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The Verse That Could Happen 

Take your best hacks at haiku -- everyone does. Assistant librarians and literature professors. And probably claims adjusters and commercial realtors, when no one's looking.

To do it well is of course altogether different, but it is one of those things (like shuttlecock) that does not daunt many people.

So you have all kind of people trying this; I'm speaking of assistant librarians and literature professors and the like. And it is such a tricky thing that these people often actually think they're doing them well.

So I, too, at various times -- in the eighth inning of an 11-1 baseball game or while waiting for the internist to get back to his office from the golf course -- have scribbled them down on the backs of napkins or Modern Maturity magazines. I do not kid myself that they are any good, and in this self-judgment I show myself to be far more insightful than the librarians and professors. (Not too much to brag about; many of these people think Osama bin Laden isn't bad, just misunderstood.)

Surely, by now you have figured out that I am talking about the writing of haiku, that Japanese poetic form so well-loved and poorly imitated by Westerners. The form consists of poem of only 17 syllables and three lines. The first line is five syllables, the second seven and the third is five again.

Haiku should not be confused with senyrii, which are also Japanese poems of 17 syllables, but more biting and vulgar, like this one by Hammonsen:

Shibai mita

Ban wa teishu gu

Iya ni mari.

(The night she sees a play, a woman hates her husband.)

The other essential element of the haiku is a reference to some season of the year. Of course, the season need not be spelled out, only alluded to. "The rice also rises" would indicate the time of year when rice grows fastest, whatever that is. Or to use an actual example by the famous poet Buson:

Tsurigane ni

Tomarite nemuru

Kocho kana.

(Upon the temple bell, a butterfly is sleeping well.)

To the Japanese, "butterfly" automatically indicates "spring," as do cherry blossoms, frogs, larks, wisterias and peonies.

Thus the rudiments of haiku, a word game you Scrabble experts can play when you're all alone with yourself. I often do myself, and here are some of the results of this year's samples:

In midwinter white

The fountain spews foam as high

As engineers dream.

Winter, that time of gloom and death, must inspire me because I have more of those than any time of the year. Like this pair:

Hearing no thing's call

A hundred high quiet starlings

Pierce the white sky.


Cold stoplight beggar

Another fortune hunter

Far from a warm home.

Summer has proven a little tougher to strike mental sparks, as seen below:

The town egret stops

To lift her spider leg high

Above summer trash.

Then there's the near-winter season of autumn:

On a windy day

Squirrels scratch out an autumn dance

On a corpse of leaves.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can hear you sniggering. My only defense is that I would never fool myself into classifying myself as a poet for having composed such drivel. Not every scribbler is as good a critic.

Of course, all haiku-makers are encouraged to find verses attributed to the masters that seem to be a little less confining on the whole seasons-of-the-year thing. Like this one, also by Buson:

Shigo nin ni

Tsuki ochi-kakaru

Odori kana.

(The moon is just about to set upon four or five men dancing.)

That sort of freedom allows me to get away with:

From the high dark limb

Over swamp hushed and haunting

The owl alights!

Or even:

Fannypack tourist

Your unfeeling film steals life

From my old city.

OK, OK. Maybe I'm being too hard on my fellow scribblers -- even if their efforts are as pretentious as mine and yet they think them poetry. Where's the harm? The pursuit of writing in any of its forms is like courting a girl who likes to withhold her favors every time she can get away with it. Can you imagine anything more delectable?

So keep it up, you Rajahs of Renovation, you Commissars of Coffee, you Ephors of Education! Take your best hacks at haiku -- everyone does. Assistant librarians and literature professors. And probably claims adjusters and massage therapists and commercial realtors, when no one's looking.

Even, on some piteous occasions, some raggedy-assed columnists, too:

Trees shiver with cold

The columnist's page stays blank

Haiku saves his ass.

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