Louis Zukofsky and the Hidden Dangers of Haiku

Everyone is mad at Paul Zukofsky (links stolen from a list posted October 27, 2009 on Ron Silliman's blog, an author who many people are mad at all the time).

I've never been interested in writing about Louis Zukofsky*, although I like his work a lot. The American Poets Project volume Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems, edited by Charles Bernstein, served as my first real introduction to Zukofsky's work, though I'd read bits and pieces over the years. The Zukofsky Selected fits perfectly in a coat pocket and I read it a lot while waiting around for car repairs and doctor visits, surreptitiously killing time during boring church services, etc. The larger volume Louis Zukofsky: Complete Short Poetry seems, unfortunately, to be out of print, but I bought a used copy last year. It's not as portable as the Selected, but it's worth reading. I'd quote from some of my favorite Zukofsky poems here, but I fear getting sued, so I won't.

A few days ago, while flipping open pages of the Complete Short Poetry, I wrote down a word that leaped out at me from any random page I turned to until I had a list of eighty-seven words. I stopped at eighty-seven words because I became bored with the exercise. I typed out all the words in order and then got the great idea that I could separate them by "threes," mostly, though there are some twos and fours, as well as a couple ones, and create little haiku (I don't dare write "Hi, Kuh"). I didn't mix and match words; that is, I didn't think "word twenty-four would be better with word fifty-eight." Instead, twenty-four follows twenty-three and precedes twenty-five. The only place I fudged my system was switching the words "spider" and "grass" because I'm interested in spiders, and I thought the reference to Agelenopsis spiders was simply too good to pass up.

Haiku are dangerous things to write. They're like popcorn shrimp; easy to eat a lot of, but surprisingly hard to digest once you've eaten so many, after which you wonder, "why did I eat all that crap?" (replace "write" and "written" for "eat" and "eaten" and you'll get a sense of the dangers of haiku). It's also easy to make any banal observation seem intensely prophetic or sublime if one twists it into a haiku. And many will note that you don't even have to follow the general rules everyone learns, or used to learn, in fourth grade English, that a haiku has three lines of five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables, respectively; the poems typically have a seasonal specific element, etc. etc. So there! (I flatter myself to imagine I would receive angry comments in response to my jokes about haiku; it is, indeed, a beautiful form and there are many great examples, collections, and varieties. However, it's an oft-abused form as well, such that sometimes haiku seems to be to poetry what pornography is to the internet: so widespread [pardon the pun] that hardly anyone pays it much attention anymore. It's everywhere and always there and never going away.)

The eighty-seven words I found in Louis Zukofsky: Complete Short Poetry are words that could appear and have appeared countless times anywhere English is written. I happened to find them in a collection of poems by Louis Zukofsky. I don't think that means anything. Have I stolen Zukofsky's ideas or poems? I don't think so. Nor do I think this exercise means anything, really. Randomly generated haiku and poems are not novelties, but some of the haiku cobbled together from the eighty-seven words found in the Louis Zukofsky work are uncannily coherent as haiku. In some of the haiku, semi-intelligible statements and images crawl out of the pile like a pill bug from a rotting log despite the fact that the words were selected more or less at random. I didn't write the haiku, but nether did Louis Zukofsky. His stuff is much better, but you'll have to read it for yourself--and keep it to yourself! We mustn't let anyone know about Louis Zukofsky . . .

Louis Zukofsky and the Hidden Dangers of Haiku

A the beginning
in Thyme semblance--
wakes towing chicory

who happily gave
us mother Bach
horses time kisses

cinquefoil grass spider
sleepily lioness exalted:
five cradle ducks

winter snows fuzzed:
fall wood love--
Lascaux barely Valentine

breath potato ticks
body float

shadow villages
stonelike honeysuckle;
goldenrod epic

frigid her ray tomb . . .
Vesper Libra.
poet sabers window

clear cigarette birds
march music

sparrows paradise
blue barefoot flowers

bride flags love:
moist hush sea.
how sweet passion!

translucent Buddhist piping:
shall mind's economic mantis
butterfly foam?

(That's a very good question!)

*And I'm not mad at his son, Paul. I hope he makes a million bucks.