haiku

Riff of a Quote from Calliope Writing

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The recent Blogoquent Competition calling for a description of life in a single sentence was won by Katrina, whose concise and eloquent entry posted in Calliope Writing struck me as being much like a haiku.  Hmmm.  One can indeed get a decent haiku by simply adding obbligato line breaks to the winning sentence:

Life is a journey
in which nothing is permanent and
everything is precious.

While I do not freak out because this haiku breaks the 5-7-5 Rule and lacks a clear fragment/phrase boundary, I believe that rule violations need better reasons than

That’s what popped into my head.

The competition is over.  We are free to use 2 sentences now.  A better haiku emerges:

Life is a journey.
No things are permanent and
all things are precious.

Hmmm.  Do I have an image to illustrate this post?  I do, and it suggests another tweak:

outflow-closeup

Happy Heraclitus
Life flows and splashes.
No things are permanent and
all things are precious.
haiku, humor, philosophy

Games, Beauty, and Overreach

As readers of my previous post may have guessed, obeying the 5-7-5 Rule has become something of a game for me.  To date, I have written 50 haiku, all of them (5-7-5)-compliant.  I hope to extend my streak to at least 56 because Joe DiMaggio’s epic hitting streak lasted for 56 consecutive baseball games in 1941.

Wait a minute.  My (5-7-5)-compliance is a game; DiMaggio’s profession was the game of baseball.  The list of games is long and diverse (peekaboo; scrabble; solitaire; …). What do all those “games” have in common? In defiance of centuries of tradition dating back to Plato and Aristotle, the 20-th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed a radical answer:

Zilch.

(We can leave some wiggle room for something bland and inconsequential about amusing activities, often but not necessarily competitive.)  Looking long and hard at the word “game” in all its sprawling diversity, Wittgenstein observed that there are many is-a-lot-like relationships among games, such as

Hockey is a lot like soccer.

To a nonfan like me, hockey and lacrosse and soccer are all essentially the same game, with obvious minor differences.  Remove the goalie and U get basketball.  Football is somewhat like such games and also somewhat like baseball.  Card games are like each other in various ways.  One may well be able to get from one game to another by several is-a-lot-like steps, but is-a-lot-like relationships are not transitive.  After more than a few of such steps, it is no surprise if nothing worth fussing about is shared.

Wittgenstein did not stop with games.  Philosophers have often sought to find and formulate what is common to all the activities or things that may rightly be called “good” or “beautiful” (or whatever uplifting adjective U want), with the presumption that something nontrivial and enlightening might be said.  Tho Wittgenstein did not actually prove that quest to be hopeless, he did show that the burden of proof is heavier on somebody who thinks

What is beauty?

makes sense than on somebody who just says

I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

Images of beautiful people and places abound.  Sculptors create beautiful objects; composers write beautiful music.  In math, a beautiful proof of the Pythagorean Theorem was created by replacing the usual picture (of 3 squares glued to the sides of 1 triangle) with a picture of 4 copies of the same triangle, arranged to form 2 squares:

Pythagoras
(a+b
=
4 · ( ½ · a · b) + c²
Intellectually, I agree with Wittgenstein.  Pachelbel’s canon and the 2-squares proof are both beautiful, we already knew that, and philosophy has nothing to add.  I just want to remark that the urge to understand the world in terms of general principles works rather well when science encourages sobriety, by testing predictions about small stuff before trusting grandiose pronouncements about large stuff.

Emotionally, I sense something more likable than mere hubris in those who overreach, something akin to the spirit of people in New Orleans who tough out hurricanes or return after them.

This is Not Apollo 13

Failure is not an
option; it is a given.
But we will still try.

No Pots of Gold

Seek ends of rainbows.
You will not find them? Okay.
The quest is enough.

haiku, humor

On Rules: Moral Hazard; 5-7-5; …

The difference between respecting a rule and worshiping it can be vital, as with the Moral Hazard Rule against bailouts and the like.  A discussion of the Moral Hazard Rule could bog down in controversy over who is to blame for a mess, who is suffering, who has a hidden agenda, and so on.  So I will discuss something simpler and less important by itself, but good for illustrating that vital difference.  Please remember that difference the next time U hear somebody who worships a rule arguing with somebody who ignores it.  Maybe each of them is partly right and partly wrong.

The 5-7-5 Rule says that a haiku is a 3-line poem in blank verse, where the lines have syllable counts of 5, 7, and 5.  Tho he was razzed intensely at the time, Bill Clinton had a point when he fussed about what “is” means.  Does the rule say how the word “haiku” is (or should be) used?  By whom?  Does the rule specify the essence of haikuness?  My own attitude is both traditional and pragmatic, more nuanced than I can express in 3 lines.

I first encountered the 5-7-5 Rule as a junior in college, back when students used typewriters and people with scholarly aspirations kept bibliographic info on 3×5 cards.  (Yes, that long ago.)  A friend was interested in Japanese culture, but not so interested as to learn the language.  He was enthusiastic about some short Japanese poems that, as translated into English, were limp and vague.  Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, and my friend explained that these translations had the special burden of being translations of haiku, using the 5-7-5 Rule to define a word that was new to me.  My friend said he was settling for bad poems in English that began as good ones in Japanese, and that people cannot write haiku in English anyway, in part because we do not have Japanese calligraphy.  I took the purported impossibility as a challenge.

After some scribbling and counting, I put a 3×5 card in my typewriter, banged on a few keys, and silently handed the card to my friend.  It had 3 lines:

Haiku written on
a typewriter: ultimate
incongruity.

We shared a laugh and I kept the card.

In the course of about 50 years, I eventually wrote about 50 haiku, all conforming to the 5-7-5 Rule.  While thinking about ways I might publish some of my haiku, I did some web browsing and found many haiku that I liked, including the following gem by Alexis Rotella:

Just friends: …
he watches my gauze dress
blowing on the line.

I barely noticed the violation of 5-7-5 and did not mind it at all.  Some time later, Lew Gardner sent me a handout from the haiku class he teaches, with examples that included Just friends: … and the following gem by Anita Virgil:

walking the snow-crust
     not sinking
       sinking

Now the violation of 5-7-5 is integral to the imagery!

Anybody who gripes about the foregoing violations of 5-7-5 is just being churlish.  Anybody who is oblivious to 5-7-5 is missing much of the fun in a successful translation by Harry Behn of one of Basho Matsuo’s haiku:

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

I needed strict observance of 5-7-5 to prove a point long ago, but the 5-5-5 of my last borrowing from Lew’s handout is close enough to support a funnier joke with a haiku that refers to itself.  I salute whoever topped my 1st effort with the classic

You have just started
reading the haiku
that you just finished.

Far from being hidebound about tradition, I often write on oddball topics, always provide titles, and sometimes write 3 lines that would be unintelligible w/o stage setting by the title.  But I also honor tradition with a serious effort at abiding by 5-7-5.  So far, I have almost always been happier with the result (of all the heating and hammering that effort entailed) than with the looser early version that I brought to my wordsmith’s forge.

Abiding by 5-7-5 has been helpful to me; I recommend giving it a try.  The precision of 5-7-5 is also appealing, and I deeply appreciate the importance of precise definitions in math.  I also know that poetry ain’t math.

Who Miscounted?

This so-called “haiku”
ignores 5-7-5, so
it’s not a haiku.