Sunday, November 30, 2008

Winter Wonderland, Yeah!


Today, Cedar Falls got its first real taste of winter. I spent more than a couple of minutes — a lot more — shoveling the driveway clear of snow today. And then in the early evening my daughter Amanda and I started to drive to Grinnell, Iowa, a little over an hour away. We saw several cars, abandoned, in ditches; a large wrecker winching up a car back onto the roadbed; everyone crawling along at 25-30 mph. After the second time we almost spun out ourselves, we turned back home, having gone in the space of an hour maybe 20 miles or so.

So, in celebration of the coming of winter — my favorite season, actually — I give you an appropriately seasonal poem:

Iowa Winter Haiku


Canada geese honk
                    in the lopsided trailing
           edge — a ragged V

                             new snowbank glistens
           with bright flecks of diamond,
                    crystalline sugar

                    starlings clustering
power lines, strung beads against white
                             sky, heads under wings

                             constellations drift
           in headlights . . . slick sidewinders
           scuffling in the road

                    snowflakes spiral like
                             tiny birds pirouetting
in crisp knifeblade air

— Vince Gotera, from Mirror Northwest (2006)

Like my poem "Looking for Double Victory" (which I posted in this blog on 11 November 2008), "Iowa Winter Haiku" appeared in the Contemporary Poetry section of the online journal Mirror Northwest, an anthology of models for creative writing students. Here is a note I appended to this poem in that educational venue:

Since Mirror Northwest's Contemporary Poetry pages are primarily a resource for students of poetry writing, it’s important to note that current haiku writers no longer feel constrained to write in the traditional 5-7-5 syllable pattern. I have done so because of my interest in lineation and the different emotional effects achieved through the modulation of end-stop and enjambment, especially in the context of a rigid syllabic scheme. For example, the extreme enjambment in "trailing / edge" or "white / sky" is meant to imply a hushed, pregnant starkness in the wintry landscape.

I had previously submitted this poem to an American haiku journal, and the editor very generously ("generous" because nowadays editors don't usually have time for substantive responses) generously suggested that I make each haiku more compact — in other words, stop with the 5-7-5 syllabics. I ended up not taking that advice, although that meant not fitting in finally with today's haiku standards and sensibilities, because I relish the challenge of writing in preset syllabic lines while still executing purposeful line breaks. A là the inestimable Marianne Moore, one of my favorite poets.

I am reminded in this context of Robert Frost's much quoted witticism: "Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down." He didn't mean, as some people think, that not having the net is a freedom to be wished for; he meant that if one doesn't have the net, there is no point to the game: without the net, one doesn't know if a shot is good or bad. Had the net been there, perhaps that shot would not have successfully made it crosscourt. I suppose that's how I feel about the 5-7-5 requirement. It keeps us honest.

One final note: the title of this poem is "Iowa Winter Haiku," not simply "Winter Haiku." As a San Franciscan, I am very happy now to live where there are four discrete seasons; one can often tell, even, when the season changes. It's summer and then one day, you walk outside, and all your senses tell you: it's turned into fall. I didn't always feel that way; San Franciscans (and probably many Californians) can be fiercely provincial, feeling that no place rocks quite as much as their own. Probably more so than New Yorkers, whose provincialism is proverbial. Having lived in Iowa since 1995, however, I find this state has really grown on me. It's a great place to raise kids, as they say, and the winters are nothing short of spectacular. Come to Iowa and see for yourself!

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