The Haiku North America Conference is where enthusiasts from across the globe meet for long discussions about the world's shortest poems. For instance, Sophia Frentz, a rosy-cheeked, wry and articulate 21-year-old genetics student, and her mother, journalist Sandra Simpson, flew in from New Zealand.
They are standing in one of the ballrooms on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where the conference is taking place, waiting to present their paper: "The Science of Haiku." "Mum noticed a recent upswell in the number of haikus with scientific concepts," Frentz explains.
A typical haiku consists of three lines and 17 syllables — a poem so short it can be uttered in one breath. It is meant to convey the essence of an experience. "Much of the art of haiku is in the simplification of a complex set of ideas, emotions and observations into a single moment," Simpson explains. A haiku seems intrinsically incompatible with something so vast, specific "and frankly incomprehensible to many" as science.
"And yet one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century," she notes, "is shorter than most haiku: E=mc2." Science-related haiku do exist. "But how successful are they?"
Here's one by Margaret McGee: "glacier viewing / through all these layers / the wind."
Glaciers are the largest moving objects on land. They carve and grind down the Earth beneath them. Yet even as the glacier is shaping the Earth's surface, wind is shaping the glacier, adding dust, pollen, seeds and ash to the ice. Glacier ice is made up of compressed snow that has fallen over hundreds of years. Each layer represents a different period of snowfall. The layers can reveal the weather conditions when the snow fell, even what the natural world around the glacier might have been like. Just this year, a team from Japan used DNA to identify pollen grains from a Russian glacier. They looked at pollen from 1965, but their procedures would work on even 1,000-year-old pollen.
There's another meaning, too: It wasn't until several months after Simpson read the poem that she realized the second and third lines could be about the clothing you need to wear.
"Margaret's haiku is about the constants of our planet," Simpson tells the audience midway through her presentation. "The elemental forces that shape it: water, earth, air. The planet's history is much longer than our habitation of it. Glacier viewing is a chance to remind ourselves of that."
She turns the microphone over to her daughter, who reads another haiku: "My haplogroup / Shows the sponge gene / Distant lightning."
"Use of the word 'haplogroup' can stymie understanding," Frentz observes. But really, haplogroups are just collections of genes that are passed down together. Geneticists use them to determine how closely species are related. Frentz displays an evolutionary branching diagram. "Every tree of relatedness that has ever been drawn just kind of looks like lightning," she says. "But the layers of meaning don't stop there." Because one theory of how life evolved on this planet is that regular lightning strikes gave the chemicals "the sort of oomph to start making the basic molecules required for life." Which means that the genetic material we share with sponges might be thanks to this distant lightning.
Another haiku, again genetics-related: "autumn woods / my son and I / not just DNA." As a geneticist, one surprising thing Frentz has realized is that genes don't mean much. They tell you "what might happen," not what will happen. You can look at a genome, for instance, and identify it as a dog yet have no idea what that dog will look like. Frentz finds that uncertainty "really cool."
"She's more amusing than I thought she'd be," her mother offers, and the audience laughs.
Later, Mom takes the podium again, with some evolutionary biology: "the day begins / descendants of dinosaurs / darting, singing."
Reading this one, Simpson initially stopped at the word "dinosaurs." How could anyone sane write a haiku about dinosaurs? Haiku are based on observation or direct experience. This must be a poem written by an idiot, she figured. But then she saw what in haiku is cheekily referred to as "the fourth line" — the byline, George Swede.
"Hey," she thought. "I've met George. And he didn't appear to be an idiot."
She tried the poem again. Dinosaurs, it occurred to her, are the near cousins of birds. Velociraptors are thought to be as close to a bird as it gets without actually being one. Archaeopteryx, a 145 million–year-old, crow-sized skeleton covered in feathers, is generally understood to be the first bird, with a long, bony tail, claws and wings. Aha!
Frentz reads a neuroscience haiku by Barrow Wheary: "Orion's belt / a few neurons / hold me together."
Everyone in the world sees the constellation Orion at some point, Frentz says: "Half the year we have it, half the year you guys have it."
Its brightest stars remind Frentz of the cell bodies of neurons, which make up our nervous system. They are big, fat cells linked by long, thin tendrils. "Muscle control is mostly done by pairs of neurons," she explains. One cell starts in the head, travels down the spine, and meets up with another cell that goes out to whatever it's controlling — hands, fingers, toes. "Only two neurons join your hand to your head," she says. "They're so fragile. The signals move incredibly fast."
The poem's "few neurons" reminds her, too, of the corpus callosum, the small bundle of fibers that connects the left hemisphere of the brain with the right, and which allows our mind to function as one. Sever it, and a person has seizures. "And a partially functioning corpus callosum is worse than none at all." You become uncoordinated. Your hands do things without your consciously controlling them. You lose the ability to feel pain.
If there is a drawback to science haiku, it is that subjects such as the corpus callosum, Arc haeopteryx and haplogroups aren't exactly common knowledge. "It's a narrow line to walk," Frentz admits. "The overlap between people who read haiku and people who know a lot about science is rather small."
Frentz, for her part, grew up in the haiku life. Her mom turned to the poetry form when Frentz was born. Its brevity, Simpson found, was well suited to the few quiet moments while the baby was asleep.
By grade school, Frentz was writing haiku. By 16, she was reading the four great masters and learning the differences between Japanese and English style.
Then, of course, she found genetics. These days, Frentz writes one or two haiku a week. She doesn't, however, write science haiku. "Because it's difficult to take a step back."
Though perhaps not as difficult as figuring out what makes good haiku. The previous day, in panel discussion, a group of experts had attempted to isolate the necessary elements. They failed. They settled on "it's a feeling you get." A sort of "aaaah."
"Haiku is described as having a haiku moment," Frentz says. "Where you pause, and go 'Wow, that's good.' "
The more multilayered and resonant the haiku is, the more satisfying the moment. The haplogroup haiku is one such poem. It's her favorite. Because the idea that everything on this planet is related is a concept often forgotten.
"It's really subtle," she says. When she finally "got it," she phoned her mom. Frentz had been sitting in the lab. Nothing in particular triggered the understanding. Just suddenly, a burst of enlightenment. "Oh my God," she realized. "This is about the beginning of life."
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