Posts Tagged ‘Steven Carter’

Haikumania. It’s everywhere.

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

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.

Poetry jumps species: Koko the Gorilla turns 40, announces and judges a poetry contest

Monday, July 4th, 2011

Will cats be next? Can a poem incorporate a purr?

Haiku as a poetry form has become international. Now it’s taken a step beyond that – it’s jumping species altogether.

Today marks the 40th birthday of Koko the Gorilla. To celebrate, she announced a twitter-based poetry contest.

She also judged it.

The winning poem was announced today:

Gentle lady ape
Nimble fingers share her thoughts
Teaching us to love

The winner, in this case the twitter-user met314, gets an “fine art reproduction” of an original painting – also by Koko – titled “Love.”

Second prize for TanyaOsterman:

When I was little
Koko showed me that humans
Did not really know

Third prize for KokoLove40:

Art by Koko

Signing love polite
Koko’s gifts of heart and mind
Change the world for good

Honorable mention for coda1229:

Koko is our own
Example of life’s beauty
She shows we are one

The contest defined the haiku form as 17 syllables total, with three lines of 5-7-5 syllables, “expressing your birthday wishes to Koko,” and submitted via a tweet @kokotweets account with the hashtag #kokohaiku in the message. “Each line of the Haiku poem must be separated by period, comma or slash mark.”

Third prize

Well, that’s a minimalist understanding of haiku, which was as exactingly rule-bound as chess – in fact, more so.  And the rule about punctuation is a new one on me – presumably they meant to preempt mindless enjambment.

I recently spoke with a Japanese scholar, Steven Carter, who expressed the cheering, disconcerting, and dispiriting effect of the universality of haiku. We now have baseball haiku, pregnancy haiku, redneck haiku – you get the picture.

As Tom Stoppard, whose birthday was yesterday, by the way, claimed:  ‎”Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”  Somehow haiku has become the self-esteem form to assign to elementary classes, which is both a good and bad thing.  In any case, Koko’s haiku-writing fans had to be 18 to participate in the contest.

Second prize

Animals reading and critiquing poetry, of course, sends us into a whole new arena.  I wonder if they’ll be better than some of the current lot.  It’s possible.  Like haiku, the bar isn’t high.

Koko not only speaks American sign language, she is able to share jokes, create and name works of art, and even read written words – not bad, for a gorilla purchased more or less at random from the San Francisco Zoo.  The mind boggles, really, at the implications.

Whatever. Picture of Koko and birthday here.  Picture of Koko enjoying a book on the same link.  Send a birthday message to Koko here: Subscribe to Koko’s email newsletter here. And donate to the Gorilla Foundation here, to “help Koko save her species” – because Koko is, as well as writer, reader, connoisseur, critic, and artist, a humanitarian … or should we say gorillarian?

Happy birthday, Koko.

Perhaps I ought to send a reputable translation of Bashō?

Postscript on 7/6:  My interview with Steve Carter on “haikumania” is online today, here.