Jun 10 2006

Surprised by Poetry

The Haiku ApprenticeSeveral summers ago I happened to be walking my dog along our boat dock, when a swan paddled out of the marsh—hoping, no doubt, for some tossed bits of bread.  It’s a startling thing to have a picture so suddenly dominated by a new element. The entire vista of marsh and sky and water seemed to zoom in on this swan—which became, for a breath, the center of the universe.

It felt a little like having vertigo, and I wanted to remember the moment. I didn’t have a camera. I didn’t have anyone to I could grab and say “Look! Look at the swan!” So I did something that was completely and utterly out of character for me—I fished out a pen and paper and wrote a poem about it.*

It was the first poem I had written since grade school, when like all schoolchildren I was forced to produce embarrassingly indifferent poetry in whatever style was being taught that week in English class. (My crowning achievement, I remember, was something silly about how new shoes made me feel like dancing). But writing it down fed an impulse, and I found myself more and more aware of what my writer friends call the “poetical moment.”

The following years have been marked my tentative flirtations with a state of existence that might be called “fledgling poet.”  Like a wallflower still trying to work up the nerve to walk into the room where the party is. The sheer unlikelihood of the whole thing is what drew me to Abigail Friedman’s The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan (Stone Bridge Press, $14.95).

Friedman is a career diplomat and an accidental poet.  She was stationed in Japan at the time when North Korea first started waving big red nuclear flags, and her days were filled with lengthy reports on the likelihood of a pending Armageddon. It was her job to assess the mood of the country and render it in the succinct emotionless language preferred by the State Department. Perhaps that is what first drew her to haiku, a poetry of mood and moment and a kind of national pastime in Japan the way that gardening might be considered a national pastime in England.

It was while attending a diplomatic function that she had her first encounter with a haiku poet—a pudgy businessman dressed more like he was headed for a golf course than a company board room (or Buddhist temple).  Their brief conversation revealed their mutual interest in poetry “I liked reading haiku before going to bed.” Friedman admits, “They were short and quick to read, and I was a busy person.” The man invited her to come to his haiku group, despite her protests that she only read haiku, she had never written it. He seemed to find this irrelevant.

Over the next year and a half, Friedman learns to write haiku, and in the process learns much about “assessing” the mood of Japan that never makes it into her official reports.

It turns out, there is much more, and yet much less, to haiku than a simple three-line, 5-7-5 syllable format that we all were force-fed in school.  It is a poetry for describing nature, and “seasonal” words are very important. So important that there are books that are nothing more than lists of seasonal words; “Ducks” for example, is a winter word because that is when they arrive at the imperial palace.  So any Japanese, reading a haiku about ducks, would automatically think “winter”. A haiku about ducks and summer flowers would be oddly surreal.

It is, like all poetry, fundamentally oral in its foundation—the seventeen-syllable, 5-7-5 “rule” arises naturally out of the patterns of Japanese speech (and is therefore not really applicable in English, which has different patterns.)

Freidman spends most of the book attempting to write a “true” haiku— which she discovers has little to do with the form of the poem, and everything to do with being true to herself, her experience. She buys herself a stone lantern and spends fruitless hours trying to write a haiku about it (because it is the kind of thing poets write haiku about), and fails. She spends about ten minutes writing a haiku about giving her son a bath, and it is one of the best poems she wrote. She is still trying to write “true” as her time in Japan comes to a close.

The book is not designed to make the reader a poet, but it does, perhaps, help us to pay more attention to our poetical eye. One friend, when she finished reading The Haiku Apprentice, told me that she was much more conscious of the natural world around her—even in the city.  I found myself “framing” odd moments of my life in captions of seventeen syllables, wondering “can I make a haiku out of this?”  Like this morning, when I drove by the hitchhiker on my way back from the supermarket:

“Onward”–a sign

in the bent hands of a man

Sitting by the road.

–Nicki Leone


*Before the Hurricane Comes


Before the hurricane comes, I take the dog for a walk.

Down to our neighbor’s dock

out over the water through the heavy air.  It is still

here at marsh-level,  the clouds above are whipping

by, heavy with rain.

The storm they herald

is still two states away.

Indifferent, the marsh birds stalk

through the spartina, stepping

carefully into the rising tide.  Seabirds

balance, one-footed, on every piling.

And I am standing at the end

of the dock, looking out

when a swan suddenly slips

out of the grass and into view.

I step back–

startled at this sudden change.

a place that was swan-less suddenly full of swan.

It paddles towards me, expecting bread and I wonder

what else is hidden in the grass.

Then the dog lopes up, nails clicking

on the dock and the swan is startled.

A place that was dog-less so suddenly full of dog. Slowly,

deliberately, the swan turns away, intent

on taking itself out of the picture.

The dog smells everything but sees nothing, happily

licking at the spattered grey boards of the dock

I’m morbid enough to wonder

what does bird shit taste like?

The dog, the swan and I all look

up as the jet roars over head.

The sound is all around us although we see nothing

but a ghostly glimpse as it breaks

through one cloud, charges

into another.  It leaves no trace

but this echoing roar.

The swan is gone, leaving no trace

the ripples of its wake disappearing

into the grass,

The dog has gone back, leaving no trace

Just a few soft paw prints

in the marsh mud.

And I go too, leaving no trace

at all, except this.