A Very Brief Art of the Haiku

I’m happy with this last year of haiku.

And I’m grateful to all who have chosen to follow the blog, and perhaps because of the haiku. So as long as you enjoy them, I’ll continue writing them, twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays.

As of this year, I’ve written just over sixteen hundred haiku and senryu, and it’s only in this last year that I feel as though I’ve internalized the art, possibly producing some beautiful examples. If the year is taken as I whole, as a single poem, then I think it’s the best that I’ve produced.

Anyway, what follows is a personal and incomplete Art of the Haiku:

Avoid abstract adjectives like “beautiful” or “profound” or, more simply, any adjective that does not evoke one of the five senses—sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing. Beauty speaks for itself.

Winter garden,
the moon thinned to a thread
insects singing

Basho ~ translated Robert Hass

Any adjective that evokes one of the five (or seven depending) senses is a concrete adjective. The brevity of the haiku lives or dies in its ability to vividly evoke the world we live in.

White dew
one drop
on each thorn

Buson ~ translated Robert Hass

Avoid the idea of haiku as simile. They can be successful, but that’s not what a haiku is.

Brevity is the soul of haiku. If a haiku can be made shorter, then the haiku is too long. If one is counting syllables, then every syllable should count.

open the window
a whole windowful
of spring

Santoka ~ translated Burton Watson

The haiku is at its best, as with all poetry, when the abstract is expressed through the concrete.

Summer grass
all that’s left
of warriors’ dreams

Basho ~ translated Robert Hass

Do not tell the reader how you feel. Describe what made you feel the feelings.

In spring rain
a pretty girl

Issa ~ translated Robert Hass

Describe what you see, feel, hear, taste and touch and that will be enough. Haiku is the poetry of the startled body.

on a naked horse
in pouring rain!

Buson ~ translated Robert Hass

Second Angel - BlockPrint

Happy New Year! | Jan. 1st 2020

What are English Language Haiku?

One of the reasons I wanted to write my post on Representational Poetry was as a prelude to this post, asking the question: What are English Language Haiku? I originally toyed with the idea that English language haiku are like Representational Poems, in that appreciating them depends on a familiarity with the precepts and aesthetics of Japanese poetic tradition. I changed my mind and both posts changed as a result. The ideas are also influenced by a conversation I’ve been having with Michael Dylan Welch.

Hakuist or Haiku Poet?

To use the term Hakuist is fraught. When I first started writing haiku I briefly corresponded with the late William J. Higginson, an influential writer and editor of English Language Haiku. He didn’t like the term Hakuist, saw no reason to use it, and preferred (as do other poets) the sobriquet: Haiku Poet. But this has always struck me as awkward and begs the question,  then why not Sonnet Poet, Free Verse Poet or Blank Verse Poet? Or just Poet?

Part of the reason is the perhaps unstated feeling that writing haiku is a different undertaking than just writing poetry. And along with that, there are rules that apply to the writing of haiku that don’t apply to ‘western’ poetry. What are those rules? You’ll have to consult a millennia of Japanese poetic tradition and culture. You might want to know the difference between yugen, wabi, sabi, shasei, karumi, mono no aware, and iki for example. And why is that important? Because there’s a sort of split in the way English language haiku are appraised.

Is an English haiku-like poem to be appraised the way any other western poem is appraised?—or is every English language haiku, in a sense, a translation? I lean toward the former, that poems written in the English language may be haiku-like but they aren’t haiku and cannot be appraised like Japanese haiku. Which is to say, for instance, that I’ve never read a convincing defense of English language haiku within the context of the Japanese literary tradition.

Japanese haiku aren’t just a kind of empty “three line form” that can be imported. They’re intimately bound to the way the Japanese language is spoken and written, their literary tradition and philosophical culture; these facets cannot be imported and cannot be superimposed on an English speaking public. For western poets or critics to appeal to Japanese tradition in defense of their poems is an admission that their poetry has, in one way or another, failed.

But, you say, times change and new aesthetics arise. Every great artist builds on the aesthetics of the past while traditions introduced from other cultures renew and define the history of art and literature. The sonnet wasn’t originally English, after all, but an Italian import. In fact, apart from the limerick or Anglo Saxon alliterative poems, almost every English poetic form is, at some level, imported. But what we seldom did, and never with success as far as I know, is to import the literary and philosophical valuations of another culture (like those out of which the haiku developed). Ben Jonson, perhaps, tried when he attempted to import the classical unities into Elizabethan drama. Dryden followed suit but their efforts were largely ignored and didn’t produce compelling literature on that basis.

But if applying Japanese precepts like wabi, sabi, or karumi to western poems is a dead end, then it’s fair to ask: what is a successful English language haiku?

Aesthetic relativism being alive and well, one answer might be that if a poem has value to you, then it’s a valuable poem. That’s okay. But that doesn’t mean a poem has literary value. You may just have poor judgment. The more interesting question is this: What makes a poem valuable to a preponderance of readers? Why do we value the haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson above others?

So, by the end of the year, I’ll have written around fifteen hundred haiku. Individually, I think a handful of haiku might be collectible—maybe—but if they have any literary value, then it will probably be as year long cycles—each a sort of seasonal narrative. Having written so many, I have developed a sense from what might constitute an effective and powerful haiku. Inasmuch as the best Japanese haiku survive translation, they do so because they transcend their own literary and cultural points of reference. Likewise, the most memorable English language haiku will have merit for the same reasons. Among the finest Japanese examples, the following by Issa comes to mind:

In this world
We walk on the roof of hell
Gazing at flowers

Or this by Buson:

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel.

(The poem was written while Buson’s wife was alive and well, and that tells you that Buson saw haiku as poetic craft rather than a daily transcript of zen-like experiences.)

Or Basho’s final haiku:

Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields.

A western reader needs no understanding of Japanese literary culture or tradition to appreciate the effectiveness and beauty of these poems. It’s the reason that I reject the assertion that haiku are somehow “extra-literary”; that they require a specialized knowledge to make them work. Or, inasmuch as this is true for any poetic form, it’s not more true for haiku. Haiku work for the same reason any poem works. But the Japanese are naturally going to value some haiku that we won’t if only because of the literary allusions and cultural references unavailable to us. Basho’s famous haiku of the frog jumping into the pond is an example.

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

You wouldn’t think a frog could be a turning point for Japanese literature, but you might if you were knowledgeable of the way poets treated frogs prior to Basho. The effectiveness of Basho’s most famous haiku is also bound up with what might strike a westerner as fussy and arcane discussions of Zen. Take the following from here:

Profound inquiry placed the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, and his exacting focus brought him to the serene inner setting where the simple incident of noticing the morning star could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do — a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself. It just happened to be a star in the Buddha’s case. ¶ In Bashô’s haiku, a frog appears. To Japanese of sensitivity, frogs are dear little creatures, and Westerners may at least appreciate this animal’s energy and immediacy. Plop!

None of that is going to register with the vast majority of Western readers.

But there are English language haiku that accomplish the same within the context of our own culture. The following haiku-like poems by Richard Wright are better, and have more depth, in our own literary tradition, than Basho’s haiku.

In a drizzling rain
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.

The first haiku is a masterpiece. I think of an Edouard Léon Cortès painting, grey streets slicked with rain, and a Parisian flower shop. I can’t say why except that I know that Wright had moved to Paris by this point in his life. The real power of the haiku is in its association of the girl with the flowers being sold in the shop—herself like a flower. The rain that nourishes the flowers paradoxically adds pathos to the girl’s condition. Neither the girl nor the flowers were ever really meant to be sold or to even be there.

The second poem is apt to have less meaning to a Japanese reader. The astute Western reader, knowing that Wright was black, will immediately grasp the allusion to race (and our history of racial tensions and Wright’s own struggles) when the laughing boy’s hands turn white. The observation would be far less striking were the boy’s hands white or were the poet white. In short, Wright’s haiku does what the greatest Japanese haiku do in their respective culture.

Attempts to overlay Japanese precepts on English language haiku include not only aesthetic precepts like Wabi, Sabi and Karumi, but also syllable count, the use of metaphor, seasons words (kigo), the absence or the inclusion of the poet within the haiku.  There is a school of poets, for example, who dismiss English language haiku because they don’t follow the 5/7/5 syllable pattern of Japanese haiku—despite the fact that counting syllables in Japanese is very different from the same in English. Other poems are dismissed for their use of metaphor despite Japanese poets clearly exploiting metaphorical ideas. Conversely, western haiku that otherwise fall short are defended for their adherence to a given Japanese precept. This is no way to critique or defend English language haiku.

When I first began writing haiku, the only thing I knew about them was from a handful of translations, foremost among them the series of books by R.H. Blythe. Fortunately for me, I suppose, I didn’t much care for Blythe’s opinions, but very much enjoyed his translations. To the extent that western writers of haiku ignore all the noise concerning what the Japanese would or wouldn’t do, I think that’s good and encourage it. And if one reads an anthology like Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, the impression is that  western poets are doing just that.


We have our own tradition now (a hundred years isn’t bad) and a thousand plus years of poetic tradition perfectly capable of sorting the good haiku from the bad without reference to the Japanese. Our haiku are our own and I like them like that.

upinVermont | April 20th 2019

a tiny something

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for the last few weeks. Here and elsewhere readers question the significance of haiku: just how much weight to give a poem sometimes presented in one line and that traditionally avoids our own history of metaphor and narrative.

The best I can do is to communicate what I love about the form. I’m writing a novel, off and on again, but longer works don’t come easily to me. I’m a natural-born minimalist. The less paper you give me, the more my talents take fire. The haiku is my playground. Every word counts. There can be no redundancy.

It’s the brevity of the haiku that makes the best of them great literature. And it’s the great poets who turn the haiku’s allusiveness to their advantage, using a few words to suggest a multitude of human experiences. In a sense, the fewer the words, the greater the potential complexity.

Sometimes I like to imagine haiku as a moment of tremendous compression where the poet’s experience is focused into a kind of singularity; where the reader, in reading the haiku, passes through and outward into an ever opening realm of interpretation. I’ve always thought of poems, and haiku especially, in terms of light cones. And so I’ve borrowed a little from physics to illustrate:

Basho's Light Cone

While the illustration rings true for any work of literature, I think it’s especially apt as a way of illustrating the interpretive compression latent in the best haiku. The bottom cone represents Basho’s life in time and space. All of Basho’s life experiences are gradually focused over time and space into an evening when he heard a frog’s leap into the water—into the singular expression of his famous poem. Without all of Basho’s life experiences preceding this moment, the poem wouldn’t have been possible. At the nexus of the poem’s creation, Basho’s “life cone” ceases and our interpretive readings expand the haiku indefinitely.  In the book Basho and his Interpreters, the variety of reactions and interpretations to this haiku go on for almost three pages—and the commentaries are themselves comprised of extracts from more expansive readings.

The point of all this is to argue that the art of haiku is in finding that sweet spot that is the literal, the suggestive, the symbolic and even the metaphorical.  Consider the following haiku by the fourth great master of Japanese haiku, Shiki:

full of spring
rotten oranges
how sweet!

The haiku may initially strike the reader as trite or trivial. But think about the Shiki’s ‘life cone’. If the reader looks back just a little he or she will discover Shiki’s ever increasing and terminal illness when he wrote this haiku. Every day he was suffering from fever and thirst. The haiku assumes a richer association that we can apply to our own lives and in ways that might have astonished Shiki—or Basho for that matter.

And that brings me to my own haiku. I wasn’t born knowing how to write them. Their significance was a complete mystery to me, but I was fascinated and intrigued by them. How could these diminutive slipknots become the defining literature of an entire culture?

As I was returning to my room after a summer’s course in poetry at Bennington College, I saw a single, bright red something on an otherwise perfectly green hedgerow. I was distracted by it. I was drawn to it. Was it a slip of paper that had fallen into, or been blown into, the shrubbery? Why was it still there?

It wasn’t until I almost stood over the swatch of color that I saw what it was, a single leaf, among all the hundreds of other leaves in the hedgerow that, for one reason or another, had died—inasmuch as a leaf may die. It had turned a brilliant red. Seeing what it was was a strange shock. In an instant (which is the way with enlightenment I’m told) I understood haiku and wrote my first:

the many, many leaves, the red
··········leaf falling.

That was over twenty years ago. And then earlier this year I received an email from India asking if this haiku could be used as part of a memorial. The memorial is meant to honor Jarbom Gamlin, the former Chief Minister of the State, and the request came from his surviving brother, Moji Riba. I couldn’t imagine a more humbling request.


I never would have imagined that this haiku, the first I’d written and before the existence of the world wide web, would mean so much to another half way round the world. But this is the argument I would make for haiku, these tiny little somethings. Their brevity, in the hands of the right poet, is what lends them their power. They only ask a willingness of the reader to look beyond the words and for the willingness to let them expansively open in the reader’s life and imagination.

I only wish I could read them in the original Japanese.


Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

December 15th 2015

Midway through December, as I continue to write haiku, I notice I pay more attention to the world, aware of poetic contrasts, interrelationships and vividness. Writing haiku is a kind of mindfulness. Haiku are short and can be written in an instant, though this doesn’t mean they’re simple or trivial. I continue to edit the haiku I’ve written this past week.

But the experience is different than a sonnet. I can spend a week or months on a single poem, turning the same imagery and ideas over until I arrive at something that feels organic and, ideally, spontaneous. But writing haiku allows a poet to inhabit a different world each day—each day newly imagining a new poem. This brings an awareness to everyday doings. The first realization is how frustratingly similar each day can feel. I travel the same roads. I see the same clouds. The trees are bare, the floor leaf-strewn, and the rivers shine through them.

I want my haiku to offer a variety emotions and observations. Even if I write them every day for a yearI want to avoid repetitiveness. That means one has to look beyond the familiar to the unfamiliar which is, after all, what haiku do. They also make the familiar unfamiliar and new. So writing haiku requires not just mindfulness but an aware inquisitiveness. The poet who writes haiku isn’t passive. Basho warned that haiku were only to be had in the journey. He famously wrote:

“The moon and sun are travelers through eternity. Even the years wander on. Whether drifting through life on a boat or climbing toward old age leading a horse, each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

Today I travelled south to Woodstock and I travelled west and north to Randolph. The sky was a beautiful mix of broken clouds and blue sky. The wind was strong today, and moody. My tarps were blown off the woodpiles and tonight the wind is just as rancorous.

I wonder about my own spiritual journey.

I was in love with the world today—its little vanities, nobility and introspection. The sun lit some mountains and not others. The smaller rose above their statelier neighbors when the sun swept across them.

When the sun is this low in winter the undersides of the clouds are always dark and broody.


····clouds—buttoning her coat from the bottom


“Real poetry is to lead a beautiful life. To live poetry is better than to write it.” ~ Basho

Back in April I wrote a haiku inspired by Basho’s famous poem about the old frog. I’m not the first, but I might be a little fond of my own:


old pond—
·····ice melting into
··········the sound of frogs


This time of year you can look through the woods and see everything missed in summer—brooks, houses, further fields. I saw an old shed I’d never seen before.


···in the old shed—the moon
··········in a puddle


39: December 15th 2015 | bottlecap



February 2009 Issue of Lynx

I just received an E-mail that the February on-line issue of Lynx is available.

The intro to the E-Zine states the following:

Lynx was started as APA-Renga by Tundra Wind (Jim Wilson) of Monte Rio, California, in 1985. Tundra was active in Amateur Publishing Associations (APAs) – groups of writers who shared their work by sending copies of their writings to a central location which were then collated and sent on to the other subscribers.

The editors are Jane and Werner Reichhold. I’ve reviewed Jane’s book, Basho, and an interview with Jane Reichhold can be found in the Vermont Poetry Newsletter of January 8th, 2009 (the Newsletter and interview are not mine).

I’ve been reading some of the poetry on the E-Zine. I’ve always been attracted to the intensely imagistic quality of haiku – no time for discourse, confession, rhetoric. The poem lives or dies on the depth, insight and vividness of a single observation. *This* is poetry and it is an attribute that many of our modern poets, with poems chalk full of pedestrian imagery,  have either abandoned, overlooked, or are incapable of. A sample from the E-Zine:

Alegria Imperial

batbato inta
sabsabong ti sardam

on the riverbank
dawn flowers

daluyon iti
tengga’t aldaw
ararasaas mo

at high tide
your whispers

bulan nga
magpakada kadi?

setting moon
in the east
did you say goodbye?

nga Pagay
tedted ti lulua

pulled strands
of rice grain
tear drops

dagiti bulbulong
nga agtataray
lenned diay laud

of leaves
sun set


[I have posted this information from the notice.]


White Petals by Harue Aoki. Shichigatsudo Ltd. Tokyo, Japan. ISBN: 978-4-87944-120-1. Perfect bound with glassine dust jacket, 5 x 7.25 inches, Introduction by Sanford Goldstein, 130 pages, ¥1500.    The Unworn Necklace by Roberta Beary, edited by John Barlow. Snapshot Press, P.O Box 123, Waterloo, Liverpool, United Kingdom L22 8WZ: 2007. Trade perfect bound with color cover, 5.5 x 8.5 inches, 80 pages one haiku per page. US$14; UK£7.99.

Seeing It Now: haiku & tanka by Marjorie Buettner. Red Dragonfly Press, press-in-residence at the Anderson Center, P.O. Box 406, Red Wing, MN 55066. Cover illustration by Jauneth Skinner. Introduction by H.F. Noyes. Perfect bound, 5.5 x 8.5, 44 pages, $15. ISBN:978-1-890193-85-0.

Songs Dedicated to my Mother Julia Conforti by Gerard J. Conforti AHA Online Books, 2008.

Kindle of Green by Cherie Hunter Day and David Rice. Letterpress on emerald Stardream cover and hand-sewn binding by Swamp Press. Illustrations by Cherie Hunter Day. ISBN: 978-0-934714-36-5, 48 pages, 5.5 x 8 inches, $13 ppd. USA and Canada. $15 for international orders. Write to Cherie Hunter Day, P.O. Box 910562, San Diego, CA 92191.

Because of a Seagull by Gilles Fabre. The Fishing Cat Press. Perfect bound, 8.5 x 5.5, unnumbered pages, two haiku per page. Includes a CD with a French translation of the poems. 2005. ISBN:0-9551071-0-5.

Gatherings: A Haiku Anthology edited by Stanford M. Forrester. Bottle Rockets Book #13. Published by Bottle Rockets Press, P.O. Box 189Windsor, Connecticut, 06095. Flat spine, color cover, 5 x 6.5 inches, 78 pages, ISBN:978-0-9792257-2-7, $14.

Opening the Pods by Silva Ley. Translation from the Dutch Ontbolstering by Silva Ley. AHA Online Book, 2008.

In the Company of Crows: Haiku and Tanka Between the Tides by Carole MacRury. Edited by Cathy Drinkwater Better. Black Cat Press, Eldersburg, Maryland: 2008. Perfect bound, 140 pages, sumi-e by Ion Codrescu, author and artist notes, $18.

The Japanese Universe for the 21st Century: Japanese / English Japanese Haiku 2008, edited and published by the Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyokai) Tokyo, Japan. Perfect bound, dust jacket, 220 pages, indexed, bilingual with kanji and romaji for each poem. Translation of haiku by David Burleigh and prose by Richard Wilson ISBN:978-4-8161-0712-2, $25.

Haiga 1998   2008 Japan Collection by Emile Molhuysen. Binder bound, 8 x 12, unnumbered pages, with a CD included. E-mail for price and shipping.Website.

Haiku, Haibun, Haiga   De la un poem la altul by Valentin Nicolitov. Societatea Scritorilor Militari, Bucuresti: 2008. Translated from Romanian into English and French. Flat-spine, 5.5 x 8 inches, 142 pages. ISBN:978-973-8941-34-2.

Floating Here and There written and translated by Ikuyo Okamoto. Kadokawa Shoten. ISBN:978-4-04-52039-5, US$15. Perfect bound, 4 x 7, 130 pages, bilingual with poems in kanji and English.

So the Elders Say Tanka Sequence by Carol Purington and Larry Kimmel. Folded 8 x 11 inches single sheet with color photos. Winfred Press, 2008

The Irresistible Hudson: A Haiku Tribute Based on Yiddish Poetry by Martin Wasserman. Honors Press, Adirondack Community College, State University of New York, 640 Bay Road, Queensbury, New York, 12804. Flat-spine, 28 pages, 5.5 x 8 inches. No Price, no web access given.

The Tanka Prose Anthology, edited by Jeffrey Woodward. Modern English Tanka Press, PO Box 43717, Baltimore, MD 21236 USA. Perfect bound, 6 x 9, 175 pages, biographies of contributors, bibliography, $12.95. Available through Lulu.com

Tanka written and translated by Geert Verbeke. Cover photo by Jenny Ovaere taken in Nagarkot Nepal. Printed by Cybernit.net, in Govindpur Colony, Allahabad, India. 2008. Perfect bound with color cover, 5.25 x 8.5 inches, 48 pages, with two poems per page in Dutch and English. Contact Geert Verbeke for purchase information. He often will do a simple trade; send him your book and he will send you his.


Curtis Dunlap has written a book review of Basho The Complete Haiku that you can find at: http://tobaccoroadpoet.blogspot.com/2009/01/basho-complete-haiku-book-review .html

Modern Haiga is an annual journal both print and digital dedicated to publishing and promoting fine modern graphic poetry, especially but not limited to, haiku, senryu, tanka, cinquain, cinqku, crystallines, cherita, and sijo. Many writers and artists around the world have generously shared their work in Modern Haiga.

Jack Fruit Moon, haiku and tanka by Robert D. Wilson, Published by Modern English Tanka Press. Available from Lulu.com, from major booksellers, and from the publisher. Complete information and a mail or email order form are available online. Trade paperback price: $16.95 USD. ISBN 978-0-9817691-4-1. 204 pages, 6.00″ x 9.00″, perfect binding, 60# cream interior paper, black and white interior ink, 100# exterior paper, full-color exterior ink.


Curtis Dunlap, Christopher Herold, Salvatore Buttaci, Mike Montreuil, Renee Owen, Sheri Files, Linda Papanicolaou, . Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, Robin Bownes, Allison Millcock, Dick Pettit, Patrick M. Pilarski


ukiaHaiku festival, Kikakuza Haibun Contest – English Section, Pinewood Haiku Contest


White Lotus   A Journal of Short Asian Verse & Haiga, Wollumbin Haiku Workshop, Rusty Tea Kettle, Proposing to the Woman in the Rear View Mirror by James Tipton,  The Heron’s Nest, The Twelve Days Of Christmas by Gillina Cox, Allison Millcock’s blog @ http://millcock. blogspot.com/ ,Curtis Dunlap’s blog, Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose, bottle rockets press, MET 10, Winter 2008, has been published in print and digital editions. Call for Submissions Modern English Tanka. Issue Vol. 3, No. 3. Spring 2009,  Pat Lichen’s new website, Gene Doty’s The Ghazal Page. Ghazal blog.Marlene Mountain,  December of CHO issue, website of Isidro Iturat, Sketchbook, Simply Haiku, John Barlow Editor, Snapshot Press, The new issue of Shamrock Haiku Journal.



Vermont Poetry Newsletter January 8th 2009

[I actually posted this after the January 16th Vermont Poetry Newsletter.  For the sake of chronology, however, I reposted the Newsletter of the 16th so that this post would appear first. Here it is (minus some items that are out of date). From this point on, I will try to post these Newsletters as soon as I receive them and as long as I have Ron Lewis’ permission – UpinVermont.]

Vermont Poetry Newsletter
Your Poetry & Spoken Word Gateway in the Green Mountain State

Newsletter Editor’s Note

  • The Vermont Poetry Newsletter Network is made up of people of all backgrounds, ages and skills who appreciate the craft of poetry and want to promote it in the beautiful state of Vermont. The network consists of a free e-mail list, an eventual web site, workshops, open mics, poetry performances and other literary events. The network provides opportunities to meet local poets, talk about and enjoy poetry, and motivate and inspire yourself in whatever writing projects you are involved.
  1. Essay on John Ashbery
  2. The Sea Shell Game – Haiku
  3. Interview of Jane Reichhold on Basho
  4. Best Internet Site for Short Forms of Poetry
  5. Did You Know? POEMS Syndrom
  6. Poetry Quote (Robert Penn Warren)
  7. In Memoriam: Adrian Mitchell, British Poet
  8. Poetry Magazine 2-for-1 Offer
  9. Linebreak Poem
  10. Copper Canyon Press Poem – M.S. Merwin Broadside
  11. American Life in Poetry Poem
  12. Vermont Poets Past and Present Project
  13. Contact Info for Publisher of VPN: Ron Lewis
  14. Year-Round Poetry Workshops in Vermont
  15. Other Poetry Workshops in Vermont
  16. Year-Round Poetry Writing Centers in Vermont
  17. Poetry Event Calendar



For you John Ashbery fans, here is a wonderfully personal essay on
the poet (and a look inside his grand home!)

Hudson 1993:
A Tour of John Ashbery’s Home
By Rosanne Wasserman
Illustrated by Ahndraya Parlato

Foreword, March 2008

Fifteen years ago, when John Ashbery and I walked at snail’s pace around his house to prepare this article, he was still in the process of fashioning his surroundings; he has not ceased to create and recreate them in the intervening decade and a half. Not surprisingly, then, the article describes only one stage in the evolution of his house, some rooms of which have, since then, been further embellished, or reimagined, or pulled apart and are still being put together.

Changes both major and minor have altered these rooms described below. In the Music Room, sparkle has been provided aplenty by the addition of an enormous antique strung-crystal basket-style chandelier. Some paintings, like the white rose by Alex Katz, are no longer on the walls where they were: they are traveling, on loan to various shows at museums or galleries, or they have been replaced by different pieces, as the poet’s taste has changed or sought refreshment. Notable, for example, is a large black-and-white seascape photograph by Lynn Davis, on the wall where the white rose hung. A collection of poetry books has migrated from bedroom to parlor; the toys on the coffee tables are not the same. Some paintings that were in upstairs closets then are on the walls now; the closet stores other canvases at present. (Some of the painters, too, have traveled on: Larry Rivers passed away in 2002; R. B. Kitaj in 2007.)

A significant omission in this article is any discussion of the cellar, which has the usual laundry and furnace rooms, an extra freezer, and another bathroom, as well as two busy offices, files, and archives. In 1993, still more archives were shelved in the unfinished, high-roofed main room of the attic, and since that time, Flow Chart Foundation archives have been stored in an additional space elsewhere in Hudson.

Also omitted below are some important dates: foremost is 1983, not the year in which John purchased the house (he bought it in December 1978), but the date that David Kermani gives as when the house began to become a home, with renovations underway. Five years later, John and David with great generosity offered temporary lodgings to my husband, Eugene Richie, and myself, while we were renovating our own house, an A. J. Downing-style cottage a mile away, a task that took the better parts of 1987–90.

Although an old home requires constant maintenance and repair, so that workmen still come and go, John was just developing his ideas for the house at that time. The process of creating the space was in full sail during the years we were there, and indeed continued right through and past the 1993 tour. However, although some significant acquisitions came much later—the Music Room chandelier being primary among these—nevertheless, by 1993, the interior was recognizably what it is today. (This chandelier and a number of other works and scenes discussed below appear in illustrations accompanying articles by Stephen Sartarelli, “Art of the Poet”1; Dinitia Smith, “Poem Alone”2; and Brice Brown, “Any Interpretation Will Do.”3) These years also saw the writing and publication of A Wave, April Galleons, and Flow Chart, books that I think of as moved by the same muses with whom and for whom John was designing the spaces of his home. His later books, by contrast, seem more to reflect on these spaces, live within them, and rest inside the finished work.

Living at John’s was a splendid treat and an inspiration in those years before our son, Joseph, was born and I began to teach full time. I wrote many poems about or including elements of the house, and was not alone in doing that—many poets and artists who were guests in Hudson found themselves equally moved to write, record, and respond to his gorgeous and idiosyncratic spaces. One of the most beautiful works inspired by the house has been the composer Robin Holloway’s Violin Concerto, Opus 70. When someone once complimented John on this effect, he grinned and troped Falstaff—“I am not only poetic in myself, but the cause that poetry is in other men!” As Ann Lauterbach has written, “His greatness has allowed many poets—from David Lehman to, say, Charles Bernstein, to name two not quite at random—to explore the territory he opened.”4 She’s discussing literary territory, but the metaphor reverts neatly to the actual interiors of his home. For my own part, after many years working as an editor of art and exhibition catalogues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found John’s house a perfect antidote for what I like least about museums: that they are not lived-in spaces. John’s house, filled with objets d’art and arranged into subtle, funny, and magnificent scenarios, is also always a place where people live and visit, sleep and dine, watch TV, wash up dishes, sit in chairs. Long may they do so.

When the poet John Ashbery saw the opportunity to purchase a grand old Victorian townhouse upstate in the Hudson Valley, he entered upon what was, for him and his temperament, a very special pursuit. For over a decade, he then worked at restoring, redecorating, and enriching this already beautifully constructed and well-preserved building, creating for himself a space as marvelous as the best of his poetry. This house and its furnishings—like Frederic Church’s Olana just a few miles away above the Hudson River—are a masterwork of visual imagination, revealing not just the personality but the muse of its artist-owner. In a review of Hotel Lautréamont, Michael Wood suggests that Ashbery’s poetry often parodies “the generic voice of a moment or manner in earlier poetry.” Wood writes:

The tone of these allusions is far from that of a solemn adherent to a great tradition, a poet daunted by the lateness that so interests Harold Bloom; more like that of a brilliant and naughty child in an attic full of toys. Or an inquisitive adult in a bazaar crowded with beautiful, battered, and improbable objects.5 Wood’s similes are in fact a fair literal description of the spirit of Ashbery’s interiors.

The Classical Revival town house was built in 1894, and is a model example of late Victorian architecture and decor, with intricate woodworking, stained glass, and built-in shelves and cupboards. Ashbery has filled its fifteen rooms with paintings and prints by artists he knows and loves; with collectible and rare objects of pottery, glass, metal, porcelain; with books reflecting his influences and enthusiasms; and with, to lift a list from Rimbaud, “door panels, stage sets, back-drops for acrobats, signs, popular engravings, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers, fairy tales, little books from childhood, old operas, ridiculous refrains, naïve rhythms,”6 and B-movie video cassettes. Moreover, to quote Ashbery himself, “There are a lot of other things of the same quality / as those I’ve mentioned.”7

Hudson: Fairy tales, little books from childhood, old operas, ridiculous refrains, naïve rhythms. Music room. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

More than fifty paintings or works on paper are framed on the walls, along with posters, lithographs, pages cut from old magazines, photographs, and other graphics. Each room has a variety of objects and themes so dense and yet so magically right that their individual atmospheres seem almost human; they have not so much been decorated by, as possessed by the spirit of the master of the house. Ashbery once mentioned to me that his arrangements of objects follow various dramas in his imagination: in part a re-creation of his grandparents’ home in Rochester, New York, where he spent much of his childhood; and in part an idea of what might exist in each room, in some dreamed-up family, as if he were designing a stage set, a giant dollhouse, or a gargantuan Cornell box. For more about his grandparents’ home, the poet’s own words are best consulted, in an article from Architectural Digest, which also features many images of the house circa 1994.8

In 1993, the poet and I walked together through the work-in-progress of his habitat; I invite you now to tour this wonderful house with John Ashbery and me, room by room, to see the paintings and prints on the walls, as well as a few of the other remarkable objects gathered there. Ashbery kindly showed me all around the house, identifying and commenting on the things we saw; I will relay to you what he told me. Since I am not an art historian, I cannot offer an exact descriptive catalogue; I will instead describe both what caught my eye and what Ashbery thought worth mentioning.

There are two main floors to visit, with a brief look up to the attic. On the first floor is a large front hall, with a music room to the left, a library to the right. Off the back of the hall is a dining room, from which a left door leads to the butler’s pantry, then into the kitchen. A grand front staircase from the hall leads upstairs, as does a narrower back stair from the kitchen. A central hall upstairs opens onto six main areas: the upstairs sitting room, a second upstairs library, the master bedroom and its screened sleeping porch overlooking the garden, a guest bedroom, and the bathroom. Between the guest bedroom and the upstairs sitting room is a small but sunny study. The sixth door leads to the attic, where an attic room is also furnished for guests.

The front hall is preceded by a small foyer just past the outside doors with their great curling hinges. The alcove is floored with unglazed gray and white ceramic tiles. Between foyer and front hall is a brilliant wall of uncolored, leaded glasswork and oak wainscotings; the inner doors, too, are set with leaded clear-glass windows, with a spoked-oval spiderweb design of the sort so popular in Gothic cinema. A small Persian star-shaped ceiling lamp set with colored glass bosses hangs above. On the left are two large ceramic umbrella-stands with oriental dragon motifs; on the right, a small gilded rush-bottom chair, very squarely built but delicate-looking. It seems to say, “If you must sit down on me to take off your boots, go ahead; but don’t sit down too hard.”

After the grisailles of the foyer, the dark, richly colored front hall comes as a sumptuous surprise. The hall is magnificent with carved wood details: oak panel wainscoting, inlaid woods on the floors, carvings on the ceiling, great sliding doors off to the left and right, an ornate gilded chandelier, a grand staircase curving into the room at right, a fireplace and big mirror at the back, which reflects the foyer’s glasswork as you leave it and progress into the house. The mantel before it holds a brass clock and two Royal Teplitz porcelain candelabra figurines, shepherd and shepherdess, which Ashbery inherited from his grandparents. All of these details are usually lit only by colored sun falling from the monumental stained-glass window at the top of the first landing of the staircase, so the room is dark and glittery like an Arabian treasure cave. The Persian carpets on the floor show the concern of Ashbery’s friend David Kermani; it is also Kermani who creates and tends to the mammoth Christmas trees, covered with antique glass ornaments from his collection, which illuminate and enchant the back of this hall for a good part of the year.

The hall’s art is primarily oriental, larger and smaller prints and paintings not brightly lit, but of clear figurative designs that make their statements from the comparative dimness of the hall, or blend quietly into the shadows until studied, when they suddenly surprise the watcher: that wall’s full of life! There are a number of Chinese landscape scrolls: one of monkeys, three of birds: these are machine-made textiles. Smaller Japanese prints are grouped together on the left wall: first, a Hokusai design of moon and cherry blossoms in black and white; with it, a very blue blue jay among some very orange leaves. At the back of the hall, a three-part print tells some tale of a tempest, a demon on a rope, and a dancer with a fan under a parasol. This print oddly foreshadows the large Kitaj in the music room next door.

Hudson: The room gives the impression of a small manmade lake. Music room. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

The music room at the left of the foyer is full of a steady but not sparkling light, its fireplace and mantle painted white, with an oval mirror built in above. The room gives the impression of a small manmade lake, not because there is anything blue or skylike in it, but because of its stillness, order, and light. The mantle features a replica of a Jean-Antoine Houdon terracotta bust of a child; on a side table is an original, a 1775 terracotta of a young lady by Phillipe-Laurent Roland. The eighteenth-century French motif is repeated with marble-topped tables, inset with porcelain plaques; gilded chairs and sofa; two side mirrors; and the two front windows with a gilded mirror in between. American details include a small brass reading lamp shaded by a Steuben glass creation called “Aurene”; a hand-painted glass landscape shade enhances another side-table lamp. But the Surrealists have been here, as well, with a little playful trompe l’oeil: two ashtrays seem to hold a pipe or a nutcracker and nuts: all are of porcelain. A potted ficus tree and a grand piano draped with a red paisley shawl complete the scene.

Six large works hang on these walls. The eye is seized first by a very big genre scene, full of colorful figures, action, and violence: Susan Dakin’s painting of an assassination attempt on a general, an episode from the 1929 Mexican novel of political intrigue and corruption, La Sombra del Caudillo by Martin Luis Guzman. The wounded leader lies on the floor of a posh restaurant, behind an overturned table, his napkin still in his collar, bloodstains on his uniform, a gun in its holster at his hip; he is surrounded by the dark, concerned faces of his staff and attendants, some of whom have apprehended the gunman as he tried to flee out the restaurant’s windowed street doors in the background. Food, flowers, and blue seltzer bottles spill around in the foreground. The New World revolutionary mood of the entire piece suggests that a window from the future has opened into this eighteenth-century room; or perhaps it’s the door of a time machine from which we visitors have just tumbled.

After this canvas, the others seem quieter, deeper, even the Willem de Kooning, a calligraphic black-and-white silkscreen dated 1970. The print is numbered 27/28. Its abstract but violent squiggles recall Japanese sumi, especially after the orientalism of the hall. This work is one of the series Ashbery reviewed during his decade-long Paris sojourn, while writing for the Herald Tribune.9 Even quieter, on the opposite wall, is a huge white rose on a burgundy background, its petals highlighted with gray and yellow. I always think of Georgia O’Keefe at first sight of this painting, but it’s an early Alex Katz, 1966, not his familiar human figures, but with his recognizable, simply stated two-dimensionality.

With these works hangs a portrait, in subdued but clear colors, of the poet as a young man: “John Ashbery” by Fairfield Porter, from the painter’s Southampton home in 1957. The poet wears a blue short-sleeve shirt and tan slacks with a brown belt; he turns the left profile as he sits in a studio chair. (The image was reproduced in 2004 on the cover of Ashbery’s Selected Prose.) Another portrait hangs by the piano: “Eduard,” the head of a man from a series painted in 1943 by Jean Hélion. This abstract bust wears a black-banded fedora; his red tie is the only bright color in a gray palette; the face is reminiscent of a Léger. Painted during his American period, it shows the qualities Ashbery lists in “Jean Hélion Paints a Picture”: “clear, monumental, rounded forms and quiet metallic tones, which give an impression of tranquility and unclamorous strength.” 10

Above the piano is the print by R. B. Kitaj, an Ohio-born painter living in England, whom Ashbery has praised for his “literary qualities.”11 Entitled “French Subjects,” this collagelike work contains three line-drawn portrait heads, one labeled “A. Legros,” the others unnamed. The name “Gerard Phillipe” banners across one section of the piece; ten stylized soup bowls in two rows stand upside-down at top left; and at lower right, we are given a mysterious photograph-derived image of two people in coats, walking toward a building with an inverted horseshoe and the word “cottage” on its side. The work is inscribed by hand: “Kitaj (proof) For John Ashbery, love.”

Finally, with the bibelots and curios on the piano—some art pottery, some music books, a marble sculpture of something between a chess bishop and a lighthouse—is a stand supporting a canvas painted by the British artist and poet Trevor Winkfield. The small, strange, jewel-like images, in flat, bright colors, include a pair of dice, a fly, two jingle bells, and the lower halves of a few flowerpots. A gift from the young artist during Ashbery’s long hospitalization in the 1980s, its back is inscribed: “Fragment,” “this, my first canvas in seventeen years, for John Ashbery abed, May 1982.” Needless to say, Winkfield is another exceptionally literary painter, in fact a Roussellian, and a dear friend of Ashbery’s.


Hudson: The library is peculiarly Germanic, in a Black Forest fairytale way. Downstairs library. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

The library at the left of the hall seems to be the forest counterpart of the lakelike music room. Where the music room is decidedly French, both antique and modern, the library is peculiarly Germanic, in a Black Forest fairytale way, Victorian and gnomic, not to say gnomelike. This impression is chiefly conveyed by the oak paneling and the large pieces of furniture: there are no fewer than five big upholstered armchairs arranged in a circle here, with carved arms and legs, leafy fabrics or figurative needlework, antimacassars and pillows. Small coffee tables between them support Tiffany lamps. The three floor lamps are carved of large wooden posts, adding to the woodland feeling, further heightened by a leafy potted palm. This room’s paneled ceiling and high wainscoting can be seen in the book American Victorian.12 The books that give the room its name—
specially bound books and journals, including an entire set of Art News—are in the background, behind built-in glass-doored shelves.

This room, too, has a special place for the American: on the mantle, Ashbery displays a select collection of American art pottery, which completes the Midsummer’s Night’s Dream spirit of the atmosphere. Small pots and dishes, mugs and vases, jars and candlesticks, in green and brown earthtones, glowing blues and turquoise, iron pinks and ochres, are reflected in the mantelpiece mirror. An old crackle-glazed blue-on-white Dedham rabbit plate rests in a stand as a centerpiece within a square niche above the dark tile of the fireplace, below the mantle. One shelf holds a Roycroft metalwork vase. These pieces are from the studios of small artisans or industries from all over the country, both older and newer kilns—Weller, Van Briggle, George Ohr, Marblehead, Gruby, Hampshire, Jugtown, Cowan, Frankoma, Fuller, Roseville, and Prang. While many can be identified by the potters’ marks, Ashbery has collected not only the pottery but also books about it for many years, and he is able to recognize the origins and value of little dishes and trays that most people would overlook in a dark thrift shop. Like Puck and his band in an Arthur Rackham illustration, the grotesque and graceful forms of the earthenware gathered on the mantle seem to dance in trees above the heads of the poet’s afternoon guests.

Another whimsical Victorian is represented here: above the high oak panel hangs a colored print by Edward Lear, one of his sketchbook Italian scenes, labeled Ponta Pingiana. There are, in addition, three Piranesi prints: the Veduta di Franco del Campidoglio, Rome, in black and white; a 1777 scene of the Porto Orientale, showing the harbor surrounded by ornate statuary; and a vista down a curving street, the Veduta della Gran Curia Innocenziana, filled with three-story urban façades. Finally, there is another Englishman’s view of Italy, a large colored print of Venice by J. Alphege Brewer. The combined effect of the prints is light, airy, and at the same time rather literary, appropriately. Are they far-off scenes glimpsed through the forest trees, or endpoints of maps of where we might be off to next? So detailed but so unobtrusive, they invite and avoid deeper study.


Hudson: Far-off scenes glimpsed through the forest trees. Downstairs library. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

The dining room is papered with real Lincrusta Walton, the wallpaper immortalized by Oscar Wilde as the one thing he most missed while in Reading Gaol. The room represents the sumptuous Victorian style, with built-in curved-glass cupboards and a stained-glass window. The table and chairs, as described in American Victorian, were “built especially for the room, with an edge molding of the same egg-and-dart design as the handsomely paneled woodwork and cabinets,” and other “high-style Colonial Revival flourishes.”13 The poet searched long to match a missing shade for the chandelier, which now has all four golden Steuben Aurene glass shades, like the one in the music room. The warm golden light is deepened by the oak woodwork and burnished by the stained glass above the mirror at the back of the room, with its harvest grapevine motif. In one corner, a large embossed brass plate with a tavern scene gilds the lily. This item came from a Rochester, New York, antique store at the top of the block where Ashbery lived as a child with his grandparents during the school year.


Hudson: The warm golden light is deepened by the oak woodwork and burnished by the stained glass. Dining room. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

The ceramics on the shelves and enclosed in the cabinets of the dining room include Czech pottery, blue willow, a large collection of French matchholders that the poet gathered during his years in Paris, plates with scenes from Roman history and captions in French, and a Little Orphan Annie mug with the balloon, “Didja ever taste anything so good as Ovaltine? And it’s Good for yuh, too—.” There is a blue-transfer plate featuring American poets: Bryant, Holmes, Lowell, Whittier, Poe, and Emerson, with Longfellow in the center. On the back stands a pair of pouter pigeons by Goldschneider; on a side table are pieces of glassware: a Dorflinger spiral-stem candy dish, a Daum potpourri bowl, and a mottled yellow Loetz dish.

Over the mantle, which is full of Teplitz amphorae and German art glass vases, a portrait shows a rather beefy sea captain, no relation to the poet, painted perhaps by Samuel F. B. Morse. He’s there because he’s supposed to be there, one of the elements in Ashbery’s exquisite Victorian parody, if it is a parody. There is also the requisite still life of sliced fruits and open pomegranates, with an indecipherable signature. A print of Guido Reni’s Aurora hangs above the left cabinet, and there is a convex mirror at head-height as you turn left into the butler’s pantry. That mirror, of course, is tantamount to Ashbery’s signature on the room, which is one of his favorites in the house.


Hudson: A rather beefy sea captain is there because he’s supposed to be there. Dining room. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

A doorway at the back of the left wall leads to the butler’s pantry, a narrow room or a very wide hall between the dining room and kitchen. There are counters on either side of the passage, a window onto the backyard at the right, and cupboards at the left that reach straight up to the high ceiling. On these shelves are more ceramics and glassware; on the walls, a wonderful William Morris print paper in brown and rust tones, his “Tobacco Leaf” design. The Fiestaware is stored here, as well as a number of Czech ceramics and a collection of fake food: clay vegetables and breads; wooden, wax, and plastic fruit. There is an old black plastic handset telephone—with a real dial—on a phone shelf just before the kitchen door.

Under the window, a marble counter with a copper sink is covered with bottles: this side is the bar. And there are appropriate paintings: a still life of Bombay gin bottles by Archie Rand, and a small piece by J. Shannon, a 1979 portrait of Walter Hopps (1932–2005; a curator of twentieth-century art at the Menil Collection museum). Hopps wears rolled-up shirtsleeves and a bright tie, and stands with a drink in one hand, the other hand in his pants pocket. A cartoon from 1924 is also framed, showing two cute urchins and a pup with a bow, entitled “L’heure du cocktail.” A tin advertising sign reads “Drink sunspot / bottled sunshine.” And there is a coaster from Harry’s New York Bar, Munich: two dancing grasshoppers in top hats.


Hudson: “Drink sunspot / bottled sunshine.” Butler’s pantry and kitchen. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

In the kitchen, the warm light from side and back windows and the back porch door is complemented by the yellow and white paint of walls and ceiling. The room is full of useful things and of less useful but more interesting collections, including at least nine tin fish molds on the walls and several yellowware bowls of all sizes on a stand. There are two walk-in pantries, a smaller one with china dishes and glassware, and a huge one for cookware with an entire wall of shelves full of cookbooks. The house’s original woodstove stands at the left side of the kitchen table; painted a shiny black, it now supports the microwave, and its belly is full of boxes of tea as well as a blue glass jar holding peppermint grown and dried by the poet himself. On the refrigerator, a magnet shaped like a pack of Dentyne chewing gum holds up a coloring-book picture of Jim Henson’s Muppet Miss Piggy, reading a book to her dolly; it has been colored by Sarah Megan Williams, a six-year-old friend. Old advertising art dominates the walls: a poster for “Genuine Butter-Nut Bread” features white slices floating in an arc through the air down to a silver platter. And a placard for “Uncle Wabash Cupcakes” may be a subliminal early booster for integration: two white-frosted, five chocolate-iced cupcakes together on a plate, with old Uncle Wabash, a grizzled African-American, playing banjo in the lower left corner. Over the sink, a large metal sign, unframed, in yellow, red, and black, reads “Clabber Girl, the double-acting baking powder.”

There is a back staircase from the kitchen to the second floor, but for the proper way to go upstairs, we retrace our steps through the dining room so as to proceed up the formal front stairs to the upstairs hall. This staircase is stunning, not only for its showcase stained-glass window, but also because of the twenty Japanese prints purchased by Ashbery in the fifties in Paris. Their style is mostly after Hiroshige, and they depict bridges in rain, seashore, snow on sea and hills, street scenes, green mountain paths, a house on a sea cliff; there are two of Europeans, and there are “Yokohama prints” with geisha, as well as a view of Mount Fuji. There is also a typical ukiyo-e triptych of four figures. Glimmering lushly from the shadows at either side of the window, on two small built-in corner shelves, are two vases of what is known as Goofus glass: these shimmery painted objects, the poet says, are “really basically junk, although now of course there are books on them.” The window, which dominates and illuminates both downstairs and upstairs halls, has a landscape motif, with a design of mallows in the foreground and the purple Catskills in the background, all encircled by blue ribbons and wreaths.

The upstairs hall has a large travel poster of the town of Carpentras, a detail from a nineteenth-century painting of this walled city of North Provence in the south of France, a Jewish center in the Middle Ages. Ashbery visited there long ago, and again with Francis Wishart, son of the painter Anne Dunn; they saw the old synagogue and subterranean mikvah baths. Views of two German towns, Andernach and Neuwied, by the painter Schutz, hang here as well. A very small landscape view of Chillon, with a butterfly ship below the citadel, came from Ashbery’s grandparents’ home. Of its provenance, he says only, “I don’t know who did it or where it came from.” There is an old mirror topped with yet another reproduction of Reni’s Aurora, hanging above the round table with the phone—again, a nice heavy old-fashioned black 1950s dialer. On the table is also a dome-shaded Tiffany lamp, featuring a geometric pattern of circles and lines in monochromatic tones of pale gold.

This is not to say that the back stairs have been neglected: on the contrary, there’s not an inch of wasted space here. An amazingly eclectic gathering of prints and images carpet the cottage-style green-flowered wallpaper. At the foot of the stairs is a large frame holding the separate sheets of a “Tom Thumb’s Alphabet” by Edward Dalziel, from an 1867 publication entitled The Child’s Coloured Gift Book (the entire book can be viewed online at The Open Library). Each letter has a figure or two in caricature, and a rhyme, as below:

A was an archer,
who shot at a frog.
B was a Butcher,
who had a great dog.
C was a captain,
all covered with lace.
D was a drummer,
who played with a grace.
E was an Esquire,
with pride on his brow.
F was a Farmer,
who followed the plow.
G was a Gamester,
who had but ill-luck.
H was a Hunter,
who hunted a buck.
I was an Italian,
who had a white mouse,
whom John the footman
drove from the house.
K was a King,
so mighty and grand.
L was a Lady,
who had a white hand.
M was a miser,
who hoarded up gold.
N was a Nobleman,
gallant and bold.
O was an Organ-boy,
who played for his bread.
P a Policeman,
of bad boys the dread.
Q was a Quaker,
who would not bow down.
R was a Robber,
who prowled about town.
S was a sailor,
who spent all he got.
T was a Tinker,
who mended a pot.
V was a Veteran,
who never knew fear.
[U is missing forever from here.]
W was a waiter,
with dinners in store.
X was expensive,
and so became poor.
Y was a Youth,
who did not like school.
Z was a Zany,
who looked a great fool.

As we climb the stairs, when we can finally tear away from that extravagant and scary children’s alphabet, we find a print of Edward Burne-Jones’s Galahad and his steed; a lonesome pine on a trail in a 1920s colored photo of Yosemite; a photo of Nita Naldi wearing pearls and a high, pointed headdress, not the Theda Bara clone she appears to be but, says Ashbery, “someone in her own right”; a print of Hans Holbein’s Erasmus; several etchings, including two landscapes, one of a cloister with oxen on the road, signed by H. Toussaint; a geyser from Watkins Glen, which Ashbery calls a “childhood haunt”; a color poster of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe Puss in Boots; and as a grande finale over the stairs, a large color movie poster of Rin-Tin-
Tin, Jr., a German shepherd posing vigilantly on a mountain ledge at sunset.

There are also a couple of pieces by Maxfield Parrish, “Interlude” and “Daybreak,” both from 1922; this Parrish collection continues in the bathroom, where three more enhance the paneling: “Circe,” 1907; “The Rubaiyat,” 1916 (originally art for a Crane’s Chocolates box); and a Collier magazine cover of 1908, a landscape with a figure, a gift to Ashbery from the poet Bill Berkson.

And there’s more on the stairs: “Liszt’s Matinee,” which Ashbery says is the famous print of Liszt and his circle by Joseph Kriehuber; “The Very Last Polka” by Francois Bernard, an 1800s sheet-music cover with a city evening scene and horse-drawn carriage; two tinted photos, “The Garden Gate” and “The Swimming Pool,” maybe by Wallace Nutting, a northeastern photographer popular for garden scenes and ladies in nineteenth-century dresses. There are ruins of the Roman Forum; Zurich’s bridges; the Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem, again from his grandparents’ home; a “Boy in Orchard,” which seems to be a three-dimensional embossed print of a child in a hat; one of those comic prints with the legend “Ne buvez jamais d’eau”; a Raphael Madonna and Babe; and the Uneeda Biscuit boy in his yellow slicker, carrying a box with the Nabisco logo beneath his arm.

We are rewarded at the top of either staircase by an invitation to the upstairs sitting room, actually the very important location of the television, VCR, coffee table, and six-o’clock news. Today there is an electronic remote-control whoopee cushion on the round Formica-
topped table in front of the main Potato Couch, as well as a wind-up metal duck on a motorcycle with a whirligig on its head, a gift from the poet Ed Barrett (this same duck can be seen in a mail-order catalogue called Russian Dressing); a porcelain gnome with a pipe, inscribed “Dingle”; and a plastic windup walking Christmas tree about two inches high. The table also holds the usual collection of magazines (Gourmet, Old-House Journal), Michelin guides, the latest Book Barn finds, poetry journals, biographies of musicians, and movie guides, especially The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by Michael Weldon.

On the mantle opposite the couch are more serious, or at least older, porcelains: Staffordshire figurines of dogs and lovers, a miniature bust of Byron. The William Morris wallpaper here is again “Tobacco Leaf,” in a bittersweet color. A bibelot shelf in the corner holds a good-sized collection of miniature shoes, fashioned in glass, porcelain, metal, and other media. There is a Nordic Track indoor ski machine. There is a miniature table that seems to be made of buttons. The bookcase is full of cassettes of cartoons, old B films, lots of “Mad Movies” from San Francisco, and old SCTV reruns, as well as books about Hollywood, music, and cinema.


Hudson: Detail of a Rodrigo Moynihan painting to which Ashbery is particularly attached. Upstairs sitting room. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

Despite the wealth of pop culture here, the nine paintings in the room elevate the atmosphere even with the television on. Many are pieces to which Ashbery is particularly attached: a Jane Freilicher still life with a copy of ARTNews; Anne Dunn’s “Orchard” of 1989; an Elaine de Kooning garden, Casale Sonnino, watercolor on paper, inscribed “Happy birthday 9/20/81”; and a Rodrigo Moynihan painting of light bulbs. Over the mantlepiece is a large print, captioned “Grand Theatre Chalet.–Fond.” It shows a mountain house with a brook on the right: Ashbery identifies it as an image d’Epinale, the town in eastern France famed for its colored chromo illustration industry. There are three Hélions: a sketchbook leaf showing a Paris street scene of people walking between parked cars; a watercolor study for a large oil painting of three figures, 1937; and one piece inscribed to Ashbery, showing the studio where the painter’s wife lived, the flat space of the roof, chimneys in the background, a bridge leading over to his studio. Above the couch is one of Jim Bishop’s huge colorfield paintings, whitish blue, blue, red, and green.

In the upstairs library across the large central hall, white bookshelves rise from floor to ceiling along three of the walls, interrupted only by windows and a fireplace. Once a bedroom, this study is now the main repository of reading material in the house, and the working office for Ashbery, holding both the computer and the stereo equipment. The titles on the shelves are mostly fiction, philosophy, mysticism, and biographies, as well as records, tapes, compact discs, and books about music.

The Morris wallpaper here is the Iris pattern, a deep turquoise floral, not much of which is visible behind the bookshelves. It harmonizes with the faux-malachite marbleized fireplace and with the Larry Rivers double portrait of Ashbery and Kermani, “David and John,” 1977. The painting incorporates as background several lines from the poem “No Way of Knowing” from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, beginning with “And then? Colors and names of colors.” There are old family photos here—actual family this time—on the mantle and above the computer desk: one shows Grandfather Ashbery and the soccer team he coached at a Pennsylvania school where he taught in the 1880s. The closet of this room holds Jane Freilicher’s unfinished portrait of Ashbery, painted about 1965, and another piece of French antique ephemera, the backdrop for a puppet theater, a set of scenes including railroad, towns, and a cityscape. On the walls hang Anne Dunn’s red flower/phallus image, 1962; a poster of Gentileschi’s “A Sibyl,” circa 1620, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; a small canvas by Hélion of Belle Isle en Mer, showing a port scene at Amici, with two white brushstrokes like a heart or dove in the sky, tethered boats, and boxy houses; and a modern New York cityscape by Darragh Park, entitled “Freeze,” set near the poet’s apartment on 22nd Street in Chelsea.


Hudson: And then Colors and names of colors. Upstairs library.Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

There is another small office upstairs, in a bright windowed alcove between the sitting room and the guest bedroom. The desk in this office faces three small stained-glass panels set into a large bay full of potted plants. Another small bookshelf holds odds and ends, children’s books, gardening titles. There are four more pieces here by Winkfield: one mysterious puzzle featuring a 1920s-garbed lady, a gagged but pointing boy, and a leopard in a cage; two from his series “Marine Architecture”; and one mandala design of a bearded face, hardware nuts, and mirror, multiplied on a quadrant. On the right wall are three small nineteenth-century landscape drawings by minor artists, pale sketches: an Adolphe Appian of a fisherman in a mountain stream; an Antoine Chintreuil shoreline; and a seascape by Antoine Vollon. In contrast is the abstract piece by the Texas-based painter Robin Utterbach, behind the desk.

The master bedroom is a deep lagoon, a place for a lorelei or a kraken to dream. As Descartes and Proust did in their rooms, Ashbery spends a good deal of time in his large brass bed here, especially weekend mornings, with the classical radio station out of Albany and the New York Times. “White Pimpernel” Morris wallpaper dominates the walls with cool greens and creamy white flower petals in Celtic swirls. There is a flowered chaise longue and wall of books, mostly art history and art catalogues, collections of classic comics, travel, antique magazines, and the histories of various cities and locales, especially New York, Paris, and the Hudson Valley. A white door leads outside to a screened sleeping porch, furnished with white-painted wicker chairs and old rockers, hung with baskets of ivy, spider plants, and bleeding-heart or fuchsias. The porch looks west: the poet sits out there during summers and watches his garden, the sunsets, and in particular one huge old arabesquing elm tree way down the block. There are three large Victorian houses along the street and alley, rising over a new glass solarium built in the appropriate Gothic style.


Hudson: A place for a lorelei or a kraken to dream. Master bedroom. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

The paintings in this room again include Hélion, a small sketch made for Ashbery in 1962 of a garden with a wheelbarrow; and Freilicher, a painting of a basket of Queen Anne (oxheart) cherries, inscribed “Happy Birthday John, July 1977”; another Freilicher, “Sunset,” shows her penthouse view, painted some time between 1969 and 1988. There is also a funny Red Grooms, titled “Summer Still Life,” featuring a can of Barbasol, razor, screen with seven hooks, a sailboat, and a fly, dated 1978; a very small piece by Danny Moynihan of two white stones; the Alex Katz portrait of Pierre Martory with a pipe, from about 1969, made from a metal cutout print, of which this image is a silkscreen detail. James Schuyler refers to this piece in his poem “Letter to a Friend: Who is Nancy Daum?” from The Crystal Lithium.14 There is also a sketch of Ashbery’s grandparents’ summer home in Pultneyville, New York, given to him in 1985 by Philip Bornarth, a painter who taught at Rochester Institute of Technology (he retired in 1999), and his wife Sylvia. “This was a summer cottage, remodeled for winter after his retirement,” says Ashbery.

There are two paintings by Neil Welliver: both Maine landscapes, one entitled “Drowned Cedar,” with a dead bough in the water; the other a view from his home. The latter is a small version of a larger painting that Ashbery once arranged to appear on the cover of ARTNews, when the original cover fell through and left editor Thomas Hess strapped, thereby jumpstarting Welliver’s career. Welliver painted this small version and gave it to Ashbery to thank him.

A Color Chart over the radio by the bed features several natural and manmade objects to illustrate the colors of the spectrum; it was acquired from the same Paris shop as the puppet-theater backdrops: “a shop full of wonderful old toys,” says Ashbery. The Joseph Cornell poster for a 1977 show features the print that appears on the cover of Ashbery’s collection Hotel Lautréamont. On the dresser, with a photo of his mother, is another of Ashbery in suit and tie from 1956 at an aunt and uncle’s; and what he calls a “daub” inscribed “Happy birthday,” by Mary Abbot, a friend of the poet Barbara Guest.

Adjoining the master bedroom—connected, in fact, by a walk-through closet—is the guest bedroom, papered with a truly eye-teasing Morris floral of white, yellow, green, blue, pink, gray, and other fresh, clear hues just a bit away from bright, with a pattern just short of busy. If the other bedroom was a lagoon, this one is a summer meadow. White-painted bookcases, woodwork details, and the yellow tile fireplace harmonize with and calm the excitement, which is, however, revived in miniature with a collection of “end-of-day” glass on the mantle, primarily vases with swirling color-dot patterns in every shape and size. Ashbery is justifiably proud of this room’s faux-
bamboo bedroom set of birds-eye maple; he has seen the same in a museum. A little ceramic lady with a fan kicks up her leg on a swinging hinge on the dresser top. The bookcase holds a collection of poetry: whether the poet stores these titles here because he likes the thought of these books in this particular room, or because he doesn’t want all those other voices right next to his own bed, I am not sure.


Hudson: If the other bedroom was a lagoon, this one is a summer meadow. Guest room. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

Given the energy of the backdrop, the walls here have been hung with an appropriately quieter collection of smaller images: a Currier and Ives print of Saratoga Lake; an atypical Freilicher, from her short-
lived abstract period, captioned “Near the Sea”; a black and white Corot print, “Une matinee,” of dancing nymphs and sirens; a 1979 painting by Susan Shatter, “Scarlet Sunset,” showing a view of Lake Wesserunsett, Maine; another print, the “Horse Fair” of Rosa Bonheur; a drawing in pen and ink over pencil of loopy calligraphic figures, made by Raymond Mason, an English artist living in Paris and inscribed “1984, for JA”; another Bishop, this one a dark abstract gouache, 1960; by Nell Blaine, a 1953 ink sketch of a forest pond; by Joe Brainard, a wonderful flowery collage and watercolor entitled “Garden IV,” of about 1969; a framed oval print of a young girl after Jean-Baptiste Greuze—called “The Broken Pitcher,” it is a late eighteenth-century French allegory of lost virginity. “He did a lot of these!” remarks Ashbery. With the kicking lady on the dresser is a Hélion sketch of three musicians from 1968, when, caught up in the student movement, the artist made many such street scenes.

The guest bedroom is the last of the main rooms on the second floor; the bathroom is the only one I have not described, although, with its Rookwood tiles, cast-plaster ceiling moldings, and eight-foot tub supported by plump little caryatids, it certainly holds its own with the other rooms. It is, obviously, a most magnificent antique bathroom, one of the delights of which includes a bottle of Acacia Violet cologne given to the poet by Schuyler.

There is one last place to view: a doorway between the entrances of the two bedrooms leads up another flight of stairs. The attic staircase, unpapered, offers an illusion: its old painted plaster seems to be hung with one solitary frame about two feet square. But when we approach it, we discover that, no, it is not a frame, not a picture within a frame, but an air vent, nicely made and finished as if it were a glassless window. I am fond of this error, which I always make: expecting to see a work in a frame, I find only space through which I can look down and see the images hanging in the hall of the back staircase. I find it surprising, funny, mysterious, serendipitous, and literally absolutely clear: like so much of Ashbery’s poetry.

A little guest bedroom, once a maid’s room or nursery, opens at the top of these stairs. Two old twin beds have handwoven navy and white wool-and-cotton coverlets, one of which was woven by an Ashbery ancestor and dated 18-something. Here, on another wall of bookshelves, are the poet’s collection of French titles and the entire Anchor Bible. There is a large Hélion poster from 1980, published by the Galerie Karl Flinker, of a nude woman, with a baguette on a tableclothed table. Between the two beds hangs a large, handsome Kovac Star Map, a dark blue rectangle with white circles sprinkled with stars, and in a small frame on the right side of the room is the cover of Childlife Magazine from Christmas 1937.

1Contemporanea (January 1990), pp. 52-57. With photographs by Ken Schles.
2New York (May 20, 1991), pp. 46-52.
3Sienese Shredder (2008), pp. 20–23.
4“Slaves of Fashion,” The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of
Experience (New York: Viking, 2005), p. 180.
5“Outside the Shady Octopus Saloon,” New York Review of Books XLI. 10 (May 23, 1993), pp. 32-33.
6Complete Works, trans. Wallace Fowlie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 193.
7“And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name,” Selected Poems (New York:
Penguin, 1986), p. 235.
8“Guest Speaker: John Ashbery, The Poet’s Hudson River
Restoration,” Architectural Digest (June 1994), pp. 36–44.
9Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957–1987 (New York: Knopf, 1989), pp. 181-187.
10Reported Sightings, p. 59.
11Reported Sightings, p. 300.
12Lawrence Grow and Dina von Zweck, American Victorian: A Style and Source Book (New York: Harper and Row, 1984).
13American Victorian, p. 129.
14Selected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), pp. 85-90.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008



The Sea Shell Game

Do you enjoy finding which of two similar things is the better? Do you like to learn by observing how two poems compare? Would you like to see a poem of yours compared to one by someone else?
For centuries part of the training of Japanese children to be sensitive to beauty and the different levels of it was accomplished by a game. Even adults, in their lighter moments, will start a game with shells, or leaves or flowers. Perhaps you, too, have done the same process in order to find the best or loveliest in a collection.

From a pile of, let us say, stones one person draws two stones at random. The stones are compared and then judged to say, “This stone is lovelier than that one.” The *winners* go in one pile, the *losers* in another until all the stones have been compared. Then the process is repeated with the *winners*, again and again, until one stone remains.

When poets would gather for poetry contests, often sponsored by the emperor, even in times before Japan’s written history (764 AD), this same process of elimination was used. The prizes then were bolts of silk or, if a poem was really special, the emperor would give one of his possessions — a musical instrument or his fan.

When Basho was a young teacher of renga (the linked poetry form) he felt that the first verse of a renga (then called a hokku) was so important that his students should be made aware of the difference between a *good* hokku and a great one. Basho would organize contests built on the old principles of comparing things. Thus, in 1672 he commissioned scribes to write down records of his judging comments to be saved and these he collected under his title of “The Sea Shell Game.” This was the only book he published in his lifetime. Other books that he compiled or advised were all published by his patrons or students. Translations of “The Shell Game” give us a peek into what and how he taught.


For the first time, we are playing the Japanese Sea Shell Game in English. Poems which are called haiku are compared, commented on, and sorted out until one poem remains as *winner*. Various persons who are active haiku writers will be invited to do the judging. Your own haiku may be submitted for the contest.

Your poem will be printed without your name but with a pen name if you so chose. These will be picked, two at a time, at random. The judge will display the poems, comment on each and choose one over the other. This process will continue until one haiku is left. This one will be declared winner, the author’s name will be revealed and a prize awarded. A list of the winning haiku will be kept so that people who are new to the game can read the winning poems and authors’ names. The judges’ comments, as well as the poems discussed, will be archived in the AHA!POETRY Archive for reference and downloading.

Here are some examples of the game (there are many others as well) – by reading through the games that have already been judged, you can learn what it is that makes a good haiku, a winning haiku. Read on.

Sea Shell Game #1

JUDGE: Jane Reichhold
DATE: August 1, 1995



on calm waters
sailors’ dreams


artist’s diet
how lovingly she traces
the sandwich

Even though #1 is an excellent poem and completely without a flaw, I could not pick it for a winner because it is too close to Basho’s famous poem, “summer grass / the dreams / of warriors” which was possibly read by the author. There is a strong suspicion that having once seen wind rippling long grass on hill so that it looked as such a scene must have to Basho, that ghostly warriors were storming the rise. One of the ways of learning how haiku works is to take the Old Masters’ works into a new situation, as was done here. However, the question is, does one enter such an exercise in a contest? It is an excellent haiku and if Basho had not beat the author by his arrival on earth 300 years earlier, it would be a winner. So, I pick “artist’s diet” as winner of this round.



dimples in a spa
the fat lady
and the rain


still asleep
everyone but bald monks
praying at dawn

Though #3 is hardly profound, it does contain a comparison of the dimples rain would make in an outdoor (which is not clear, and here is only assumed) with those which one could see on the fat lady’s skin. And, there is a good chance that no one in haiku history has made that comparison! The poem is built on the very simple technique of using a phrase that encompasses both parts of the comparison.

It is almost like a riddle: where are the dimples in the spa? The word “dimples” could lead one to think “fat person”. The bit of nature “the rain” comes along as a bit of a surprise. It causes the reader to think: how do drops hitting water look? and how does a dimple look? and are they really that similar.

What bothers me in this poem is the phrase “the fat lady”. It moves the poem into an area of poetry the Japanese call “senryu” (SEND-JEW or SEN-YOU-ROO) which uses the haiku form to criticize others or make cruel jokes about them. The poem may make some readers smile, but it could be offensive to large women.

The poem “still asleep” has some problems in it, but because of the potential cruelty in “fat woman” I will pick #4.



candled egg
the moon too seems full
of new life


a binge
and two aspirins
poems arrive

“Haiku” similar to #6 make the hairs on the back of my neck to rise. Whether the poem is short and haiku-like or a long modern free verse work; there is something about this kind of bellyaching that makes me feel the writer is wasting the opportunity to be a poet. “Poems” complaining about how hard it is to be a poet or get a piece written is not about *vision* or *seeing*. No. # 6 tells us too much about the author. I would rather read the poems. Just looking at the shape of the two poems, however, it *feels* as if #5 is too long or too full and #6 has the traditional/modern (you got that?) look. But the content in #6, in this case, turns me against the work — a case where a personal prejudice of the judge can ruin a perfectly good poem.



on the path home
cold frost darkens
children’s ruddy cheeks

children’s cheeks
windfall apples in a sack
still the tree is huge

Here we can see an author trying to work through what s/he would probably call “a haiku moment”. By reading both the poems one gets a pretty clear picture of what it was that was found to be touching. The poem #7 sets up a very interesting riddle. Something unknown which is “on the path home” is *darkened* by frost. Most often in haiku (which stressed the light in life), frost is thought of whitening everything it touches. As one contemplates the phrase “frost darkens” the reader is forced to look at the other side of frost and to see that it does, later, cause vegetation to turn dark. So what is the answer? — “children’s ruddy cheeks”? That is not what the reader expected to read! How great! A surprise! (it wakes the reader up!). When I was at the end of line two I expected to read “tomatoes” with the sad thought of those awful black globes on the plants the next morning. How welcomed it was then, to read “children’s ruddy cheeks”. To have used the old man’s ruddy cheeks would have spoiled the joke. It seems the word “cold” is not needed. Most frost is cold enough, unless the author needed another word or two to lengthen the second line. This is known as “padding” and is a questionable procedure. It is like a hem on a dress. One needs it but if the technique shows it was not done well. Rewrite. Thus, in this round, #8 wins.



artist’s diet
how lovingly she traces
the sandwich


still asleep
everyone but bald monks
praying at dawn

The poem #2 has some of the qualities of “a binge” as above, as it speaks of the *agony* of being creative. However, here the *picture* is somewhat clearer. It is easier to *see* a woman who is very hungry, not because of poverty but from dieting, bent over the drawing board idly drawing around the sketch of a sandwich while waiting for it to be time for lunch. There are reverberations regarding the drawn image and the real thing, and the *work of art* relating to the inner needs of the artist. I would question the use of the word “lovingly” in a haiku; it tends to be judgmental and attributes an emotion which may or may not be felt by the actor in the poem. If one could find a synonym for “lovingly” which could also be applied to both drawing and eating (none come to mind at the moment, but there must be one!) the writer could bump this poem into the winners’ list. Until then #4 “still asleep” will win.



candled egg
the moon too seems full
of life


children’s ruddy cheeks
windfall apples in a sack
still the tree is huge

Both of these poems use the comparison technique. In #5 the candled egg is compared to the full moon and I wonder how many people still know what a “candled egg” is. Still, if you have ever held a fertilized egg up to the light and have seen the dark shape of the chick within, you can appreciate the comparison. The last line bothers me since “of life” is a phrase fragment. It would feel better to have “full of life” be the third line. The words “too seems” are *weak* words and “seems” as too close to “as” or “like” — the dead giveaways for English metaphor. Just to say “candled egg” and “the moon” and “full of life” are all too close. There is no mystery or leap. No. #8 has the fault of not having one grammatical stop. It has two — at the end of both the first and second lines which causes it to sound choppy. But the poem does contain a comparison and the mystery is there because of the puzzle in the third line. No #8 wins by default.



still asleep
everyone but the monks
praying at dawn

children’s ruddy cheeks
windfall apples in a sack
still the tree is huge

No. 4 contains a puzzle that results from the way the poem is written. Does it mean everyone is asleep except the monks who are praying at dawn? or does it mean all those who are asleep are praying — accepting the idea that sleep is a type of meditation? or a different kind of prayer? Would the poem work without the word “still”?

No. 8 has too many breaks. If it were possible to put a verb in this haiku that applied to “cheeks” and a sack of apples (maybe bulge?) the poem could be rescued. The idea of putting the comparisons together “ruddy cheeked children” “apples in a sack” coupled with “the tree is huge” sets up a tension the mind cannot quite comprehend but want to think about with the hope of finding an answer. That is one of the secrets of an unforgettable haiku — when the mind thinks there is a connection but cannot solve the riddle. Since neither poem is perfect, for this contest I would call it a draw.

Ready to play? Then go to http://www.ahapoetry.com/ shelgame.htm#GAME. Good luck!



Listen to a wonderful interview of Jane Reichhold, a master of haiku, about Basho (THE Master) and about her latest book on Basho. Many interesting facts about Basho are presented. All you need to do is click on the “Haiku Basho interview” below or go to http:// www.ahapoetry.com/ and look for this on the page that pops up (bottom, left side).

Listen to
Haiku Basho interview conduced by Fred Adler
on Oct. 5, 2008

ocean breezes
the white sail fills
with summer



While we’re at it, here is what I believe is the best site on the internet for short forms of poetry – technique, theory, etc.:




Did You Know?
That there was such a thing known as: POEMS Syndrome?


Polyneuropathy, organomegaly, endocrinopathy, monoclonal gammopathy, and skin changes (POEMS) syndrome is a rare multisystemic disease that occurs in the setting of a plasma cell dyscrasia. The pathophysiologic link between the constellation of symptoms and the underlying disease is not well understood, but the link may be related to changes in the levels of a cytokine or a growth factor. POEMS syndrome was first described by Crow in 1956 and then by Fukase in 1968. The syndrome was termed Crow-Fukase syndrome (by which it is known in Japan) by Nakanishi in a study of 102 cases in Japan.

In 1980, the acronym POEMS was coined by Bardwick et al based on the 5 main features of the disease, namely, polyneuropathy, organomegaly, endocrinopathy, monoclonal gammopathy, and skin changes.

No specific case definition exists for POEMS syndrome; however, most authors agree that patients with POEMS syndrome should have 3 or more of the 5 features. Some authors have proposed that the presence of 2 major criteria, including a monoclonal plasma-proliferative disorder and polyneuropathy, in addition to the existence of 1 minor criterion, is sufficient for diagnosis. The suggested minor criteria include sclerotic bone lesions, organomegaly, edema, endocrinopathy, papilledema, and skin changes. However, the findings of a retrospective analysis of 629 patients using these criteria suggest that this approach may be inadequate for excluding other disease processes that may account for symptoms and that atypical presentations of POEMS may be misdiagnosed.1, 2

The polyneuropathy associated with POEMS syndrome is a bilateral symmetric disturbance. It involves both motor and sensory nerves, begins distally, and has a progressive proximal spread. Associated cranial or autonomic nerves are not involved. Both demyelination and axonal degeneration are noted.

The liver, the lymph nodes, and the spleen are the organs most frequently involved. Enlargement of the lymph nodes and spleen is secondary to changes consistent with Castleman disease (giant angiofollicular hyperplasia, multicentric plasma cell variant) in most patients. Approximately 15% of patients with POEMS syndrome have concomitant evidence of Castleman disease. Hepatomegaly is not associated with any defined histologic or pathophysiologic changes.

Multiple endocrinopathies have been associated with POEMS syndrome, and most patients have more than 1 endocrine abnormality. Many of the abnormalities noted can be explained by elevations in estrogen levels. Impotence and gynecomastia are common among men. Amenorrhea is common among women. Diabetes mellitus and glucose intolerance are also noted in many patients. Other associated endocrinopathies include hypothyroidism, hyperprolactinemia, and hypoparathyroidism.

POEMS syndrome is seen in the setting of a plasma cell dyscrasia. Although many plasma cell disorders have been reported in patients with POEMS syndrome, most patients are seen with osteosclerotic myeloma or monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance.

The M proteins most frequently found are the immunoglobulin A (IgA)– gamma and immunoglobulin G (IgG)–gamma light chains. In a case report of one patient with POEMS syndrome,3 serum electrophoresis demonstrated an M-band with isolated IgA heavy chain but no abnormal light chain, which could suggest abnormal secretion of monoclonal protein or the rare possibility of coincidental heavy-chain disease in association with POEMS syndrome. A single case of POEMS syndrome in association with Waldenström macroglobulinemia,4 characterized by immunoglobulin M–kappa paraproteinemia, has been reported. Classic multiple myeloma has not been associated with the disease. The type of plasma cell disorder has not been shown to be correlated with the constellation of symptoms noted in patients with POEMS syndrome.

Multiple dermatologic changes have been associated with POEMS syndrome. The most common changes include hyperpigmentation, skin thickening, sclerodermoid changes, and hypertrichosis. Other skin changes, including whitening of the proximal nail (Terry nails), peripheral edema, hyperhidrosis, clubbing of the fingers, Raynaud phenomenon, and angiomas, have been observed.

Other signs and symptoms associated with POEMS syndrome include papilledema, anasarca, pleural effusions, ascites, fever, thrombosis, renal insufficiency, and diarrhea.

(So that’s PAPA FeThiRD if you’re looking for another acronym!)



‘The poem is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful.
And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see —
it is, rather, a light by which we may see —
and what we see is life.’

Poetry Quote by Robert Penn Warren


In Memoriam:

Adrian Mitchell, British Poetry’s Voice of the Left, Dies at 76

By William Grimes
Published: December 23, 2008, New York Times

Adrian Mitchell, a prolific British poet whose impassioned verse against social injustice, racism and violence was often declaimed at antiwar rallies and political demonstrations, died on Saturday in London. He was 76.

He had been hospitalized for pneumonia, which may have brought on a heart attack, said his agent, Nicki Stoddart.

Mr. Mitchell, a spiritual descendant of William Blake, Walt Whitman and Bertolt Brecht, combined ferocity, playfulness and simplicity, with a broad audience in mind, in his poetry, plays, novels, song lyrics, children’s books and adaptations for the stage. His voluminous output included white-hot tirades against the Vietnam War, rapturous nature poems, nonsense verse and children’s tales of a wooly mammoth who returns to the modern world.

“Mitchell is a joker, a lyrics writer, a word-spinner, an epigrammist, a man of passion and imagination,” the art critic and novelist John Berger once wrote. “Against the present British state, he opposes a kind of revolutionary populism, bawdiness, wit and the tenderness sometimes to be found between animals.”

Mr. Mitchell was born in London and attended private schools. In 1952, after completing his national service in the Royal Air Force, an experience that, he said, “confirmed my natural pacifism,” he enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford. His original plan to train as a teacher fell by the wayside as he was drawn into a circle of poets that included George MacBeth and A. Alvarez and became literary editor of the magazine Isis.

After leaving Oxford in 1955, Mr. Mitchell worked as a journalist for The Oxford Mail and The Evening Standard in London. He also began performing at poetry readings and taking part in left-wing political work. “I think a poet, like any other human being, should recognize that the world is mostly controlled by political forces and should become politically active too,” he told the magazine Contemporary Poets in 1991.

His early poetry, nearly all of it political, in highly structured verse forms, relied on simple, democratic language. “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people,” he wrote in the preface to his first substantial collection, “Poems” (1964). His later poetry, often loose and improvisatory, included more personal subject matter. Much of it was written for children. Poems like “To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam),” which he first read at a rally in Trafalgar Square in 1964 and has updated over the years to suit changing events, helped establish Mr. Mitchell as British poetry’s voice of the left.

The poem begins:

I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

In 2003, the socialist magazine Red Pepper anointed him Shadow Poet Laureate, an appropriate title for the author of the collections “Peace Is Milk” (1966), “Out Loud” (1968), “Love Songs of World War III” (1988 ) and “Heart on the Left” (1997).

He wrote many plays and adaptations for the stage, for adults and children. Most notably, he collaborated with Peter Brook on two productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Peter’s Weiss’s “Marat/Sade” (1964) and the antiwar play “US” (1966), for which he wrote seven song lyrics.

He also wrote “Tyger” (1971), a play about William Blake, and the song lyrics for Peter Hall’s stage version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” And he edited “Blackbird Singing” (2001), a collection of Paul McCartney’s poetry and lyrics.

At his death Mr. Mitchell had just completed three works to be published next year: “Tell Me Lies: Poems 2005-2008” (Bloodaxe Books), the children’s collection “Umpteen Poems” (Orchard Books) and “Shapeshifters” (Frances Lincoln), a retelling of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”

His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Celia Hewitt; three daughters, Briony, Sasha and Beattie; two sons, Alistair and Danny; and nine grandchildren.

In a 2005 poll conducted by the Poetry Society, Mr. Mitchell’s “Human Beings” was voted the poem that people most wanted to send into space in the hope that it would be read a century later. “It is about the joy of being human, but that doesn’t mean that it’s against animals or alien beings,” Mr. Mitchell said. “When it goes into space and it’s read by aliens, I’d hate for them to think that it’s anti-alternative life forms.”



Does anyone want to get Poetry magazine for half-price? A gift subscription is available during the holiday season, so I’m looking for someone to purchase the 2-for-1 subscription with me, essentially getting this wonderful publication for half-price. Call me if you want to go partners – Ron – 247-5913.



Linebreak is an online journal with a bias for good poetry. Here is a poem from their web site this week:

By Traci Brimhall

Traci Brimhall is the current Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds degrees from Florida State University and Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Harpur Palate, and Pebble Lake Review.

For the 141 in the Triangle Waist Shirt Factory, Union Square, 1911




Here’s a poem from Copper Canyon Press, not in its “Reading Room” (http://www.coppercanyonpress.org/) as I usually reprint in the Newsletter, but from another source. It was such a find that I felt you should read it in this space usually reserved for a Copper Canyon poem.





American Life in Poetry: Column 197


I suspect that one thing some people have against reading poems is that they are so often so serious, so devoid of joy, as if we poets spend all our time brooding about mutability and death and never having any fun. Here Cornelius Eady, who lives and teaches in Indiana, offers us a poem of pure pleasure.

A Small Moment

I walk into the bakery next door
To my apartment. They are about
To pull some sort of toast with cheese
From the oven. When I ask:
What’s that smell? I am being
A poet, I am asking

What everyone else in the shop
Wanted to ask, but somehow couldn’t;
I am speaking on behalf of two other
Customers who wanted to buy the
Name of it. I ask the woman
Behind the counter for a percentage
Of her sale. Am I flirting?
Am I happy because the days
Are longer? Here’s what

She does: She takes her time
Choosing the slices. “I am picking
Out the good ones,” she tells me. It’s
April 14th. Spring, with five to ten
Degrees to go. Some days, I feel my duty;
Some days, I love my work.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 1997 by Cornelius Eady, from his most recent book of poetry, “Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems,” A Marian Wood Book, Putnam, 2008. Reprinted by permission of Cornelius Eady. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.







If you have any books of poetry, chapbooks, or just poems written by Vermont poets, dating 1980 and earlier, famous or not, I’d like to know about them. I’m beginning a project that deals strictly with Vermont poets, from Vermont’s past, with summaries of the poets themselves, a portrait photo or drawing of the poet, along with a small sampling of poems. If you think you can help, you probably can! Please contact me.

Ronald Lewis



If you ever have a need to contact me, here’s how to go about doing so:

Ronald Lewis:
Phone: 802-247-5913
Cell: 802-779-5913
Home: 1211 Forest Dale Road, Brandon, VT 05733
Email: sshortpt@verizon.net





1) The Otter Creek Poets offer a poetry workshop every Thursday afternoon, from 1:00 to 3:00; this workshop has been meeting weekly for over 10 years. Bring a poem or follow their weekly assignments/ suggestions. For additional information, contact Ronald Lewis (see above).

2) The Spring Street Poets. By invitation only. More on this group in the future.


1) Great River Arts Institute – See details elsewhere in this newsletter

2) Poetry Workshop at Village Square Booksellers with Jim Fowler (no relation to owner Pat). The goal of this course is to introduce more people to the art of writing poetry and will include a discussion of modern poetry in various forms and styles. Each week, the course will provide time to share and discuss participant’s poetry. Students should bring a poem and copies to the first class. The course will be limited to 5 to 8 students to allow adequate time to go through everyone’s poetry contributions and will meet in the cafe at Village Square Booksellers. James Fowler, of Charlestown, New Hampshire, has a Masters Degree in Environmental Science with a major in Nature Writing. He was the editor of Heartbeat of New England, a poetry anthology. Fowler has been widely published since 1998 in such journals as Connecticut Review, Quarterly of Light Verse, and Larcom Review. Fowler is a founding member of the River Voices Writer’s Circle, and a regular reader at Village Square Booksellers-River Voices Poetry Readings. The fee for this 6 week Workshop is $100, payable to Mr. Fowler at the first class. Pre-registration for the Poetry Workshop is suggested and may be made by calling Village Square Booksellers at 802-463-9404 or by email at vsbooks@sover.net or jfowler177@comcast.net.


The Guilford Poets Guild, formed in 1998, meets twice a month to critique and support each other’s work. Their series of sponsored readings by well-known poets which began at the Dudley Farm, continues now at the Women and Family Life Center.


The Mad River Poets consists of a handful of poets from the Route 100 corridor. More on this group in the future.


There is another poetry workshop happening in Stowe, but unfortunately I know nothing much about this group. If you do, contact me!


This group meets on the first Sunday of every month at the Norwich Library, 6:30 p.m.



Scribes in the making put pen to paper as part of an open verse- writing session at the Fletcher Free Library, 235 College Street. Three consecutive Thursdays, starting January 8, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m. Free. Contact information: 862-1094.


Thinking Like a Poetry Editor: How to Be Your Own Best Critic
(“The Ossmann Method” Poetry Workshop – Crash Course)
Instructor: April Ossmann
The Writer’s Center, 58 North Main Street, White River Jct., VT 05001
Saturday, January 17th OR Saturday, February 14th
2 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Learn how to think like a poetry editor! In this workshop we’ll turn the usual workshop model on its head and not only allow the poet being critiqued to speak, but to speak first and critique their own poem, discussing correlations between the criticisms s/he has for other participants’ poems and her/his own before group discussion begins. This will offer a taste of what it means to be both poet and poetry editor, a position in which it becomes easier to objectively assess your own work; to spot dull vs. energetic syntax, generic vs. original imagery and other strengths and weaknesses you may have overlooked. It also empowers the poet in the process, and engenders an unusually positive and congenial workshop atmosphere. Participants will receive written editorial suggestions for both poems from the instructor. Pre-registration required; enrollment limited to 8. Info: (802) 333-9597 or aprilossmann@hotmail.com and www.aprilossmann.com

The Ossmann Method Poetry Workshop: Building Your Tool Kit
Instructor: April Ossmann
The Writer’s Center, 58 North Main Street, White River Jct., VT 05001
Sundays, 8 weeks, January 18th – March 8th
2 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Build or improve your poetic techniques tool kit and learn how to think like a poetry editor! In this workshop we’ll turn the usual workshop model on its head and not only allow the poet being critiqued to speak, but to speak first and critique their own poem, discussing correlations between the criticisms s/he has for other participants’ poems and her/his own before group discussion begins. This will offer a taste of what it means to be both poet and poetry editor, a position in which it becomes easier to objectively assess your own work; to spot dull vs. energetic syntax, generic vs. original imagery and other strengths and weaknesses you may have overlooked. It also empowers the poet in the process, and engenders an unusually positive and congenial workshop atmosphere. This workshop will be both critical and generative, so I will assign reading and generative exercises meant to teach or improve writing skills. Pre-registration required; enrollment limited to 8 (minimum enrollment for the course to proceed is 4). Info: (802) 333-9597 or aprilossmann@hotmail.com and www.aprilossmann.com
Note: If you know of any others, or have personal information about the workshop in Stowe and Guilford, please send me that information. I realize that there are several smaller groups or workshops around the state. However, because of their intimacy, they are not posted above, allowing them to offer “memberships” to close friends or acquaintances that they feel would be most appropriate.





The Writer’s Center is for serious writers and nervous beginners. It’s for procrastinators who could benefit from regular deadlines – and for the prolific who could benefit from quality feedback. It’s for anyone with a manuscript hidden in a drawer, or a life story or poem waiting to be written. It’s for people who don’t know where to start or how to end. And for writers who are doing just fine on their own, but would like the company of other writers. The Writer’s Center is for anyone who is writing or wants to write. One of the Center’s consultants is April Ossman (www.aprilossmann.com). Founded by Joni B. Cole and Sarah Stewart Taylor, the Writer’s Center offers instruction and inspiration through a selection of workshops, discussions, and community. We would love to see you – and your writing – at The Writer’s Center! For more info, http:// www.thewriterscenterwrj.com/.


Women Writing for (a) Change supports the authentic experience of women who honor themselves through creative writing. Our community supports reflection as we move into our questions and awaken to change. Participants enhance expressive skills, strengthen their voices, deepen themselves as women as writers for positive change in all spheres of life. Creative writing in all genres is our shared vehicle. Women Writing for (a) Change is for women who, 1) dream of writing for self-discovery, for personal or social healing, 2) hunger for creative process in their lives, 3) yearn to explore their feminine voice, 4) crave reflective, space, and 5) are in transition. For more information, go to their web site at www.womenwritingVT.com/ or contact Sarah Bartlett at either 899-3772 or sarah@womenwritingvt.com.




Below please find the most current list of poetry happenings in Vermont for the near future. Please be aware that these events can be found on Poetz.com, but there is usually additional information that is typed here that would be cumbersome to place on Poetz.com. Please note all events are Vermont-based unless they are of extreme importance or happen to lie just outside our borders. If you would like to save on paper and ink, please just highlight what you need, or perhaps only events for the coming month, and print that information.


Thu, Jan 8: Salisbury Library, Salisbury, 3:30 p.m. – 4:45 p.m. Children’s poetry workshop in Middlebury. Children’s poet Ted Scheu will share some of his own fun and funny poems and then lead children in writing their own poetry, reminiscent of Robert Frost’s. Info: 388-4014.

Sat, Jan 10: Village Square Booksellers, Bellows Falls, 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. Open Mic Poetry Reading. Hear local poets from the River Voices. Bring your own original work to share or read from a favorite author. Listen to poetry. Contact to participate as a reader or let them know that you’ll be attending as a listener. For info, 463-9404.

Mon, Jan 12: Grafton Library, Main Street, Grafton, 7:00 p.m. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. First of three-part book discussion series led by Dr. Deborah Luskin from the Vermont Humanities Council. For info, Linda Montecalvo at 843-1444.

Wed, Jan 14: Howe Library, Mayer Room, Hanover, NH. Reception and book signing by the authors of the literary magazine, Bloodroot. Bloodroot Literary Magazine is a nonprofit publication released each December. Their mission is to provide a journal of high production values and quality material by established and emerging authors. The 2009 issue of Bloodroot features cover art by Christy Hale and poems, short stories and creative nonfiction by 28 outstanding authors, many of them familiar names here in Vermont – Regina Brault, Carol Milkuhn and Nancy Means Wright. The book is scheduled to be out and about in mid-December 2008.

Wed, Jan 14: Kellogg-Hubbard Library, Hayes Room, 135 Main Street, Montpelier, 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. Why I Love Mountains and Rivers. Poet and translator David Hinton will speak on his passion for mountains and rivers. His new book, Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, will be available for purchase and signing. For info, 223-3338, www.whyilovewhatilove.com.

Fri, Jan 16: Outer Space Café in the Flynndog Gallery, 208 Flynn Avenue, Burlington, 7:00 p.m. Poet’s Night. First of this year’s series.

Tue, Jan 20: Bear Pond Books, 77 Main Street, Montpelier, 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. Charles Barasch. Celebrate Inauguration Week with UVM linguistics teacher and the Plainfield town moderator, Charles Barasch, who will present Dreams of the Presidents, a collection of dream poems – one for each American president. Humorous, and laced with events of historical interest, each poem gives insight into the presidents’ lives. This book offers a well-timed look at politicians, as well some much-needed laughs. For info, 229-1069.

Wed, Jan 21: Robert Hull Fleming Museum, UVM Campus, 61 Colchester Avenue, Burlington, 6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. Art and Poetry: The Painted Word featuring poets Myronn Hardy and Matthew Miller. The Robert Hull Fleming Museum presents a poetry series hosted by Major Jackson, associate professor in the University of Vermont’s Department of English. This reading series highlights established and emergent New England poets whose work represents significant explorations into language, song, and art. Info, http://www.uvm.edu/~fleming/.

Co-sponsored with the English Department and funded in part by the James and Mary Buckham Fund.

Thu, Jan 22: Vermont Humanities Council, 11 Loomis Street, Montpelier, 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. “You Come, Too”: Winter with Robert Frost. Robert Frost’s poetry is known, among other things, for its ability to evoke the seasons of New England in all their complexity. Join Peter Gilbert, the Vermont Humanities Council’s executive director and the executor of Frost’s estate, in reading and discussing some of Frost’s winter poems. Participants are invited to either read the poems in advance or upon arriving. Refreshments served; free. RSVPs are encouraged at 802.262.2626 x307. Walk-ins welcome.

Thu, Jan 22: Briggs Carriage Bookstore, 16 Park Street, Brandon, 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. Charles Barasch. Celebrate Inauguration Week with UVM linguistics teacher and the Plainfield town moderator, Charles Barasch, who will present Dreams of the Presidents, a collection of dream poems – one for each American president. Humorous, and laced with events of historical interest, each poem gives insight into the presidents’ lives. This book offers a well-timed look at politicians, as well some much-needed laughs. For info, Peter Marsh at 247-0050.

Sun, Jan 25: Red Hen Baking Company & Café, Route 2, Middlesex Village, 6:30 p.m. Poetry reading. Celebrate Robert Burns’ 250th birthday with our own Scottish Poet Len Irving! Come and read poetry – your own or your favorites – or listen to others. Info, Earline Marsh at 223-6777. (Red Hen readings are quarterly).

Mon, Jan 26: Grafton Library, Main Street, Grafton, 7:00 p.m. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. Second of three-part book discussion series led by Dr. Deborah Luskin from the Vermont Humanities Council. For info, Linda Montecalvo at 843-1444.

Mon, Jan 26: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Eileen Myles to read. Of Sorry, Tree Eileen Myles most recent volume Chicago Review says: “Her politics are overt, her physicality raw, yet it is the subtle gentle noticing in her poems that overwhelms.” Eileen Myles is among the ranks of the officially restless, a poet who writes fiction (Chelsea Girls, Cool for You) an art writer and journalist whose essays and reviews have appeared in Art Forum, and Book Forum, The Believer, Parkett, The Nation and a libretticist whose opera “Hell” (w composer Michael Webster) was performed on both coasts in 2004 and again in 2006. Her first full collection of nonfiction writings, The Importance of Being Iceland, for which she received a Warhol/Creative Capital grant will come out in spring 09 from Semiotext(e)/MIT.

Thu, Feb 5: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Cleopatra Mathis to read. Cleopatra Mathis was born and raised in Ruston, Louisiana. Her first five books of poems were published by Sheep Meadow Press. A sixth collection, White Sea, was published by Sarabande Books in 2005. Her work has appeared widely in anthologies, textbooks, magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tri-Quarterly, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, The Extraordinary Tide: Poetry by American Women, and The Practice of Poetry. Various prizes for her work include two National Endowment for the Arts grants, in 1984 and 2003; the Jane Kenyon Award for Outstanding Book of Poems in 2001; the Peter Lavin Award for Younger Poets from the Academy of American Poets; two Pushcart Prizes (1980 and 2006); The Robert Frost Resident Poet Award; a 1981-82 Fellowship in Poetry at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts; The May Sarton Award; and Individual Artist Fellowships in Poetry from both the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the New Jersey State Arts Council. She is the Frederick Sessions Beebe Professor of the Art of Writing at Dartmouth College, where she has directed the Creative Writing Program since 1982.

Fri, Feb 6: Firehouse Gallery, 135 Church Street, Burlington, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m. Poetry Reading and Drumming. As part of the Burlington Art Walk, poet and artist Terry Hauptman will provide a poetry reading accompanied by Jerry Geier’s drumming on his sculptural slit drums will entertain all. While you’re at the Firehouse Gallery, you can visit these two artists’ exhibits, titled Veiled Lineage. It features two Vermont artists investigating concepts of ancestry, heritage and tradition; using sculpture, painting, and installation. Jerry Geier’s assembly of sculptures, or totems, feature carved faces of wood and clay derived from indigenous and modern societies. The totems are hollowed and act as functional drums. Terry Hauptman’s Songline Scrolls feature colorful multi-cultural processions on wall-sized scrolls of paper. These scrolls are a metaphor for life, representing a continual unfolding revelation of change and celebration. In this 400th anniversary of European arrival in the Champlain Valley, this exhibit highlights our evolving notions of cultural and spiritual identity, and exposes the paradox of searching for meaning in the very same cultures that were supplanted by our own colonialist history.

Mon, Feb 9: Grafton Library, Main Street, Grafton, 7:00 p.m. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. Third of three-part book discussion series led by Dr. Deborah Luskin from the Vermont Humanities Council. For info, Linda Montecalvo at 843-1444.

Sun, Feb 15: Warming hut log cabin at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, 54 Elm Street, Woodstock, 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Winter Readings in the National Park. Join a park ranger in sharing short stories and poetry about winter at the ski shelter warming cabin. Bring your own stories and poetry to share or just listen to others readings while enjoying the warmth of the cabin’s woodstove. Hot chocolate will be provided. Cost: $5.00 trail pass from the Woodstock Inn & Resort Nordic Center. For info, Tim Maguire at 457-3368 X22 or Tim_maguire@nps.gov.

Wed, Feb 18: Vermont Humanities Council, 11 Loomis Street, Montpelier, 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. “You Come, Too”: Winter with Robert Frost. Robert Frost’s poetry is known, among other things, for its ability to evoke the seasons of New England in all their complexity. Join Peter Gilbert, the Vermont Humanities Council’s executive director and the executor of Frost’s estate, in reading and discussing some of Frost’s winter poems. Participants are invited to either read the poems in advance or upon arriving. Refreshments served; free. RSVPs are encouraged at 802.262.2626 x307. Walk-ins welcome.

Mon, Feb 23: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Michael Waters to read. Michael Waters’ eight books of poetry include Darling Vulgarity (2006—finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize), Parthenopi: New and Selected Poems (2001), and Green Ash, Red Maple, Black Gum (1997) from BOA Editions, and Bountiful (1992), The Burden Lifters (1989), and Anniversary of the Air (1985) from Carnegie Mellon UP. His several edited volumes include Contemporary American Poetry (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) and Perfect in Their Art: Poems on Boxing from Homer to Ali (Southern Illinois UP, 2003). In 2004 he chaired the poetry panel for the National Book Award. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Foundation, Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, and four Pushcart Prizes, he teaches at Monmouth University in New Jersey and in the Drew University MFA Program.

Wed, Feb 25: Peabody Library, Route 113, Post Mills. Reception and book signing by the authors of the literary magazine, Bloodroot. Bloodroot Literary Magazine is a nonprofit publication released each December. Their mission is to provide a journal of high production values and quality material by established and emerging authors. The 2009 issue of Bloodroot features cover art by Christy Hale and poems, short stories and creative nonfiction by 28 outstanding authors, many of them familiar names here in Vermont – Regina Brault, Carol Milkuhn and Nancy Means Wright. The book is scheduled to be out and about in mid-December 2008.

Sun, Mar 8: Warming hut log cabin at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, 54 Elm Street, Woodstock, 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Winter Readings in the National Park. Join a park ranger in sharing short stories and poetry about winter at the ski shelter warming cabin. Bring your own stories and poetry to share or just listen to others readings while enjoying the warmth of the cabin’s woodstove. Hot chocolate will be provided. Cost: $5.00 trail pass from the Woodstock Inn & Resort Nordic Center. For info, Tim Maguire at 457-3368 X22 or Tim_maguire@nps.gov.

Sun, Mar 9: Plymouth State University, Smith Recital Hall, Johnson, NH, 7:00 p.m. Poet C.D. Wright. 2008 – 2009 Eagle Pond Author’s Series. A compelling and idiosyncratic poet, C.D. Wright has twelve collections including Rising, Falling, Hovering (2008), a weaving of deeply personal and politically ferocious poems; Deepstep Come Shining and Cooling Time. Her collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana was awarded the Dorothea Lange-Paul Tayor Prize. Her new and selected poems Steal Away was on the shortlist for the Griffin Trust Award. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is the Israel J. Kapstein Professor at Brown University. Free. (603) 535-5000 to reserve spaces.

Thu, Apr 2: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Rosanna Warren to read. Rosanna Warren was born in Connecticut in 1953. She was educated at Yale (BA 1976) and Johns Hopkins (MA 1980). She is the author of one chapbook of poems (Snow Day, Palaemon Press, 1981), and three collections of poems: Each Leaf Shines Separate (Norton, 1984), Stained Glass (Norton, 1993, Lamont Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets), and Departure (Norton, 2003). She edited and contributed to The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field (Northeastern, 1989), and has edited three chapbooks of poetry by prisoners. She has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, ACLS, The Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Lila Wallace Readers’ Digest Fund, among others. She has won the Witter Bynner Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Lavan Younger Poets’ Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the Award of Merit in Poetry from The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004. She is Emma MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities at Boston University.

Sun, Apr 5: Plymouth State University, Smith Recital Hall, Johnson, NH, 7:00 p.m. Poet Wesley McNair. 2008 – 2009 Eagle Pond Author’s Series. Wesley McNair is the recipient of fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright, and Guggenheim Foundations and a United States Artists Fellowship to “America’s finest living artists.” Other honors include the Robert Frost Prize; the Jane Kenyon Award for Outstanding Book of Poetry (for Fire); the Theodore Roethke prize from Poetry Northwest; the Pushcart Prize and the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal. McNair is currently Professor Emeritus and Writer in Residence at the University of Maine at Farmington. Free. (603) 535-5000 to reserve spaces.

Mon, Apr 20: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Eric Pankey to read. Eric Pankey is the author of six books of poetry: Reliquaries, Cenotaph, The Late Romances, Apocrypha, Heartwood and For the New Year. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a NEA Fellowship, the Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award, and an Ingram Merrill Grant. His work has appeared in many journals, including Partisan Review, The New Yorker, Triquarterly, DoubleTake and The New England Review. He teaches at George Mason University and lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

Thu, Apr 23: Middlebury College, Robert A. Jones ’59 Conference Room, 4:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. A talk by Adina Hoffman, on her new book, My Happiness Bears no Relation to Happiness: Poet Taha Muhammad Ali and the Palestinian Century, (Yale University Press), the first biography of a Palestinian poet, and the first portrayal of Palestinian literature and culture in the 20th Century. Sponsored by the Program in Jewish Studies, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Middle East Studies Program. For info, 443-5151, E-mail: schine@middlebury.edu.

Thu, May 14: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Michael Harper to read. Michael S. Harper was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1938. He earned a B.A. and M.A. from what is now known as California State University, and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He has taught at Brown since 1970. Harper has published more than 10 books of poetry, most recently Selected Poems (ARC Publications, 2002); Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (2000); Honorable Amendments (1995); and Healing Song for the Inner Ear (1985). A new poetry collection, Use Trouble, is forthcoming in fall 2008 from The University of Illinois Press. His other collections include Images of Kin (1977), which won the Melville-Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America and was nominated for the National Book Award; Nightmare Begins Responsibility (1975); History Is Your Heartbeat (1971), which won the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award for poetry; and Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970), which was nominated for the National Book Award. Harper edited the Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (1980); he is co-editor with Anthony Walton of The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (2000) and Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945 (1994), and with Robert B. Stepto of Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (1979). Harper was the first poet laureate of Rhode Island (1988-1993) and has received many other honors, including a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Award. Harper is also a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, an American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, and the recipient of numerous distinctions, including the Robert Hayden Poetry Award from the United Negro College Fund, the Melville-Cane Award, the Claiborne Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award.

Mon, Jun 1: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Eamon Grennan to read. Eamon Grennan was born in Dublin in 1941 and educated at UCD, where he studied English and Italian, and Harvard, where he received his PhD in English. His volumes of poetry include What Light There Is & Other Poems, (North Point Press, 1989), Wildly for Days (1983), What Light There Is (1987), As If It Matters (1991), So It Goes (1995), Selected and New Poems (2000) and Still Life with Waterfall (2001). His latest collection, The Quick of It, appeared in 2004 in Ireland, and in Spring 2005 in America. His books of poetry are published in the United States by Graywolf Press, and in Ireland by Gallery Press. Other publications include Leopardi: Selected Poems (Princeton 1997), and Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the 20th Century, a collection of essays on modern Irish poetry. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in many magazines both in Ireland and the US. Grennan has given lectures and workshops in colleges and universities in the US, including courses for the graduate programs in Columbia and NYU. During 2002 he was the Heimbold Professor of Irish Studies at Villanova University. His grants and prizes in the United States include awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Leopardi: Selected Poems received the 1997 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and Still Life with Waterfall was the recipient of the 2003 Lenore Marshall Award for Poetry from the American Academy of Poets. His poems have been awarded a number of Pushcart prizes. Grennan has taught since 1974 at Vassar College where he is the Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Professor of English.

Thu, Jul 9: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Michael Ryan to read. Michael Ryan has published three collections of poetry, including In Winter, Threats Instead of Trees, has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and God Hunger, as well as A Difficult Grace: On Poets, Poetry, and Writing, and the memoir Secret Life. His work has appeared in Antaeus, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, New Republic, and elsewhere. Ryan has been honored by the Lenore Marshall Prize, a Whiting Writers Award, the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and a Guggenheim. Ryan is Professor of English and Creative Writing at UC, Irvine.

Mon, Jul 27: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Doreen Gilroy to read. Doreen Gilroy’s first book, The Little Field of Self (The University of Chicago Press, 2002), won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares. Her second book, Human Love, was published by the University of Chicago Press in October 2005. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Slate, TriQuarterly and many other magazines.

Mon, Aug 17: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Cole Swensen to read. Cole Swensen is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver. She is the author of five collections of poems, including Try (University of Iowa Press, 1999), winner of the 1998 Poetry Prize; Noon (Sun and Moon Press, 1997), which won a New American Writing Award; and Numen (Burning Deck Press, 1995) which was nominated for the PEN West Award in Poetry. Her translations include Art Poetic’ by Olivier Cadiot (Sun & Moon Press, Green Integer Series, 1999) and Natural Gaits by Pierre Alferi (Sun & Moon, 1995). She splits her time among Denver, San Francisco and Paris.

Thu, Sep 3: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Marge Piercy to read. Marge Piercy has published 17 books of poetry, including What Are Big Girls Made Of, Colors Passing Through Us, and most recently her 17th volume, The Crooked Inheiritance, all from Knopf. She has written 17 novels, most recently SEX WARS in Perennial paperback now. Her memoir Sleeping With Cats is also in Harper Collins Perennial. Last spring, Schocken published Pesach for the Rest of Us. Her work has been translated into 16 languages. Her CD Louder We Can’t Hear You Yet contains her political and feminist poems. She has been an editor of Leapfrog Press for the last ten years and also poetry editor of Lilith.

Thu, Oct 1: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Pattiann Rogers to read. Pattiann Rogers has published ten books of poetry, a book-length essay, The Dream of the Marsh Wren, and A Covenant of Seasons, poems and monotypes, in collaboration with the artist Joellyn Duesberry. Her 11th book of poetry, Wayfare, will appear from Penguin in April, 2008. Rogers is the recipient of two NEA Grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2005 Literary Award in Poetry from the Lannan Foundation, and five Pushcart Prizes. In the spring of 2000 she was in residence at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. Her papers are archived in the Sowell Family Collection of Literature, Community and the Natural World at Texas Tech University. She has taught as a visiting professor at various universities, including the Universities of Texas, Arkansas, and Montana, Houston University, and Washingon University. She is currently on the faculty of Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. Rogers has two sons and three grandsons and lives with her husband in Colorado.

Tue, Oct 20: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Major Jackson to read. “Jackson knows the truth of black magic. It is a magic as simple as the belief in humanity that subverts racism, or the esoteric and mystical magic of making jazz, the music of hope and love.” —Aafa Weaver. Major Jackson is the author of two collections of poetry, Hoops (Norton: 2006), a finalist for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry. and Leaving Saturn (University of Georgia: 2002), winner of the 2000 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Poems by Major Jackson have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Boulevard, Callaloo, Post Road, Triquarterly, The New Yorker, among other literary journals and anthologies. He is a recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and has been honored by the Pew Fellowship in the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress. He has received critical attention in The Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Parnassus, Philadelphia Inquirer, and on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Jackson is an Associate Professor of English at University of Vermont and a faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars. In 2006-2007, he was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

Tue, Nov 17: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet Sebastian Matthews to read. Sebastian Matthews is the author of the poetry collection We Generous (Red Hen Press) and a memoir, In My Father’s Footsteps (W. W. Norton). He co-edited, with Stanley Plumly, Search Party: Collected Poem s of William Matthews. Matthews teaches at Warren Wilson College and serves on the faculty at Queens College Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing. His poetry and prose has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Georgia Review, New England, Review, Poetry Daily, Poets & Writers, Seneca Review, The Sun, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review and The Writer’s Almanac, among others. Matthews co-edits Rivendell, a place-based literary journal, and serves as poetry consultant for Ecotone:
Re-Imagining Place.


Mon, Feb 22: Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, exact time not yet determined. Poet David Shapiro to read. David Shapiro (born January 2, 1947) is an American poet, literary critic, and art historian and . Shapiro has written some twenty volumes of poetry, literary, and art criticism. He was first published at the age of thirteen, and his first book was published at the age of eighteen. Shapiro has taught at Columbia, Bard College, Cooper Union, Princeton University, and William Paterson University. He wrote the first monograph on John Ashbery, the first book on Jim Dine’s paintings, the first book on Piet Mondrian’s flower studies, and the first book on Jasper Johns’ drawings. He has translated Rafael Alberti’s poems on Pablo Picasso, and the writings of the Sonia and Robert Delaunay. Shapiro has won National Endowment for the HumanitiesNational Endowment for the Arts fellowships, been nominated for a National Book Award, and been the recipient of numerous grants for his work. Shapiro lives in Riverdale, The Bronx, New York City, with his wife and son.

Again, if you become aware of an event that isn’t posted above, please let me know. My apologies if I have left off anything of importance to any of you, but it can always be corrected in the next Vermont Poetry Newsletter.

That’s about it for now. Again, keep your eyes peeled for poetry events. I hope this email finds you all with good health and sharp pencils.

Your fellow Poet,

Ron Lewis

About Haiku

  • June 29 2009 More tweaking & more updating.
  • June 12 2009 Tweaked and edited.
  • March 22 2013 Several sections expanded. Metaphor and simile discussed.
  • November 29 2015 Discussion of Hokku vs. Haiku expanded.
  • May 27 2016 Minor edits and more typos corrected

It’s tempting to start with the history of haiku, but there are better historians and a perfectly good article at Wikipedia (if you want to read some history online).

Another site I would strongly recommend offers a variety of online articles by Jane Reichhold – someone who has lived the haiku life. She recently published a complete translation of Basho’s haiku and I reviewed her book in an earlier post. She has graciously given me permission to repost her list of techniques here. She’s also starting her own blog and when I know the address, I will provide a link.

Another excellent site, Mushimegane,  provides samplings of haiku by ten Japanese poets – the site offers a smattering of haiku by the older Japanese poets the west is mostly familiar with – Basho, Buson – and the rest are 20th Century practitioners. The tradition of haiku is alive and well in Japan, and the site relates some of the heated aesthetic controversies that still swirl around the form- proving it’s still worth fighting over.

The best that I can do, I think, is to share how I read and enjoy haiku – and what I look for.

The Shape of Haiku

Many sites, including Wikipedia, will state that Japanese haiku are “traditionally” written in single vertical lines. Far be it for me to dispute this. However, in the two examples I am posting here, Basho & Issa have *not* written their haiku in single vertical lines but have written them in three lines. Both are written vertically. If only from this evidence, by two of Japan’s greatest practitioners, one can at least reason that the Japanese saw the haiku as being  a tripartite form. Cutting words (words that, roughly like English punctuation marks, designate a break in thought or verse) also typically reinforce the tripartite structure of the haiku.

I have tried to find examples online but couldn’t, so I copied these illustrations from one of R.H. Byth’s books on haiku – Haiku: Volume 4 Autumn-Winter.


I have “highlighted”, with rectangles, the haiku as written on the painting. Here is the same haiku written vertically so that, if you’re like me, you can try to match the Kanji to the actual words and translation.


And here is a haiku by Issa.


And here is the same haiku written horizontally:


Even if you can’t read Japanese, you can follow the Kanji and see the the haiku is written in three lines, vertically, right to left. The bottom line: the haiku’s presentation wasn’t written in stone, being as much art as science; but the tripartite form of the haiku is an established characteristic of the haiku.

The Shape of Haiku in English

English poets wishing to write haiku in English recognized the poem’s tripartite form and so, mirroring this, most English language poets write haiku in three lines. And that’s where most agreement ends. Up until the mid-seventies, the overwhelming opinion was that an English language haiku should be written as follows:

5 syllables/
7 syllables/
5 syllables

Why? The Japanese count what are called on. Five in the first line, seven in the second, five in the third – 5/7/5. The Japanese “on” has traditionally been considered a parallel to the syllable in the English language. But it’s not. Here is how Wikipedia explains the difference:

“The word ‘on’ is often translated as “syllable”, but there are subtle differences between an ‘on’ and an English-language “syllable”… One on is counted for a short syllable, an additional one for an elongated vowel, diphthong, or doubled consonant, and one for an “n” at the end of a syllable. Thus, the word “haibun”, though two syllables in English, is counted as four on in Japanese (ha-i-bu-n).”

This means that any given word in Japanese will have more Japanese “syllables” than an equivalent word in English.  The fact that writing 5/7/5 poems in English isn’t equivalent to the Japanese system is revealed, tellingly, by translators who try to retain the 5/7/5 syllable count in English. The haiku tend to feel wordy and the translator is nearly always forced to introduce “filler” words that are not in the Japanese. Here, for example, is Basho’s most famous haiku:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

Notice the 5/7/5 “syllable” count. Now watch what happens when a translator tries to preserve this “count” in English (translated byEli Siegel):

Pond, there, still and old!
A frog has jumped from the shore.
The splash can be heard.

Another (Translated by Earl Miner & Hiroko Odagiri):

The old pond is still
a frog leaps right into it
splashing the water

Not only do the translators miss the sense switching that is essential to understanding the genius of the poem (the frog jumped into the sound of water, not the water), but they are forced to add all kinds of words and meanings that aren’t in the original. Here is a recent translation by Jane Reichhold:


old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water.

Reichhold’s translation comes closest to the original in my judgement. Here is the original with a literal translation (notice the cutting words ya & no – for which there is no equivalent in English:

furuike | ya | kawazu | tobikomu | mizo | no |oto
old-pond |: | frog | jump-in | water | sound

So, at least by these standards, writing 5/7/5 haiku in English can’t really be considered an equivalent to the Japanese 5/7/5 on. After all, notice that the Japanese treat cutting words, which in some cases are essentially punctuation marks, as syllables. When is the last time an exclamation point or colon was counted as a syllable in English? So… the 5/7/5 stricture is useful, inasmuch as it provides a form or scaffold on which to build a haiku, but it requires too many words in English to really capture the spirit of the Japanese haiku – at least  as the Japanese read it in their own language.

Note: The late William J Higginson, who has increasingly seemed, to me, to be the most informed and knowledgeable western scholar, had this to say of Riechhold’s term “sense switching”:  It would have been better had Reichhold identified logic, rather than the senses, as being scrambled here, and unfortunately she wrongly classifies this as an example of synesthesia (taking one sensation as if perceived by a different sensory mode, such as “colors of music” or “sweet pain”). Her version of Bashô’s poem, however, comes far closer to the original than most translations, and the “mind puzzle” certainly does exist in the original, though it fails to show up in most of those other translations.

A more equivalent form, in my view (and I don’t take credit for this), is to write English haiku on an accentual basis rather than a syllabic one. So, the form would look like this:

2 stresses/
3 stresses/
2 stresses

Reichhold’s translation, as it so happens, falls into this accentual 2/3/2 form. I don’t think it’s intentional since many of her other translations do not, but I think it indicates that this accentual method is a closer approximation to the spirit of the original.


A third alternative is to ignore any kind of form whatsoever, which is what I do. Since English language haiku will never truly be the equivalent of Japanese haiku (because the English language will never be the equivalent of the Japanese language) I’m content to strive for the spirit of the form – the ku. My impression is that this is what most modern English language poets do. It has also been my impression that most translators no longer bother with the older 5/7/5 syllable count. But there are exceptions: Donald Keene’s recent translation of Basho’s The Narrow Road to Oku is a case in point. He retains the 5/7/5 syllable count and his translations are beautiful though not always “faithful”. He is forced to introduce words & meanings that are not in the original (and I can only judge this if kanji is provided) – though his additions might match the tenor and reinforce certain aspects of the haiku (allowing that the reader accepts his interpretations).

As for me, I have read Sato’s very faithful translation of the same work, Narrow Road. Sato translates Basho’s haiku as a single line in English but his translations lack a sense of poetry. So, I keep Keene’s translation right next to me reasoning that somewhere in between their translations, something of the original Japanese can  be felt.

Bottom line: You will come across forceful arguments for all three methods. None of them is right. It’s up to you to decide which form works for you. I personally prefer brevity and as little interpretation as possible. I like to get as close to the literal words of the original as possible. But that’s just me.

Hokku & Haiku: Forceful arguments are not limited to form. A very good site strongly argues that since haiku was a term initiated by the Japanese Poet Shiki (1867-1902), it should not be retroactively applied to poems written before him (as I have done). Note:The original link was apparently removed by the blogger at the Hokku site, and so I’ve linked to the site in general. These poems, the argument goes, should be called hokku – haiku and hokku representing two diverse principles and aesthetics. According to this argument: Hokku (traditional haiku) concern themselves with nature  and the cycle of nature as it reveals us to ourselves and our oneness with nature. “Haiku”, on the other hand, are primarily 20th Century diversions that can be altogether unrelated to nature, to hokku (traditional haiku), and to anything that would have been written or understood by Japanese poets prior to the 20th Century. If one accepts this assertion, then this post should be called “About Hokku”, and not “About Haiku”. And, if one accepts this assertion, many (if not most) of the three line poems written by modern poets and bloggers are not, in fact, haiku. Wikipedia also offers a brief entry on this subject.

November 29th 2015: I’ve recently been reading an excellent translation of Basho’s haiku by David Landis Barnhill — the best in my opinion. Haikai referred both to haikai no renga, a comic linked verse form (linked in the sense that it was comprised of alternating stanzas 5-7-5, 7-7, 5-7-5, 7-7, etc…) and the more general aesthetic aims of the form—cultivating both “earthy humor and spiritual depth”. Barnhill allows that we might more accurately refer to Basho as a master of haikai poetry.  Hokku historically referred to the first stanza (5-7-5) of the classical renga or its haikai form. As for the distinction between Haiku and Hokku, Barnhill sensibly writes:

“[Haiku] is a modern word. It was popularized by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), the first great modern haiku poet, as a way to distinguish his type of verse from its antecedents, haikai and hokku. In partiular, Shiki emphasized that a haiku is a completely independent poem, not part of a linked-verse. During most of the twentieth century Western scholars and translators used the term haiku for both modern haiku and postmodern hokku, and haiku has thus come to be the generally accepted term in the West for both premodern and modern forms. In addition, Basho’s hokku now function in modern culture (both in Japan and the West) the same way Shiki’s haiku does, as independent verses.” [Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, p. 4]

As a final parting thought on form in English Haiku, consider this passage from The Haiku Handbook by the late William J. Higginson:

“As a result of this study [in which Higginson timed how long the Japanese took to read or perform Haiku) I concluded that an English-language translation of a typical haiku should have from ten to twelve syllables in order to simulate the duration of the original.

A well known translator of Japanese poetry, Hiroaki Sato, has also concluded that his haiku translations “must come to about… 12 syllables in the case of those written in the orthodox 5-7-5”. Maeda Cana, a scholar who has made an extensive study of quantity in Japanese and English poems, has worked very hard at duplicating the durations and rhythmical patterns of Japanese haiku in her English translations. Her translations average just under twelve syllables each, I find it significant that two other translators agree with the finding which I independently arrived at: Approximately 12 English syllables best duplicates the length of Japanese haiku in the traditional form of seventeen onji.

The simplistic notion of 17 syllable haiku has obscured another important feature of traditional haiku form in the west. Most traditional haiku have a kireji, or “cutting word”. The kireji usually divides the stanza into two rhythmical parts, one of 12 onji and the other of five. The kireji is a sort of sounded, rather than merely written, punctuation. It indicates a pause, both rhythmically and grammatically. Some kireji also lend a particular emotional flavor to the five [roughly like an exclamation point]…

The starting verse of a renga also had to leave room for an additonal thought, to be added in the next verse [haiku partly originated as the starting verse of a renga]. Often the starting verse was grammatically incomplete. The tendency toward grammatical incompleteness carried over into haiku–as either incomplete sentences or very clipped, almost telegraphic speech. This allows haiku poets to concentrate on image-making words as they omit much of the complex grammar that occurs in everyday conversational Japanese.” [p. 102]

The Seasons of Haiku ~ Kigo

All haiku are traditionally written with one of the four seasons explicitly in mind. (The observation of nature and seasonal cycles is what separates traditional haiku (or Hokku), in the minds of many scholars, from modern haiku.) In many cases, the seasonal clues are explicit enough that even a western reader, with just a little experience, can recognize the Kigo (season word).

the snow on my hut
Melted away
In a clumsy manner.

~Issa [Snow melts in the spring.]

tilling the field;
my house also is seen
as evening falls

~ Buson [Fields are tilled in the spring – tilling would be the kigo.]

on the lotus leaf
the dew of this world
is distorted

~ Issa [The kigo would be lotus leaf – summer.]

the cool breeze
fills the emptiness of heaven
with the voice of pine trees

~ Onitsura [The kigo would be cool breeze – summer.]

the flying leaves
in the field at the front
entice the cat

yosa_buson~ Issa [The kigo would be flying leaves – autumn.]

the sparrows are flying
from scarecrow
to scarecrow

~ Sazanami [The kigo would be scarecrow – autumn.]

after killing the spider,
a lonely
cold night

~ Shiki [The kigo would be cold – winter.]

a camellia –
it falls into the dark
of an old well

~ Buson [The kigo would be camellia – winter.]

In large part, the poets will also simply state the season.

summer grasses
all that remain
of the warriors’ dreams

~ Basho

Although Kigo may seem mysterious at first, one does begin to recognize them (especially if the translator has been kind enough to organize the haiku by season). After a little experience, one even begins to enjoy ferreting out the haiku’s season and which word or image is meant to signify the season.

How to Read Haiku

First, although Basho is considered Japan’s greatest poets and although he wrote over a thousand haiku, even a devout partisan of haiku like R.H. Blyth stated that, really, only about a hundred of them were truly great. Shiki also famously made the same claim. The same could be said, more or less, for Buson, Issa, Shikki. Don’t read haiku expecting every haiku to be a masterpiece. Don’t blame yourself if you find yourself asking: Just what is so great about this little blip? It’s possible that, in fact, there isn’t anything great about it. haiku are like all the things we do. Some burn with a brilliant white light, others glow warmly and others, well, they sputter out in a little poof of ash & soot.  Then there’s taste. Even the Japanese cannot agree on which haiku are great and which are not. Some consider Basho’s “greatest” poem, Old Pond, to be nothing but a trite piece of fluff.

So it goes.

Second, although some critics seem to wrap haiku in a veil of mystery and Zen ineffability, the Japanese have ten toes like us, breath the same air, and did not evolve on a different planet. For the most part, they write, understand and read poetry just like we do. The techniques they use in haiku are, for the most part, identical to the techniques in our own poetry because they are, in fact, homo sapiens like us.  There are differences, obviously, but they are more reflective of poetic philosophy and emphasis. One does not have to master Zen to understand or appreciate haiku.( That whole line of thinking is overblown.)

However, like the game of GO, which is a game much older than Chess, originating in China and perfected in Japan, the rules of haiku are easy to learn but take a lifetime to master.

But the rules are simple.

Nearly every haiku is an attempt make us consider ordinary experiences in a poetic and extra-ordinary way (thus, the haiku’s resemblance to the experience of oneness, satori, the sudden and abrupt moment of enlightenment – the Ah-Ha! moment). Some two hundred years ago, on a warm spring day, a poet named Issa saw that as the snow was melting, the children came out to play in the warmer weather. This is an ordinary thing to see on an ordinary day in spring. The snow melts. There is nothing extraordinary about melting snow. In every part of the world where the snow comes and goes, men and women have seen the same thing. But one day, Issa, a self-deprecating Japanese poet, saw it  in an extraordinary way.  This is what poets do. He wrote:

snow melts
and the village is flooded
by children

We read the first line, then the second, thinking that he will tell us the snow has flooded the village. But this would be ordinary. The meaning of the second sentence is like a hinge that will be swung from the first line to the third. The village is not flooded by snow, but by children. The effect is to transform the melting snow into the colors and motion of playing children. The effect is magical. The reader experiences the ordinary in an extraordinary way. And this is what great haiku do. They use a variety of techniques to accomplish, but the best all have this in common – that Ah! moment.

I have already posted Basho’s famous haiku, but it bears reposting because, again, it exemplifies that unique capacity of the haiku to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

This haiku has been so frequently mistranslated that westerners wonder what is so profound about a frog jumping into an old pond. And there is nothing profound about that. It’s the last line, when the frog jumps into the sound of water, that the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. (It perfectly expresses the moment of oneness that is such a feature of Zen – and it is in this respect that the philosophy of the haiku finds its analogy in Zen.) In this case, the technique is different than that which Issa used. Reichhold, as I mentioned before, calls this technique Sense Switching, Higginson prefers to call it a scrambling of logic .

What if you were sitting with guests and something happened. Maybe it shocked all of you? You sit in stunned silence? Here is a rendition of what Oshima Ryota wrote:

the guest, the host, the white

This is my own rendition, based on the literal translation of the Kanji. This haiku has to be among my all time favorites. The first two lines are perfectly ordinary. And then the third! What should we imagine? Are they shocked? Are they meditating? Whatever has happened, the white chrysanthemum is suddenly, fully and wholly a part of the narrative. It is a brillant stroke and I can’t help detecting humor (though Patricia Donegan, in haiku mind, treats the poem with reverential seriousness).

And here’s another in a similar vein by Issa:

As if nothing had happened,
The crow
And the willow.

Not all haiku burn with the white hot brilliance of these last three. Sometimes the transformation from ordinary to extraordinary is not so white hot, but more of warm glow. Issa was especially gifted with this sort of awareness & gentleness.  He could write:

visiting graves –
the old dog
leads the way

The oneness is warm and gentle in this haiku. It is as though Issa grants the dog an awareness of its own age and mortality, but does so without anthropomorphizing. There is simply the awareness that, in its own way, the dog is no different than ourselves, instinctively aware but serenely un-aware of its mortality; knowing its way home the way we all, ultimately, know our way home. Not ah-ha! But simply, ah…

Variations on Haiku

Haiga – A haiga is simply a haiku which is part of an illustration or painting – each art form, ideally, informing and enriching the other. The samples above, with which  I started this post, are haiga. Buson was especially famous for haiga, being considered  as talented a painter as he was a poet. Once one begins to become familiar with the different Japanese poets, a reader does begin to notice a certain painterly quality to Buson’s haiku.

Haibun – The combination of prose and haiku. Usually the prose is brief, highly descriptive and evocative. This is the genre in which Basho’s Narrow Road to the North is written, perhaps Japan’s most famous and most read piece of literature – in and out of Japan. Basho’s Narrow Road is a kind of travelogue. The haiku enrich and inform the prose tracts while the prose provides insight for better appreciating the haiku.

Senryu – Senryu are almost like haiku but for tone and subject matter. Senryu frequently dispense with kigo, are humorous, satirical, and wryly underscore the foibles of human nature.  The form is named after Edo period haiku poet Senryū Karai.

the robber,
when I catch him,
my own son

Higginson writes in The Haiku Handbook that “to some purists only the absence of season words and kireji divides senryu from haiku… Others note that senryu tend to focus on the humor in a situation, and do not always speak of the specific here and now, while haiku usually do. Human concerns, though not absent from haiku, dominate senryu.”

My own experience is that the majority of “haiku” written by Western bloggers and poets are really Senryu or Zappai. The term “Erotic Haiku”, for example, is very nearly a contradiction in terms. However, since many (if not most) western readers probably aren’t familiar with the distinction between haiku and senryu, there is some justification for the collocation “Erotic Haiku”.

A very general distinction:

  • Haiku: The predominant themes of haiku are seasonal and concerned with nature. Haiku relate nature to human beings.
  • Senryu: Senryu are no longer limited to humorous or satirical subjects. They do emphasize human concerns over the natural world and often do not reference nature at all.
  • In modern times, and especially in English, the distinction between a senryu and a haiku can be permeable.

In the book, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, (in my opinion one of the best book on writing haiku) Lee Gurga argues that while the distinction remains strong in Japan, the difference between haiku and senryu is much less severe in English:

“While it is similar to haiku in form, senryu is different in effect. Senryu does not require a season word, and it relies on wit, irony, and satire  to comment on the human condition. Haiku, senryu and zappai are quite separate genres in Japan, but the distinctions in English-language circles are blurred. Many of the poems written in seventeen syllables and presented as haiku in the West would actually be senryu or zappai in Japan.”

  • Zappai – Gurga calls this “a term that encompasses more than twenty-five types of light verse in haiku form.”  Zappai means “miscellaneous haikai verse” [p. 58]. Gurga also uses the term pseudohaiku.

Simile and Metaphor in and Haiku

You will commonly be told that Japanese poets do not use metaphor or simile in haiku. This is only partially true. Japanese poets do not use metaphor or simile like western poets but scholarship is increasingly revealing a different sort of metaphor associated with the “icononcity” of the language itself. This is a complex subject and an extract from the following essay should give you an idea of what’s involved:

“One of the most controversial criteria often stressed in haiku handbooks is that haiku should be an objective record of things experienced (Arkenberg, 2008). The poet does not use one object or idea to describe another, using A to understand B. In other words, haiku is often defined as a poem which avoids poetic devices, even metaphor (Shirane, 2000: 53).

However, numerous legendary Japanese haiku masters (Basho, Issa, Busson) are known to have used metaphor in their poetry, for example:

About to bloom,
and exhale a rainbow,
The peony

(translated by R. Roseliep ) Busson ( On a Rhyming Planet, 20 )

The peony is pictured both literally and figuratively: every flower blooms at its proper time but the one in the haiku above is endowed with a kind of magical power, for it is capable of breathing out a rainbow when breaking into blossom. An unusual hyperbole based on the conceptual metaphor PLANTS ARE LIVING BEINGS implies rainbow flecks of sun rays – an optical effect emerging quite often in sunny weather.

Today more and more haiku researchers claim that metaphor is central to haiku as to any other kind of poetry ( see Carriello , 2010 ; Shirane, 2000; Swede, 2000). However, the fundamental difference between the use of metaphor in haiku and that in other poetry is that in haiku it tends to be extremely subtle and indirect, to the point of not being readily apparent (Carriello, 2010 ). The metaphor in good haiku is often hidden or even deeply concealed within a poem. Even the seasonal word in Japanese haiku often tends to be inherently metaphorical, since it conveys very specific literary and cultural associations, but its dominant function remains to be descriptive, leaving the metaphorical dimension implied (Shirane, 2010: 56 ) .

Metaphor in Japanese haiku has been widely studied by Masaka Hiraga (see Hiraga 1998; 2002; 2005; 2006 ), who claims that metaphor is tightly linked to iconicity which is defined as a mapping between the structure of a text and the meaning or image it conveys. In poetic texts this interplay of metaphor and iconicity is particularly foregrounded (Hiraga 2005: 27). Still, while the Japanese language displays pure iconicity, for the system of its hieroglyphic writing visually signals the meaning, English haiku show iconicity and its interplay with metaphor more subtly, which is the focus of our research. ” [Metaphor in English Haiku: A Cognitive Approach Anna Shershnyova, Kyiv National Linguistic University]

My own opinion is that translators who studiously avoid, for example, verbal metaphors (see my post on The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss) because they think that Japanese poets didn’t use metaphor are potentially doing a considerable disservice to the poetry of the original Japanese haiku.
  • March 21rst 2016 · Being in the middle of my haiku year, writing a haiku a day, I’ve also been reading a wide variety of Japanese haiku from their origins through the 19th century. At this point I would say that the Japanese poets do use simile and metaphor (as we understand it). The difference is that they don’t preface their similes or metaphors the way western poets do. The brevity of the haiku, if nothing else, prevents that. Consider a recently discovered trove of haiku by Buson. One of the haiku reads as follows:


The umbrella
····changes form, a moon-lit night
········with eyes


This is essentially a simile. There are holes in the umbrella where the moon shines through. So: The umbrella is like a moon-lit night with eyes. Of course, because Buson doesn’t use like — which never would have occurred to him anyway — the simile is less direct and therefore more powerful. It’s not just the umbrella that is altered (becoming like something else) but the entire night now has eyes. The umbrella becomes (as opposed to being like) a moon-lit night with eyes. So, the takeaway in my opinion is not that Japanese poets didn’t use simile and metaphor, but that they used these poetic techniques in a different guise. At its simplest perhaps, they would never write that X is like Y but that X becomes and is Y. Some might call this the Zen influence in haiku.


The Techniques of Haiku

And now for the entomology. Read no further if you faint at the sight of these flitting little poems pinned through their hearts – examined under a magnifying glass. The following techniques are the result of Jane Reichhold’s work, not mine. They spring from Appendix 1 of her book: Basho: The Complete Haiku. I have her to thank for them. I have paraphrased and have not used the haiku she gives as examples (at her request). I have also condensed some for the sake of brevity and because some of the distinctions seemed slight to me. If you want to read a more thorough explanation of each technique with an example by Basho, check out her book. It’s worth it. Only one of the techniques is my own (and she may tell me that it’s not Japanese or a genuine technique).

Note: Higginson has this to say concerning this list: Reichhold’s list-making gets away from her, however, with twenty-four “techniques” for writing haiku, many of which seem minor variations on one another, or which ignore the time-honored vocabulary used to name and discuss such things. She does not seem to understand the meanings of such words as “metaphor” and “simile,” for example.

With this in mind, recognize that the Japanese may have more traditional Japanese terms for these poetic techniques. I still find this list useful; a good way to approach haiku through more familiar terms and concepts.

1.) Association – How different things may be associated.

A handle
On the moon –
And what a splendid fan.

2.) Comparison – How different things may be compared.

In traveling attire,
A stork in late autumn rain:
The old master Basho.

~ Chora

3.) Contrast

Into the distance,
The straight line of the canal,
And the willow trees

~ Shiki

4.) Close Linkage – Linking images – a kind of subcategory of Association.

A pear tree in bloom
In the moonlight,
A woman reading a letter.

~ Buson

5.) Leap Linkage– This operates the same as the previous technique, except that the linkage between the images may be much more difficult to discern. (Reichhold gives a better example in her book.) Sometimes the linkage is simply impossible for a western reader to discern without a knowledge of Japanese history, literature and culture.

autumn evening;
a crow
on a withered bough

~ Basho

6.) Metaphor – This is much less common in haiku, if only because of their brevity. The example Reichhold gives in her book seems more like a simile to me – the gay boy/a plumb and the willow/a woman ~ Basho. The following is the closest that I could find to something like metaphor in my particular selection of haiku.

a stream
rowing through the town,
and the willows

~ Shiki

[My thought, and I may be incorrect, is that the stream is itself a metaphor for Shiki.]

7.) Simile – The Japanese don’t spell it out the way western poets do. However, substitute like for what and viola! – you have a simile.

a handle
on the moon –
what a splendid fan

~ Sokan

8.) Rhyme This needs no explanation. However, rhymes in Japanese are much easier than rhymes in English since, as Reichhold points out, there are only five vowels – a bit like Italian. Rhyming is actually far more ubiquitous than English translations would lead you to believe but, unlike Sonnets, rhyming is not considered part and parcel of the haiku form. It happens when it happens. Nonetheless, for the sake of completion, I’ll give an example from one of my own haiku – master that I am. My self-appointed haiku name is bottlecap, (because of my glasses).

····running round and round as the leaves
········fall down

bottlecap · edited May 27th 2016

(This would be more of a slant rhyme and internal rhyme, I suppose.)

9.) The Sketch (or Shasei) – Shiki was considered the leading proponent of this sort of haiku. The depiction of a thing just as it is. Interspersed with other haiku, the effect can be refreshing, but too much and the effect begins to feel dull. Also, this technique is one that eschews the aesthetic of making the ordinary extraordinary. Many modern haiku, I notice, (and especially among newcomers) are really Shasei.

the lights are lit
on the islands far and near:
the spring sea.

~ Shiki

10.) Narrowing Focus – Start big, end small. According to Reichhold, this was a favored technique of Buson.

icy moonlight
small stones
crunch underfoot

~ Buson

11.) Riddle – Reichhold writes: “The trick in using this technique is to state the riddle in as puzzling terms as possible. The more intriguing the setup, and the closer the correlation between the images, the better the haiku seems to work.”

····the birch?—or my daughter
········behind it?

~ bottlecap

you are the butterfly
and I the dreaming heart
of soshi?

~ Basho

12.) Paradox

In the eye of the dragonfly
the mountains

~ Issa

13.) Wordplay -This includes double-entendres and puns, difficult to reproduce in translation.

14.) Humor – Issa, in my experience, is easily the most gently humorous of all the Japanese haikuists.

The young girl
blows her nose
in the evening glory

~ Issa

One man
One fly
In one room.

~ Issa

(The latter haiku is my rendition. I find Blyth’s translation too wordy – ruining the understated humor of the haiku.)

15.) Pseudo-science – “A distorted view of science” Reichhold calls it. She writes that this method creates an “other reality” and that it is an old Japanese tool meant to make the poet “sound simple and childlike” while confounding the reader. On the other hand, it’s hard to see the difference between this and what Reichhold calls sense-switching or Higginson’s Logic Scrambling. I actually find that I prefer Reichhold’s term. It has the feeling of synesthesia which the terms sense switching, in my view, better captures.

the temple bell
still ringing in the scent
of evening flowers

~ Basho

(This is my rendition of Basho’s haiku. The version by R.H. Blythe seemed clumsy to me.)

16.) Sense Switching – This is considered a favorite of Japanese poets. Hearing what one sees. Seeing what one smells, etc… Basho’s famous haiku – Old Pond, is a prime example.

17.) Frame Rhyme – This is the term Reichhold uses for off-rhymes, slant rhymes, half rhymes, etc… My own haiku, Round and round, is an example.

18.) Coining new words – This is self-explanatory and very difficult to reproduce in translation. Shakespeare was a master of word coinage, but all his haiku are tragically lost…

19.) Twist Reichhold calls this the most common method in writing “waka” poetry. Quite simply, the poet creates a set of expectations then, in the middle of the verse, turns or twists those expectations. Issa’s haiku, transforming the melting snow into a flood of children is a prime example.

20.) Pivoting This is similar to the twist. The difference is that the middle line can be applied to both the first line, meaning one thing, and the last line, so that it means another. Again, Issa’s poem is a perfect example of this – possessing both a twist in meaning and a 2nd line pivot.

21.) Literary References (Reichhold adds Response to Another Poem as its own technique – but I mention it here as a variation on Literary References.) The Japanese (and Chinese) revered their elders and their poetic traditions. They, like Robert Frost, preferred the old way to do new things. They weren’t the least embarrassed by quoting or paraphrasing whole lines of poetry. They didn’t give credit where credit was due. They simply assumed that readers would immediately recognize the reference. There’s a story of a Japanese warlord who was caught in rain while hunting. He went to a farmer’s house and requested a raincoat. If memory serves, the girl returned with a cut vine of Clematis. The warlord was infuriated by the girl’s disrespect but when the Warlord’s retainer patiently explained that this was an allusion to a famous poem (dating back hundreds of years ago and about a similar situation), the warlord was so embarrassed by his ignorance (that a mere peasant girl knew more about great poem than he did) that he sheepishly hurried home and devoted his life to the study of literature. The Japanese took these matters seriously.

Anyway, Basho’s Narrow Road is chalk full of literary borrowings and references. He frequently mentioned uta-makuras for example. An uta-makura is a landmark (it could be a stone in a field or the north side of a river) that had usually been mentioned in an older poem. A whole tourist industry was built around uta-makuras and Basho saw as many as he could during his famous journey to the north. Unless your edition of haiku is annotated. Just forget it. You will never recognize all the references. Unfortunately for us, understanding the reference, in some cases, is the better part of understanding the poem. I prefer translations with annotations – whenever possible.

Here’s an example from the very first haiku from Basho’s Narrow Road to the north. I’ll reprint the haiku as it was translated so that you can get the feel of a single line translation (this is Sato’s translation, mentioned above).

Departing spring: birds cry and, in the eyes of fish, tears.

Sato writes: “Alludes to the third and fourth lines of “A Spring View”, a poem by Tu Fu: ‘Touched by the times, I shed tears on the flowers; / resenting separation, I am startled by the birds.'”

22.) Hiding the Author This can be difficult to spot. The haikuist talks about himself without explicitly mentioning himself – the idea being to make the poem more universal. This runs against the grain of American confessional poetry, which has taken navel gazing to irredeemable heights.

departing Spring
in the late cherry blossoms

~ Buson

In Buson’s haiku, I suspect that Buson is referring to himself when he writes “departing Spring”. In other words, he is no longer young but, like the cherry blossoms, chooses to linger a little while in fading beauty.

23.) Hidden Subject – Reichhold states that “Asian poets often praised a missing thing”.  The technique risks being maudlin and sentimental. Here is one by Issa.

Mountains seen also
By my father, like this,
In his winter confinement.

~ Issa

24.) Sabi – Reichhold makes the point that the Japanese themselves cannot agree on what exactly Sabi means, but seem doubly certain that it can’t be explained to westerners. It’s not so mysterious, though what sparks the experience differs for each person – which is why it may be so difficult to describe. For me, it’s a kind of beauty experienced with the sorrow of transcience.

grasses in mist
and the brook is quiet –
daylight fades

~ Buson

(This is my own rendition.)

25.) Wabi – This adds the element of simplicity to Sabi. Frost captures Sabi and Wabi in his great poem Directive.

“The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.”

It is in the last line of this passage that I, myself, have the feeling of Wabi. The little plastic cup, worn, with the marks of childhood, and thrown aside, has in it a simple, and perhaps heartbreaking beauty that no work of craft could ever match.

in the winter river,
pulled up and thrown away –
a red turnip.

~ Buson

26.) Yugen – This is best expressed, perhaps, as finding mystery in common things – a kind of unknowable meaning in an everyday observance.

autumn beginning:
lamplight from someone’s house –
not quite dark

~ Buson

27.) Divinity in the Commonplace

the blossoms fall
our minds
become tranquil

– Koyo-Ni

(This is my rendition.)

28.) Lightness – This was a technique which Basho developed and prized in his old age. The technique was not a hit with some of his disciples however, who (if one reads between the lines) apparently grew tired of the master’s harping on it. They parted company. Reichhold states: “Basho was trying to write poetry that was less emotional…” She notes that Basho’s favorite haiku using this technique “are the ones with few or no verbs” – as if it were the verbs that weighed the poems down. “In our times,” she notes, these haiku are “pejoratively called ‘grocery list’ haiku”. Seems that the technique never caught on. (Add grocery list haiku to desk haiku (desku) – haiku which are written from ones imagination rather than direct experience; a manner of writing treated with contempt by every self-respecting purist.)

plates and bowls
dimly in darkness
evening chill

~ Basho

[Reichhold seems to distinquish this technique from Shasei, but the difference is hard for me to discern.]

29.) Implied Narrative This is a technique I have noticed but that Reichhold doesn’t seem to mention, and that could be because it’s not a Japanese technique. I find it to be an especially powerful technique in an especially small poetic form. It is the trick of using details to imply a narrative larger than the poem. Here’s an example by Shiki.

an upright hoe
no one to be seen –
the heat!

And here is a modern haiku by an online poets I discussed in a previous post:

snowy prints
bird prints end
at my approach

~ Polona Oblak

In this last haiku, the narrative of the bird’s startled flight is omitted but implied. In Shiki’s haiku, the narrative of the overheated farmer is omitted, but implied. The reader fills in the narrative and so adds to the power of what is omitted.

Guides & Resources: The Haiku Society of America (HSA) has put together a top-notch list of haiku resources and guides. You can also find reviews of many of the books there. The reviews are well-worth reading. You will get a sense of some of the disagreements and controversies most of us are unaware of.

Questions? Suggestions? Corrections? Let me know.