Friday, November 1, 2013

Haiku, Form and Content


The title of this blog is about an old wish I had that I could craft poetry out of pure form, and for years that was the sort of effort I put into its making, trying to produce that bird of soul and content that Seamus Heaney said Yeats could conjure by working on the cage of form. Part of the motivation for exclusive work on the cage came from Richard Hugo's advice for students in his book The Triggering Town. The part of poetic form he singled out for his students was the most obvious one for poetry: sound. His advice was to use sound, and not imagery or ideas, to hold poems together.

It was a dogged effort on my part, a method I clung to far too long. Hugo said his sound strategy was for beginning students and meant to set them up for the long haul. Sound was not the haul itself. Once in the long haul I found no alternative to sound, and after about eight years my efforts dried up. I had almost no content. All dressed up and nowhere to go: that was the situation.

Of course you never can really separate form and content in poetry, and Heaney's comment actually points to that fact. Sometimes the content becomes clear in the process of concentrating on meter, alliteration and assonance. Working on the cage can also provide an excellent means of finding one's voice even in the absence of a conscious use of content. Such a practice puts all the formal elements in place.

After not writing much at all for a long time, I still find myself with little to say but also with an old desire to work with the words in lines again. Producing this blog has helped rejuvenate the process of writing somewhat. Another practice that has helped is the simple act of moving a pen on paper. That may seem silly, but the neural pathways that have to do with the physical act of writing and the mental one must have some overlap. I also admit to liking writing my alphabet with a pen. Don't ask why.

In January I took on the simple task of writing one haiku a day. I've not been entirely consistent with this vow, and the form is one I've never done with any success until a little bit lately. My haikus often, but not always, try to contain the reference to season and the turning of subject that classical haiku requires. The haiku is a small cage. Manageable for literary invalids.

That's a terrible way to put it, making haiku sound like something not quite grown up, like sets of building blocks with letters on them. I only mean to say that is the way I've used haiku, a form I'll never master. Working on a small cage has helped me write in other forms again, and it has made me see more clearly what content actually is about.

A realization came to me when I thought about what I'd write next year. I thought instead of a haiku a day, I'd try a tanka a day, a tanka essentially being a haiku with two extra lines. The prospect struck fear in me. Would I actually have enough to say to write tanka, to fill up those extra lines? That led to a new consideration.

Maybe I never really lacked things to say. Maybe I worked on cages that were too big, too boomy, so expansive you'd never see the bird even if it showed up. Writing haiku has brought me to a sense of how content can become central to the poem again, as long as the content is meant, is appropriate to my scale of knowledge and concern.

All of this is a rather sorry revelation, one better suited to someone younger than I am, but I'll take it. And I'll recommend a course of study in haiku to anyone lost working on a cage or lost in one. Give it a try. It might help you see more clearly until the next lesson.

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