In Response to a Poetix Book Review

I wrote the following commentary on 3 March 2017 in response to a February 2017 book review by G. Murray Thomas on the Poetix website. I sent it to the reviewer, who kindly arranged to have it added to the website. The postscript at the end presents a follow-up discussion.

The review by G. Murray Thomas of Deborah P Kolodji’s Highway of Sleeping Towns gets many things right about haiku, especially regarding misunderstandings of syllable count and the value of the two-part juxtaposition. However, in haiku parlance, there’s no such term as the “cutting line.” What he means is the kireji, or “cutting word,” which is manifested in English by a two-part juxtapositional structure. In Japanese it’s an actual word with one or two syllables that functions as a sort of spoken punctuation, dividing the poem into two parts. It has never been a “line.” In three-line haiku in English, one line is indeed often a separate grammatical and imagistic unit from the rest of the poem, but the cut itself happens between the lines, thus there is a “cut,” but not a “cutting line.” Another misstep is where he says three haiku in particular “come off as forced; they don’t create the expected poetic resonance.” Haiku appreciation is always subjective to be sure, but I would suggest that these poems do resonate, and very well. Near the end of his review, Thomas says “Here are a couple [of haiku] which I needed to study and ponder before I realized how much they had going on in them.” I would suggest that he needed to apply that same study and sensitivity to the three examples that he says feel “forced”—because they too have a lot more going on in them than he seems to have realized. To focus on the first example, “cold summer / one suitcase circling / baggage claim” speaks of loss and absence and distance. This is actually one of the book’s best poems, rich with nuance. Why is the one suitcase circling and abandoned? Who has been forgotten or never made it on the plane? And why? Travelling in the summer is normally a pleasurable thing to do in warm months, so the situation here makes it perfect to say that this must be a cold summer, both literally and figuratively. Furthermore, especially when haiku is a poetry of the seasons, the endless circling of abandoned or unclaimed luggage resonates with the cycle of the seasons invoked by the mention of summer. And don’t all of us sometimes wish we could be rid of some of our baggage? The poem has much sadness and irony. The other two examples have their own virtues to offer as well. Indeed, the book’s poems offer much resonance to sensitive and patient readers, as well as more immediate gratification. Some of the haiku in Kolodji’s book may offer more of a challenge than others, but a greater challenge leads to greater rewards.

Postscript

Here are the three poems under discussion:

        cold summer
        one suitcase circling
        baggage claim

        late jacaranda
        the bridesmaid dress
        too small

        her old cd
        on the long drive
        wild mustard

In his magnanimous response to my comments, which he arranged to have added to the review, G. Murray Thomas said via email that “As for the poems, or lines, I found arbitrary, I stand by [my position]. Yes, the image of the lone suitcase is very resonant, but I feel ‘cold summer’ is too general to really add much poetic depth; perhaps something more specific [such as] ‘cold August’ or ‘rainy Fourth’ would have worked better.” Here’s my comment in response:

Indeed, the assessment of haiku is often so personal. However, August wouldn’t be a summer season word in the Southern hemisphere, so that wouldn’t work universally if summer was intended. And a reference to the “Fourth,” presuming you mean the 4th of July, might be too provincial, and to me would be too dominant a reference relative to the rest of the poem. It also goes in the wrong direction, I think—the 4th is a time of family and community togetherness, so it seems too at odds with the loneliness of the last two lines, and doesn’t heighten that loneliness (through contrast) but competes with it. I believe Debbie has chosen her first line carefully so as not to overshadow the rest of the poem. Perhaps there’s a better first line, but something more specific could too easily shift emphasis away from the rest of the poem. In the Japanese arts of linked verse (renga and renku), it’s a highly admired skill to know when to write a quiet verse so that a stronger verse next to it might shine, and I feel that’s exactly what Debbie has done with “cold summer.”

Thomas also said “But more generally, the poems I cited, as well as several others in the book, have a similar problem—two great lines, and an arbitrary third line. In the other two examples I cited, she seems too easily to fall back on a flower image to fill out the haiku.” To which I responded:

Well, I would still suggest that the lines that feel arbitrary to you actually aren’t. Just as some haiku speak to you, others won’t—but that doesn’t mean the juxtaposition is arbitrary, or that it doesn’t speak volumes to other readers. For example, the jacaranda suggests the colour of the bridesmaids’ dresses, and the fact that it’s a “late” jacaranda to me has something to say about why one particular dress is too small. Was the person herself late in getting involved and the measurement was hasty or incorrect? I even wondered if the woman’s period was “late” and she was perhaps pregnant, which would explain why the dress was too small. Still another resonance is the idea that just as the jacaranda is late, perhaps the wedding has been delayed for unstated reasons, or the bridesmaid is herself “late” in ever getting married—and the dress is small because she’s putting on weight, which might be seen as less desirable.
        In any case, the connection between the two parts is sometimes not logical, but is merely a matter of feeling, and I find great feeling in the pairing of jacaranda with a bridesmaid’s dress. Likewise, the flower reference in the “her old cd” poem may resonate precisely because it isn’t necessarily logical. But here’s where I go with it: She’s on a long drive, but the tedium is relieved by listening to a CD that is probably a favourite if it’s old. And the tedium is relieved by noticing the wild mustard. On one level, it may not matter what flower is mentioned—the point is that some flower is noticed. But to me the deepest resonance lies in the contrast between the seeming obligation to drive a long distance and the wildness of the mustard that doesn’t have obligations. The colour of the mustard brings yellow to mind, which might even suggest cowardice in the face of possibly unwanted obligations. At least, that’s where I go with the poem, and for me that’s rewarding.

Thomas concluded his comments to me by saying that Debbie’s book is a “very strong collection,” and that  “resonance is a personal response,” which is certainly true. He was certainly in favour of the book for the greatest part.
—13 March 2017