BOOK REVIEW: HAIKU ENLIGHTENMENT

Ivan M. Granger — founder and editor of the Poetry Chaikhana website — (https://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/ ) — has bravely sent me a book for review.  I say “bravely,” because he knows I am very critical of the modern haiku movement, and the book received is definitely about haiku.  And if I do not even spare nice old ladies who put into print bad renderings of Bashō , what am I likely to say about a new book advocating the writing of haiku — that mutated offshoot of the old hokku?

Well, let’s see.  Off we go.

Haiku Enlightenment
by Gabriel Rosenstock
Published by Poetry Chaikhana
2019

The first thing one notes about this book is the author’s enthusiasm.  Whatever one may conclude about his views, one cannot deny that Gabriel is sparklingly enthusiastic about his subject, which is evident in the book from beginning to end.

Next comes a surprise.  Unlike the majority of the present pundits of the modern haiku community, which has done its best to completely separate haiku from its spiritual origins,  Gabriel has no qualms about passionately advocating just the opposite:  a very strong grounding of his brand of haiku in non-dogmatic spirituality.  That is evident even in his use of the loaded word “Enlightenment” in the book’s title.

Well, as I have always said, no one ever became enlightened by writing hokku.  I can safely say the same of haiku.  But that one might get a “little” and lower-case enlightenment is something even stated by R. H. Blyth.  It is not the upper-case “big” enlightenment of Buddhism — but it is a very momentary and transitory experience in which the writer or reader becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (that which is written about) disappears.  That is why we can speak of hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment.  So one cannot fault Gabriel for the connection, though it is very important not to confuse the “little” and “big” enlightenments.  Bashō spent a lifetime teaching and writing haikai and hokku, yet he is said to have regretted at the end of his life that he had obsessively devoted so much time to that instead of seeking the “big” enlightenment through Buddhist meditation.  So though writing verse may be an ancillary to a spiritual path (and it is important to note that it may also be a hindrance), it will not enlighten anyone in the “big” sense.

Given that, one may feel that Gabriel has oversold his case for his kind of haiku as a spiritual path, but at least he has remarkably and with fervor restored a connection between verse and spirituality that has long been discarded and scorned in much of the modern haiku community.

In avidly presenting his case, he quotes many different “spiritual” writers and teachers, but one wishes he had stopped before including excerpts from such dangerously destructive personalities as the Tibetan “guru” Chögyam Trungpa and “Osho” — the head of the cultic Rajneesh movement.  Their presence in the book tends to detract from those more legitimate.

Aside from that, Gabriel’s book offers a sizable anthology of verses, including a number of “haiku format” versions of old Japanese hokku — unfortunately sometimes in inferior and even misleading translations, and of course presented anachronistically as “haiku” in keeping with the topic of the book .

Examples of  such translations include this unwise rendering of Bashō:

ancient pond …
a frog jumps
into the sound of water

The translation of its second and third lines is not at all what the verse means in the original.

And this erratic version of Chiyo-ni:

dragon-fly hunter
where has he wandered off to?
where?

In that verse — written about a son who died — the writer was not asking “where has he wandered off to?” but rather kyō wa doko made itta yara — “today what place has he reached, I wonder” — referring to the child’s journey in the afterlife.

Now as we can see from the format of these two examples, Gabriel offers no firm guidance as to form and punctuation, but seemingly accepts the wide variations of practice found in modern haiku — leaving the novice to decide whether to capitalize and when or even if to punctuate.  He does advise “you might prefer to avoid using capital letters, except, perhaps, for the first word”  But he gives no reason for such a preference.

The book includes many verses by recent and contemporary writers of haiku, giving the reader a good idea of tendencies in the haiku community, though generally excluding the more far-out and experimental examples one finds in the more arbitrary writers of today.

Here and there, Gabriel gives some genuinely good advice, such as  “Avoid the use of “I” and “me,” and “mine” as much as possible.”  But it is frequently offset by less helpful suggestions such as “Discarding punctuation can sometimes lead to an engaging ambiguity.”  That is a view quite contrary to the contemporary hokku dictum that an ambiguous verse is a weak and generally failed verse, but in his favor he could easily have pointed to the ambiguity of many old Japanese hokku, in support of a tendency toward occasional vagueness in writing.

He further advises the beginning writer: “Read the haiku classics [by which he means hokku] over and over again, and read the best of the moderns, such as Santōka.”  The problem here is that he neglects to mention the importance of the quality of translation of the old verses one is looking to for help.  There are many bad translations of old verses out there, and several are used in Gabriel’s book, providing bad examples for the learner.  Further, the gap between the form and aesthetics of traditional Japanese hokku and more exploratory and individualistic writers like Santōka is so wide that it is likely to result in much confusion in new writers about just what a verse should be and how it should look — a confusion that is already endemic in modern haiku.

Now it should be obvious that in reviewing Haiku Enlightenment, I am seeing it from the perspective of a long involvement with — and preference for — the hokku;  and the paths of hokku and modern haiku frequently diverge.  In choosing whether to write hokku or haiku, some new writers may prefer the wider and more indefinite boundaries offered by Gabriel’s spiritually-oriented haiku approach, which extends even, at times, to verses that depart greatly from the hokku practice of omitting that which “disturbs the mind.”

It could be said that Gabriel’s book continues the fundamental mistake made by writers on the subject of Japanese hokku and haiku in the 20th century — the error of offering beginners too little guidance regarding form and content and aesthetics, leaving it up to the student to decide those very important matters.  But on the other hand, he is writing in the modern haiku tradition that developed as a consequence of that lack of early guidance — and so it is not surprising he favors a more all-encompassing approach that leaves much (too much from the hokku perspective) up to the novice writer.

It is perhaps not surprising that Gabriel has a decided preference for the verses of Issa — verses with which the Western reader can easily identify, though they are also very popular among ordinary Japanese readers.  While that is partly a matter of taste, I think it also indicative of a lack of familiarity with the deeper aspects of the old aesthetics of Japanese hokku, which are largely absent in the book, and which were never really transmitted when the hokku came West and was re-interpreted there as what became modern haiku.

What can be said of the book is that its restoration of spirituality to haiku, and its strongly and frequently repeated advice that the composer of haiku should “disappear” — both of which are important to hokku as well — offer would-be writers of modern haiku a decided improvement over what is generally proffered to new learners by the more anarchic and self-absorbed trends so common today in the modern haiku community.

 

David

 

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