About twenty-five years ago, I attended the Oxford Conference for the Book, and sat in an auditorium for a reading by Richard Flanagan, a Tasmanian writer whose debut novel Death of a River Guide had the literary world by the throat. He was joined on stage by two other authors.
The host announced that each writer had 15 minutes. The first author took 15 minutes to set up his reading, then read for almost 20 minutes. When Flanagan stood up to the mic, he looked to his left at the previous reader, and said, “I’m not going to set this up.” Then he looked out at the audience and added, “If I have to do that, then I’ve chosen the wrong thing to read.”
Richard Flanagan read for three minutes and when he finished, I found myself right there in the second row, sitting between William Gay and Suzanne Kingsbury, stunned and emotional. I held my eyes wide open, unblinking, and my lips pulled tight, trying to maintain my composure. Flanagan’s brief reading had crushed me, his words tearing at my heart. William and Suzanne were friends of mine, and they both looked at me, though neither said a thing.
And now I’m finishing up Syllables Go By, a collection of 99 haiku I’ve been writing and posting to this page, and I’m replacing my previous number 99 with this one that I wrote today. With each of the other haiku, I included a narrative lead-in that sort of set up the poem. I’m going to go back and edit out all the set-ups. Just let the three lines and the seventeen syllables stand on their own.
I mean, a genuine haiku doesn’t even carry a title, unlike other poems, and stories and novels. That’s because this form is intended to be slippery, like gold fish in a garden pond, and the reader is supposed to catch its meaning without help, even from a title. No such net allowed. So, if I have to set up a poem hoping the reader will more likely “get it” then I haven’t written it with the right words.
He’s from Nazareth.
Can any good come from there?
Let’s just send him back.