I have not been working as diligently as I should on my legal haiku for this year’s ABA Ross Essay Contest.  I’ve spent about ten minutes on it, mostly trying to come up with the right image to convey.

Part of the problem is that I am not a fan of haiku in general, at least not as an English verse form.  English writers began trying to work with haiku in the mid-twentieth century and adopted the 5-7-5 syllable convention we still use today, even though it doesn’t really convey the effect of the form in Japanese.  Authentic Japanese haiku uses morae or on, which are phonetic sounds, not syllables.  A haiku in Japanese is therefore usually more stark than one in English.

Authentic haiku generally presents two vivid images superimposed against one another by means of a kireji, or cutting word.  The effect is sometimes that of a Zen-style koan, a concept Western-trained thinkers often struggle with.  We like things to fit together neatly and we like our loose ends tied up; we really don’t know what to do with the sound of one hand clapping, thank you very much.  Additionally, Japanese haiku employs a kigo, which is a word that corresponds with a season.  There is a long list of kigo: a certain word for rain signifies an autumn rain, for example, while another word means a summer rain and so on.  We simply don’t have that sort of rich linguistic tradition to draw on in English.

For these reasons, I believe the most successful English haiku are those that attempt the spirit of the haiku and ignore the 5-7-5 convention altogether.  Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro is one famous example:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The imagery of the petals pressed wetly against a knotted branch is the essence of springtime.  Contrast that with the “apparition” of the faces sliding by as a train enters or departs the station.  And Pound uses sound masterfully here: the “a” sounds in apparition, faces, petals and black; the “o” in crowd and bough; the “e” in these and petals.  I love this poem.  But it is not, technically speaking, English language haiku because of the 5-7-5 rule.

This one, by Richard Wright, respects the syllabic rule and works beautifully:

Whitecaps on the bay;
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.

It doesn’t achieve the shift in perception or understanding that haiku generally strives for, though.

My initial efforts at writing a legal haiku have not been promising, to say the very least.  It’s hard to find a good, concrete image from something as abstract as law.  I thought I was on to something when I started playing around with Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.  I figured Stevens was a lawyer and a blackbird is a natural for haiku.  What I got down on paper was:

The lawyer-poet’s
Essential fallacy
Thirteen ways of looking
At a policy.

Awful.  I know.  It was going to be a series of haiku building on that theme.  I suspect my first mistake was the theme itself, which isn’t visceral enough for haiku, and my second was trying to force the rhyme.  So I’m going back to the drawing board, although I think I might have the bones for something else there.  A lyric, maybe.

In any event, I am feeling a little discouraged, and so I have taken up my dog-eared copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  I turn to one of the passages I highlighted in college and note with a smile – every time, without fail – just how much the yellow has faded.  These are the lines I’m holding on to today:

Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.  To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.

From Letters to a Young Poet, Ranier Maria Rilke (trans. M.D. Herter Norton) W.W. Norton & Co. (1962)

I believe I have the deep humility part down now, Herr Rilke.

Angus had been invited to attend the rehearsal of a play starring his old friend, Mr. Zuss. He arrived a few minutes after the appointed time and found the actors already on the stage. He took a seat in the middle of the mostly empty theater; as best as he could tell, only two other men were in the auditorium.

One of them sat in the row directly in front of him, a little to his right. He had tufts of scruffy white hair, a Van Dyke beard, and although his eyes were lively he had a haunted look about him. When Angus sat down he turned and nodded at him and Angus smiled and nodded back. They watched the play for thirty minutes or so until the third man, who was sitting a few rows away from the stage and was holding what looked like a copy of the script, called for a break. The actors headed off for coffee or to look over their lines for the next scene. The man with the script – Angus assumed he was the director – sat hunched over his papers making notes.

Mr. Zuss appeared at Angus’ arm then, holding two cups of coffee. He offered one to Angus.

“Thank you,” Angus said. “I didn’t know if you’d be able to see me out here or not, under the lights.”

“I couldn’t, from the stage,” said Mr. Zuss. “But I knew you’d be here.”

“Is that the director?” asked Angus, inclining his head forward toward the man with the script.

“The writer. Mr. Archibald MacLeish,” replied Mr. Zuss.

“I am enjoying it. It’s awfully sad, though.”

“Mr. MacLeish saw two world wars,” said Mr. Zuss. “Most of us will never see a city destroyed under bombing. Most of us – thank God – will never see something like Hiroshima. But all of us will know loss in some fashion. That’s what the play is about, the question of suffering. And ultimately the promise of hope.”

As they spoke the man in the next row turned to look at them. He seemed to be listening to their conversation but did not join it. Angus smiled at him again, trying to be cordial, but the man abruptly stood up and walked down to where Archibald MacLeish was sitting. He sat beside the writer, who reached out and rested his hand on the other man’s shoulder for just a moment before he returned to his script.

“Is he one of the actors as well?” asked Angus about the man with the white hair.

“You mean that fellow, the one who was just sitting here? Oh, no, he’s not one of the actors. But he’s one of Mr. MacLeish’s projects, I guess you could say.”

Someone yelled from the stage, “Places!” Mr. Zuss stood and walked down, pausing for a moment to say hello to the two men now sitting together several rows down. The rehearsal continued. Angus particularly liked the close of the play, when Sarah, J.B.’s wife, turned to him and said:

Blow on the coal of the heart.
The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we’ll see by and by.

He waited for his friend as the actors and stage hands began packing up. Finally he spotted Mr. Zuss, who was now wearing a long scarf wound around his neck several times, and a wooly looking fedora.

“You look like an actor now,” said Angus when he caught up with him.

“Oh, this?” said Mr. Zuss, pointing to the scarf. “It comes with the SAG card.” He smiled. “Shall we have some dinner?”

They left the theater and walked together down the crowded sidewalk. “I know a good place. It’s just a few blocks away.”

The air was turning a little chilly and the street lights lit up as they made their way.

“You never told me who the other man was, back there,” said Angus, who had his hands shoved into the pockets of his jacket. He thought he could smell wood smoke in the air.

“I’m surprised you didn’t recognize him. He was very famous once. Well, still is, I guess, though for the wrong reasons. That was Ezra Pound.”

“The poet?” Angus pulled up short.

“Oh, yes. The poet. And the former resident of St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital, and the former disseminator of fascist propaganda during the Second World War. You’ve heard of him then?”

“Of course. He said some unforgivable things. Not only about his country, but about innocent people. Hateful things.”

“He did. No one knew what to do with him after the war. And he’d gone pretty batty, you understand. When he was captured in Italy by American forces he was kept in a tiny cell for days. I’m not defending what he said, of course. But he was a troubled man. And when he was found unfit to stand trial he was committed to St. Elizabeth’s for twelve years.”

“You said that he was one of Mr. MacLeish’s projects.”

“He was. Ernest Hemingway got the ball rolling, but he was, after all, only a writer. MacLeish was a statesman. He had the necessary clout. Once he started pulling strings, it was a only matter of time before Pound was released.”

“Should he have been? After the things he was advocating for, during the war? After the things he said?”

“Pound’s doctors believed him to be insane but not violent. Keeping him confined was a punishment with no therapeutic purpose. Releasing him was probably a step towards healing after the war. Eventually, Pound repudiated the things he’d said. And the man wrote The Cantos. Everyone has some value, in my opinion.”

“It’s like what Sarah said to J.B.,” said Angus.

You wanted justice, didn’t you?
There isn’t any. There is only love.

“Here we are!” said Mr. Zuss as he opened the door of a canopied building. Angus ducked inside, grateful for the warmth and chattering noise within.

… to be continued ….

Of course, I’ve taken some liberties here. When Pound was released from St. Elizabeth’s in 1958, the same year that MacLeish’s play J.B. was awarded the Pulitzer, he traveled immediately to Italy and remained there for years. Pound continued to espouse his anti-Semitic and Fascist views at least privately for some time before he finally rejected them, calling himself a “moron” who “knew nothing.” Shortly before his eighty-seventh birthday, he composed a poem in which he rejected the sentiments he had expressed, somewhat horrifyingly, in Canto XLV (“Usura slayeth the child in the womb”). Pound remains an extraordinarily divisive and controversial figure in literature. Not everyone is convinced that he truly reformed. But his poems, especially “In a Station of the Metro,” appear regularly in anthologies and are taught in most American literature classes.

MacLeish, on the other hand, is my personal hero. I like to think that given the opportunity to sit beside a newly released Pound at a rehearsal of J.B., he would have placed his hand reassuringly on the broken man’s shoulders, as I have often seen criminal defense lawyers do for their clients at sentencing or before the reading of the verdict. I do think MacLeish would have done that. With the possible exception of “Ars Poetica,” which contains the famous exhortation that “[a] poem should not mean/But be”, MacLeish’s popularity has waned since he won three Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award, an Academy Award, a Bollingen Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.