Her specialty is short order poetry

When Frances Ruhlen McConnel was just two, she stood up in her crib and announced that “candles are laughing in the night.” From that day her mother knew that Frances would grow to be a poet.

“That is even shorter than a haiku,” Ms. McConnel said recently from her Claremont home, “so she [her mother] just decided that I would be a poet, and really encouraged me to write poetry.”

For the past ten years, Ms. McConnel has dedicated a fair amount of her poetic voice to writing haikus, many of which she has submitted to the COURIER for publication.

She has published several books of mostly longer, narrative poetry including The Direction of Longing, Gathering Light, and Girl, Discovered. Her collection of poetry White Birches, Black Water, about her teenage years in Alaska, is comprised mainly of haiku.

During the pandemic Ms. McConnel has been bringing her haiku to the people of Claremont through a dry erase bulletin board in front of her home on Mills Avenue and Oakdale Drive. The idea started with a neighbor who shared riddles on a board in her own yard.

“I read an article in the L.A. Times about people putting up boards with different things, poems and quotations and songs and things like that, and I thought ‘Oh I can do that with a haiku.’”

Every day she shares a new haiku, some she has written herself, while many come from her roughly 15 haiku anthologies. She tries to vary the subject matter and author to represent women, men, people form other cultures, and of course Japanese authors, the country where the form started.

“I’ve just been thinking in haiku a lot, so I’ve written a lot recently too, so that’s sort of cool. I have written quite a few quarantine haiku because that’s on my mind,” Ms. McConnel said.

According to the Poetry Foundation, haiku is a Japanese verse form often composed, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of five-seven-five syllables. Haiku became popularized in Western culture in the early 1900s and often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time. Haiku traditionally were about nature or had a seasonal reference.

“Classic haiku [must have] at least something of nature, and there are usually two elements to it that reflect off each other. And there is often an unexpected direction it goes in and that is really important. To me that is really the most interesting thing about writing haiku,” Ms. McConnel said.

She wrote some haiku in her youth and later in college, however, about a decade ago she was writing very long verse and desired to work in a more compressed format—haiku was the perfect fit.

“A lot of my poetry is narrative, it tells a story, so the haiku can’t really do that. It’s more like a moment, or the contrast between two different moments.” Ms. McConnel said. “I read some older Japanese haiku and I also really like Jack Kerouac’s book of haiku. So those are what inspired me.”

American haiku has evolved in different directions from Japanese or even earlier English language haiku. For example, the subject matter has expanded to include more human endeavors. Ms. McConnel said that there is a Japanese style called senryu, that is more about human nature, and as a result there are many haiku about both natural and human worlds.

“Traditionally in America its been the three-line, five-seven-five syllable form but in recent years people have talked about how that’s different from the Japanese form because syllables are very different in the Japanese language,” Ms. McConnel said.

“The haiku’s composition has expanded somewhat over time. This is due in part to the differences between the Japanese language and Western languages. In its original Japanese form, the haiku is often divided into 17 mora (a Japanese unit of syllable weight) and arranged in a single vertical line. However, in English there is no exact equivalent to the mora unit,” according to the Poetry Foundation.

Mr. Kerouac’s haikus, from which Ms. McConnel took her inspiration, broke free of the restrictive five-seven-five, 17-syllable form, which he described in a short poem:

Then I’ll invent
The American Haiku type
The simple rhyming triolet:–
Seventeen syllables?
No, as I say, American Pops:–
Simple 3-line poems

Ms. McConnel’s haiku often break from the traditional form which she described as occasionally being too restrictive, particularly when inspiration brings the writer just the right word but the syllable count doesn’t work.

“Sometimes there will be a word that’s got too many syllables in it and it’s a relief not to put it in that pattern,” she said. “I think the one I just put up on the board for yesterday was only eight syllables for the whole thing, so its much more open than it used to be.”

The coronavirus and its necessity for self isolation have inspired some beautiful haiku from Ms. McConnel.

outside the warm cave

that is jail and home

bars of April rain

Ms. McConnel moved to Claremont in 1973 to take a position at Scripps College, however, she spent the bulk of her career teaching creative writing at University of California, Riverside. She and her husband John Peavoy are both retired professors.

Before the pandemic Ms. McConnel helped to organize the Friends of the Claremont Library’s Fourth Sunday poetry series with Genevieve Kaplan, Lucia Galloway, and Karen Greenbaum Maya, who are all published poets.

The series runs year round except for December and usually features two poets. When the library shut down that came to an end. But on August 23, they produced the first online version of the Fourth Sunday reading which was broadcast on Facebook.

The online series will continue into the fall, and beyond if the library remains closed. It can be viewed on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/fourthsundayspoetry/

Local haiku writers are encouraged to send their work to the COURIER and Ms. McConnel also recommends submitting poems to the Southern California Haiku Study Group Anthology.

Several more haiku from Ms. McConnel will draw this story to its conclusion.

dawn, you and the cat

softly sleeping     I’m awake

counting syllables

choosing a lip shade, vain act

unlike the words on this mask:

Justice        Mercy



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