I’ve been reading a lot of haiku in English, and one thing I don’t see very often is literary allusion. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the things that gives Japanese short-form poetry such depth, saving precious syllables that otherwise would be needed to set the scene. It is of course risky, since it presumes a common knowledge that may well be lacking for many younger readers. It might make more sense to use pop culture references to extend the range of possible meanings in a haiku: way more people are going to get a line quoting Yoda than Tennyson. Still, it can be fun to write haiku that take their cues from lines of famous poems. Here are a few I just churned out.
whose woods these are a barred owl asks nothing of me
bone zero freezing in mid-stride at a snake-shaped stick
wild geese this soft animal would love another damn drink
barbaric yawp you say the coyotes sound as if they're fighting
sunset and evening star that smell of pine comes from a bottle
I think the first and last of these best illustrate the point I’m trying to make. Readers who recognize “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” will picture a wintry night, and anyone who’s heard “Crossing the Bar” read at a funeral will fill in the implied setting of the last haiku. The other three simply riff on the source material.
By water to Whitehall and thence to Westminster, and staid at the Parliament-door long to speak with Mr. Coventry, which vexed me. Thence to the Lords’ House, and stood within the House, while the Bishops and Lords did stay till the Chancellor’s coming, and then we were put out, and they to prayers. There comes a Bishop; and while he was rigging himself, he bid his man listen at the door, whereabout in the prayers they were but the man told him something, but could not tell whereabouts it was in the prayers, nor the Bishop neither, but laughed at the conceit; so went in: but, God forgive me! I did tell it by and by to people, and did say that the man said that they were about something of saving their souls, but could not tell whereabouts in the prayers that was. I sent in a note to my Lord Privy Seal, and he came out to me; and I desired he would make another deputy for me, because of my great business of the Navy this month; but he told me he could not do it without the King’s consent, which vexed me. So to Dr. Castle’s, and there did get a promise from his clerk that his master should officiate for me to-morrow. Thence by water to Tom’s, and there with my wife took coach and to the old Exchange, where having bought six large Holland bands, I sent her home, and myself found out my uncle Wight and Mr. Rawlinson, and with them went to the latter’s house to dinner, and there had a good dinner of cold meat and good wine, but was troubled in my head after the little wine I drank, and so home to my office, and there did promise to drink no more wine but one glass a meal till Whitsuntide next upon any score. Mrs. Bowyer and her daughters being at my house I forbore to go to them, having business and my head disturbed, but staid at my office till night, and then to walk upon the leads with my wife, and so to my chamber and thence to bed. The great talk is, that the Spaniards and the Hollanders do intend to set upon the Portuguese by sea, at Lisbon, as soon as our fleet is come away; and by that means our fleet is not likely to come yet these two months or three; which I hope is not true.
I listen to people say
something of saving their souls,
but prayers vex me.
Change and good wine
trouble my head of glass,
my head of lead.
Great is the land set upon by sea.
Hope is not true.
At the office all the morning, and in the afternoon to Paul’s Churchyard to a blind place, where Mrs. Goldsborough was to meet me (who dare not be known where she lives) to treat about the difference which remains between my uncle and her. But, Lord! to hear how she talks and how she rails against my uncle would make one mad. But I seemed not to be troubled at it, but would indeed gladly have an agreement with her. So I appoint Mr. Moore and she another against Friday next to look into our papers and to see what can be done to conclude the matter. So home in much pain by walking too much yesterday I have made my testicle to swell again, which much troubles me.
A blind place
where the rails have an agreement
not to conclude—
With my workmen all day till the afternoon, and then to the office, where Mr. Creed’s accounts were passed. Home and found all my joyner’s work now done, but only a small job or two, which please me very well. This afternoon there came two men with an order from a Committee of Lords to demand some books of me out of the office, in order to the examining of Mr. Hutchinson’s accounts, but I give them a surly answer, and they went away to complain, which put me into some trouble with myself, but I resolve to go to-morrow myself to these Lords and answer them. To bed, being in great fear because of the shavings which lay all up and down the house and cellar, for fear of fire.
With my all-day joy
but a job, I order
books to put me
into fear of fire.
I wonder what air
& daylight mean
to the boletes holding
their brown platters up,
or to Indian pipes
with their white
I guess it’s dissolution
that they’re after
where you need
some kind of hide
or cuticle to hold
the darkness in.
They’re hoping for
a fetid breeze or
brush of insects—
whatever they can get.
Just now, sorting laundry
fresh from the line
in my warm bedroom,
I reached into
a black sweatshirt
to turn it rightside out
& found the evening
in its sleeves.
Most of the days have been full of green rain and clouds the color
of magnolia petals as they rot in the emerging grasses. Three weeks ago
I planted half the potatoes (white Kennebecs), and just Monday
they broke the earth, a salad of leaves sprinkled with clay. The other half
(Adirondack reds) went into the earth yesterday. When I stuffed my hand
in the burlap sack to draw them out one by one, I discovered some had begun
to rot. I’ll bet the same will happen to us when the hasp of our bodies
is unbolted, that is, if we’ll allow it: old men wrapped in cloth, stuck
in pine boxes during the days of dogwood, its white shining and the Judas tree
just past. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that above our heads there are lady’s
slippers puffed pink and yellow, the world, as round as wild sarsaparilla’s globe,
spinning and spinning, never really going anywhere new, yet full of vengeance
and mercy and the most foolish blessings of these potatoes we’ll harvest in July
and August, boiled, then mashed—a river of butter and milk, salt and sugar,
the bitter pepper that makes us want to gorge ourselves upon this one sweet life.
The first azaleas are just beginning to bloom, with the usual
profusion of scent that would put a hooker to shame.
But who eulogizes the odorless oak blossoms, those caterpillars
in need of a spam-mail cure for erectile dysfunction?
The white locks of the bridal wreath bush are perkier by far,
tossing in the wind. I’m worried that if this cool, damp weather
persists, we might see another autumn without acorns.
Between rains, the carpenter bees come out to give my house
a thorough inspection. I’m reading about the convergent habits
of certain perennial wildflowers & a few species of walking sticks,
both of which make their seeds or eggs into fast-food bait for ants,
gambling that the ants will throw the inedible portions, packed
with their embryonic offspring, into the mother-warm midden.
How did slow-growing early bloomers & tree-eating sticks
both learn to exploit this bug? I gaze at the greening woods,
as I do so often, for clues of the original template — the once-
towering tulip poplars, white pines, American chestnuts. It’s like
trying to picture the naked body of a woman I’ve never met.
The Cooper’s hawks nesting half-way up the ridge emit
what we’d call chirps if they were songbirds
or notes of affliction if they were electronic angels,
placed for surveillance purposes among the crowd of leaves
cautiously exposing themselves to the rumored sun.
A red blur goes past: the throat of a hummingbird
hell-bent on drinking from some pink, inverted cup.
I was taking the broom for a slow shuffle around the dining room when I heard the fluting of wild swans & rushed out, scanning the sky till I spotted the long wedge high above the hollow, heading north. They were as dark against the sky as we must be to them against the ground, pausing in our Sunday labors, mouths open as the swans pass over the train tracks & the river, over the interstate & the quarry’s enormous silent megaphone, over a cardinal singing in a barberry hedge, over junker cars & houses sheathed in fading asphalt shingles, over old carpets left out in the yard to kill the grass where a vegetable garden will go, over the burrows of amorous woodchucks and the leaf nests of squirrels, over sheets & long johns flapping on the line. The swans seemed tireless. Their one refrain might as well have been “Over the Hills & Far Away,” as in the Burl Ives song about the piper’s son. They’d keep it up long past the last tree, I knew — until the land cleared of almost all clutter, there where the darkness disappears for months. I went back to my sweeping, assembled the dust from every corner, then opened the door & ushered that small blue hill into the wind.
I also shot a mediocre video of a flock of tundra swans this morning. You can watch it here.
What is life but fingers placed against blood’s rhythm,
some outward movement, the soul’s coming and going
like a kettle of kestrel that fly up against a ridge
and back out along its face? So much of this one life
goes to desire, the blue and orange feathers of our waking.
Migration is one way, following the ever-blooming, ever-
ripening path of the sun. Yet so much grief awaits—
whether we fly north or south, whether we settle ourselves
in the white-heat that roosts along the Gulf coast
or continue into the rainforest’s dark-green light.
The sun climbs out of the earth in the east and swims
across open water, while night’s westward stroke tugs us
into dream. Nothing travels in a straight line. That’s why
the moon returns each month, ascending the circle of its life,
then disappearing. Forgive me. I don’t want anything more
than this: the song of the goldfinch who comes to eat
of the cone flowers’ small dark seeds, its wisdom
in waiting out winter in one place.