something unexpected

“. . . I am inclined to think that short poems, even short poems with a seasonal reference and a 5-7-5 syllabic structure, written in English can’t be, strictly speaking, haiku. Or to say it another way, the haiku is still acclimatizing itself, in this country, to the cultures of American poetry. . . .  I expect something unexpected will eventually evolve from our admiration for and attempts to translate the practice of the short Japanese poem.”

                                       —Robert Hass (from R’r 7.4, November 2004)

14 thoughts on “something unexpected

  1. Scott,
    These quotes from Hass are great prompts for discussion.

    Thought I would pick up on something started in the first blog post about Phil Rowland’s poem that was starting to go off in another direction,
    And something that might qualify as unexpected.

    been thinking about what Richard noted about “dis-completion” –thanks Richard!

    >>To add to my extemporaneous definition, “dis-” is significantly divergent from “in-” or “un-” (complete) — it’s not a matter of something missing, or that the reader cannot “complete” the poem, but rather that the poem dis-allows completion, disassembles attempts at reaching a significant coherent meaning — at the same time as meaning is being posed (does the devilish poem _wish_ to thwart us?). So there is a dance between abrupt in your face denial and the centrifugal imagination flung out by the gravitational force of orbital lexis. Fruffy perhaps, that analogy. I do think though there is strong paradoxicality in the notion, and reversal of expectation. As well, with “anchor/i/tic” the context of the poem — it being set into the haiku genre — creates certain formal expectations which for me add to its potency as poetry.<<

    so we have the examples you offered from Grenier’s Sentences:

    leafy now almost no sense of a

    branches are then moved by negligible quantity the

    and then there is Gertrude Stein, always playing with the grammatical shape of things:


    Roast potatoes for.


    Aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher munchers.

    A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king, makes a to let.

    …And plenty more from Tender Buttons

    In a different way this refusal of “a significant coherent meaning — at the same time as meaning is being posed (does the devilish poem _wish_ to thwart us?)” might be said to apply to the grammatical play in Ashbery’s haiku that Phil offered:

    A blue anchor grains of grit in a tall sky sewing

    and we could also consider his:

    And also I inch and only sometimes as far as the twisted pole gone in spare color

    Or more complete language-wise but sensically resistant

    What trees, tools, why ponder socks on the premises

    But really what I’ve been thinking about is what Richard keenly observed as an earlier precursor to this sensibility in Hosai with his famous “coughing, even alone”

    I only have the English translations, these below by Hiroaki Sato, so don't know how the original Japanese works–very curious about the original grammar; and would love to hear more about it.

    (Sato translates "coughing, even alone" : I cough and am still alone)

    From the introduction of the book, Right under the big sky, I don't wear a hat:

    "Sato's translation maintains, wherever possible, the original word order, unique colloquial tone and remarkable brevity of expression…"[ Kyoko Selden]

    Here’s a couple:

    On a December night there's one cold bed, nothing but

    I've become completely alone and the evening sky

    yeah, something about Ozaki's work that lives in this realm, the fragment that creates a living space around it–the unfinished/ongoing–not exactly dis-allowing meaning via language, (Richard, you might call this the in-complete, the un-complete) but perhaps more about posing the idea that language cannot nail much down:

    At the right moment a beggar came

    Along the flow I walk and stop

    Hand on the skin of a night tree I wait

    Ran and caught up in the wind

    Some of Ashbery’s haiku echo this quality of Hosai:

    And I think there's going to be even more but waist-high

    A child must go down it must stand and last

    In a smaller tower shuttered and put away there

    Like him feeling him come from far away and then go down to his car

    (Sato dedicates "Right under the big sky…" to Ashbery)

    but what moves me about Hosai is not only some of his steller ku, but how his work as a whole– the accumulation of the barest fragments –creates a rather deep sense of his world because of their seeming insignificance and vaguery. a kind of precursor to something like Jim Westenhaver's "long enough", which, to me, does its work in the white space between poems–how the individual ku move from one to the next to build a trajectory.

    and in this way of white space we could think of the idea of dis-completion and temporal displacement as harking back to renku.

    This white space is something Massey comments upon in relation to the individual poem itself in Rowland’s
    “And the white space of the page provides the perfect room, the cell, for this active poem to move…”

  2. Eve, thanks so much for these thoughts and poems you shared (and continuing the “dis-completion” idea, which perhaps deserves a post of its own). i was hoping these quotes might in some way instigate some discussion and reflection.

    a few things come to mind in reaction to your comment.

    the first is to link what you noted about “the accumulation of the barest fragments—creat[ing] a rather deep sense of . . . world because of their seeming insignificance and vaguery . . . . how the individual ku move from one to the next to build a trajectory.”

    Hosai is an absolutely perfect example, as you make abundantly clear. another (at least it seems obvious to me) is Santoka. what’s significant about them—and especially in relation to this topic (the accumulation of fragments/the semblance of trajectory)—is that they lived and wrote roughly pretty much during the same time period (Santoka was first published in 1913 and Hōsai in 1914) and read each other’s, and influenced each other’s, work. for example:

    Karasu naite watashi mo hitori

    A crow caws and I too am alone

    —Taneda Santoka

    Seki o shite mo hitori

    I cough and am still alone

    —Hōsai Ozaki

    (translations by Hiroaki Sato)

    both were of the Jiyuritsu school (a free-verse movement, wherein poets wrote one-line poems free of seasonal themes, fixed syllable counts or sound units, or old literary expressions); they both lived similar kinds of hermetic life-styles. and so they are true examples of the beginning of 20th century haiku, of modern haiku and modern art. their work marked a new beginning, a new way forward. a breaking away from old traditions and a bold new experimentalism which was an attempting to pursue a freedom of poetical spirit.

    Santoka’s ku, his work considered as a whole, strike the same note for me as what you wrote about Hōsai’s. the work of both, collectively, build a trajectory, build upon what came before it, and in a similar, bare writing style. brushstrokes. fragments. colloquial language.

    i feel it is important to note though that while their work has this effect, it’s a kind of indictment of it if we can’t consider the poems as individual works of art—as individual poems that can be read and appreciated without others to “cushion” and support them. adding other poems should only add to their enjoyment and depth.

    of course certain poems will be more successful than others for us as indivudual readers.

    i think one can make a similar case about trajectory and accumulation for the work of Issa, especially after having read the first two volumes in the series of Kaneko Tohta books done by the Kon Nichi Translation Group and published by Red Moon Press. in this sense, i’d say Santoka, Hōsai and Issa intimately share what Tohta talks about with regards to rawness, raw experiences and direct immediacy, wildness (settled wildness, wild ordinary human/ness, wild life/wild nature), settled wandering, authenticity, etc. perhaps Hōsai and Santoka, as early 20th century haiku poets, were modern examples, new crystallizations, of these conceptions. the poetics of the jiyuritsu/free-form movement allowed them to rediscover and explore these things with enormous depth.

    and so i think the three poets above are predecessors for us, and for the kind of work we’re discussing: something unexpected—emotionally, syntactically, philosophically, structurally, and also when it comes to language and imagery.

    you brought up Jim Westenhaver and his *long enough* collection, which, i totally agree with you (he is a good example of this), has the same sense of “accumulated fragments to create trajectory” (to create story/narrative). but, again, i feel it’s important that we are able to remove poems from the chain/web, and consider them individually as great poems/art, or, for me, there is something lost, and the work is diminished, or not as powerful (for me). in the case of *long enough*, there are a number of poems i like very much, but there are larger number that leave me somewhat indifferent (granted though, without them, the ones i prefer might not be a energetic/magnetic, or have invisible arms that are as strong as they are: the other, “weaker” ones, give them depth). a few i particularly like:

    the fastest network our eyes meet

    a little bit her horse around sunset

    you get the idea she dives at sunrise

    coming to grips her eagle eye

    both hands on the book she sneezes

    up close she takes off her wig

    all about the cloud she climbs

    the one-line structure, fragmentariness, minimalism, speed, run-on enjambments, fusions, language and powerful imagery working enormously well in these. Eve, you might argue perhaps that Westenhaver’s recent collection (ant ant ant ant ant #11) doesn’t work as well though because it lacks the trajectory of *long enough*. however, i would argue that it has larger number of strong individual poems:

    ask me pine cone on the trail

    trading places a hand me down sunset

    she unloads what you say leaves

    speaking a head fake the city is wordless

    climbing words are few she takes off

    the river bends most tears crossing the evening

    tide flat in the alley dream

    tree play happy bark character

    of all the nerve the barn door’s open

    ever since you know the drill flower

    say what the fence is the answer

    about face she steps up the evening

    substitute teacher the harbor seal riding a wave

    which brings me to a something Ron Silliman wrote about Roberta Beary’s collection *The Unworn Necklace*: “But the aesthetic here of absolutely minimal strokes accumulating to create a far more powerful picture is really overwhelming.” later saying of the collection that it is “really a 70-poem not-quite-narrative cycle that has the weight and emotional force of a novel. A sprawling & powerful novel.” one wonders though what Silliman might think of a collection of Fay Aoyagi’s, for example, whose work is of a similar diary-like, highly-personal, confessional style. though, arguably, with more meat and experimentation.

    and i think Aoyagi is another poet whose work, in many ways, falls into this vein/artery/web/lineage. others are john martone and Chris Gordon (who first turned me on to Hōsai’s work in ’07). the work of all three are examples of “something unexpected”, all three showing exemplary use of anti-realist tendencies such as surrealism (esp Aoyagi and Gordon, and sometimes/rarely martone, if one takes a close look), and also Language poetics and other modern poetics, especially Gordon and martone.

    some other quick things i want to throw out, as this has become really long, that came to mind after reading your comment:

    —the idea of suspension. Helen Vendler’s comment about the work of Jorie Graham’s work in *The End of Beauty*, discussed by Phlip Rowland in his essay “From Haiku to the Short Poem: Bridging the Divide”, as “a poetry of middleness, of suspension . . .defer[ing] closure . . . by a series of ever-approaching asymptotic gestures . . . each advancing the plot by a micro-measure . . . .” seems relevant here (somehow). the examples Philip shared by Jorie in a way, i think, show some similarity to Ashbery’s haiku:

    the shapely and mournful delay she keeps alive for him the breathing

    gathering the holocaust in close to its heart growing more beautiful

    —Rae Armantrout’s “Cheshire Poetics”: “an equal conunter-weight of assertion and doubt . . . [O]ne that points two ways then vanishes in the blur of what is seen and what is seeing, what can be known and what it is to know. That double-bind. But where was I?”

    —yūgen: an aesthetic of suggestiveness, showing little but implying a lot, requiring a leap of imagination on the part of the reader; “profound subtlety”, “mystery and depth”, “the seen and the unseen”, “the extraordinary in the ordinary”, “depth, destiny and distance” (*Haiku Poetics in Twentieth Century Avant-Garde Poetry*, Jeffrey Johnson)

    —pushing the boundary of ordinary language to the edge of otherworldly

    —incompletion. there is Ogiwara Seisensui’s metaphor of the haiku poet-haiku reader relationship as a circle—that each ku is “a circle of which only half is completed by the poet. The other half must be completed by the reader” (Ueda, Modern japanese Poets and the nature of Literature, 313). that reading a haiku requires teamwork, that is asks ever reader “to be a poet to a greater degree than do other forms of poetry . . . [N]o haiku is a finished work of art; every poem is waiting for a reader to come and finish it.”

    “I think,” Seisensui remarked, “haiku can be said to be an art of presenting not something that is expressed but something that expresses. it focuses less on a completed work than on a heart that is creating a work.”

    lastly, i think all of this perhaps ties into something Jim Kacian wrote in his article “First Thoughts—A Haiku Primer” and was referred to by Philip Rowland in his essay mentioned above: “Properly considered, [haiku] is . . . the world’s longest poem . . . .”

    and so it is, not only for many of the poets mentioned above, whose work is intricately entwined with building a trajectory over time (or within a collection of work) that deepens and deepens, but for all of us in this world, collectively, writing haiku.

    • Hey Scott,

      Thanks for this wonderful intertwining of ideas here…. a lovely braid of pearls.

      Yeah, I hear you about the individual poem vs. a group of poems. I’m not saying that the single poems are without merit. (I too very much like these ones you highlight from Westenhaver’s “long enough” and ant11 as well as many from Hosai and Santoka)
      Just something about the way Hosai (and Santoka) (and yes, Martone too) embrace the vague and seemingly “insignificant” in individual poems, the barest of observations, almost a flatness (unlike Issa, Aoyagi and Beary, who typically use kigo) that then accumulates into something much deeper, more complex, when they gather as a group–akin to a pencil sketched portrait, a psyche in relation to a world, an atmosphere/weather system. I am also very curious about the grammatical play in the original Japanese in Hosai, and for that matter Santoka. Westenhaver sometimes also uses a similar kind of what I might call “raw fragment” as a single poem in “long enough” and these, in context of the rest, sketch out more of a narrative arc, vs. the more oblique shape created by Hosai and Santoka.

      there is much more to discuss about the idea of counter-realist strategies, but for now….

  3. I certainly hope to get into things here at some point soon. Right now I feel almost as if there were too much to get a handle on and whereon to leave my fingerprints. But this is all good stuff.

    Peter Yovu

  4. After having just read about 10 books by john martone, I have to admit that the poems do accumulate until the fragments build up a world, somewhat as T.S. Eliot in the Wasteland remarks “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” And, john martone wisely introduced his collection khana with a poem by his predecessor Robert Lax by way of explanation:

    a million
    make the

    For john martone (and Lax, and Frank Samperi)
    ” the world is made of syllables” (syllables, 2008).

    All of his poems rely on the syllable, on the part that without there is no whole, a part of his buddhist belief system and intellectual heritage.

    There is also a sense in john martone, and again in all the other poets sited above- Hosai and Tanaka, especially-that the world-building art described by Heidegger, that is, the art/poetry that recreates an entire episteme, a new world order and worldview-is over in the wake of the total fragmentation of modern culture post-WWII, and poets become poets of the earth, of naming and bringing earth and being to itself.

    Read the “Taste of Silence” by Adam Kirsch for a full appreciation of this distinction. Poetry of the earth is passive and tries to salvage the smallest details of what we usually ignore, seeing the tiniest things until they reveal their secrets, keeping history from sweeping them away.

    In the end, the fact that the world is just these passing parts, sensations, rotting, becoming something else is heart-wrenching to me, not incomplete or un-complete, indeed, some things are flatly there, don’t have a second or further reaching meaning, yet as john martone says at the end of dogwood & honeysuckle,

    of old

    this book

    Certainly, for john martone as a buddhist, he is well aware that there is no intrinsic nature, no intrinsic self, no self other than the aggregates it is made up of; as for Hosai and Santoka, well, I tend to disagree with the above readings- their awareness of the fragmentary is none other than the awareness of earth and being, stripped of fanfare and necessary oneness between disparaties- observations recorded against and in time.

    As to Chris Gordon, I think you misread him if you think he is writing incompleteness, un-completeness; his works find their center in the “strangeness” of the arrangement of things in the world=he locates quotidian quirks to point to the “strangeness” of the world ontologically, but he is fully aware and manipulating (not in a negative sense) the elements that comprise the “whole” of each of his poems.

  5. Chiefly, john martone is immeasurably readable: this does not mean that his poems are not multi-layered and complex, but they are as clear as can be.
    I think the same can be said generally of Chris Gordon’s work: there is no intention to >point to deconstruction and lack of closure; his poems are magical, mystical, strange, but not “un-complete.”
    I think the same can be said of Hosai and Santoka.
    As to poems that intentionally defy, or defer (derridian by chance?) meaning, I’m afraid they neither reach me on a phenomenal or cognitive level; perhaps my own ineptitude.

  6. the emphasis is are; language creates the impossibility of lost so long as language says nominative adjective here after being are.

    see robert lax:Poem 3














    • It came as a stray dog and still is

      Ozaki Hōsai
      at Nangō-an, Shōdoi Island, 1925-26

      (from “Right under the big sky, I don’t wear a hat”
      translated Hiroaki Sato)

      thinking about how you differentiate Martone’s world-building ala Heidegger versus Hōsai and Santoka….

      in the middle of moving home or I would go back and give more careful reading to the collections I have and respond further.

      I don’t know, Jack, still feeling like Hōsai’s work from 1924-26 really does it.

      >>”their awareness of the fragmentary is none other than the awareness of earth and being, stripped of fanfare and necessary oneness between disparaties- observations recorded against and in time.<<

      yes, I agree, but I also see:
      a million
      make the

      I ring the bell and leave in the bell's reverberation

      Ozaki Hōsai
      at Suma Temple, Hyōgo, 1924-25

      (from "Right under the big sky, I don't wear a hat"
      translated Hiroaki Sato)

  7. Wish the thread would continue, so I don’t feel like I’m the death of everything I write about.
    There’s this uncanny thing that happens: whenever I post, it always ends the discussion.
    Please someone jump in here and continue this wonderful dialogue.

  8. Jack, for what it’s worth, in my opinion you are one of our best readers, in terms of both depth of understanding and articulation. I hope too that this and other threads will continue. I hope to be able to devote some time to them myself in the near future.

    Peter Yovu

  9. i’m feeling that “dis-completion” needs it’s very own post. anyone else agree?

    without being able to read Japanese, it is perhaps impossible to determine how much the work of Hosai or Santoka—their language and syntax, etc.—relate to this topic. based on Hiroaki Sato’s translations though, i can see how that is possible, or how that can be read. and then, of course, there is the argument that Japanese haiku simply can not truly be translated into English, but i am just not sure how much that connects to the idea of “dis-completion” or any other kind of non-completeness, other than that the very nature of the Japanese haiku is a form of fragmentariness.

    Jack, your thoughts on john martone and Chris Gordon’s work, once again, is wonderful and much appreciated. but i don’t think anyone was trying to (strongly) connect their work to “dis-completion”, so i totally agree with you—they’re not trying to achieve that kind of effect. i was only trying to connect their work to the topic of fragments building into a great whole. and i think this most especially is applicable to john’s work, as you point out.

  10. Yes, Scott, I think the idea of dis-completion could use its own thread.
    Although, I have to admit from cursory reading that Derrida’s discussion of “dissemination” already addresses this and makes of the idea of the creation of a special category of poem an example of dis-completion, well, redundant. By definition, all dissemination of text cannot ever find either closure or authorial intention. But, write on, man.

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