Haiku! Gesundheit!

Reading for Pleasure — Haikus as Book Reviews

Some of us have begun an OLLI-USF class that requires close, critical reading. The morning and afternoon Winter Great Books classes, facilitated by Kevin Chittim and Patrick DeMarco, are just two examples. The selected texts, none of which could be described as easy, are read and then they are discussed in the group using the “shared inquiry” method.

I am in the afternoon Great Books class and, reviewing what I just wrote, I notice a tendency to yawn.  Why, oh why, did I sign up for this class, I wonder? The answers are that I am a long-time fan of Patrick, I know many of the people in the group, and I also need to exercise my brain after two years of absence from OLLI. These group discussions are stimulating, and I come away afterwards feeling exhilarated and also virtuous. However, there comes a time for each of us OLLI members to do a little leisure reading. (This especially will be true for me after reading Nietzsche, my first assignment.)

To that end, let me introduce you to a book that condenses many of the “heavier” works of literature and philosophy into haikus. These haikus give you a basic idea of what the short story, poem, text or novel is about and whether you might enjoy reading it. (Some of us have to read the work for one of our classes, but at least we will be forewarned.)

In his delightful book, Haiku U.: From Aristotle to Zola, 100 Great Books in 17 Syllables, David M. Bader gives us tantalizing glimpses of the contents of one hundred “Great Books” without the reader having to go through the bother of actually reading them in their entirety. Whether this is a good thing or not depends upon the reader and his/her sense of humor. (I found most of these haikus to be very funny.)

What exactly is a haiku? The website poets.org tell us that “Haiku began in thirteenth-century Japan as the opening phrase of renga, an oral poem, generally 100 stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically.” Zen monks in 16th-century Japan developed the form, which now consists of a poem using “three unrhymed lines of five, then seven, then five syllables.” Poets.org goes on to tell us that haikus “Often focusing on images from nature….emphasize simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression.” Here is an example from a classical haiku master, Yosa Buson (d. 1784, Kyoto, Japan), titled “The Light of a Candle”:

The light of a candle

is transferred to another candle—

spring twilight.

David M. Bader takes this traditional form and turns it on its head. Yes, the syllables remain the same for each line; however, his haiku’s purpose is to condense a so-called “great book” (from authors A to Z) for, it must be said, “laughs.” A book review from the New York Post sums it up best: “War and Peace it’s not. It’s much funnier.” Customer reviews on Amazon.com range from “fluff reading” to “absurd” to “hilarious” and “clever.” You will soon decide your own opinion of this book.

My first example is a book that most of you, being OLLI members, may have read or may have seen on TV:  Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:

Fog, gloom, men in wigs –

the Chancery Court blights all.

See where law school leads?

We get the essence of Dickens’s book: the fog and gloom of London that permeates everything and everyone, and the devastating results that the court’s actions have on all persons involved in the complex, labyrinthine Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. What the haiku leaves out, though, is the rather confusing and long narrative. However, as this is generally considered one of Dickens’ best books, perhaps it will spur you into actually reading it. Or not.

Let’s take another example from the book: the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

Act 1: “It’s hopeless.

My boots don’t fit. Where is God?”

Act II: The same thing.

There!  I just saved you non-Beckett fans from reading what you might consider a dreary, confusing play. Or if, like me, you have seen a portion of the play performed by two British actors and found it very funny indeed, you may decide it is your cup of tea and read it.

My next example is from D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I understand that one of Lawrence’s works will be discussed in the morning Great Books class, but I don’t know if this is the one. Nevertheless, it will give you an idea of Lawrence’s typical subject matter.

On the grounds, fresh game.

On the gamekeeper, fresh

Lady Chatterley.

I know, I know: it sizzles!

The afternoon Great Books class will read a selection from Plato, and I offer this haiku from Plato’s Phaedo.

By Zeus, Socrates!

It seems you’re right once again!

Time for your hemlock.

And a few more haikus, chosen at random. Many of us have spent several (happy?) hours reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter. Would you still have perused it after reading this haiku first?

Grim, gray New England –

all adulterers receive

free monogramming.

This next book, Portrait of a Lady, is a favorite of mine. However, it didn’t stop me from laughing when I read this haiku:

Will she inherit?

Which suitor will she marry?

When will tea be served?

Strangely, that does sum up much of this novel.

Christopher Marlowe’s play, Dr. Faustus, does not escape ribbing.

A scholar trades

few fun years for an endless Hell.

Math was not his field.

What of The Federalist Papers, co-written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay? There is a even a haiku for that:

The Constitution –

behold our work and marvel.

No Bill of Rights? Whoops.

And, last, one of my favorites, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka:

“What have I become?”

Uncertain, Gregor Samsa

puts out some feelers.

I hope that you have enjoyed this selection of haikus from the book Haiku U. by David M. Bader.  It contains 91 more haikus than I have covered, and you can find used copies on Amazon.com/books.

[April is National Poetry Month, an excellent time to publish original poetry by OLLI members.  We invite you to send a poem or poems you’ve written to connectsolli25@gmail.com.  It can be rhymed or free verse, but no longer than 40 lines, please.   The deadline is March 25.  There won’t be just one “winner” here.  We hope to publish several poems.–Editor]

Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant.  A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.  And she contributes a “Reading for Pleasure” article like this one to OLLI Connects whenever we can persuade her to.






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