Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry Friday--A Curmudgeon's Review

I had such high hopes when I read Publisher's Weekly and School Library Journal reviews of a new book by Michael J. Rosen, The Cuckoo's Haiku and Other Birding Poems, illustrated by Stan Fellows (Candlewick, 2009). When we received it at the library, at first glance, I was delighted by the total package. The watercolor illustrations of 24 fairly common birds are stunning. The poems are arranged by seasons. Sidebars provide interesting information such as the nickname of the chimney swift--flying cigar, and the author's note at the end adds more to our knowledge about each of the birds. But--here comes the curmudgeony bit--after careful consideration, I found the book a disappointment. Why? For two reasons. First, the poems are clever, but to my mind they are not haiku. They are written in the 5-7-5 syllable format, which sometimes makes them too wordy. And, they are overly "poetic." Say what? Rosen constantly uses the poetic devices simile and metaphor. For example, "feeding finches stacked like coins," "paired like red quotation marks," "round and white as one peeled fruit," "one wheeling black star explodes," "phased like tilted moons." Without a doubt these are fantastic poetic phrases, but they veer too far from the spirit of haiku. If only a handful of the poems had used simile or metaphor, I would have found it easier to label the book a collection of haiku, which every review I read does (that accounts for my expectations). Here's the publisher's description:
A joyful primer on the pleasures of bird-watching merges haiku, notes for identifying species, and exquisite watercolor illustrations.

The Haiku Society of America defines haiku as "a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."

The HSA also says, "metaphors and similes are commonly avoided." To my understanding, a haiku presents a moment in time in precise language. To use poetic devices removes the reader from the moment and sends him/her somewhere else in search of the comparative object.

Of course, poets can call their poems whatever they want. Remember, this is a curmudgeon's review.

My second reason for disappointment? All the bird names and notes are in a curlicued script. It is pleasing to look at, but for a child, nearly impossible to read! This is a children's book after all! The cursive script is so fine, and so full of flourishes, I had a bit of a problem reading it myself! (You get a little taste of it from the subtitle on the cover seen above.)

Cursive handwriting is not given as much attention in classrooms today as it did when I was younger. In many cases the children are writing on computers, so it is not as important a task as it used to be. (I'm not placing any blame on teachers, believe me!) There are also schools where the children are simply expected to master printing legibly, rather than going on to learning cursive.

I ask your forgiveness for this review, but if you've read some of my other posts about haiku, I'm like a dog with a bone. So, to compensate for my curmudgeonly review, I'm including links to several, more positive bloggers' reviews of The Cuckoo's Haiku:

And, forgive this self-indulgent link to last Saturday's NH Celebrates Poetry posting.

Today's Poetry Friday Round-Up is being held at Allegro. Check it out, the blog is the work of a quite young poet!



Sally said...

Curmudgeon away, you've got cred. And I agree, I dislike "poems" that trivialize haiku by reducing it to a syllable-counting exercise.

Andrea Murphy said...

Trivial Pursuit by Andy

Haiku warrior (5)
A poet extraordinaire (7)
Our D. Mayr (5)

(Author's Note: in order for this to work as a real, legitimate haiku you must pronounce "our" and "Mayr" in the northern New England way -- "ow-ah" and "May-uh" -- or you'll ruin the whole thing.)

(Other Author's Note: Excellent post, Diane!)

Diane said...

Thank you, Sistahs! I appreciate your continued support of my haiku obsession! --Diane

Diane said...

By the way, Andy, you're one heckuva rhymster! --Diane

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Very thoughtful review. I enjoyed the book a lot and found the bird descriptions in the haiku to bring me clear images of real life birds I've often watched. The haiku did put me "in the moment" but perhaps that's my imagination at work. If the haiku were more direct expressions of just what was there maybe it would work for more people. I always expect a really good haiku to pair and contrast two sharp images in the moment. That's where the "Aha" breath comes for the reader. I am so glad to read your views on haiku - very refreshing!

Michael Dylan Welch said...

5-7-5 doesn't make for a "legitimate" haiku. Even in Japan, some words could be in a 5-7-5 pattern and still be entirely wide of haiku. In fact, following that syllable count in English is typically a sign that a poem is NOT a haiku, as in Andy's "Haiku warrior" ditty above. It misses practically every other target necessary for haiku. Diane's review is not curmudgeonly, but spot on, and more publishers and authors should be held accountable for their misunderstandings of haiku such as is exhibited in this book, lovely as it may be to look at.

For more information about haiku, besides William J. Higginson's *Haiku Handbook* (Kodansha, 1989) and Cor van den Heuvel's *The Haiku Anthology* (Norton, 1999), check out the following links:

"Becoming a Haiku Poets" (essay with basic strategies and necessities, with myths debunked):

"Forms in English Haiku" (essay):

Michael Dylan Welch