American on Haiku

“A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry.”

Henry David Thoreau (b 1817 – d 1862)
American Writer/Poet/Philosopher
From “A Week on the Concord and Marrimack Rivers” (1869)

I launched a haiku blog to chronicle my haiku poetry and journey into haiku. Amos White: Haiku Poet 2

Since 1984, I’ve published poetry, mainly haiku. I briefly studied the form at Wittenberg University.

Writing poetry has been in my blood since childhood. In high school, I composed classical music in the orchestra, composed music and lyrics in a rock band and penned poetry at night listening to the music of Pink Floyd. I studied English and Creative Writing at college. Yet, it was not until I landed in Dr. Fenno’s office that I became grounded in haiku.

I don’t exactly remember how I got there. Perhaps it was the suggestion of my English Advisor, Dr. Richard Veler, who having heard someone else read my poem “The Ancient Mariner” in his class, called me to discuss pursuing developing my poetry with a some guidance.

The First Poems

My initial poetry in High School was sappy, lyrical ditties that fell somewhere between pop music lyrics and limericks.

In my senior year in high school, I began to shape my 212 poems, looking at them as emotional effects that had some literary merit as opposed to grist for the next hit album. Nonetheless, I had over 200 poems… and I was inspired.

I hired my friend, Bronwyn Jones, to type them up expecting to submit them for publication with The Ohio State University Press. Three months later, I had 84 pages of typed poems ready for submission.

Red Ink

The first editorial comments were kind, but still in red ink. The OSU reviewer thanked me with words to the effects, “try try again.”

I was crushed.

I set off that Fall of 1983 for Wittenberg University to play football and to try my hand on their newly acquired VAX1170 computers. That first month, I retyped those 84 pages and penned a few new poems, still on the lyrical edge of things. Though this time, I carted them off to the English Department looking for a little “local support.” The result was “Who are your major influences?” “What poets have your read?” “Have you ever taken a creative writing course?”

This was not exactly the validation I was seeking, thinking that what I already had was poetry. With a full course schedule and not another Creative Writing class offered that year, it would be another 2 years before I would hazard my poetic creativity academically.

Learning to Write

College brought little opportunity for me to pensively author my creativity or inspirations. It wasn’t until my senior year that a campus professor, Richard Veler (or “Doctor V” as he was called), summoned me through a couple fraternity brothers to discuss a poem of mine, “The Ancient Mariner,” that got passed on to him. Doc V was somewhat drawn to its language use and nautical imagery to describe the elderly protagonist’s descent down a flight of stairs, that, upon review of several more of my poems, he suggested I take a Creative Writing class with another professor, Kent Dixon.

This is where the fun began.

“Dix,” could inspire a Coke can to pop. He could affably describe poetry and writing in a way that left the light on all the time. He drew heavily upon his experience in The Iowa Writer’s Workshop and personal stories with Robert Coover and Raymond Carver to inspire us with visions of publishing with The Prairie Schooner or The New Yorker or even PlayBoy, which was the highest paying publication for writers at the time.

It wasn’t until Dix brought my attention to “what worked” in a poem, “Ginger,” that I could hear a voice working from within, trying to give birth to the images felt and imagined.

Defining Style: Love of the Word

William Carlos Williams played in the forefront of my mind.

Mrs. Pfaff was my 10th grade English teacher. Sarah Pfaff was a Shakespeare Laureate whose love of Shakespeare’s Sonnets set fire to my kindling spirit. Although, it wasn’t until she introduced William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” with a prolonged visitation upon the word “glazed” that things began to click.

Obviously more than preoccupied with William’s word choice, she began to dissect the importance of word choice in creating gravity, meter or rhythym, and imagery in poetry.

This puzzled me as much as it fascinated me; writing to produce an economy of meaning imbued in but a word or word phrase.

Again, I experienced this in writing a college essay in Professor Veler’s American Literature class on D.H. Lawrence‘s “Odor of Chrysanthemums.” The essay focused on Lawrence’s title word choice, “Odor” as paired with “Chrysanthemums.” For Lawrence’s title concretized the juxtaposed image of the protagonist’s experience in but a word and phrase that evoked the image of the disdainful stench of death and the funeral flowers that accompany it.

Though, it wasn’t until I wrote “Ginger” while exploring the pop literary form of “Sudden Fiction” (now Flash Fiction, c.2009) that I felt more than comfortable connecting experience through condensed literary forms.

Haiku Contest

Dean Michael Riley beamed and bellowed like a carnival barker when he discovered my poetry spitting out the office printer.

I left Wittenberg after Senior year in 1987 to work for The Ohio State University College of Humanities as Assistant to the Dean.

Dean Riley, claimed I had a future in poetry when he introduced me to poet David Citino in OSU’s English Department. Riley was more than tickled with my work and quickly set me to meet with Citino about joining the Department’s Master’s program- all, of course, with the prospects of publishing through OSU’s press.

Well, somewhere that train derailed with Citino’s polite but copious red lines upon my manuscript and no return calls.

And it snowed that day
Saturday, till nine breaths
gave birth three haiku.

At this time, my haiku was referred to Assistant Professor. Shelly Fenno, a visiting professor in Wittenberg’s East Asian Studies Department. Word was, she had studied under the foremost US authority on haiku at the time.

After an arranged meeting to discuss a focus on the Japanese art of haiku, Professor Fenno encouraged me to read the works of Matsuo Basho. She also let out that a haiku contest was being held for the Department and the winning entries were to be published in The Witt, the University literary periodical.

I drove 55 minutes from Columbus to Springfield with those three haiku to personally submit them at 5pm on the day they were due. The result some days later lay indelibly on me for years thereafter. The phone rang to inform me that “The East Asian Studies Journal” had published my haiku and I had been selected its contest winner.

Black Ink

All the trophies in the world could not measure up to seeing my three lines appear in the tradition of Basho, Issa, and Richard Wright– finally, in black ink.

That rarest type of poetry of which Thoreau recalls, is haiku.

When life inspires,
notice the space between breaths-
Exhale the Haiku!

Some 25 years later, I was inspired to renew my writing.

Many of the poems here are more “haiku style” than they are truly haiku due to elemental form. I also have some senryu.

I hope you enjoy them.

For more on Thoreau quoted by John Felstiner, listen to “Forum” on KQED Public Radio where Michael Krasny interviews John Felstiner on his book, “Can Poetry Save the Earth.” May 18, 2009.

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