Do Not Resuscitate: A Case of Haiku Similarity

In Geppo XLI:4 (August–October 2016, page 2), the following poem immediately grabbed my attention, not the least because of its subject:

winter twilight
the weight of a pen
for the DNR

UncertainA “DNR,” of course, is a “do not resuscitate” order. Signing such a directive is a difficult—weighty—decision, and such a somber moment echoes poignantly with the setting of winter twilight. This poem was presented anonymously in that issue of Geppo, as its submissions mostly are (so that favourites can be voted on anonymously), but I’ve since learned who the author was. But here’s the twist. It wasn’t just the poem itself that grabbed my attention, but its similarity to another poem, by Yu Chang, first published in The Heron’s Nest XI:2 (June 2009), where it was an editor’s choice selection, and republished in numerous other places, including in Jim Kacian’s widely available anthology Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (Norton, 2013). This is a famous haiku:

bearing down
on a borrowed pen
do not resuscitate

I initially wondered if the first poem might have been influenced by Yu Chang’s, where the person in the poem feels so helpless than even the pen must be borrowed. Might the more recent poem have been a case of cryptomnesia, or remembering someone else’s work but forgetting the source (and thinking it to be one’s own)? I doubted that it might have been deliberate plagiarism, but the possibility did cross my mind (since at first I did not know who the author was or anything about the poem’s circumstances). Or was it independently created? But even if so, was the similarity excessive? I raised the issue with Geppo editor Betty Arnold, and she let me know that the poem’s author was Bruce H. Feingold. He has since explained how this poem arose out of his direct personal experience as a clinical psychologist. “I remember writing this haiku very vividly,” Bruce said in an email to me on 8 December 2016. “I wrote it several years ago on the spot when a patient told me about signing his wife’s DNR and relating how the pen, which is so light, felt so heavy in his hands.” Bruce also said that he was unaware of Yu’s poem when he wrote his, although he did say it was possible he might have seen it, though unlikely. Nevertheless, the poems do seem to have been written entirely independently. This is what I would expect with Bruce’s work, since I have the utmost respect for his integrity.

Yet still the similarity remains. Is it too much? Even though two poems may be written independently, at what point is similarity excessive? Can anyone be “first to the patent office” with haiku? This is a subjective question, and your feelings may differ if you wrote one or the other of the two poems in question (as a “victim” or “perpetrator”), or if you’re a third-party reader of both poems (an “innocent bystander”). Ultimately, what may seem excessive to one reader may not feel excessive to another, especially when these two poems aren’t alone. Indeed, other poems have been written along this vein. Betty asked Charles Trumbull to check his haiku database, and she sent me Charlie’s results, including two directly similar poems (with publication credits for the first one):

by the light of the pine do not resuscitate

John Stevenson,
Roadrunner VIII:3, August 2008; this poem also appeared in Haiku 21, Lee Gurga and Scott Metz, eds., Modern Haiku Press, 2011, 165

“do not resuscitate”
moonlight outlines
a left-over cloud

        Mark Hollingsworth (previously unpublished)

John Stevenson and Yu Chang are both members of the Upstate Dim Sum haiku group, and we may wonder if Yu had seen John’s poem (published about a year before Yu’s, which Yu told me was written about his stepmother), and speculate on whether it was any influence on the later poem, but apparently not. John told me in an email of 5 January 2017 that “when I first read [Yu’s poem] (at one of our monthly Dim Sum sessions), I thought of two poems immediately. One was mine, and the other was an earlier poem of Yu’s: ‘lichened pine / my poet friend asks / for a pencil.’” It’s invigorating how poems resonate and echo like this, in personal ways, but they do seem to have been written independently. John also said, “I remember writing mine—vividly. And yet I would find it hard, and perhaps perverse, to attempt to explain it. I was staying at Jim Kacian’s house, in one of the guest rooms downstairs. Had turned the lights out and was about to go to sleep when the words came to me. I got up and wrote them down and then went back to bed. There was a pine tree outside the window and the window was open. Perhaps ‘do not resuscitate’ related to ‘stop thinking about everything and get some sleep.’ It came in one of those twilight moments of consciousness, which is not quite wakeful and not quite dreaming.” For his part, Mark Hollingsworth said in an email of 6 January 2017 that he wrote his poem on 27 January 2005. “I can’t recall if the incident was personal or professional (I am a pastor),” he said, “but I do recall the feeling after making the decision in the hospital, walking outside and seeing a lone small cloud in front of the moon, the front had passed and all the other clouds were far to the east.” He also said he wrote the following poem on 12 October 2005, almost a year later (also previously unpublished):

do not resuscitate
blot at the end
of her signature

And now, of course, the subject extends to Bruce’s poem, and beyond, and all of them seem to have been written independently. We can dwell in the serendipitous mystery of how they each came to be, and celebrate their shared subject, even if sad and traumatic.

Charlie’s haiku database results also included the following poems about a pen’s weight:

another death—
the weight
of a pen in my hand

        Carolyn Hall, Frogpond 34:3, Fall 2011

His hand trembles
On the will’s last page
Heavy gold pen

        Herb Batt, Brussels Sprout 11:1, January 1994

And surely there are more, and they reverberate with us because the point of haiku is to commemorate shared experience. These are simply shared subjects, much like sharing the same season word. Such similarities are usually of no concern, except to note that they may well enrich a poem if they help to bring to mind other poems that share the same season word or subject. This cross-pollinating resonance, in fact, is one of the virtues of the season-word tradition in Japanese haiku. Similarity or a common sharedness (provided that it does not go too far) adds possible reverberations to each poem and shows each haiku to be a part of a larger poetic conversation. DNR topics are clearly fraught with emotion, so it’s no wonder that the subject, difficult though it may be, would draw the attention of a number of haiku poets, especially those who may have to deal with these issues in a professional capacity, such as Mark as a pastor or Bruce as a psychologist.

What else are we to make of this similarity? One observation is that similarities between haiku are certainly not isolated, which I’ve written about extensively. A further example involves another of Bruce’s poems—although in this case his poem came first. The Autumn 2016 issue of Frogpond (39:3) carried this note: “Bruce H. Feingold’s poem, ‘Egotesticle,’ was a 2012 Haiku Now finalist in the Innovative Haiku Category, which should have precluded Cynthia Cechota’s submission, ‘egotesticle,’ from being published in Frogpond 39:2” (127). This is a polite way of saying that the similarity was excessive, and leaves aside the issue of whether the later poem was possibly plagiarized or (as I would hope) written independently. In this case, though, even if written independently, the second poem is excessively similar to the previous poem (only the capitalization differs), and thus it was rightly “withdrawn.”

I could cite many other examples, but here’s just one more, also very recent, starting with the following poem by Irish poet Anatoly Kudryavitsky, from his book Horizon (Red Moon Press, 2016, page 39), and probably published in a journal before that:

unscheduled stop
a scarecrow welcomes us
with open arms

Compare this with the results of the 18th annual Haiku International Association haiku contest, which included the following honorable mention by Kwaku Feni Adow of Ghana:

arriving on the farm—
the open arms
of the scarecrow

It’s remarkably similar to the following poem by Arvinder Kaur, from India, from the September 2014 issue of Cattails, later published in her book, Dandelion Seeds, in 2015 (page 108):

a scarecrow’s open arms
in the fields

And in October of 2015, Shrikaanth K. Murthy (new editor of the British Haiku Society journal Blithe Spirit) won second place in the kigo category of the Shiki online kukai with the following poem, later appearing in Sailing into the Moon, the 2016 Haiku Canada members’ anthology, published in May 2016 (page 26):

returning home—
only the scarecrow
with open arms

Shrikaanth told me he submitted his poem to the kukai a month before Arvinder sent him a copy of her book, and that he believes he created his poem independently (he said he hadn’t seen the poem in Cattails, even though he’s now a proofreader for Cattails). So perhaps Shrikaanth’s and Arvinder’s poems are independently created, despite obvious similarities, but what about the poems by Anatoly Kudryavitsky and Kwaku Feni Adow? It’s impossible to know from the poems themselves, and I doubt that much would be gained by asking either poet. Kwaku seems to be rather new to haiku, and I’ve seen others who are new to haiku who have “borrowed” haiku and passed them off as their own when they’re first learning to write, but I have no idea if that’s the situation here—I would rather assume independent creation. I do not see Kwaku’s poem as any kind of allusion to the earlier poems, but is it excessively similar? Indeed, is the similarity of all of these poems excessive? Or should we just note the shared subject—and perhaps even celebrate it—and move on? Ultimately, it’s our emotional responses to these situations that may matter most, especially when we may never know the facts of whether similar poems were created independently or not, and may interpret those facts differently even if we did know them for certain.

This is an issue I’ve been tracking for two decades. The Essays page on my Graceguts website has several essays on what I call “deja-ku,” as does my “Deja-ku Diary” blog. For many years, too, I’ve been maintaining a Deja-ku Database, and have classified many hundreds of examples in two broad categories. The bad kind include plagiarism, cryptomnesia (a sort of “accidental” plagiarism), and excessive similarity (which is the most subjective and hardest to define). The good kind include shared subjects or season words, allusion (or honkadori, as it’s called in Japan, which can include judicious borrowing of widely known content), parody, homage, and a couple of other less common varieties. A note about honkadori is that it’s also called allusive variation. A key point with this technique in Japanese haiku is that the variation of an earlier haiku is deliberate, and readers are expected to know the earlier poem—and thus all be in on the game, the way we all know the Shakespeare reference whenever we make creative variations of “to be or not to be.”

A side note here is that I was more concerned about Bruce’s DNR poem before I learned who the author was. As soon as I found out it was Bruce’s, his reputation, integrity, and profession as a psychiatrist all came into play—ruling out, for me, any possibility of plagiarism. This change of feeling as a result of learning the author’s name goes to show how the name under most haiku acts as a “fourth line,” providing information outside the poem that can inform and enlarge the poem, such as gender, nationality, and other details that readers may know about the author, including biography, geographical location, the type of haiku he or she usually writes (his or her “brand,” as it were), and more. The anonymous judging process used in Geppo and most haiku contests is completely defensible, of course, but I also like finding out who the author is, because that usually expands most poems for me, as was certainly the case for Bruce’s DNR poem.

There’s one more wrinkle to the DNR story. After Bruce H. Feingold’s haiku appeared in Geppo XLI:4 (August–October 2016), it was voted on as one of the top ten poems and was reprinted in the following issue, Geppo XLII:1 (November 2016–January 2017), page 9. And then another DNR haiku appeared in the next issue, in Geppo XLII:2 (February–April 2017), page 2, by Ruth Holzer:

Father’s Day—
he signs
the DNR form

The timing may have been a pure coincidence, but the poem might also have been reactionary, written in response to Feingold’s poem. Reaction poems are perfectly defensible, because poetry is, after all, a conversation, and the addition of “Father’s Day” adds a sad twist to the experience, whether real or imagined. A useful ambiguity also arises in the word “he”—does it mean a father signing the form on behalf of a child who is gravely ill? Or is a child signing the form on behalf of an aging or sick father? Either way, the “he” is surely signing the form as a father or for his father, making the date of this event especially poignant. On the deja-ku continuum, I would consider this poem to be a shared subject rather than excessive similarity or plagiarism.

As mentioned, we might easily assume that this new poem was written in direct reaction to the previous poem. However, in an email of 23 June 2017, Ruth told me that she wrote the poem “about seven years ago, directly from the experience,” and added that “when I read Bruce’s haiku [in Geppo], I thought hmm . . . that sounds something like mine—how we are all subject to the same misfortunes. Of course, I voted for it.” As sad as this experience is, there’s something celebratory in sharing such an experience—we are not alone.

Twenty years ago, I never spoke up about another case of deja-ku in the pages of Geppo, and I wish I had. It happened in Geppo XIX:4 (July–August 1996), page 2. Yvonne Hardenbrook offered the following poem:

carolina wren
its morning song larger
than itself

It ended up getting the top number of votes from readers of that issue (by far), and was reprinted in Geppo XIX:5 (September–October 1996), page 6, as the best poem of the issue. It bothered me that most readers were apparently unaware of its antecedent, by John Wills, which is one of his most famous poems:

than the wren himself
the wren joy

The Wills poem appeared in the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (New York, Fireside, 1986, page 298). It also appeared in Wills’ book Reed Shadows (Burnt Lake Press/Black Moss Press, 1987, page 42), and was probably published prior to this in a journal. What’s more, I also featured the poem in my journal Woodnotes as the tribute poem to Wills when he died in 1993. Yvonne would have definitely seen at least two of these publications, if not all three (she was an avid Woodnotes subscriber and reader, and had also read Cor’s anthology). There is no way she couldn’t have read Wills’ poem before writing hers, and she told me that she obviously must have, even while defending her poem—she wrote me a two-page single-spaced letter explaining the circumstances of its composition, believing it to have been written independently. But I don’t believe it was, even if it was accidental. This, in my opinion, is a case of cryptomnesia, and it can be insidious because you think you’re writing something original when you’re not. The very real experience she had brought the Wills poem to mind, but as I see it she forgot that she was essentially remembering someone else’s work rather than writing something original—the way most of us, upon seeing a frog in a pond, might think of Bashō’s “old pond” poem (and typically also remember that it’s Bashō’s poem, not our own). I could imagine a case where Yvonne’s poem could have been written independently, but not when there is irrefutable evidence (that she herself acknowledged) that she had read the original Wills poem in at least two prominent places.

Yvonne’s poem may be an accidental sort of plagiarism, but cryptomnesia is still plagiarism, and we should be watchful for it—in the haiku we read and in the haiku we write. Similarity to previous poems is an occupational hazard for the haiku poet, and it will happen to all of us at one time or another, whether we’re “victims,” “perpetrators,” or “innocent bystanders.” The “accidental plagiarism” of cryptomnesia is especially likely to happen with poems as short as haiku, and thus we should be forgiving towards such situations (up to a point). Aside from the deliberate similarity of allusion or parody, it is even likely that we will unintentionally write in a similar way about shared subjects—there are only so many ways to crack an egg. As the poet Dobby Gibson says in his book Polar, “It may be true that everything / has already been said, / but it’s just as true that not everyone / has had a chance to say it.” The trick is to take your turn at saying something but to do it in as fresh a way as possible. We can’t always know what’s fresh, of course, but we can do our best.

The good news is that most cases of deja-ku are positive, such as sharing the same subject or season word, or in alluding to or parodying another poem. In the case of Bruce Feingold’s striking “DNR” poem, like Yu Chang’s and the other poignant examples, the moment resonates so deeply it’s no wonder that more than one person has written about it.

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Similar Saturdays

UncertainIssues of deja-ku may be more pronounced in haiku because of the genre’s brevity and the common sensory experiences we are inclined to write about, but they are not confined to haiku. In 1974, Shel Silverstein included the poem “Sick” in his book Where the Sidewalk Ends (New York: Harper & Row, pages 58–59):

“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox
And there’s one more—that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut—my eyes are blue—
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke—
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ’pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.
My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.
My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is—what?
What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is . . . Saturday?
G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

In 2008, Jack Prelutsky included “Please Let Me Sleep All Day Today” in My Dog May Be a Genius (New York: Greenwillow Books, page 8). Here’s Prelutsky’s poem:

Please let me sleep all day today,
I need to stay in bed.
I’m hardly even half awake,
I’m sure my eyes are red.

I try and try to open them,
but can’t remember how.
You say today is Saturday?
I’m getting up right now.

Surely Prelutsky was aware of the Silverstein poem. Not only are the words of the penultimate line identical to Silverstein’s poem, the ideas driving both poems are the same. In one the protagonist is supposedly sick, and in the other supposedly sleepy, but both ploys are used to avoid school as each poem builds to the same punchline. Despite the differences, what are we to make of these and other similarities? The resemblance seemingly never bothered Prelutsky or his publisher (I doubt they were unaware of the Silverstein poem). However, surely numerous readers, like me, noticed the similarity, perhaps feeling momentarily proud for having noticed it, but then perhaps slightly distracted by the overlap.

In terms of deja-ku, simply sharing the same subject is usually something to be celebrated, the way readers of haiku have little hesitation in appreciating poems with the same kigo, or season word. But at what point does similarity become excessive? Prelutsky’s poem immediately made me think of Silverstein’s, at least at the end. Along the way, both poems employ iambic rhythms, and both mostly with tetrameter lines. Silverstein’s poem employs iambic tetrameter throughout, except for the third- and fourth-last lines, where a deliberately disruptive change in meter matches the change in meaning at that point in the poem. Prelutsky’s poem also uses iambic tetrameter but alternates such lines with iambic trimeter. They both have the same ending, with identical penultimate lines, and of course the same conceit. It’s easy to say we can enjoy both, and I’m certainly in that camp, but still I wonder. If I were Prelutsky’s editor, might I have suggested omitting this poem? Would you?

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Make It Yours

GoodHaiku poems are so short that they are particularly susceptible to the repetition of subjects and structures. In She Was Just Seventeen, a collection of haiku by former United States poet laureate Billy Collins (Lincoln, Illinois: Modern Haiku Press, 2006, page 9), the poet includes the following poem:

If I write spring moon
or mountain, is that
haiku plagiarism?

In a review of She Was Just Seventeen, William J. Higginson comments as follows on this poem (Modern Haiku 38.1, Autumn, 2007, page 82):

While I may not value this especially as a haiku, it certainly spoofs the repetition of favored phrases and images that plagues haiku to the point where even the great Shiki once doubted [more than a hundred years ago] if haiku could continue another decade or two without utterly repeating itself. (If Shiki had foreseen the explosion of interest in haiku in scores of languages around the world, perhaps he would have been less doubtful!)

Emiko Miyashita has shared the following two lines of a Japanese poem titled “Asa no Hikari” (“Morning’s Light”) by Shuntaro Tanigawa (from her 2009 Haiku North America conference paper, “Feel the Word”). His ninth line is as follows:


I wonder, why things that repeat themselves can stay fresh and timeless?

And the twelfth line is:


While a thing that happens only once becomes old so quickly.

One secret to avoiding the problems of deja-ku (especially writing on a tired subject) is to write about what is true to yourself and your perspective. In contrast to Ezra Pound who exhorted poets to “Make it new,” I side more with Jane Hirshfield, who has said “Make it yours.” Related to this is the advice to write about the timeless rather than about subjects that are faddish or trendy. Haiku values the ephemeral, but the ephemeral is not the same as fleeting trivialities. This is why there are so many thousands of good haiku about cherry blossoms (both ephemeral and endlessly repeating) but so few about Rubik’s Cubes or hula hoops (but, ahem, maybe that’s a challenge, isn’t it?). Whatever we write about, it’s a good practice to make each poem yours rather than feeling pressure to make it new. As the painter Robert Henri once wrote, “A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not need to adopt new and startling methods.” Here’s to making haiku yours!

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“Haikus Are Easy” . . . to Plagiarize

NAME REMOVED - Haikus are easy - Merit Award 2016 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest

Bad“Oh no, not again!” That was my reaction on seeing a poem by a ninth grader from Whatcom County, Washington as a Merit Award winner in the 2016 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest held in Bellingham, Washington. I first saw the poem on J. I. Kleinberg’s poetry blog for 24 July 2016. On the same date, the poem also appeared on the Sue Boynton Poetry Contest page on Facebook. Here’s the poem:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense
Pancake on a stick

What made me shake my head in dismay is the fact that this poem, at least the first two lines (not to mention the effect of the third line), is actually by Rolf Nelson, of Dallas, Texas. At least I think so, and I believe he wrote it around 2006 or 2007. It has become an Internet meme:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense

Like the computer error message haiku you may have seen (which also have an actual author), Rolf’s poem has frequently circulated on the Internet anonymously (sometimes with “hippopotamus” instead of “refrigerator”). Some years ago, this anonymous proliferation prompted someone on the Yahoo! Answers website to ask who wrote this poem (unfortunately, this page does not provide dates for any of its postings). A reply by “Mitchell” mentions that Rolf Nelson wrote the poem for a T-shirt he designed for Threadless. The Threadless website (where you can also see the T-shirt) attributes the shirt design to him.

Haiku Refrigerator 2

I remember first seeing the T-shirt itself around 2008 or 2009, maybe sooner, and added a picture of it to my haiku workshop PowerPoint presentation (using it to show that it’s essentially a comment about haiku and not really a haiku at all, but let’s leave that aside for now, along with the fact that the word “haiku” is both singular and plural, so there’s no need to say “haikus”). Meanwhile, at, Rolf Nelson confirms that he submitted the poem to Threadless as a shirt slogan. However, at least one person posting on the Anti-Joke site questions Rolf’s originality, saying, colourfully, “Dude you can bet your arse this joke haiku or some pre-refrigerator variants have been around since way before you wrote it. You may not have noticed because other authors aren’t so hungry for the credit as you.” I don’t take this comment seriously, because there’s no evidence I’ve found that this poem existed before Rolf posted his T-shirt design to the Threadless website with this poem. Furthermore, no other authors would be hungry to take credit for the poem if none of them wrote it! On the Anti-Joke site, Rolf says, “I wrote this over 6 years ago for my highschool english class and submitted it to Threadless while I was in college.”

However, did Rolf really write it? Things may not be entirely simple. The Threadless website for the “Haikus are easy” T-shirt includes a link to Rolf Nelson’s Design by Proxy website. Even that website name might give pause for concern. Was the poem by proxy too, and not really his, even though the design was? Rolf begins his website’s About page by saying “Design by proxy is Rolf Nelson, an experiential art director with authority to represent someone else with creativity.” We might therefore conclude that the “Haikus are easy” poem isn’t his, but someone else’s, and that he just created a design for it. Since he seems to focus most of his creative energies on design rather than writing, did Rolf therefore “borrow” the poem, wishing mainly to present his design of it? That would be an easy criticism to make, but until there’s proof that he didn’t write the poem, or that this poem (or significant “pre-refrigerator” variants) existed before he posted his T-shirt design, I have every reason to believe Rolf’s claim to be true, that he did indeed write the poem. For reference, a portfolio page on Rolf’s website featuring his Threadless T-shirt designs says the following, under the heading “My only published poem”:

A haiku is one of the most simple forms of poetry. It is a Japanese style poem comprised of 3 lines consisting of 5 syllables, then 7, then 5 again and is oft about nature. At the end of a 6 week study on the forms of poetry back in high school english class, I got a little tired of following all of the conventions and took a little creative license. Little did I know that it would work so well on a t-shirt. I have since seen this copy translated to Japanese written even on bathroom stalls.

Yet he also says this of his T-shirt designs: “Most of the ideas came from everyday conversations with my friends.” So who really wrote it? We can continue to wonder, but it seems that Rolf did, and I’m happy (for now) to believe that he did.

Even if Rolf Nelson did not write the poem (although he did definitely submit it to Threadless), it was surely written long before the Boynton contest winner “wrote” it. I’m withholding that author’s name and gender because he/she is a ninth grader, and need not have this indiscretion hanging over his/her neck for the rest of his/her life. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but there’s a point where it goes too far and becomes plagiarism. If two thirds of a student’s term paper were to be “borrowed” like this (or even much less than two-thirds), the student would surely get an F and might even face disciplinary action or expulsion. We can be more forgiving here, but the issues are still serious. In haiku, of course, especially in Japan, there’s a common tradition of alluding to other verses. However, in those cases, the audience was fully expected to know the original source, and the original source is typically only hinted at rather than copied wholesale (as in the first two lines here). Could we consider this poem to be a parody or allusion, and thus not plagiarism? Given that the audience is unlikely to know the original, and because essentially nothing is added to enlarge, change, or mock the original source, or the overall effect of the poem, I don’t think so. Saying “pancake on a stick” is just a variation of something unexpected like “refrigerator”—and nothing more—designed to underscore the idea that sometimes these poems “don’t make sense.” If the poem is intended as an allusion, the audience simply wouldn’t understand that any game is afoot—not the way we would get the allusion, say, if a poet were to write “to haiku / or not to haiku / that is the question.”

What I suspect happened here is a case of what’s been called cryptomnesia, or remembering something (such as this poem’s first two lines) but not remembering the source. So when this student decided to enter the Boynton contest, and thought to enter a haiku, it was easy to remember the “Haikus are easy” poem—although that memory obviously neglected the “refrigerator” line. If we also take the student’s age into consideration (I would assume around 14 to 15), it’s possible, though unlikely, to imagine that this student hasn’t yet encountered the practice of citing one’s sources for school papers, or had the virtue of originality drilled into them. Even if they have, this could easily be a case of cryptomnesia, although that’s still sloppy and still a form of plagiarism, even if “accidental.” The instructions for the Boynton contest (see here also) say that “The poet must be the exclusive author of the submitted original poem.” So even if this poem isn’t considered plagiarism, it would seem to violate the expectation that the poet be the poem’s exclusive author.

You may wonder why I said “Oh no, not again” in reaction to the latest surfacing of this poem. That’s because the Boynton contest winner wasn’t the first time Rolf Nelson’s poem has seemingly been plagiarized. On 10 November 2014, I was sitting in the audience of Moore Theatre in Seattle, listening to a reading of selected winners from the 2014–2015 Poetry on Buses program (I had had one of my poems selected too). My jaw dropped to the floor when a participant named Shannon Juengling read a poem under the title “Dear Mammie” to more than a thousand people in attendance:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense

It got a great laugh, as anyone would expect. But not from me. The poem was plagiarized word-for-word, and thus an even more egregious case than the Boynton contest winner. Immediately after the performance I spoke about this issue with Roberto Ascalon, the event’s organizer (who I knew personally beforehand), followed by email in mid November 2014 providing evidence of the fact that the poem was not by Shannon Juengling. The poem was slated to be featured on the Poetry on Buses website on 29 August 2015 (where all the program’s 365 winning poems were listed by title and poet, with each poem assigned to a different day in the year ahead). The poem was removed from the website on 10 December 2014 and replaced by a piece created by “Community Poetry Workshop Participants” instead. (The entire series of 365 poems is by individual poets, but I note that the 2 October 2015 entry is also by “Community Poetry Workshop Participants,” and the exact same poem from 29 August is repeated there, so I wonder if there was a plagiarism issue with the poem originally slated for 2 October too.) The poem had apparently also been made into a bus placard to be featured on King County metro buses in 2014–15, but I understand that the placard was removed, or was never added to any bus.

Obviously, or so it would seem to me, there’s something about this poem that sticks in the mind. It’s funny, for one thing, and surprising, thanks to the word “refrigerator” (the one thing this poem gets right about haiku is this juxtapositional structure). These traits are surely part of why the poem has become an Internet meme. Even though the poem seems to have lost some degree of association with its author, and even if it were truly by “anonymous,” that still does not justify plagiarism. Although the poet may sometimes be forgotten, the poem itself remains memorable. I think this poem’s memorability is important to recognize, because it would be particularly bold for Shannon Juengling to pass the poem off as her own if she knew that it wasn’t, claiming it as her original composition by submitting it and reading it from the stage at a well-attended launch event. When one can so easily be exposed as a plagiarist at an event like that, and even more easily at a website visited by thousands of people, we can conclude that it was surely not an intentional act of plagiarism on her part.

So again, I would suspect this to be a case of cryptomnesia. How it came about I cannot begin to guess (except that maybe Shannon Juengling once saw the T-shirt?), but cryptomnesia is insidious in that you can truly believe you’re writing something new when in actuality you’re just remembering it—but forgetting the source. I’ve studied many hundreds of instances of this sort of plagiarism in fiction, poetry, and especially music (as but one example, George Harrison was famously sued for ripping off the Chiffons’ 1963 song “He’s So Fine” in his 1970 hit song “My Sweet Lord”). I have been particularly interested in cases of cryptomnesia in haiku poetry myself, and have been collecting examples for more than twenty years in my private Deja-ku Database (please note, though, that “deja-ku” is not pejorative term, and also applies to haiku that are parodies, allusions, or homages, or that share the same topic or seasonal reference, all perfectly wonderful examples of “similarity” to be celebrated). So while Shannon Juengling’s case is still plagiarism, it is most likely accidental rather than intentional. In my experience, this problem seems to happen more readily with poems as short as haiku, and more readily with catchy original sources that are “remembered” by people who aren’t normally poets, or who might be new to poetry, as seems to be the case with both Shannon Juengling and the Boynton contest ninth grader.

But wait, there’s more, and it involves another poetry newbie. On 21 December 2015, the Louisville, Kentucky newspaper, The Courier-Journal, posted the following correction to an earlier story:

A haiku published in Sunday’s Forum section [20 December 2015] attributed to a fifth-grader should have sounded familiar. In fact, you can buy T-shirts with it on them. Our apology:

sounded too good to be true
We should have spotted

Yes, a fifth-grader had passed off the same “Haikus are easy” poem as his/her own. I think we can forgive fifth-graders (and ninth-graders) for such mistakes, and even adults. Well, maybe once. This is not the end of the world here, although these indiscretions should still be recognized as plagiarism. I’m not sure what’s to be done with the Boynton contest (it’s an awkward position to be in), and perhaps there’s even an explanation that I haven’t anticipated here, but it would seem that the best course of action for the Boynton poetry committee is to follow the actions of the Louisville newspaper and simply remove the poem from the record—and withdraw the award. I would hope that the poet involved would never plagiarize again—or that he/she would be extra vigilant against doing so accidentally. I hope, in any event, that this experience doesn’t scare this young person away from poetry entirely. We need everyone’s voice. However, we also still hope these voices to be original.

GoodPostscript: On 26 July 2016, I received an email from the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Committee Chair, Rachel Mehl, saying that the committee had decided not to pull the poem from their list of winners, but would discuss the situation with the student. I replied to say “These are difficult situations, especially when they involve a student. If it had been an adult, I would have recommended pulling the poem, but because this is a young person, your decision is a kind and compassionate compromise.”

Note: I should mention that I myself have taught haiku at the high school attended by the Whatcom County ninth-grader. I did that as a poetry-in-the-schools teacher sponsored by the Skagit River Poetry Festival, at which I was a featured poet. I did my teaching at several area schools in April and May of 2010, so this was long before the student in question would have been in attendance, and it was for a class with a different teacher than the one this student would later have.

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Essays on Deja-ku

GoodFor those interested in the topic of deja-ku, let me draw your attention to several essays I’ve written on the subject. They’re available on my Graceguts website, most with numerous example poems to fit each of the various categories. The following is a summary of what you’ll find.

  1. An Introduction to Deja-ku
    An overview of the various types of deja-ku. Deja-ku are haiku that bring to mind other poems. As this essay says, these relationships “are good in some cases, such as parody, homage, allusion, and sharing the same topic or season word, and not good in other cases, such as plagiarism, cryptomnesia (remembering someone else’s poem without realizing that one is remembering rather than creating it), and simply being too similar or insufficiently fresh or original.” Also explored are the various emotional reactions we can have when we encounter a case of deja-ku—whether it involves one of our own poems or the poems of others.
  2. Selected Examples of Deja-ku
    Here I present dozens of example poems, usually in pairs, showing similarity between the poems. For the sake of discussion, I’ve deliberately left off publication credits so you wouldn’t necessarily know which poem was published first. Also, it’s up to you to decide (if you wish) which category of deja-ku each pairing of poems might fit. Some are clearly parodies or allusions, and most people who have studied the literature will know which is the original and which is the parody or allusion. Others are likely cases of plagiarism (most often cryptomnesia, it seems to me), while other parings simply share the same subject or season word. And in some cases the similarities may be excessive, even if not consciously or unconsciously plagiarized. You can decide for yourself.
  3. Some Thoughts on Deja-ku
    This link presents the text of a handout on the subject of deja-ku that I’ve used in workshop presentations. It provides an overview of the issues involved, discusses a few examples, and presents a number of quotations relevant to the subject. It ends with an extended set of poems for discussion, this time with earliest publication credits for each poem. It is not easy for some people to sort out their emotional or psychological reactions to these similarities—especially if one of their own poems is involved. Other people may think it’s all fine (except for plagiarism). Others may draw the line much more stringently than others about what constitutes excessive similarity. The point to remember here is that this range of opinions is worth being aware of, helping us to give others latitude to think differently than we might.
  4. A Spade’s a Spade: Plagiarism and Deja-ku
    Here I respond to an essay by Sandra Simpson on the subject of deja-ku, in which she provides a number of intriguing examples. In particular, I respond to the anecdote she relates about a “senior poet” who said, shockingly, “if you see a line or phrase you like, write it down and reuse it” and “if you change one word in a haiku, it’s yours.” This is very bad advice, as Sandra suggests, and I go into detail as to reasons why. The name of this poet is identified in a postscript at the end.

I have hundreds of example poems in my deja-ku database that will provide fodder for future essays and future blog posts. In addition to that, I also have two other essays on deja-ku still in the works. One was delivered at the 2001 Haiku North America conference in Boston. It’s somewhat long, and I keep revising it with additional examples. I hope to shorten it and get it out the door eventually. It’s a much more definitive essay on the subject than any of the preceding. The other essay is a detailed response to another essay by Sandra Simpson, “How Close Is Too Close?” Hopefully this more recent essay will be coming out soon.

As some of these essays demonstrate, the issues surrounding deja-ku can sometimes get heated. I do say repeatedly that we should relax, but there are also cases, especially with plagiarism (including cryptomnesia), where it’s inappropriate to relax. We need not be indignant or sanctimonious, but we should follow the example of longtime Modern Haiku editor Robert Spiess, who was very clear and forthright in his insistence on integrity in these matters. Deja-ku are mostly good things in haiku, or we wouldn’t have homage and allusion and the very sharing of subjects that resonate with our own experiences. On the other end of the spectrum, overt plagiarism is clearly bad, but regarding the other kinds of deja-ku—cryptomnesia and excessive similarity—it helps to accept them as a sort of occupational hazard for the haiku writer, even while how we respond to these occupational hazards may vary greatly. The more we write haiku, the more likely it is that these problems will happen to us. Fortunately, it’s also more likely that we will encounter the good kinds of deja-ku too.

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Open Arms

UncertainA recent example of deja-ku has come to my attention, one that raises the issues of excess similarity and independent creation. In the September 2014 issue of Cattails, Arvinder Kaur published the following poem, later published in her book, Dandelion Seeds, in 2015:

a scarecrow’s open arms
in the fields

In October of 2015, Shrikaanth K. Murthy won second place in the kigo category of the Shiki online kukai with the following poem, later published in Sailing into the Moon, the 2016 Haiku Canada members’ anthology, published in May 2016 (page 26):

returning home—
only the scarecrow
with open arms

Because of the similarity between these poems, it’s natural to compare them. For me, Arvinder’s poem is slightly flawed by saying “fields” rather than just “field,” because there’s only one scarecrow and it cannot be in more than one field at any given time. It’s reasonable, however, for us to take “fields” to be more generic and idiomatic rather than a literal plural. However, the poem still ends on a weak beat, in that scarecrows being “in the field(s)” is obvious. Where else would a scarecrow be? For those two reasons, Shrikaanth’s poem seems stronger, in terms of rhythm, crafting, and content. On the other hand, the term “homecoming” is richer in Arvinder’s poem because it implies seeing many other people, rather than simply returning home, which does not necessarily imply seeing other people—or not as strongly. Yet Shrikaanth’s poem emphasizes sadness (it is “only” the scarecrow that has open arms, despite the fact that he is returning home—normally a happy event). The sad tone in Shrikaanth’s haiku seems more fitting for the autumn season. While the upbeat tone of Arvinder’s poem may well be appealing to some readers—it’s a homecoming and even the scarecrow has open arms to welcome the poet home—Shrikaanth’s poem feels more resonant for its development of sadness to better fit the autumn season, and in creating a more complex and contrasting emotion in pairing the scarecrow image with the coming-home context. Whether readers prefer one poem more than the other is largely a matter of personal taste, though, and not relevant to the issue of whether this case of deja-ku is problematic.

That brings us to the second issue, of course, which is to ask whether the poems are excessively similar, and whether one poem might have influenced the other. Shrikaanth has told me that he emailed his entry to the Shiki kukai on 7 October 2015. He also said that Arvinder approached him to review her book after that date and that he received her book on 1 November 2015. He had not seen Arvinder’s poem before that date and had written his poem independently. It seems completely reasonable to expect these poems to have been written independently, especially since so many of us are familiar with scarecrows and how they typically “welcome” us with open arms. It would be easy to pair this image with a homecoming event and easy to arrive at the upbeat image in Arvinder’s poem, or the sadder one is Shrikaanth’s.

So I think we can take this situation to be a case of independent creation, even if the images and image order are more or less the same. The tonal difference is enough, I think, to say that these poems are not excessively similar—if independently created. These images belong to everyone, and many more scarecrow haiku will be written in the future, just as many thousands have already been written. However, if it could be proven that Shrikaanth had seen Arvinder’s poem before writing his, then we might speculate that this could be a case of cryptomnesia, or forgetting the source of something one remembers—in this case it would be a haiku that one thinks one is writing when really one is remembering it (whether wholly or partially). Since we don’t know that the earlier poem definitely influenced the other, and because there is no reason to not take Shrikaanth’s word for it that he created his poem independently, there’s no cause for alarm here, as the similarity is neither excessive nor provable or probable as cryptomnesia.

Still, it would be natural for readers familiar with both poems to wonder about the relationship, perhaps even to feel that the resemblance is excessive (Arvinder herself might be particularly likely to feel this way). But it would be inappropriate for anyone to “accuse” the writer of the later poem of writing a deja-ku, as if the term is a black mark on his or her poetry. No, it isn’t. Deja-ku is a neutral term, and includes both positive and negative aspects. And in fact, most of them are positive. A deja-ku is simply a haiku that brings to mind another haiku (or another poem or work of art). If the similarity is excessive or clearly plagiarism (which includes cryptomnesia), then yes, those would be negative. But the great majority of deja-ku are positive and worth celebrating for their use of shared subjects (this happens with season words, or kigo, all the time), allusion, similar syntax, or other commonalities. The term “deja-ku” should not be used as a pejorative. Indeed, we should welcome most cases of deja-ku with open arms.

Postscript (13 December 2016, 17 January 2017)

Issues with the preceding two poems may not have stopped there. The results of the 18th annual Haiku International Association haiku contest were announced in Tokyo on 4 December 2016, and posted to the HIA website on 7 December 2016, including the following honourable mention by Kwaku Feni Adow of Ghana:

arriving on the farm—
the open arms
of the scarecrow

And this from Anatoly Kudryavitsky, from his book  Horizon (Red Moon Press, 2016, 39), and no doubt published in a journal before that:

unscheduled stop
a scarecrow welcomes us
with open arms

What are we to make of these new similarities? Are they independently written, or was any poem influenced by any of the other poems? Is there plagiarism afoot here, even if accidentally, or independent creation? I am happy to assume independent creation, as I have no reason to believe otherwise, but is the similarity still excessive? Perhaps it is to some readers.

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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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