Alachua: North Florida Haiku

First published in Frogpond 14:1, Spring 1991, pages 44–45. Kenneth C. Leibman started the haiku journal South by Southeast in 1994, and later became editor of Frogpond. Leibman has passed away, so the following ordering address is no longer correct.

 

Alachua: North Florida Haiku by Kenneth C. Leibman. 51 haiku and one haibun sharing a sense of North Florida. 24 pages; 5 by 7½ inches. $2.50 postpaid from Druidoaks, 4545 Highway 346, Archer, Florida, 32618.

 

Kenneth Leibmans new book, Alachua, begins with an informative introduction. The author explains that “alachua” is “a Spanish attempt to pronounce the Timucuan word for ‘jug,’ referring to the sinkhole that drains the Great Alachua Savanna” in North Florida. The area, Leibman says, “is host to egret and alligator, sandhill crane and gopher tortoise, anhinga and armadillo, bald eagle and bobcat,” and that local vegetation and other rural charms include “liveoak hammocks, piney woods, palmetto thickets, lakes and drowsing towns, all threatened by a randomly overgrown city careering toward unlivability.” The poems that follow the introduction echo this sense of place.

        Specifically, each page offers two three-line haiku and one one-liner for a total of 51 poems. The unique alternation between three-liners and one-liners lends a pleasing rhythm to the collection. At least six of the poems are deliberately paired by topic or wording on opposite pages—“Easter sunrise,” “allnight rain,” and “jettrail.” Indeed, many topics are repeated, including “pasture,” “longleaf pine,” “blackberries,” “fingers,” and “no breeze.” But above all, the primary topic is birds. The book mentions egrets, cranes, herons, seagulls, warblers, hawks, wrens, blue jays, kinglets, vultures, horned owls, crows, doves, and sandhill cranes. Bird are also implied in two other poems, and referred to generically as “birds” in yet another poem. This is a book for birdlovers; feathered species are clearly an integral part of the North Florida landscape.

        The recurrence of topics extends beyond the mere repetition of individual words. Two pairs of poems suggest decidedly similar concepts:

 

                   winter pasture—                                          country road—

flowers on a barren tree                                               the flower in the mudhole

                  fly off as egrets                                               becomes butterflies

 

November morning                                                        morning fog—

the heron’s legs                                                               a heron flies

lost in steam                                                                                               into  n o w h e r e

 

In the first pair of poems, separated by two pages, Leibman squeezes double mileage out of unexpected transformation [like Moritake’s haiku about a fallen blossom returning to the branch as a butterfly]. Distant flowers become egrets, and then, at close range, a flower becomes butterflies. In the second pair, separated by a page, herons (or parts thereof) disappear into two different kinds of fog. Some readers may be distracted by this similarity, wondering what the author may have missed in the North Florida landscape by repeating only certain ideas. Others will like the tightness or thematic unity provided by such a repetition of words, topics, and concepts. Perhaps only residents of North Florida can know for sure.

        Whatever your tastes, there are many fine poems in this short, simply printed chapbook. The one-liner, “lone crane flying across the rushhour traffic,” points up the tension between nature and the overgrown and increasingly unlivable city within it. Leibman also plays a fun visual game with:

 

by the time i see the warbler it’s

 

In another poem, the author deftly expresses intense identity with the terror of what I imagine to be a field mouse:

 

a tiny scream,

then the horned owl’s hoot . . .

i lie awake

 

        Many other strong poems round out this collection, all of them dedicated to sharing an insider’s impressions of North Florida in the regionalist tradition. You may at first think this region holds no special meaning for you, but you would do yourself a disservice not to broaden your geographical understanding to include a sense of North Florida through Leibman’s refreshing book.

        Nevertheless, you may still puzzle over the first sentence of “Oleno,” a haibun Leibman includes. It begins thus: “The postbellum North Florida gambling hell, the Town o’Keno on the Santa Fe River, the gamblers run off by crusading clergy, rechristened the Town o’Leno, disappeared in its newfound respectability from the face of the earth, the forest taking over until Roosevelt’s CCC built a state park there.” Grammarians beware—don’t try to diagram this sentence! Beyond this first sentence, though, the haibun improves dramatically, and includes five sensitive haiku. As a whole, Leibman’s book contains many outstanding regionally flavoured haiku, and, at only $2.50 a copy (underpriced), it is cheap enough to judge the haibun for yourself.

        Three bright moments from this recommended book:

 

inchworm coming to the tip of the grassblade

 

no breeze—

the branch                                                                          sunflowers:

where a bird was                                                             one facing

                                                                                                       the other way
 

Postscript

Honestly, regarding the haibun, if anyone can parse its convoluted opening sentence for me, I’d really appreciate it. It works for a while, and then . . . huh? Leibman wrote to thank me for this review, but insisted that the sentence was grammatically correct. I just don’t see it. And he never explained it to me. But even if it could be parsed correctly, I would still say it’s much too long and complicated, and thus unhelpful, nor does it gain any points for style because nothing else in the haibun sustains whatever the first sentence was attempting. But I still don’t believe it’s grammatically correct. Either way, it has no defense.

        I also want to comment about the use (by this author among others) of the lowercase “i” as a personal pronoun. I can’t say what motivates this affectation among various haiku poets, but I find it utterly distracting, and even ironic. If it’s an attempt to reduce the ego (presumably based on the assumption that haiku is “egoless”), or if it’s done for some other reason, well, it fails.

        Let me unpack my thoughts on the matter. First of all, what’s the point of lowercasing all words (including proper nouns) in haiku, as some people have done? It’s an affectation, and unoriginal. And notice that Leibman does not lowercase “November” (and pretty much all other proper nouns in this book), so lowercasing everything doesn’t seem to be his motive, but if it were, I would question why.

        Second, if haiku is egoless, lowercasing a personal pronoun does not equate to reducing or eliminating the ego. The irony is that this irregular treatment of “I” actually draws more rather than less attention to it. The treatment takes you out of the poem, and makes you think about the poem as words rather than thinking about the image-moment itself. Thus the poem ceases to be “wordless,” as Alan Watts and Eric Amann put it. It becomes “wordless” if you don’t notice the words or any scaffolding, and you proceed, as the reader, directly to experiencing what the poem presents. We’ve often heard James W. Hackett’s comment that haiku is like a finger pointing to the moon, and if the finger is bejeweled, we no longer see the moon. A lowercase “i” is, quite simply, a jewel on the finger. Like I said, utterly distracting. I do know of some exceptions where it’s arguably more appropriate, as in some one-liners where everything is lowercased, where the point of the poem is to belittle the person in the poem, or in some more avant-garde poems, but for the most part I find the practice to be distracting.

        Third, if any poets believe that haiku is meant to be egoless, they are free to believe that if they wish. However, the use of a personal pronoun does not necessarily indicate an assertion of ego. Calling something “sad” or “beautiful” is an ego assertion, because it proclaims a person’s judgment on that thing, disempowering the reader to have his or her own reaction to the stimulus or experience that motivated the poem. Thus haiku is deprived of the very characteristic that makes it succeed—engaging the reader emotionally by showing rather than telling. Indeed, one can refer to oneself just as objectively as one refers to a chair or a stone or a falling leaf. You—the “I” in the poem—can be part of a poem just as much as any other object. Some poets are under the mistaken belief that Japanese haiku never mention the self, or even humans at all, yet the truth is that both classic and contemporary Japanese haiku are often about the self or other people, and often mention one or the other (think of Buson’s poem about stepping on his dead wife’s comb in their bedroom). Haiku, too, is not so much a nature poem as it’s a seasonal poem, so the focus is on seasons, not strictly nature, yet the idea that haiku is just a nature poem leads some people to naïvely eliminate humans or the self from haiku—unnecessarily, especially when Japanese haiku, both classic poems and more recent ones, have humans all over many of them (and thank goodness for that). It’s true that the grammar of the Japanese language makes it possible to omit references to the self (the self is more readily implied), but this should not be construed as a rule against mentioning the self (in Japanese or in other languages). Similarly, the Japanese language usually does not indicate whether an object referred to is singular or plural, so writers or translators have to make a choice. In English, just as we have no problem taking the necessary step of indicating singular or plural constructions, so too we should have no problem mentioning the self because our syntax does not so readily imply the self as the actor in the poem.

        Maybe it’s just a personal peeve, but for me the bottom line is that the lowercase “i” in haiku is nearly always distracting, just as lowercasing most other proper nouns also distracts. Former United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser has decried poems that make you unnecessarily aware of the poem itself. He says that such poems are like dropping sunglasses on the floor of a glass-bottomed boat, making readers aware of the glass instead of seeing the fish and coral below. The use of a lowercase “i” in haiku is nothing but dropped sunglasses. In fact, to me, it’s like putting up a billboard to say “Look at me! Look at me! Look how humble I am! Toot-toot-toot.” With rare exceptions, why would anyone want that in their haiku?

—20 December 2009 (with a few revisions on 20 May 2012)