is called a “haiku.” This has led to a lot of tiny monstrosities, that luckily do not escape into the atmosphere in most cases.

As with practically everything, haiku has dimensions beyond syllable counts. Catherine J.S. Lee of Eastport appears to have tapped at least some of them, as indicated in her nicely made little 5¾ by 4½ inch booklet of three-liners, “All That Remains.”

Traditional three-line Japanese haiku (or hokku or haikai) presents an image from nature that evinces tension or humor and indicates a season, and most of the poems in “All That Remains” reflect these conventions, especially early on in the collection. For example:

grandmother’s house

the lingering scent

of sun-dried linens.

The conventional syllable count is violated here, as in many of the entries, but the gist is true to the form: The tension is between the grandmother’s absence and an apparently familiar scent’s presence, which clearly indicates a season of warm, clothes-drying weather. This is nicely made. A few poems later, in the context of these memories of the family:

high summer

a rusty hay rake buried

in meadowsweet

Here there’s a bit of a redundancy because the meadowsweet implies “high summer,” but the effect is pleasant and even though this is not a strictly formed haiku, it is nonetheless true to the atmosphere. This can be said of most of the verses in the booklet, which skip and hop from one mood to another.

“All That Remains” also departs from traditional haiku in the general subject matter, which involves personal family recollections. This we can chalk up to American adaptiveness, by which I mean that the long-favored creative writing workshop topic of family reminiscence is blended here with various kinds of play in English on haiku form.

In the end this is one way poetic forms evolve, or devolve. Haiku is a derivative form even in Japan. It took shape around the 14th century when poets began to carve the opening section of the “renga,” a much longer form with conventions of its own, into works recited individually. The openings of rengas were developed by the 17th century poet Basho and others as amusements, and haiku became a separate established form by the 19th century.

Some Japanese poems, including haikus, could only be experienced once. The poet intended a specific profound effect on his reader, and the words were just one element of the experience. A particular weight and texture of paper would be selected for its tactile effect. The paper and envelope were scented with oils or petals. When the reader received the note he would gain an initial impression, then on opening it, the paper inside would stir further effects. The manuscript contained not only the poem’s words in careful calligraphy, but also drawings. The reader might be directed to a certain spot in a garden, and served a certain tea. At a specific moment in the tea ritual, the note would be delivered. So the full poetic experience was available just once.

This is not an imitable aesthetic experience, except in your own house where you might leave a stanzified note half apologizing for greedily eating the last of the plums out of the icebox. And Japanese haiku itself is strictly speaking not imitable for us, either, because English is spoken with stresses that create musical rhythms, while Japanese is spoken in unstressed syllables that have an emphatic rather than musical quality. Different senses of rhythm make different poetries.

But adaptations of inimitable forms can still succeed. “All That Remains,” with its high-quality paper and cover stock, carefully crafted photo illustrations and hand-stitched binding, won the Turtle Light Press Chapbook Competition for 2010, adapting, like the verses themselves, some of the tactile and visual dimensions of haiku with American obliquity. It is available from the publisher at turtlelightpress.com.

Dana Wilde’s collection of essays, “ The Other End of the Driveway: An Amateur Naturalist’s Observations in the Maine Woods,” is available in paperback and electronically from booklocker.com.

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