Thursday, October 11, 2007

It Turns Out I'm a Genius After All

A while back, I was introduced to the hay(na)ku, a recently minted verse form, which is sort of a condensed haiku -- three lines, of one, two, and then three words. It came up as a topic of discussion on NewPo, and I contributed -- not slaving over it, I confess, a hay(na)ku of my own:

I didn't give a lot more thought to it, but it seems to have entered, to some small degree, the canon of the hay(na)ku, and it's been included in Bob Grumman's new book, From Haiku to Lyriku (Runaway Spoon Press, along with a critical exigesis of the poem by Mr. Grumman.

Bob Grumman is a strange bird and a tireless proselytizer for the kind of poetry that makes most people, even po-biz types, scratch their heads. The thing of it is, he's a wonderfully acute critic, and his essays on his cockamamie theories make for consistently challenging and thought-provoking fare (my favorite, and one that I regularly assign to my creative writing students, is his essay on MNMLST Poetry).

So I was delighted to find myself, and my hay(na)ku, the subject of such scrutiny, if a little nonplussed. Bob has posted a version of this critique before, on his blog, but somehow seeing it between covers, along with Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, Richard Kostelanetz and other notables, gives it a new levelof reality. Well, I guess true genius will out, sometimes in the most unexpected places. Or to look at it another way...what if this becomes my one canonized poem, the only thing people will remember me for?

Well, here it is, excerpted from Bob Grumman's book, which I am now reading from start to finish, with much delight.

I've not come across many comic as opposed to gently humorous senryu, either. One such is Tad Richards's hay(na)ku:

this shit
and the horse

Brace yourself, for I'm going to spend a lot of time on this, most of it clattering rather far afield. That's because the thing immediately awakened my taxonomical instinct (which, as is widely known, is a very light sleeper). I suddenly had to know what to call it. Since it is clearly both verbal and lineated—which makes it in any level of my taxonomy a poem—how can I believe it could be something other than a work of literature? Well, the work is totally advocaturical, in my jargon, in that it does nothing on the surface but tell the reader what to do. The question is really, how can we consider it literature, or, specifically, a poem?

A question mine enemies would ask at this juncture is why I don't just junk my taxonomy on the grounds that it must be worthless if it has any problem with an obvious poem like Richards's piece. My taxonomy covers too much territory well for me to junk just because it is not perfect, however. No taxonomy, as I keep saying over and over, can be perfect. There will always be objects right at the border between some pair of its pigeon-holes that cannot readily be assigned to either.

I do think the piece a poem. First of all, it is presented as one. This needn't make it a poem, but is evidence it is. Second, and much more important, it provides pleasure (aside from any moral pleasure its message might give an engagent). It does this by (a) excellently enacting a clearly defined poetic form; (b) being a vivid snapshot of its persona, as opposed to (or on top of) being an expression of a point of view; and (c) entertaining us as a boffo joke.

Phrased thus, "Fuck this shit and the horse," Richards's text would be simple advocature, or verbal propaganda, telling us what to do with "this shit," according to my taxonomy. By lineating his text, Richards increases its qualifications as a poem, but doesn't by itself make it one. Advertising text, a form of advocature, is often lineated, and addresses on envelopes, a form of I call "informrature" for words used mainly only to inform, always are; this doesn't make these things poems.

That Richards's text fastidiously follows the rules for being a rigorously defined poetic form, the hay(na)ku (a special form which consists of three lines the first of which has just one word, the second of which has two, and the third three), further increases its qualifications as a poem. Again, that's not enough to make it certainly a poem, for advertising jingles and didactic verse can also follow such rules. (Here, I'm distinguishing literary poems, or serious poems, from texts that could also be called poems, and are, but are clearly significantly different from literary poems.)

What finally makes Richards's text, in my view, a (literary) poem is my subjective opinion that it does more in the way of entertaining the engagent than in advocating some morally correct course of action. What is being advocated is silly and too general to be taken seriously as advocature. On the other hand, it is quite entertaining as mechanism for revealing the character of its persona. He seems to be stuck in a bad situation ("this shit"), but capable of a certain amount of reflection: he condemns his present situation— then realizes that the horse, too, deserves to be condemned. (It's the horse "she came in on," I've been informed, by the way.) For me, at any rate, the poem has brought an enjoyable character to life.

Then there are the jokes carried off. The first (for me) is the jump from the generality of "this shit," which could be all existence," to some specific horse. Related to that is the

pun of "fuck" as both "do evil to" and "have sexual intercourse with." The first meaning holds for the first two lines, but the second, absurdly, becomes a factor in the third. (Of course, those whose consciousnesses have been raised to the proper height, as mine never will be, will be unlikely to laugh when visualizing a man's making it with a horse.) The involvement of the horse is ridiculous, too, at first, but then makes a kind of sense since horseshit is a common kind of shit, which could make the horse the creator of the shit.

A second joke is involved: the use of the formal verse form to package the coarsest of messages. A satire on the verse form--even on any verse form is thus there.

To return to the text's adhering to a strict form, it always amazes me how pleasurable it is when a text does that. I contend that observing a display of mastery encourages us in the belief that Man can Overcome Existence. Poetry should do a lot more, but succeeding in obeying the rules for a strict form without being predictable, as this piece does, is an Important Value. Note, by the way, that Richards's text is not just one word, two words, three words, but one syllable, two syllables, three syllables. All sharply Anglo-Saxon.

There, now. Aren't you sorry you weren't the first to recognize its profundity?

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