Monthly Archives: May 2016

Revision Process Revealed?

GoodIn his second posthumous collection of haiku, Crestwood Lake: New and Selected Haiku Poetry (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2003), Bernard Lionel Einbond has three versions of a similar poem interspersed throughout the text, possibly suggesting that each poem has independent value. The three poems, in order of appearance, are as follows:

peeling the apple
in an unbroken spiral—
year’s end

[p. 11; the book’s opening poem, thus one that is given emphasis]

peeling the apple
in an unbroken spiral
at years end

[p. 13; the only changes are adding “at” and removing the dash and the necessary apostrophe; the omitted apostrophe seems to be simply a typo]

peeling the apple
in an unbroken spiral—
winter afternoon

[p. 35; this version shows how the last line distinctly changes the character of the poem]

The first two of these poems seem like two variations of a draft (the missing apostrophe, if faithful to an original source, would suggest that the second poem was an unpolished draft). The third poem, however, is somewhat different in mood because of the last line, even if all three poems might take place at about the same time. As for the similarity, one may conclude that, because this is a posthumous collection, the editor(s) chose to assert no authority on selecting a best version (the poems in question seem to be new, rather than being “selected” from a previous book). Eileen Allman, in a brief introduction, quotes Einbond as writing “the rose at each moment/a different rose” (5). We may then ask, are these different moments? Or are they the same moment told in slightly different ways? Perhaps we are fortunate to see them all so we might decide for ourselves. The canon of haiku by Japanese masters includes poems in variations like this, but usually they can be seen as cumulative improvements or revisions, whereas in this case, especially when the book is a posthumous publication, I don’t think we can view any one version as supplanting earlier versions, or even know which is earliest, as we might with the Japanese masters.

Two other pairs of poems are highly similar to each other in the same book, the first pair of which switch the point of view:

Crestwood Lake—such calm
I must be back in Japan—
summer mist

[p. 43]

Crestwood Lake—
it must remind them of home—
my Japanese neighbors

[p. 45]

Aaron and Julia
grown up now—other children
feeding the ducks

[p. 47]

the children grown up,
waiting for their children
to come feed the ducks

[p. 66]

It may be best to think of these similarities as drafts rather than deja-ku, because of the posthumous context. My sense here is that the book collects poems that were available after the author died, and that the author might have picked just one version as best if he had still been alive. That is what I’d normally expect of poets—to be your own editor. In this case, however, we may well have a revealing window into the author’s writing process that we would not have had otherwise. Which variation do you like best in each case?

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Finding Sources

GoodSometime we look too hard or too far to find connections or sources in deja-ku. In The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Boston: Shambhala, 1996, pages 88–89), translators Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping present the following words by Wang Chuanshan (also known as Wang Fuzhi, 1619–1692), from Ginger Study Comments on Poetry:

Consider these lines:

Setting sun on the great banners.
In the braying wind, horses neigh.

—Du Fu

How can one say the source of this couplet is

The horses neigh and bray.
The banners slowly swell.

from The Book of Songs

With their different intentions, these sad and happy scenes cannot borrow from each other. This is only a coincidence of words. The problem with Song dynasty people is that they always are looking for the source of everything. Especially those who are sour nincompoops demand a source for every line, as if poetry were always the source of poetry. In this way they seek self-justification and a basis for their judgments.

Du Fu’s couplet goes:

I’m going to buy a gallon of wine
since I happen to have three hundred bronze coins.

On this basis, they figured out the price of wine in the Tang dynasty. But Cui Guopu’s lines state,

To buy one gallon of wine
only costs ten thousand bronze coins.

So if you buy wine from Du Fu’s vendor and sell it to Cui Guopu, you can make a profit of more than thirty times your investment! Those who go looking for sources produce imbecilities such as this.

Indeed, perhaps it is madness to look too much for sources for deja-ku, in that surely, no matter how far back you go, someone else probably said the same thing sometime before. As Ecclesiastes told us, there’s nothing new under the sun. Consider this oft-repeated anecdote from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (New York, Bantam, 1988, page 1):

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Here’s a relevant passage from Suzanne Brock’s Idiom’s Delight: Fascinating Phrases and Linguistic Eccentricities (New York: Times Books, 1988, pages 134–135) on how deeply our sources can go:

The French lay claim to [the idiom] Il n’est sauce que d’appétit (There’s no sauce like appetite). Dig deeper, and you’ll find it in medieval Latin: Fames est optimus coquus (Hunger is the best cook). Long before that, in Greece, Xenophon said, “There’s no condiment like appetite.” Cicero put it another way: “I hear Socrates saying that the best seasoning for food is hunger; for drink, thirst.”

The ancient Romans had a ready response to this sort of persnickety probing into authorship:

Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt.

Freely translated this means: “To hell with those who said our good words before us!”

Also in Suzanne Brock’s book, we find the following idioms and commentary (pages 155 to 158):

It is art to conceal art.
Ars est celare artem.

—Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 17. Roman poet.)

A beautiful face is a silent recommendation.
Formosa facies muta commendation est.

—Publilius Syrus (Flourished 45 B.C. Roman writer)

The same thought occurred to Ovid: “A pleasing face is no small advantage.” And to Virgil: “Even virtue is fairer when it appears in a beautiful person.” The best such version is anonymous: Sat pulchra, si sat bona (Handsome enough is good enough).

There is always something new out of Africa.
Ex Africa simper aliquid novi.

—Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79. Roman naturalist, counselor to emperors.)

He’s paraphrasing Aristotle’s words: “There is always something new out of Libya.”

And yet we also find the following:

Do not do what is already done.
Actum ne agas.

—Terence (Circa 190–158 B.C. Roman comic dramatist.)

So even Ezra Pound wasn’t making it new when he said “Make it new.” But that’s not the only antecedent. In her essay “The Question of Originality” in Nine Gates, Jane Hirshfield notes that “New writers soon learn Ezra Pound’s injunction ‘Make it new,’” yet she points out that this injunction “is itself a variation of Tolstoy’s ‘Make it strange’” (47).

Ringing the Changes

GoodOne variation of deja-ku might be referred to as “ringing the changes,” or to explore as many variations of a theme, subject, or phrase as possible, like a bell-ringer at a carillon. Jim Wilson, writing as Tundra Wind, did this with his 1990 book Pine and Pond, in which he repeated that phrase as the first line of each of a hundred haiku. As I read the book, I found myself having to consciously reinvigorate the phrase in my mind to keep it from being merely rote repetition, a process that engaged me in each poem in an unexpected way.

I’ve tried similar explorations with my many “neon buddha” poems. I’ve also used the phrase “hydrogen jukebox” and other repeated subjects or phrases in various poems, especially in my book with Tanya McDonald, Seven Suns / Seven Moons (forthcoming from NeoPoiesis Press). The master of this exploration, though, is surely Karma Tenzing Wangchuk, who has produced three books that each focus on a specific subject repeated in each haiku. 90 Frogs explores frog poems, and not just as updates or allusions to Bashō’s famous frog poem. Stone Buddha offers 53 poems with this repeated phrase, and Moon Rising, with 81 poems, explores the moon in all its phases. All three books were gathered together in Frog Stone Buddha & Moon (Windsor, Connecticut: Bottle Rockets Press, 2013). Here’s a selection where all three subjects appear in a single poem, surely written with deliberate self-awareness:

midsummer moon—
a bullfrog serenades
the stone buddha

There’s something cathartic about such explorations, to delve deeply into a subject to find freshness despite much repetition, the way one can still find fresh ways to write about cherry blossoms or falling snow. It’s the same bell you’re ringing, but you’re ringing it in a different way each time. I imagine that it’s much like repeating a rosary or a Buddhist sutra, where one continues to find new meaning because of the repetition. Ringing the changes of a particular subject in haiku would seem to help the writer—and the reader—get past obvious things that one could say, or that we have heard others say, and to find new meanings. Sometimes the first thought isn’t the best thought, because it’s sometimes tired or too obvious. The implication for other sorts of deja-ku, except for plagiarism, is that the poem must find nuances of meaning despite being similar to another poem sharing the same subject. If a real nuance isn’t present, then it would seem that the poem is merely a repetition and thus problematic. But if the nuance is there, then readers should be careful to look beyond the surface similarity to respect and understand the nuance. I do not mean this to be a license to be overly similar or lazy, but a challenge to find nuance, the way we must when writing about cherry blossoms or the moon.

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Celebrating Shared Subjects

GoodPerhaps the most easily celebrated category of deja-ku is poems that share the same subject. Haiku will often share the same season word, for example, but any two poems that share the same subject, no matter what it is, are bound to find echoes between them. This commonly happens in haiku because human experience itself is common to us all. So it is natural that we would write poems about subjects that move us—and surely we’re all moved by similar subjects, resulting in similar poems. In fact, we often resonate with a poem we read because we’ve had the same experience ourselves, or we hope that others will resonate with poems we write because they’ve had the same experience.

Nevertheless, it’s still useful to write freshly, so as not to repeat what has been done before, or at least not too much. For many years I’ve been associated with the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival and its annual Haiku Invitational contest that seeks poems written about cherry blossoms (its 2016 deadline is coming up on 1 June). I’ve served as a judge for six years, and as an advisor and volunteer for all the other years since the first contest was held in 2006. Over the years many thousands of poems have poured in from around the world, practically all of them on the same subject. And yes, there are too many poems about cherry blossoms looking like snow or confetti—a way of seeing cherry blossoms that long ago lost its freshness. It would be easy to take a cynical viewpoint and think that it’s impossible to write anything new about cherry blossoms, yet each year the best poets find a way, just as Japanese poets have found a way to do the same thing with cherry blossom haiku in Japanese—over many centuries. So while it’s fine for haiku to have shared subjects, it’s still a good idea for poets to provide fresh nuances in presenting each subject.

As an example of a shared subject in haiku that is a kind of deja-ku worth celebrating, the following is a selection of haiku from the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival’s annual Haiku Invitational contest from 2006 to 2014 (one selected from all the various prize categories awarded each year). Please join me in celebrating these poems and the ephemeral subject they share in common.

cherry blossoms
I fold my résumé
into a crane

            Barry Goodmann (2006)


street hockey
young boys shoot cherry petals
into the net

            Terry Ann Carter (2007)


cherry blossoms
the baby’s hair too fine
to hold a ribbon

            Ferris Gilli (2008)


cherry blossoms—
one more go
on the old swing

            Terry O’Connor (2009)


biopsy . . .
but just for today
cherry blossoms

            Laryalee Fraser (2010)


we speak
of cherry blossoms—
a safe topic

            Beth Skala (2011)


alone at the airport
a cherry blossom
on my suitcase

            Marianne Baharustani (2012)


this side of winter
tuning the mandolin
to mountain cherry

            Leah Ann Sullivan (2013)


cherry blossoms
her fairytale

            Andreea Cirligeanu, age 12 (2014)


Alzheimer’s ward
cherry blossoms
in the fog

            Marco Fraticelli (2015)

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Deja-ku Diary

Welcome to Deja-ku Diary, my new blog focusing on haiku that bring to mind other poems in various ways. These ways can be both positive and negative, so please consider “deja-ku” to be a neutral term, not a pejorative. Deja-ku can include simply sharing the same season word or subject as another poem, such as with the moon, cherry blossoms, or yard sales. Deja-ku can also include allusion (called honkadori in Japan), as well as parody and homage. These are all worth celebrating. Haiku succeed when the reader shares the same experience as the poet, or can empathize with such an experience. No one owns experience, and the fact that we share similar experiences is worth honouring and enjoying through haiku poetry. Not worth celebrating, but decrying, is excess similarity to other poems—and yes, it’s highly subjective to say when the similarity becomes excessive, which makes this category of deja-ku probably the most contentious. Two other undesirable kinds of deja-ku are cryptomnesia (a sort of “accidental” plagiarism whereby you remember someone else’s work but forget that it’s not yours) and outright plagiarism. We’ll talk about them all.

I’m your host, Michael Dylan Welch, and you can read more about me at my Graceguts website (visit the bio page). “Deja-ku” is a term I coined around 1996 or so. With many posts I’ll include a graphic symbol to suggest whether the deja-ku in question is good, uncertain, or perhaps bad, as follows:

Good Bad Uncertain - cropped

I invite your discussion, pro or con. If you disagree with me, please make your case. If you agree, feel free to say so—or to send chocolate. The key issue with deja-ku is the emotions they can generate. If you find you’ve written a poem that’s inadvertently like someone else’s, you can feel mortified because it may look like you’ve plagiarized, even if you wrote your poem entirely independently. Or if you see someone else’s poem that feels like it’s too similar to yours, you can feel ripped off. And in some cases you may indeed have been violated—and even though haiku are small, the emotions can be big, and very real. Or you may see that someone else has apparently ripped off someone else. Or you may not even like this way of talking about these matters, and have an opinion about so-called haiku police wagging fingers here and there. However, I think it’s essential to stand up against plagiarism and excessive similarity, just as it’s essential to praise poems for their carefully crafted allusions or deft handling of common season words. This sea of emotions is challenging to negotiate. The majority of deja-ku lie between these extremes, though. The subjects are similar because our experiences in life are similar. And thank goodness for that! I look forward to your participation in this shared diary of deja-ku poetry.

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