Davis McCombs
The Shadow of the Dog



                                   Poetry is just the shadow of the dog. It helps us to                                             know the dog is around, but it’s not the dog. The dog                                     is elsewhere and constantly on the move.

                                                                      —Charles Wright, Halflife


The poems I want to write at this moment in my life are not the kinds of poems I would have valued as a young man. When I was in graduate school, I read a book called Halflife by the poet Charles Wright, who was my teacher at the time. There’s nothing quite like that little volume: it’s an odd, brilliant, sometimes cryptic jumble of bits and pieces of distilled wisdom and insight about poems, poetry, and other poets, along with the occasional advice about the mysterious process of writing poetry. At one point he says, “Each line should be a station of the cross.” Think about that one for a while! At another point, he advises this: “One has to learn to leave things alone. It’s best to keep unwritten as much as possible.”


When I first read that passage, I had no idea what he was talking about. My poems in those days were full of flourishes and grand gestures—or at least that’s what I was attempting. They left no turn of phrase unturned. And though I still love big, sprawling poems of verbal density and lushness, I find myself, exactly three decades later, coming to the end of a roughly five-year period during which I’ve been writing almost nothing but haiku, the tiny three-line Japanese form. I’ve spent many hours learning about them, thinking about them, tinkering with them, and mostly failing in my attempts to find the elusive fulcrum between the ephemeral and the eternal upon which, I believe, the poems must balance. The little form has changed how I move through the world—and across the page—as a poet. It has changed how I think about poems. In all truth, it has changed me.


The way I used to write poems required getting keyed up, entering a state of nervous agitation, a somewhat mortifying-to-me-now swirl of ego, ambition, and a kind verbal theatricality, along with other qualities of which I am not terribly proud. Writing a haiku, in my experience, is just the opposite: if it’s going to work, you have to slow down. You have to let go of your desire for self-expression. You have to relax. For someone of my particular temperament, this has been maddeningly difficult to achieve.


It’s also true that if you’re writing haiku at this moment in time, you won’t be doing so in the hopes of getting them published in the prestigious journals and magazines coveted by writers, myself very much included. In many quarters of the poetry world today, the little form—quite unfairly—is taken about as seriously as the limerick. I didn’t see this at first, but I think it’s true that, in my own life, writing haiku represents a return to the urge that brought me to the wellspring of language in the first place, or at least to its muddy edges, a circling back to my earliest impulse to make things out of words.


Matsuo Bashō, the great haiku poet, figured all of this out over three centuries ago when he formulated his principle of karumi or “lightness.” “Simply observe what children do,” he told his students. Jane Hirshfield, who writes brilliantly about haiku, has pointed out that Bashō’s revision process often involved editing himself out of the poems, steering them away from personality. This is a phenomenon I have come to know quite well over the last five years. Those seventeen syllables don’t want to be about you. Really, they can’t be. In my experience, the haiku leaves no room for showing off or pretension of any kind.


Haiku are about being present in a given moment—at least, that’s how it seems to me. They’re about flashes of awareness, of insight. They are, in other words, about the most fleeting of things. They’re also achingly brief, but as I have come to understand, they are part of something much larger. Robert Hass says that Yosa Buson, the 18th-century haiku poet and painter, believed that “any part of the world, completely seen, was the world.” I suspect that all haiku are in conversation with this idea. And through them—reading them and writing them—you come to see things, and to know things, that you wouldn’t otherwise. The language in the poems can—and should—be very simple, but (here’s the catch) it must also possess poetic resonance or what Bashō would have called yojō—a word the scholar Makota Ueda translates as “surplus meaning.”


In the spring of 1993, my last year in college, I was taking a workshop from the Irish poet and soon-to-be Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. One day during the semester I set up an appointment for his office hours and made my way down into the subterranean stacks of Widener Library. After riding the ancient elevator, and following various turns down cold, identical-looking hallways, I came at last to a wooden door behind which, in a tiny, cluttered room, sat rumpled, tweedy, white-maned Professor Heaney, a poet of such immense talent and intellect I shudder to recall the very bad poems I submitted to his class.


During our brief meeting that day, he gave me a Post-it Note on which he’d written “Les Murray” in the same faint, almost tentative pencil marks he made on our poems. After we talked for a bit—about Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, if I remember correctly—he glanced through the packet of poems I’d given him earlier, and said something to the effect of, “You’re good at writing endings.” And then he paused. In that moment I could no doubt hear the distant clank of the elevator’s iron grate, the otherworldly hum of fluorescent tube lights, and possibly even the sound of all those old, forgotten volumes holding their breath. “You don’t want to be too good, though,” he said.


I now understand that so often in those days, I looked for (and, regrettably, found) the big finishes toward which my poems were hurtling. These endings, subtle as smashing together two cymbals (or symbols?), were of course, symptomatic of a larger problem. Like Professor Heaney’s suggestion that I read Les Murray—a writer who would change my life and work, but not for another two decades—he was absolutely correct. It has taken a very long time—and a very short poetic form— to make clear to me the full truth of his advice.  



stillness after rain—

at each corner of the house,

a downspout dripping



Found In Volume 53, No. 04
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Davis McCombs
About the Author

Davis McCombs is the author of three books of poetry: Ultima Thule (Yale 2000), Dismal Rock (Tupelo 2007), and lore (University of Utah Press 2016).