humor, language, philosophy, photography

Flags, Moles, & Meanings

While pondering “the meaning of food” is rare, pondering “the meaning of life” is common.  Deservedly?  Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Don’t let sweating “the meaning of life” interfere with living.

§1: Colors

Meanings are tricky.  Colors provide a simpler way to explore some of the relevant ideas, but exposure to a common misuse of language may mislead some readers into objecting to the following subsection’s first paragraph.  If U want to object, please wait until U have read §1.3.  Don’t want to object?  U can skip §1.3 but are welcome to read it anyway.

§1.1: What Color is the Number Six?

The question heading this subsection is inane, bordering on nonsensical.  Many different kinds of thing have colors, but numbers don’t.  Making sense is harder than just having sensible-looking syntax.

One of the ways that philosophy made substantial progress in the past century was the realization that some “deep” questions could be as inane as the one heading of this subsection.  Determining which ones are really deep will take a while.  Inane questions may sometimes be failed attempts to pose serious questions that might be more tractable with better wording, so some inanities may deserve more sympathy than the heading of this subsection.

§1.2: What Color is the US Flag?

Flags do have colors, but the question heading this subsection is still inane.  The US flag is red, white, and blue.  While mostly red, the Chinese flag also has some yellow.  How many nations have flags of just one color?

Nobody is silly enough to speak of “the” color of a nation’s flag, but people often do fall into the trap of speaking of “the” thingamajig when there are in fact several relevant thingamajigs.  I posted 4 varied examples (and there are many more).

It does make sense to say that white is the color of the stars in the US flag, that green is the color of the fake foliage in my Xmas wreath, and so on.  But look at the ribbon on my wreath:

closer_crop_840x485

The color I see at any place on the ribbon is intricately context-dependent.  Where is the light coming from?  Where am I standing?  While the solid red ribbons on other wreaths are easier to describe, my iridescent ribbon is prettier to see.

§1.3: Numerals Ain’t Numbers

For clarity and emphasis, I will wrap words in square brackets when I want to write about them rather than with them.  Italics will be only for titles or foreign words; quote marks will be only for quotations.

Nobody confuses the English word [six] or the German word [sechs] with the number six.  The words are names for the number, not the number itself.  Likewise for the numeral [6], but people often do confuse numerals with the numbers they name.   Now that Arabic numerals like [6] have displaced Roman numerals (and strings of them like [VI] to mean six) for nearly all purposes, the confusion usually does not matter.  But it matters here.

One of the many kinds of synesthesia responds to reading various letters or numerals by also seeing various colors that are not in the text.  It’s called “grapheme-color synesthesia” and discussed on many web pages, with some variations in details of the definition.  (What about a color response to a whole word rather than just to a prominent letter in it?  To a symbol like [@] that is neither a letter nor a numeral?)  Close reading of the oversimplified definition in Psychology Today (and elsewhere) suggests that the authors were thinking of numerals when they wrote “numbers” in something like

Grapheme-color synesthesia occurs when
letters and numbers are associated with specific colors.

Some discussions of this kind of synesthesia do say “numeral” when discussing color responses to reading numerals, as they should.

I found one page that touches all bases and, despite prose obfuscated by refusing to use the word [numeral], recognizes the distinction between names and what they name.  The Syntax Tree goes on to assert that some synesthetes do have color responses to numbers themselves, not to numerals.  How could that be verified?  The page does not say.

Suppose Ulrika Zweisprachen is bilingual in English and German.  Suppose she sees the color lime green when reading a passage in English with the word [six], a passage in German with the word [sechs], or a passage in either language with the numeral [6].  The number six does have the color lime green for Ulrika, but not by itself.  Pedro Doslenguas may see orange when reading a passage in English with the word [six] or a passage in Spanish with the word [seis].  And so on.  In short, numbers don’t have colors.

In a comment on a much earlier version of this post, Sue Ranscht remarked that [nonsense] (where [inane] appears now) was an overstatement.  She also broadened my horizons about kinds of synesthesia.  I had only known of the sound-color kind.  Thanks, Sue.

§2: Words

Mole

© tunedin123 | 123RF Stock Photo
(Image has been cropped.)

The word [mole] has utterly different meanings in chemistry, dermatology, and espionage.  Even if we suppose it makes sense to attribute a meaning to life, pondering “the” meaning of life may still be like pondering “the” color of the US flag, “the” color of an iridescent ribbon, or “the” meaning of [mole].

Like mathematical notations (and many hand gestures), words are arbitrary symbols with enough consensus about what they mean to support use in communication.  Who uses life to say what to whom?  Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Numbers don’t have colors and don’t need them.  Words don’t have unique meanings and don’t need them.  Life doesn’t have or need anything like “the meaning” of a word.

I posted 4 imagined responses by an old Yankee to a novice philosopher’s bloviations; one of the responses is

Wehrds need meanings; life don’t.

§3: How to Live

Maybe some concerns about “the meaning of life” are poorly worded concerns about how to live fully and righteously.  Preferring the workable to the grandiose, I try to abide by a short list of simple rules:

  • Have some fun.
  • Do more good than harm.
  • Don’t sweat “the meaning” of it all.
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language, writing

Show Case #2 (Writer’s Co-op)

What is behind the mask?  After it is removed, there may still be more than meets the eye.  Much more, as the varied pieces in Writers’ Co-op Show Case #2 reveal.  Clicking on [SHOW CASE] in the banner atop any Writers’ Co-op page will reveal a drop-down menu with links to the growing list of episodes.

Noh-Mask_gold_800x838
Click here to see episode 2 of the Writers’ Co-op Show Case curated by Sue Ranscht, which begins as follows:

This Show Case features nine pieces submitted in response to our second Writing Prompt: Behind the mask. We hope they stimulate your mind, spirit, and urge to write. Maybe they will motivate you to submit a piece for our next prompt:

Catharsis

Those submissions are due by the end of Monday, November 1, 2021, and will be published here the following Friday. Please attach yours as a .docx, .doc, or .pdf to an email to stranscht@sbcglobal.net. (Guidelines: any genre, approximately 6 – 1,000 words.)

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language, math, photography

Perpendicular: Upright or Uptight?

Calling 90 degrees a “right” angle is a little misleading.  Yes, spatial coordinates should usually be based on perpendicular lines.  But 90 degrees is often just one angle among many, and perpendicular may not be right for the job.
 
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Perpendicular ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #269

 
 

The ceiling should be perpendicular to the wall
(and the wall to the floor).

corner-grn-pink-align_840x639

 
 

Even the klutz who built my house got it right.

DSCN0909_upright_crop_840x533

 
 

The right angle for slicing a pizza depends on
how many slices are needed.

112039533_m_840x784

© sabelnik | 123RF Stock Photo

 
 

Willing to count a circle as a “line” perpendicular to any chosen straight line thru the center?  (I am.)  If so, then spatial coordinates should almost always (not just usually) be based on perpendicular lines.  Want to navigate on a really big pizza?  Use polar coordinates.

humor, language, photography, science

Squirrel at the Center of the Universe

Science says there is no place special, so the center of a coordinate system can be any place convenient for the purposes of the moment.  While the fluidity of centrality would have freaked out Aristotle (and still induces some queasiness), squirrels take it in stride.
 
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Centre ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #247

«Hey, stupid!»
«My empty gut is the center of the universe.»
«Refill the “bird” feeder and I’ll do rest.»

Squirrels also take it in stride when
science says space has no special directions.

Do they chow down or chow up?

haiku, humor, language

Squirrely Juxtaposition

In many a haiku poem, there is an unexpected juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas.  Much of the fun is in realizing how the ideas fit together in the context of the haiku.  Here is a 3-5-3 haiku with two ideas that U might expect to see juxtaposed, but not in this way.  I saw what I saw.
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Carpe Diem Exploring The Beauty Of Haiku #1826 Juxtaposition

flying-squirrel_crop_clone_840x294

Both in Sciuridae
|Chipmunk does
|rodenta yoga:
|flying squirrel.

Nerdy 😉 Notes

  1. When I first saw the chipmunk with belly down and legs spread out, it looked remarkably like a flying squirrel on a long glide.  Despite being well paid for modeling by seeds that fall from my bird feeder, the chipmunk did not hold the exact position while I fetched and focused the camera.the flying squirrel sketch vector graphics  picture
  2. While at least one yoga position is named for a kind of snake (the “cobra”), no position known to me is named for a kind of squirrel.  Too bad.  The chipmunk’s “flying squirrel” position is one that even I might be able to master, on the floor if not in the air.
  3. Wanna count syllables?  Where I live, the word [squirrel] has one syllable and rhymes with [swirl].  Elsewhere, it can have two syllables.  Maybe more.
language, philosophy, photography, science, seasons

Emergent Leaves and More

Much more.  Careful consideration of emergent things provides some hints about how to live fully and righteously on a little blue planet in a big oblivious universe.  Does that sound too grandiose?  Let’s start small, with some spring leaves and two ways to make adjectives.
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emergergent-sakura_crp-1_840x841

Turning Verbs into Adjectives

While we do it mostly by adding the suffix [-ing] (and maybe tweaking the spelling), we sometimes add [-ent] (or [-ant]) instead.  There is a subtle but important difference when we turn [emerge] into an adjective.  Leaves emerge and then go about the business of growing and photosynthesizing.  It would be a little better to say that my photo shows “emerging leaves” because there is no “and then” for emergent things.  They just are emergent.  What they emerge from is still there.

For example, look again at my photo, not as leaves but as an image.  It emerges from about 700,000 pixels encoded with about 480 KB of data in JPEG format.  That matters if I want to e-mail it to somebody who pays for data flow over a slow connection.  For many other purposes, to fret about the underlying pixels and bytes is a waste of effort.  The shapes and colors and composition are not in the pixels themselves.  They emerge from the way the pixels are arranged and interact with each other and the viewer.

My mild misuse of the [-ent] suffix for emerging leaves is a point of departure for considering bigger issues, not just a bow to the exact wording of Patrick Jennings’ challenge:

Emergent ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #232 – Pix to Words

Poetic Naturalism

Once we start looking for emergent things, we find that the world teems with them.  (Water, ice, and steam all emerge from crowds of the same kind of molecule.)  We find that fretting about “ultimate reality” may well be as pointless as trying to understand my photo by always diving down into those 480 KB and never looking at the emergent image.  While some contexts demand a deep dive, others demand a shallow one.

One of many places with examples and discussion of various emergent phenomena is Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture, which somehow manages to be a good read (and a mostly easy one) despite dealing with deep stuff in science and philosophy while being fair to other viewpoints.

While nothing in science is nailed down as tightly as 3+2 = 5 in math, there is much evidence that we are in a tiny corner of a vast universe that goes its own way with no overall design or purpose or supernatural intervention.  Can we live fully and righteously in a cosmos that does not give a rat’s ass about beauty or goodness?  In much more detail than I can hope to put into a blog post, Carroll argues that we can.  Emergence is part of the story.

Tho a little queasy about Carroll’s use of the phrase [poetic naturalism] to name his upbeat attitude in the face of knowledge that would depress many people, I can’t think of a better name or a better attitude.

Don’t despair if love and justice seem as fanciful as unicorns when U consider only the underlying dance of atoms and molecules.  Love and justice may be real enough, but emergent.

 

Buddhism, fiction, humor, language

Live in the present.  Write there too.

The ancient advice is still good.  Live mostly in the present, with enough dwelling on the past to serve specific purposes like learning from mistakes.  Also good is the much more recent advice to write fiction in the present tense, unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense.
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Zen lore includes some stories with endings of the form

At that moment, __________ attained enlightenment.

Fill in the blank with the name of somebody who studied Zen for some time and finally saw the light when his teacher said or did something outrageously weird.

While my story Satori from a Consulting Gig does not presuppose any knowledge of Zen lore, it does have a surprise ending (partly inspired by those Zen stories) with my own way to fill in the blank.  Using the past tense in my story’s last sentence helps make the allusion to Zen lore clear to those who might care about it.

Did I choose to write my story in the past tense because I planned to end it that way?  Not consciously.  I just set out to write a short story.  I’ll write some fiction.  I’ll use the customary past tense.  Doesn’t everybody?

Not quite.  I got over 16 million hits when I googled

present tense vs past tense fiction

much later, in preparation for writing this post.  Before discussing some pros and cons that are out there (and some that may be new), there is a little more to be said about my story’s tense situation.

Rope fraying

© S. Silver | 123RF Stock Photo

My story was written for an anthology whose editors asked the contributors to supply blurbs.  I wrote a blurb in the same tense as the story, then noticed that other contributors wrote blurbs in the present tense for stories in the past tense.  Why?  I found the inconsistency troubling.

Another contributor (Sue Ranscht) kindly remarked that the present tense “creates a punchier tease” in blurbs than the past tense does.  Indeed.  Why not make the actual story (not just the blurb) be as vivid and engrossing as it can possibly be?  Unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense, why not write in the present tense?

§1: Perilous Present

Written in the present tense, my newer story Entanglements begins with

Squatting over the airport, a thunderstorm supercell demolishes …

Yes, the word demolishes might be misread as (a typo for) demolished.  Yes, the reader might be a little disoriented at first.  Worse, the reader might suspect that gimmicky writing is camoflage for weak content.  Such concerns loom large in a thoughtful page that recommends using the past tense by default and the present in some special cases.  We can agree on the bedrock principle that one size does not fit all, even as we disagree amicably on where to draw some lines and how strongly to weight some concerns.  That’s a respite from the train wreck of contemporary politics.

Dunno how 16 million hits in my Google search compares with how often the present tense has actually been used in good stuff.  As good uses accumulate, the prudential reasons for defaulting to the past tense will gradually weaken.  Of course, there will always be people who believe that the earth is flat, the moon landings were faked, and

Thou shalt write fiction in the past tense.

came down from Mount Sinai with Moses.

§2: Perilous Past

Readers (and writers!) may not be native speakers of English.  As with many other aspects of language, English is exuberantly irregular in how it forms the past tense.  People learn the past tense of a verb later (and less thoroughly?) than they learn the present tense.  Can U hear the rumble of an approaching storm?

When offline (or distrustful of Google Translate), Pierre consults his French/English dictionary.  How can he say prendre in English?  No problem.  Just say take.  But Pierre is writing in the customary past tense.  Neglecting to look up take in the other half of the dictionary, he says taked where he should say took.

Consider 3 common ways that verbs ending in -it can form their past tenses: hit/hit, pit/pitted, and sit/sat.  Quick now: knit/knit or knit/knitted?  Shit/shit or shit/shat?

There are a few verbs with 2 ways to form the past: an irregular usual way and a regular way for a special usage:

  • Starting a road trip, the team flew out to Chicago.
    Swinging at the first pitch, the batter flied out to left field.
  • The picture was hung in a prominent place.
    Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy on 1776-09-22.

This last nuance is subtle enough to trip up some native speakers.

§3: Perilous Past Perfect

Pierre is back.  The draft of his story has a short paragraph about some taking that happened at an earlier time.  Not fond of flashbacks, he has a good reason to put this paragraph as late as it is, not earlier in the narrative.

Sadder but wiser after being corrected by a ten-year old whose first language is English, Pierre refrains from writing had took for the past perfect for the verb take.  He looks up the actual past participle and writes had taken.

Pierre’s pluperfect paragraph is grammatical but clunky.  What to do?  Rewrite the main narrative in the present tense and the clunky paragraph in the past.  That will be a chore, but such a clear and distinct idea deserves the effort.  Descartes would approve.

§4: John and Jane Get Tense

John has been writing screenplays that often use flashbacks.  Now he wants to write a novel and still likes flashbacks.  He realizes that readers would be confused if nothing but a paragraph break separates what the characters do and experience “now” (from their viewpoint) from the start or end of a flashback.  There is a lot of sensible advice out there about things like narrative transitions to and from flashbacks, but John wants to stay closer to his cinematic roots.  He uses the present tense for the main content and the past tense for the flashbacks.  If he also switches to a noticeably different font for the flashbacks, that might be enough in most places (after narrative transitions for the first few flashbacks).

Jane has been writing historical fiction and using the past tense to make it look like history.  Now she wants to write fiction with a first-person narrator and package it as a rather one-sided conversation with an implicit listener.  She plans to keep the past tense for the main content and add some present-tense remarks, often in response to what the listener has presumably just said.  The present-tense remarks will be frequent and incongruous.  The narrator will tell a self-serving version of a sequence of events in the past tense while accidentally revealing the darker and/or funnier truth in the present tense.

I warned Jane that readers (especially impatient thick-headed guys like me) may just take the narrator to be ditzy and bail out early.  But Jane is game to try.  If she does make it work, I know a good place to submit her story.

§5: Recurring Rabbit

Rabbit-Hole_Worried-Rabbit
The Rabbit Hole is a series of anthologies of weird stories, with a troika of editors.  Volume 1 came out in 2018, Volume 2 is scheduled to come out on 2019-10-01, and the editors hope to continue annually.  Maybe Jane can contribute to Volume 3.

My story Satori from a Consulting Gig in Volume 1 is just 2 pages long, so even those who dislike it may still be glad they bought the book for $2.99 as an e-book or $12.50 as an ink-on-paper book.

While every extended narrative in Volume 1 uses the customary past tense, Volume 2 will have at least two stories told in the present tense.  No, the editors’ fondness for weird stories does not extend to a fondness for weird writing.  As originally submitted for Volume 2, my story Entanglements did have some weird writing at the end that seemed unavoidable to me.  One of the editors (Curtis Bausse) suggested a strategy for avoiding the unwanted weirdness, and the strategy worked.  There was no fuss at all about my use of the present tense.  That is as it should be.

haiku, humor, language, oversimplify, photography

Red-y or Not …

Some short color words are spread thin in common usage.  Words like “red” are pinned on many things that are slightly reddish.  If plant breeders ever develop a cabbage that is actually red, they will find that the name “red cabbage” has been usurped.  Chaos in the produce aisle!  Hope spinach stays green.

Red ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #187

salad_obrem_y-10_669x208

Salad Paradox
|Red peppers are red.
|Red cabbage is purple but
|is said to be red.
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haiku, humor, language

Innocence Lost & Mischief Found

Tweaking a wistful response to an earlier challenge in a different series yields a response to

that defers to Canada’s retention of British spelling.  (One of the tweaks was to replace color by colour.)  Being deferential does not suit me, so I revert to US spelling in some new mischief at the end.

When colour computer displays came in, I was jolted to see that a yellowish green and an orangish red were now “primary” for RGB coordinates of coloured pixels.  I also had to use CMYK coordinates for coloured inks and pray to the graphics gods that printing software would translate from RGB to CMYK in a way that respected how something looked.  My prayers were seldom answered.  Eventually, I learned to put away childish things (like hard copy).

Before Colours Went RGB
|Red, yellow, and blue
|were “primary” when kids
|smeared paint on paper.

RYB-triangle_700x619

I am all too aware of several ways that Canada is more sensible than the USA.  I used one of the less important ones to balance a little mischief about one small way the USA is more sensible:

Color in 6 Letters
|Some folks spell it with a U.
|On my honor, they sure do.
|Hour and sour I can buy;
|misspelled humor makes me cry.
|You stayed loyal to the Crown?
|Gotta press that U key down!
|I’m a proud Yank but confess
|that our anthem is a mess,
|sung as if we never heard:
|yeh-et really ain’t a word.

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humor, language, philosophy, photography

Don’t Sweat the Meaning of Life

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Don’t let sweating “the meaning of life” interfere with living.
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While pondering “the meaning of food” is rare, pondering “the meaning of life” is common.  Deservedly?  Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

§1: Colors

Meanings are tricky.  Colors provide a simpler way to explore some of the relevant ideas.

§1.1: What Color is the Number Six?

The question heading this subsection is nonsense.  Many different kinds of thing have colors, but numbers don’t.  Making sense is harder than just having sensible-looking syntax.

One of the ways that philosophy made substantial progress in the past century was the realization that some “deep” questions could be as nonsensical as the one heading of this subsection.  Determining which ones are really deep will take a while.  Nonsensical questions may sometimes be failed attempts to pose serious questions that would be more tractable with better wording, so some nonsense may deserve more sympathy than the heading of this subsection.

§1.2: What Color is the US Flag?

Flags do have colors, but the question heading this subsection is still nonsense.  The US flag is red, white, and blue.  While mostly red, the Chinese flag also has some yellow.  How many nations have flags of just one color?

Nobody is silly enough to speak of “the” color of a nation’s flag, but people often do fall into the trap of speaking of “the” thingamajig when there are in fact several relevant thingamajigs.  I posted 4 varied examples (and there are many more).

It does make sense to say that white is the color of the stars in the US flag, that green is the color of the fake foliage in my Xmas wreath, and so on.  But look at the ribbon on my wreath:

closer_crop_840x485

The color I see at any place on the ribbon is intricately context-dependent.  Where is the light coming from?  Where am I standing?  While the solid red ribbons on other wreaths are easier to describe, my iridescent ribbon is prettier to see.

§2: Words

Mole

© tunedin123 | 123RF Stock Photo
(Image has been cropped.)

The word mole has utterly different meanings in chemistry, dermatology, and espionage.  Even if we suppose it makes sense to attribute a meaning to life, pondering “the” meaning of life may still be like pondering “the” color of the US flag, “the” color of an iridescent ribbon, or “the” meaning of mole.

Like mathematical notations (and many hand gestures), words are arbitrary symbols with enough consensus about what they mean to support use in communication.  Who uses life to say what to whom?

I posted 4 imagined responses by an old Yankee to a novice philosopher’s bloviations; one of the responses is

Wehrds need meanings; life don’t.

§3: How to Live

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Maybe some concerns about “the meaning of life” are poorly worded concerns about how to live.  Preferring the workable to the grandiose, I go with a simple short list:

  • Try to have some fun.
  • Try to do more good than harm.
  • Don’t sweat “the meaning” of it all.
food, humor, language, photography

Lime Time

The [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.  Typing just the [Enter] key into the Search box is a way to browse WordPress blogs.
The color word lime is used for many light or yellowish kinds of green.


Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Lime or Light Green

New leaves often display a version of lime.

lime-leaves_fix_840x1214

 
Actual limes display several versions of lime on the outside and …

lime-light_840x630

 
… yet another version on the inside.

lime-face_840x840

Got tequila?

Dry Margarita

A bottle of premixed margaritas is convenient, but the contents are too sweet for me.  To get a drier margarita with minimal mixological effort, I use roughly equal amounts of premixed margarita and dry white wine.  Tho admittedly not a world-class margarita, the result is a good no-fuss drink.

haiku, language, philosophy, photography

AKA Blue-Green (or Cyan or …)

This pretty color is also a visual metaphor: relationships mean more than intrinsic properties.  What to call it?  There’s a reason to prefer “blue-green” over other names, most of the time.
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Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Teal, Aqua, Seafoam or Turquoise

blue-green_840x666

What would I say is “the” color of the cloth in my image?  Even more than with other colors, how it looks depends on lighting and surroundings.  This pretty color is a visual metaphor: relationships mean more than intrinsic properties.

Colorful Plain English
|Inkjets squirt cyan;
|some poets sing of turquoise.
|I just see blue-green.

For most purposes, I prefer blue-green (and 2 variations on it) over the other names.  Anybody who knows what blue and green mean can guess what blue-green means.  Those who need more choices for naming colors like this can put blue-green between bluish green (AKA aqua) and greenish blue (AKA turquoise).  The 3 names I prefer are all clearer than names like aqua about where they lie on the range from just plain blue to just plain green.

Nerdy 😉 Note

Need still more choices?  Use Red|Green|Blue coordinates.  The 256x256x256 possible values for the RGB coordinates of a color can make more distinctions than U will ever need.

For example, the image below is a detail from the image above, with little yellow circles around 2 spots on the cloth, one relatively bright and another relatively dark.  Most spots on the cloth have [R|G|B] between the bright spot’s [45|223|226] and the dark spot’s [0|48|86].

blue-green_crop_upsize_mark_crop_840x131

If U like one of those colors enough to want it as a text or background color, U can use the corresponding hexadecimal code (#2DDFE2 or #003056) in an HTML style sheet.  Explicit hex codes avoid the bother of remembering the sometimes flaky conventional names for web colors.

Hex codes also provide flexibility.  Colors rarely look the way one expects when picking a color by pointing to it in another context, as I noticed when I used colors from an image to add a haiku to the image and then to write text referring to parts of the haiku.  Bumping coordinates up or down can adjust colors to look good in actual use.

ethics, haiku, humor, language, music, oversimplify

Be Precise, But Keep It Real

I am big on precise language.  Why am I so damn mellow about whether a poem is a haiku?  The answer hints at bigger things (like reconciling polished theory with rough-hewn reality), but there will also be a few jokes.
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Yes, there are short poems that are not haiku.  Limericks are not haiku.  Googling «one word poem» yielded more hits than I expected (and infinitely more than I would like).  U can read about one that made national news here.  One word poems are not haiku.  (As candidates for a one word poem about one word poetry, words like [prank] and [scam] come to mind.)  On the other hand, trying to say exactly what is a haiku is a lot harder than it seems to many people.  It is also a lot less important, and we should be thankful for small blessings.

A list of several common characteristics of haiku is a good starting point as a tentative definition.  Such a list can be good for introducing people to haiku.  Whether it should be carved in stone is another question.

Here is a plausible list of things one might say about a short poem in English, such that the poem “should” only be called a haiku if they are all true.

  1. It does not rhyme.
  2. It has 3 lines, with a total of 17 syllables distributed 5-7-5.
  3. It includes some seasonal reference.
  4. It includes a poignant relationship between nature and humanity.

I got this particular list from a thoughtful comment by Sue Ranscht on a post with a 3-5-3 haiku.  Amicably and implicitly, the comment posed the question that starts this post.  It deserves an amicable (but explicit) reply.

§1: How Do I List Thee?

Let me count the ways.  Hmmm.  Do I have enough fingers?

There is a downside to defining the word [haiku] in a way that excludes much of what the best haiku poets actually write and much of what the Haiku Society of America considers to be a haiku.  What are we to call that stuff?

Jane Reichhold (1937-2016) was among the many eminent haiku poets who do not adhere to our 4-item list.  She was also an advocate (so am I) of haiku with a characteristic that is not in that list: juxtaposing 2 contrasting images (rensô in Japanese).  Rather than import yet another Japanese word into English, she wrote about “fragment and phrase” as parts of a haiku, in an insightful essay that was nicely formatted in a CDHK episode.  The juxtaposition may seem incongruous at first, and much of the fun comes from realizing how it does make sense.  Sometimes one part clarifies the other.  Sometimes the fragment (the shorter part) is the punch line of a joke set up by the phrase, as in the essay’s clever classic

roasting_veg_chkn_800x575

Haiku © Jane Reichold superimposed on
Photo © Vladlena Azima | ShutterStock

Another criterion not in our 4-item list is interchangeability of lines 1 and 3.  While Jane did not advocate interchangeability (neither do I), it matters to some people.  Should we have a 6-item list?  There is no need to consider here the whole multitude of criteria that are sometimes important to some people.  There is no need to try wriggling out of the contradictions between some of these criteria.  This section’s takeaway is simply that there is no single authoritative list.  Do U find that conclusion stressful?  Maybe a musical interlude will help.

§2: Musical Interlude

Back in 1800, Viennese concert-goers knew what a symphony was, with or w/o knowing much music theory.  A symphony was an orchestral composition with 4 movements.  Movement #1 might have a short slow introduction; otherwise, movements #1 and #4 were both at a brisk pace.  Movement #2 was slower; movement #3 was a minuet at an intermediate pace.  Performing the whole thing took a while, but well under an hour.  And so on.  That was before Beethoven began shredding the dictionary.

Did anybody abuse the new freedom by writing schlock that was long and loud?  Of course.  But some composers crafted some beautiful and enduring symphonies with great care and skill.  Works like Dvořák’s From the New World are classics, tho in various ways they are not classical.

Saying that something is “a symphony” no longer says much about its length or layout.  With no claim that they are all great symphonies, here are a few examples of the diversity.

  • We have symphonies with less than 4 movements (Hovhaness; Schubert).  More movements were apparently intended for Schubert’s “unfinished” symphony, but it is deservedly popular as is.
  • We have a short strings-only symphony that does have 4 movements, but the 2 (not 1!) based on dance forms are not minuets (Britten).
  • We have humongous symphonies with vocal parts (Beethoven; Mahler).

And so on.

Maybe it would be nice if the word [symphony] had a more specific meaning, but we get by.  When Prokofiev revisited the old layout from before 1800, he did not claim to be writing the first “real” symphony in decades.  He just wrote his Classical Symphony. The title’s meaning is clear enough.

§3: Back to Haiku

I wish those who advocate one of the narrower concepts of haiku would imitate Prokofiev.  Speak of “classical” haiku or (better still) “traditional” haiku.  Say which of the various traditions U have in mind.  Want to make a discussion of a single tradition flow more smoothly by temporarily restricting the word [haiku] to that tradition?  That might work, but it is hard to avoid any hint of permanently excluding other traditions in other discussions.  Want to claim that working within your favored tradition tends to help people write good haiku?  OK.  I may well agree, unless U go on to claim that all haiku (or all good ones) are necessarily in that one tradition.  Ain’t so.

Most of my own haiku (and many that I admire by others) do comply with at least 2 items in our 4-item list.  Full compliance is common but far from universal.  Want to be careful and focused when writing haiku?  Pay serious attention to a list like this.  But don’t let the tail wag the dog.

§4: Leery of Labels

The 6-item list briefly contemplated at the end of §1 is much like the 7-item list of rules that was actually used in a challenging CDHK episode.  The main difference between the lists is in whether rhymes or words referencing the poet (like [I] or [dunno]) are forbidden.  Neither is common in haiku; both do occur.

I responded to the challenge with a cheekily titled but fully compliant haiku (This Haiku Is Kosher), followed by one that breaks a few of the rules (Not Quite Kosher).  Which rules?  In the unlikely event that anybody cared, I could say.  As it happens, my Not Quite Kosher is a wry lament (about crediting an image illustrating This Haiku Is Kosher).  The title’s double meaning would be lost if it somehow specified which rules in the 7-item list were being broken.

zen-frog

Not Quite Kosher
|Zen frog bronze sculpture
|(credit lost, like casting wax).
|Dunno who to thank.

Suppose we want to discuss partial compliance with a list of rules in some detail.  Would it be helpful to have a noun as a 1-word label to pin on my partially compliant haiku, so as to indicate exactly which rules it obeys?  Not really.  With 4 rules we would need 16 nouns.  That would be burdensome.  With 6 (or more) rules, we would need an absurd 64 (or more) nouns.  Better to just say what happens with each rule, if there is any need to say it.

Maybe a single noun for obeying all the rules would still be helpful?  No, it is better to just plop a convenient adjective (like [classical] or [compliant] or [kosher] or [traditional]) in front of good old [haiku].  Remembering which rules are relevant at the moment is enough of a cognitive load.

A cluttered vocabulary is not the only downside of a profusion of special nouns, one for full compliance with each of several lists of rules.  People tend to confuse pinning a fancy label on something with understanding it.  They also tend to assume that labels are mutually exclusive.  When the recipients of labels are other people, the results can be nasty.

§5: Takeaway

Tho willing to break the 5-7-5 rule, I obey it more than might be expected of somebody who knows about its origin in a translation error.  I am especially respectful of 5-7-5 when I write an aphoristic haiku (as a zingy summary of some nerdy philosophizing) rather than a moment-in-nature haiku.  With a linebreak after the comma, this post’s title could be a 2-line aphoristic haiku.  (Yes, there are 2-line haiku.)  Maybe a 5-7-5 aphoristic haiku will reinforce the point.

Precision < Accuracy
|Speaking precisely
|is great, if we speak about
|what is really there.