gone from the woods
the bird I knew
by song alone
The preceding haiku, by Paul O. Williams, is one of my all-time favourites. It has a melancholic beauty all its own that never fails to move me when I pay it attention. We’ve all walked in the woods and only heard this or that particular bird, often wishing we might have the privilege to actually see it. And perhaps we’ve also felt a tinge of sadness when we realize that our elusive forest companion sings for us no longer.
Paul’s poem has another level to it. In 1977, Paul became the 24th president of the Thoreau Society and has done scholarly work on Thoreau. With that knowledge in mind, it is easy to imagine, as I do, that the poem is about Walden Woods. Such is the virtue of how biography informs a poem, and just as we interpret Shiki’s poems in the context of his tuberculosis-shortened life, so too we can interpret haiku by Westerners in ways that take into account details we know about the poet’s life, location, or interests. These meanings might not be readily apparent to those who don’t know the poet, so what we do know can sometimes deepen the poem. That’s why I consider the author’s name under the poem to be, in effect, a “fourth line,” adding gender, context, geography, biography, and more—even a sort of “brand” expectation—to how we interpret the poem.
But Paul’s poem has still another level to it. As some Haiku Society of America members may recall, he wrote it as a memorial for Nicholas Virgilio, who died on 3 January 1989. The poem deservedly won a Museum of Haiku Literature Award in 1989 when it was published in Frogpond. Paul had never met Nick in person, but knew him by the song of his published poems. And now that Paul himself has passed away, the poem is a suitable memorial for the poet himself and a reminder of his poems to those who knew him only by those songs.
Many members of the Haiku Society of America and other haiku enthusiasts first “meet” in the pages of Frogpond and other haiku journals. In such publications, over a number of years, we see poems by various poets, look up favourite poets by name, and celebrate the perceptive moments they share. Often, however, we never meet in person. The Internet has made written communication easier and quicker than ever before despite the distance between us, and with webcams, Skype, Facebook, YouTube, and easily shared digital photographs, it has become increasingly easy to see what a poet from across the country or across the globe looks like, or even to have a conversation. But we may still never get together face to face. Some of us are still isolated, at least geographically, and seldom meet other haiku poets in person. Other poets are lucky to live in one of the various centers of haiku activity such as the cities, in North America, of Boston, New York City, the Washington, D.C. area, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, where they have the privilege of frequently meeting other haiku poets, sharing their haiku, and discussing this challenging and rewarding genre of poetry. Particular cities in Europe and elsewhere also enjoy this privilege. Still, there’s always another haiku poet across the country (or just across town) who we’ve never met in person.
The extent of our interaction with other haiku poets surely affects how we write haiku. I recall a brief discussion through the mail with one poet (before email) about trying to improve a poem by making a key element in it singular, in a poem she had submitted to me for Woodnotes. She responded by asking why. At that moment I realized that I had had discussions with fellow poets about the value of sharpening haiku and making them more immediate by keeping key elements singular—to write, for example, about one red leaf in the palm of your hand rather than more generally about all the leaves around you. It occurred to me that perhaps she had not yet encountered that bit of advice that I had found so helpful. I also wondered if, rightly or wrongly, perhaps a different attitude might exist among haiku poets in her city regarding the value of singularizing key nouns in a haiku poem. What more had she missed out on by not having the chance to learn this helpful haiku hint from other haiku poets? Indeed, greater interaction with fellow haiku poets, whether in person, through the mail, or on the Internet, will surely improve our understanding of the genre. Such interaction may also have its dangers, of course, in that it may homogenize our work inappropriately, or perhaps, if our interaction is limited, influence it in possibly negative ways.
The last twenty years have seen the growing popularity of national and international haiku conferences in North America. These are opportunities for the “tribe,” as vincent tripi calls the haiku community, to gather for pow-wows. These events help to put us on a first-name basis. In fact, in deference to this sense of community, all of the poems in the Haiku North America conference anthologies since the biennial conference began in 1991 have been arranged by each poet’s first name, a tradition I started with the first conference anthology, Harvest. This conference and other gatherings of haiku poets have helped us get to know each other better—and this, in turn, may help us find deeper layers of understanding and appreciation in the poems we read by those people we know more than just superficially.
When we do meet each other for the first time, though, we are sometimes surprised. Perhaps the person is older or younger than we had thought. Or perhaps, as we get to know our fellow poets and learn the details of their life stories or understand their personalities, we grow to appreciate their poetry more. When Virginia Brady Young and I first met in Chicago in 1995, she said she thought I would be in my 60s (I was in my early 30s). I have a greater appreciation for Carol Purington’s poems when I meet her in person. Because the interpretation of haiku is often subjective, perhaps we can improve our understanding of specific haiku by better understanding the life stories and personalities of our fellow poets, making the most of each poem’s “fourth line”—the name that appears after the poem. One feels greater empathy for Issa and his poems, for example, by knowing of the hardships he went through. As already alluded to, a Shiki poem about coughing phlegm takes on more poignancy when we know of his tuberculosis. Robert Spiess, too, was an avid canoer, and one used to be able to spot canoeing poems in Modern Haiku with some regularity—and any poem about canoeing submitted for possible publication always received special attention. Nor is the effect of the “fourth line” limited to haiku. For example, we cannot read a quotation from Helen Keller without putting it into the context of her being completely deaf and blind.
More often than not, one discovery I’ve often made when first meeting other haiku poets in person is the correct pronunciation of their names. We see a name in print and perhaps subconsciously we’ve always pronounced it a certain way to ourselves. Yet that idiomatic pronunciation may be wrong. You may have seen Gary Hotham’s name in print for many years, for example, but do you know how to say his last name correctly? You may be surprised—he pronounces it as hoe-tham, not haw-tham. Clearly, we always have more to learn from or about our fellow poets when we meet in person, and often that information can improve our understanding of their poetry.
Speaking of the “fourth line” in haiku, I can’t resist sharing a charming poem by Carlos W. Colón where the name that appears after it is an overt part of the poem itself:
In the wrong
The poet’s name is indeed fundamental to this poem. I believe the same could also be said of many other haiku, where, as I’ve mentioned, the gender, geography, biography, and other details about the poet may interact with the poem to change or inform its meaning. If you know a poet’s work well, his or her name frequently serves, too, as a sort of “brand,” which can affect your expectations regarding quality, subject matter, or style—and these expectations may sometimes be unfair or limiting, especially if the poet is trying something new, or they can be reinforcing if the poet is succeeding in a style of haiku that you expect.
As a further example of the “fourth line” in haiku, what role does the name under a published poem play in the reader’s interpretation or reception of the following poem? This favourite haiku by Dee Evetts seems more authentic when one knows that Dee is a carpenter:
my woodshavings roll
along the veranda
Geography, too, can alter the meaning of a poem. If we know a poet lives in Fiji, for example, we may feel that a poem about tropical rain or snorkeling is more “authentic.” With travel being relatively easy in modern society, of course, it would be folly to assume that a poem on palm trees isn’t authentic purely based on where the poet currently lives, such as if he or she lived in Greenland. But sometimes a poem can seem more authentic if the topic or subject does match what we know of the poet’s physical location. For example, if a Ghanaian and a Canadian each wrote about skiing or snow, it may be unfair to doubt the authenticity of the Ghanaian poem, yet it’s only natural for the Canadian poem to be seen as a shade more believable.
What about gender? For example, one may read a poem by Pat Machmiller, and another by Pat Gallagher. The former is female, the latter male. Does the gender of the poet make a difference in understanding his or her poems? Is this why Pat Gallagher began listing his name as Patrick rather than just Pat? Or does the influence of gender mainly depend on the topic? For example, consider the following senryu:
pushing my cart faster
through feminine protection
Before reading on, consider whether this poem is likely to have been written by a man or by a woman (if you don’t already know). You’d be right to suspect that it’s written by a man (it’s my own poem), but what if it were written by a woman? One certainly could react differently to some poems knowing that they were written by a man or by a woman. Perhaps, too, we react differently to poems when the gender of their authors is hidden, rather than ambiguous, as in A. C. Missias or C. R. Manley (unless we know these people).
Poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz once said that haiku is “extra-literary.” In part, he meant that haiku, more than other poetry, requires that the reader know something that lies outside the poem for it to rise to its full meaning. I believe this is true not just about the common experience in the haiku poem itself, but the context of the poet and the poem, as well as knowing the function and expectation of the juxtapositional structure, the role of the season word, and more. Haiku, it would seem, is more contextual than much other poetry, or requires a particular context of understanding. This is partly why haiku has been referred to as an “unfinished” poem, requiring the reader to finish it in his or her mind. This step of finishing the poem necessarily takes cues from the poem itself, but can also take valuable additional cues from the poet’s name and whatever other information that name implies. Thus there is value in haiku poets knowing each other better to get even more out of their poetry. It would seem reasonable to say the same thing about longer poetry, of course, but with poems as short as haiku, perhaps the contexts of biography and geography make a more profound difference.
A number of other questions could be raised about the interpretation of haiku based on information not in the poem itself—details that we might learn only by meeting the poet in person, or by corresponding with him or her directly. Many poems, such as Paul O. Williams’s “gone from the woods,” work wonderfully well on their own terms, yet have added meaning when we know something about their context or how they came to be written. There’s much we don’t know about each other, and therefore also about our poems, at least on a deeper or secondary level. Some of these details of the poet’s life may make a significant difference in the way we appreciate specific poems. We know the biographies of the Japanese masters, and find a fitting resonance in their poems as a result. If we can be on more of a first-name basis with each other, I believe we will also gain a deeper understanding of each other’s haiku. If we begin to know the life stories of our fellow poets—and not just how to pronounce their names—perhaps we can more deeply appreciate their poems also.
“gone from the woods” (Paul O. Williams): Frogpond XII:2, May 1989.
“In the wrong” (Carlos W. Colón): Sunday at Four V:2 (1996); From a Kind Neighbor: 1997 Haiku Society of America Members’ Anthology (New York: Haiku Society of America, 1997).
“thunder” (Dee Evetts): Endgrain (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 1997).
“grocery shopping” (Michael Dylan Welch): Fig Newtons: Senryu to Go (Foster City, California: Press Here, 1993).
I recently came across an intriguing comment from Simone Weil: “A work of art has an author and yet, when it is perfect, it has something that is anonymous.” This got me thinking how her assertion might apply to haiku’s so-called “fourth line,” the poet’s name under the poem. I think she’s speaking of something universal that a good work of art, including haiku, taps into. It’s the collective unconscious, the gestalt, the commonalities of being human, that she speaks of, which can indeed feel anonymous—although unnamed rather than being authorless. I believe it was Bashō who said he was not seeking after the masters, but what the masters sought. What they were seeking, it seems to me, is not anonymity but anonymous truths that are broader and more significant than the details of authorship. What does this mean to the idea of the name under the poem and how it influences our apprehension of the poem? I would suggest that it enlarges the poem, to be aware of something extra that the best haiku can offer, something transcendent. More specifically, after we reassess the poem through the filter of knowing the poet, we can also receive the poem through means that stretch further, beyond the poet, shifting our focus to meaning that includes and yet exceeds even the influences of the poet’s name.
—7 May 2021, Sammamish, Washington