by Ken Jones

Part 1: The Background
For some years now there has been a rumbling critique of the dominant haiku culture and its arguable failure to achieve the full literary potential of the genre. The case has been well summarised in a two part essay in Blithe Spirit 18/1 and 18/2 by Richard Gilbert ("The Disjunctive Dragonfly") below (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.

And so the objectivist imagery of the "haiku moment" fills the pages of English language haiku journals, and, in Gilbert's words. "the era when English language haiku … might be considered to provide an effective, autonomous aesthetic basis has yet to arrive."
Counterposed is the classic Japanese tradition of allusive imagery, distinguished by some kind of metaphorical resonance with the human condition, and meriting the term "existential haiku". They are existentially liberative because at their best they strike a spark of insight, of compassion, shared with the reader. This can sustain and celebrate our humanity however difficult our lives may be. The most common device to achieve that end is the typical swerving third line of disjunction, which Richard Gilbert has exhaustively examined. A variety of examples of allusive haiku will be found in the archive of the UK Haiku Sangha website, including my own trilogy of essays on "liberative haiku" and back files of the journal Haiku Spirit celebrating such haiku.
It is questionable whether these attempts to nudge English language haiku back onto their literary high road have so far met with much success. The "sketches from life" tradition is so deeply ingrained in poets, editors, reviewers and judges that it seems possible that English language haiku may have no literary future, and remain an eccentric, self-limiting byway on the poetry landscape.
Incidentally, it is perhaps the prevalence of shasei which gave English language haibun such a bad start. I refer to the colourless, deadpan prose which makes a virtue of the absence of feeling, imagination and other subjective deviations from just "telling it how it is".
All of the above is by way of introduction to the most recent and perhaps the most trenchant critique, in a paper by Jim Kacian entitled "So-ba" and delivered at the 2008 International Haiku Conference (published in Frogpond, 31/4 and 32/1). I hope that many Blithe Spirit readers will be moved to read the full 6,000 word essay at However, the essentials I have extracted below, with kind permission of the author.
Part 2: Extracts from a Paper Delivered at
the Plattsburgh International Haiku Conference, USA
30 July 2008
Jim Kacian

Bashô elevated haiku in the seventeenth century to a literary art. It remained in good health for a time, as his disciples kept the practice alive and taught others well. But after a time, and inevitably, haiku declined, returning again to wordplay and slickness of treatment as opposed to the depths of emotion and allusion it had come to feature at its zenith. There were two revivals of haiku as high art, each centering on the work and personality of a particular master of the art, first Buson (flourished 1760) and then Issa (flourished 1810), but neither created the widespread systematic schooling that Bashô had managed, and so haiku again and quickly slipped into a retrograde condition. It was in this state when Perry sailed into Tokyo harbour in 1853.
But through an unbelievable piece of bad luck, this happened at exactly the time that Japanese haiku was going through a remarkable revaluation, led by a young, ambitious poet: Masaoka Shiki. Shiki was very interested in the cross-cultural exchange that had come to Japan. His first love was that ancient and honourable Japanese sport-baseball. He was studying the English language as early as high school. And he had a taste for western art, particularly representational painting, which was to have a marked effect on his own opinions of what constituted good art. And, of course, he was deadly serious about haiku.
And we know the result: Shiki retooled the moribund haiku into an objectivist art, replete with a model of composition (shasei). Or, to put it in the terms of this conference: he jettisoned the ethos of 400 years of haiku
The consequences, of course, have been profound. The west came to haiku at the only time in its long and estimable history when it had adopted an objectivist orientation. Never mind that objectivism is philosophically untenable, that there is no way to prove through language the existence of any sort of reality "out there." Even more implausibly, the whole grounding of the traditional art of haiku, according to Shiki, was now to be based on an imported western construct. And haiku has suffered for it ever since.
This is not to say there is no value in Shiki's approach, but in seeking to revive it, he felt it necessary to throw out the very underpinnings of the art, the stuff out of which Bashô had made it an art form in the first place.
[This} matters because of the manner in which it has affected the very way in which you and I and all westerners have come to view haiku, narrowly limiting what haiku have traditionally been by making the least out of that which makes haiku so distinctive. In brief, we had taken on Shiki's programme as though it were the whole of haiku, when in fact it was an extremely minor, doctrinaire, one-time aberration in the lengthy history of haiku as an art.
So it is evident that we were very unlucky in our timing in coming to haiku, that we have had a great deal to overcome to arrive at anything approaching poetry as opposed to botany or empiricism. But the Japanese have not escaped entirely unscathed themselves.
Throughout the 20th century, Shiki and his disciples held the dominant position in Japanese haiku, so that Japanese poets and scholars had similar difficulties as non-Japanese in getting more subjective, allusion-driven work published and into circulation. The model was the shasei, the premier publication Hototogisu, and the dominant organization the Modern Haiku Association. But in the past three decades this has begun to change (cultural things generally change slowly in Japan) through the work of poets such as Kaneko Tohta and scholars such as Hasugawa Kai. And these poets and scholars too have recognized the hegemony that the Shiki model has held for so long at the expense of a proper valuing of the rest of the haiku tradition. Bashô is making a comeback in Japan, and allusion is returning to the poems published and winning awards.


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