Thursday, January 12, 2006

The function of number in poetry seems always to privilege small numbers & prime numbers. We don’t, for example, discuss the ten-syllable line, but factor it into primes: iambic pentameter. All the numbers in haiku – three for the lines, five-seven-five for syllables per line, even seventeen overall – are themselves primes. Of major historical forms, only the quatrain, sonnet & sestina really violate this impulse. This doesn’t mean that the haiku as a form is “better than” the sonnet, nor vice versa, but rather that there are different dynamics at play & that these dynamics might be worth further investigation.

My own sense – and the inner structure of the quatrain is my case in point – is that the reading mind, even if it is not thinking “formally,” not contemplating number as it reads, nonetheless will divide anything that is divisible. The quatrain can be variously organized – if rhymed, it can run AABB or ABAB or ABAC or ABCB or ABCA or ABCC, etc. But we tend not to think of the quatrain not as a poem, as such, tho it certainly can be, but rather more often as a unit, call it stanza or strophe, from a larger whole. In free verse, so called, we often find the quatrain treated again as units, one lengthy phrase running two, maybe three, lines, followed by a final phrase or couplet. It’s precisely because the mind sees/hears those potential divisions that poets can take them up, play with them, do almost anything at all, the form is so resilient & various.

If dividing is compulsive, then primes are indeed privileged, as the instance of irreducible resistance. Yet even here we find internal dynamics can be quite profound. For example, it strikes me as no coincidence that the haiku ends on a short line, that the tercet is not cast into a five-five-seven format. The reduction of quantity from seven to five syllables is felt, perceptible to the reader or listener, heard as a form of emphasis, literally as force. For exactly this reason, many of Charles Olson’s much larger poems start out with long lines that progressively grow shorter as the poem chugs along. In the traditional haiku, the break between the second & third line combines with the brevity of the last line to sonically signal the “aha” experience so often found there. A more complicated format to work with, the lune, uses a five-three-five syllabic structure. But I suspect that it is precisely the lune’s need to end on a longer line that has made it a more recent & modest variant of the haiku.

So a short form that reverses this strategy is setting itself a difficult task. It’s not that you cannot structure a poem so that the last line is longest in a way that signals completion not entropy, but it’s a tough assignment. Here are two examples from the same poet, Jilly Dybka:

giga. Not
far enough away.


this way
and that. Cows.

The first of these strikes me as successful – the enjambment at the end of the second line enacts the poem’s content, which in turn sets up a perfect rationale for a last line that has no hard sounds whatsoever. It’s really a model of concise structure – everything contributes. The second, tho, scratches down the blackboard of my soul. There is no good reason for Cows to exist in that last line, and the line breaks are passive. The poem might have been stronger if there had been a colon or dash after that, but not all that much. It’s a very jarring experience for me to see the two of these, one atop the other, on the same page in The First Hay(na)ku Anthology¸ edited by Jean Vengua & Mark Young.

Hay(na)ku – that final syllable is pronounced ō – a form invented by Eileen Tabios, has roots of sorts in what she calls Pinoy haiku, part of the literary diaspora of the Filipino people. It also has roots, perhaps even stronger, in the social phenomenon of blogging. This anthology is simply the first gathering of this new form. Curiously, it’s the second anthology I’ve come across this month to have multiple prefaces, although here, unlike Switch & Shift, they feel complementary rather than repetitive, perhaps because each editor wrote one, then Crag Hill wrote a third, then the editors jointly contributed a fourth. Tabios contributes an afterword that is a lively history of this form, which is, after all, less than three years old.

But reading this book, I don’t think that haiku is the right reference at all, precisely because of the ways in which that long last line sets up the potential for division, for “reading” the first two lines as proportional to what is about to come. Rather, if it’s closest social predecessor as a form is flarf, that earlier mode of Internet-enabled verse, hay(na)ku operates much more like the quatrain. Thus, the very first two contributors here use it to define a stanza, rather than to operate as a closed mode. Indeed, more than half of the book does so. Here is the first of Tom Beckett’s pieces:

is the
fabric of consciousness.

responsibility of
To attend

its woof
and weave – to

it, even.
Paying close attention

in itself,
a political act.

The key to this poem is starting the last sentence on the longest line in the poem – it not only counter-balances the deliberately Projectivist linebreaks that have come before, but also sets up the final line to sound relatively short & full of impact, reinforced by ending on a hard consonant. Further, Beckett’s ear exploits what Zukofsky demonstrated continually in “A”-22 & 23, that words-per-line formats offer amazing variety in terms of syllabic weight – just look at how Beckett deploys one & two-syllable words.

Of the poets who focus more on the short form of hay(na)ku, only Sheila E. Murphy strikes me as consistently strong (& even her pieces are mostly linked, set off by asterisks). The other short pieces are, like Dybka’s, hit & miss. Where this book really excels tho are in the longer poems (tho none truthfully is long, not in the sense that Ted Enslin might recognize, say) where the mode operates quite efficiently as stanzaic form. Murphy & Thomas Fink both demonstrate how it might be used further, to construct more complex stanzaic models. Here is Fink’s, entitled “from Hay(na)ku box sequence 2”:

collecting pockets,
can one spiral
an honest
magnet? I have
thrift. We
await them impatiently.

Watching the birth & evolution of a new form is fascinating. And, unlike flarf, which is a process, hay(na)ku is a form. But what kind of form is it? Poem or stanza? Again, I think the answer lies in looking at the quatrain, which is more stanza than finished work. That, ultimately, is what I think this first generation of hay(na)ku writers have created – not a poem, but a stanza, simple, supple, elegant, capable of considerable variation. That’s quite an accomplishment.