A recent article in the Schenectady Daily Gazette about police using too much sick leave and comp time to avoid the busiest patrol shifts caused a jarring bit of guilt on my part. Clearly, I’ve been shirking my duties on the haiku quality control beat, in the 6 months since issuing my fragnum opus “too many tell-ems: psyku lower haiku quality.”
You may recall that I’ve been lamenting the escalating trend of haiku journals publishing “tell-ems”, in which the poet “tells” what is on his or her mind (stating an insight or intellectual conclusion, or naming an emotional state) rather than “showing” us through images based on sensory experiences. As I said last May:
They may in fact constitute wonderful insights into the world, humanity, or the poet’s psyche. A few might belong in a list of the wisest epigrams or wittiest bon mots. Some readers might think they are excellent free verse poems despite their brevity. Nevertheless, psyku do not belong in our finest haiku journals and anthologies as examples of the best haiku or senryu being written in English — even if their authors are among the most respected haijin alive and the poem is structured to look or feel like haiku.
Sadly, despite voluminous research and quotes from a multitude of leading haiku scholars and luminaries, my complaints have been no more successful than similar attempts at this weblog to uphold the quality of legal services and viability of lawyer ethical rules and standards. Although I have recently sworn off lawyer punditry and playing the role of the conscience of the profession, I’m going to persevere a bit longer in pestering the haiku community about the dangers of “psyku” — especially, because the gap between my views and those of leading editors and awards-judges seems to be increasing, while my pleasure in reading many haiku journals, collections and anthologies is rapidly declining.
[orig.] Anchovies on the side: Some in the haiku community of poets, editors, scholars and readers might believe that tell-ems and the whole “psyku genre” are like literary anchovies — just a matter of an acquired taste (rather than of quality or definition), an option that deserves to remain on the menu of the best journals. If they are merely a matter of taste, tell-ems are a haikai flavor I am simply not willing to ingest, while waiting for my taste buds to be subdued, converted or numbed. Nor, as with anchovies, am I willing to succumb to pressure from purportedly more-adventurous or sophisticated peers, and to order up publications that contain tell-ems, with the understanding that I’ll just ignore them, eat around them, or place them to the side.
Every tell-em in a leading haiku journal, or in the winner’s circle of a kukai or award ceremony, is taking the spot that could have contained a better poem, while leaving an unwanted aftertaste and the growing risk of one-breath reflux on a tide of half-baked, three-line pseudo-tanka.
The anchovy analogy came to mind recently when I ran across one of my all-time favorite senryu in the course of a book review:
the little pile
This poem works so well as haiku/senryu because Roberta took a familiar concept (that could easily have resulted in a poetic cliche) and deftly illustrates it for us, rather than spelling it out. She tells us what was experienced, not what she thought about, or what we should conclude on the subject. She leaves it up to the reader to fill in blanks and ellipses with insights, or empathy, or questions about what was on her mind and on her lips that night.
In the hands of a lesser poet — or one who was simply not willing to take the time to invoke “the first-date anchovy experience” with a sensory image rather than a mere explanatory phrase — we could have wound up with an epigrammatic “insight,” a wry-ku bon mot such as:
i know the rule:
Or, perhaps a palpably inferior, regretful “sigh-ku,” like:
no goodnight kiss —
why did I have anchovies
on our first date?
The Beary Anchovy example seems to me to be a great teaching tool: an example that reminds us that the best haiku and senryu do not merely embody an interesting notion written in 17 syllables or less. The challenge of haiku — the task in crafting the highest quality haiku, at least as it has been practiced over the past few decades by those writing in the English language — is to share an experienced moment of insight, awe or heightened awareness and connection, by showing not telling.
As I said in my original tell-em essay,
Crafting the right juxtaposition of sensory images to evince the insight the haiku poet wants to share or suggest is not always easy, even for the best haijin. That’s actually my point: doing it right can be difficult, requiring special skill, creativity and focused effort. Taking the shortcut of direct explanation makes the poem — however else it might succeed — a second-rate haiku.
A tell-em is built on a lesser aspiration and gives the reader a lesser, restricted role in the overall exerperience of the poem.
Angry Anchovies logo
I’m still reluctant to draw direct attention to any particular psyku examples that I find in print or online. Although I’ve been willing to aggravate lawyers at this weblog over the past few years, I am not eager to alienate haijin — whose skin often seems considerably thinner than that of my legal brethren. Indeed, the perpetrators of some rather prominent tell-ems are in fact among my favorite poets, and even my best friends.
Nonetheless, I thought I might use anchovy parody poems to playfully illustrate the pitfalls of the tell-em phenomenon. For example, the Grand Prix winner of a recent A-Bomb memorial contest inspired me to pen this fishy shadow version of an anti-war “haiku”:
first date turmoil —
anchovies stifle the wishing
of the aging matchmaker.
Yes, the original poem was almost this loaded and awkward (and in fact read like a sentence written on three lines, and actually ended with a period).
Similarly, I don’t know what the HSA Executive Committee was eating when it chose the “best” poem from a recent issue of Frogpond, but it sure gave me indigestion. Although the original was written by one of the most honored and talented haijin on the planet, it precipitated the following, analogous small-fish “sighku/psyku” nightmare:
date’s end —
what made me think I needed
As I encounter tell-ems in high places, I will probably craft more anchovy parodies, so watch this space for updates. Of course, I’d much prefer that haiku poets and editors heed my plea from last May:
If only to spare themselves the pain of reviewing the ever-rising flood of wryku and sighku by the less talented [and more pompous] among us, editors should draw the line and exclude (or segregate) tell-ems. They shouldn’t be shy about returning a poem to its author with a note saying “nice idea with good potential; please see if you can convert this psyku into a genuine, first-rate haiku by substituting a sensory image for your explanatory phrase.” If it happens often enough, haijin will submit fewer tell-ems and produce better poetry — and our journals will contain noticeably better haiku.
update (April 10, 2008): As I mentioned, in our posting on the 2008 Anita Sadler Weiss Awards, one of the honored poems — which is favorably compared to a couple of classic poems that solely use sensory images — has won a place among our anchovie-ku:
all I don’t know
That last line turned an interesting poem into an instantly trite psyku — half a haiku attached to a cliche. I can’t imagine how this poem — by an author of many fine haiku — garnered so much praise. And, despite not wanting to offend the cream of the haiku community, I humbly offer my dissent.