The Robot Speaks of Chrysanthemums
Haiku and Other Syllabic Forms
Haiku, according to America:
Most kids seem to have bumped into haiku in school somewhere. Five! Seven! Five! they yell, triumphant. Which is true. After an eight hundred year history in Japan, the basic structure of a haiku – three lines: five syllables, seven syllables, five again – has made it firmly into the American educational system. I myself spent at least one night of my college career composing haiku with my housemates about the ingredients in our pantry. And like many things, our American understanding of haiku has lost some depth in translation. It’s exciting to me that American school kids are conversant with an eight-hundred-year-old Japanese poetic form, but I wish their understanding went deeper. Five! Seven! Five! is only the beginning of where you can go with the haiku form, and with syllabic poems more generally.
I actually de-emphasize counting syllables in haiku, except silly haiku about dry goods. More important is that the poem is like a drawing done with just a few quick lines, simple and clear and arresting in some way.
Maybe it’s an image or juxtaposition that surprises:
No one spoke,
The host, the guest,
The white chrysanthemums.
~ Ryota (1718-1787), trans. Kenneth Rexroth
Maybe it’s a stillness and then a change and the stillness again but different:
The old pond;
a frog jumps in –
the sound of the water.
~ Basho (1644-1694), trans. R.H. Blyth
Maybe it’s a bit of sly humor:
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
~ Issa (1763-1828), trans. R.H. Blyth
I encourage my students to imagine their haiku is like a snapshot that has one unexpected thing in it. A quick frame, then a shift. If they want to count syllables too, excellent. If not, I don’t care. (To differentiate syllables, have your kids try talking like an old-school robot: Hel-lo I am a ro-bot. I am speak-ing, un-like the white chry-san-the-mums. )
As it falls first snow
then rain, then ice.
Cranes. Tall-legged birds,
cannot fly, nor run, nor leap.
Cranes cry, coo-roo, roo.
The rooster crows loud
yet the bull and cows sleep
and the kale does nothing.
Playing with Syllables:
To play more directly with syllables, I like to have my students invent their own syllabic patterns and try to follow them throughout a poem. That itself could be the prompt, or you could show them other syllabic poems.
Telling them not to worry too much about what it’s about, I share the opening three stanzas of “The Fish,” by Marianne Moore:
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the
split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating….
We look for patterns. We see the first two lines in each stanza rhyme, as do the third and fourth. We notice the one syllable first line, the three syllable second line. We figure out whether the other lines also follow syllabic rules. We feel the difference between how the short lines and long lines feel.
Then I show them the first stanza (or the whole) of May Swenson’s “Question” :
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
We again look for patterns, feel the evenness of the lines with their four syllables each, and feel the little hiccup in the last line where when you are fallen breaks that pattern, just as the falling she speaks of will break the pattern of her life.
The Secret Power of Writing with Rules:
Then I send them off to invent a syllabic rule for themselves and follow it. It can be fun to try a few: short lines, long lines, even lines, long and short mixed together. How do the line lengths change how a poem feels? And what interesting things come out of your brain when you’re too busy counting syllables to stop them?
The puzzle aspect of this form can be especially satisfying to the mathematically-minded, logic-focused kids whose creativity tends towards problem-solving rather than loosey-goosey artsy-fartsy expression. However, all of us have a logical side that gets the willies thinking about what might come out of the murk of our imagination. We have to distract that side of us sometimes when we’re creating. What better way to distract the logical brain than to give it a rule that involves counting? No wonder haiku have stuck around.
I’ll leave you with a lovely syllabic poem written by one of my older students.
on your limbs
sway in the wind like
flags on a flag pole. Your leaves, which are
bigger then my head, fall to the ground lightly.
in thick clumps
all around you. Don't
you notice all the things that get life
from your skin? From your branches? You carry much.
along you and call
out, making the forest so alive.
Foxes make their homes underneath your large roots.
will you let me bask
underneath your branches, in your shade?
Your dream-like swaying draws me forward to you.