marlene mountain


a woman writes a haiku summer day (1)

Haiku for women, like Zen for women--this
subject makes us think what haiku are, and
what a woman is. Men have a tendency towards
intellectuality, women towards sentimentality,
both foes of poetry. But intellectuality is easier
to cure, for it is farther from poetry. Emotion is
as difficult to detach from poetry as superstition
is from religion. A woman who is able to somehow
avoid her womanly 'feelings,' like Jane Austen, or
who can think, like Emily Dickinson, or who
expresses her emotions without asking for our
sympathy, like Christina Rossetti, has something
that a man can hardly attain to. But haiku by women
must be none of these types. Women are said to be
intuitive, but intuition, like patriotism, is not
enough. It must be really deep and penetrating,
pointed and piercing, and we must also be
conscious of the depth and not confuse the profound
with the shallow. (2)

R. H. Blyth, confusing as he is at times, makes clear his views about women and their ability to write haiku:

The dead child,
Who tore the paper-screen--
How cold it is!

"Chiyo's authorship of this verse is doubtful, but so is whether a woman can write haiku.' Even when he acknowledges a woman's haiku here and there, he has definite ideas about what women ought to write:

The child I am carrying
Plays with my hair,--
The heat.

How hot
The skin, -- the skin
A woman hides!

Coming across Blyth's sentiments in 1977 I was extremely provoked on the one hand by his misogynistic attitude and stimulated, on the other, into finding what was eventually to become an enlightened attitude for me toward all art by women. Two years ago as I began painting (after a ten-year gap), and groping with what a 39-year-old woman paints about--I emphasize age as there were those of us who in college in the late fifties and early sixties chose consciously/unconsciously to think like men rather than 'girls' (3)--I struggled through and past the misconception that art is asexual to the realization that, with few recorded exceptions, art has been male.

What, then, is female art? Is there a different technique? Is there a difference in content? There are, of course, no standard answers. I personally have swung back and forth between hard edge and loose handling of paint, and have often chosen a combination of the two for individual paintings. But it has been content that has caused me to affirm that there is a female art--namely: art of the female.

From the first paintings through nearly 200 (in the last two years), a semi-abstract labia image has been predominate and has emerged as a metaphor for the mountain/house/body/heart/spirit in which I live. Within this symbol I have discussed with myself all sorts of 'thinkings' and 'feelings.' In fact, many of the paintings incorporate writing.

Surprisingly enough, my early paintings and subsequent writing-on-paintings evolved from a visual haiku written in 1977:


labium was written in response to a new slowly emerging conception and excitement about woman herself as content and, at the same time, as form.

I believe that there also exists a 'womanspirit' haiku--although there has been little exploration of this up to date. Blyth himself with such comments as 'it is a woman's experience,' 'feminine verse.' 'the haiku of a woman,' and 'the sort of haiku woman can and should write,' certainly presents a challenge for women to search within and to become aware of their unique nature and experience. While Blyth is at times condescending, he nonetheless calls for haiku by women to be 'deep and penetrating, even pointed and piercing.'

While we are finding more and more that that technique in haiku has developed into many personal styles, and that content is just as varying, women who explore their personal perceptions further, by developing and incorporating that which is only woman, could well add much richness to 'those moments keenly perceived.' As Blyth has put it, the haiku of women can give 'the feeling of one particular woman, which is also the experience, at least potentially, of half the population of the world.'


(1) Haiku written in 1977 in response to Blyth's comments about women haiku poets.
(2) This and other quotes and translations appear in 'Women & Haiku Writers,' in A HISTORY OF HAIKU, Volume I, pages 205-225.
(3) See Judy Chicago's THROUGH THE FLOWER for her perceptions of growing up female in a male art world.
(4) Cicada, Volume 2, Number 1.

Cicada 5:2 1981 Canada