Tuesday, January 6, 2009

David Shapiro, David Lehman, and Haiku

Over the past few months David Lehman has been putting up haiku-based poems that he and David Shapiro exchanged over the last few years. They've been lovely to see, and I'm constantly amazed by how surprising and breathtaking Shapiro's work is, no matter how often I return to the poems. "Summer Afternoon" provides a wonderful example of what makes Shapiro's work vital in the way he moves toward describing the physical qualities of the day in his first four stanzas:

Today was unbear-
ably beautiful like a
bear walking thru school!

Today was amaz-
ingly cool and calm like fish
rushing to the knife!

today the sun hit
the bricks as if a painter
added more yellow!

today supremely
lucid and blue like bluejays
imitating sky!

Stanzas one, three, and four all include that basic structure of a gasp of surprise between line two and and the unexpected shift that occurs in line three--the shift in line three of stanza four particularly appeals to me, where the potential cliche of "blue like bluejays" is transformed by the bluejays' imitation of sky, beautifully complicating the simile whose function is itself a form of imitation.

While this structure of a surprise in line three might become expected just from its strong presence in the first stanza (where no concrete image appears until the surprise itself appears), Shapiro is not simply inventing--which itself might well be enough!--but is moving into a description of phenomenal qualities of the day: the temperature was cool, the air was calm, the sun was bright, and the sky was powerfully blue (presumably no clouds). While an unsympathetic reader might read the lines as purely fanciful, they are, in fact, the opposite of fancy and instead use the tools of a postmodern rhetoric to grasp toward a depiction of the physicality of the surrounding world, grasping line by line toward the world's physicality in a similar to William Carlos Williams or Theodore Roetke.

The poems are filled with exciting moments like these, and David Lehman just put up their first haiku exchange from back in 2003.

First Exchange (Shaprio and Lehman)
"Summer Afternoon" (Shaprio)
"One Plus One" (Lehman)
"L'Shana Tova" (Lehman)

The site also includes a related poem by David Shapiro, "After Ryokan," which writes from the work of the Japanese poet Ryokan.

"After Ryokan"


Lord Charlie said...

Thanks very much for the interesting comment, to which I shall direct Mr. Shapiro, whom it will please. I wonder how you liked the haiku exchanges written in January 2003 that we posted on the BAP blog in January of this year.
-- David Lehman

Andy Nicholson said...


I hadn't check the blog in a little while, and I didn't realize you had posted more--it's wonderful to see. I'm especially glad to see that the pieces you posted in January focus on the poems are part of a correspondence.

I'm always interested in how collaboration affects authorship or, in this case, how the personal address affects the poem's emotional tone (the shade of O'Hara passes by).

Really great to see, very vibrant, and I'll be sure to post an entry on the exchanges you've since put up, once I get a spare moment.


Theresa Williams said...

very nice! thanks, andy!