Issue Date: April 20, 2003
Haiku and you
An ancient Japanese art form gets an American pop-culture makeover.
By Elizabeth McCall
Haiku -- a three-line unrhymed poem with five, seven and five syllables per line, respectively -- has become a pop sensation in American publishing circles. Amazon.com alone has 500-plus titles on the compact Japanese style of verse that expresses an opinion or belief. A slew of new titles is out this year, from a collection of famed Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac's haiku to first-time poets riffing on everything from redneck culture to road rage.
What's the appeal of this pocket-size poetry? Virtually anyone can compose one, says 32-year-old haiku-ist Aaron Naparstek. "Haiku poems are sort of the perfect little sound bytes. They fit our culture. They're really accessible," Naparstek says. "It's easy for people to create their own."
Best of all? "They're short!" says first-time haiku author Mary K. Witte, whose just-out "Redneck Haiku" (Santa Monica Press, $9.95) pays tribute to the culture of RVs, Wal-Mart, beer, toaster pastries, trailer parks and the lottery, although not necessarily in that order. Witte, 53, drew upon her own experiences of growing up on a farm outside Tulsa, she says. That experience inspired numerous observations, including:
Well-dressed trailer trash
will have muumuus and flip-flops
in matching colors
Other haiku are more deeply personal. The following, Witte says with a laugh, "actually happened to an in-law of mine":
Flo on winning streak
played slots all day and all night,
fainted from hunger
Let's hope Flo appreciates the literary homage.
But Naparstek and Witte aren't the only amateur haiku-ists channeling their inner poets. Both big and small publishing houses have printed collections on such topics as pets (Cat Haiku), religion (Haiku for Jews) and sports (Football Haiku).
Haiku practitioners find plenty to mine in modern life. The incessant blast of car horns outside his Brooklyn home led Naparstek from the brink of uncontrolled road rage to what he describes as a new form of "automotive anger management." Fans can take cues from his upcoming collection of urban haiku, "Honku: The Zen Antidote to Road Rage" (Villard Books, $12.95), which hits shelves in June. One particularly nasty horn-blasting incident had the sleep-deprived former magazine editor literally throwing raw eggs from his apartment window at a car below in protest. Instead of finding relief, Naparstek's frustration grew worse -- until a few weeks later, when he created his first batch of haiku about honking. After he taped his "honkus" to neighborhood lampposts, others soon began to appear. And voilà! -- soon, you can buy the book.
Naparstek mischievously admits he favors the "mean ones," such as this self-penned sendup of driving, Southern-style:
easy to see why Sherman
burned this city down
The genre's fans say haiku is ideal for Americans, an audience with a short attention span and aspirations of a life in letters. "So much of our culture is in small bits," Witte says. "When you're doing haiku, you can express a lot in a very few words." Like other aficionados, she finds haiku extremely funny. "I thought, 'Well, I can do this,' " she says.
"I think that's also an important reason they're popular right now," Naparstek adds. "People want to e-publish stuff, and haiku is a very easy form to participate in. There's this whole haiku culture online."
Naparstek believes haiku can be considered a "little form of reality programming." He says, "It's a direct observation of something around you -- a pure transmittal of that moment."
For Witte, who recently was downsized from her job as an accountant for a waste management firm in Fresno, Calif., life is a perpetual haiku palette. "People you see on the street, or in stores, in shopping malls, in restaurants -- everywhere you see things that [make] you think, "Well, there's a moment that should be captured.' "
One explanation for the appeal of this simple verse: Nearly anyone can compose one.
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Weekend with ... The haiku book authors
USA WEEKEND Magazine asked each author to compose an exclusive haiku for our readers, using the word "weekend."
Bubba's lost weekend
left him broke and hung over,
trying to make bail.
-- Mary K. Witte
honking, speeding, ruining
a weekend morning.
-- Aaron Naparstek