Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

Haiku: an Animated Critique

Posted: November 14, 2012 in Misc
Tags: ,

The clip below comes from a stand-alone, day-in-the-life story of Sokka – a living, breathing, wise-cracking comic relief device within the animated world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. What it accomplishes so masterfully is a very tongue-in-cheek commentary on how contemporary American audiences appreciate haiku. The premise: Sokka, a member of the Water Tribe, finds himself in an Earth Kingdom town, where he accidentally disrupts a reading of haiku by several girls and their teacher. Watch (total running time for both videos is ~2 minutes):

How this is amazing:
After Sokka inadvertently issues a 17-syllable apology for his intrusion, note the girls’ giggles and applause. At its most vicious, this is academia passive aggressively humoring the clown, but given the young girls’ seemingly earnest reactions, it seems more appropriate to say that they represent contemporary culture lowering the bar for poetic excellence by living in the yuks of the moment – relishing the respite from tradition and all its oppressive rules. Sokka’s utterance is not intended to be a poem and, indeed, disregards all haiku rules (save the syllable count).

Obviously displeased with her pupils’ delighted reactions concerning Sokka’s coincidental phrasing, the teacher stands and counters with a blunt 17-syllable phrase that outlines the syllable requirements of haiku in 12 syllables and finishes with a blatant, 5-syllable insult that also serves to recognize Sokka’s accidental but proper senryu. She sinks down to his level by using plain language, expressing academia’s contempt for those who break form for no reason but accept laurels for what are accidental achievements. Not quite comprehending the rebuke (or encouraged/challenged by it), Sokka, a little more confident, counters with a prideful, 17-syllable introduction and refutation, this time purposefully ending on the seventeenth syllable to show his prowess. More giggling ensues; contemporary culture LOVES the challenge to history. Unfazed by the impression Sokka is making on her students, the teacher strikes back with all the power haiku is capable of pushing with:

chittering monkey
in the spring he climbs tree tops
and thinks himself tall

Here, the teacher attacks Sokka with the perfect haiku: the juxtaposition of two nature-based images, a seasonal word (kigo), a “cutting word” (or kireji, a word the indicated the emphasis of the poem), and yes…a 17-syllable format. While staring directly at Sokka, the teacher’s oral delivery of “Monkey,” not so coincidentally emphasized by “chittering,” is the kireji that identifies Sokka and his behavior regarding his performance (chittering like a monkey, meaning unimportant babble – insult #1). The rest of the poem describes Sokka’s pride in creating false haiku (thinking himself tall despite only having climbed a tree – insult #2).

In the next volley of 17-syllable plain language phrases, an un-disparaged Sokka ignorantly taunts the teacher’s formality by calling haiku easy, while the teacher, still trying to edify while warding off this disturbance, hints at the need for a seasonal word as well as the dedication of time which goes into the craft. Sokka fires back with a bit of crass inference that raises the teacher’s ire and makes her issue an all-out poetic threat:

there’s nuts and there’s fruit
in fall the clinging plum drops
always to be squashed

Again, an epic haiku: all show, no tell, and an emphatic foot stomp which results in a squashed plum (why and how she keeps plums up her sleeve…I really don’t want to know). As if to raise the ante in this epic battle, Sokka retaliates by bringing in his boomerang as both punchline and prop to his playful poem. It’s very important to notice that the word “slang” is invoked and used to express contempt for the teacher’s carefully crafted language by equating it to popular language that has yet to prove its stance against time. The teacher backs down, but not from show of force (Sokka’s raised boomerang). She’s had it playing with this fool and knows he, like all brash fools, will be his own undoing. After all, she has faith in what she’s taught her pupils and how they’ve learned (as evidenced by the first poem read in this story), and Sokka has not taken the time needed to master the poetry that will win their minds. Of course, the teacher is proven right; proud Sokka’s victory poem turns out one syllable too long, and the deviation from the form, unsupported by any other poetic elements, results in a cricket-backed silence and a hard boot out the door.

But think back to the beginning; Sokka is shown to be an appreciator of poetry. He’s melting over the windowsill. His disruption is not intentional. His continued disruption, however, is. Sokka’s ham-it-up nature gets the best of him, and the dreaded argument then rears its ugly head: is the laughter Sokka reaps from bastardizing the elements of haiku any less valuable than the emotions garnered from haiku that follow all the rules? Is reaching “the people” any less important than creating a poem that only epitomizes itself? How is expression worth anything if its essence is beyond most listeners’/readers’/viewers’ sense of patience? Is it still the same mode of expression if the rules are ignored? Concerning the latter, given the culture from which haiku comes and the history of the form, in which the same 5-7-5 structure has changed its name depending on how it has been used, I’d say the answer is no.

If all the requirements are not obliged, haiku is not haiku. It is very technically something else, which is why I fully support nomenclature deviations such as beer-ku (haiku format poems about beer), mean-ku (insult-based poems in haiku format), etc., which infer an aberration while hinting at/honoring the form from whence it was derived. Still, exceptions make the rule; even in classic Japanese literature you find haiku that crack if not break some borders. The difference? They are exceptions. So while it’s fun to ham it up and fool around with a poetic form most malleable, to expect a sustained welcome from the establishment when under-studied or lazy in practice is to test the patience and invoke the wrath of those who’ve toiled so in the name of love for the form which allowed you to get your quick laugh.


(Pictured, left to right: Timothy Liu, Henri Cole, Dan Bellm)

Description from the 2012 Festival’s guide:

“From Sappho to Whitman to Ginsberg to Rich, poetry as we know it would not exist without the contributions of the gay community. No doubt members of the gay community, like those of many other minorities, have found and forged some of their sense of community through the shared experiences and feelings communicated through poetry. How personal pride is discovered and fostered through poetry and the poetry community will be part of this conversation.”

What actually happened:
Not to harp on what wasn’t, but one of the scheduled panelists, Nikky Finney (pictured right), could not make it. This made the discussion rather lopsided in terms of which sex had its say, or as Henri Cole put it, a “matterhorn of cock.” Despite the panel being comprised entirely of males, there was a great diversity in personal experience and perspective … especially when the audience Q&A got rolling. Going in alphabetical order, each poet took turns revealing which poets/poems spoke to them initially, providing comfort in an openness and community which they had yet to know. One of the highlights of the discussion was Timothy Liu likening homosexuality to poetry in that both are something undefinable and affective but not necessarily without reason, a force that brings together the spiritual and the sexual. Another rather fascinating point was brought up by Dan Bellm, when he said the sense of community he’s experienced has existed less in flesh and blood than on the page, referring to a camaraderie he’s felt with poetry written by and reflecting the gay perspective rather than with most people in the world-at-large. Questions from the audience also brought up a lot of good talking points, so go ahead and check out the entirety of the discussion and Q&A below. It’s well worth the listen! Then maybe, if you think more discussions like this should take place, go donate a few bucks to the Foundation that made this possible.

Know your voices:
First speaker – Dan Bellm
Second speaker – Henri Cole
Third speaker – Timothy Liu

*This recording is not sanctioned by the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival or its associated Foundation and is solely offered in faith that 1) no-one reads this blog anyway, 2) it was for the benefit of poetry and those who appreciate poetry that the event took place, and 3) supposedly the Foundation’s own YouTube channel will soon offer coverage of this event anyhoo. In short: please don’t sue. Email me, and I will remove the link permanently as well as delete the files in question from their source.

Excuse me, did you just hear a flush?

Posted: December 26, 2011 in Ink's Poetry

Between what I’ve been reading and how my head’s been operating of late, I’ve been in an odd place language-wise. So while it’s been a long time comin’, I’ve finally got some New Shit for ya!

Lincoln Logs:
Again In My Monster’s Mouth” (Orpheus & Eurydice as an alcoholic couple),
A Groovy I Do” (wedding oaths for the ceremony of the commuter),
Inner Monolog: Love Letter to My Oblivious Wife” (explaining the strong, silent type)
untitled (Call me grey-haired)” (re-imagining wallflowers)
Survivors” (have vs. have-not guilt), and
Casualties” (a eulogy for those fallen in a winter’s battle).


Response Turned Post

Posted: November 30, 2011 in Misc
Tags: , , ,

A recently tweeted link led me to a post by Daniel Nester on the We Who Are About To Die blog concerning the distraction caused by and distaste found in reading poems aloud from mobile devices (iThings, Droids, etc.). Once upon a time, I would have applauded the author’s rant, but my sympathy has grown over the years upon steady exposure to a growing number of talented poets who opt to read from electronic paper rather than pulp. I honestly found the brash humour in the post funny, in a nun-chuckling-at-a-sinner’s-tale sort of way. One of the most winning lines, “We’re writers; we kill trees; that’s what we do,” does not accurately reflect the overarching theme of the rant, but it makes me grin every time I read it. The image used to head the post is also priceless. I didn’t intend to write so much in response, but anything less than a well-structured argument is not worth reading. So my comment became a post all its own. Enjoy:

I thank you, Daniel Nester. Your post made me laugh like some prejudiced father’s son, who, forced by his own embarrassment at his father’s inappropriate outburst, simultaneously apologizes to the surrounding people while giggling over the faux pas with siblings and friends. If you’re truly one of the “old ones,” scrap the blog and send letters to newspapers (if you have time to write betwixt instances of yelling at children to get off of your lawn).

In your argument/rant, I can see shades of valid points concerning techie pride as well as the appropriateness of affluence as related to the generalized fiscal standing of poets. Pertaining to the former, however, I’ve known poets who read from mobile electronics not with pride in the device itself but the poetry which they’ve stored on it – portability and storage density affording opportunities to call up poems perhaps more appropriate than those originally intended if struck by such circumstance, sympathy, or inspiration.

Regarding the new-money poet vibe I’m picking up on (or perhaps reading too much into), a “reckless disregard for money” has always been associated with a poet’s lifestyle. As credit card companies and a relentlessly marketed consumer culture have sunk their fangs into today’s youth, yuppies, and basically anyone with a passable credit score, I cannot help but see parallels with the likes of Lord Byron, who racked up massive debts during his lifetime, as well as the multitudes of creatives who squander what little cash they have and get themselves into debt for the abundance of life’s p(r)etty little distractions in all the forms they take.

I’m a Romantic as much as the next, and my eyes love the feel of paper when reading as much as my palm does when penning notes. I, too, once felt the exact same way you so perfectly relayed in your post, but all it takes to get over any sort of prejudice is exposure to a healthy community. Close your eyes and concentrate on the speaker’s words (you know…the poetry) if you’re too shallow to not be able to get past the format from which a poet is delivering his or her verse. Bad poetry can be read as easily from a page as it can a screen, so if you find the poetry sub-par, I encourage you to walk out embraced by the full knowledge that nothing was there for you. However, if you walk out based on anything other than content, there’s no telling what you’ve missed, and I pity your loss.

Closure by Pyre

Posted: September 28, 2011 in Misc
Tags: , , ,

When I die, if my body escapes being buried by obscurity, burn my mortal remains atop a bonfire built of all my spent spiral notebooks and unfinished works. Let mourners dance among airborne embers, red with their own last breath between mortal eyes and heaven’s lights, through the acrid air belching from melting hard drives and USB keys. If I may be allowed to have such an ego capable of imagining the possibility of my work continuing to survive despite my death, I want no trace of anything I considered unfinished or not fully realized to reach eyes other than my own (which would, by then, be jelly, dust, or whatever eyes turn into upon exposure to fire). Materials such as diaries, notebooks, and unused lines on bar napkins were never meant for public consumption.

Despite the honor people bestow upon authors’ talent and memories by yearning for more of their work after their death, those same appreciators should content themselves with what had already been released as a rare and precious gift instead of diluting an exceptional archive with what is often disappointing developmental underpinnings. However, the fact that humans are nosey and greedy creatures is an opinion I am constantly forced to revisit due to such published reminders as Curt Kobain’s Journals, Marilyn Monroe’s Fragments , and, most recently, David Yezzi’s Uncollected Hecht: An Introduction article in Poetry’s September 2011 issue.

Specifically, it was the following phrase which made me rage in sympathy for the dead poet who could not defend himself against the attack of interest:

What follows in this portfolio is a selection of poems—all uncollected, some previously unpublished—by Anthony Hecht. They are striking in their own right and even more so for the resonances they share with Hecht’s signature poems….

followed by

When Anthony Hecht died in 2004, at the age of eighty-one, his Collected Later Poems had been out from Knopf for three years. Along with his Collected Earlier Poems (1990), the volume constitutes all of the work that Hecht chose to keep in print.

So the poems the author didn’t want published are striking but primarily in how they expose a process already evident in Hecht’s other writings? If all the work Hecht had chosen to be in print, was, then why defile the poet’s wishes? Granted, artists across the board have not always valued what turned out to be their greatest contributions to society, but in a seemingly contradictory statement, what the artist thinks doesn’t matter. The great and ever propagating audience will assign value and merits to anything left behind. So long as the artist agreed to his/her work being put out for public consumption, that work is fair game. On the other hand, if the author was in his/her right mind and not happy with some piece(s), why on Earth drudge a good artist’s name through the messy interpretation of intent associated with drafts, half-expressed thoughts, or worse: personal notes.

Personal writings left behind hold no credence to the artist’s craft. Instead, such remnants speak to the artist, and what survives an artist should only be the art worthy of surviving time. Art, no matter the discipline, should stand on its own two feet and not be flavored by any externally observed aspect of the artist’s life (other than a figurative date and place stamp for historical context). Sure, art can be biographical and gushy and confessional, but such portrayals can also be fictions conjured with the sole purpose of being whatever it was the author meant them to be.

The digital era of social networking and blogging, where people cannot seem to stop themselves from archiving their confessional vomit spewed across the electronic consciousness that is the Internet, has spawned a lack of respect for privacy that is at once also a “finders, keepers” sense of entitlement. Not that this behavior is new; reporters, biographers, and publishers across the ages have been involved in digging up corpses and scraping mold off bones in the quest for money and (mayhaps) insight into the lives of those who influence this world through the sacred art of creativity. But digging up disseminations now is facilitated via the nature of how information is stored and the ability to query an ever-expanding database of humanity’s every waking thought and get results within a fraction of a second via increasingly thorough search engine algorithms.

As part of one of the generations that existed pre- and post-Internet, as a high school student who was initially warned that the Internet has no critically citable references and then three years later required to cite from that very same repository of ill repute for college papers, and, more importantly, as someone who enjoys throwing one-liners over Twitter and sharing bits of life and random thoughts via social networking platforms such as Google+ and Facebook, I recognize the entertainment, utility, and danger in being able to access thoughts that should otherwise be but invisible rumblings inside an artist’s mind. But just as anyone attempting to become known publicly should be discrete in what they show the world, the world should also be 1) smart enough to discern concentual sharing between artist and appreciator and what constitutes invasion of privacy, and 2) forgiving of the babbly nature of the social creature called man.