WRIGHT OR WRONG?

The automatic statistics of this site tell me that frequently people come here hoping to see something illuminating about the “haiku” of Richard Wright — just why, I am not certain, given that this site favors hokku and generally considers “haiku” only a mutant degeneration of it.

Nonetheless, I suppose those visitors, given their frequency, should go away with something, so here are a few words about Richard Wright and his “haiku.”

The primary book for Wright’s verses is Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, 1998).  It oddly combines an anthology of his “haiku” with a considerable amount of historical information about what is really Japanese hokku, much of which does almost nothing to illuminate Wright’s verses.

The reason is, of course, that anyone reading the book from an historical perspective discovers very quickly that Wright had the same difficulties, and followed essentially the same course, as almost all those whose verses were written under the influence of R. H. Blyth’s works titled Haiku — works which were really largely about hokku.

In short, Wright followed the standard mid-20th century pattern of reading Blyth and then writing his own verses based upon a distorted Western view of Blyth’s translations — the result of unconsciously mixing one’s own Western preconceptions about poetry with the brevity of the hokku.

Wright’s “haiku” can largely be divided into these categories:

1.  Verses that are essentially brief “Western” poems;
2.  Poems written as variations or studies on Japanese hokku translated by Blyth;
3.  Poems written in a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, which Wright somehow concluded was “standard” for his haiku in English;
4.  Verses written in a 5-5-5 syllabic pattern; and
5.  Verses written in an uneven syllabic pattern.

By examining a few of them, we get a very good picture of the whole of his work:

There are verses that are simply images:

Heaps of black cherries
Glittering with drops of rain
In the evening sun.

(One wonders if that was influenced by William Carlos Williams’ “red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens”).

The very first verse in the book is this:

I am nobody.
A red sinking sun
Took my name away.

It is not a hokku, so we shall have to put it in that vast and vague category of poems that look superficially like hokku but are not — ‘haiku.’  It is too personal, too “me” oriented for hokku.  Essentially it is a brief modern Western poem that would not even qualify as a “Shiki” haiku.  Structurally it consists of three lines, each of which has precisely five syllables.

We will find a great many of Wright’s verses are like this.  And that tells us a great deal about Wright’s approach to verse.  First and foremost, to repeat, it was the result of the unconscious mixture of Western notions of poetry with the brevity of the hokku, a problem endemic in the “haiku movement” of the second half of the 20th century.

As with most beginners in hokku, we find among Wright’s verses the usual, obviously Issa-inspired examples using the technique I call “talk to the animals”:

Make up your mind, snail!
You are half inside your house
And halfway out!

There is no real value in such verses, but one may suppose that through them Wright was experimenting, trying to find his way.  He obviously read a lot of Blyth, but of course as I often lament, Blyth left no clear and specific instructions for writing the hokku in English.  So all too often, his readers were unable to extract the principles of writing hokku in English from the matrix in which Blyth left them embedded in his writings, valuable as those writings are.  So it is no surprise that Wright was left looking about for a path.

Sometimes he detours into what looks like Issa-flavored senryu rather than hokku:

“Shut up you crickets!
How can I hear what my wife
Is saying to me?”

None of the verses given up to this point are hokku, nor are they worthwhile as “Western” verses in general.  But that does not mean Wright’s attempts at haiku are without value.  It just means that we have to sift the better examples out of all the inferior verses.

We find, for example, this:

A summer barnyard;
Swishing tails of twenty cows
Twitching at the flies.

That is hokku.  It is set in a season.  It has Nature as its focus.  And it is in two parts, a longer and a shorter.  Wright seems to have fixated on the predilection of that time for sequences of 5-7-5 syllables as the “right” standard for his verses, which led to a bit of padding, but nonetheless this verse qualifies as a real hokku, and even more importantly, it works as a hokku.   We could improve its form a bit, like this:

A summer barnyard;
The tails of twenty cows
Swishing flies.

But even left as it is, this verse by Wright qualifies as hokku.

One frequently wants to re-write his verses, to free them from the cage of 5-7-5, as in this example:

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

The hokku perception is obviously there, but again Wright’s reading of Blyth failed to provide him with the necessary technique that would have enabled him to reduce this  5-7-5 wordiness to its essentials, which we might do thus:

Faint marks
Of rat teeth on the candle;
The winter morning.

Here and there we find verses that essentially repeat an old Japanese hokku, for example Wright’s

The webs of spiders
Sticking to my face
In the dusty woods.

That is just a run-on rephrasing of Buson’s

Spider webs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

And we note of course that Wright has returned here to his 5-5-5 syllable phrasing.

We find other Wright verses all too obviously based upon old hokku, but in doing so we may recall that such variations on old verses are a good way for beginners to learn.  Wright wrote:

Just enough of light
In this lofty autumn sky
To turn the lake black.

That is a variation upon Bashō’s

Cold rain –
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

Another Wright verse is obviously influenced by Shiki:

That abandoned house,
With its yard of fallen leaves
In the setting sun.

A Shiki predecessor was:

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

So we can see that Wright was heavily influenced by the material Blyth provided, even at times too obviously influenced by it.

One sees this influence repeatedly, sometimes for the worse, sometimes — as in this example, for the better:

Wright’s verse:

Burning autumn leaves,
I yearn to make the bonfire
Bigger and bigger.

One cannot but think that was inspired by Seibi’s  Japanese original:

Swatting flies,
I begin to think
Of Killing them all.

In Blyth’s version it is:

Killing flies,
I begin to wish
To annihilate them all.

Exactly the same feeling of starting small and feeling the urge to carry a matter to extremes.

The more one reads Wright’s “haiku,” the more one has the feeling that here was a man with the poetic sensibility to write excellent hokku, but because of the lack of suitable instruction he got lost in the early student phase, becoming mired there.  He never grasped sufficiently the importance of separating the two parts of a verse, nor of learning the underlying aesthetics.  So we can repeat a quick analysis:  Some of his verses are mere images; some are variations on old Japanese verses translated by Blyth; some are “modern” free verse poems with the brevity but not the substance of hokku or of Shiki’s “haiku.”

Sometimes Wright tries to be too “clever,” which is a failing of modern haiku in general, with its heavy emphasis on Western poetic notions:

In an old woodshed
The long points of icicles
Are sharpening the wind.

At times he strives too obviously and artificially for effect:

To see the spring sky,
A doll in a store window
Leans far to one side.

One could spend a great deal of time commenting on each verse in the book, looking for obvious antecedents in Blyth, noting where Wright, like almost the entire Western “haiku” movement, went wrong in unconsciously substituting his own preconceptions for the inherent aesthetics and techniques of the hokku and of the Shiki “haiku.”  Such an effort would be very enlightening in showing just how and how thoroughly Western haiku went astray in the middle of the 20th century, but it would also be rather disappointing and futile in that it is too late to correct Wright’s misperceptions and missteps, too late to give him the guidance he needed to rise to the level of old Japanese hokku instead of falling into common misunderstandings.

That is, fortunately, not the case with those still writing today.  But the problem in this case is finding those with the potential poetic intuition of a Richard Wright who are also humble enough to be willing to start over and do hokku the right way.

A great deal more could be said about the “haiku” of Richard Wright, and perhaps I shall have more to say when time permits.  But for now I shall only repeat that reading Wright’s “haiku” leaves one with the disappointing feeling of a potential unfulfilled due to lack of informed guidance, the same feeling one gets on reading the better examples of present day writers of “haiku,” who never quite understand what they are doing or why, and who consequently are always walking but never getting anywhere.

David

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THE THING IT IS AND THE THING IT ISN’T

Long-time readers here will recall that I have discussed the issue of metaphor and simile and their relation (if any) to hokku.  I have pointed out that what readers — even presumably scholarly readers — often interpret as metaphor in hokku is better understood — at least in hokku as I teach it — as the more prevalent practice of the principle of internal reflection.  I have also said that though metaphor is not entirely absent from all old hokku, the best verses did not use it.

There is a great deal to be said about metaphor and simile, which have a long history in English literature and have been so often used that they seem a poetic crutch for which the laboring poet automatically reaches when in difficulty, and from this sentence alone one can see how common their use has become; I have just used a metaphor myself.

There are, then, times when a metaphor or simile may be helpful in prose or in poetry (though not in hokku), yet one feels, like Ogden Nash in his poem Very Like a Whale, that both are used to excess.  He tells us, half in jest, half serious:

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can’t seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else….
That’s the kind of thing that’s being done all the time by poets, from Homer to Tennyson;
They’re always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison.
How about the man who wrote,
Her little feet stole in and out like mice beneath her petticoat?
Wouldn’t anybody but a poet think twice
Before stating that his girl’s feet were mice?
Then they always say things like that after a winter storm
The snow is a white blanket.  Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a
six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of
unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

I have said in previous articles that simile in poetry — saying one thing is like another — draws the mind in two directions by presenting it with two different images.  To say, for example, that the rising crescent moon is like a ship of silver sailing up on the blue sea of heaven, detracts from the moon and the sky as they are, and brings in the image of a ship and of a sea, and the mind must combine these into a new image created by the original “real” image and its overlay.

That does not mean metaphors and similes are good or bad; it simply means, as I have said before, that one must use the right tool for the right task.  In hokku as I teach it, we keep a very strong focus of the mind, for which simile and metaphor act merely as a distraction.  In other kinds of poetry — well, we shall see.

There is much more to be said about metaphor and simile, but I will delay that for when I have more time.  So expect this brief posting to grow longer in the next few days.  I would like readers, meanwhile, to read the excerpt from the Nash poem and to think about the place (is there one, legitimately?) of metaphor and simile in poetry, and to a lesser extent, in prose.

It is worth considering, in the interim, how hokku generally goes for what Nash calls the “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the great contrasts between hokku and conventional poetry.  In fact the great discovery of people like Bashō was to find the poetry in such “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the things that makes hokku so unlike what people generally think of as poetry.

David

ARSENIC-SMEARED HAIKU

I often say that modern haiku, for all practical purposes, began in the middle of the 20th century as a result of the misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku by Western writers and academics.  They saw the hokku through the spectacles of what they already knew about Western poetry (particularly avant-garde poetry of the first half of the century) and notions of what it meant to be a poet, and that prevented them from seeing the hokku as it really was.

The consequence was that when Westerners began to write and teach their own interpretations of the hokku — which they called “haiku,” following Shiki’s neologism — what they created generally had little in common with the old hokku practiced from Bashō up to and including the “haiku” of Shiki except brevity.

In other words, modern haiku in English is the result of all the English-language haiku journals and anthologies and books written in the latter half of the 20th century, not the result of a careful study of the old hokku or even the first “Shiki” haiku.  It is largely a new Western verse form rather than a continuation of the old hokku.

That means, for all practical purposes, that most of what would-be writers of “haiku” were reading in the 20th century presented what was really — in my view — largely just the creation of the authors, and did not really represent the essentials of the old hokku or even of Shiki’s new “haiku.”

Of course it is obvious to historians that awareness of the hokku did not begin in the middle of the 20th century, but roughly half a century earlier, when the Western poets known as the Imagists were influenced by what they saw of the hokku in translation.  But they, too, misperceived the nature of the hokku, and their verses influenced by it are no more hokku than the Chinoiserie of 18th-century England is “real” Chinese art.

Here, for example, is an early (c. 1908) “Imagist” poem by Edward Storer, written, like the modern hokku, in three lines.  But there the similarities end:

Image

Forsaken lovers,
burning to a chaste white moon,
Upon strange pyres of loneliness and drought.

This is simply the fantasy of the writer working overtime.  If we remember that the hokku expresses Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, we can see there is really nothing in this poem that is like the hokku except its brief, three-line form.  The content is entirely “Western poetry.”

Though the Imagists were influenced by the hokku, they completely misunderstood it; and that of course was repeated by those who actually began the modern haiku in earnest in the middle of the 20th century.

When we look at the early “pre-modern” Western poems influenced by Western misperception of the hokku, we can see precisely where the Western “poets” went wrong.  They did not understand the purpose of the hokku; they did not understand its seasonal context; they did not even understand its long-short structure.  They saw only that it was a brief presentation of an “image” of some kind, and so they proceeded to write verses such as these, by Ezra Pound.  I will present them here under my own headings:

Playing at being “Asian”:

O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.
(titled “Fan-piece: For her Imperial Lord)

Writing simile:

As cool as the pale wet leaves
of lily-of-the-valley
She lay beside me in the dawn.
(titled Alba)

Imposing inner fantasy on the outer object:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
(titled “In a Station of the Metro)

Of this latter verse, Pound wrote,

“In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”

In other words, Pound was speaking of the outward object (the faces in the Metro) transformed into an inner, subjective image (petals on a wet, black bough).  This has nothing to do with hokku, nor with the first “Shiki” haiku, which were hokku in all but name.

William Higginson completely misunderstood what Pound was doing; he wrote of this verse,

“…by revising the poem Pound turned an otherwise sentimental metaphor into a genuine haiku … This is a haiku that Shiki would have been proud to write.” (The Haiku Handbook)

In my view, it is precisely such gross misperceptions and misrepresentations of the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku by Higginson and other writers in the latter half of the 20th century that led them to create a “modern haiku” quite unlike the old hokku, and quite unlike the “Shiki” haiku.

But here is another Ezra Pound verse:

Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,
Crushed strawberries! Come, let us feast our eyes.
(titled L’Art, 1910)

This is what we might call a “color” verse, with an added comment by the poet.  Aside from the added comment at the end, it is essentially just a word-painting of color combinations.  And that, of course, takes us immediately to a very similar poem by William Carlos Williams, which again consists in essence of an assemblage of colors:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Where Pound puts his added (and superfluous) comment at the end of his verse, Williams puts his similarly superfluous comment at the beginning of the color composition to give the verse a pseudo-profundity.

Pound’s verse is simply the assemblage of green on white with strawberry red; Williams’ verse is simply the assemblage of red (enhanced by the rainwater) and white.  Yes, it is a red wheelbarrow, and yes, they are white chickens, but the objects are simply the vehicles for the transmission of color, as in the verse by Pound, in which his “Let us feast our eyes” is simply an attempt to tell the reader that his poem is all about color juxtapositions (plus the oddity of a “feast” including a poisonous pigment).

Williams’ poem is, for all practical purposes, a word-painting of colors, red and white.  Pound’s verse is also a word-painting of colors, arsenic green, white, and strawberry red.

We may recall at this point that Masaoka Shiki wrote a haiku about the falling of a red berry on the frost of the garden.  That verse is also a study in color (red on white), and seen thus it is outwardly similar to the red and white juxtaposition of Williams, with his red wheelbarrow and his white chickens.  But in this, Shiki’s hokku is atypical, though it still expresses a thing-event in the context of a season, which is not at all what the “wheelbarrow” poem of Williams does.  The principle behind them is quite different, and it was the failure to grasp this essential difference between the hokku and Western poetry that led to the rise of a modern haiku that has far more in common with Western notions of poetry and poets than it has or ever had with the old hokku or even with the “Shiki” haiku, which was still generally hokku in all but name.

And finally, if one looks at the “wheelbarrow” poem of Williams, it becomes obvious where the anti-capital letter, anti-punctuation tendency so prevalent in modern haiku originated.  It is just a relic of an experiment that was once considered “modern” — in the first half of the 20th century.

David

TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON

Unlike most other kinds of verse, the hokku is linked with the season in which it is written.  In fact one can say truthfully that whatever the obvious subject of a hokku, the real subject is the season in which it is written, and the “obvious” subject is just a manifestation of that season.

This reflects the spiritual roots of hokku and the view that things are not isolated phenomena, but are interconnected in  innumerable ways.  So interconnected, in fact, that an object or an event cannot exist in isolation, but only as a part of the Whole.  So when Bashō writes of a frog jumping into an old pond, this is as a manifestation of and expression of the season of spring.  If one does not know that, one does not know the entire verse.  And most Westerners do not know that, because the seasonal connection is lost in transmission.

In old hokku, however, there was really only one way to know definitely the season of a given verse, and that was to have memorized a long and detailed glossary of recognized “season words,” called kigo 季語 (ki = season, go = ) in Japanese.  If a given topic was not to be found in such accepted lists, it was simply not a subject for a verse.  And to recognize the season of any verse and to write within the system required minimally six years or more of diligent study and familiarity before one could begin to use the “season word” technique with any facility.

Further, if one had not memorized the long list of acceptable words and their appropriate seasons, one had to refer to a glossary of season words in order to identify the season of any given hokku.  Such a lengthy glossary was called a saijiki 歳時記 (sai = year, ji = time, ki =  record), which we can simply call a “season book.”  The season book listed the accepted kidai 季題 (ki = season, dai = subject) and as a subcategory for each season subject, the kigo, the season words, rather like a theme and variations.

All of this, of course, meant that the writing of old hokku was no simple matter.  In fact passing time only brought increasing complexity to this system, and in addition, for all practical purposes, it limited the range of one’s subject matter to the accepted themes and season words.  If one read a verse without recognizing the season inherent in it, one was obviously neither ready to read hokku nor to write it.

To those of us writing hokku today this seems like an unreasonable and intolerable burden, and though it had its advantages, they were far outweighed by its complexities.  It is perhaps somewhat surprising, then, that Masaoka Shiki continued this season word system after his much-publicized re-packaging of the hokku as his “haiku.”

In modern haiku, which as readers here know I consider largely a degeneration and distortion of the hokku, there are two approaches to season.  The great majority of writers simply ignore it, having divorced the modern haiku from season entirely.  A lesser number attempt to re-create the bulky season word system in a Western context, and there are actually those who are busy compiling new “season books” in English, which given the geographical, climatic, and biological complexity of the United States alone, is a somewhat eccentric undertaking.  And of course attempting to establish such a complex season word system in the West merely revives all of its associated problems, one of the most obvious of which is that no one outside the little group of writers using one of these new “season books” will have the slightest idea what the season of many of the poems written under it represent, because the general public  will not be part of the tiny “in group” using a given “season word” book.

Modern hokku, by great contrast, solves the matter of seasonal association of a verse in a remarkably simple, practical, and straightforward manner.  By doing so it maintains the virtues of the traditional seasonal connection of old hokku without the needless and rather pointless complexities and eccentricities of creating new “Western” season words and season books.

The modern hokku system is simply to mark each verse with the season in which it is written.  A writer will categorize all of his or her hokku by these seasonal markings into the categories of “Spring,” “Summer,”  “Autumn” (or “Fall”), and “Winter.”  When a verse is shared or published, the seasonal categorization goes with it.  It is such an eminently useful and practical and productive system that writers should immediately see its superiority to the old “season words” system.

As we have seen, the real subject of every hokku is its season.  The four-word seasonal categorization system simply utilizes this fact.  So if one were to use Bashō’s hokku as an example, it would appear like this when written:

SPRING

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

And of course if it were to appear in an anthology, all “Spring” verses would appear under that initial heading, and the same procedure would follow with Summer, Autumn, and Winter categories.

Somewhat astonishingly, this reduces the thousands of season words necessary to reading and writing hokku with any comprehension under the old system to simply four — Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter — and these function simply as headings for a single verse or for an anthology of verses.

Thus in one fell swoop modern hokku demolishes and improves upon the season word system that caused so much needless complexity in old hokku and that continues to be pointlessly revived with its needless complexities in some segments of modern haiku.  Yet in doing so it does not abandon the essence of the matter — it retains firmly and with great practicality the indissoluble link between hokku and the seasons.  That has always been the practice in modern hokku in English:  To preserve the essence of old hokku at its best, without being slavishly literal in its transmission.  That is why modern hokku in English can be thoroughly American or British or Australian or Indian, etc., without abandoning the genuine essentials of hokku, and without any need for maintaining any of the culturally-limited baggage that potentially so hinders the verse form in its transmission from one culture to another and very different culture.

David

THROUGH THE BARLEY

Mokudō wrote a very simple yet very effective spring hokku:

Harukaze ya   mugi no naka yuku   mizu no oto
Spring wind ya barley ‘s center goes water ‘s sound

I give the Japanese transliteration only to show how very faithful English can be to the sense of the original:

The spring wind;
Through the barley goes
The sound of water.

This verse uses internal reflection to great effect.  There is movement in the spring wind; there is movement in the sound of water passing through the field of barley.  And of course there is movement in the bending leaves of the green barley.

This is a verse showing us growing yang, which is appropriate to spring.  We see that in the movement of the spring wind, in the movement of the water, and in the rippling young barley, grown just tall enough to hide the water that flows through it.  That is why the writer mentions only “the sound of water” flowing.

There is no writer apparent in this verse, no “poet.”  There is only the wind and the barley and the sound of water.  Mokudo has managed to write a hokku that works exceedingly well without falling into mere illustration.  It is an excellent manifestation of spring.

David

WHY HAIKU FAILED AND CONTINUES TO FAIL

In his useful book Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (University of Pennsylvania, 1979, 1965), Paul Fussell writes:

An even more exotic version of the tercet is the haiku (or hokku) ….  Playing around with it in English is surely as harmless as working crossword puzzles; but since its structural principles seem to have very little to do with the nature of the English language, we should not expect the form to produce any memorable poems.”

One sees immediately that Fussell was not impressed.  But he has a point — in fact more than one.

1.  The structure of the hokku does not fit English.

If we take this very literally, he is quite correct.  The Japanese hokku (and the haiku of Shiki) were based upon a pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units, and this kind of “syllabic” (to use the term loosely because it is not entirely syllabic in Japanese) form is alien to English.  English is an accent-stress language, while Japanese is a pitch-stress language.  Japanese thus did not use lines based on vowel quality and accent, but rather lines based upon (again speaking loosely) syllabic number.

When we write hokku, then, we are borrowing a form essentially alien and ill-fitting to English, and that means either we remain woodenly literalistic in how we adopt it or we change it to better fit the English language.

On the woodenly literalistic side, we have the elementary school approach to the “haiku,” as it is commonly called.  It is presented to the students as a poem of 5-7-5 syllables.  Of course the Japanese phonetic unit and the English syllable are not precisely the same, and there seems little logical reason to adopt the 5-7-5 syllable pattern in English other than its rough approximation to the Japanese practice.  But in any case, we are left with little verses in English that have neither rhyme nor meter in the conventional sense, and that has contributed to the persistent mediocrity of “elementary school” haiku.

2. Fussell tells us that partly due to its antagonism to the English language, we should not expect any memorable poems from the form.  In this he has proved remarkably prophetic, because after at least a half century of English-language haiku, it has produced no memorable poems.

We must, however, take “memorable” in two senses.  First, we can understand it to mean that Western haiku has produced no poems worth remembering.  That is, for the most part quite true.  Second, we can take it in the sense that Western haiku has produced no poems that one can easily remember.  And there too the statement is valid, because the structure of the haiku (and of the hokku in this case) does not encourage remembrance.  The haiku has no rhyme, no stress accent giving rise to formal meter, both of which are mnemonic devices — aids to memory.  So we can say that Western haiku has produced virtually no verses that are simultaneously easy to remember and worth remembering.

In short, Fusell essentially wrote decades ago that aside from a brief amusement, the “haiku” was virtually worthless as poetry.  That remains largely true today.

Having said that, however, one must recognize that Fussell went no deeper into the nature of the haiku (and here I will revert to the historically-correct term hokku) than its outer form.  When we look at its aesthetics, which were neither discussed by him nor understood at all by those who created the English-language haiku in the middle of the 20th century, we find that whatever the failures of the modern haiku, its predecessor, the hokku, has never been given an adequate chance in English because it has never been correctly perceived.

To understand that, we must look at the differences between the Japanese hokku and the English-language hokku.

Where the Japanese hokku had a set structure (varying only slightly) of five, seven, and five phonetic units, the English language hokku has no such restrictions.  Instead it adopts the wider essence of the matter, making the English hokku consist of a longer and a shorter segment separated by punctuation.  It is understood that brevity, though variable, is not to be exceeded.

Second, because the Japanese hokku was based upon principles of “syllabic” structure ill-fitting English, the English-language hokku neither attempts to reproduce this unfitting garment, nor does it attempt to replace it by some unrelated English equivalent such as rhyme, which the early writer on “haiku” in English — Harold Henderson — attempted.

All of this means that the hokku comes into the English language with virtually none of the characteristics of English language poetry.  And if one considers the “point” of hokku — which is quite separable both from its “syllabic” structure and from any recognizable “poetic” conventions in English — we find that to think of the hokku in English as “poetry” is to immediately mislead the reader and confuse the issue, because the reader will then look for conventional characteristics of poetry.  Aside from the three-line form, he or she will not find them.

That leaves us with the important and revealing discovery that the essence of the hokku is not to be found in anything conventionally poetic (which was the mistake Westerners made in creating the Western “haiku”), but rather it is to be found in recognizing that the poetry of the hokku lies neither in the words nor in the form, but instead in the thing-event that the writer presents to the reader.

When William Wordsworth saw daffodils dancing in the breeze beside a lake, he made a poem of them.  But from the point of view of hokku, the poetry of the poem is only secondary; the real poetry is in the daffodils and the lake and the breeze — in the initial experience that gave rise to Wordsworth’s poem.

This is a view of poetry quite unfamiliar in the West, which always looks for this or that convention of form or content, and always thinks that one must “improve upon” Nature in making a poem by adding conventionally poetic words or commentary.

What this means in practice is that an English-language hokku, though in three lines, will use any number of syllables per line that will convey the thing-event in a clear manner without adding or detracting from it.  It has no need for the added “poetic” words and commentary.  Nonetheless, many hokku translated into English or written as English-language originals will find their way into some structure, as we see in this example, an old hokku by Buson:

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Though presented here in English, it consists, like the old hokku, of a longer and a shorter part, which in English are separated by punctuation.  We have three words in the first line, three words in the last.  But we also have three words in the middle line, though it does not seem to boringly repeat the form of the first and last lines because it is visually longer and longer also in syllables, giving a 3-5-3 pattern.  It is in precisely such ways that the hokku in English naturally finds its proper structure, without being forced into garments too small and restricting for it.

The hokku is admittedly not as easy to remember as a poem with the conventional mnemonic devices of rhyme or meter, but it has its own natural structure nonetheless, and this will vary somewhat from verse to verse.  And in any case, the hokku is largely designed to be silently read rather than spoken.  So even though the hokku may not be memorable in the sense of “easy to remember,” a hokku may nonetheless be memorable in its experience and depth of unspoken significance, as in this hokku by Buson.  To be so, it must share in the aesthetics common to the best hokku.

Those who write modern haiku have generally never learned these aesthetics, which the haiku enthusiasts of the second half of the 20th century largely discarded, generally without even being aware of their nature.

The hokku, on the other hand, has never received the chance in English to reveal the depth of its aesthetics and techniques, primarily because it was pushed out of public consciousness quite early on by the prolific popularity of the far easier and far less challenging haiku.

That is why the English-language haiku has largely been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  Today it is generally considered on the same level as greeting card verse, and it is usually at its most popular as satirical, humorous verse.  The hokku, by contrast, has never really been transmitted to the West, and its possibilities remain largely untapped.

There are very definite reasons, then, why I consider the hokku far superior to the modern haiku, and why I do not consider the latter an extension of the former, but rather  a new verse form  loosely inspired by the old hokku, but created by Westerners who had no genuine understanding of the far more profound and meaningful aesthetics of the old hokku.

David

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Someone expressed the view to me recently that the haiku and tanka “communities” are strongly biased against any traditional approach.  By “communities,” he means of course those people who gather on the Internet or in publications to share and read and discuss those particular forms of verse.  And by “biased,” he means that those communities have a marked tendency to scorn the writing of such verses according to the traditional standards.

It is not news to me.  When I first began to tell people in the modern haiku communities that they were being misled, that Bashō and all the rest prior to Shiki did not write haiku but hokku, and that most of what is found on modern haiku sites has nothing in common with what Bashō and the others wrote but brevity, there was a furious uproar.  And some of those most upset were those who had managed to construct little nests for themselves high in the diminutive tree of the modern haiku hierarchy by putting themselves forward as authorities.

The observant quickly learn, however, that in the field of modern haiku there are authority figures, but not genuine authorities.  There is a site on the Internet, populated by a very small number of people, calling itself the “Haiku Foundation.”  It now has a forum where newcomers may come and ask questions of “mentors,” who, to judge from the answers given, are simply making it up as they go along, because the essence of modern haiku is doing whatever one wishes to do, writing however one wishes to write.  There are no universal standards in modern haiku other than perhaps brevity and the avoidance of universal standards.

That is a far cry from the hokku, which had and still has very definite standards of form and aesthetic.

Returning to the statement that such groups are biased against traditional approaches, one finds that only confirmed in the steadfast opposition of modern haiku groups to any return to the traditional hokku.  And opposition always follows a fixed, almost ritualistic pattern.  It is the same outcry today as it was many years ago when I first began telling the then-existing modern haiku groups that they had it all wrong and were on the wrong road if they wished to be considered in the same lineage as the old hokku writers of Japan.  Their standard response was, “You cannot tell me how to write!  Poetry must be free, and I’ll write haiku however I want to write it!”

Of course this is a very confused objection.  To write hokku in essentially the traditional manner has nothing to do with limiting poetry; it only limits one to calling a thing by its real name.  And even that is something to which modern haiku groups have a great aversion — note how they persist in incorrectly and anachronistically calling pre-Shiki hokku “haiku,” as though doing so somehow justifies the modern mediocrities they write while claiming to follow in Bashō’s wake.

It is sheer pretention and obfuscation that makes the modern haiku enthusiasts take up the irrelevant refrain that there should be no limits on poetry.  That is a cry as old as William Blake, who wrote, correctly, that “Poetry Fetter’d Fetters the Human Race!”

Limiting poetry is not the issue.  No one is telling them they cannot write poetry of any kind or level whatsoever.  The real issue at hand is whether the bulk of modern haiku is verse in the same tradition as that of Bashō and Gyōdai and Buson and all the rest, and I say it is not.  It is, instead, a mid-20th century creation of Western writers who misperceived and misunderstood the hokku when they first encountered it in translation, and consequently re-made it according to their own misconceptions.

The modern English-language haiku  was born at roughly the same time that circumstances were moving toward the outbreak of the Vietnam War.  And those who created it — the writers in printed anthologies, the self-made pundits — did not follow the aesthetics and techniques of the old hokku or even of Shiki’s conservative innovation the “haiku” (which was still hokku in all but name).  Instead they created the modern haiku according to the principles and presuppositions popular in 20th-century Western poetry in the first half of the 20th century.  That is why one often finds elements characteristic of modern haiku that were long ago considered to be “new” in the verses of poets such as Cummings, but that are now as much a part of the past as the dial telephone.

It is important to repeat that the modern haiku enthusiasts mistake the issue.  It is not whether one is to write poetry however one wishes.  All are free to do that.  It is whether one is going to call something by its correct name so that it may be defined and understood.

That is a simple matter.  If one goes to a bakery and requests a loaf of bread but is handed a chocolate eclair instead, one need only tell the baker that there is a mistake, that what was desired was a loaf of bread.  But a problem arises if the baker replies, “Oh, this is a loaf of bread!  We just choose to make it differently, because of the freedom inherent in baking!”

We would consider such a person an intolerable fool, and so should we consider those who say, “Oh, a haiku is just a hokku under another name.  Haiku is the NEW name for it, and we can write it however we wish now.”

If one wants a loaf of bread, the phrase “loaf of bread” has to have a definite meaning.  It cannot signify a chocolate eclair or a pizza or a doughnut with sprinkles. The fact that all contain flour does not make them the same thing.  Nor does the simple fact that both modern haiku and all the verses written as hokku before Shiki are brief mean that modern haiku are in the same lineage as the old hokku, or even in the same lineage as Shiki’s understanding of the haiku.

Modern haiku today is essentially a little free-verse poem, generally without rhyme and often without meter, in (usually) three lines.  That it is called a “haiku” is simply an historical oddity.   It should not imply that the modern haiku and what Shiki knew as the haiku are in any way the same, just as a pizza is not a loaf of bread, though they have flour in common.

Since at least the 1960s, the modern haiku communites have been busily working the destruction of the haiku both by scorning the traditions of the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku, and by continually changing the manner in which modern haiku is written by personal whim, so that today a modern haiku is often just an appalling little mediocrity created to make this or that bored housewife or failed academic think he or she is a “poet.”  It is not the haiku of Shiki, nor is it the hokku that existed in the centuries prior to Shiki, nor is it the hokku written today in modern English.

It surprises some people when I tell them that Shiki’s “haiku” was largely a propaganda campaign, and that what he wrote was essentially still hokku.  His verses, for the most part, still had Nature and the place of humans within Nature as their subject matter, and they were still, for the most part, set in the context of a particular season.

Modern haiku is often not about Nature and the place of humans within Nature.  It is often not set in any seasonal context.  And it frequently introduces elements not only unacceptable to the hokku and the traditional haiku (Shiki’s haiku), but also antithetical to it, such as romance, sex, violence, and modern technology.

All of this of course does not mean that anyone is prevented from writing brief verses about romance, sex, violence, and modern technology not set in any particular season and not focused on Nature and humans within Nature.  It just means that such verses are not in the old hokku tradition that preceded Shiki, and they are not in the hokku tradition of Shiki.  Instead they are new Western verse in the “tradition,” if one can call it that, of those who misconstrued and misunderstood both the hokku and Shiki’s haiku in the middle of the 20th century, and one wishes that all would simply recognize that fact and stop pretending that they have anything to do with either the old hokku tradition of Japan or the kind of haiku advocated and written by Masaoka Shiki around the beginning of the 20th century.

There are those in the modern haiku communities who advocate dropping the term “haiku” for the modern pseudo-hokku and pseudo-haiku verses commonly now called “haiku.”  Well, it might as well happen, because modern haiku has thoroughly self-destructed by its refusal to accept the standards of the lineage it claims to follow.  Now that it has pushed the “hokku” name from public notice and has thoroughly discredited the “haiku” name, it might as well move on, having destroyed what it was claiming to promote.

Modern haiku in English is not taken seriously today by anyone except those few who write and read it.  The old hokku, however, whether mislabeled “haiku” or not, continues to demonstrate, even if in translation, the virtues of the old tradition for anyone who has eyes to see and the poetic sense to understand.

David