In the morning to my Bookseller’s to bespeak a Stephens’s Thesaurus, for which I offer 4l., to give to Paul’s School; and from thence to Paul’s Church; and there I heard Dr. Gunning preach a good sermon upon the day (being St. John’s day), and did hear him tell a story, which he did persuade us to believe to be true, that St. John and the Virgin Mary did appear to Gregory, a Bishopp, at his prayer to be confirmed in the faith, which I did wonder to hear from him. Here I met with Mr. Crumlum (and told him of my endeavour to get Stephens’s Thesaurus for the school), and so home, and after dinner comes Mr. Faulconberge to see me, and at his desire I sent over for his kinsman Mr. Knightly, the merchant, and so he came over and sat and drank with us, and at his request I went over with him, and there I sat till the evening, and till both Mr. Knightly and Mr. Faulconberge (for whom I sent my boy to get a coach to carry him to Westminster) were both drunk, and so home, but better wine I never drank in all my life. So home, and finding my wife gone to Sir W. Pen’s, I went thither, and there I sat and played at cards and supped, and so home and to bed.

I hear
the Virgin Mary appear
night chant

Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 27 December 1661.


This morning Sir W. Pen and I to the Treasury office, and there we paid off the Amity (Captain Stokes’s ship that was at Guinny) and another ship, and so home, and after dinner Sir William came to me, and he and his son and daughter, and I and my wife, by coach to Moorfields to walk; but it was most foul weather, and so we went into an alehouse and there eat some cakes and ale, and a washeallbowle woman and girl came to us and sung to us. And after all was done I called my boy (Wayneman) to us to eat some cake that was left, and the woman of the house told us that he had called for two cakes and a pot of ale for himself, at which I was angry, and am resolved to correct him for it. So home and Sir W. Pen and his son and daughter to supper to me to a good turkey, and were merry at cards, and so to bed.

Off the ship that was
at Guinea, walk
to an alehouse, a woman,
cake and the woman
of the house, two
cakes and a pot of ale,
angry at cards.

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 26 December 1661.

Poem with a line from Tomaž Šalamun

Is the little bird torn apart
by a paw?
Does the dream
of flying above the white
sheet of a sea haunt it,
as it does me? In the hill
town where I was raised
though not born, once
a week, in a wooden school-
room, a nun taught us
about music and the smell
of lavender flowers. Decant
is a word that applies to sound
as it does to memory and scent.
When the bells peal at dusk
and in early morning, don’t you
see the shapes with which
they petal our heads? Tenderness
is the day-old bread we break
with our hands and dip in milk
to feed to the smallest ones,
those whose hearts have not yet
swallowed sadness whole.

Videohaiku, erasure haiku, and Samuel Pepys

This is one of my favorite gifts of the season: a new poetry film by the one and only Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, that uses five of my erasure haiku derived from the online Diary of Samuel Pepys. (Be sure to hit HD and expand it to full screen.) Marc blogged some process notes:

The visual idea came from a prompt Jutta Pryor left at the ‘Pool’ FB group:

Is anyone interested in a 5-7-5 challenge? Based on the format of a HAIKU, but keeping it fun and experimental, let’s be all-inclusive.
5-7-5 syllable Word sequence or 5-7-5 second Sound sequence or 5-7-5 second Video sequence.

These short poems or haiku Dave created were the perfect match for 5-7-5 second video sequences.
I decided to create 5 short film compositions with the text on screen, applying that 5-7-5 rule.

First I picked out and re-edited a soundscape I made earlier.
After that I started searching for, filming and selecting suitable visuals to combine with the soundtrack and the poems.
Then came the fun part. Combining each line from the poems with suitable footage using that 5-7-5 rule.
Creating a relationship between image, sound, and text. Blending all ingredients in one cut.

I had fun with this one and am very pleased with how these 5 short visual haiku work.

(Read the rest.)

It’s interesting that Marc picked these poems to work with, since they do not follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern (for reasons I’ll get into below). The idea of video haiku as films that in some way imitate or evoke the three-line pattern of most English-language haiku has roots in the mid-20th century experimental poetry films of Maya Deren and others, where the idea was for the film to become a poem, or at least be poem-like — to take lyrical poetry rather narrative fiction or nonfiction as its model. I first became aware of the text-free, 5-second/7-second/5-second sort of video haiku in 2011, when it was the focus of one of Vimeo’s weekend challenges. (They’ve had at least two more since.) And the French videopoets Katia Viscogliosi and Francis M., A.K.A. the Derviches Associés, whom I follow on Vimeo, have recently been making a number of wordless video haiku:

Seeking for poetry with eyes, these are haïkaï written with a camera, made of 3 shots : their length is always a multiple of 5, 7, 5. All you need is a loving eye…

Videohaiku merits a special mention in Tom Konyves’ Videopoetry: A Manifesto, where he defines it as follows:

The videohaiku (approx. 30 seconds) uses a few words of text attached to the shortest duration of images.

In the acknowledgements, Konyves credits Eric Cassar for its invention.

Jutta Pryor’s challenge to the POOL group, which galvanized Marc, leaves it open to the maker which materials to use—words, sound, or video. As she admited in a comment,

I’m not very knowledgeable about this form at all. I know there are strict parameters with HAIKU. Let’s keep it malleable so that we can explore and have fun.

Which is precisely the right approach to making any kind of art, I think, and sometimes the less one “knows,” the better. I failed to respond to Pryor’s invitation to comment because I am not terribly interested in perpetuating the idea that English haiku should follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. For one thing, 17 syllables are a bit too many most of the time; experts say it should be closer to 11. For another, syllable counting in English does not have the power of counting sounds (not quite what we think of as syllables) in Japanese, which is pitch accented. See Imaoka Keiko’s essay “Forms in English Haiku” and the National Haiku Writing Month post “Why ‘No 5-7-5’?” (which also has some links for further reading).

As Imaoka says, though,

5-7-5 English haiku as a derivative of Japanese haiku has its place in the world of poetry, just as 5-7-5 Chinese haiku is another such derivative, seemingly containing about three times as much information as a Japanese haiku.

It’s not what I’m personally interested in writing, but a hell of a lot of great things have been written in this form, even if it is ultimately based on folklore.

I do feel that the custom of arranging English-language haiku into three lines is pretty key to their effect on the reader. An equally important element, all too often neglected by beginners, is the division into two semantic elements of unequal length, usually corresponding to two different images or ideas, which for maximum effect should have some relationship but not too immediately obvious a one. That relationship may rise almost to the level of metaphor, but otherwise metaphor and simile should not be employed in haiku, I think. Traditional seasonal words (kigo) are not important to my practice, nor do I care if there’s any explicit mention of non-human nature; I do not see modern haiku as a wholly contained subset of nature poetry.

The interplay between the semantic division and the arrangement into three lines can have quite a powerful aesthetic effect — and has a lot to do with why I think Marc’s videopoeming of my erasure haiku works so well. The visual rewards of the haiku texts are mirrored and amplified by the tripartite footage, the stillness of the text counterpoised with the motion in each shot. In his essay, Imaoka calls special attention to the two-part division in written haiku:

A close observation of “free-form” English haiku reveals that they are composed of two major segments. The majority of them are divided after the first or the second line and the rest near the middle, and thus they are in accord with the underlying structures of the classic Japanese haiku.

In writing short English haiku, the decision as to where the division falls is based mainly on the dictates of English grammar and the poetic merits of given expressions. To limit short haiku to those that can be fitted into a rigid three-part structure is to severely limit the type of ideas that can be expressed in this style.

And in accordance with this last point, it’s worth noting another approach to videohaiku that I’ve favored in the past: one long shot, stationary or slowly moving, followed by the whole text. The idea with this style of presentation is to try to represent something of the stereotypical process of haiku composition, in which they arise full-blown from a kind of Zen-like, direct seeing. I’m not sure how often it actually happens this way, at least for writers in English, who have so many more grammatical constraints than Japanese haiku poets. But that’s the ideal.

Or one ideal, at any rate. As I’ve discovered with my Pepys erasure project, which has yielded more than 30 haiku so far, that “ah-ha moment” can arise just as easily from the contemplation of a text as from any other sort of meditative seeing. In fact, I find the additional constraints of this project actually help me compose what I’ve always thought of as a very difficult form to get right. (My constraints include such self-imposed rules as: the words of the erasure must be in the same order as in the source text, and words can’t combine letters from different words except in the case of a few, simple compound words such as into.) I am trying to get something poem-like from every single entry in the diary, which includes a number of one-sentence entries. This has really pushed me out of my comfort zone, to use a somewhat well-worn cliche, and has definitely helped me avoid the cardinal sins of beginner haiku: too much wordiness and overly obvious connections between the two parts.

The strange or unexpected word choices that often of necessity crop up in erasure poetry help greatly with defamiliarization, a fundamental attribute of poetic language in haiku as anywhere else. And the connections that happen between thoughts when we stop trying to impose our conscious designs are sometimes quite wonderful. Often in retrospect they seem like the most obvious choices, but it can take me hours to get there.

One of the basic challenges (and rewards) of erasure poetry is deriving something lyrical from something non-lyrical. The “ice” in Mr. Pepys’ office, for example, glitters in many of my erasure poems. For erasure haiku, in particular, it’s fun to work with a text and author so completely urban and way pre-Romantic, from a time when Japan had sealed itself off from the expanding European powers and was thus almost a complete unknown. Yet it was precisely this “world within walls,” as Donald Keene called it, that gave rise to haikai no renga and what we now call haiku. It was lighter in tone than the courtly renga and tanka verse that preceded it, and its primary audience and practitioners came from the newly burgeoning, urban merchant class.

The first haikujin were thus direct, if unknown, contemporaries of Samuel Pepys, came from a similar milieu, and enjoyed fairly equivalent levels of intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s easy to imagine Pepys hitting it off with someone like Ihara Saikaku. Instead of tea shops and geisha houses, Pepys hung out in coffee shops and pubs, but as the diary reveals, he was an assiduous student of the music of his day, playing a variety of instruments and singing art songs with friends. He obsessed over the theater, wrote critically of the different sermons he heard at church, and attended the first meetings of the Royal Society. I suppose it’s little more than a coincidence, but this parallel between the lifestyles and interests of Pepys and his Tokugawa contemporaries is something I enjoy thinking about. It makes the discovery/invention of haiku from the vivid language of his diary entries feel almost like a contribution to an alternate history: Pepys as a successor to Marco Polo, wandering the streets of 17th-century Edo.

UPDATE (28 December): Revisiting Cordite‘s “Haikunaut” issue from a few years back, I was struck by this passage in editor David Lanoue’s introduction:

Haiku is a posture, a way of seeing and being, a philosophy of life in which one dedicates one’s self to noticing, not ignoring; to being open, not closed; to discovering, not defining; to inviting meaning onto a page, never imposing it.

This sounds very similar to the posture of an erasure poet.


Only the cloud rat knows
how to scale the tree
of heaven, whose roots
are hidden in fog

from mortal view.
And only the rough-
skinned tubers in the field
might possibly know the volume

and density of time, or how
the worms have mastered its
parceling-out. What does it matter
if it is tortoise or serpent

that grinds the wobbly
axis of the world? The sky
is portent and mystery,
the sea’s architecture

encoded in salt; the wood
is wild or so I think, only
because I have not learned
to read the wood in me.


In response to Via Negativa: Statement of ecopoetics and Via Negativa: Observer's Credo.


In the morning to church, where at the door of our pew I was fain to stay, because that the sexton had not opened the door. A good sermon of Mr. Mills. Dined at home all alone, and taking occasion from some fault in the meat to complain of my maid’s sluttery, my wife and I fell out, and I up to my chamber in a discontent. After dinner my wife comes up to me and all friends again, and she and I to walk upon the leads, and there Sir W. Pen called us, and we went to his house and supped with him, but before supper Captain Cock came to us half drunk, and began to talk, but Sir W. Pen knowing his humour and that there was no end of his talking, drinks four great glasses of wine to him, one after another, healths to the king, and by that means made him drunk, and so he went away, and so we sat down to supper, and were merry, and so after supper home and to bed.

a door in the door
taking occasion to complain
of the supper

Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 25 December 1661. Another possibility I considered:

morning sex
my wife and I content
with no glasses on

Observer’s Credo

Defining ecopoetry, I would begin as follows, defining not in terms of form but as an observer’s credo:

To say that I am an observer, a participant, not the end of a process of design but merely a momentary slice of time that’s wearing skin—

to begin at the assumption that I am no more important to the cosmos than a tube worm or a wood duck—

to derive my understanding of myself from what I observe and experience in the world around me, rather than to derive my understanding of the world around me from what I observe and experience in myself.

To say that a poem about the little woodswallow of Australia—one that documents and calls attention to its habitat, behavior, and appearance, gives the reader a nonfiction introduction—is of more value and significance than a poem about my own hopes or fears or discomforts, successes or failures.

To suspect the horse “knows” more about grass than I do,

to recognize that the dog’s capacity to read history and news about what’s happening now and has happened here is more developed than mine, that she has skills and information available to her that I do not.

To wonder about the decline of the golden-winged warbler, wonder how much is due to human-induced loss of habitat, how much to interbreeding with blue-winged warblers—

to learn all I can and know that I do not know—

I do not know if the interbreeding is preparatory to better traits to survive weather and environment shifts, or preparatory to extinction.

To acknowledge not-knowing,

to try to create as little disturbance as possible,

to understand more.

To view the human species as one of many,

to acknowledge that, to a greater extent than any other species, our waste products are more often toxins than nutrients, that we can rank ourselves “above” other species only in this: we are the most venomous and deadly, taking as our prey, unthinkingly and unknowingly, everything within our reach.

To recognize that, as a member of this species, I am probably a sociopath by both nature and nurture.

In response to Dave Bonta’s “Statement of Ecopoetics” and the resulting Facebook discussion.

In the grey sky, a blue wound:

This entry is part 3 of 28 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2014-15


as if what flesh once desired
found embodiment in this opening.

Sudden as epiphany, though not
earth-shattering— A square of paper
come to light again after many months

hidden in a drawer, inked lines
of handwriting. Despite such careful
unfolding, all that language

cannot dress beyond compression:
shimmer of what called our names
even after the curtain was drawn.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Stille Nacht

Early up and by coach (before daylight) to the Wardrobe, and took up Mr. Moore, and he and I to Chelsy to my Lord Privy Seal, and there sealed some things, he being to go out of town for all Christmas to-morrow. So back again to Westminster, and from thence by water to the Treasury Office, where I found Sir W. Pen paying off the Sophia and Griffen, and there I staid with him till noon, and having sent for some collar of beef and a mince pie, we eat and drank, and so I left him there and to my brother’s by appointment to meet Prior, but he came not, so I went and saw Mrs. Turner who continues weak, and by and by word was brought me that Prior’s man was come to Tom’s, and so I went and told out 128l. which I am to receive of him, but Prior not coming I went away and left the money by his desire with my brother all night, and they to come to me to-morrow morning. So I took coach, and lighting at my bookseller’s in Paul’s Churchyard, I met with Mr. Crumlum and the second master of Paul’s School, and thence I took them to the Starr, and there we sat and talked, and I had great pleasure in their company, and very glad I was of meeting him so accidentally, I having omitted too long to go to see him. Here in discourse of books I did offer to give the school what books he would choose of 5l. So we parted, and I home, and to Mr. Selden, and then to bed.

Christmas tomorrow
the old light of a star
on the bed

Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 23 December 1661.