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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One thought on “Ringing the Changes

  1. Karma Tenzing Wangchuk says:

    Thanks for this, Michael.

    90 Frogs was the result of a deliberate exercise in riffing on the season term “frog.” Most of the poems in Stone Buddha and Moon Rising, on the other hand, were gathered from work written over at least a few years.

    Yerz in haikai, Tenzing

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