THE STRANGE TALE OF HOW AN EXCELLENT REVIEW BECAME A SCATHING REVIEW

Some of you, in looking about on the Internet,  may have come across search topic headings like these:

People familiar with my writing are often puzzled to find those search entries, because they lead to a very negative article that does not seem to fit what they know of me and my views.

The article is a review published in a journal (to which I have never been a subscriber) called Modern Haiku.  It was written by the late William J. Higginson.

Those who know the real history of this review and who compare it with the actual book will likely see it as a particularly disingenuous manifestation of what was apparently Higginson’s peculiar literary territorialism and antipathy to any attempts to revive the traditional hokku.  And from all evidence, Higginson certainly wanted the hokku thoroughly dead and buried and forgotten, as evinced by his active effort to get reference publications such as dictionaries and encyclopedias to declare the word “hokku” obsolete, and his opposition to the more traditional views of Harold Gould Henderson, who was one of the two foremost Western writers on the topic in the mid-20th century, the other being the incomparable R. H. Blyth.

Paradoxically, Higginson’s very negative and seemingly deliberately misleading review was published in an issue of that journal called the Robert Spiess Memorial Issue.  Robert Spiess was the editor of Modern Haiku who had passed away shortly before the “memorial” issue appeared.

What is paradoxical about this is that Spiess himself, before his passing, had surprised me with a letter, telling me that he had read my book and that he was “highly impressed with it” and would give it a “very fine review” in Modern Haiku.  However, he passed away before that promised “very fine review” appeared, and in its place suddenly and strangely appeared Higginson’s bitter review, expressing a view of the book quite the opposite of that held by the late editor, whom that particular issue was purportedly memorializing.

This had seemed rather odd to me, given what Spiess had promised, so I sent the new editor of Modern Haiku a copy of the letter Spiess had sent me, suggesting it be published as a more accurate reflection of the late “memorialized” editor’s views, and as a counterbalance to Higginson’s review.  I received not a word in response, and of course the letter of Spiess that would have made his own opinion of my book quite clear was never seen by readers of Modern Haiku, and is never mentioned in copies of that review on the Internet.

In any case, those who have read the book may form their own opinions.  I do not and have never subscribed to Modern Haiku.  I teach hokku, not modern haiku, and consequently would not have submitted anything to that publication for review — which accounts for my surprise on receiving the commendatory letter from Spiess.   As for the promised review of my book that editor Robert Spiess originally intended for publication in Modern Haiku, it of course was mysteriously replaced with that of Higginson; but here is the actual letter Spiess wrote me, so readers may see for themselves what Spiess thought of my book — in contrast to what Higginson had to say.

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