30 July, 2014

How to Read a Haiku

Gentle Reader, you may have noticed one or two haiku cropping up on this humble web-site.  Indeed, at the time of writing, the "haiku" tag has been used here 256 times, which is a pleasingly round number in binary.

However, the appreciation of haiku is not ubiquitous, which surprised me.  My surprise is best illustrated with an anecdote.

A few years ago, I was back at the family house for Christmas.  It must have been five years ago or so.  I had my feet up, and was reading the entirely excellent third edition of Haiku Anthology, by Cor van der Heuvel.  This is one of my favourite books, and I often travel with it, and read it over and over again.

I had just settled down, when my brother, who was also home for Christmas, rounded on me: "Haiku?  How can you enjoy them?! They are so pretentious!"

I was floored.  Haiku, to my mind, are the exact opposite of pretention - after all, are they not maximally wabi-sabi, the very embodiment of the Japanese humble aesthetic?  A celebration of the tiny and immediate?  Infused with the character of Zen itself?

I put this thought to my brother.  He promptly chortled, as if I had just proven his point.  Cosmologists are like that.

This exchange has often returned to me.  How could sentient beings possibly find haiku pretentious?  It is a thought that sits inside me like a koan, a riddle with no solution.

We are led, then, to a demonstration, Gentle Reader: I would, if you will tolerate the indulgence, very much like to read a haiku with you.  If this is not your thing, and you're here for the tea, then I look forward to seeing you at the next article.  For those still with me, let us proceed...

plip! plop! plip!
the sinking plumstones disturb
fish beneath the punt

This is a whimsical little haiku, from a time when my dear wife and I were having some time off together.  Let us this time, however, not explain the haiku, but read it together.

The secret to reading a haiku is very much the same secret as to drinking a very good tea: we must proceed extremely slowly, in little sips, a tiny part at a time.  One. Word. At. A. Time.

The haiku, after all, is very (very) small.  Every single word counts, and therefore every single word in a good haiku has been selected by the writer with the maximum amount of care.  Every possible, feasibly economy has been taken to boil the essence of the haiku down to its essential ingredients.  There is nothing loose, nothing flabby, nothing extraneous: it is lean poetry, from which nothing further can be taken away.  This latter is of crucial importance: it is something from which nothing further can be taken away(If you have ever read bad writing, then you know the importance of constant reduction.  A good editor is fearless in expressing the ability to reduce a text.)

There are "rules" for haiku - they are not (despite what you may have learned in school) groups of 5-7-5 syllables.  Their subject matter is quite well defined, and the manner in which that subject matter is expressed is also quite well defined.  One cannot simply cram any old words into 5-7-5, as a schoolchild might, for the result is not a haiku.

The rules are important, up to a point. Like zazen itself, the purpose of the rules is not to foster blind adherence to some arbitrary framework: the rules are there for a reason.  The rules are there to guide one to an appreciation of what it is that makes a haiku.  The rules are the finger pointing at the moon, and not the moon itself.

Ultimately, when one has come to an understanding of what makes a haiku, then the rules are irrelevant and the rules may be broken.  Just like zazen.  However, the rules cannot be broken until that understanding exists.  Once there is understanding, then there are no rules.  I often return to Basho on this point, master of both zazen and haiku, when he spoke on haiku poetry to his students:

"Learn the rules, and then forget them."

A haiku is, like a great tea, a snapshot of a moment.  It is timely, in the sense that it represents a time: one particular moment, snatched from the stream of moments, preserved forever in the form of a brief, carefully-selected number of words, each hanging on the last, and each bringing the reader's attention to that one, special moment: that "a-hah!" moment, which is the purpose of the haiku.  The haiku is a process, a series of steps, and every step, and therefore every word, is very important.  A haiku is a process of gradual revelation.

Let us return to my humble haiku:

plip! plop! plip!
the sinking plumstones disturb
fish beneath the punt

The first line is a series of three noises, three things falling into water.  They have fallen in sequence.

plip! plop! plip!

They have also fallen with pauses between them, hence the exclamation marks, which obliges us to read the words with pauses between them (if we are reading carefully).  An earlier draft of this haiku had "plip-plop-plip", which is a much faster rhythm.  In the final version, those noises are slow, with pauses between them, and that is satisfying.  Whatever it is that is falling into the water feels as if it has some pleasing density.  Only dense things make that sound when they fall in water.

What is falling?  Are they stones?  We might be reminded of one of Basho's most famous haiku, frogpond.  Allusions to frogpond are a common hobby of the haiku writer over the centuries.  We are, at least, reminded of the zazen connotations of frogpond: the disturbance of the smooth surface of the water by the frog, and the sound: plop!  Frogpond is irreverent, a little silly, and very zen.

We take some more sips from the cup:

the sinking plumstones

Someone is eating!  There is a person in this haiku.  It is important in haiku never merely to document experience, but to describe a moment.  Haiku are not ugly descriptions of past events, but are eternally present - they pull the reader into that moment that they have captured, and they do this by being active.

Therefore, someone is actually in the process of eating at the moment of this haiku - we are not alone, and we are with someone who is eating - someone who is eating plums.  Likewise, the plumstones are falling one by one, just as if someone is currently eating - discarding each plumstone after the flesh has been eaten, rather than sinking a pile of plumstones that have previously been eaten.  The eating is on-going, that is our moment.  We are in this eating moment, active and participating.

We suspect that the person may be at leisure, because the stones are being slowly deposited into water, one after another.  We have also, although we may not have noticed, just read the kigo.  This is the season-word, that places the haiku in time: here, "plumstones".  The rules are there to be forgotten, and not every haiku has a kigo, but this one does.  We know that we are in summer, when the plums are ready to be eaten.

We are also at leisure near the water, and that also suggests summer.  Suddenly, thanks to the kigo, we have a feeling of context, and where to place this haiku in time.  We have a feeling of summer warmth, to accompany the feeling of summer leisure.

We take another sip, from the cup, trying to determine its flavour:

the sinking plumstones disturb

The break formed by the lines is very important to haiku, because it makes the rhythm of the poem.  It is understood that the reader is reading in lines, with breaks between them.  In the original Japanese, there is an additional layer of subtlety (the kireji, or cutting word), which is also a part of the better haiku in English, often achieved through meter or a special word.  Here, we have disturb: a direct and active cutting word, which also happens to fall at the end of a line.

We know that the reader will pause after reading "disturb", and so they are left with the compound feeling of having someone with them, who is eating plumstones, that they are at leisure, in the summer, that they are dropping stones one by one into water - and yet what is being disturbed?  We have some ideas.  What could be disturbed in the summer, in the water?

We finish the cup:  

fish beneath the punt.

 We have "a-hah!"  This is a water-borne eater, sitting on a punt!  We are afloat, in the summer!  We are eating plums, on the water itself, and the plumstones are making satisfyingly deep sounds as they descend into the water, the fish scattering as they are disturbed by the sinking stones.  Perhaps this steady supply of falling plumstones is what attracted the fish in the first place.

And so, we now have the full flavour of the cup.  It has revealed itself, and it dwells long after completion, like the huigan of good pu'ercha.

We have a fine summer scene, and we may know that the punts only go out in summer.  We have a supply of plums - and so maybe, just maybe, we are moored under a plumtree that has spread its branches, and its fruit, out over the water.  How lovely it must be to be on that punt, bobbing on the water, in the summer warmth, slowly eating fresh plums, listening to the sound of the falling stones.  It is surely quiet out there, because all we can hear are the plip! plop! plip! of the sinking plumstones. Suddenly, after careful reading, sip by sip, we are out there on the water, eating plums, watching fish.


It is this precise moment that my dear wife and I shared together as we sat out there, on the punt.  The haiku, like a better version of a camera, has both preserved that moment and invited you, Gentle Reader, to share in it with us, on that punt, bobbing gently on the water, under the plumtree. 

We hope you enjoy it with us.

25 July, 2014

Nothing More to Laos

I may have previously confessed to being a stalker, of bargains.

Doomed to walk the dimensions between reality and dream, we bargainstalkers are ghostly half-souls, the nosferatu of the teaworld.  It is our destiny to drink anything and everything, for only then, in the asymptotic limit of our consumption, is that one true bargain to be found: that final bargain, beyond all bargains, which will grant us eternal rest from our tormented half-existence.

Seeking that promise of eternal rest, that undiscovered country, we are driven onwards - beyond the realm of cheap cakes, beyond that rancid cake that your best friend made when he went on holiday to Yunnan, beyond EVEN MODERN CNNP.  Out into a hideous nether-realm in which the howls of the damned are the only accompaniment for the truly absymal tea that we are brewing.  Out into Laos.

Laos is like the Belgium of tea.  It's probably quite nice, but who is EVER going to go to Belgium?  Not even the Belgians like Belgium.  (Friends from KU Leuven, I love you, I love your country, and I especially love your WESTVLETEREN uberbeer.)

Having established that we are about to enter a place beyond civilisation, just like Belgium, where no conscious conscience has ever trodden, a place past the Phlegethon itself, let us consider the facts.

Laos tea is not expensive.  It is pu'ercha from before the days when pu'ercha was A Thing.  It is protocha, the way your grandfather used to drink, assuming that your grandfather is from Yunnan and drinks tea.  It is so Old School, it is possibly even good.

You see why we pale-eyed, hollow-souled teastalkers are drawn to its warmth, like a festering moth around a decaying, flickering candleflame.  It offers the promise of solace.  Laos tea could be The One True Bargain, forged by ethereal smiths in a time long-forgotten: one bargain to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them.

This is the 2014 Chawangpu "black label" from a place named "BAN KOMAEN".  This place is so remote, so hideously, inconceivably distant in both space and humanity (just like Belgium) that we can only begin to imagine how its name should be pronounced.  It is probably a transliteration from some arcane daemonological script, the mere sight of which would drive rational minds into an unhinged state of fractious insanity.

It also, inexplicably, is not at all "cheap".  It is $48/200g, which is, actually, not cheap at all and bordering on "Whoops, what happened to that price-tag".

Scrolling up, you may have noticed that the leaves are pretty darned green.  They look suspiciously green, in fact, as if someone doesn't know how to make The Pu'ercha.

This tea is interesting: the leaves are clearly of good quality.  They are vivid, and they push their way into the mouth with gushu-style cooling sensations.  The processing, though - the processing!

It is an empty tea, and I have to REALLY pile the leaves on to get anything resembling bitterness.  The scent is all flowers and fruit.  There is a big pile of butter, from the magic of the wok, and there is a big pile of huajiao-style numbing.  Just flowers.  More and more flowers and fruit.  Just like the green wulong that it closely resembles in appearance and flavour, this tea needs some attention in the processing.  I get the impression that some perfectly good leaves have not been exploited properly.

Changing gear, we crack open the "blue label".  This is not some absurd American-style whisky, but is allegedly another cake from BAN KOMAEN, the demonplane from beyond imagining.  The price is lower than the "black label", and it is claimed that the latter is better than the former.

Though perhaps not as good in terms of leaf-quality, the processing is much better here with the "blue label" than with the "black label".

Smooth, earthy, and "breadlike", it is rather pleasant.  It is soft around the edges, but is full, potent, and interesting.  I appreciate the edge of kuwei that gives it some complexity, and I find it much more enjoyable than the "watery", dilute fruitiness of the "black label".

If you are going to travel to a demonic half-plane, and bring back some tea, then it may as well be something like the "blue label".  It is $38/200g, which is... not really cheap, and not really expensive.  I was under the impression that tea from the netherworld was not supposed to reach Yunnan-style prices, and yet here we are.  Is it worth the equivalent of about $70 for a bing-equivalent weight?  It is pretty good... but it is not an obvious Masterbargain.  It is "hmm, maybe you should try this yourself to see if it resonates with your tastebuds".

With thanks to THE JAKUB for this final trip into the altered dimensions of tea, this is a "2012 MENGZHR" (sic) cake made by someone calls Jeff Fuchs.  Amusing surname aside, Mr. Fuchs sells this 100g cake for $39, which follows the trend of this article's not-so-cheap-after-all Laos teas.

I am told that MENGZHR is not actually in Laos at all, but is in Yunnan, near the border to Laos.  I am raising my eyebrows in consternation at the non-Pinyin rendering of the name of this place, but have no other alternative to offer you, Gentle Reader.  I suspect that the second character in this placename is in fact "zhi", followed by the Beijing throatypirate "rrr" sound, but that's just a guess.

This tea is OK.  It has the warm, earthy, character of certain spots in Yunnan.  It is cooling, maybe nodding towards gushu.  It is buttery, it is clean.  It is not a "flavour" tea, but that, too, is OK.

Is being "OK" enough?  Can we haunted, thin-spirited spectres slake our undying thirst on something that is merely "OK"?

I am not convinced.  This trio of teas was not particularly impressive, either in quality or in bargaination - this latter, in part, due to the non-trivial sums at which these LAOS or near-LAOS cakes are priced.

It is with a heavy heart that I sling my NECRONOMICON over my shoulder, fire up the daemongate, and prepare to step, once again, out into the missing dimensions in search of my prey.

It continues to evade me, and yet... I am getting closer.  Every badly-processed Laos cake, every unappealingly-priced product, gets me one step closer to my place of rest.

I must go now, for the daemons: they are a-howlin'.  If you need me, I will be in Belgium.