The nature of haiku cannot be rightly understood until it is realized that they imply a revolution in our everyday life and ways of thinking - R.H.Blyth (1)
My belief in the above is affirmed whenever I turn to Blyth’s and other good translations of the classical haijin, by translations like Lucien Stryk’s Cage of Fireflies: Modern Japanese Haiku (2), and in the work of a number of gifted Western haiku poets. Sadly, it is at variance with most of what is published in the leading haiku journals on both sides of the Atlantic – or so the preliminary inquiry reported at the end of this paper would suggest.
Wherein lies the subtle mystery (yugen) of those haiku which give us a liberative sense of compassion (mono no aware), and the feeling that, however painful life may be, ultimately it is somehow… -- well, okay ? How is it that these precious few existential haiku which we read in our magazines truly move us, however lightly and in passing, whereas most offer attractive word pictures here, a bit of a chuckle there, and elsewhere some clever verbal footwork ?
These seem to me the most important questions we can ask. And our response can change the way we read and write haiku. In this essay I shall explain how some haiku achieve their liberative potential, and how most do not (and probably do not aspire to do so).
Liberative haiku offer a literal imagery which evokes a resonance in the reader’s own experience of life. The concrete and nonconceptual nature of the poem implies an open and subtle metaphor which gives the reader the emotional space to respond in his or her own way. This is achieved through the textual device of disjunction (3).
The most common form of disjunction is created by two (occasionally three) images juxtaposed as contrasting poles of feeling. This resonates poignantly in the reader’s mind, as if a tiny spark had leapt between those two poles. Our customary perceptive associations are momentarily fractured. It is as if for an instant we lose our foothold in our conventional reality. We experience that underlying existential paradox which C.G. Jung believed was at the heart of any spirituality, as the two contrasting images come together in a single truth. This is something that cannot be expressed by logic-chewing metaphysic or by a poet telling us that that is how life really is. Indeed, Blyth has claimed that “a great many haiku tell us something that we have seen but not seen. They do not give us a satori, an enlightenment. They show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often -- and not recognised it” (4).
The above description is matched by many others in the literature of haiku. Thus, for George Marsh, “what is special about haiku is its unique capacity to cut to the core with one swift, clean stroke, releasing some metallic whiff of the quantum weirdness of underlying reality” (5). Reference here is to a disjunction that has a strength and depth sufficient to touch the very nature of human existence. Sometimes this may be done relatively explicitly, as in these three from Basho, Caroline Gourlay and Jim Norton, respectively:
travelling the world
to and fro, to and fro
harrowing the small field
tired looking doctor
holding my urine sample
talks about Schubert
and the stranger upstairs
Here are three more subtly suggestive messages. from Vincent Tripi, Alexis Rotella and A.A. Marcoff :
in the old tea house
filling the lamp
they cry just loud
and long enough
morning -- somehow
& the quiet
There is quite a range here, too, from the following awesome one by Buson to Leo Lavery’s endearing reflection:
the ends of the warriors’ bows
as they go, brushing
thinking about this sometimes
while waiting for the bus
Such examples stand at the high end of the spectrum of disjunctive haiku. At the lower end of this continuum although the device is still in place the quality of the insight and the poetry are insufficient to ignite much of a spark. If there is anything to enjoy at all it may be no more than the imagery itself. Such haiku are subsumed in the category of “Simple Imagery” identified later in this essay.
Existential Imagistic Haiku
In addition to the above, there are also haiku which achieve a similar existential depth solely or largely through their imagery.
They offer a strong metaphorical resonance through the startling freshness and originality of their imagery, enhanced by contrasting elements (which may even amount to light juxtaposition). There is here a momentary awakening to the “suchness”, the “just-so-ness”, the sono-mama, of things, or, as Basho put it, the “acceptance of all things as they are” (6). This is a modest sharing of the mystic’s joy at seeing the whole earth born anew, as if for the first time. Here are examples by Basho, Shiki and Dee Evetts:
how cold --
the wild geese take flight
low along the railway tracks
in the moonlit night
small town park;
he adjusts his spine
to the slatted bench
Sometimes the whole haiku resonates figuratively as an open metaphor. Here are three examples, by H.F. Noyes, Saito Sanki and Buson, respectively on the subtlety of friendship, the miseries of the world, and the simplicity of death.
deserted night road --
in silence getting to know
the man at the wheel
those in line
watching the wind
sweep the earth
this is all there is
the path dies out
at the parsley bed
Existential imagistic haiku are arguably found more in the Japanese tradition. Western examples are less common, but always interesting because of their elusive quality. These, also, lie at the top end of a continuum, shading off into an uncertain middle zone where reader responses will differ, and on down into the much more numerous examples of “simple imagery” and “is that all?”
From the above varieties, in which the resonance of the open metaphor is expressed with an existentially liberative penetration, we move to a second broad category of haiku. These are much more numerous in the West than the first category, and I term them “Simple Imagery” haiku. Robert Spiess drew the distinction when he wrote that “haiku artisans illustrate or depict phenomena but haiku artists intimate the deeper reality on which phenomena are based” (7). The former can at best lighten our lives a little with some beautiful imagery, and they contribute the stock-in-trade of Western haiku. Richard Gilbert, referring to “The problem of the modern”, makes the following indictment, which is well worth careful unwrapping (my italics):
The (neo) classical Japanese haiku up to Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) has served as the aesthetic basis and standard model for composition – historically such models have been sought for validation. A main element of constraint acting on haiku composition has emanated from Shiki’s nineteenth century Western-realist-inspired compositional guidelines, though current practices have arrived through dissimilar routes as well. Nonetheless, Shiki’s realist dicta for the beginner-poet regarding the composition of shasei (“sketch of life” haiku) predominate. As well, the century-old modern Japanese haiku tradition as it might be applied and practiced in English-language has been inaccessible to most poets writing in haiku, [and] has yet to be properly integrated and valued in English-language composition and thought. The era when English-language haiku itself might be considered to provide an effective, autonomous aesthetic basis has yet to arrive (3).
However, it must not be supposed that the better sort of “Simple Imagery” haiku are easy to compose. Shiki envisaged a hard and lifelong apprenticeship in order to develop the necessary power of perceptual observation, to translate perception into poetry, and to keep one’s own thoughts and feelings out of the matter. Mastery of “Simple Imagery” will always be the essential foundation for attaining the full potential of haiku discussed earlier in this essay.
Haiku of Closure
My two remaining categories are haiku of closure, which are end-stopped for the reader. There may be juxtaposition, but the metaphorical resonance arising from disjunction is substantially absent. Metaphor is closed, and all that remains for the reader is to chuckle, or admire the ingenious contrivance. These are haiku-with-attitude, in-your-face haiku. They are assured therefore of an instant popularity in our contemporary culture, and perhaps this is why editors treat them so indulgently. One particular objection to giving them house room in quality haiku journals is that their presence there represents a failure to maintain enough clear, still water between authentic literary haiku and the purveyors of spam, who should surely be denied any encouragement.
The first category is the haiku of contrived cleverness, which range from the heartless comic quip to the self-consciousness of willow-pattern à la Japonaise. This is not to say that all ingeniously humorous haiku and senryu necessarily fall into this category. There are plenty of spontaneous, generous and even compassionately humorous poems to prove the contrary. Here are two likeable random examples, from Steve Sanford and Fred Schofield:
that cricket he rescued
from the dishwasher
kept him awake all night
pressed for time
deciding on a car wash
rather than a hair cut
My second kind of haiku of closure are symbolic haiku. I use the term symbolism here specifically to refer to the use of images which represent ideas all too obviously. The poet invites the reader to admire, and that’s all. For me, after enjoying a run of haiku infused with metaphoric resonance, to stumble on a symbolic haiku feels like being boxed in and hit over the head. Readers interested in this experience should refer to George Swede’s collection Almost Unseen (8). This is a favourite of mine. It contains many fine haiku, but, alas! also poems like these:
I patch cracks
in the cement
last night’s bitterness
he adds twice the sugar
to his coffee
the widow’s black lace panties
covered with frost
Like each of the other categories symbolic haiku lie along a continuum which grows increasingly fuzzy, depending on the eye of the beholder. At the opposite end to undeniably heavy symbolism will be found poems which for some readers may still appear too explicitly symbolic whilst others may find in them some open and intriguing metaphor.
A Statistical Inquiry
I have conducted three investigations into numbers of Western and Japanese haiku falling into four categories, as follows. (About a dozen haiku were considered unclassifiable and omitted from the survey). In the first category (E) are the existential haiku of all kinds which give off a strong metaphoric resonance as described earlier. Each offers some small spark of revelation, some keenly felt insight. The other three categories are of simple imagery (I) contrived cleverness (C) and heavy symbolism (S), as defined above.
Each of these categories is, of course, not clearly bounded; its identification is subjective and a matter of perceived degree along a continuum. This particularly applies to the first two categories, though less so with the second two. Moreover my inquiry is circumstantial and approximate, and aimed only at yielding some gross conclusions.
My first two investigations involved placing into one or other of the four categories all – or, in a few cases, a random sample – of the freestanding haiku appearing in recent issues of the journals Blithe Spirit, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, and Presence.
The first investigation I conducted myself, covering two recent issues of each of the above four journals, and with a total count of 553 haiku. The percentage of haiku falling into each category are shown in the first line below:-
|E - 9||I - 68||C - 14||S - 9|
|E - 19||I - 39||C - 24||S - 18|
The second line presents the overall percentage findings returned by seven experienced and well-published haiku poets each of whom had taken the whole or a random sample of the haiku contained in one recent back number of the previously cited journals. (using different issues from those in the first investigation). This, of course, represents a more consensual judgement than that in the upper line, although fewer haiku were examined (469).
An examination of the detailed findings (not shown above) revealed no significant differences between different issues of the same journal, between different journals, or between British and American journals. Because of the subjective nature of the exercise we are only concerned with gross differences. Thus it would seem reasonable to conclude that about a fifth of the haiku regularly published in these four journals fall into the existential category. And twice as many are haiku of closure (categories C + S).
Let us turn now to the third investigation, that of the comparable figures for Japanese haiku. This was more makeshift than the previous two investigations, and requires to be replicated on a larger scale. However, the figures are sufficiently revealing to be worth quoting. Below, the first line gives my percentage figures from a scrutiny of all the poems in David Cobb’s British Museum Haiku (2002). These comprise the work of eleven nineteenth and twentieth century Japanese poets and sixteen earlier haijin.
|E - 67||I - 32||C - 1||S - 0|
|E - 46||I - 43||C - 8||S - 3|
The second line above presents the percentage findings of a very experienced haiku poet scrutinising a collection of classic Japanese poems: A Haiku Garland (translated by Peter Beilenson, and published by Peter Pauper Press in 1968). This collector’s item is, of course, a somewhat idiosyncratic choice. However, it was the best collection we had to hand, and my friend did find it usefully representative of the classic Japanese oeuvre. The two collections are only approximately comparable, in that Cobb’s is shorter and more selective, with the likelihood of a higher proportion of existential haiku. Even so, the figures still probably suggest that I was more likely to categorise a haiku as “existential” than was my fellow scrutineer. All that being said, however, we both agreed in finding remarkably few Japanese haiku of closure, in strong contrast to the two investigations of Western haiku. And we both experienced about a half of the Japanese poems as moving us existentially, as compared with a fifth in the Western sample.
The main value of this rough-and-ready inquiry lies in the support it gives to the view that too many Western haiku are failing to achieve the full potential of the genre, for here the evidence of my figures is sufficiently strong to discount subjectivity. And there is an even heavier Western preponderance in favour of haiku of closure, “entertainment haiku” at the most impoverished end of our haiku spectrum. Readers are invited to make their own investigation to test these claims.
In preparing this paper I have been encouraged by several writers who have voiced similar concerns. The most recent is Lee Gurga, and the following quotation well summarises the thrust of my argument.
It is in cultivating spiritually exalted states of mind … that haiku offers us something that is available nowhere else in our culture. The aesthetic ideals of haiku are not uniquely associated with Zen; aspects of them can be found in almost any spiritual tradition. Haiku offers humankind some alternative to the postmodern anthropocentric, narcissistic culture of our times (9).
(1) R.H. Blyth Haiku. Vol. 3 Summer-Autumn. Hokuseido Press, 1982. p.644.
(2) Lucien Stryk, trans. Cage of Fireflies: Modern Japanese Poetry. Ohio University Press, 1993.
(3) See Richard Gilbert “Disjunction in Contemporary English-language Haiku”, Modern Haiku 35(2) Summer 2004. pp.21- 44.
(4) R.H.Blyth As above, p.886.
(5) George Marsh Blithe Spirit 10(1) March 2000. p.55.
(6) Quoted in Makoto Ueda Matsuo Basho. Kodansha International, 1970.. p.62
(7) Quoted in Lee Gurga Haiku: a Poet’s Guide. Modern Haiku Press, 2003. p.106.
(8) George Swede Almost Unseen: Selected Haiku. Brooks Books, 2000.
(9) Lee Gurga. As above, p.132.
This is the third essay in a trilogy comprising: “Zen and the Art of Haiku” Blithe Spirit, 8(4) December 1998, pp.34-43, and “Liberative Haiku” Blithe Spirit 12(1) March 2002, pp.37-41. This essay first appeared in "Blithe Spirit" vol. 15(1).