For the month of February, I did a little project to use up my stationery by sending a haiku every day to a friend or relative selected at random.
Most of those people received a notecard or postcard that started nearly the same as this blog post (“As you might have seen on Facebook, for the month of February, I’m doing a little project…”) but after that boilerplate beginning, I did make each personal by picking a haiku specifically for them.
In order to find a haiku for each person, I spent a lot more time reading haiku than one might just in the course of a normal month. And, as one might expect, I also spent a lot of time thinking about haiku.
Some of these thoughts were as brief as a haiku, like: haiku is the original hashtag rap.
Some developed over time, like: wondering if all the haiku poets were somewhat constitutionally similar. The world view expressed in haiku can start to seem very specific, even beyond the prescribed structure. They often express a sort of rueful humor under an occasionally elegiac tone (although maybe it’s just that I kept returning to Issa because for one, I really like Issa, and for another, there’s a searchable online database with thousands of his haiku).
I wondered why I like haiku at all as it seems at odds with what I’m usually looking for in an artistic experience. I like to be immersed, I like to be, as I often say, conked over the head with the cast iron skillet of an inescapable work. I don’t want to watch movies, I want to watch 60 hours of The Sopranos. I don’t want to read short stories, I want to read The Magic Mountain even if it takes me forever. To paraphrase Liberace: too much of a good thing is wonderful(ly obliterating).
So why haiku, the tiniest of tiny artistic experiences? Why have I been attracted to it for so many years?
I realized its appeal is separate (but not necessarily mutually exclusive) from what I like in longer narrative forms. What I like about haiku can and usually does occur in those forms. What I like is that it is elliptical, things referred to but only sketched out with the briefest of brushstrokes.
I like in haiku what I struggle with in my own work: confidence and a very specific type of economy. I always want to explain. I am afraid to ask the reader to see three dots and connect them on their own; I want to pick up their hand and insert the pencil and help them draw it and then maybe if they also need some help with any yard work or can I review their resume for the job they are applying for.
I also feel this need to provide every detail as though the reader is some suspicious cross-examining attorney. “HOW did the character get there? What flavor of LifeSaver was in her purse? When did she buy them? With cash? Well then WHERE IS THE CHANGE IN HER PURSE? We better stop this narrative right now and catalog everything.”
It is hard to get any momentum going when you envision your reader as a head-shaking, arm-crossed skeptic.
Like right now, as I write this post, I want to explain why I’m writing this post, to have it earn its right to exist. I feel like this is a common thing from the online world. We cannot just have a story be a story or a thought be a thought. There has to be a hyperbolic reason for it to exist or a Life Lesson to wrap it all up. Always a defensible why.
To not provide every detail, to not connect all the dots, to let something exist for no other reason than for it to exist as it is… I feel challenged to do that. But when I think of qualities other than the immersive nature of what I like, perhaps the more abstract or textural qualities…it is this elliptical nature that appeals to me.
When I first heard dub music – specifically the tracks on the album Dub Specialist - 17 Shots from Studio One – something in my brain just relaxed.
Here is a reggae song but oh wait, here don’t worry about a verse or a chorus or a bridge or if it gets anywhere in particular, we’ll just take this one bit of the guitar and just reverb it a bunch and that’s all we need.
(Incidentally, the youtube uploader who put that song online is also one of my favorite video makers: every single one of his or her 100+ videos is just this same shot of a record playing. Who ever needs to make a music video again?)
A dub song could strip things down,sometimes making the song quite bare but somehow also so full and pleasing.
And bokeh and shadow in photography have the same effect on my brain, this pleasing effect of showing just what’s needed. What more is gained from razor-sharp detail?
This all came together to me in the past once before, actually, when reading a description of Mikhail Baryshnikov that called him a “master of gesture.” (Or something like that. Now I am unable to google my way to any proof that this quote ever truly existed. This anecdote will never hold up under cross-examination!)
“A-ha!” I thought at the time, “gesture.”
What is the minimum required to communicate the maximum? And how do you have the confidence to only set down that minimum?
A final haiku for February, this one by Nick Vigilio:
after the bell,
within the silence,