A Hundred Gourds 3:1 December 2013
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The Disjunctive Dragonfly – Richard Gilbert

reviewed by Lorin Ford

book cover
A New Approach to English-language Haiku
— Richard Gilbert for Red Moon Press
ISBN 978-1-936848-30-0
Red Moon Press (2013), Winchester, VA, USA.
Pages: 132
Size: 5.25" x 7.75"
Binding: perfect softbound
Price: $US 17.00

Let’s make no bones of it: this book is not light reading. The Disjunctive Dragonfly (the book) is a revised and much-expanded version of Richard Gilbert’s essay, The Disjunctive Dragonfly ,written as an academic discourse, and the book remains in keeping with the requirements of such. It therefore implicitly assumes that readers will be already familiar with terminology and poetic concepts that the non-scholarly among us (like me) might need to get a purchase on. Yet even the original essay, which I read in passing some years ago, allowed me some glimmers of insight and the book, with its greater range of contemporary English-language (EL) haiku and commentary, invites study and thought. It is well-laid out in its various sections, each with numbered subheadings, so that returning to a point not fully absorbed on first read is not difficult and in addition, there are endnotes which one gets used to flicking forward to. The subject – plainly the practice of EL haiku and the role of disjunctive methods in expanding the EL haiku field – is one which will engage any interested reader and/or writer of haiku.

A warning: do not expect a ‘How to Haiku’ guide or a treatise on ‘What Haiku Is’. Haiku, in Japan, comes in a variety of styles, approaches and schools that we in the English-speaking world are only gradually finding out about. In The Disjunctive Dragonfly Richard Gilbert demonstrates an approach, via the concept of disjunction, to some of the less ‘traditional’, more ‘difficult’ … or to use Gilbert’s term, some of the more “reader-resistant”… EL haiku on the continuum. It’s important to recognise that there is such a continuum if the EL haiku community is not to divide into opposing ‘cold war’ camps, each with its flag, each claiming The One True Way. This journal, A Hundred Gourds, takes its name from a Chiyo-ni haiku in recognition of the variety of possibilities for EL haiku and its related genres.

Gilbert applies the concept of poetic disjunction to elucidate how haiku work. Here is his brief definition of the term in the sense that he uses it:

“Disjunction: The root-semantico-linguistic principle impelling juxtaposition, superposition, possessing multiple types, each related to specific poetic and formal functions and techniques which irrupt habitual consciousness and concept; may supervene more traditional functional stylism such as fragment/phrase, juxtapositional dualism, kireji".

What’s of great interest, and for me is at the heart of Gilbert’s thesis, is the light this concept promises to shine on what we call ‘the cut/cutting’ (kire) in haiku. As beginners, we knew it in various imaginative and associative ways: ‘the gap’, ‘the leap’, ‘the turn’ (always singular). It was intuitively grasped, to some extent, and it could be demonstrated in some cases but not adequately explained. The paucity of English-language information available on how kire works in Japanese haiku has led many of us EL haiku writers toward perhaps an over-reliance on the juxtaposed ‘fragment-phrase’ model of EL haiku, which though valid and useful as a technique, does not account for those haiku we read which work for us but are clearly not written to that model. The Disjunctive Dragonfly encourages us to consider kire (‘cutting’) in relation to the poetic concept of disjunction.

Early on in The Disjunctive Dragonfly (Section 2 – Approaching Disjunction) Gilbert draws on “experiential descriptions” of haiku by R.H. Blyth and Harold Henderson, finding “three primary qualities”, “shock, surprise and absence” in these descriptions, and concludes that:

“From the inception of the English-language tradition, these stylistic determinants have presented somewhat mysterious (non-specific) properties of disjunction, characterised by either an irruption of habitual consciousness (shock, surprise), and/or a reversal of expectation (absence, lack of definite image) in the haiku aesthetic. The sense of disjunction has been subsumed in English under the concept of kireji (the ‘cutting word’), a functional concept in Japanese haiku, and juxtaposition …”

(The kireji, of course, is not a functional concept in EL haiku: it’s unlikely that regional EL verbal punctuation, such as ‘eh’, ‘innit’,‘hum’,‘yo’ etc. will catch on as kireji substitutes in the written form of EL haiku, though they might conceivably be heard in local haiku slams, eg. perhaps ‘old pond innit / a frog jumps into / the sound of water ’. I digress. Reading The Disjunctive Dragonfly, in my experience, seems to spark all kinds of digressions!)

Gilbert continues:

“One of the basic requirements for the English-language haiku, as heretofore editorially determined, has been the polar 'juxtaposition of two [and only two] entities’ (Spiess, 2001, p60); that is, objects or images in the poem. Single (or one-) image haiku and other types as well, do not accede to this juxtapositional requirement.”

The title of the book comes from Gilbert’s study of Jim Kacian’s now well-known haiku which is a clear example of a haiku that doesn’t fit with the notion of “a polar juxtaposition of two… entities”. Just a few years ago this kind of haiku, if attempted by new hands, was (in the parlance of on-line workshopping forums) referred to as the dreaded ‘run-on’ and considered ill-advised at the very least. Citing translations of some of Basho’s haiku in support of such an attempt was no use: haiku, it was said (and by well-meaning people) derived from the hokku in Basho’s haikai-no-renga and not from any of the internal verses.

In detail and over four pages, Gilbert demonstrates how he as a reader processes Kacian’s dragonfly poem:

my fingerprints
on the dragonfly
in amber

He concludes:

“Disjunction, as intended, serves to indicate a poetic process happening in the reader’s consciousness— disjunction is motile, having no fixed point of realization. Disjunctions appear and fall away, alternatively reveal and hide themselves, depending on the moment of reading.”

Central to The Disjunctive Dragonfly are the 275 haiku which are presented as examples and through which Gilbert demonstrates twenty-four ‘disjunctive types’. These disjunctive types, in turn, are organised into three sections of ascending ‘strength’ of disjunction. The greater the strength of disjunction, Gilbert argues, the more a poem resists readers’ habitual approaches to haiku as well as resisting interpretative resolution.

Section #1 - Three Main “Genre Features”

1. Perceptual disjunction 2. Overturning semantic expectation 3. Misreading as meaning

Gilbert comments that “these distinctive features are found in all haiku to some degree…” and finds that all of the examples of haiku in this first section are “realist” haiku, except the last:

deep inside you no more war

             - Dietmar Tauchner

Section #2 - Fourteen Techniques “Expanding the Palette”

4.Linguistic oxymoron 5. Linguistic fusion 6. Metaphoric fusion 7.Symmetrical rhythmic substitution 8. Concrete disjunction 9. Rhythmic disjunction 10. The impossibly true 11. Displaced mythic resonance 12. Misplaced anthropomorphism 13. The unsatisfactory object 14. Pointing to the missing object 15. Semantic register shift 16. Elemental animism 17. Irruptive collocation

Some examples of the various haiku in this second and largest section of types are:

into the afterlife red leaves

              - Peggy Willis Lyles

as a window to
a window of
as father seen

             - Scott Metz

the wind being farmed the wind that isn’t

             - John Barlow

a barking dog
little bits of night
                                         breaking off

             - Jane Reichhold

Section #3 - Seven Techniques of “Strong Reader-resistance”

18. Temporal displacement (indeterminacy) 19. Evident obscurity 20. Dis-completion 21. Linguistic incompetence 22. Cognitive derangement 23. Forensic parthenogenesis 24. Alchemical distillation

Examples :
coyote choir
we wake beneath
next season’s stars

             - Allan Burns

tiny coffin
the long winter
’s passing

             - Janice M. Bostok

plum blossoms
a specimen of my dream
sent to the lab

             - Fay Aoyagi

A ku of mine:

their wings like cellophane remember cellophane

appears in this third, ‘strong reader-resistant’ section along with other poems grouped under the technique Gilbert has named Alchemical Distillation. Among those grouped under Linguistic Incompetence is a humorously illustrative ku of Gilbert’s own (a ku which, like some of Marlene Mountain’s we might be familiar with, demonstrates that wit is not lacking in American haiku.)

with you i the world
                 i feel there is more f

             - Richard Gilbert

At least two voices, or two moods and tones of voice, and three alternative realities co-exist here. The implied poem is either satisfactorily concluded or given up on in despair and irritation, depending which voice we listen to. The poem we actually have is the ‘meta-poem’ that presents both the concluded poem and the abandoned draft poem simultaneously. Further readings, versions, of the poem also may be discovered via attention to details such as one’s choice to read ‘i’ or ‘i[n]’ in L1 and that of reading the central ‘i/i/it’ downwards, as invited by the layout of the poem. The ku is multivalent … my favourite word for the week.

Tucked between Sections 2 and 3 of the Types in The Disjunctive Dragonfly is Gilbert’s “A digression on terminology – H21 haiku”. Whilst Gilbert’s use of H21 is mainly an acknowledgement of the two recent anthologies he most often draws his example haiku from (Haiku 21 1 and Haiku in
2 ), he questions the developing tendency to refer to non-traditional EL haiku as ‘gendai’ haiku. This is food for considered thought. He concludes:

“… while we moderns share cultural aspects, living conditions, environmental concerns etc., internationally, we do not share certain nuances of language. This point of diversity represents the lifeblood of poets: a fundamental aspect of cultural and artistic uniqueness. Poets exploring ‘strong reader-resistance’ are using language in ways that seem difficult to emulate, or translate. While this topic no doubt requires additional research, it is hard to see how adopting a term like ‘gendai’ is helpful to the ELH community — it is empty, a sign which does not ‘signify’.”

Whether, in the end, a reader agrees with Gilbert’s placing of particular poems as examples of one of the given disjunctive types or with his reading of any particular haiku is not important. As he indicates several times throughout, some of the poems would as likely serve to demonstrate other of the disjunctive types and some exhibit the combined techniques of several types. What’s important is that we are given, in the poetic concept of disjunction, a new way (new, I imagine, for most of us) to consider and reflect on how haiku work for us and a way we might begin to understand the Japanese concept of kire, to the advantage of how we write haiku. Richard Gilbert’s effort to draw EL haiku into the broader field of EL poetry by applying the accepted terminology of contemporary poetics to our haiku is to be admired and The Disjunctive Dragonfly is, in my view, essential reading.

1. Haiku 21 – an anthology of contemporary English-language haiku ed. Lee Gurga & Scott Metz

2. Haiku in English – The First Hundred Years ed. Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, Allan Burns

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