Amidst the general booing and hissing, I was slapped about the face by a white, cybernetic glove and challenged to a haiku war.
Alerted to the threat of potentially awful poetry, people began bailing out of the chat room like stockholders cutting loose shares of Martha Stewart Omnipedia. While the remaining people in the chat ignored us, my challenger, a woman named Blanche, explained the rules of engagement.
The haiku is a short, three-line poem with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the last. Being a traditional Japanese art form, there are layers upon layers of additional rules and guidelines you can use to make it "good". For instance, a haiku should have two "sections", each a little different but related conceptually to each other. There should be a "kigo", or word that ties the poem into one of the four seasons. This can be straightforward, like "snow" for winter, or not so obvious, like "taxes" for spring. Moments of insight, riddles and scenes of poignancy are all good, serious haiku topics. The idea is to pack the maximum amount of emotion, communication and subtle references to other things into the simplest, most minimal format.
A lot of Japanese art forms are that way. All my professors and most of the books I've read say that's because of Buddhist ideals, but I think it's a population density issue. Their islands are not big enough for long poetry or lengthy philosophical expressions. If the sonnet or ballad were highly popular, they would have to rent literary storage space in Korea. Also, given how many people they have crammed into such a small amount of space, there's not enough room in Japan to get away from people who write really, really bad poetry.
In the United States, if someone starts spouting iambic pentameter about taking their beagle to the vet to have its anal glands pressed, you can always either move to Montana or put in a call to the Department of Homeland Security. They don't have Montana in Japan, and Prime Minister Koizumi isn't as aggressive in attacking threats to public safety as the boys in charge of our military are. Their only options are to stab their ears with little, tiny samurai swords, allowing their eardrums to commit seppuku as the only honorable way out. Either that or they can encourage people to write very short poems to minimize the agony of listening to them.
"Why, most of the haiku I've read has been rather pleasant," you're saying to me now. Ha! You've obviously never read any of mine. Or witnessed a haiku war. Because the rules of an Internet chat haiku war are simply this: 5-7-5, take the theme of the last line and incorporate it into your next haiku. That's it. There's nothing in there about kigo, wabi-sabi or even "good".
This is war, baby. And it ain't pretty.
The laws having been laid out, I took my first shot.
A war of haiku
is a clever pastime for
all times and seasons.
All times and seaons
change with each new recipe
boiled? Or simmering?
Any general can tell you that collateral damage is a natural part of war. A good friend had just commented that she felt she was a wittier conversationalist with a few glasses of wine in her, so I wrote the following:
Boiled or simmering
Susan's wine induced grape-dreams
Ferment in her brain.
Blanche used guerilla tactics to gain the sympathies of the locals:
Her brain's red ferment
distilled and shared with friends pours
sparkling rosy wit.
Susan suggested I should take my haiku and stuff it where it could be used to figure out how many syllables my colon had. I seized the chance to change topics and twisted Blanche's last line to comment on the upcoming animated offering from Disney studios, which will star the vocal talents of Roseanne and most likely fail to wow audiences:
Sparkling Rosy wit
will not save 'Home on the Range'
Disney's lowered Barr.
Disney's barred 'round here.
Eisner fueled a rapid fall.
My heart is with Roy.
Our hearts are with Roy
But he's not alone in need.
Send Sigfried a card.
As with every conflict, there's a problem with escalation. My dear friend Tedi put in her two cents worth:
There once was a war of haiku
But that kind of battle is through;
If you want to wage war
But not be a big bore
Then limericks are what you should do.
And from Susan:
These poems are too much to bear
But rather than tearing my hair
I'll rent a cabana
In southeast Montana
And start a haiku-free chat room up there.
There may or may not have been more threats of bodily violence, depending on how you interpret Susan's suggestion that she was going to send my backside to look for water on Mars via a boot-powered rocket booster. Anyway, at that point, all I can say about the haiku war was that:
Sanctions were levied
a cease-fire was declared, but
war will flare again.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.