Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Butterfly Dream: Counting Syllables Haiku by Don Wentworth

English Original

Stop counting syllables,
start counting the dead.

Past All Traps

Don Wentworth

Chinese Translation (Traditional)


Chinese Translation (Simplified)


Bio Sketch

Don Wentworth is a Pittsburgh-based poet whose work reflects his interest in the revelatory nature of brief, haiku-like moments in everyday life. His poetry has appeared in Modern Haiku, bottle rockets, bear creek haiku and Rolling Stone, as well as a number of anthologies. His first full-length collection, Past All Traps, was published in 2011 by Six Gallery Press and was shortlisted for the Haiku Foundation's 2011 Touchstone Distinguished Books Award.

(note: For more information on Don's writing and his book, please read  Christien Gholson's interview. "The interview is divided into two parts.  The first section focuses on Lilliput Review and Don’s editing process; the second section is about Don’s own writing and the writing of Past All Traps") 


  1. The combined use of syntactic parallelism and a perspectival shift makes this poem sociopolitically powerful and emotionally effective. And it reminds me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s vision of poetry: Poetry as Insurgent Art.

    What is the "use" of poetry? Does or can poetry matter to Everyman? More than 50 years ago, American poet William Carlos Williams answered these questions in his then-famous lines: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." His lines claim that poetry really matter to the health of the soul.

    Don's powerful poem makes me to rethink: that "the poetical is the political."

    Note: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poetry as Insurgent Art consists of five parts: 'Poetry as Insurgent Art,' in which he argues that "Poetry can save the world by transforming consciousness," and 'What Is Poetry,' in which he offers his musings in one- and two-sentence statements, are followed by the poems 'Populist Manifesto #1' and 'Populist Manifesto #2' and sealed with the essay entitled 'Modern Poetry Is Prose,' which encourages young writers to discover the "dark spirit of earth and blood."

    In Poetry as Insurgent Art, Ferlinghetti offers poetry as an instrument of rebellion, as a means to invent a new language which can engage the reader in the socio-political context in order to explore a new truth. “I am signalling you through the flames,” he writes persistently and encouragingly. “ … You are Whitman, you are Poe … you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay … .” Of poetry itself, he says, “Poetry is the ultimate inner refuge” and “it is Helen’s straw hair in sunlight.”

  2. Early this morning, I received Don's "Issa's Untidy Hut" email, in which contains the latest post, entitled "Robert Bly: Old Man Rubbing His Eyes - Small Press Friday."

    Below is an excerpt from my review of Leaping Poetry: More Than a Leap from One Image to Another , one that I think thematically and emotionally echoes Don's poem:

    Another example comes from one stanza of his famous anti-Vietnam War poem entitled Driving Through Minnesota During the Hanoi Bombings,

    Our own gaiety
    Will end up
    In Asia, and you will look down in your cup
    And see
    Black Starfighters.
    Our own cities were the ones we wanted to bomb!

    The leap suggested here is a huge and politically-charged one from the domestic image of drinking coffee in America to the combating image of Black Starfighters dropping bombs in Asia, from the kitchens of individual Americans to the battlefields of the American fighting troops, and from the homely image of safety to the war-torn image of atrocity. The fighting image of Black Starfighters reflected in the coffee cup directly and psychologically connects the war fought outside the American soil with the mind and heart of the individual reader, hinting at an unavoidable relationship between the gaiety of Americans and their capacity for destructing their own lives and those of other people. This interwoven relationship between the American people and the Vietnamese people is initially implied in the title of the poem.

  3. Read in the historical context of the English language haiku poetics, Don's poem gives a timely, clear and straight to the point answer to the question -- counting syllables (5-7-5) -- raised in Anita Virgil's 2005 Simply Haiku interview with Robert Wilson:

    "Hard as it was for many to take, and hard as it was to convince many practitioners of this simplistic adaptative ‘solution’ to writing haiku in another language (and, unfortunately, to this day in the American educational system it persists!), it meant moving away from the dictum of 17 English-language—and later foreign-language—‘syllables’! Throughout the book The Japanese Haiku by Kenneth Yasuda, the top of every page all the way across reads: 57557557557557557557. And at the back of the book where he had his own haiku in English, he wrote them in 17 English syllables. How is a beginner to ever shake this off? Talk about subliminal messages! Yes, to the Japanese it had relevance, but to some of us outlanders, it was not the whole story. It was rarely applicable when writing in English.

    In critiquing the poems of that era, it was not too difficult to see where the writers in English added words SIMPLY FOR THE SAKE OF MAKING THAT 17-SYLLABLE COUNT. It was referred to as “padding.” In most every instance, these ‘extra’ words were no more than redundancies. They did not add to the poem. To the contrary, they weakened the impact by dragging it out, repeating the same idea. Since the greatest beauty of the haiku for me is their power of concision with which one can open up worlds of implication, suggestion—if one selects only the essence of the moving experience that gave rise to the poem, this verbosity was a real handicap. In the main line poetry circles of those days (and still today somewhat) American haiku was totally disdained. Ignored. Not published. Dismissed. "

  4. Finally, I conclude my comments with the following haiku:


    sennsisha ga aoki suugaku yori detari

    war dead
    exit out of a blue mathematics

    Sumimura Seirinshi, pub. circa 1937-40

  5. I just found a haiku about the dead, which was written by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

    And lost teacups
    full of our ashes-
    floated by