A few weeks ago I took a road trip from Vermont to Colorado. It had been many years since I’d taken such a trip with long days in the car, the windows down in the summer heat, the hills fading in the background and the corn, and corn, and corn, and corn rolling by. There’s always something about passing through places that I like, catching a glimpse of something that leaves me with a warm first impression or a feeling that I’m sooo glad to be moving on.
Four legs to the trip, mostly on Interstates 80 and 90, made the 2025 miles quite bearable, pleasant even: 1. Burlington, Vermont to Cleveland; 2. Cleveland to Iowa City (to see the folks and a couple of brothers); 3. A short 4-hour evening jaunt from Iowa City to Omaha; and 4. Omaha to Boulder. Along the way, the dashboard gauge that measures the outside temperature climbed to 105 degrees in western Nebraska, and when I told my brother back in Iowa, his reply was that his wife’s gauge had registered 113 degrees. Not hard to believe as I witnessed the dried up rivers, the brown shriveled corn, and read on stops along the way about the surface-water rationing by farmers.
On such a trip, the experience is one of a living collage with snippets of scenes, smatterings of strangers, alternating and fleeting feelings of anxiety and excitement about visiting family. All of which is perfect material for short poems such as Haiku and Senyru.
The scene, unfortunately, that began the trip was waking to the news of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. As the next few days unfolded, there was a surreal juxtaposition of life going on in my ordinary world while the lives of the surviving victims and their families and the lives of the families of those killed – as well as the perpetrator’s life – were horribly changed forever.
Haiku and Senryu
for sale: insanity –
no morning in Aurora
news from the dark side
wearing the helmet
on the back of his Harley –
will she or won’t she
remember who I am – yes,
still a flicker from Mom
running then and now,
a puddle of sweat at my feet –
Iowa melts me.
train slows, stands on tracks
in the middle of my run –
quick! up and over!
in Iowa’s night,
turbines blink red eyes above
empty cattle trucks
rattle Nebraska highways
after the slaughter
Lincoln County Fair –
don’t miss Main Event: Wrestling,
Men, Women, Midgets
I meet my brother’s son:
Baby Buddha in a high chair
smiling through two teeth
Compression and Word Choice
The best explanation of haiku that I’ve come across is from Sonia Sanchez’s introduction to her book, morning haiku. In it she says, “This haiku, this tough form disguised in beauty and insight, is like the blues, for they both offer no solutions, only a pronouncement, a formal declaration – an acceptance of pain, humor, beauty and non-beauty, death and rebirth, surprise and life. Always life. Both always help us to maintain memory and dignity” (xiv).
If we look at haiku and all the “rules” that are supposed to be applied to it, there are many aspects that could be discussed here. These include, but are not limited to: kigo (season word), makura-kotoba (pillow word), joshi (the introductory word), kakekotoba (pivotal word), kireji (cutting word), mitate (metaphor), and uta-makura (place word).
But I don’t want to talk about any of that here. (If they really grab your attention, feel free to read my essay “Haiku Primer” found on my Haiga page).
What I want to talk about is compression and word choice. A poem gets to the essence through the shortest means possible, and due to the nature of the conservation of words, each word must be selected carefully. What haiku and senryu (and tanka) do, of course, is turn up the compression intensity. In my opinion, to convey a delight, a deeply painful moment, a revelation, a message, an aha-moment with so few words is the ultimate challenge.
It is comparable to that famous six word story that Hemingway supposedly wrote at the challenge of his friends: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” (Interested in the six-word story? See Links section below).
When the form is so short, each word has to be exactly right; you don’t have the rest of a poem or paragraph or novel to explain what you mean. In order to help get this idea across to my middle-school students, I have them close their eyes and think of themselves sitting under a tree in the summer. Then I change the image to sitting under a maple tree (I’m in Vermont – maple trees are important here). Then to a maple tree in autumn. Then to hemlock (they generally know hemlocks, too). Then to a hemlock in winter. Or even better, during February break. As each scene becomes more specific and the image changes in their heads, they start to understand how important specificity is.
Specificity is important for compression, but ambiguity is often still the result (with the poet’s intent). Baron Wormser explains this further in his book, Teaching the Art of Poetry: “For their part, poets purposefully allow for ambiguity. The beauty of ambiguity for poets is that there does not have to be a choice. Different meanings can exist at the same time” (100). I love that. It means that, even if we are interpreting the same poem differently, I am right, and you are right. And if I interpret the same poem many ways, I am still right.
A case in point is Sonia Sanchez’s first haiku in the series “10 haiku (for Philadelphia Murals)” from the book mentioned above, morning haiku:
lighting these walls
Given the title, I imagine a mural of roots and vines and ivy with fireflies flitting among them. But I also think of the people themselves as the roots lighting the walls with their lives, the children as bright fireflies among them. And I also think of the buildings, the row house where my brother-in-law and his family lived for so many decades in Philadelphia, and the windows lighting up the late hot summer nights, like fireflies. All these ideas and images from seven words.
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