two problems


“Whenever I read haiku written by contemporary U.S. writers (and there are many haiku out there), I note two main problems that limit the work from being as intriguing as it might. Both have to do with misunderstandings about the history of haiku.

The first problem: the idea that the primary goal of a haiku, in its compact syllables, is to create beautiful images. It’s true that haiku can be beautiful, yet more crucial than beauty to the haiku is that the image should tell us something significant, often even conflicted, about the human world, or the natural world, and frequently about their relation to each other. A haiku should reveal to us something about the world that we don’t understand or never have said as compactly. Seventeen syllables can be enough to frame a profound insight or define a powerful conflict.

The second problem, connected to the first: that this beautiful image should exclusively portray nature or humans within a wholly natural setting. In the context of the contemporary U.S., this misunderstanding turns the resulting haiku into exercises in nostalgia, in how to picture human life as free of industrialization, commercialization, or the morass of politics and manipulative media language. Yet although the great writers of haiku usually know the haiku tradition well, the goal of the best haiku has never been simply to imitate the past. Instead, the great writers of haiku take the tradition and do something that’s both unique and reflects its own moment of composition, not the past, in a way that acknowledges haiku tradition but extends it.”

Mark Wallace

/ Scorpion Prize 26 (R’r 12.2, 2012)

Scorpion Prize 17 / Ron Silliman

A few days ago Ron Silliman commented on English-language haiku and minimalist poetry on his blog, and so I thought it would be good timing to share the Scorpion Prize he wrote here, wherein he selected and commented on his favorite ku from issue 9.2 (May 2009) of R’r. As always, chime in on his selections and comments if ye like.

Here’s what Ron had to say:

The first time I read through the ku section of May’s Roadrunner, I realized just how foolish I had been in offering to judge the Scorpion Prize from among its contributions. There were at least a half dozen works that stood out for me from a very strong collection overall. My immediate thought was that whomever I designate, I will surely be guilty of an injustice to several others. Rereading the selection several times – mostly with the names “turned off” (tho I know none of the contributors personally) – did not change this initial sensation of guilt, but I did gradually keep returning to two works that lasted with me long after I had stopped reading. Both are thoroughly worthy of the Scorpion Prize & therefore they must share it. The first of these poems is Lorin Ford’s 

which jolted me both for its perceptual accuracy & its originality. It reverses our expectations of “nature poetry” in a way that is entirely true to the greater tradition. The second, Doug Kutney’s 

does much the same thing, albeit with a somewhat more subtle & ironic slant to it. Once you have read either of these poems, they are impossible to let go of. You start seeing the world through their almost shared lenses.

Having said this I also want to acknowledge the poems by Paul Pfleuger, Jr., all of which are quite good, as well as the Latin-flavored trio by Michael McClintock & especially the humor in Michael Dylan Welch’s fourth “neon buddha” poem – the one laugh-out-loud moment in the entire selection. All of these writers make me want to read more. 

& here’s another look at those ku mentioned at the end of his piece:

Scorpion Prize 20 / Rae Armantrout

For this post, I would like to open up Scorpion Prize 20, selected and commented on by Rae Armantrout, to readers, and which appeared in issue 10.2.

I emailed Rae Armantrout (a California native, born in 1947, a professor of writing in the literature department at the University of California at San Diego, and the author of ten books of poetry) on April 9th, 2010, asking her if she would be interested in being R’r’s judge for Scorpion Prize 20 by selecting her favorites from issue 10.1 and commenting upon them.

She selected her winner and sent her commentary on April 11th, one day before it was announced that she had won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Versed (Wesleyan University Press, 2010). Towards the end of that email she wrote, “That was kind of fun.”

It was, of course, a great thrill that she accepted our invitation. And even greater to find out her collection had been honored in such a way, so close to her taking the time to read and comment on contemporary English-language haiku. And so, perhaps in some way, just before, during, and after the Pulitzer announcement, the ku in R’r were in or floating about her mind and thoughts.

Asking if she would be willing to perhaps highlight a few others and comment on them, she wrote: “My second favorite was the one liner by Chris Gordon and I also liked the one that begins “apology moon” by Cherie Hunter Day.”

Because of the Pulitzer announcement though, media interviews, teaching, and a schedule that was taking her on the road, she was not able to return to them for us, though she intitially intended to.

So: what do you make of this ku by Peter Yovu? What does it do for you? How does it work on and/or in you? Where does it take you?

Does the use of the word “you” (a topic worthy of its own post—perhaps even of a mini-anthology or extensive essay) impede, confuse, or (does it, instead) invite and/or open up possibilities for you as a reader?

Here is what Rae had to say:

What I really like about this poem is the way the various connotations of the word “shift” create an interesting instability, a shifting field of meanings. Taken as a phrase, “red shift” refers to the fact that light moves towards the red end of the spectrum when it is traveling away from the viewer. This is how astronomers concluded that the universe was expanding, the galaxies flying apart from one another. However, following the line “October,” the color red also suggests seasonal change or “shift” and falling leaves. So we are then dealing with personal, experiential time as well as astronomical time and distance. The third line adds a surprising new dimension.

Now the red shift is something “you” were buried in. It might even be a burial garment. So which of these meanings of “red shift” (if any) is to be taken literally and which metaphorically? I have my own idea of that, but why spell it out? What I appreciate is the way the possible meanings work together and enrich one another.

Rae Armantrout’s latest poetry collection is Moneyshot (Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

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Scorpion Prize 23 / Joseph Massey

This ku by Philip Rowland was selected by Joseph Massey, author of Areas of Fog (Shearsman Books, 2009) and At the Point (Shearsman Books, 2011) for Roadrunner’s 23rd Scorpion Prize.

Now we’d like to open it up to readers.

What do you make of this ku?

What other poems do you know of, and can share, that are somehow connected or associated with Philip’s ku?

Here’s what Joe had to say:

This issue (11.1) was a pleasure to read in its entirety. The choice was difficult, but I’ve settled on the above poem by Philip Rowland as the Scorpion Prize winner for its extreme economy that opens into wide areas of—layers of—possible interpretation, “meaning,” and enjoyment, without succumbing to the forced epiphany and contrived imagery that bogs down so much so-called haiku.

Anchoritic, as a stand-alone word, is a rather awkward adjective that would, I think, feel more at home in some stilted academic tome. What Rowland’s done, by the seemingly simple gesture of severing the word into three lines, is to show us how an entire world—or, at any rate, a deep glimpse into one—exists within even a most uncommon word. Anchoritic (“ascetic solitude”) thus opens up, breathes, becomes a kind of syllogism to puzzle over.

The “i” floats—or is it being crushed?—between two symptoms of a life of the mind. And the white space of the page provides the perfect room, the cell, for this active poem to move, or to sit still, in contemplation of itself; and so the definition of the word is enacted—shown—by its being turned inside out.

It’s an exquisitely strange, living thing.