While historians and enthusiasts alike argue hopelessly over the hockey haiku’s official beginnings, its history remains shrouded in myth. Some talk generally of its inception during the decline of the Samurai class in Japan, suggesting that the ritualized aggression and disciplined servitude of the Samurai were displaced and ultimately projected onto the prehockey haiku form once hockey came to dominate the imaginations of the Pacific Rim nations.1 Even though its lineage could be traced back to Japan, how hockey haiku found a toehold in North America still baffles scholars.2 We do know with some certainty that by the time of the “Miracle on Manchester” (Los Angeles, 1982)3 hockey haiku had gained its full ascendancy.
Regardless of such misty origins, hockey haiku has inarguably become a curious mix, at once as ubiquitous as a top-shelf cookie jar and as protean as the cookies within. Ask any goon on the street and he will inevitably spin yarns about his grandfather whittling pygmy hockey sticks out of Scandinavian birch while reclining in his rocking chair, dictating hockey haiku to grandmother, cooking her miso in the kitchen. Or reed cutting with Uncle Yamamoto, his bellowing voice suddenly malleable, more inviting as he recited the classic hockey haiku he’d learned in school.
Who doesn’t have a similar story, a similar life lived within the transgenerational umbrage of hockey haiku?4 And to be sure, everyone writes hockey haiku. We are drawn by the seemingly contradictory equipoise and brutality inherent in its form and content. As with its prototype, the raw prehockey haiku—where the impulse was spontaneous, the strokes of the artist far past scrutiny, part of muscle memory—so, too, the sport of hockey. Ask any Art Ross Trophy winner after a pretty goal. He’ll say the goal was not as much the motivation as it was the end result of mindlessness.5 Put together the solitary discipline of haiku and the automatic grace of the hockey player: what you have is a perfect balance of yin and yang. Indeed, the refinements to the prehockey haiku form that came with its marriage to hockey, in hindsight, seem inevitable.
We might say that each element of this systemic art form counterbalances or “checks” the other. While a certain hockey haiku might detail in stunningly brave strokes the artful stickwork of a Pavel Bure, yet another might paint in quiet reverie the brutality of the game’s darker side: paybacks as grotesque as any Mafia hit.6 It is the unique ability of each element of hockey haiku to morph into its other. In so doing the form does not merely test our very notions of objective truth, it shatters them like so much Plexiglas under the force of an Al MacInnis slap shot. Hockey haiku, thus, represents the perfect harmony of Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies: graceful brutality, ordered chaos, the blood that courses through our veins, and, if we are unfortunate, onto the ice.7
Many critics have bandied about notions of the modern hockey haiku’s illegitimacy, its seeming disdain for the “rules” set forth by the prehockey haiku masters.8 Though it needs no apology, we offer instead a “reading” of the manners and exigencies of hockey haiku. Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, in his moving translation of prehockey haiku,9 does away with the syllabic order of 5-7-5.10 Our readers will notice that the poets we have selected for this anthology reinstated the syllabics. Their adherence to the preestablished, if prosodically foreign, syllable count recovers a good deal of prehockey haiku history. It also mimics, in its studied rigor, the facts of the hockey game: three periods, with the midperiod being elongated by the short intermissions on either side. But there are other strengths to the syllabic reinstatement. Think if the game of hockey were as elastic as Hass deemed the syllable count. Wayne Gretzky, for example, could not stop the sixth game of the 1993 Conference Finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs simply because he “didn’t feel inspired.” Matsuo Basho¯—arguably the greatest of the prehockey haiku masters—claimed that a good haiku writer writes perhaps ten haiku in a day and keeps only one. At the end of the week he takes those seven remaining and keeps only one. At the end of the month he keeps one of the four. At the end of the year he keeps one of the twelve, and so on ad nauseam. Fine and well. But in hockey, there is no scrapping a game, no easy erasure.
Other critics11 harp on the absence of subtle, seasonal references (kigo in Japanese). As we know, prehockey haiku masters were gifted in their ability to portray the time of year through focused and brief imagery: snow in the stirrups of a tethered horse; a spider gloating in the springtime sunbeams. For the masters of hockey haiku, the difficulty “snowballs.” No matter what the season outside the arena, it is always winter inside. A blazing Phoenix afternoon suddenly becomes the frozen pond of an Edmonton suburb. Likewise, the subzero, near-Dantean cold of eastern Minneapolis, at least for a few hours, becomes bearable again, a predictable climate, the seats full of sloughed-off puffycoats, mittens, and scarves.12
Yes, the palette of the hockey haiku writer is one of subdued colors and resistant hues, the only flare coming in the form of gaudy logos and jerseys (a flourish rarely overlooked by our masters). And, as William Morris famously remarked, “You can’t have art without resistance in the materials.” Our hockey haiku masters most assuredly have material resistance: steel, thick Plexiglas, helmets, pads, frozen pucks, and the sobering reality of ice. And this is why we must chuckle at those enlightened poet/critics of the 1980s who thought that they had stumbled onto something substantive and groundbreaking with all their talk of “whiteness” and “absences.” All the while it was going on under their noses in the form of hockey haiku, which they treated in the same way William Carlos Williams treated the sonnet. They13 seemed completely unaware of it! We are surrounded by hockey haiku, and not in that new-age Zeitgeist of trendy criticisms and passing fads. We are cookies, ourselves, contained in the jar of the hockey haiku paradigm: pucks—so to speak—in an infinite net.
Ostensibly, the hockey haiku needs no introduction. So why yet another hockey haiku anthology, our genteel reader may ask. The reason is this: we offer here a look into the lives14 and work of three of the most esteemed hockey haiku masters: Pat Scluney, Søren Bash-Øferdehedde, and Pyotr Fivolovic. Without a doubt, no anthology—no conversation—of hockey haiku would be complete without all three. In focusing solely on these masters, however, our goal is to distill each artist’s particular gifts within this formidable art. Here, then, is a brief introduction to this anthology’s storied heroes.
Pat Scluney (1893–1978)
The consummate traditionalist, Scluney led his high school hockey team to an unprecedented three province titles. We know that he shaved and collected ice from his skate blades between shifts. He then boiled the ice in a Bunsen Burner stolen from his high school chemistry class, consequently hydrating himself far after the advent of squirt bottles.15 Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Scluney was the only son of a struggling postdecadent, prefuturist painter father and a doting mother. He grew up in rural Vancouver, butchering goats and boiling their heads, mending walls, milking nannies. And it is in these stoic details that we find the deepest expression of Scluney. His Edo-style hockey haiku—like his early life and his throwback hydration techniques—continually harkens to simpler times. Yet times of giants. Here, for example, we may admire his ubi sunt tenor:
The empty-net goal—
taking candy from babies:
sad, sweet, sometimes sour.
Note how the alliterative genius in the ultimate line strings the words together like so many pearls on a silk thread, like the ordered goat heads on the side of a chopping block, like the staccatoed half steps of the goal maker on ice. Just as assuredly, though, Scluney can also be quick to defend his art and the artifacts within it by means of searing invectives. Observe here his deft handling of an oft-ridiculed hockey apparatus:
Don’t laugh—It crushed the leg of
the Little Leaguer.
Scluney takes us behind the scenes, into the locker room, even into the inner workings of an ice rink, an arena. We feel what the players and rink managers themselves feel. Ever wonder what it’s like to skate in circles moments before the game, the rush of adrenaline, and the counternecessity to suppress any sign of nerves? Scluney affords us a window into that world:
There’s something about
swatting your goalie’s shin pads
To be sure, Scluney’s art is recalcitrant, bold in its efficiency. He doesn’t trade punches but instead drives to the net with brutal precision. We know from the meticulous locker room notes of Scluney’s contemporary—historian/sportswriter Leonard Brassplutz—that Scluney’s skates and underwear were both intentionally three sizes smaller in order to restrain both his speed and his libidinous nether regions in an attempt to channel all power to his hands. Eccentric? Yes, of course. (Saint Teresa of Ávila, for instance, ate her meals in the bowl of a human skull.) But Scluney was also a seeker of the most direct path to enlightenment and to the “goal” of that enlightenment.
Sadly, Scluney was cut down in his prime. Having secured the new head coach position for the Kalamazoo K Wings, Scluney departed for a brief vacation in Italy on June 25th, 1978. He would not return to Michigan. Neither would he see his fabled, rural Vancouver, nor the goat heads again. He collapsed from anaphylactic shock, finally uttering the now infamous words: “I’m going to die, in Italy, from sunflower seeds, manufactured in Romania!” Scluney’s life was one of restrictions, be it of his artistic expression, his rigorous ethics, or his nether regions. Within those self-imposed limitations, though, he managed to find an unmistakable aesthetic (and ascetic) philosophy of the game—and of life.
Søren Bash-Øferdehedde (1941–)
If the poetry of Scluney gains its importance from its cold and dogged restraint, its ghostly regular rhythms, then the poetry of Søren Bash-Øferdehedde could not be more different in its Pindaric ebullience. We might say that the notion of Pindaric hockey haiku could never have become a household concept without the pioneering work of Bash-Øferdehedde.16 Raised as the illegitimate son of Gordy Howe, only to find out at the age of eighteen that his father’s name was actually Gordy Howl (a nickname given him by his boon companions), Bash-Øferdehedde—not unlike the great German poet Rilke17—found himself traumatized and unable at first to deal with his misguided familial history. Keeping the name of his then Swedish mother, Töve Bash—who later immigrated to Denmark in a dinghy—the young and submissive Søren befriended a Danish danish maker by the name of Øferdehedde. This pleasant if somewhat bow-legged patissier raised Søren and taught him the craft of danish making while rectifying within the lad the passion he once held for the game of hockey and, more importantly, those who played it. Indeed, Bash-Øferdehedde celebrates the athlete. Here he is at work on one of the true legends of the game still active:
Biscuit on his stick
predates a goal by seconds—
spittle on Hull’s lip.18
In his distinctively middle-class lexicon—one full of local flavor, locker room jargon, and trash talking—Bash-Øferdehedde belies the fact that English was his third language (Swedish his first, Danish his second) and that hockey was his second sport (luge his first). In tandem with the bombastic, nearly Wagnerian impulse of his work, there exists a lightness of touch. A lesser hockey haiku artist, it should be noted, might concentrate, say, on the hands of Brett Hull raised into the air postgoal goalpost style, or energetically patting his teammates on the back: all the usual images we have read in the reams of mediocre hockey haiku that threaten this great art’s supremacy. Rather, Bash-Øferdehedde chooses here to concentrate on the microcosm of spittle on the player’s lip. Blake hardly said it better: “Hold Infinity in the Palm of your hand / And Eternity in an Hour.” Careful readers will also notice the influence Bash-Øferdehedde’s first sport has had on his art, the inimitable alacrity of his lines, the tautness, the lugelike centrifugality of his choices. Here, he casts his keen eye on the young New Jersey Devils forward:
a winger with bad acne—
We experience Bash-Øferdehedde’s restraint and then the accompanying drive exploding into jouissance. There is almost the ghost of an exclamation point after Langenbrunner’s name, the poet able to embed his excitement into the winger’s cheeks like so many blackheads, even as Bash-Øferdehedde eschews certain capitalizations of nouns to which he is entitled. For this is not a poet of entitlement. Here, note how he needs only his sharp wit and a gorgeously monikered goalie to convince us we are in the presence of a master:
This next line rocks you:
That last line rocked you.
There is the hint of an aesthetic so reflexive, so aware of itself both as a conduit of the past and as a contemporary mode of expression, that it borders on what authorities call the “metahockey haiku”: hockey haiku that takes as its subject hockey haiku itself. Though some critics19 have referred to his approach as “the new pornography,” Bash-Øferdehedde cannot be contained in such a limited and limiting pseudoeroticism.20 He serves no master in the contemporary world but harkens back to classical Greek models, injecting into them the fervor, the p and v of a wildly contemporary lexicon. What was old is made irreversibly new in the hands of Bash-Øferdehedde.
Pyotr Fivolovic (1962–)
No discussion of metahockey haiku could be complete without the unrivaled genius of the form, Pyotr Fivolovic. Son of a clay-faced, immigrant Uzbek owner of an athletic-tape factory in Minsk, Fivolovic stakes his claim as the greatest of the metahockey haiku masters, and all at the age of forty-two.21 Delicately and dangerously poised on the edge between the literary and the most emphatically nonliterary, between the ink-stained fingertips of his life as an unrelenting reader and the bloodstained blades of his unerring skates, Fivolovic’s art earned him with frightening speed his reputation as “most theorized” of the hockey haiku masters. His cryptic verse—relying heavily on literary precedent (clearly, he was enamored with the High Modernist mode)—is the equivalent of a Lolita written by Federov instead of Nabokov. He combines the artful distance of a Peace Studies think-tank consultant with the glove-befouling, sweat-drenched hands of a ’70s Flyers goon. Here he is, as ever, at the top of his game, ushering into seemingly artless lines a commentary on the length of the lines themselves:
Haiku hockey: One
mid-ice man. At either end
two shorter goalies.22
Or, in his irascible fancy, the co-opting of an Auden line to fit his purpose:
they were never wrong: old guys
stuck in the minors.23
In many ways, Fivolovic is, as Scluney was, a traditionalist. The difference lies in what they adhere to as tradition: Fivolovic so often looking past the game, past the haiku, into the inner mechanics of writing the verse form itself. Fivolovic asks the questions we are reluctant to ask:
Conflict—How can I
pledge my allegiance to two
Where we admire Scluney’s fluidity, we cannot help but praise what we will attempt to coin Fivolovic’s “event-ness.” With Fivolovic, we know that the aesthetic realm is not merely beautiful, but true and good. Fivolovic’s final lines constantly remind us of arriving at a Sukiya-style Japanese tearoom. Ceremoniously, it seems as if a reader takes off his shoes in the first line, enters the austere home of the poem in line two, and finally, at an indirect angle from the entrance of the dwelling, we sidestep into the final line, ready for warm refreshment. No doubt those interested in hockey haiku theory will enjoy meditating on Fivolovic’s verse enigmas. A glance at university dissertation titles in Literature and Language Departments from recent years will support his rampant ascendancy.24
The hockey haiku, like any hockey great, does not esteem itself, does not simply keep records of wrongs. Even in its subtle criticisms of impressive forces such as, say, Eddie Belfour, Ron Tugnutt, or Marty Turco (goalies whose rapierlike glove hands at times approach poetry), the form honors its heroes by viewing their shortcomings as heroic flaws. In essence, mere players are revealed as both mythic warriors and as utterly human. (Or, in the case of a Gretzky, at least half-human.) As homage to the enduring spirit of the hockey haiku itself, and in an attempt to capture the selflessness of these three masters, we have not assigned the names of the honorable trinity (Scluney, Bash-Øferdehedde, and Fivolovic) to individual poems. Apart from a desire to eschew the romanticizing of the hockey haiku, our reasons are mainly twofold: first, we are aware that even the most dedicated amateurs of hockey haiku will be able to decipher the voice emanating from each poem or will already know to whom honor belongs; secondly—and more importantly—we hope the form itself will raise the reader above such sordid realms of celebrity.
—Fleet Center, Section 12,
Row 8, Seats 6 and 7
Copyright © 2006 by John Poch and Chad Davidson