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Autumn 2009, vol 7 no 3
 
 

Haiku Chronicles, Podcast
by Alan Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver
A Review by Linda M. Papanicolaou

 

Podcasts are audio or video computer files that are published periodically through web syndication. The original concept was these files, in mp3 format, would be downloaded to a portable device such as an iPod. Thus the name, though now podcasts may be played on any computer that can handle media files and the meaning of the name has been changed to "Personal On Demand broadcast." What distinguishes podcasts from simple streaming or downloading is their syndication. One subscribes through a "podcatcher" such as iTunes; it keeps track of new episodes as they're published and manages downloading.

Podcasts are a boon to poetry; among others, the Poetry Foundation and the American Academy of Poets offer podcast subscriptions to highly stimulating readings and discussion. Within our own online haiku community, there have been ventures in podcasting, though they've been short-lived; by and large our response to the technology has been fitful. This is unfortunate. Writers who do not have access to haiku clubs where they can hear haiku read, shared and discussed are missing an important part of the experience.

Happily, we now have Haiku Chronicles. Launched by Simply Haiku's own Alan Pizzarelli, with poet, artist and photographer Donna Beaver as co-host, it is "designed to provide a better understanding and appreciation of the art of Haiku and its related forms including senryu, renku, tanka, haibun and haiga." Subscribe through your podcatcher, or at the website, http://www.haikuchronicles.com.

Episodes range from 10 to 22 minutes. Each begins with a poem and a short clip of music that fades out as Beaver begins her introduction, then on to the topic of discussion. So far, there are five episodes:

1: "The Lost Tapes": a vintage 1979 recording of Cor van den Heuvel, Anita Virgil, William Higginson, Penny Harter and Pizzarelli himself, reading their poems.

2: "Basho's frog": Beaver and Pizzarelli focus on Basho's "old pond" haiku to talk about the principles of haiku.

3: "Senryu: Son of Haiku": The co-hosts discuss senryu, its origins in Japan and the history of its development in the United States

4: "History of American Haiku Part 1, Roots": van den Heuvel talks about the origins of American haiku, from Ezra Pound and the Imagists, through the early translations from the Japanese by Basil Hall Chamberlain and Lafcadio Hearn, and finally to R. H. Blyth.

5: "History of American Haiku Part 2, the Beat Poets" (forthcoming)

As a relative newcomer to haiku (I began around 2001), I have learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed Haiku Chronicles. Each episode has poems I knew, poems I didn't know (though should have), and poems I thought I knew but didn't. What a difference it makes to hear a poem, especially in the author's own voice! In the 1979 recording, the authors read each poem only once rather than twice as is common now, and the poems pass quickly. That's not an insurmountable problem with a media player—I learned to pause, back up and play again, Soon I was playing the episode over and over again, listening to and living with the poems. I began to dig out published or web versions of the poems also. The result was a much more rounded sense of the poems, with different nuances depending on whether I was hearing or reading.

For instance, I was excited to realize that 'tundra' was among Cor van den Heuvel selections in episode 1. First published in The Window-Washer's Pail (1973), it was typeset just below center on a blank page. A good analogy would have been Ad Reinhardt's black-on-black paintings of around the same time. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published the year before, and as I recall of those years, the tundra was still regarded as a treeless, featureless landscape of nothing: incomprehensible, a null space of white on white. Now, of course, van den Heuvel's poem is thirty-five years old and we live in the age of drill-baby-drill, endangered permafrost and the likely extinction of the polar bear. Never again will 'tundra' read as it did then, even though it remains a holy grail for some of my friends who write minimally. How does one read a concrete poem like this? The word 'tundra' is aurally rich, with syllables that roll like quiet thunder, and the whiteness of the page is such an important part of it that I expected dramatization—perhaps a great silence before and after. To my surprise he gave it no exceptional emphasis. The word was here, then gone, as if by denying space it had erased itself. Now I see it more of a Jenny Holzer projection than an Ad Reinhardt canvas. And I'm still smiling.

Another lesson in how hearing and reading complement each other for me was this by Anita Virgil:

over & over
my silver needle catches
the morning sun

Virgil's voice was soft, well-modulated, and the poems were read without 'performance', meaning that she did not use her voice to control—more, it was as if voice were a vehicle through which the words themselves came up from the page (you can hear the paper rustling) and hung there, letting the listener come to them. My experience was intensely visual: of a sunny sewing room, the flash of a needle, and a sense of not being pressed to finish the seam. The poem had been published in A 2nd Flake (1974), and when I found a web reprint, I discovered an additional kick: the line 1 conjunction is not 'and' but an ampersand, like a thread that loops on itself in backstitch.

I'd heard Bill Higginson at the 2005 Haiku North America so his voice was familiar, but again, how great the difference between an auditorium and the intimacy of one's own living room. His are quintessential haiku, about ordinary, unremarkable things seen as they are, though as if they have not been truly seen before, and he reads them in a rhythmic voice that savors each word and line break. How many of us have had this experience?

I look up
from writing
to daylight.

Penney Harter's original reading included free verse that has been edited out of the podcast, so her reading is a partial image of the poet. Sabi permeates her haiku: a rusted hibachi, rain on a leafless apple tree. . . Yet (perhaps it's just me)I read a restless soul in these poems. They depict a world of precarious existence—a mountain lightning storm, deer by the highway—and there's a pervasive sense of not being reconciled to impermanence, bracing against the pain of loss:

the old doll
her mama box broken
to half a cry

the last tomato
green
on the vine

Pizzarelli reads last. The episode had been prefaced by one of his haiku that is modern and urban in its imagery yet classically sabi in its aesthetic

twilight
staples rust
in the telephone pole

Already in the recording itself, though, he's the trickster poet we know well: one poem about a Frisbee turns into a narrative of its trajectory that ends in haiku-parody: falling petals. Another creates the sound of swatting an insect. His iconic 'fat lady' senryu is there too—more about her later, for she'll be the focus of episode 3 on senryu.

Episode 2 is brief (10 minutes) and it seems intended to give a working sense, intelligible to listeners of all levels, of what haiku is. For me, this episode was a disappointment. The springboard for the discussion is Basho's 'old pond', in the Higginson translation:

Old pond
a frog jumps in.
water's sound.

Beaver reads it and then defines haiku as 'a short poem, recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature'. I was a bit surprised to realize that this is the Haiku Society of America's old definition (1973/76 rpt. 1974 Haiku Anthology). It's since been revised as " a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season." Not everyone likes the new definition, but it centers on the immediacy of the text itself and is much more aligned with aesthetic and critical theory (http://www.hsa-haiku.org/archives/HSA_Definitions_2004.html#Haiku).

Discussion of the poem is based on Shiki, and we're told that the poem "comes from direct observation of a moment in nature, written just as it is, in present tense, without any unnecessary word, without adding any poetic devices, poetic statements, made-up ideas. . . ." Yet there is scholarship and critical interpretation showing in fact that "old pond" was inserted in the poem's final version; thus the poem is a product of both observation and the imagination of a master poet (Hasegawa Kai, 2006 videotape at http://www.gendaihaiku.com/hasegawa/index.html, based on his book furuike ni kawazu tobikanda ka [Did the Frog Jump Into the Old Pond?, 2005). While Shiki is undeniably important for American haiku—his shasei theory has left an indelible imprint on all of us—I do think that Hasegawa's work on Basho and this poem ought to be acknowledged in any discussion of it. Fortunately, the plan for podcast episodes seems to have been laid out with flexibility and it may be that things will be revisited in later episodes.

In episodes 3 through 4 and 5, Pizzarelli takes up senryu and van den Heuvel returns to discuss American haiku. This is where Haiku Chronicles hits its stride. Discussions is general yet thoughtful, a truly valuable oral history of the American haiku movement by poets who were there. For me they pulled the picture together.

the fat lady
bends over the tomatoes
a full moon

Episode 3 begins with a musical setting of Pizzarelli's iconic 'fat lady' senryu. In the editor's introduction to the Simply Haiku Senryu column, Pizzarelli has given his full, succinct definition of senryu. Here in the podcasts he amplifies that with an historical overview of Japanese senryu that draws on two articles by Anita Virgil ("Interim" and "Senryu," SH, Summer and Autumn 2005); then moves to senryu in the United States, from Blyth's translations to the beginnings of American senryu in the late '60s and early '70s, and reads a selection of examples.

Heretofore, I knew that senryu was a poetry of humor—pun, parody and satire, but had not thought much about form and had little idea whether there were any requirements such as haiku's kigo and cut, nor was I really sure of the difference between senryu and haiku. I knew only that haiku may also be characterized by humor, that senryu may have nature, and that sometimes poems seem to fit both labels. "Senryu picks up all that haiku rejects," states Pizzarelli categorically. "Haiku should never state the poet's conclusion; senryu, on the other hand, can tell all . . ." If you look closely and the real focus of a poem is on the human, it is senryu.

Pizzarelli's "fat lady" demonstrates the complexity of which senryu is capable. The full moon appears, but not as a signifier of autumn as it would be in haiku, rather, as a comic reference to the woman's behind. I was interested to hear the author say that while it may have originated from seeing an Italian woman in her garden, the association of moon with buttocks turns out to be a cultural universal. What had popped into my mind was one of those kitschy painted plywood garden ornaments; then it occurred to me that the image has been with us for eons. Think of the Venus of Willendorf, that Paleolithic sculpture with her rippling flesh. As fertility objects, these Venuses would have had lunar associations, though we'll never know precisely what they meant nor how they were used in cult. Still, when you pause to consider that "tomato" is American slang for a sexy, curvaceous woman, you'll realize that the enduring power of Pizzarelli's senryu is the way it transcends mere joke by drawing on archetype. This fat gardener is the crone phase of female sexuality that nurtures the next generation. Like comedy itself, apparently, a good senryu comes from the deepest recesses of the human psyche.

Now, it's also occurred to me that Pizzarelli's is definition of senryu is expansive; others have thought about the matter and prefer to allow more scope for haiku, for overlap or continuum between genres. The result is that even today, poems that would be better recognized as senryu are published as "haiku." In a quick check of websites, e-zines and even the kigo section of the Shiki kukai, I was amazed at how many. Part of the problem may be that we have never found an adequate umbrella term other than "haiku." I also suspect that people will always prefer to be thought of as "haiku" poets because it implies "high" art rather than "low." I'm not quite sure where my own opinion will eventually settle, but I'm persuaded that Pizzarelli is right: blurring the distinction between genres has not been good for either. It has diluted our sense of haiku as a poetry of 'epiphany' (Bruce Ross's term), and it has let us off the hook in being honest about ourselves and our writing: By whatever name, senryu's popularity in our time may be because it addresses 'a need that goes beyond the limitations of haiku poetry' (Pizzarelli, "Modern Senryu," 1987, rpt. SH, Summer 2005). "And," if I may quote him again, "that's alright. . . ."

As of this writing, episode 5, "Part 2: the Beat Poets," is imminent. I eagerly wait. One of the great pleasures of Haiku Chronicles has been listening to Cor van den Heuvel. Before the podcasts I knew some of his haiku in passing, but had never taken the time to get a sense of oeuvre. Now, listening to episode 1, it occurred to me that he is not minimalist, "tundra" notwithstanding. True, he uses only what words are "needed," but that is not the same as cutting to the bone. Generally his poems are closer to "full-count," albeit not classically 5/7/5: he places his line breaks for emphasis, even if that means the line is long, and he exceeds 17 syllables overall if that's what the poem wants:

in her dressing room
the stripper powders her breasts
and whispers something to them

On some of the online haiku workshops to which I belong, the pressure to be minimal is relentless. Often, the result is a better poem, but sometimes it's merely a different poem, and sometimes whacking to the bone leaves just that: a skeleton. I've begun to wonder if we aren't so jaded by the sheer quantity of what's being written and posted these days that we want everyone to cut to the chase so we can check quickly and move on. It's a bad habit that makes for bad readers. As I listened to van den Heuvel, then paused to read his poems myself, then returned to hear him again, I began to realize that these longer-length pieces require a patience we no longer cultivate. Read the senryu about the stripper a few more times. Turn it over in your mind and see how it flowers slowly, if you linger to let it. Another poem, a haiku also by van den Heuvel, says it all:

summer afternoon
the long fly ball to center field
takes its time

It's not in any of the episodes to date, but dare we hope for an episode on baseball haiku?

 


Haiku Chronicles, Podcast
by Alan Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver