All Nite Rain: Haiku, by Jack Barry (Ashfield, Mass.: Down-to-Earth Books, 2009). 64 pages; 5 x 8. Glossy colored card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 1-878115-30-8. Price: $12.95 from the publisher at PO Box 488, Ashfield MA 01330
Reviewed by Edward Zuk
When I first picked up Jack Barry’s All Nite Rain, I paused for a long time over the blurb on the back cover. “These poems were found floating in a bottle believed to have been tossed from a sinking planet,” it began, before revealing that the author has lived “in a tree house, behind a beaver pond, on the edge of town” for fourteen years. Turning to the introduction, I found a discussion of blunderbusses (the 17th-century musket) and guided missiles, a declaration that Einstein and Virginia Woolf had “failed to improve” the haiku, and an admission that the author likes haiku “because it’s so short!” I had never read an introduction quite like this one, and I did not know what to expect from the poetry itself.
To my surprise, what I found was a solid collection of poems, one that traded the bluster and irreverence of the prose for the subtlety, plain language, and attention to detail that have become the hallmarks of Western haiku. Barry claims that he has not “studied even one original text” from the Japanese, but he has obviously paid close attention to his American contemporaries. Some of his poems show a oneness with nature:
the duck and i both silent March wind
Others depict incidents that must have had a deep impact on the author:
the pond I crossed all winter
Subtle comparisons abound:
half blue sky
the still born lamb
And other images provide contrasts or feelings of incongruity:
not telling you
the whole dream
All Nite Rain also shows an attention to the technical aspects of haiku that have occupied poets in the West for the past two decades. Barry is adept at writing haiku in both one and three lines, and he uses devices like the pivot line well:
over thin ice
I would not hesitate to recommend this collection to anyone who would like to sample the present style of English-language haiku, or to anyone who has learned to appreciate its nuances.
The differences between the prose and poetry also lead to some interesting reflections. The haiku are far superior to the prose, showing a self-awareness that the ramblings on Einstein and the blunderbuss do not. Yet the prose, though sloppy, contains a liveliness that disappears in the poems. Ideally, I would like to find haiku to be an expression of the author’s whole personality, with all his virtues on show. Here the poems, though polished to a high standard, efface their author. Barry has clearly had to suppress important parts of himself in order to write in the accepted style.
What All Nite Rain reveals is how prevalent a kind of “house style” has become for haiku in the West. The themes, imagery, form, techniques, and language of the collection all felt familiar, perhaps too much so. Anyone who has read the major haiku journals during the past decade will find him-or-herself walking down a well-worn path. It is the overuse of this style that has led, in part, to outbursts like Scott Metz’s, in which he characterized haiku in English as “creating a prevalence of ‘watery pebbles,’ ‘same-o same-o,’ plastic work” in a recent review for Modern Haiku. At this point, it is hard to see how our haiku can avoid changing in the future to become more individual and open to a wider range of styles and themes. But Jack Barry’s collection reminds us that there is still merit in the old methods, which force an attention to detail and subtlety that will be relevant no matter what new directions the haiku takes.