Haiku as Poetic Spell

      by Martin Lucas

The following essay was first delivered at the fourth Haiku Pacific Rim Conference in Terrigal, Australia, in 2009. The text is available on the New Zealand Poetry Society website, and at the website for Presence, the haiku journal Martin edited. Following this essay is an email exchange I had with Martin shortly after I first read his essay, in which we discussed key details of his stimulating point of view. Martin Lucas held a PhD from Cardiff University for his study of haiku as creative writing and edited the haiku journal Presence from 1996 until his untimely death in 2014. He was a past president of the British Haiku Society and author of Stepping Stones: A Way into Haiku (British Haiku Society, 2007) and coeditor of The New Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2002). Martin lived in Preston, Lancashire, and was a keen birdwatcher—selections of his bird haiku were included in the Wing Beats anthology (Snapshot Press, 2008). See also Dana Gioia’s “Poetry as Enchantment.”

Haiku as an English-language form now has fifty years or so of history. There have been many trials of new approaches along the way, and much has been learned. At the same time, it’s probably true to say that only a minority of writers stay the course. For many, it’s an enthusiasm that burns brightly for two or three years—sometimes with brilliant results—and then burns itself out, as the writer comes to feel that s/he has exhausted either the potential of haiku or his/her own potential as a haiku writer. One consequence of this turnover is that although individual writers may make great strides very rapidly, the movement as a whole evolves much more slowly, and from certain angles it now looks as if it has reached something of a plateau. This plateau is a position of conformity, complacency and mere competence. And the pressures towards conformity are acute enough to make it difficult to remain true to your own original inspirations, poetic preferences and little awkwardnesses that resist hammering into shape.
        To understand the context of this discussion, we need to appreciate that haiku in English developed largely using translations as models. Translations tend to concentrate on conveying content with accuracy, sacrificing any attempt to replicate formal effects such as rhythm and alliteration. The historical consequence of this has been that poets writing original haiku in English have focused on what is said and paid relatively little attention to how it is said. The internationally accepted formula runs something like this (expressed here in 5-7-5 for my own amusement, though 5-7-5 is now outmoded as far as the arbiters of taste are concerned):

                seasonal ref’rence—
                then two lines of contrasting
                foreground imagery

Seen in isolation, any one of these haiku can be impressive. Taken in quantity, the effect is numbing. For my point of departure I turn to Modern Haiku, not to single it out, because suitable examples abound, scattered like the innumerable stars right across the haiku firmament. But Modern Haiku comes close to the pinnacle of general respect, and the haiku I am using was highlighted as an award-winner in 40/1. This helps to make the point that it’s not bad haiku but generally accepted good haiku that are holding back the development of the form. With my profound apologies to Lynne Steel, because I could have chosen a haiku by any one of us, here it is (Modern Haiku
40:1, 2009, p. 8):

                Indian summer
                the old fan slows
                to a stop

Let’s be clear: it’s a good haiku. If it had been submitted to Presence, I would very likely have accepted it. But in Presence it would have kept company with haiku of more divergent kinds; it would have been less centrally representative of the journal’s guiding aesthetic. It is centrally representative of the haiku not only in Modern Haiku but in most of the other quality journals, whether print or web, and the Red Moon and other anthologies. It does what so many others are trying to do, and it has been selected for a best-of-issue award because it does it well. It is a good example of its kind; it’s the kind I object to. For one thing, it fits the formula too well. There it is—the well-worn seasonal reference, followed by the significantly juxtaposed foreground image. You’re only 23 poems into this same issue of Modern Haiku when you meet your next “Indian summer” haiku:

                Indian summer
                a knowing look
                on the face of a pumpkin

                                —Alan S. Bridges (Modern Haiku 40:1, 2009, p. 15)

While this one conjures a very different mood, it is nevertheless structurally identical. It fulfils identical rhythmical expectations, and the repeated encounter with this pattern throughout this (and many another) journal contributes to an almost hypnotic reading experience. To analyse Steel’s haiku more positively: the obvious focus is on the juxtaposition, which contains elements of both comparison and contrast. The year is drawing to a close, just as the fan is nearing the end of its useful life. But the year is flickering unexpectedly to life, whereas the fan is passing quietly away. It’s an intriguing mix, but almost all the interest is in this content, and almost none in the expression. I do note three s-words that end the lines and may contribute to the general feeling of lassitude, and a preponderance of single-syllable words that may mimic the old fan’s stuttering decline. But since all these word choices, not to mention the layout choice, are the most obviously appropriate to sketch the moment—appropriate, at least, in the eyes of a practised haiku writer—it’s hard to determine whether their formal qualities are anything other than accidental. Content rules, and the sole function of form is to convey that content as lucidly as possible. This it does well, but I do not feel I am being unfair in claiming that this appears to be the limit of its ambition.
        Having outlined my point of departure, I will draw all my remaining examples from #37 of my own journal, Presence. This is partly for the sake of convenience, and partly because they are, by definition, to some extent representative of an apparently different guiding aesthetic. In recasting haiku as Poetic Spell, I wish to emphasise, firstly, an ideal that is poetic as opposed to prosaic, and secondly, an expression that is more akin to a magical utterance than a mere report of an incident, however consequential or inconsequential.
        I make no claim that every haiku in Presence conforms to this poetic ideal. Nor do I think it desirable that it should. A complete issue of a journal should offer a variety of angles and a varied reading experience. Senryu, and some of the simpler kinds of descriptive haiku, can contribute to the total quality of this experience, even if individually they are nothing more than fragments of prose. On the approach to the ideal, some haiku of exceptionally resonant content read very much as poems, however fragmentary, even without any significant contribution from form. At another pole, we should have no difficulty in accepting as poems those haiku whose formal and language qualities detain us, independent of any consideration of their information content.
        To approach the Poetic Spell via imagery often appears to involve nothing more than mere description. The difference is that what is described is somehow so satisfying that we linger in the moment, and almost seek to dwell in it. This resonance is more readily evoked in rural scenes that have about them something almost primitive or archetypal, than in urban scenes that so often rattle with the shallowness of modern social life. I’m not saying by any means that it’s impossible to write resonant urban haiku, but resonance is a natural consequence when the human focus shrinks and the horizon expands:

                mountain home the distant clunk of the cattle grid

                                —Pamela Brown (Modern Haiku 40:1, 2009, p. 26)

                paddy field by the river . . .
                the voice of a farmer
                speaking to the bulls

                                —K. Ramesh (Modern Haiku 40:1, 2009, p. 32)

The first of these centres on a relatively modern contrivance, the cattle grid, but the implications of solitude and silence, not to mention the opening phrase, suggest the ancient lineage of Saigyō’s tanka. The second, set, I feel confident, in India, seems to stand in a direct line of inheritance from Bashō’s Japan. There is such profound satisfaction in the image that even without any notable contribution from the language, I’d happily regard it as an example of at least one kind of Poetic Spell.
        To approach the spell via language, we need more emphasis on form as opposed to content, and on expression as opposed to information. This haiku by Tito has it (Modern Haiku 40:1, 2009, p. 12):

                Rained from the morning’s
                Clear blue,
                Settling on peony petals, too
                Ash from Mt Asama.

It is constructed indirectly, delaying resolution until the final line; with the unusual opening of a passive verb that is also marginally metaphorical. It has evident alliterative patterning—“peony petals”, “Ash / Asama”—and, crikey!, a rhyme. Tito, a.k.a. Stephen Gill, has been writing this style of four-line haiku for very nearly as long as Modern Haiku has been publishing, but very few have followed his lead, and outside his local circle in Kansai, Japan, this approach is almost entirely neglected. This is in many ways unfortunate, because this rich four-line style offers far more poetic nourishment than the clipped three lines of the international formula. If I had to speculate on the reasons for this neglect, I might suggest that in the very act of giving the poem such a defined beginning, middle, and end, the prized directness of haiku has been sacrificed. But I might also suggest that a rich four lines requires more effort from the writer and more effort from the reader, and in a creative community notorious for its short attention span there are too few willing to do this little extra work.
        Without departing at all radically from the familiar three-line format, it’s possible to approach the Poetic Spell through both imagery and language. This haiku by Matthew Paul does so, though it may stand in need of some explication (Modern Haiku 40:1, 2009, p. 19):

                on a day the colour
                of rolling tobacco
                ragged-robin

To access the haiku it’s more or less essential to be able to visualise “ragged-robin”, or at least to know that it’s a flower. Found in verges and woodland margins, it’s barely knee-high, and its beautiful pink flower is cut into thin filaments—so “robin” probably from the colour, and “ragged” from the shape. One criterion of the Poetic Spell would be original rather than conventional use of season-words, and this poem meets that test immediately. In imagery, too, it has no apparent antecedents—I know of no other haiku that compares the day to “rolling tobacco”! This has to be an exaggeration—even the old-fashioned London smogs were hardly a thick tobacco brown. I assume it’s the sky that’s meant, but it might be the landscape, or it might be a subjective mood. It certainly seems to feed into a mood—a kind of depression, perhaps, that’s so intense there’s almost a perverse pleasure in it; and growing out of it, complementing it, or fulfilling it, or counteracting it, there’s the unassuming wayside flower, frail and lovely. Original thought; original imagery; and, with its unobtrusive alliteration, pleasingly musical language. Importantly, it also resists definitive interpretation. My own speculations about “depression”, for instance, might be well wide of the mark as far as the writer is concerned. It’s very much the reader’s poem.
        Even greater fluidity, ambiguity and reflectivity are made possible by the single unpunctuated line, deployed with striking effect in the pages of Presence over the years by my friend and colleague Stuart Quine. Stuart’s lead has now tempted so many to follow that, for the first time in #37, I found myself discouraging one-liners, rather than encouraging them, as a necessary step to avoid devaluing the currency. The one-liner has great potential for authority, inevitability and ineffability. It heightens both ambiguity and immediacy, and seems more tolerant of effects that are in essence poetic rather than prosaic, without any sacrifice of the haiku ideal of image-based understatement. Here are four favourites from Presence #37:

                hatless the seeds of winter in the morning sky

                                —Duro Jaiye (Modern Haiku 40:1, 2009, p. 26)

                torn clouds the horse’s black tail trailing

                                —Pamela Brown (Modern Haiku 40:1, 2009, p. 26)

                my sister skating here comes her yellow hat

                                —frances angela (Modern Haiku 40:1, 2009, p. 29)

                sharpening this night of stars distant dogs

                                —Stuart Quine (Modern Haiku 40:1, 2009, p. 29)

What we notice immediately in each of these examples is a driving rhythm, which makes the decisive contribution in transforming each of these fragments into something akin to a spell or charm. Equally we notice that this rhythm, and the placing of pauses and stresses, varies considerably from poem to poem. We cannot—on the basis of these examples, at least—draft any kind of formula. There is nothing here akin to the predictability of the “Indian summer” haiku with which we are, by now, over-familiar. In relation to the idea of haiku as charm, Stuart Quine sees a connection with dharani. He asserts that, although mantra and dharani share structural and rhythmic similarities, they have different functions. Mantra are means of centring and settling the mind, whereas dharani are essentially invocations. However, it is important to realise that dharani are not calls upon Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The dharani is in itself the manifestation of the particular Buddha or Bodhisattva invoked. The dharani of Jizo Bosatsu is the actualisation of Jizo Bosatsu. Nembutsu, similarly, actualises Amida Buddha and the Pure Land.
        In considering a haiku-spell, it’s hardly possible to determine who or what is being invoked. Yet the idea has relevance in the sense that for the charm or spell, the final effect depends on the totality of the utterance: form and content unite, and the latter does not claim all our attention. I find a prose paraphrase of Duro Jaiye’s poem impossible, because I can’t with any confidence say what is happening or what it’s about. I assume it’s the poet who is “hatless”, but we’re tempted by the fluid syntax to attach the adjective to the seeds. The seeds may be actual seeds of some late-flourishing plant or tree, or this may be a poet’s way of saying “the signs of winter”, early indications, something like that. Although I took “winter” as a season-word and placed the poem on the winter pages of Presence, I could readily accept an interpretation that placed it at any time of year after the summer solstice. Where you place it in time in turn colours your interpretation of “hatless” and its associated moods. This ambiguity is of the essence: you can’t nail it down; you can’t boil it down; and you can’t say it any other way. The form of the poem, in its authority and inevitability, adds dimensions far beyond the information-value of its content.
        Pamela Brown’s seems easier, until you start to analyse it. It’s stitched together by alliteration, as if in imitation of the tapping of a horse’s canter. The internal comparison suggests the tail either is, or appears to be, ragged or “torn” and, in reverse, the clouds are, if not “black”, then dark, threatening, and moving on a rapid wind. All other background clues are absent—is there a field? is there a fence? is there a rider? is there actually a horse at all, or just the suggestion of a horse in the tail-like threads of cloud? We can make our own choice, but we can’t know for certain. It’s fundamentally resistant to any kind of reductionist solution.
        Frances Angela’s, by contrast, seems absurdly easy to paraphrase. Surely this isn’t poetry at all, but two prose sentences run together: “My sister (is) skating. Here comes her yellow hat.” But running them together, in a single breathless utterance, results in a masterpiece of what I call “non sequitur” haiku. The poetry of the yellow hat lies not in its relevance but its irrelevance. If you’ve read R.H. Blyth, you’ll know that time and again he counsels against cause-and-effect in haiku. If you explain something, you explain it away, and all the poetry seeps out like air from a slowly punctured tyre. Here there’s no explanation. Everything builds to the climax of the yellow hat as if it were the most meaningful thing in the world; yet in terms of prosaic everyday meaning it has no obvious significance whatsoever—other than being attached to the head of a sister, with whatever feeling that conveys; and even this is conjecture, since the hat may have fallen free. Like an object in a dream, it is preternaturally pregnant with importance, and it’s this bare-faced irrationality that makes this a poem.
        The unintentional inspiration for Stuart’s haiku was probably my own at dawn the din of distant dogs, but that’s by-the-by. His haiku conjures a radically different scene, and what a contribution is made here by the opening word! Its appropriateness is not in question, but its prose equivalence eludes us. Is it a night of “sharp” frost? Is it therefore cold and harsh, and colder and harsher against the background of dogs barking? Well, something like that, no doubt, but that’s not actually what the poem says. What it says is

                sharpening this night of stars distant dogs

and this is the starting-point and the ending-point of each reader’s individual reflection. Through the clarity of imagery, feeling emerges: a cold, dark, sharp feeling that is at the opposite pole from sentimental assumptions of what makes a poem, far more alert, far more alive:

                sharpening this night of stars distant dogs

There is no other way of saying it. That’s what I mean by Poetic Spell. Words that chime; words that beat; words that flow. And once you’ve truly heard it, you won’t forget it, because the words have power. They are not dead and scribbled on a page, they are spoken like a charm; and they aren’t read, they’re heard. This is what I want from haiku: something primitive; something rare; something essential; not some tired iteration of patterns so familiar most of us can produce them in our sleep. It’s not the information content that counts, it’s the way that information is formed, cooked and combined. Poetic spells don’t tell us anything, they are something, they exist as objects of fascination in their own right. You can hold them in the light and turn them about and watch each of their facets gleam. They begin and end each reader’s unique reflection.

Concluding note: The appended table outlines the “battle positions” between what I’m calling the International Formula and the Poetic Spell. Note that no one poem will exhibit either set of characteristics perfectly. Some that are written to the formula possess one or more characteristics of the Spell, and others that I’d want to class as Spells possess one or more characteristics of the Formula. It’s also possible that a haiku written in close conformity to the formula nevertheless appeals as a lively and satisfying piece of work, while one that possesses many of the outward qualities of the Spell somehow falls short on inscrutable charm. Nevertheless, as a generalised table of opposites, this account holds true and is potentially useful.


International Formula

Poetic Spell

Predictable seasonal phrase, in predictable position

Original seasonal phrase, in unusual position

Predictable word order and “cut” position

Original word order and “cut” position

No significant word music or language effects. Predictable rhythm.

Significant contribution of word music and language effects—notably rhythm.

Essentially rational—prose paraphrase possible

Essentially irrational—prose paraphrase not possible

Can be analysed in terms of information content alone

Cannot be analysed in terms of information content alone

A written form, not readily memorable

An oral form, readily memorable

Linear / Static

Circular / Fluid

Clear

Ambiguous

Reductive / Descriptive

Expansive / Reflective

Simple

Complex

Confirms security

Induces insecurity

Goal: acceptability

Origin: integrity


Postscript

What follows is an exchange of email I had with Martin right after I read his essay.


From: Michael Dylan Welch
To: Martin Lucas
Sent: Tue, Sep 25, 2012 5:28 pm
Subject: Haiku as Poetic Spell

Dear Martin,

Not sure why I hadn’t read it before, but I just devoured your excellent article on haiku as poetic spell. When you use terms such as complacency, plateau, and numbing in reference to the state of some haiku being published today, your essay brings to mind my own essay, covering similar complaints, titled “The Seed of Wonder: An Antidote to Haiku Inflation”—focusing, as it does, on what I call “haiku ennui.” You may well have seen the essay, but if not, it’s online. I offer my solution, which is to cultivate a sense of wonder, which is something that may help before one gets to the act of writing, whereas your solution takes an approach that applies to the writing process itself.

One point of yours that particularly stood out for me is that “it’s not bad haiku, but generally accepted good haiku, that are holding back the development of the form.” This middle-of-the-road “acceptable” haiku is perhaps akin to pictures of kittens and puppies that are so popular on Facebook, but haven’t really earned any photographic respect. In the camera clubs I’ve belonged to over the years (and one that I left because of this problem), a few too many photographers catered to this need to be accepted and acceptable, so they’d trot out their kitten and puppy photos and the less savvy would vote for them in club competitions. This isn’t to say kittens and puppies aren’t cute and appealing—of course they are. But they’re exactly the kind of “acceptable” photograph that does nothing to advance photography.

This begs the question, of course, Is it necessary to advance haiku? Or as you put it, recasting your words into a question, is it necessary to develop the haiku form? This urge smacks of the influence of Pound and his “make it new” minions, but I deplore novelty just for the sake of novelty. If the “form” (as opposed to formula) of haiku is good, why does it need to be constantly reinvented? Well, the fact is that it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean new inventions and freshness aren’t valuable. So I agree that one should seek the whole picture and include the standard “form” as well as variants or anti-variants to demonstrate range and creativity. The pressure to conform and the need to be accepted is indeed a hindrance to voice and individual expression. Here’s where I agree with Jane Hirshfield’s counter to Pound, where she says to “make it yours.”

Another main point that appealed to me was the idea to think more deeply about how something is said, and not just what is said. So John Martone’s vertical poems (not necessarily all haiku) and Lee Gurga’s more recent cross-shaped poems are a means of thinking about how to say something and not just an exercise in what to say. Tao Li (Evenlyn Tooley Hunt) had a creative three-column, three-line format that she played with decades ago. Gary Hotham more recently explored the variant of putting his juxtapositional dash on a line by itself, between the line before and after. These and other variants may run their course, of course. Even these experiments can grow stale. I used to write all of my haiku in the Martone vertical style, in the late 1980s, long before I heard of Martone, but grew tired of this approach—I called them “stick poems”—although no one would think of me as having written that way, even though I did it for several years (I hardly published any of them, that’s why). Similarly, it’s not just traditional haiku that has its set phrases and patterns and tired structures, but even gendai can exhibit predictable structures and tropes on occasion (such as tacking on a phrase like “all the words / we could not say” onto a surreal image). One can naively try too hard to be hip and surreal and edgy, but all it is is a sort of masturbatory musing.

So, if haiku as poetic spell seeks poems that are closer to magical utterance, and not mere reportage, that’s wonderful. I would just say that poems fitting your so-called “International Formula” typically try to avoid reportage—or if that’s all they do, I would seldom be interested. I would call that a failure, not a formula. And what is the role of personal taste in defining poetic spell? That may ultimately be just a personal preference on the reader’s part, but at least the writer can give it deeper thought.

I would also wonder how your thesis accounts for poems in the vein of karumi. Such lightness is difficult to pull off—as I’ve said before, it’s like catching a soap bubble without popping it. Some years ago Brian Tasker reviewed the second issue of Tundra by decrying a particular set of haiku—which nearly completely corresponded to the poems that were my favourites in the issue. They were poems imbued with karumi, of not manhandling their subjects, of being sensitive to the slightest change or nuance. And he missed them. I would hope they are not among the formulaic utterances you “object to,” as you say. But a good question to consider might be how a target of “poetic spell” accounts for karumi, and the delicate sensitivity it requires. It wasn’t Bashō’s most advanced aesthetic development for nothing. I do find one example of this, though you don’t mention karumi, in the delightful “irrelevance” of the yellow hat. It comes at you unexpectedly, unjustifiably, disarmingly, and ultimately, lightly. It just is, but it’s far from being merely description. That’s magic.

I can’t say I’m persuaded into adopting a four-line camp for haiku, despite your supportive words for Stephen Gill’s preference, which seems pretty directly influenced by the four-line translations by Yuasa—now Gill’s colleague in Kyoto. To me the four lines is a melding, to some degree, of Western poetics with haiku. Different, sure. But mostly just his own personal style. I find that it damages rather than energizes the haiku’s juxtapositional structure, at least some of the time. But you make good points that it requires more work for both the writer and the reader. If the model isn’t laudable for me, at least the effort is.

You conclude by saying what you want from haiku is not information content but closer attention to how the content is formed and combined. Well and good, but you can’t eschew content. Of course content still counts. But you can put its effect on steroids by also considering form more deeply, and syntax and line breaks and sound. You need bricks to build the house, whether it’s a Gaudi or merely tract-house gaudy. Ultimately, this sort of magical spell has to come from an honest voice, an honest place of self acceptance rather than trying to be acceptable, from a place of self-confidence, to the point of not even feeling the need to assert oneself. One must guard against naiveté, of course, because unknowing luck with fresh expression is typically just lucky and happenstance, and no replacement for a deeper sense of knowing and understanding. Choosing to write a certain way, or perhaps, an incapacity to write any particular way but the way one writes, is a necessary step in arriving at one’s own voice rather than a voice of being “acceptable.” True voice in haiku, and indeed all poetry, doesn’t seek acceptability but self-acceptance.

Thank you for a stimulating essay.

Best wishes,

Michael

P.S. We’re busy gearing up for this year’s Seabeck haiku retreat in a few weeks, with Paul Miller. The schedule is online at the Haiku Northwest website, but we still have a few details to refine. Some day it’ll be your turn, I sincerely hope. If you hadn’t already written and published it elsewhere, your essay on haiku as poetic spell would have been perfect to add to the magical place of Seabeck. If you’d like to see my photos of last year’s retreat (recently put online), please take a look.


From: Martin Lucas
To: Michael Dylan Welch
Sent: Sun, Sep 30, 2012 11:49 am
Subject: RE: Haiku as Poetic Spell

Michael
Thanks for your in-depth response to my essay. Some comments in reply.

>>> Is it necessary to advance haiku?

A few other people have commented on this, pointing out that the Japanese have managed well enough within the haiku constraints for 300 years, so why the sudden need to “develop” it? Perhaps I should have said, “develop our understanding of the form”, or better still, “of the potential of the form”. The haiku in Presence have made huge strides over the 15+ years it’s been around, as we’ve all grown together as a reading/writing community. On the other hand, from other angles development is sometimes hard to discern, e.g., the 3rd edition of CVDH’s anthology is probably poem-for-poem a step up from the 2nd edition, yet it’s somehow less exciting as a read, and that’s probably because of this stylistic convergence that’s taken place over time, with everyone more aware of what everyone else is writing, so fewer writers are striking out in their own individual direction.


My own way of (attempting to) retain freshness in editing Presence is to not even think of the poems I’m looking at as haiku. I have this personal belief that haiku is purely a Japanese phenomenon, and what we write is a related offshoot that we call haiku for want of a better name 
[see Martin’s essay “Haiku and Haiku on the New Zealand Poetry Society website]. So, in English, for me, there’s really no such thing as haiku. So all I ask when I read a magazine submission is, is this interesting writing? If yes, the only secondary question is not “is it haiku?” or “does it meet haiku definitions?” but “is it close enough to haiku that I can get away with it in a so-called haiku magazine?”. If yes, it goes in, and if it then fails someone’s definition test, at the same time it extends their perception of what’s possible. #46 included Robert Davey’s


                lost in the mist—

                trees
                        fields
                   church

                           faith


The crucial component in making it interesting is that final leap into abstraction—and this is exactly what would cause it to fail any rigorous definition-test. Doubtless many of my readers wouldn’t know what to make of it, but one respected and experienced judge rated it one of the best “haiku” in the issue.


>>> think more deeply about how something is said, and not just what is said.

As far as this is concerned, although I think experiments with layout have a role to play, I’m thinking much more of the music of the language, i.e., in traditional poetic terms. Particularly relevant for me are: rhythm/emphasis; alliteration/assonance etc.; creative (as opposed to accidental) ambiguity. If you look at Stuart’s sharpening this night of stars distant dogs—there’s a superb emphasis on each of the five stressed syllables, enhanced by the alliteration of the last two; the assonance of sharpening/stars is very pleasing to the ear—there’s also a more subtle link between this/distant, and this sets up a kind of (musical) shock with the ending on dogs; and the one-line form introduces a minor but crucial element of ambiguity which encourages the reader to think (what I call) synthetically rather than analytically, i.e., the poem would be readily intelligible as a three-liner with an obvious break after “stars”, but by eliminating this break, “distant” echoes back towards “stars” as well as (obviously) forward to “dogs”. All of this means you’re very much not reading a miniature three-line story with beginning, middle and end, you’re reading a poem/incantation with no beginning and no end.


>>> I would also wonder how your thesis accounts for poems in the vein of karumi.

The thesis isn’t intended to account for every possible haiku variant or potentiality, merely to cast some light on previously neglected aspects. Karumi is a content-based effect; I don’t think my form-based spell-effects have much of a bearing on it either way. There will always be great potential in haiku for writing about subjects that seem so minor and insignificant that other writers have just overlooked them. On the other hand, I’m wary of importing Japanese terms into Western critiques, since it’s easy to imagine we know what they mean, when we probably don’t. (Personally I love the sabi effect, and I think I’ve got a firm enough handle on it, but really I’d need a qualified Japanese to confirm that.)


>>> I can’t say I’m persuaded into adopting a four-line camp for haiku, despite your supportive words for Stephen Gill’s preference, which seems pretty directly influenced by the four-line translations by Yuasa. To me the four lines is a melding, to some degree, of Western poetics with haiku.

That’s fine, I’m not trying to corral anyone into a camp, rather the opposite, I’m pointing to the value of writers doing their own thing, and just asking for some more appreciation of this, rather than the tut-tutting that goes on whenever anyone tests the limits of their working model of haiku. You are right, of course, about Yuasa’s influence on Stephen, but I don’t think that means that Stephen’s followed him up an evolutionary cul-de-sac. You are also right about the melding of Western poetics with haiku, but while I think it’s possible to stray too far in that direction, it does at least improve your chances of writing something poetic rather than prosaic, which is what Poetic Spell is advocating.


>>> you can’t eschew content.

Agreed! But a lot of writers seem to think that content is the be-all and end-all and have never considered the role of form (by which I mean everything that isn’t content, thinking more of the music of the language than of layout effects). Poetic Spell attempts to redress the balance somewhat.


>>> We’re busy gearing up for this year’s Seabeck haiku retreat in a few weeks. Some day it’ll be your turn, I sincerely hope.

[The context for the preceding comment was that I had been trying for a couple of years to have Martin be our featured guest at the Seabeck Haiku Getaway I direct. Martin had previously indicated having problems obtaining a visa to enter the United States. Alas, he was not able to solve his visa challenges before he died in 2014.]

Well, there’s been a development since we last discussed the subject. My bird-tour organizer friend Stuart M (no relation to Stuart Q) has persuaded me to test the waters of the American borders by enrolling on his tour to Florida in January 2013. I’ve successfully applied for a Visa Waiver online, so all should be OK. I’ll find out. If Florida works, Seattle should too. So I could visit you possibly autumn 2013, or perhaps more realistically 2014. If you want to pencil me in, let me know.


Martin