Poems that say more with less

You may remember in grade school or thereabouts learning that the “haiku” form of poetry was three lines of strict syllable counts of 5, 7, then 5 again. And that’s probably about all you remember (if that!). Haiku is a traditional Japanese form of poetry, dating from about the fourteenth century. Traditionally, in Japanese, it was written in one single line, and contained 17 Japanese “mora,” which can be roughly understood as the equivalent of English syllables.

But when it was introduced to western audiences, the tradition changed, and here haiku is generally understood to consist of three lines, and a line-based syllable count that in fact has little to do with the Japanese style. Other Japanese traditions were that it should be based in nature and the seasons, and that it contain two juxtaposed images that depict some moment’s essence. Haiku both in Japan and in the west has loosened considerably from those traditions, and one can find all kinds of short poems calling themselves haiku. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do enjoy haiku that harken back to the traditions of Issa and Buson. Stuart Bartow’s Quaking Marsh is such a find.

Each small page contains a lovely white space silence around these sometimes quiet, sometimes noisy poems of close observation. This Washington County resident and SUNY Adirondack professor takes in the wide world with great intimacy and reflects it back to us, fresh and alive:

the spider’s sign language

the thread

between us

And the intimacy is not solely with nature, but also with memory and human connection.

light rainfall last night


her footsteps

But also humor informs these works, and the human world is invoked as well as the natural:

spring traffic jam

all of us stuck

in a dandelion storm

And in this we can both see and hear the scene, and feel the jolts of a rough road:

country road

my truck dodging

love-crazed sparrows

I could cite poem after poem that I love in this collection, which is full of delights. Haiku seem deceptively simple to write, but they take great meditative and observational powers to do well. The work in this volume does what haiku does best: suddenly shift our seeing, twist slightly the kaleidoscope of the world to reveal it anew. This is a wonderful little book that will open your eyes and refresh your appreciation of the world. I wish more book groups would add poetry to the mix of what they read. A book like this would make for a lively hour of sharing and discussion.