What are English Language Haiku?

One of the reasons I wanted to write my post on Representational Poetry was as a prelude to this post, asking the question: What are English Language Haiku? I originally toyed with the idea that English language haiku are like Representational Poems, in that appreciating them depends on a familiarity with the precepts and aesthetics of Japanese poetic tradition. I changed my mind and both posts changed as a result. The ideas are also influenced by a conversation I’ve been having with Michael Dylan Welch.

Hakuist or Haiku Poet?

To use the term Hakuist is fraught. When I first started writing haiku I briefly corresponded with the late William J. Higginson, an influential writer and editor of English Language Haiku. He didn’t like the term Hakuist, saw no reason to use it, and preferred (as do other poets) the sobriquet: Haiku Poet. But this has always struck me as awkward and begs the question,  then why not Sonnet Poet, Free Verse Poet or Blank Verse Poet? Or just Poet?

Part of the reason is the perhaps unstated feeling that writing haiku is a different undertaking than just writing poetry. And along with that, there are rules that apply to the writing of haiku that don’t apply to ‘western’ poetry. What are those rules? You’ll have to consult a millennia of Japanese poetic tradition and culture. You might want to know the difference between yugen, wabi, sabi, shasei, karumi, mono no aware, and iki for example. And why is that important? Because there’s a sort of split in the way English language haiku are appraised.

Is an English haiku-like poem to be appraised the way any other western poem is appraised?—or is every English language haiku, in a sense, a translation? I lean toward the former, that poems written in the English language may be haiku-like but they aren’t haiku and cannot be appraised like Japanese haiku. Which is to say, for instance, that I’ve never read a convincing defense of English language haiku within the context of the Japanese literary tradition.

Japanese haiku aren’t just a kind of empty “three line form” that can be imported. They’re intimately bound to the way the Japanese language is spoken and written, their literary tradition and philosophical culture; these facets cannot be imported and cannot be superimposed on an English speaking public. For western poets or critics to appeal to Japanese tradition in defense of their poems is an admission that their poetry has, in one way or another, failed.

But, you say, times change and new aesthetics arise. Every great artist builds on the aesthetics of the past while traditions introduced from other cultures renew and define the history of art and literature. The sonnet wasn’t originally English, after all, but an Italian import. In fact, apart from the limerick or Anglo Saxon alliterative poems, almost every English poetic form is, at some level, imported. But what we seldom did, and never with success as far as I know, is to import the literary and philosophical valuations of another culture (like those out of which the haiku developed). Ben Jonson, perhaps, tried when he attempted to import the classical unities into Elizabethan drama. Dryden followed suit but their efforts were largely ignored and didn’t produce compelling literature on that basis.

But if applying Japanese precepts like wabi, sabi, or karumi to western poems is a dead end, then it’s fair to ask: what is a successful English language haiku?

Aesthetic relativism being alive and well, one answer might be that if a poem has value to you, then it’s a valuable poem. That’s okay. But that doesn’t mean a poem has literary value. You may just have poor judgment. The more interesting question is this: What makes a poem valuable to a preponderance of readers? Why do we value the haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson above others?

So, by the end of the year, I’ll have written around fifteen hundred haiku. Individually, I think a handful of haiku might be collectible—maybe—but if they have any literary value, then it will probably be as year long cycles—each a sort of seasonal narrative. Having written so many, I have developed a sense from what might constitute an effective and powerful haiku. Inasmuch as the best Japanese haiku survive translation, they do so because they transcend their own literary and cultural points of reference. Likewise, the most memorable English language haiku will have merit for the same reasons. Among the finest Japanese examples, the following by Issa comes to mind:

In this world
We walk on the roof of hell
Gazing at flowers

Or this by Buson:

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel.

(The poem was written while Buson’s wife was alive and well, and that tells you that Buson saw haiku as poetic craft rather than a daily transcript of zen-like experiences.)

Or Basho’s final haiku:

Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields.

A western reader needs no understanding of Japanese literary culture or tradition to appreciate the effectiveness and beauty of these poems. It’s the reason that I reject the assertion that haiku are somehow “extra-literary”; that they require a specialized knowledge to make them work. Or, inasmuch as this is true for any poetic form, it’s not more true for haiku. Haiku work for the same reason any poem works. But the Japanese are naturally going to value some haiku that we won’t if only because of the literary allusions and cultural references unavailable to us. Basho’s famous haiku of the frog jumping into the pond is an example.

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

You wouldn’t think a frog could be a turning point for Japanese literature, but you might if you were knowledgeable of the way poets treated frogs prior to Basho. The effectiveness of Basho’s most famous haiku is also bound up with what might strike a westerner as fussy and arcane discussions of Zen. Take the following from here:

Profound inquiry placed the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, and his exacting focus brought him to the serene inner setting where the simple incident of noticing the morning star could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do — a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself. It just happened to be a star in the Buddha’s case. ¶ In Bashô’s haiku, a frog appears. To Japanese of sensitivity, frogs are dear little creatures, and Westerners may at least appreciate this animal’s energy and immediacy. Plop!

None of that is going to register with the vast majority of Western readers.

But there are English language haiku that accomplish the same within the context of our own culture. The following haiku-like poems by Richard Wright are better, and have more depth, in our own literary tradition, than Basho’s haiku.

In a drizzling rain
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.

The first haiku is a masterpiece. I think of an Edouard Léon Cortès painting, grey streets slicked with rain, and a Parisian flower shop. I can’t say why except that I know that Wright had moved to Paris by this point in his life. The real power of the haiku is in its association of the girl with the flowers being sold in the shop—herself like a flower. The rain that nourishes the flowers paradoxically adds pathos of the girl’s condition. Neither the girl nor the flowers were ever really meant to be sold or to even be there.

The second poem is apt to have less meaning to a Japanese reader. The astute Western reader, knowing that Wright was black, will immediately grasp the allusion to race (and our history of racial tensions and Wright’s own struggles) when the laughing boy’s hands turn white. The observation would be far less striking were the boy’s hands white or were the poet white. In short, Wright’s haiku does what the greatest Japanese haiku do in their respective culture.

Attempts to overlay Japanese precepts on English language haiku include not only aesthetic precepts like Wabi, Sabi and Karumi, but also syllable count, the use of metaphor, seasons words (kigo), the absence or the inclusion of the poet within the haiku.  There is a school of poets, for example, who dismiss English language haiku because they don’t follow the 5/7/5 syllable pattern of Japanese haiku—despite the fact that counting syllables in Japanese is very different from the same in English. Other poems are dismissed for their use of metaphor despite Japanese poets clearly exploiting metaphorical ideas. Conversely, western haiku that otherwise fall short are defended for their adherence to a given Japanese precept. This is no way to critique or defend English language haiku.

When I first began writing haiku, the only thing I knew about them was from a handful of translations, foremost among them the series of books by R.H. Blythe. Fortunately for me, I suppose, I didn’t much care for Blythe’s opinions, but very much enjoyed his translations. To the extent that western writers of haiku ignore all the noise concerning what the Japanese would or wouldn’t do, I think that’s good and encourage it. And if one reads an anthology like Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, the impression is that  western poets are doing just that.

Good.

We have our own tradition now (a hundred years isn’t bad) and a thousand plus years of poetic tradition perfectly capable of sorting the good haiku from the bad without reference to the Japanese. Our haiku are our own and I like them like that.

upinVermont | April 20th 2019

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April 16th 2019

black
    as floodwaters—birds in spring's leafless
        trees
Winter's Wind (Block Print) 
106: April 16th 2019 | bottlecap
  • Between a day near 70 degrees, a winter’s worth of snow still melting, and heavy rains during the night, much of Vermont saw flooding. Our own brook behind the house was as high as I’ve seen it since Hurricane Irene, though even that remained half the hurricane’s flood. I spent the day in Burlington, Vermont. The seagulls were out and perched on top of lampposts, their cries as gray as the sky. There was a flock of blackbirds or grackles, perhaps, that filled a distant tree like drops of ink, flew off, made designs in the sky, then returned to the tree.