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

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