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

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