Archive for July 6th, 2011

Haikumania. It’s everywhere.

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011
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Carter: It's not as easy as it looks. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Haiku has been ubiquitous as an art form for just about as long as I remember.  Partly, that’s because it’s generally supposed to be easy.  Pull together three lines in a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, then – bingo!

All you need to do is count and lineate.

There is, of course, more to it than that.  That’s why I found my conversation with Japanese scholar Steve Carter so refreshing. Haiku, as developed in the 12th century, was a communal art form, as rule-bound as chess.  The seasonal words and motifs, the grammatical turns, the topics for each verse in a long string of verses were carefully governed.  Moreover, the educated person was more or less expected to trippingly invent these on the spot, for the admiration (and evaluation) of the others.

Of course, the West had its own ideas – Carter said the form was adopted by the Beats, who saw it as a zen-like attempt to abandon the rules.

Want to get a feel for the olden days?  You might try next month’s “Head-to-Head Haiku Slam” at the National Poetry Slam in Boston, Aug. 9-13.  Here’s the description:  “Do you think you’ve mastered the art of concise poetry? This three-day event will determine who has the best seventeen syllable poetry in Cambridge. Whether you call it haiku or senryu, this slam has its own special rules and unique judging system. If you plan on competing, you’re going to need dozens and dozens of haiku ready, as this is one of the most popular events at nationals.”

Well, so much for on-the-spot invention.

A poem a day keeps the engineer at play

I’m told (though Steve couldn’t confirm) that the first newspapers in 19th century Japan even told the news using haiku, which the first verse, hokku, in a long string of verses called renga.  This didn’t show up in my research, either – but this did.  I learned the remarkable story of Google software engineer Freeman Ng and his website Haiku Diem.  Through his Haiku Diem Facebook page, Twitter feed, blog, and mailing list, he has over 4,000 readers, and it’s climbing:

July 9th will be the one year anniversary of Haiku Diem, a website that started as a simple writing exercise but which has grown into a high tech experiment in self-publishing and online community building.

“I began this on a lark,” says Ng. “I wondered how many consecutive days I could keep it up, and thought I might go a month at most. Two things have happened since then. First, the writing has become so ingrained into my daily life that I can’t imagine ever stopping. Second, the growth of my readership has made me rethink how I might be able to get published some day, and even to rethink what it means to be published in the first place.”

His remarks suggest that haiku is addictive, in a addition to being ubiquitous.  Thanks to his daily, online readership, he probably has more readers than almost any mainstream poet, which will stand him in good stead:  “Some day, I might have to self-publish them,” explains Ng, “and if that happens, it will be invaluable to have what is essentially a mailing list of thousands of people who love my writing to market them to.”

Meanwhile, don’t forget to check out Koko the Gorilla‘s haiku contest, in time for the primate’s 40th birthday.  To my best knowledge, it’s the first time a non-human has announced announced and judged a poetry contest.

As Terry Hummer said on his Facebook page: “I think gorillas should judge all poetry contests.”

My goodness.  I thought they did.