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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On Representational Poetry

The painting at right, if you can call it that, is quite famous, but only in the right circles.

If you’re not already familiar with Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. then you may wonder why these are considered worthy of a museum wall. And if that’s the case, then you’re going to have to accept the critical construct from which their value is obtained.  That is, the artwork’s importance exists entirely within the critical framework from which it arose. Another way to think of it is that the artwork gives value to the critical construct, making the critical construct the work of art rather then the other way around and, in truth, much art of the 20th century probably falls under this rubric. “Modern” art never stopped being representative, but rather than immortalizing lovers, wealthy merchants or aristocrats, 20th century “abstract” artists immortalized ideas, values, schools of criticism and conceptualizations. The long and short of it is that without an appreciation of their historical and artistic context, Rauscheberg’s artwork is little more than nice canvasses on which to actually paint something. Or, to put it another way, without the accompanying essays explaining White Paintings, Rauschenberg’s work is meaningless. The same can’t be said for the Mona Lisa. No one disputes that the painting is of someone and it’s valuation can proceed from that alone (without a knowledge of DaVinci or the painting’s historical context).

The problem for poets is that poetry is about ideas and has been from the get go. But nothing kills a poem like turning it into a lineated five paragraph essay. 20th Century poets got around that (whether successfully is up for debate) by turning their poems into (to coin a phrase) Representational Poetry. I would prefer to call it Conceptual Poetry, but that parking place is already taken.  So, thinking big: One might divide poetry from the 20th century onward into Notional and Representational Poetry. By far the vast majority is the former.

Notional, among it’s other definitions, is defined as:

Consisting of, or conveying, notions or ideas; expressing abstract conceptions.

In, On a Definition of Poetry, I defined poetry as being more than it’s notional or semantic content. Poetry also emphasizes linguistic form, like rhyme or meter (as found in any Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme). Both traditional and free verse poems are notional but only traditional poetry emphasizes linguistic form. Representational Poetry, as I use the term, diminishes or entirely dispenses with the notional intent of language. You could think of Representational Poems as paintings painted with words. If Representational Poetry can be considered a continuum that starts where Notional Poetry breaks down, then I would argue that the most successful Representational Poet of the 20th century is John Ashbery.

He still uses recognizable words and one may understand individual phrasal units, but Ashbery disrupts any notional content with a kind of notional incongruence that defies the communication of a larger, consistent idea or notion. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ashbery’s most famous poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, is the best known because (if we accept close readings) it’s one of the few Ashbery poems that can be explained as a Notional rather than Representational poemwhich is to say, I have read analyses of Convex Mirror that explain the poem in terms of a congruent whole—as having a unified meaning. Another example of this sort of “weak” Representational Poetry, might be Chronic Meanings by Bob Perelman (under the rubric Language Poetry):

The phone is for someone.
The next second it seemed.
But did that really mean.
Yet Los Angeles is full.

Naturally enough I turn to.
Some things are reversible, some.
You don’t have that choice.
I’m going to Jo’s for. []

An example of “strong” Representational Poetry” might be what’s called Typographic Poetry (and I’m guessing that Concrete Poetry falls into this spectrum):

bauhaus-kurt-schwitters-typography

Wherein even the minimally notional content of syntactic units, such as we find in Ashbery, is dispensed with. A similar example of concrete poetry from here:

O Pulsar

O Pulsar (The Pulsar), 1975, Augusto de Campos

In keeping with the definition of Representational Poetry as poetry that discards the notional intent of language (or verbal significance), consider Wikipedia’s definition of Concrete Poetry: “an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance.”

So:

  • Representatoinal Poetry isn’t to be confused with Visual Poetry, Shape Poetry, Pattern Poetry or Picture Poetry (all being notional) which, if you’re the Poetry Foundation, is nevertheless precisely what you do. If you’re the Poetry Foundation, you call George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”, written in the 17th century, an example of 20th century “Concrete Poetry”.
  • The Princeton Encyclopedia defines Visual Poetry as follows: “In Visual Poetry, in the strict sense, the visual form of the text becomes an object for apprehension in its own terms…. Among devices for creating visual form that written language furnishes the poet [not available to oral poetry] are lineation, line length, line-grouping, indentation, intra- and inerlinear white space, punctuation, capitalization, and size and style of type. ¶ In general, the visual form of a poem may be figurative or non-figurative; if figurative, it may be mimetic or abstract.”
  • Free Verse is Visual Poetry in that free verse relies on its typographic appearance, unlike traditional poetry, to define it. Traditional poetry (arising from oral traditions rather than typographic traditions) relies on the audible effects of meter and rhyme to define it.
  • Representational Poetry is Visual Poetry that dispenses with the notional intent of langauge.

Representational poetry has far more in common with a Rauschenberg than Shakespeare. Appreciating the representational poetry means having a knowledge of the critical school and/or concepts which gave rise to it and which the poetry is “representing”. If you haven’t read up on Concrete Poetry, for example, then an example of the same is probably going to look like somebody’s bored doodling. That said, some representational poems can be appreciated as aesthetic works of art in and of themselves, as with “O Pulsar” (above) though, as a work of art, it may or may not be to your taste.

So, one reasons for this post is as a way to hang your hat on the efforts of an artist like Ashbery or de Campos. If you’re trying to read Ashbery as a notional poet, then it’s little wonder that your efforts will end in frustration if not exasperation. One commonly reads something to the effect that Ashbery’s lines should be allowed to wash over the reader like evocative abstractions. In other words, like art. We view art, we don’t try to read it.  That said, the purpose of language is to communicate. Full stop.

If one treats words,  phrases and language as a sort of painter’s pallet with which to turn pages into canvasses (divorcing words and phrases from any sort of notional congruence) then it’s a legitimate question as to whether such “poems” can be considered successful. But then that brings us back to the standards by which we judge such poems—as Notional or Representational? And if the latter, then that requires knowing something about the history behind the poetry. Like the blank canvass of a Rauschenberg, is the accompanying essay enough? To quote the critic William Logan:

“If we took poets at their own valuation and judged them by their own methods, every scribbler would be a genius.”

Do Representational Poems, like the blank canvasses of Rauschenberg, have any  legitimate value if judged by standards other than their own?—if judged by standards other than those that gave rise to and define them?

Only time will tell.

upinVermont | April 19th 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.