How to Write Haiku Without Being a Pedant

HaikuI remember when I was in the ninth grade, we went through a section on the haiku. They really are very interesting, but there is nothing like good old fashioned American systematization to destroy, well, everything creative. So we were taught what is always taught: a haiku is a three line poem where the lines have five, seven, and five syllables. And that’s about it, other than that they usually have something to do with mood or weather or whatever the hell the Japanese are on about.

The result is some pretty horrible drivel. Here’s something absolutely terrible I was able to come up with in about 20 seconds:

I am a bad boy
I stole candy from the store
But I got away

See: it has the proper number of syllables in the proper order. I can tell you one thing: that is an A+ haiku by the standards of my ninth grade English class. But it does have a few problems.

Let’s leave aside that it’s deadly dull: I am, I stole, I got. There shouldn’t be any reference to the writer, because that’s implicit in the form. A haiku is supposed to be a report of what is happening from the writer’s perspective. This “haiku” misses all of these points. But it does get the syllables right, so that’s something. Or maybe not.

I was recently editing a article about mobile games when I came upon a statement about one of the game’s “about us” page that was given in the form of a couple of haiku. It mentioned that a haiku was a poem with blah, 7 syllables, blah. So I sent off a message to Madeleine Kane, my personal expert on all matters involving limericks and haiku. I had a vague memory that haiku is not so regimented as all that. And she sent me to an article by Naomi Beth Wakan, Dispelling the Myth of 5, 7, 5.

The article is primarily for teachers who want to provide segments like the one I took on haiku, but who don’t want it to be as useless. It’s worth checking out. But according to Wakan, syllables in Japanese are shorter than they are in English. So the 17 syllable business is normally abandoned by serious English language haiku writers. Instead, they “usually do a rough 2 beats, 3 beats, 2 beats.” That’s actually kind of exciting! For one thing, that provides almost no time to get the information out. I like a challenge.

The truth is that the standard, 17 syllable, format is too easy. Here’s something typical of what I can do in about a minute:

water drops pound roof
overflowing rain gutters
splashing mud puddles

But how do you make that work in a couple of beats per line? It isn’t exactly hard. The main thing is that it makes you get to the point of what you are trying to render. But doing it well is really hard, as five minutes of work shows in this remarkably uninspired translation:

rain drips from
rooftop gutters
muddy ground

Let me try again! Here is a Mary Barnard translation of a poem by Sappho, which I love:

Pain penetrates
Me drop
by drop

It’s almost a haiku already. It just takes some minor changes:

now pain
pierces and builds
drop by drop

The problem with going rogue and writing haiku that is true to the tradition is that there are millions of people who will tell you that you don’t know what you are doing because your haiku doesn’t have 17 syllables. But if anyone bugs you, I give you permission to respond with the following “haiku”:

is this the kind of
haiku that you want from me
that totally sucks?

The Economics Loophole That Leads Inexorably to Conservative Policy

Mark ThomaMark Thoma wrote a very insightful article over at The Fiscal Times, The Lofty Promise and Humble Reality of International Trade. Most of the article is about something I’ve written about a lot around here. Trade agreements may be great overall. But at least in the United States, the benefits have gone almost exclusively to those at the top. The claim is always that these are the job creators, but given that they just keep accumulating money, it is clear that they aren’t creating jobs. They are able to game the system for their own benefit. And a big part of that has been the The Job Creator Myth itself.

But Thoma mentioned something that I didn’t know. Apparently, economists see themselves as above the opinion game. That is, they have no opinion about the trade-offs of a particular policy. So if a policy will make everyone better off, then the field says it is good. But if it makes a whole bunch of people better off but a few people worse off, it has no opinion. This came as a bit of a shock to me, given how much economists push all kinds of policies that absolutely do have losers — often very large numbers of losers.

There are even phrases for this — things like “creative destruction” — an indication that they know capitalism is set up to create losers, but it’s okay because “in the long run” we are all dead everyone is better off. So how is it that economists are able to push policies that they know will cause harm? (I mean, other than by being the shameless hacks and lackeys for the rich!) Well, Thoma explained that:

Economists, however, have ways around this. If a policy such as opening our borders to more international trade has both positive and negative effects, but the positive effects exceed the negative, then it would be possible to distribute the benefits in a way that makes everyone at least as well off as they were before the policy change.

That’s a hell of a loophole. By this, if a trade policy hurts millions of working Americans, that’s fine as long as it helps the rich by a greater amount. The fact that the gains could be distributed so that everyone is better off is all that matters. The fact that it literally never is doesn’t matter. That’s just details — nothing the economists need worry about! So they are able to push policies that could — in theory — be good for everyone, but are — in practice — only good for the rich. I’m finally starting to understand Greg Mankiw!

What I find fascinating about this is how much this is the way that libertarians think. For example, libertarians don’t believe in antitrust laws, because in theory a company with a monopoly could be open to another company coming in and winning market share. Of course in practice, that isn’t the way it works. But theory is all that libertarians care about. It’s bothersome that the economics profession uses the same kind of logic, which just so happens to give advantages to the power elite.

I find the whole thing upsetting, but it does explain why conservative economists can go around claiming that they they are just looking at the facts and yet be pushing for highly ideological policies. No wonder economics is such a screwed up discipline.

Morning Music: Tiny Tim’s Stairway to Heaven

Girl - Tiny TimAt last, we reach the end of our Tiny Tim week. And we go out with a bang. If I have only one song to introduce someone to him with, I go right to the big guns — the one song that shows everything that is great about him. And that song is his cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s a perfect song.

Let’s start with the music. It is a light jazz version of the song with a relentless walking bass and a wonderfully syncopated drum. On top of this, is this wonderful 1940s style male vocal quartet, which allows Tiny Tim to play around a bit. The main thing is that the song is done completely seriously. But the critical thing about it is that no one doing it thinks the song is serious. It is about as serious as Mickey the Monkey.

Anniversary Post: Houdini’s Last Performance

Harry HoudiniOn this day in 1926, Houdini gave his last performance. There is so much myth surrounding Houdini, that I find him almost intolerable as a subject. Indeed, in my second novel, I spend a great deal of time savaging him. Consider that Houdini’s act was always being performed in two places: wherever he was and then wherever his younger brother Hardeen was. And given that I’m not much of a fan of the big stage illusion shows, Hardeen did the only thing of the two of them that I’m really impressed with: plain view straitjacket escape. He was the one who saw that it was even more impressive if the audience could see the performer.

None of this is to take anything away from Houdini. He was a trailblazer, and certainly less boring than Thurston or Blackstone. And I was very interesting to hear a voice recording of Houdini from 1914. He had a far better voice than I expected. The style of that time was very much over the top, and here he sounds rather modern — nuanced. It certainly would have been interesting to see his act.

Everyone knows the standard, but incorrect, story of Houdini’s death: he was being visited by a fan before a show. The fan asked him if it was true that Houdini could take a punch to the stomach. And before allowing Houdini to get ready, the fan punched him, causing Houdini to suffer internal injuries. Houdini insisted on performing that night, but was rushed to the hospital afterwards. But it was too late and Houdini died. Du-du-daa!

It is true that the fan punched him in the stomach. But that was two days earlier. He did suffer great pain. It is probable that the punch did not cause Houdini’s medical problems, but they may have covered them up — making Houdini think the pain was from the punches and so no big deal. Regardless, after two days, Houdini did see a doctor who told him that he had appendicitis and needed surgery right away. Houdini brushed the doctor off, and gave his performance on the 24th — his last. After it, he went to the hospital where he died a week later.

This seems like madness, but it makes a certain amount of sense. As I know from own father, men of previous generations were hard. As it was, Houdini had a broken ankle through all of this, which he performed with. He was a man who was used to pain. And he had not only survived, he had flourished. He was one of the most famous men in the world. He was extremely wealthy, but like most men of his upbringing at that time, I’m sure that not working was unthinkable. So he died as he lived. It’s still kind of sad.