Tag Archives: shared subject

Dying to Visit a Graveyard

cropped-goodWe’ve all had the experience of wandering through a graveyard, wondering about all the names we see, the stories behind each set of dates. Entire lives seem to be reduced to a pair of dates, and yet we contemplate the dash that separates those dates, the life that was lived in between. Yet as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is not the length of life, but the depth.” These speculations have often been a topic for poetry, including haiku and longer poetry, producing varied yet similar moments of reflection.

I first began thinking about this topic when I published “The Dash,” by Steve Sanfield, in my journal Tundra, #1, 1999, page 87. A note with the poem says it arose “from an interview with a convicted rapist who was once the heavyweight champion of the world.”

The Dash

        (found poem)

When you die
nothing matters but the dash.
On your tombstone it says
1933 – 2025
or something like that.
The only thing that matters
is that dash.
That dash is your life.
How you live it
and were you happy
with the way you lived it.
That’s your life.
That’s what matters—
the dash.

Another poem like this is by Linda Ellis, and it’s more famous. It has the same title as Sanfield’s poem, “The Dash,” and it appears in her book Live Your Dash (New York: Sterling Ethos, 2011). The poem even has its own website, and has appeared as a picture book (for example, see Amazon). The poem was originally written in 1996, and has been anthologized and shared widely, and as a result it appears in several slightly different versions.

The Dash

I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the beginning to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth
and now only those who love them
know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own,
the cars . . . the house . . . the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

To be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect
and more often wear a smile . . .
remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read
with your life’s actions to rehash,
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you lived your dash?

It’s easy to relate to the sentiments of this popular poem. Here are a few additional poems on the same subject, one tanka and six haiku, arranged in order of publication. They all speak of the same moment, of noticing that dash. The first is by Larry Kimmel, from Bottle Rockets #9, 5:1, August 2003, page 36:

a name and an epitaph
blurred by green moss
life in the end
little more than a dash
between two dates

Kimmel is not diminishing the life he is referring to, but observing that it may seem diminished by the dash, but presumably shouldn’t be. And yet he recognizes the ephemerality of life, that it’s all one mad dash from birth to death. Here I think of what may have been Issa’s death poem, as translated by Robert Hass:

A bath when you’re born,
a bath when you die,
how stupid.

Harold Stewart’s two-line rhyming version of the same poem is as follows:

Between the washing-bowls at birth and death,
All that I uttered: what a waste of breath!

And yet, all is not futility for those who wish to be positive, making the most of that dash between the beginning and the end. Here’s another Issa poem, written on the death of his daughter:

this world of dew
is but a world of dew
and yet, and yet . . .

Next is a haiku by Yvonne Cabalona, from Feel of the Handrail, an anthology she edited with W. F. Owen, Modesto, California: Leaning Bamboo Press, 2005, page 7.

old cemetery
all of those dashes
between life and death

Cabalona notes not just the dashes but how many she sees in this old cemetery. We cannot help but feel a moment of awe and respect. She also suggests that perhaps we spend our lives “dashing,” in too much of a frenzy, seldom slowing down enough to smell the roses, to make the most of life on our own terms.

A soldier’s headstone—
between one date and another
so short a line

The preceding poem is by Sylvia Forges-Ryan. It appeared in The Sixth Annual ukiaHaiku Festival Winning Entries, Ukiah, California: Ukiah Haiku Festival, 2008, page 17. Jane Reichhold was the contest judge, and this poem was the first-place winner in the “adult contemporary” category. The poem also appeared in Dandelion Clocks: Haiku Society of America Members’ Anthology 2008, New York: Haiku Society of America, 2008, page 30. This time the focus is on the deaths of soldiers, with this one headstone implying others, and how they died young—and perhaps also shared similar death dates in service to their countries.

winter gravestone
hyphen between dates
my father’s life

James Martin, in the preceding poem, also moves from many gravestones to just one—his father’s. This poem is from Frogpond 32:2, Spring/Summer 2009, page 12. The abstraction of the “father’s life” carries the weight of every story and memory that filled it. Also, we cannot help but feel that the poet is contemplating his own life, the quality of the dash that will appear on his own gravestone.

Reading a tombstone.
The hyphen between the years
tells many stories.

This poem by Jermaine Williams appeared in Pebbles 25:2, October 2012, page 9. The last line is more explanatory compared with the same implication present in other haiku shared here, but it’s ultimately the point of each poem—that each tombstone tells a story. Or, in reality, it doesn’t, but we are left to wonder about each of the stories suggested by the dash.

the dates on Dad’s gravestone
what matters is the hyphen

The preceding poem by Frank Judge was published in Last Ginkgo Leaf: Rochester Area Haiku Group 10th Anniversary Members’ Anthology, edited by Michael Ketchek and Carolyn Coit Dancy, Rochester, New York: Rochester Area Haiku Group, 2015, page 16. It previously appeared in Brass Bell, September 2014. Whether a dash or a hyphen, yes, what matters is the life it represents.

tombstone—
between two dates
the length of life

This poem, by Kwaku Feni Adow, is from his book Between Two Dates, Kumasi, Ghana: Mamba Africa Press, 2020, page 17. He means not just the length but the quality of that life. What do we do, during the length of our lives, between the two dates each of us are given? That, as with all the other examples, is the question these poems raise, an introspective challenge to improve ourselves.

The shared observation in these independently written poems is one to be celebrated. As we remember those who have died before us, and think about their lives, represented by that simple dash on their gravestones, we may all be inspired to deepen the quality of our lives. We might do that, in fact, by writing haiku.

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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:

繰り返すものはどうしていつまでも新しいのだろう

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

And the twelfth line is:

一度きりのものはあっという間に古びてしまうのに

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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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:

homecoming—
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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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
interrupting
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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