The Snowbanks of Time

Essay on writing tanka on truth & lies
poetry, criticism
2011-01-152011-11-22 finished certainty: likely importance: 0


A chap­ter in a fan­fic­tion reminded me of an old philo­soph­i­cal point about and tau­tolo­gies—that they imply every­thing else. Law­ful sys­tems stand and as a whole; you can­not mag­i­cally sup­press fire with­out sup­press­ing and human life. And so, in some sense, all our actions result in con­se­quences that could one day by exam­ined and tracked back to their unique sources ( be damned).

Think­ing this, and look­ing into the falling snow, I thought through a haiku (5-7-5):

Every lie or truth
remains under all snow---if
we can but find it

This sounded famil­iar to me, though I did­n’t think I had been quot­ing any­one. Even­tu­al­ly, I remem­bered “Snow in a Gar­den”1

"Every shrub, every tree -
if one has not forgotten
where they were planted -
has beneath the fallen snow
some vestige of its form."

A very nice ; truly con­vey­ing a sad mood but with appre­ci­a­tion of the beauty of win­ter and the hope of spring. If one must copy, copy the best.

But the haiku needs work. The first line is solid: the rhythm of ‘lie and truth’ works bet­ter than ‘truth or lie’, and it meets its 5-syl­la­ble count with aplomb. The sec­ond line is awk­ward, even if you ignore the . ‘All snow’ may con­vey a sense that noth­ing is irre­triev­able, which is an appro­pri­ate sen­ti­ment, but sounds odd enough that it breaks the flow. Expand­ing it would let us be less gnomic and keep each line sep­a­rate, but we daren’t touch the per­fect first line. Let’s try this expanded waka (5-7-5-7-6):

Every lie or truth,
that we humans ever say,
remains for to find
under time's covering
and silent embraces

In line 3, the inten­tion is ‘remains for us to find’, but that blows the 5-syl­la­ble count; ‘for to find’ is actu­ally valid Eng­lish, but it’s archaic or British dialec­ti­cal (if one looks in Google Books, comes up as a user of that phrase lo those many cen­turies ago). It’s curi­ous, but such lin­guis­tic odd­i­ties are par for the course in poet­ry, so per­haps it’s not a flaw. The more I read it, the more charm it has for me in a sort of way, which is appro­pri­ate for the verse-­form. (It was sug­gested that it be rewrit­ten as ‘remains here to find’ or ‘remains there to find’, but in a way, no ‘here’ or ‘there’ has been spec­i­fied for the lies & truths to reside with­in, and we do want to keep a dis­tinc­tion between the speaker/addressed and the snow­banks of time—“the past is a for­eign coun­try”2, after all.)

‘human’ is fairly rare in poems, because usu­ally you can come up with a bet­ter phrase. In this case, we’re stuck. We could switch to ‘man’ or ‘men’ and that would let us stick in a short adjec­tive like ‘warm’:

Every lie or truth,
that we warm men ever say,
remains for to find
under time's covering
and silent embraces

But to me, that seems like a nar­row­ing of scope that isn’t in line with the uni­ver­sal sen­ti­ments. Why men? Are women grown hon­est? The syn­onym ‘peo­ple’ sounds even worse than ‘humans’:

Every lie or truth,
that we people ever say,
remains for to find
under time's covering
and silent embraces

Pro­nouns aside, there are two prob­lems here.

  1. The metaphor for time is not clear. We know that the idea is the past is cold, and the fur­ther in the past, the colder and more frozen the lies & truths (this is not a new metaphor; con­sider the phrase ). It’s a good metaphor, since you can still dig things out of the snow, and things return when the snow melts (this is why Shōtet­su, a Zen Bud­dhist, uses the imagery after all). But time does­n’t instantly sug­gest it—the ‘cov­er­ing’ could just be a blan­ket or some­thing.

  2. We lost our most impor­tant line—the punch­line, if you will. It’s a dou­ble-edged sword, one that can reas­sure or dis­qui­et: the truth is out there. Darst you find it?3 We try again (5-7-5-7-7):

     Every lie or truth
     that we humans ever say
     remains for to find
     in Time's snowy embraces -
     if we will but look for them

A lit­tle more explicit about the metaphor: ‘snowy’ is pretty much a win­ter word if ever there was one, and we cap­i­tal­ize Time to make the clear­er.

Some­times you have to give up; I have a nice haiku which I have thought a great deal about but have been entirely unable to make it a full 5-7-5 haiku4. But for­tu­nate­ly, we’re not done. Around here, it occurred to me that line 2 did have a redun­dant word: ‘that’. It makes as much sense to write ‘Every lie or truth / we humans ever say’ as it did to write ‘Every lie or truth / that we humans ever say’; free­ing up a syl­la­ble then sug­gests we spend it on more inter­est­ing pro­nouns, which leads to:

Every lie or truth
you or I will ever say
remains for to find
in Time's snowy embraces -
if we will but look for them

This is a very nice change, because it elim­i­nates the whole debate over ‘we humans’, makes the poem simul­ta­ne­ously inti­mate (it’s just you and me, bucka­roo) and uni­ver­sal (the speaker could be any­one, and like­wise the addressed), ren­ders the poem less harshly judg­men­tal of its read­ers (I too am guilty of not seek­ing all truths and destroy­ing all lies), and smug­gles in vari­ety.

The mean­ing is still some­what obscure over­all thanks to the last line. Per­haps we ought to go with a more con­ven­tional visual descrip­tion: ‘dark­some’? ‘cloudy’? ‘obscure’? Or per­haps the last line is too limp and abstract—‘if we will but dig for them’? ‘If we scratch the dirt’? Per­haps that is too con­crete. ‘If we exhume them’ smacks of the grave and does­n’t go well with the ice/snow imagery. There aren’t many verbs that deal specif­i­cally with ice & snow; ‘melt’ is a good one, but ‘if we will but melt them’? No no, per­haps ‘if we will melt the ice’, and then tweak the ‘snowy’ to another 2-syl­la­ble word like ‘icy’ or ‘freez­ing’:

Every lie or truth
you or I will ever say
remain for to find
in Time's icy embrace -
if we will but melt the ice

The rep­e­ti­tion of ‘icy’/‘ice’ does­n’t work for me. Even if we move ‘icy’ even fur­ther away, it still sounds odd:

Every lie or truth
you or I will ever say
remain for to find
in icy Time's embrace -
if we will but melt the ice

(And no, the old poetic standby ‘rimy’ is even worse. We must give up on ‘snowy’ and ‘icy’.)

So:

Every lie or truth
you or I will ever say
remain for to find
in Time's freezing embraces -
if we will but melt the ice

  1. #123 in ; trans. Steven D. Carter, ISBN 0-231-10576-2↩︎

  2. From Learn­ing His­tory in Amer­ica by Lloyd S. Kramer, Don­ald Reid, William L. Bar­ney; pg 145:

    "For we can always see and feel much that the people in old photos and newsreels could not:
    
    that their clothing and automobiles were old-fashioned,
    that their landscape lacked skyscrapers and other contemporary buildings,
    that their world was black
     and white
      and haunting
       and gone."
    ↩︎
  3. from “Pro­duc­ing the Super­knowl­edges”, Chris­tine Hart­zler:

    "The lake steams
    as if its floor is furious coal.
    Dredge it and see.
    
    But who is brave enough to know a difficult thing?
    To look for ghosts?"
    ↩︎
  4. The poem uses the stock phrase ‘’ as a ref­er­ence to the ephemeral tran­si­tory real world of which evokes the feel­ing of ; often this gen­eral con­cept is linked with the idea that one ought to cut all ties with worldly things, take holy orders, and pur­sue Bud­dhist sal­va­tion. The best ver­sion of my haiku runs:

    I know this world is
    only the floating world, but
    even so, even so...

    The 5-7-6 count can be fixed with an Eng­lish trick like e’en:

    I know that this world
    is only the floating world
    but e'en so, e'en so...

    This strikes me as unnat­ural and appalling. The prob­lem is that “even so” has 3 syl­la­bles and the phrase has to be used twice, the entire wist­ful affect of the poem depends on this rep­e­ti­tion. So what can one do? I sup­pose one could try to write it in waka form instead and use the line “but even so, even so” as one of the 7-syl­la­ble lines—but then how does one fill the spare 5-syl­la­ble and 7-syl­la­ble lines? The poem is not a ‘big’ thought which needs an entire waka. There must be some con­struc­tion which works; the final line would be fine as ‘and yet, and yet…’, but then we have the oppo­site prob­lem of too few syl­la­bles (4 rather than 5).

    Patrick Stevens sug­gests bit­ing the bul­let of asym­me­try and using a final line like “and yet I… and yet…” The rhythm strikes me as a bit off, and it might work bet­ter reversed: “and yet… and yet I…” (The asym­me­try itself is actu­ally a bit help­ful here, as it height­ens the sense of uncer­tainty as the speaker strug­gles for the right word­ing and varies the phrase—iron­i­cal­ly, just as I strug­gle for the right word­ing!) Maybe a com­bi­na­tion like “and yet… even so…”?

    Pos­si­bly we should aban­don “even so”; it may not be the uniquely ideal phrase, and there may be other ways to get the sense of dis­agree­ment & con­tra­dic­tion, for exam­ple, “still”: “and yet I… still, still!”

    The frus­trat­ing thing is that this haiku appar­ently works fine in other lan­guages: Paper­ma­chine trans­lates it into Japan­ese as “kono sekai wa / ukiyo, wakaru ne / mata, dat­tara…”, and adds that while it really needs a fourth line, it sort of works in Man­darin as well: “这是浮世/尽管知道/不能逃脱”.↩︎