Thursday, April 26, 2012

You Exist. Details Follow. -- Stuart Ross

The ground had a hunch.
Furniture made no sense.
Oh luminous blur of body destiny!
You huff and puff. You stand
on magnificent corners,
wander into a cage of sunset.
The ground explained
the meaning of sunset.
Whoa. *mind blown*

I think I have met Stuart Ross before, and I think he was that slightly ragged man with the intense stare outside the grocery store who cornered me and wanted to tell me a million important things that made no sense at all. These lines, from “You Exist. Details Follow.”, are typical of his style in his new book of the same name.

Every poem is absurdist in some way. In some instances this is charming and engaging—I think particularly of the line “When we met, poodles sported four legs, just as they had before, and just as they do now — four legs for every poodle.” Some poems wallow in the absurdity to the point of being incomprehensible, but others evoke a strong narrative or relationship though a series of images. I liked the poem “Fathers Shave”:

Father shaves. Details follow.
The blade rips the bristles
from his cheeks, his chin,
from beneath the thunderous
nose. It rips the carpet
and the curtains, rips
Sylvester the Cat
right off the TV screen.
We children cry.
The blade rips the welcome
mat off our porch, the
grass off our lawn,
the trees off our block,
oh weeping willows.
Father goes to the office.
His boss caresses
his smooth face. The
clients ooh and ahh.
The streets are bare
of cars. One planet
hurtles into another.
There are no prizes
in a bag of Cheezies,
but in Pink Elephant
Popcorn you get a
little sticker or maybe
a tiny soldier with a parachute
you can drop out your second-
floor window. Look!
He drifts down.
He drifts in the breeze.
The jays and sparrows
gaze on in wonder.
I like the view through the eyes of children, the sense of the father as this larger-than-life, intimidating force. He is dangerous, barbarous and awesome in the true sense of the word, yet outside the house no one sees this side of him. After he is gone, the children are free to relax and immerse themselves in the minutiae of things that amuse them. Nevertheless, there is always the knowledge that father will return.

Conversely, there are poems such as “Time”:

It’s about time.
It’s about time.
It’s about two astronauts.
Starring ______________ as Blugga.
A brave crew? A strange place?
Prehistoric gals? Sue me.
Tell me where all past years are.
It’s about dinosaurs vs. astronauts.
It’s about their fate.
I feel in this case like putting on my best Simon Cowell voice and asking, “OK, Stuart—how do you think it went?”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

American Copia: an Immigrant Epic – Javier O. Huerta

The inspiration for American Copia comes (according to Javier Huerta’s preface, at least) from Huerta’s citizenship interview.  As part of the “English test”, he was asked to write the sentence “Today, I’m going to the grocery store.”  At the time, Huerta was an English major in college, and so to add a flourish to the interview, he marked the scansion of the line, and pointed out that it is in iambic pentameter.  This tension between the immigrant Spanish speaker and the English Lit buff pervades Huerta’s work, and it is not unusual for him to reference Keats while describing the aisles of the Fiesta supermarket.

According to the preface, Huerta promised the aforementioned immigration official that he would write an epic starting with the line “Today, I’m going to the grocery store,” and this book sets out to do that.  Grocery shopping is a major theme, and through it Huerta explores issues of class, culture, family and literature.  The book as a whole cuts back and forth between “American Copia” episodes, in which he collects short prose anecdotes based on grocery shopping, giving brief asynchronous flashes of his life and relationships, jumping between time and place.  Huerta sees shopping and food as windows into all sorts of experiences and issues—family and relationships weave throughout the scattered narrative.  One episode describes how Marisol, a pregnant Yale student, steals a shopping cart to keep next to her apartment, just in case it is the only way to get to the hospital when she goes into labor.  This observation, both humorous and serious, highlights the juxtaposition seen throughout much of the work—privilege and poverty, the lyrical and the mundane.

Other short works fill out the book: a short drama, many poems, pieces of short fiction.  Huerta switches fluidly between English, Spanish, and Spanglish.  Especially in dialogue, English and Spanish sit comfortably side-by-side in what I imagine (though I am no expert) is an accurate rendition of dialogue in a bilingual culture.  Therefore, reader, you will find much of this work difficult to access if your Spanish is rusty, but that’s part of the point—this work is not for everyone.  This is emphasized early on in an episode that concludes
I remember also one time when Saul and his friends were watching music videos and “Fiesta” by R. Kelley came on.  In the video R. Kelley is at a party, and he and all of his entourage chant, “Fiesta, fiesta.”  Then one of my brother’s friends said, “Hey, fu, sería más tight if they sing, ‘la michoacana, la michoacana.’”  And we laughed.  We started dancing and chanting “la michoacana.”  We could not stop laughing.  It was a joke not meant for you.
In all, I found the book very interesting, but I didn’t feel much emotional connection.  Great poetry stands out for me when I feel an emotion sting acutely while reading, or come across a line which stays with me all day because it is so true.  Nevertheless, I can’t judge Huerta’s work by these standards—it is clear that though I may appreciate it, this book is not for me, nor does it have an obligation to be.  And I do, certainly, appreciate Huerta’s wit, style, and insight.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Misconceptions about Haiku

I had the chance to sit in on a middle school English class one day while substitute teaching. Another teacher was using the classroom after I was done. Instead of going to the staff room, I stayed and observed a lesson on haiku.

Someone in the classroom—maybe this particular teacher—clearly loved haiku: there were books of “cat haiku” and other collections, and a poster with a haiku by Jack Prelutsky on the classroom door. Yet this teacher gave the same definition of haiku that I remembered from when I was in school: it is a poem of five, seven and five syllables, usually about nature. In fact, this is exactly how most Americans would define a haiku.

A friend of mine, Dejah Leger, is deeply into haiku, and through her I have learned how inadequate and even inaccurate this definition is. Traditional Japanese haiku are indeed three lines of five, seven and five syllables, and are technically always about nature (a poem identical in format that instead considers the human condition is a “senryu”). But Japanese not only counts syllables differently than English does, but the words tend to have different numbers of syllables. A poem in English that adheres the five-seven-five syllable might well be too crowded.

Adherence to syllable count, though, is not the central issue. Haiku is about an image—it is not a vehicle for explicit opinion, musing, rhetoric or emotion. All those things must be implicit, and be accessed only through the image.

an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water

Often, the beauty of a haiku is the tension between two images in the poem. Two of the lines of a haiku (often) form a phrase, and the remaining line a fragment. It is this juxtaposition that gives a haiku its significance. Senryu, too, though focused instead on human concerns, are essentially imagist.

A fantastic book for further study on this is Jane Reichhold’s Writing and Enjoying Haiku.

Reichhold argues that the essence of a haiku lies in the connection between two parts of a haiku, the fragment and the phrase, which may come in either order. The significance of a haiku comes from the juxtaposition of these images. Senryu, too, though focused instead on human concerns, follow this same imagist fragment-phrase pattern. As for length, Reichhold recommends about two “beats” in the first and third lines, and three “beats” in the middle, as a rough equivalent to five, seven, and five “on”.

I remember two haiku lessons from my youth, and one by a teacher when I was doing my student teaching, and all missed the mark. In the latter example, the teacher even shared his own “haiku” with the class, which were essentially seventeen syllables of stream-of-consciousness free-association.

The result of classes such as these is that haiku are misunderstood by most Americans. But why would teachers teach haiku this way? Of course, many teachers simply teach what they were taught, often neglecting any research on the assumption that their teachers were correct. But more than that, haiku, taught the way it is taught, fits the requirements of a freshman English class perfectly—it’s easy to read, easy to write, and it teaches about syllables.

It is hard to get students to pay close attention to language, and because the current concept of poetry is so influenced by the modernists, there is very little sense of form in any contemporary poetry that students are exposed to. After reading only free verse, there is little sense among students that a poet crafts and forms a poem rather than simply writing down the first words that come to mind. Haiku of the classroom variety provides the teacher with a simple, accessible way to get students to write a poem in a form (which also aids the student somewhat—imposing limits can dispel the indecision that results from too much freedom). Moreover, it teaches about syllables, which must be taught, but which would be boring and pointless to teach outside of a poetry lesson. Haiku (classroom variety) is the simplest form of syllabic poetry, and it doesn’t require the discussion of meter or prosody. The result is that haiku provides an entry-level exercise in paying attention to language (a noble goal, to be sure).
To alter classroom haiku to more accurately reflect the original tradition would make it more difficult for students because they would have to follow much subtler conventions. The requirements of the poem would be harder to define, and the quality harder to judge. From personal experience, I can tell you that no English teacher wants to call a student’s poem incorrect or inadequate. The bar for haiku is therefore lowered to the point that any student can jump over it, so teachers can say, “Yes, that’s a haiku,” without complicated questions of image, connotation and juxtaposition.

The result is a massive cultural misunderstanding of this form of poetry. Examples include the following. The second of these, through the use of enjambment, escapes the strictures of natural line breaks, and so the 5-7-5 structure morphs into simply a requirement for seventeen syllables. The third of these abandons syllable count altogether; lacking any kind of concrete imagery, it is truly no more than a platitude arranged into three lines.

Underground magic.
Peel brown bundle, mash, pile high.
Salt and pepper clouds.
     Pat Mora, from Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué rico!

Oh good, you’re home. I
Celebrate joyously with
A rousing ear-twitch.
     Deborah Coates, from Cat Haiku

Teach children
Not the limitation of ego
But the omnipresence of life.
     Lily Wang, from Garden Haiku

Consider also the use of haiku in this comic strip (Get Fuzzy, Darby Conley).

The internet is full of “haiku” on all subjects by many enthusiasts, all of which share the same misunderstanding. The popularity of this form in mass culture is likely the same as for teachers. It is quick and easy, and allows the author to compose a poem on a subject with ease. The author can then access some of the cultural cachet that comes with having written a poem, and the observations therein are validated more than if they were rendered in prose. This last comic strip pokes fun at the resulting pretension and vapidity of haiku, but that is only applicable, of course, by the current popular definition.