homeeditorsreviewsessaysmhbooks issues


Volume 34.3
Autumn 2003

book review:

To Hear the Rain: Selected Haiku of Peggy Lyles
edited by
Randy Brooks


reviewed by Edward Zuk

To Hear the Rain: Selected Haiku of Peggy Lyles. Edited by Randy M. Brooks (Decatur, Ill: Brooks Books, 2002). Hardcover, 5.5" x 8.5". 127 pages. ISBN 1-929820-03-8. Available for $22.00 + $2.50 postage and handling from the publisher at 3720 N. Woodridge Dr., Decatur, IL 62526.

To Hear the Rain is the latest addition to the Goodrich Masters Series published by Brooks Books, which gathers the life work of top haiku poets and presents the collections in attractive hardcover volumes. The result in this case is a handsome book that would be the envy of most mainstream poets. The cover shows a beautiful photo of a lily-covered pond, and inside, surrounding the 108 pages of poems, is an author’s preface, a second preface by Christopher Herold, an author’s biography, and an excerpt from an interview with Peggy Lyles about haiku craft and aesthetics. The haiku themselves are printed one or two to a page, making it possible to savor the assembled work of one of our top haiku poets.

It was no surprise to me that Peggy Lyles merited such lavish treatment. I have long admired her work as it has appeared in various anthologies and journals. For years the following, from Modern Haiku 13.2 (1982), has been among my favorite English-language haiku:

tea fragrance
from an empty cup . . .
the thin winter moon

The unusual yet fitting combination of images, and the way that they bleed into one another (a quality that Bashô called nioi, or the fragrance of one image infiltrating another) seemed to open up new possibilities for the form. Still, it is hard to follow the career of a poet solely through journals, so it was welcome to have the chance to read so many of the author’s haiku at once.
The haiku in this collection were selected from over twenty years’ worth of work, and they reveal a poet who is completely at home in English-language haiku aesthetics as they have emerged over the last thirty years. Lyles’s preface, in fact, reads like a commonplace book of catch-phrases that will be familiar to anyone who follows haiku:

Abstractions cloak perceptions and dull communications about real things . . . Brief and immediate, [haiku] compress significant observations, experiences, and insights into images that engage the senses and feelings. I think of them as being open-ended and open-handed poems, capable of receiving, being, and giving all at once. Expressed in simple language, they invite the reader to participate as co-creator. Sometimes they leap from heart to heart.
The emphasis on feeling over abstraction, the belief in the open-endedness of the form, and the insistence on simple language have been a staple of every discussion of the haiku for the past twenty years. Later Lyles writes that the haiku is a breath-length poem that avoids metaphors and other tropes. Only the author’s sincerity keeps the preface from sliding into cliché. Those who view the haiku as an experimental or avant-garde form will be disappointed in these statements, and even I was surprised that such an accomplished poet had so completely accepted the aesthetic theories created by others.

Within these boundaries, however, Lyles has produced a remarkable number of excellent haiku. In a way her work reveals the value of the current approach to haiku, and of how much can be accomplished within it. Technically, the poems break little new ground, but they struck me as being consistently elegant and polished. Thematically, Lyles’s work tends to fall into several broad categories that she has revisited over the years. To Hear the Rain contains many haiku about family, with an emphasis on the continuity between generations:

family graveyard
a boy finds his middle name
on the oldest stone

To me the most moving of these poems were on her children’s illnesses, which created a dramatic tension that is rare in haiku. Other poems provide what T.S. Eliot would have called an objective correlative,"” an image that portrays and deepens a psychological state at a pregnant moment:

sweet peas
tremble on the trellis
the bride’s “I will”

As far as I am aware, only a few haiku poets have used their art as an exploration of psychology in this way (Alexis Rotella is another), though this is a promising vein for haiku poets to explore. Other haiku reaffirm the author’s Christian faith, almost always using the image of light to symbolize the entrance of a divine element into the mundane world:

cathedral garden
cardinals in the birdbath
scatter drops of light

Her use of this image is so persistent that I read many of the nature poems that mention light as religious parables, which enriched them immensely.

I hope that I have said enough to recommend this volume to both new and experienced poets—this book deserves to be celebrated as an event in the haiku community. Yet, because it failed to meet all of my expectations for the haiku, the work left me feeling unsatisfied. The language used in To Hear the Rain is often too simple—I felt that I was reading the most common word rather than the right one. The themes, too, seemed to me a shade too comforting: no mainstream poet would portray psychological states with so little irony, or would celebrate a religious faith with so few doubts. The absences of a history other than the author’s personal history, and of an overarching glance at society and culture, and of an acknowledgement of a debt to past literature, are also glaring. In what they do, these haiku are beyond reproach; the question is whether they take enough chances and explore enough facets of experience to satisfy every reader.

I have intended the criticisms of the previous paragraph as roundabout praise: it shows how much is right with a book when a reviewer can hold it up to the highest standards and demand that it do everything well. One final point: in publishing the Goodrich Masters Series, editor Randy Brooks deserves credit for raising the profile of haiku. When the series was begun, it was hailed as a sign that the haiku in English had come of age. I suspect that there is still much to be done to elevate our haiku to a level that can stand a comparison with mainstream poetry. In making the very best haiku of leading poets available to a broader public, however, Brooks has done much to promote the form.



©2003 Modern Haiku • PO Box 68 • Lincoln, IL 62656