Least Things

First published in Frogpond XXVII:2, July 2004, pages 73–75. Originally written in February of 2004. My opening paragraph suggests that Yolen is a relative stranger to literary haiku, and that still seems to be the case. However, in 1984 she published a science fiction short story, titled “Salvage,” in which haiku features prominently (please read my annotations to the story). Nevertheless, Yolen unwittingly promotes misunderstandings of the genre in that piece also.

Jane Yolen, Least Things: Poems About Small Natures. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, 2003. Photographs by Jason Stemple. $17.95 in bookstores.

Jane Yolen is no stranger to literature for children, but she is a stranger to haiku, at least judging by the poems in her recent children’s book, Least Things: Poems About Small Natures. This hardback book presents fourteen haiku, each about an insect, mammal, bird, or reptile, except the last one, about a human baby. Each two-page spread features a large background photograph, an overly tiny inset photograph, the name of the subject (twice), a haiku about the subject, and a brief prose comment on the subject. If it sounds cluttered, it is. The book’s first subject is “snail.” The following poem and prose description appear on opposite pages with a giant close-up picture of a snail (that’s entirely unsharp):

                Snail

                I make my slow way
                Between the water droplets,
                Between the minutes.

                The body of the snail is moist and slimy. It has a single foot, which is a creeping organ.
                When frightened, the snail pulls itself into its shell.

Each poem states something obvious about the creature and succeeds neither as haiku nor as insightful poetry, which is unfortunate, because poetry, including haiku, should not lower its standards for children. The caterpillar poem tells us “How slow and hairy / Am I over the long grass. / Someday I will change.” The squirrel poem proclaims, “You say ‘What a tail! / What beady eyes! What quick steps!’ / I say, ‘Nuts to you.’” No seasonal reference, no implied comparison or juxtaposition, no objective and nonjudgmental imagery. Need I go on? Cute, and maybe fine for some children to enjoy, but nearly nothing to do with well-established haiku aesthetics, whether Japanese or North American. This is the sort of poetry that the Japanese refer to as “haiku,” in quotation marks, meaning that, in haiku terms, it doesn’t really know what it’s doing.
        All the poems demonstrate a similarly superficial understanding of haiku, hitting only the unnecessary and trivial target of a 5-7-5 syllable count, the poet seemingly unaware that she has missed practically all of the other, more significant targets. The inclusion of commentary about the subjects, though probably informative for the audience of children, indicates an inherent distrust of the poems to carry sufficient weight or to deliver enough substance to the reader, and in the case of Yolen’s well-meaning haiku attempts, this distrust is accurate. Of the photographs, I would be proud of some of them if I had taken them, but they are not consistently of professional quality; most have problems with sharpness or with depth of field.
        In “A Note from the Author,” Yolen describes how she was first inspired by Thoreau’s attribution to Pliny the Elder of the exclamation that “Nature excels in the least things” (a quotation I now love, and am grateful to her for bringing to my attention) and that she wanted to collaborate with her photographer son on a collection of poems and photographs. Though the photos piled up, she was never sufficiently inspired to write until one night she sat up in bed. “I had been dreaming about the book,” she says. “In my dream, all the poems were haiku,” which she then describes merely as celebrating nature usually in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Though the book may not offend the poetic sensibilities of many parents and children, haiku poets may wish that she had just gone back to sleep. Sincerity, even by an accomplished and much lauded writer for children, does not, in this case, translate into successful haiku.

Postscript

I have had the pleasure of meeting Jane Yolen when we were both speakers at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference in Washington State, and we have a number of friends in common. At the conference, we talked about haiku, but I did not mention that I had reviewed her book. She expressed some awareness of various ways of doing haiku, but seemed largely unaware of how her poems were just a sort of “pop haiku”—or, to be more direct about it, pseudo-haiku. I find Jane Yolen to be a supportive and celebratory soul—brimming with energy and joy. In addition to her many books for both children and adults, I also deeply love her book about writing, titled Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft (Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2006), where she says “I write because it is a joy and a pleasure and something I must do” (page 62) and that “Joy in writing can be akin to joy in life” (page 11). I couldn’t agree more, and take delight in the fact that haiku itself celebrates this joy—in a stance of existential gratitude, as Billy Collins has described haiku. In that context, I hesitate to be unsupportive, but share this review with the observation that even the best writers for children have fallen victim to misunderstandings of haiku perpetuated by too many outdated and misinformed textbooks and curriculum guides in our schools—a situation in dire need of change (I think of Jack Prelutsky’s If Not for the Cat, and there are numerous others—in fact, the vast majority of haiku-related books for children have fallen victim to the same misinformation). A visit to LessonPlanet, an otherwise invaluable online resource for school lesson plans, leads to about 375 lesson plans on haiku poetry. And what do you want to bet that nearly all of them say, incorrectly, that haiku in English is a 5-7-5-syllable poetry, and that they say nothing or little of the more important requirements of objective sensory imagery, a two-part juxtapositional structure, and season words, among other necessities? Many well-known poets (writing for adults and children) have dabbled at haiku, and it puzzles me that they think they have succeeded in this highly refined art. Malcolm Gladwell has written in Outliers about the 10,000 hours of practice frequently needed to become an expert at any given art or craft, and it certainly applies to haiku. Haiku books such as Jane Yolen’s fall short not only because of insufficient experience, but also from a disconnect from established haiku journals and organizations and the deeper understanding of this literary genre that goes with them. Anyone can write haiku how they like, of course; the issue here is how misinformation can affect children, misguiding them for life. Some people might say that it’s “only haiku,” but why would any conscientious teacher or writer want to misinform children about anything?
        If you evaluate each of Jane’s haiku against my Haiku Checklist, I believe you will find that not a single one of the poems comes close to what is expected of literary haiku. While not all established haiku poets will agree with everything on my checklist, I am confident that most of them would agree on the majority of its guidance. Furthermore, I am certain that none of Jane’s haiku would ever have made it into print in any of the leading haiku journals because of how far they diverge, whether on purpose or not, from established haiku traditions and strategies. Of course, she’s writing for a different purpose, for an audience of fairly young children, but does that grant enough of a license to perpetuate urban myths about haiku form and haiku content? Not to me, it doesn’t. As much as I would routinely love to say good things about Jane Yolen and her writing, both poetry and prose, I cannot in good conscience extend such support to this book.
        Jane, if you read this review, please accept my apologies for feeling the need to say how your well-meaning poems fall short of the well-established targets for literary haiku, and thus, I feel, do damage to impressionable minds in terms of their lifelong understanding of legitimate haiku. Alas, the problem is larger than any one writer for children (in other words, it’s not your fault—most people in the West are victims of misinformation), and unfortunately the majority of the many books of haiku for children on my bookshelves have the same problem. Jane, if you do read this, please understand that I would like to find a way to correct the misinformation that seems to have influenced you and a number of other writers for children who believe they are writing haiku. How can we do that?
—16 November 2009