The Haiku Debate

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As more and more haikus are scribbled into my journal, it’s entirely clear to me that my interest in the form has turned into nothing less than an obsession. Naturally, I set out to learn as much I could, which means I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject of haikus and collections of haikus.

Between backtracking to the classics and getting a sense of the modern aesthetic, my understanding of the form has changed significantly. All my life I’d been taught that haiku is essentially a rigid form: three lines with 17 syllables arranged in a 5-7-5 layout.  Imagine my surprise when I realized that this is almost completely wrong!

It’s true Japanese haiku is poetry consisting of 17 beats (technically not syllables), but that beat count applies to the Japanese language which naturally falls into that rhythm. The idea of a syllable count came about when haiku migrated to the English language and it was seen as a excellent way to teach children how to count syllables.

Even more surprising is that the concept of three lines is quite the myth. Most Japanese haiku is written in a single line, which is usually vertical. Once again, the idea of three lines in the 5-7-5 layout evolved from the translation into English. While a misnomer, the format stuck until English language poets began to experiment and break out of the three line division.

At it’s core, haiku is about capturing a single moment or experience. Nature usually serves as the backdrop, but modern poets are even pushing that traditional boundary, by mixing humanity with natural elements. Modern haiku ignores syllable counts and focuses instead on clean, crisp language that hones in a small detail. The resulting poem is often far less than 17 syllables with no set line count.

Polar opposite visions of haiku naturally lead to a debate. On one side, there’s the 17 syllable, 5-7-5, 3 line format and on the other there’s the modernist approach with few restrictions other than maintaining the essence of haiku. As a poet enthralled with the idea of haiku, I find myself stuck in the middle.

The so-called traditional 5-7-5 layout has been around for a long time.  Even though the connection between this format and the original Japanese haiku is shaky at best, it’s a form that everyone knows. It’s part of the poetic psyche and allows just about anyone to be a poet, (how cool is that?).

On this side of the argument, I feel my childhood holding tight to what I’ve been taught. I like the rigidity of the 5-7-5 layout. The finite quality of it forces me to work within certain parameters and choose my words carefully, but it also pushes my creativity to go to places I never would have considered.

Most modern haiku poets have dismissed the 5-7-5 layout as passé, given it’s disconnect to the traditional Japanese form. They certainly have a point as the whole idea of 17 syllables is an invention rather than a hardcore sentiment of tradition. Hence, there’s no point in counting syllables if they are kept to a minimum.

As for line counts, modern haikus are all over the place. Some poets prefer single lines, while others will employ three. There’s no steadfast rule, so words and/or subject matter dictate how lines are constructed. For modernists, line divisions can have meaning that goes beyond form.

I like the fact that modern haiku is sparse and poignant. Like the “traditional” 5-7-5, the challenge of operating with limited syllable and line counts pushes me to be particular about my words and focus on small details. However, the complete lack of a set syllable and line count creates a sense of uncertainty that can be a little daunting. In many ways, it’s that daunting element that reminds me to keep an open mind and embrace the freedom.

The verdict: There’s something beautiful about both. I find myself dabbling in the rigid form of the 5-7-5 haiku, while also wandering into the new waters of modern haiku. Despite the fact that the majority of modern haiku writers discredit the 5-7-5 form, I believe it still has a place on the poetic stage…

Birch bark peels; white curls
summer breeze, fluttering leaves
silver branches sway

Yet, one the same page I’ll happily write two lines with 4 syllables each …

Wind scattered leaves
life’s broken pieces

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Recommended Reading:

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c.b.w. 2014

For My Friend

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We must have seemed odd
to those who passed by
Opposites in every way
except on the inside
No need to explain Party of One
I understood you,
and you understood me
as no one else could
Over countless cups of coffee,
we pondered the meaning of life
and other silly things
And let’s not forget the music,
Junip and jazz still sing in my head
We read Maisie Dobbs and F. Scott Fitzgerald,
along with Willa Cather and Steinbeck, too
Ah, the books we treasured
and the stories we shared
I don’t have your picture,
but I’ll never forget your face
Nor how you taught me
the real source of strength
Without you there is an empty space
Thank you for being my friend,
until the very end

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Recently, a dear friend of mine passed away. While the sadness is sometimes overwhelming, so is the joy I have in the memories of the moments we shared.  Our friendship was something really special and I already miss it.

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c.b.w. 2014

Book Review: How I Got Published

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How I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You in Their Own WordsHow I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You in Their Own Words by Ray White

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title alone is enough to grab the attention of any writer dying to get published. Famous and not-so-famous authors share their stories of failure and eventual success in the brutal business of publishing.

Organized into short essays, a number of authors write about their experiences with query letters, rejections, agents, deals gone wrong, and the unpredictable nature of the literary scene. It’s a tough industry to break into and they are very honest about the fact that publishing is not for those with paper-thin skin or a gelatinous spine. As horrible as that sounds, each author’s story has a strong sense of optimism brought on by a taste of success. The odds of snagging an agent or a book deal may be small, but anything is possible.

Two pieces of advice dominate How I Got Published from start to finish. First, there is no perfect tried and true method of getting published. Second, persistence is a writer’s greatest weapon. The only way to find the right agent or get your work in front of an editor is to put it out there and do so relentlessly. Send query letters even when nothing but rejections follow. Keep revising and writing until no word goes untouched. What it all comes down to is hard work, a little luck, and a great story.

The only flaw with an otherwise highly motivational and encouraging read is a problem with repetition. While every author has their own unique story, they all start to blur together about halfway through the book. Furthermore, most of the writers showcased are mystery and crime fiction writers. Little attention is given to writers in other genres, thereby limiting the inside perspective on agents and publishing houses.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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c.b.w. 2013

A to Z Abroad: Ivan Klíma at The Globe

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Sometimes world travel can lead to the discovery of an individual in addition to a place. While in Prague, Czech Republic, I was lucky enough to find a writer by the name of Ivan Klíma.

Whenever I travel, I make it a point to visit several local bookshops. Even in places where English is not the primary language, bookshops provide a unique insight into the local culture. Besides, in many cases, there is a shelf for English translations of local writers.

In Prague, one of the more prominent bookshops is The Globe. Run by American expats, this bookshop includes new and used books in Czech and English. In addition there is a fantastic café tucked in the back.

The Globe Bookshop, Prague, Czech Republic
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

I found several books by local authors, but Ivan Klíma’s books spoke to me the most. I ended up buying his novel No Saints or Angels, which has since become one of my favorite books.

Ivan Klíma is a renowned writer in the Czech Republic that explores topics regarding oppression and the concept of individual freedom. His personal history of surviving imprisonment at the Terezín concentration camp during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and his later struggles with the dictatorial communist regime all lend to the brutal honesty and hope presented in his novels.

Klíma’s stories always revolve the dichotomy of the human spirit and the cruelty of human nature. Through his works of fiction, he strives to illuminate the importance  of freedom of expression and individuality.

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What happens to people who spend their lives afraid to voice their opinions?  They stop thinking, most likely.    - Ivan Klima

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Suggested Reading:

9781862071032_p0_v2_s260x420  9781862075368

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

 

Book Review: Beautiful Creatures

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Beautiful Creatures (Caster Chronicles, #1)Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ethan Wate is stuck in a small South Carolina town, where nothing ever happens. While everyone around him seems to thrive on living a mundane life, Ethan dreams of getting out of Gatlin and experiencing more than Civil War reenactments, bake sales, and cotillions.

The first time Ethan lays eyes on Lena Duchannes, he knows everything in his boring world is about to change. Not only is she beautiful, but she is different from all the other girls in town. For a guy who’s had it with normalcy, Lena is the girl of his dreams in more ways than one.

Lena is an instant outcast with her funky wardrobe and her family ties to Gatlin’s resident hermit. Ethan is basically committing social suicide by choosing to hang out with her, but he is hopelessly attracted to the mystery that is Lena. His infatuation soon turns to love and lucky for him the feeling is mutual.

However, it isn’t long before Ethan learns the truth about Lena. There is a reason why she writes numbers on her hands and why it always seems to rain when she is upset. Lena is a Caster (a.k.a. witch) who is inching closer to her 16th birthday. Upon hitting this milestone, she will be Claimed for dark magic instead of light thanks to a longstanding family curse.

Lena’s fear of turning dark incites Ethan’s quest to find a way to release her from the curse. It turns out Gatlin is full of secrets both mortal and supernatural. At the center of it all, is an ordinary boy with more power than he realizes.

Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s epic tale is a bit long, but where it lacks in editing, it excels in originality. In a market flooded with paranormal romance, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find YA fiction with unique characters and story lines. Beautiful Creatures breaks the mold by letting the story unfold through Ethan’s point of view. The male perspective puts a new spin on an old formula and it is so refreshing! Garcia and Stohl also deserve props for realistically portraying small-town life in the South. In particular, their references to various modes of prejudice are a sobering reminder that the past repeats itself more frequently than we like to admit.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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c.b.w. 2013