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Today, a (long-overdue) review of THE HOUND DOG'S HAIKU: and Other Poems for Dog Lovers by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Mary Azarian. Once upon a time (over 2-1/2 years ago), I reviewed Rosen's earlier collection, The Cuckoo's Haiku, and I loved it, so I was of course eager to get my hands on this new collection, which does not disappoint.

Each of Rosen's haiku are titled, I suppose, in that the breed of dog being discussed is identified. The particular breed is, of course, shown in the woodcut drawings done by Mary Azarian, most of which capture the spirit as well as the look of the dogs in question. Rosen sticks faithfully to the 5-7-5 construction, which is (as many haiku-ists will tell you) a bit of an oversimplification, but I find it to be a very useful construct when writing for children. Of course, since these poems are about creatures and not nature, they are technically senryu, or poems that follow the same syllabic structure as haiku, but don't observe all the niceties, like the need for a kigo (or seasonal identifier) in each poem.

While I found nearly all of the haiku to be very good indeed, some of them are spectacular. Consider, for instance, this one:

Border Collie

  above your fixed gaze
a Milky Way of cows move--
  your constellations

or this one, which I hope you can read:

The poems vary, from lyrical to humorous, from practical to whimsical. The one that didn't really "work" for me was "Old English Sheepdog", in part because the illustration didn't look nearly enough like Lad from Please Don't Eat the Daisies, but mostly because I just can't work out the haiku, and/or its relationship (if any) to the breed. Here's the poem:

  dog day before noon
cool sun warming your left side
  dog day afternoon . . .

I think we're meant to infer that the dog rolls over for the afternoon, but I'm not entirely certain. Then again, this lovely picture book poetry collection is probably for older elementary school students, and they can probably sort it out better than I. (Again, I'm nearly certain the fault is not that of the poet or the artist, but of the reader here.)

A must-buy book for the dog lovers in your life, be they children or adults. Seriously, I know it's July, but this would be a great book to scoop up now and put aside for a Christmas present for that special someone. My thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

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( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Michael J. Rosen
Jul. 12th, 2012 01:19 pm (UTC)
Dear Kelly Fineman,

I know it's a little untoward to offer thanks for such a generous review of my book. But maybe it's okay to send my appreciation for your candid questioning within it.

Yes, I do "go with" the way haiku is taught here in America (the oversimplification of syllabics) simply as a recognition of what follows suit for most readers, most students. To me, form in and of itself, is the welcome challenge, be it rhyme, stanzaic pattern, metrical feet, or prescribed syllabic triplets. My hope is to offer poems for young readers/dog lovers that are some recognition of things they know...but never quite paused long enough to marvel over or share with someone else.

Ah, but that sheepdog poem. The odd thing about writing haiku and then having someone (via an editor as well as an art director) THEN illustrate it...is...well...all I can say is one imagination is triggering another's. So, just as my words might inspire or conjure an image in your mind (which may or may not be exactly what I had in my mind), the poem did the same thing for the illustrator. And the book is the documentation of that leaping, that complementing. So that's a long way of saying, I welcome the idea that the poem doesn't tell the reader to follow me...and stand right here and look through these words as if they were binoculars and try to find this one bird hidden among the branches in that tree. No, rather, the poem hands the words/binoculars to the readers and simply ask, "Look now." And, "Look again." It's a chance to stop a reader in his or her tracks. So one person "focuses" on how the breeze is turning some of the leaves silver, upside down; another, on how the tree's canopy looks like a green flame, shimmering against the white sky; another, on the feel of their eyelashes brushing against the eyepiece of the binocs. Yet another identifies the bird as a Magnolia Warbler, which she hadn't seen since birdwatching with her grandfather on vacation at the shore. All of these readers are present, but in different moments and places.

In the case of the sheepdog, what had I imagined? Through MY binoculars, I saw this: The dog is lying down, with one side of the body warmed in sunlight, the other half cast in shadow. And I meant that this animal—being a member of a breed that's very content basking, sleeping, watching—might feel the sun travel from one side of the body to the other as the day progressed.

So, in a way, this is not exactly capturing an instant, which is what I often try to do in this kind of poetry. Still, I'm pleased with this picture of an enormous dog (I have a friend with a pair) on a front porch, dozing through a couple hours. The poem let's me place one hand on the warmth of the coat where the sun has beamed, and tuck my other hand under the fluffy cool hairs on the sheepdog's other hemisphere, hidden from the sun...for now. So maybe I could have focused on that exact moment when the sunlight spilled over from one side to the other. I am among those who think of haiku like a held breath. There is always the next exhale, another chance to breathe in the experience again, and try to hold it....

Thank you again for reading, reading along. MJR
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