A Hundred Gourds 3:4 September 2014

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micro haiku: three to nine syllables – George Swede

reviewed by Aubrie Cox


micro haiku: three to nine syllables
by George Swede
Iņšpress, Toronto, Ontario, 2014
108 pages
ISBN 978-0988117907
Print book: 8.4” x 5.3”, perfect bound
Price: $15.00 + s&h

English-language haiku typically fall within 10-14 syllables, but as the title suggests, this newest collection from George Swede is a compilation of haiku that are only three to nine syllables in length. These 101 poems are similar to what some would call mijikai haiku, or simply, very short haiku that are stripped down to bare bones. Swede does not claim to be writing within this vein, but this collection would certainly appeal to anyone who is interested in this aesthetic.

watch repair shop     broken icicle

divorce papers     falling leaves

Neither of these include any articles or language that could be argued unnecessary to the experience. They boil down the moment to make what is already a small poetic form truly micro.

winter morning     her cold pyjamas

When first learning to write haiku, I was instructed to take each word out and see what happened to the poem. If the haiku could maintain its impact, the word could be cut. It’s when the poem falls apart without the word that the word becomes important. Here, the only word that could possibly be removed is “her,” but in doing so, it changes the entire meaning of the poem. The inclusion of a third person pronoun instantly adds an element of distance (appropriate for the season) and shows that more than one person exists in this space at this moment.

While the minimalism of the collection of a whole is striking, what interests me even more, however, is the choice of arrangement. I’ve seen plenty of haiku collections where the poems are divided by season, or organized by the typical lifespan. More and more, collections seem to divided into movements, where each section has a common theme; micro haiku places each haiku in the order it was written. The organization of the haiku in this fashion makes this book as much historical document as it does poetic achievement. It shows Swede’s growth as a poet from 1977 all the way up to 2013. Consequently this does also mean that some haiku do not shine as brightly as the rest. A handful contain weak juxtaposition and/or the writing feels sentence-like, but these are not abnormalities in a book of this size or breadth (although at times they can feel a tad glaring when so many of the poems dazzle in language and/or effectiveness).

By isolating these micro haiku into their own collection, Swede proves how powerful the economy of language can be:

at both ends


Any number of these poems would stand out if they were in any haiku collection, especially classics such as:

leaving my loneliness     inside her

This is one of the first haiku I remember ever reading by George Swede. In compiling these micro haiku together, it certainly raises the question of how small we can go. Or even, “how short can a haiku be and still resonate?” “Less is more” probably looms over most haiku poets’ heads, but oftentimes we want to get one or two more words in for flair, voice, or play. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; however, it would be a worthwhile venture for anyone to try their hand at even less.

snowflakes     bricks

Admittedly, the haiku above makes me pause, but I want to explore it. It has a season (snowflakes = winter), it juxtaposes two images and it has a kire/cut between the two words. Are these not all facets that most poets would consider essential to haiku, happening between these two words? I can certainly envision the snow coming down and landing on a walkway, or maybe against one of the many brick buildings on the campus where I work. The snowflakes settle onto the rough surface before fading into the crevices, leaving behind a small wet mark. The space between “snowflakes” and “bricks” feels like the moment before the two make contact. It’s so brief, just like my experience would be in noticing the moment. The before and after are almost simultaneous. Any more words would disrupt and only distract the reader from the moment. They’d tell too much.

This collection also reinforces the argument that experimentation and what we would call gendai haiku has existed within English-language haiku all along. The collection as a whole is a mix of traditional and experimental, and I find it interesting that so many of the older poems feel incredibly contemporary. I would expect to find any of these poems in today’s publications:

autumn wind
cells falling from
my body

fisherman reeling in     twilight

town dump
i find a still-
beating heart

trout river
my shadow
has gills

Of course, the argument could be made that good art in general is timeless, but that does not necessarily mean contemporary. Out of the four, only “trout river” was published within the last 10 years. And then perhaps my favorite from the collection, which made me involuntarily inhale at only page 10:

spring thaw
wings beating inside my skull

Simply put, this poem could be about the changing of seasons and migration patterns, but the internalization expands it into any number of possibilities. It collides the biological clock with the passage of time. Being prone to sinus headaches, especially in the spring, I think of the throbbing behind my eyes and along my upper jaw. It could just as easily be psychological and an attempt to capture all the noise inside one's head as one comes to a realization or personal discovery.

My only major complaint about the book is the presentation. Subscribers of Frogpond will find the cover and layout incredibly reminiscent of when the publication was under Swede's editorship. The design is certainly minimalistic and gives the haiku room to breathe, but I would have preferred to see something put together specially for these poems. Additionally, the front and back matter is put together somewhat haphazardly, which makes the production feel last minute and uncaring. As we all know, judging a book by its cover is dangerous business. But in the publishing business, it's a necessity.

Looking past the design, although these poems are micro on the page, off it they are just as, if not more, full as any haiku.

replies from the

the demons
on time

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