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4th Sailing

Sails is a section of troutswirl that is devoted to presenting questions for discussion and debate on the nature and possibilities of haiku. Sails will be overseen by Peter Yovu. For an introduction to this section, see Sails.


4th Sailing

presented by Peter Yovu

What is the Purpose of our Poetry?
HMS_Beagle_full_sail I love the way questions arise on this blog quite naturally, inevitably, even. I come back to its guiding name, troutswirl, and think how in the animated turns of activity the blog generates, matters are raised as from a pond’s muddy floor, some shining like bits of mica coming into the sun, others still murky, fleeting, with fins. Some with teeth. One question has swirled up with great clarity, and some might say, a degree of urgency.

It was first asked by Paul Miller in a post beneath Envoy 4: “what is the purpose of our poetry?”

The word “purpose,” my dictionary tells me, is essentially the same as “propose,” to “put forward.” Certainly every time we write a poem and share it, we literally put it, and ourselves, forward. By doing so, is there something we want?

The invitation then, as I understand Paul’s question, is to explore what each of us purposes, or proposes, in and by our writing. The word “purpose” has implications not all will feel comfortable with; it may strike some as counter-intuitive in relation to art, which for many exists for its own sake. It implies a sense of what is private (personal) but also what is public, insofar as we wish to publish our work, to make it available to others, and perhaps to have an effect—to change something—but on what level, and to what degree? If there is a continuum between the personal (“my purpose is to see myself and my world more clearly”) and the public (“my purpose is to engage with the world at large in ways which may effect change”)— where do you find yourself? Of course, each of us will define his or her own continuum, or find another way entirely to enter the question.

As I mentioned before, and no doubt needless to repeat, this is an open forum wherein the guiding principle is mutual respect. The question of our 4th Sailing, I hope, will prompt discussion and maybe debate. I am curious about how you (and I) will enter it. I look forward, as always, to your response.


This Post Has 73 Comments

  1. Oh, and I didn’t answer the question! “What is the purpose of our poetry? I can only speak for myself, but to me it’s all about
    shared experience. I don’t want to teach anyone anything, or make any political points, or save the world. I simply want company in this one-way walk through life. And the best company I can find are those people who, like me, recognize the fleetingness of this life and want to record with accuracy moments that honor both the darkness and the light without
    emotional manipulation. I tend to prefer haiku that pays homage to the seasons. That pretty much sums it up for me right now. I might add that by ‘accurate’, I mean as honest as possible, whilst still trying to retain the beauty of the english language and using it to best advantage.


  2. What is the Purpose of our Poetry?

    I had to read this twice, because the first time I actually interpreted it as pertaining to the purpose of writing. But the question is really about product, not practice.

    I enjoyed Peter’s comment, “The best art, the best haiku whatever the subject, shines the brightest when it has come through the dark.

    For me, it’s not that it ‘comes through’ the darkness, but more a simple recognition that without darkness there would be no light. It’s about cycles, life and death. For instance, my appreciation for Michael McClintock’s haiku on poppies is felt only because I’m aware poppies have a season. For a moment I share the poet’s astonishment at such a massive blooming. I love the way this poem grows from an awareness of a single poppy to hills blowing with poppies. Then there is the old song ‘blowing in the wind’, and the significance of poppies and war memorials. So death is never far away from the brightest haiku.

    a poppy…
    a field of poppies!
    the hills blowing with poppies

    And then this dead cat haiku, also written by Michael McClintock, addresses the darkness directly by showing the cats vulnerability to the elements. The truth of this haiku is inescapable to me. I love cats but unfortunately we tend to outlive our pets. This cat exposes our own vulnerability, our own loss of control over our lives with the finality of death. I like being reminded of how short life is. How else to reap the most from those good moments?

    dead cat…
    to the pouring rain

    I just discovered this blog and I’m enjoying the questions and mulling over the many excellent responses.


  3. TYPO: source….not sourse….Oh, My…I can see it’s time to slow down. I was out by Whetstone Brook this morning and I think my mind is still flying in the sky with that hawk that was following me. What a joy that was. How do I bring my mind back in here to type bird tracks across a page?

  4. P.S. #1) Charles did not know what my point was when I submitted them. So that had no bearing on his choice.
    #2) TYPO: The word is “invective” not “invections” Sometimes my fingers type jokes to me!

  5. Scott: Regarding war poetry. I tested my proposition to you that only those people who are engaged in war can write about war and if haiku poets are given the subject of war to write about they will only get a whole lot of drivel. Of course, I was reading how Michael Dylan Welch, brought out how there are thousands and thousands of journals in Japan…and perhaps their purpose is to allow haiku of all degrees to be published and from that experience, to learn.
    But I went out one night when the cicadas were really vociforous and I was overcome with their cries…cries/prayer/invections…and went in and wrote my series of “war haiku” (if you can call them that.) I just kept writing as long as they came to me. I wrote them down in every form they appeared to me. I held them up a couple of days and went back to them, and they still spoke to me. So I decided to submit them to Charles Trumbull of Modern Haiku…(I figured he had the critical ability to spot anything that might be good in the group) I knew he would give his unvarnished opinion. And he proved my point. The only poem he found worthy to accept was one that had to do with my own BEING. It will be published in Issue 41.1 (winter/spring 2010) MODERN HAIKU.
    I just had to know for myself. I just had to cut through all the shoulda/coulda/woulda to the essential haiku. And I found it was in my own being. In our sourse is our truth and the right path.
    I am so glad you challenged us with this one. Wrestling with what “might have been” was such a valuable lesson for me.
    In gratitude, Merrill

  6. Hi, Gabi, I live in a trailer. I always tell everyone it’s like camping all year. One year the snow even came through the windows! It was a blizzard – John was in the hospital again – and I was all alone with the snow….except for the winter wren who only came out of the woods in the storms for a little suet.
    They have built up this place, trying to make it into a city.
    There’s a scrub woods a little to the south of this place and when we moved here I found red salamders. Then the bull dozers came.

    snow melt/the mystical movements of/mating salamders


  7. “that’s why I’m so intense about trying to really get a fix on what makes a good kigo… and why.”

    Well, I guess you answered your question already.
    If you feel it with all your body, that is the best indicator, the best experience.
    Now just express what you feel in three lines / short/long/short (if you want to keep with the traditional haiku conventions, add a cut marker and a kigo that you find in the many online kigo pages.

    We live in an old farmhouse, where the inside is just as warm/cold as the outside … so we are very aware of the seasonal changes, believe me, as were the old haiku poets living in these conditions without any choice of changeing them.

    Maybe the modern culture is not the best for your haiku life … grin grin …
    I live almost as simple as old ISSA must have lived. And enjoy every minute of it, simple as it is. The joy at the first butterfly of the year is really something !


  8. Thanks, Gabi, I signed up for the mailing list for School of the Seasons. What I’m having difficulty with is more trying to convey the season changes that I’m experiencing with others who are not particularly interested in seasons – or poetry for that matter most of the time. In fact it seems to be an act of will to live above the seasons…if there’s a blizzard coming, why stay home? I’m extremely sensitive to seasonal changes as it changes my body immensely. I’ve been trying to find some connection with this modern culture that could connect with the ancient seasons that can be understood by anybody. Poetry and haiku are a big help and that’s why I’m so intense about trying to really get a fix on what makes a good kigo…and why.
    Thank you for your patience. Your help has been terrific.

  9. Dear Merrill
    I am afraid I do not know the book, but here is a LINK to an online page which is quite inspiring about “living in season”

    But books and theories will not help you living in the natural world, you have to get out there and experience it first hand! Then you will find yourself surrounded by things that change during the seasons.
    You can also find changes of seasons in your daily life, check the categories of OBSERVANCES and HUMANITY in the World Kigo Database

    Here area ALL the kigo for humanity in autumn in Japan (I just finished the complete listing)

    I am sure you can find some similar ones in your life, the list should only be an inspiration to observe your life more closely and find the hints there.

    Masaoka Shiki spend a lot of time ill in bed, and yet wrote beautiful and haunting haiku about the changes of the seasons.

    I wish you all the best !

  10. As the season turns (a crips chill wind last night informed me it has) I know the importance of kigo. And as I was thinking of the dilemma of writing haiku in a culture that is growing further and further away from our biological bearings, and to have more and more of our conscious mind absorbed by inter-human communication and experiences, I’m wondering if there was some way to reintroduce our natural physicality back into our culture. There’s a book I was contemplating buying from Yale University Press: ” SEASONS OF LIFE: The Biological Rhythms that Enables Living Things to Thrive and Survive.”
    ISBN: 9780300115567 and ISBN: 10:0300115563. It’s by Russell G. Foster and Leon Kreitzman.
    Gabi, do you think a book like this could help us to understand better the use of kigo?
    I guess my difficulty comes in trying to write haiku that is true to my life, and yet still is based in the natural world. The two worlds seem to be being split asunder.

  11. So many purposes stream through the act of writing even so small a thing as (what I sometimes call) haiku. The first seems to be to enjoy the pleasure of the pencil in my hand. Sliced thinly enough on a microtome, would each cell of graphite (a nucleus of black surrounded by an aureole of pink wood hinted yellow at the edge) contain one word, and would there be enough slices, enough words, to fill a dictionary? A pencil, narrow womb giving and giving of itself until is spent, until all its words have been born and all that remains, like death’s one nipple, is the eraser.

    Another purpose, (and I have skipped eleven or twelve getting here) is wrapped in paradox: it is the purpose of having no purpose (or no conscious purpose) which allows discovery. Others have spoken about haiku being a way of discovery, though I’m not sure what they mean. For me, it happens something like this—in the course of a day, or several, I am charged by experience: by what I have observed, by how my senses have played and been played with, by my thoughts, dreams and wellings up of unconscious life. Then I come to write and it is as if little depth charges ignite on the page, fueled by the energies I’ve described. Sometimes it just makes a mess and leaves Rorschach-shaped powder burns, but sometimes I find that some kind of digestion has occurred within me, some kind of combining of sunlight, soil and water around the seed of my experience, and it bears fruit in ways I could not have expected. I like that some people work with the seasons in their writing. I seem to need to discover the season from day to day.

    When I think of some kind of greater purpose to my writing, of how it may affect the world, I get a bit fuzzy. I talked in another post about the importance, as I see it, of engaging with shadow, or unconscious energies and allowing them to come into the poem. In some ways this is only saying that it is important to allow some form of life which we cannot claim as our own, which we do not control, to shape and inform our work. Another paradox: one way to do this is to make full use of our toolbox—the more I study sound, the nature of image, rhythm, and those aspects of haiku and Japanese aesthetics which long ago grabbed my imagination, the more the life in me (which is mine by not controlling it) can well up and enter the dance of language. I believe it is this process, more or less, that may affect the world. Something like: make poems, not war. In the 60’s we called it love and it seemed easy. Now it feels like work. Good work. Yours encourages me.

  12. The purpose of your poetry, for me is to discover and read a
    haiku of incredible verity that absolutely shakes me into being aware. I am grateful for the gift you all share with me.
    Yes, my answer is more fully revealed in Periplum #4…Fay Aoyagi is such a treasure.

  13. Yes, Peter, you have been patient. Here follows a very personal viewpoint.

    I write because … well, I do. It’s lovely to be published and to see my name in competition results – the old Sally Field “you love me, you really love me” – but I think that even if nothing were to ever be published I would still gain a great deal of fulfilment from the simple act of crafting something.

    I’m not a woodworker and I’m not a musician. I can’t carve stone or make lace. I regard cooking as chemistry and gardening as horticulture. My children say I can’t dance.

    I write.

    Haiku makes me slow down, stop, look, listen, taste and sniff. It makes me question what I’m seeing, think about how I’m feeling. It drives me back into my memory and to listen more carefully to the stories of others.

    But it also demands skill and technical knowledge that I am still gaining, thanks to the many generous members of the international haiku community. It is a craft I enjoy practising – the challenge of getting it right (3 lines are easy to get wrong, harder to get right), understanding the form, bringing it all together in that mysterious alchemy of “creativity”.

    It keeps me thinking. It keeps me interested (reading and writing). And, perhaps above all, it’s fun.

  14. What is the purpose of our poetry? I hope there are still a few readers who are willing to engage this question before we embark on a new one. It may help to re-read the intro and some of the responses below it.

  15. hopefully next week sometime. in the meantime, check out the new post (Periplum #4: Fay Aoyagi).

  16. Hi, Scott, When is the next Sailing coming? Time to move on.
    There can’t be anything more to say about this post and perhaps if we’ve deviated from it’s motive perhaps we might revisit it some time in the future in a different port.

  17. To make a analogy: Debussy, Stravinsky and Penderecki are just as much “classical music” as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Stylistically they are quite different, but it still falls under the category of classical music.

    Of course, Haydn and Mozart didn’t CALL what they did “classical music.” This term was applied later. And this term is applied retroactively on composers prior to the classical period (Bach, Monteverdi, et al). This, as far as I’ve ever known, doesn’t bother classical music listeners or musicians.

    To make the argument that Basho and Shiki wrote two different things is like saying Stravinsky didn’t write symphonies.

  18. A lot depends on how one states matters. There’s quite a difference between bald facts and interpretations of them. Here is my own interpretation:

    1. Shiki renamed an existing genre. He did not create a new genre. He simply distinguished between the starting verse of a renku and standalone poems. Overwhelmingly, poets have found his distinction to be useful.

    2. Haiku has continued to evolve through the tumultuous 20th c. (and beyond) and across cultures. Today, we see both continuities and discontinuities with past practice. The productive discontinuities have not been a result of a “misunderstanding” of what is not difficult to grasp but of conscious artistic choices and the needs of different times, places, and individuals. The term “haiku” today is understood to refer both to the old standalone “hokku” (an archaic term except when applied to the starting verse of a renku) and to everything that has evolved from it.

    I think that clearly defines our differences. And I agree it is past time to move on.

  19. Allan Burns wrote:

    “We should be grateful for our own ability to write as we wish and should not hesitate or fail to find the courage to exercise that right.”

    Quite true, Allan, but again, sadly, quite beside the points I am making, which some seem determined to misinterpret or re-interpret or evade. So here it is one final time.

    The simple, historically verifiable facts are:

    1. Bashō did not write haiku, which did not exist prior to Shiki’s revisionist creation of it near the end of the 19th century.

    2. Modern haiku — specifically post-traditional haiku — generally has nothing in common with the hokku written from the time of Bashō and Onitsura in the 17th century up to the revisionist creation of the haiku by Shiki near the beginning of the 19th century except brevity. It is really a relatively new verse form, the result of the misunderstanding and misperceiving of the old haiku by Westerners, combined with Western notions of poetry and poets.

    Those are the facts, which anyone can easily verify for themselves simply through a minimum of historical research. It is not rocket science.

    As Hillel said, “all the rest is commentary.”

    Most of the comments here are the result not of any flaw in these verifiable facts (there is none), but simply the consequence of the commentors not liking these facts. That is evident in that no one here has yet offered the slightest evidence to disprove them, but instead have chosen to deal with matters of personal preference.

    What one does with these facts is entirely up to them. But I would add that it takes no courage to evade reality.

    For those who resist correcting terminology, I would point out that just because Bush did not know how to pronounce the word “nuclear,” and persistently enunciated it as “noo-kyoo-ler” was no evidence of courage or of healthy independence, simply evidence of lack of knowledge of the language. Once one knows the facts, change requires only applying the facts to usage. And that is a very simple matter.

    I have enjoyed this discussion, and my thanks again to those who operate the site for their indulgence, as well as to all those expressing their own views. The main points were made some time ago, so it is time for me to end my participation in this segment.

    If anyone has further questions or needs clarification, they are welcome to ask me directly on my hokku blog site.

  20. Something else to think about:

    Click on my name to link to an article from Roadrunner 7.2 (2007) by Richard Gilbert & Itô Yûki. It concerns the persecution of Japanese poets during WW II whose work evinced individualist and experimental tendencies.

    Here are some excerpts:

    “During the war, over 40 New Rising Haiku poets were persecuted; they were imprisoned and tortured, and some died in prison. These progressive poets were also made to sign false confessions and denounce their own and others’ poetry and thought. Various progressive journals were banned and printing presses destroyed. Many of these poets, after a stay in prison, were sent to the front lines of the war.”

    “Takahama Kyoshi [Mr. “singing about flowers and birds”] became the president of a haiku branch of the fascist government culture-control/propaganda group known as The Japanese Literary Patriotic Organization (nihon bungaku hôkoku kai), which was devoted to both censorship and persecution, along with a host of other war crimes. At the time, the Director of the society was Ono Bushi, whose title was: The Agent of Investigation of the Minds of the Nation’s Citizens (kokumin jyôsô chosa iin). Perhaps the most notorious statement published by Ono reads: ‘I will not allow haiku even from the most honorable person, from left-wing, or progressive, or anti-war, groups to exist. If such people are found in the haiku world, we had better persecute them, and they should be punished. This is necessary.'”

    “According to the fascist-traditionalists, to write haiku without kigo meant anti-tradition, which in turn meant anti-Imperial order and high treason. As such, all New Rising Haiku was to be annihilated. Ito writes, ‘We are reminded of how the Nazis preserved so-called pure nationalist art, while persecuting the modern styles of so‑called ‘degenerate art’”.

    This short eye-opening article, followed by some translations, sheds a lot of light on what was at stake in terms of freedom of expression in 20th c. haiku…and on where conservative control-freak passions allied with political power can lead.

    We should be grateful for our own ability to write as we wish and should not hesitate or fail to find the courage to exercise that right. The labels others might apply to our work after the fact are of no consequence by comparison. Haiku, senryu, ku, short poems: The important thing is to write what you need to write.

  21. Allan Burns wrote:

    It’s worth reflecting on the fact that the term “haiku” was established so successfully by Shiki largely because he was the top haiku poet of his era.”

    Not surprising. He was the only haiku poet of his era when he first began, given that he created the “haiku” shortly before the turn of the century. All the others that followed him in writing it were his students, directly or indirectly.

    It is worth noting, however, that the schism in haiku was not long in coming. Very little time passed before Shiki’s student Hekigodō abandoned Shiki’s principles and went off on his own, a matter not helped by the fact that Kyoshi, Shiki’s other chief (and more conservative) student, had alienated the affections of Hekigodō’s girlfriend while Hekigodō was ill and in the hospital.

    Aside from that soap-opera detail, Hekigodō’s version of “haiku” became more and more radical until he began referring to them as “short poems” rather than as “haiku,” which is precisely what Harold Henderson suggested should be done with verses that did not fit the conservative aesthetic — give them a new name. And it is worth noting that Scott Metz has proposed simply calling haiku-like poems “ku” — which is the Japanese general and non-specific term for a verse. Everything old is new again.

    Thus the origins, in any case, of post-traditional haiku. It is worth keeping in mind the remarks of Koishi Jin’ichi on the later and more radical verses of Hekigodō:

    “When this point is reached, haikai and haiku disappear both in name and reality.”

    No wonder Shiki’s other student, Kyoshi, became in some respects even more conservative than Shiki, and declared in 1928 that haiku is “singing about flowers and birds.”

    Koishi Jin’ichi said of Hekigodō,

    “Having gone bravely ahead on his own road, he came to destroy the road before him.”

    Something to think about.

  22. Paul McNeil wrote:

    “So … if my haiku don’t have the right craft (Blyth’s punctuation and linage) then their Art is misdirected/misapplied?”

    As I have already stated several names, I am concerned here merely with the verifiable facts. Beyond that all is matters of taste and opinion, and I defend the right of anyone to write as he or she wishes — and maintain also my own right to personal preferences, the same as I grant all others. I thus make a very clear distinction between fact and preference.

    Paul also wrote:

    “You assert Barnhill must have been mistaken or otherwise influenced.”

    Actually what I said was:

    As David Landis Barnhill correctly wrote in his book paradoxically titled “Bashō’s Haiku,”

    “…the individual poems that Bashō wrote are, properly speaking, hokku.”

    That illustrates what I said earlier:

    “Scholars may, unfortunately (like David Barnhill), sometimes mix it with the later term “haiku” simply because that term is more familiar to the non-academic public, but nonetheless they readily admit that hokku is the historically-correct term — both in Japan and in the West.”

    Again Paul wrote:

    “Blyth even translated and included Shiki, as many scholars seem to….”

    Not only Shiki, but even writers after him in both traditional haiku and the beginnings of post-traditional haiku, because Blyth’s history extended up to a bit beyond 1920. And Blyth had a great many illuminating remarks to make about what he saw as the decline of the verse from from the Meiji era up to his own time, such as:

    “…but speaking personally, and therefore somewhat violently, I feel that very little would be lost if all the haiku of modern times were tacitly forgotten.”

    As we can see from that, Blyth also had his personal preferences, and how seriously one will take them depends on the extent to which one admires the work and taste of Blyth. As everyone who knows me is aware, my personal opinion is that no writer, past or present, has yet approached the depth of understanding of hokku represented in Blyth.

    But those who disagree are welcome to their views. I am not here to prove or disprove opinions, merely to present and defend basic, easily-verifiable facts.

    Regarding Harold Henderson, one need only read his book Haiku in English to see how he defended what he felt to be critical elements of the traditional haiku (whether one agrees with his assessment or not). And further one finds only confirmation of the same in the book A Haiku Path, which includes details of Henderson’s efforts to maintain the same traditional elements against what he saw as troubling amount of opposition among the founders of the Haiku Society of America.

    As for the rest of what Paul wrote, aside from his opinions and personal preferences, I think I have already covered the field.

    Gabi has inserted a healthy bit of lightheartedness by her talk with “Old Bananas” and her pondering the mysteries of the American pine.

    The first thing I thought of on reading her remarks was that from my perspective, all too many American writers seem to be going to learn from the kind of pine I saw along a roadside in California, which turned out to be an artificial tree disguising a cell phone tower.

    But that again is a view conditioned by personal preference.

  23. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that the term “haiku” was established so successfully by Shiki largely because he was the top haiku poet of his era. Poets have always followed genuine sources of poetic strength, and that remains the case today. Those who know only how to look backward cannot guide the poets or write the poems of their time.

    The current discussion of the purpose of our poetry was derailed by one person’s quixotic obsession with terminology, not to mention ultra-conservative distortions of haiku history and of Bashō’s character. (Sure, the pine quotation is marvelous…but its celebration of natural feeling and oneness hardly supports a backward-looking view of haiku.)

    I share Sandra’s view that the semantic issue adds up to much ado about nothing. The rest of this hokku kudzu, as Paul (MacNeil) points out, has largely been a matter of insults and false appeals to authority. “Verified facts”? Such as that Shiki’s successful introduction of the term “haiku” was “a foolish move”? That’s a fact, eh?

    The bottom line is that the word “haiku” is perfectly adequate for our needs and will remain so.

    “Learn the rules, and then forget them.” — Bashō

  24. Gabi, I have this problem. In America, a pine is called a pine.
    I don’t know the word for it in Japanese. I have watched fine poets give their lives to understanding the Japanese and trying to share that gift with Americans like me who try to write an American form of a Japanese poetry. Is that futile?
    Whatever you call the tree, whether in Japanese or American English…it’s still the essence of a tree of a certain species and genus.
    Is that possible?

  25. Mr. Comber,
    or, ahh, err
    Mr. Koomly,
    Oh no, wait a second, I can just scroll up a bit and see the correct spelling

    David Coomler:

    Your argument has reasoning befitting a Byzantine labyrinth beneath ancient St. Sophia . . . Sophistic tricks of argument including at least:

    “circular argument”
    “appeal to false authority”
    “false appeal to authority”
    “self-defined terms”
    “straw man”
    “demean the speaker/demeans the speaker’s argument”

    Your argument that all is “post-traditional” or “modern” [your terms, self defined] haiku because one A.) doesn’t look like Blyth & B.) doesn’t portray Japanese aesthetics.

    So … if my haiku don’t have the right craft (Blyth’s punctuation and linage) then their Art is misdirected/misapplied? I do not know and write with any knowledge of season, of makoto, of aware, of wabi and sabi?

    You say and know this? Insults.

    This is so circular that both sharp ends must puncture the argument front and rear. Recalls the old philosophical explanation” “Those who tell do not know: those who know do not tell.” I happen to let the language break the parts of the haiku, in a perhaps more Japanese manner that Blyth who used punctuation? But you say, as I just had, the languages are different. Oh so true, but your circle is again most barbed . . .
    Blyth used punctuation and it made wonderful English, accepted by all you say (see Argument by association, falsely to authority). As if all parts of haiku are sentences or should be seen to end (“end punctuation”) or are fine Western verses that need a capital letter and the only breaks are colons or semicolons? If modern Japanese when Romaji is used has adopted punctuation? Business and much scholarship is indeed done in English, the language is widely taught in Japan.
    In haiku? But, no, another circle stabs… most all of Japanese current haiku writers and Masters disagree with you, so why are they an authority on any part of your argument? As was pointed out, Blyth (and Henderson, Yasuda, etc.) used “haiku”… and went further — Blyth even translated and included Shiki, as many scholars seem to, among the 5 (adding in Onistura). I’ve met and heard presentations by translators Stryk, Sato, Donegan, as well as scholars/translators such as Spiess, Higginson, Trumbull, Lanoue, McMurray, and Burleigh. All seem to use “haiku” as term for work then and now, as a means of general understanding. Yes, yes, I and your audience here already know that Shiki coined the term.

    Appeal to false authority?

    Right or wrong, you have appeared to give Papal dispensation for the rest of us, lowly unsaved souls in the way of “hokku,” to write what we will. Thanks.

    False appeal to authority?

    You assert Barnhill must have been mistaken or otherwise influenced. You tell us, your opinion, that Shirane said what was was quoted, but if we but knew enough we would know beyond his words what he meant, and that it would agree with you. You started with Henderson — that he warned western poets not to forget Japanese conventions — and you added: by which he means Japanese aesthetics. Your opinion again, but associated with an “expert.” Mr. Coomler, I bought Shirane’s book before the Haiku North America convention in 1999 in Evanston IL. It was much discussed in haiku circles. I attended his speech there, heard the extensive Q & A afterward, and with another haiku writer/editor spoke with him privately several times — with questions. I heard him speak again at HNA Boston two years later. We all read his later essay in Modern Haiku. Quite a few readers here and members of the founders and board of THF were also exposed to Shirane in person. I and they may have some idea what he wrote and meant. And Henderson? I have his book here, beside the keyboard. Plenty of “Post-Hokku” folks heard him speak in New York, and know his works. From Henderson’s “Haiku in English” Japan Society, 1965 are these points:
    He writes of 4 Rules for Japanese haiku. Briefly: short duration [of the poem], of nature and seasonal setting, one event, that event in the here and now. He continues that from the shortness “rule” it develops that some haiku have no verb, are not sentences, and may lack some small — to be instead understood — words. Henderson uses the word “conventions” as special techniques deriving from the 4 rules such as “internal comparison.” Henderson: “Rules 3 and 4, taken together, suggest that haiku may be regarded as a special way of conveying to the reader the emotions felt by the poet at some particular event. The suggestion is strengthened by a fifth general rule or restriction — not quite so universal as the first four — that the emotion is conveyed not by stating or describing it, but by describing or clearly suggesting the circumstances that aroused it.” … “The main objective of all haiku techniques is to recreate the circumstances that aroused the poet’s emotion. By putting himself in the same circumstances the reader may experience the emotion directly.”

    [Writing in 1965 Henderson continues]
    “… the majority of American poets do not seem to be familiar with the techniques developed by the Japanese haiku-masters. It is not suggested that these techniques must be adopted, but it does seem obvious that some knowledge of them would be useful, at the very least, as suggestions for developing their own techniques.”

    “[haiku in English] It seems obvious that they cannot be exactly the same as Japanese haiku — if only because of the difference in language. At the same time, they cannot differ _too_ much and still be haiku.”

    [He concludes the book]
    “The basic objective of poets who write haiku in English is the same as that of poets who write in Japanese. They wish to let their readers experience, for themselves, the same living emotions that they themselves experienced. It cannot be done quite in the Japanese way; therefore it has to be done in our way. It is a noble objective, and a great challenge.”

    This is not a clarion call to return to “hokku,” whatever that is or was. It is an admonition to know what “haiku” is, before dashing off in other directions. Then, at least, the dash is an informed one.

    Mr. Coomler you are exactly wrong in your turning the use of anachronism back on Allan. It is your slice of the past of an evolving process, as Henderson foretold, that is. Haikai as Basho found it in his time, speaks to successive poets who have found it also and adapted it to their times, geographies, and languages. “”Hokku” other than as starting verse in the renku I often write, is an anachronism . . . as any dictionary shows the definition of anachronism. And, if there is such a category, that is argument by appeal to true authority.

    According to my opera libretto understanding of Italian, they have a word for “enough” — “basta!”

  26. Sandra Simpson wrote:

    “Uh, not the entire English-speaking world is American, David, and, speaking personally, I don’t write haiku with “haphazard or missing punctuation and capitalisation”.”

    I think you have somehow completely misread what I wrote. I said nothing about the entire English-speaking world being American. Nor did I say there were no people in modern haiku who write with reasonably normal punctuation.

    I was speaking of that very large segment of writers of modern haiku who DO use haphazard or missing punctuation and capitalization — and I include here those who make do with a perfunctory hyphen — and their usage can be directly traced, historically, back to the poetic experiments of American writers in the first half of the 20th century.

    The rest of what you wrote deals with matters of opinion and personal taste, and leaves the verifiable facts I have presented untouched.

  27. “One can trace its haphazard or missing punctuation and capitalization back to the poetic experiments of American writers in the first half of the 20th century”

    Uh, not the entire English-speaking world is American, David, and, speaking personally, I don’t write haiku with “haphazard or missing punctuation and capitalisation”.

    Instead, I subscribe to the theory that every haiku is a moment in the stream of time, no more or less important than the moment preceding or following. Whether you view that stream as flowing endlessly forwards, or backwards, around in a circle or even if you believe there are several disparate streams floating through space supported by four elephants it doesn’t really matter. “American writers in the first half of the 20th century” had nothing to do with it – I came to this decision after considering all the possibilities, discussing it with other non-American writers and of my own free will.

    Your “essential point” about the term haiku being anachronistic is a so-what? As I said previously, language moves on. You can be an old fogey (or a young fogey) and stick with what you consider to be “right” and lecture others at great length (perhaps hoping they will run off screaming) … or you can get over it!

    The word “presently” has in the past few years shifted away from being “soon, in the near future” to mean “at present”. I hate the change, but who cares what I think? The rest of the English-speaking world deems it to be otherwise and the meaning has changed, whether I like it or not.

    Very few people, including respected writers, seem able to place the word “only” in its correct spot in a sentence. Yes, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but only in my universe. Being able to see the funny side helps.

    You say tomato … and I dispute your pronounciation!

  28. “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.
    And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there.
    However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”

    Still the good quote it is !

    I think the “subjective preoccupations” (EGO, my freedom, breaking the rules, moving on, challenging the old … and all that) are quite a problem when it comes to haiku/hokku.
    The “American pine” seems to talk a different language than the “Japanese pine” …

    Once old Bananas talked to me in a dream … grin …

    If you want to write haiku about the pine,
    learn the essence of the pine from the pine.

    And then apply what you learned about the secrets of writing haiku (to be quite honest, he said HOKKU) and write about the pine wisdom accordingly.

    Click on my name if you want to smile at the whole dream.

    And thank you, David, for your clear voice !

  29. One more point, Allan. You wrote:

    “Shiki simply introduced a useful and much-needed distinction between the opening verse of a renku and a standalone poem.”

    Originally no such distinction was needed OR useful. Hokku covered a verse whether in a sequence or separate. It was thus both versatile and accurate.

    Now the only reason Shiki felt the need for a distinction was because he decided that linked verse did not meet his new standard of “literature,” and so he decided not just to separate the hokku from linked verse — which was already a very old practice — but to remove linked verse from the picture entirely, dropping it into what he hoped would be the dustbin of history. And that is why he stopped using hokku, and began using “haiku.”

    That this was a foolish move is beginning to become quite obvious to those in the modern haiku community who have decided to begin practicing linked verse again. And in doing so they have discovered that to describe its first verse, they have to return to the original term, “hokku.” But if they publish such a first verse separately, then they are faced with the awkwardness of describing it as a “haiku.”

    So Shiki’s change of term from hokku to “haiku” proved useful to him in his propagandistic purposes of destroying linked verse and promoting his revisionist views, but it is neither useful nor necessary when dealing with the hokku in its historical or modern context, nor has it proved useful for those in modern haiku when they try to restore linked verse and have to use confusing and inappropriate double terminology.

  30. The term “haiku” replaced hokku in popular usage only because people stopped learning how to write hokku in the first part of the 20th century and began writing the less-demanding “haiku” instead. Every scholar, as I pointed out, whether Japanese or European or American, knows that Bashō did not write haiku — he wrote hokku, which is the correct term whether they are alone, in a sequence, or embedded in a travel journal.

    As David Landis Barnhill correctly wrote in his book paradoxically titled “Bashō’s Haiku,”

    “…the individual poems that Bashō wrote are, properly speaking, hokku.”

    That is the simple, verifiable fact — for those who want to be “properly speaking,” that is, correct.

    Allan Burns wrote:

    “Haiku from Shiki’s time to the present has diversified in a variety of ways. But it often does still include such traditional features as season words, nature reference, and cuts….”

    Of course it does. No one is disputing that. It is the basis of distinction between traditional haiku — haiku that follows the conservative mode of Shiki and his student Kyoshi — and non-traditional haiku, which may abandon one or all three of these characteristics. That is the importance of using correct terminology.

    One cannot just speak of “haiku” and let it go at that, because modern haiku is a multitude of often very different kinds of verse, usually having only brevity in common, and sometimes not even that. It is precisely for that reason that we distinguish traditional haiku from post-traditional haiku.

    Hokku, on the contrary, is for the most part just one thing, with a common aesthetic and common characteristics. It is not a part of the revisionist tradition of Shiki, but a continuation of the essentials of the old hokku in the English and other modern languages.

    Allan also wrote:

    “Haiku, though, cannot be defined by reference to specific techniques or conventions….”

    That is only true of haiku when taken as a very imprecise and misleading and therefore unsatisfactory umbrella term for many different kinds of verse. It is not correct when accurate terminology is used. It does not, for example, generally apply to traditional haiku as practiced today. However it is very true of modern post-traditional haiku, which often has little in common with either hokku or traditional haiku except brevity, and as I pointed out, sometimes not even that. I have seen examples at least five lines in length.

    Allan further writes:

    “The nature of haiku is subtle and elusive, which I suppose is bothersome to those who long for Platonic verities.”

    Actually the nature of modern haiku is seldom subtle, and is elusive only if one tries to elicit from its writers exactly what their aesthetics are, because there are countless widely differing and often contrary views on the matter among those who practice it.

    Modern haiku is, however, virtually an open book to anyone who has studied its origins and history in detail, and it reveals itself to have originated in the misunderstanding and misperception of the old hokku, combined with Western notions of poets and poetry. One can trace its haphazard or missing punctuation and capitalization back to the poetic experiments of American writers in the first half of the 20th century, and the rest of its development and its characteristics today — in whatever manifestation — can be similarly explained.

    Now when you quote:

    “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets; seek what they sought,”

    you are missing the point entirely, because what it is saying is just this: Do not try to be a duplicate image of the old writers; instead seek what they sought, which is revealing Nature and the place of humans within Nature through the same aesthetic principles that govern all of the contemplative arts.

    That is why Bashō had no shame in continuing to write in the same hokku form as Sōgi, who worked almost two centuries previously, and that is why Bashō did not encourage his students to transform the hokku into something else, telling them that it was “outdated.” Instead he encouraged his students to go the same wellsprings of Nature and the traditional aesthetics in order to manifest them in ways that continually expressed them afresh.

    That is something quite different. And it was only when writers of hokku stopped going to its the aesthetic wellsprings that it began to stagnate, not because of any lack of virtue or freshness in the form or the aesthetic itself, but because of virtue and freshness in the writers. And that was when Shiki, influenced by Western notions of art and literature that were then flooding Japan, decided to abandon the hokku and to present his revisionist “haiku” in its place.

    It was because Bashō held so firmly to the traditional aesthetic that he said nothing to his students encouraging them to be constantly changing the outward form of hokku, or to take up new and strange subjects unrelated to its basic aesthetics, or to abandon Nature.

    Instead his teaching was essentially to show the way back to fundamentals:

    “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”


  31. Shiki simply introduced a useful and much-needed distinction between the opening verse of a renku and a standalone poem. That “hokku” was the term used earlier for such standalone poems is disputed by no one, but the word “haiku” replaced that archaic term and is universally used today. Anyone who wants to dispute that can argue with the titles of innumerable books on the subject that use the term “haiku”.

    Haiku from Shiki’s time to the present has diversified in a variety of ways. But it often does still include such traditional features as season words, nature reference, and cuts as countless exs. would show. The contention that contemporary practitioners of any note are *unaware* of such conventions is, not to mince words, absurd and counter-factual. This very simple information is widely available in sources such as handbooks, histories, and anthologies.

    Haiku, though, cannot be defined by reference to specific techniques or conventions any more than it can by reference to a 5-7-5 metrical structure. There are always exceptions to every “rule”, and we find such exceptions in the work of past masters as well as in contemporary practice. Furthermore, contemporary practice is not limited to the techniques associated with past masters. The nature of haiku is subtle and elusive, which I suppose is bothersome to those who long for Platonic verities. And to characterize innovation and creative freedom as “sour grapes” says much more about the axe someone is grinding (at great length) than about the history of haiku.

    “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets; seek what they sought.” — Bashō

  32. I think the last two comments have explained the position of modern haiku rather well, though still failing to simply and clearly admit the inescapable and essential point I am making.

    Modern haiku is of course historically related to old hokku — it developed out of it, first through the revisions of Shiki, then through the “seeding” of the West with it in the Imagist Period, then again through the writings of Blyth and Henderson in the mid-20th century.

    But In both periods it was greatly misunderstood and misperceived in the West, with the more conservative urgings of Blyth and Henderson toward keeping traditional aesthetics being generally ignored or rejected.

    Thus the verse form changed in the West, often drastically. The greatest metamorphosis resulting from the misperception and misunderstanding of hokku in the West came with the appearance of post-traditional haiku, which is so far from the old hokku as to be quite a different verse form.

    Now one may take the “sour grapes” perspective that a verse form must change to live, but I think that is simply an excuse for preferring the ease and lack of universal standards of modern haiku rather than the more challenging demands of the hokku.

    Nonetheless, we must distinguish matters of fact from matters of opinion. Virtually everyone here accepts — though perhaps not willing to say it outright, apparently — that modern, post-traditional haiku is not at all the same as the old hokku; that acceptance is implicit and inherent in the “must change to live” excuse. And that is really all that I have been trying to get the modern haiku community to admit.

    As for the term “hokku” being obsolete in Japan, that is not really true. What is true is that it has been overwhelmed in popular usage by Shiki’s term “haiku,” and that is because modern Japanese wholeheartedly accepted the less demanding aesthetics of the haiku over those of the hokku, though older people continued to speak of hokku right up to the middle of the 20th century.

    But the correct term hokku is still quite well known to anyone with a good education in Japan, and is used in scholarly publications both in Japan and in the United States as the historically correct term for what was written prior to Shiki. That applies to such verses whether they appeared isolated from a renga sequence (which they did from very early times) or associated with a sequence.

    Scholars may, unfortunately (like David Barnhill), sometimes mix it with the later term “haiku” simply because that term is more familiar to the non-academic public, but nonetheless they readily admit that hokku is the historically-correct term — both in Japan and in the West.

    So there is no question that hokku is the historically correct term for what was written prior to the revisionism of Shiki and his creation of the new “haiku.”

    The problem in both cases is that the modern haiku community in the 20th century tried deliberately to obfuscate the situation by declaring the term “hokku” obsolete; one can verify that in the published history of the Haiku Society of America; and further, the pundits of modern haiku in that period generally obscured the differences between hokku and what they were teaching as modern haiku so thoroughly, that when I began teaching hokku many years ago, most people who had been in haiku for years had no idea that Bashō and all the others did not call what they wrote “haiku” — they called it hokku, as a part of their practice of haikai. Nor did people understand that what they were writing was generally not the same in its aesthetics and principles as what had been written prior to Shiki. That is the fault of the “teachers,” who seemed to want the matter obscured. But those who created more confusion than light in the 20th century are now passing from the scene, and it is time to end the confusion both concerning correct terminology and that concerning the comparative aesthetics of the hokku and of the modern, post-traditional haiku.

    Now this is all a very simple matter, and there are two facts that emerge from it, yet getting people in modern haiku to admit the obvious is like pulling teeth. The facts are:

    1. Bashō and all the rest up to the revisionism of Shiki, from the 17th to near the end of the 19th century, called what they wrote hokku, NOT “haiku.” Hokku is thus the historically correct term and “haiku” is anachronistic. Every scholar — even those who confusingly use the popular term “haiku” when writing for the general public — is aware of this fact. I invite anyone to directly disprove that if they can, without lots of verbal tapdancing and evasion.

    2. Modern post-traditional haiku has changed so much that it often has little in common with the old hokku but brevity. It often abandons season; it often abandons a direct connection with Nature; and it often shares little or nothing with the aesthetics common to the traditional Japanese contemplative arts. One can easily verify this by comparing the aesthetics of the old hokku with those of modern, post-traditional haiku. Of course to do this, one must first KNOW the aesthetics of the old hokku, which almost everyone writing post-traditional haiku does not.

    Now given that all these things are easily-verifiable facts, the only REAL difference between us, then, is that I prefer the hokku and its aesthetics. Those in modern haiku prefer the revisionist aesthetics, with their lack of universally- accepted standards capable of defining just what a modern haiku should be.

    And that, of course, as I have been saying all along, is a matter of taste. One can accept the historically-accurate facts, and it still all comes down to a matter of taste, and that is as it should be.

    Fortunately, those who prefer modern haiku are free to continue writing it; and I am free to continue writing and teaching hokku.

    It has taken a lot of discussion simply to make two points, the validity of which should have been obvious to everyone from the beginning. And in doing so, I have certainly been granted a generous share of the time and space here of what is really a site for discussing modern haiku, so I owe thanks to those who operate the site for allowing me to explain all of these matters at some length.

    Finally, I encourage everyone interested in this topic not to take my word for what I have presented, but to investigate thoroughly and verify the facts for themselves.

  33. Yep, it’s called evolution – things change and grow, including plants (hybrid tea and Rose rugosa, for example), Darwin’s finches, the English language (or German, Welsh or Maori, etc).

    Shakespeare achieved a pinnacle in writing that is still to be surpassed, yet he couldn’t decide quite how to spell his name. He invented words, including apparently bedazzled and superscript, that have entered our lexicon, but also used many that we no longer understand.

    To cling on to the pronouncements of a poet who lived 400 years ago, no matter how fine a poet (and that’s no in dispute) is to ignore that time passes, and that other fine poets, including contemporary writers, have turned their minds to theory and practice and moved the genre along.

    We may not like the direction in which haiku is evolving, but that’s the nice thing about democracy – we don’t have to. Agree to disagree and all that. Meanwhile, the flood of populism carries haiku onward in this direction or that.

    Would we want this form of poetry that we all love to be as hidebound as a certain kingdom in the Middle East, where religious scholars must ascertain whether features of modern life, such as aeroplanes and computers, are mentioned in the Holy Book. If they are, embrace them. If not, sorry. (Needless to say, a way around is usually discovered.)

    A butterfly caught in amber is a very nice thing, but it will only ever be a butterfly caught in amber.

  34. Several points in response to David Coomler’s posts:

    It’s of course not news that artists today do not hew precisely to the styles and techniques of their predecessors. We should no more expect contemporary haiku poets to write exactly like haiku poets of the 17th c. than we should expect contemporary dramatists to write in Elizabeth English or contemporary musicians to compose in the style of Monteverdi. Haiku is a living artform, and its divergences from what are now taken to be 17th c. orthodoxies are often signs of vitality. There are, though, also important continuities as one would expect along any evolutionary line of development-and the line from Basho to the present is unbroken although certainly not unchanging, esp. not as it has crossed rather formidable cultural barriers. As Hiroaki Sato has written: “My conclusion…is not that American poets misunderstood haiku. Rather, it is that one culture takes from another what it needs.” Given that haiku’s deepest subject is often transience (as David Coomler acknowledges), it would be most peculiar to expect haiku *itself* to remain static. It never has. At its finest moments it has always been reinvented-most notably by Basho himself.

    This for me is a minor point-but I also maintain that the term “hokku” is anachronistic except when applied to the opening verse of a renku. The Japanese scholar Prof. Kametaro Yagi wrote to Harold Henderson in 1972 that ” ‘Hokku’ as a synonym for ‘haiku’ is now completely obsolete [in Japan]” (A Haiku Path, 1994, pg. 75). To my knowledge, no one besides David Coomler seems interested in reviving the former meaning of “hokku”. Blyth’s four volumes of translations and commentary are titled *Haiku*, and he also penned a two-volume history of *haiku*. What’s in a name? This one change in terminology did not by itself alter the essence of the genre or establish a new genre.

    More significantly-all interpretations of past literature, no matter how scholarly, are to some extent fictions, projections, simplifications. Personally, I don’t really recognize the Basho I carry around in my own mind in some of Mr. Coomler’s statements, such as that Basho avoided “falling into mere vulgarity”. For ex.:

    Fleas, lice,
    a horse peeing
    near my pillow.

    Bush warbler:
    shits on the rice cakes
    on the porch rail.

    (both from The Essential Haiku, ed. by Robert Hass)

    What could be more vulgar? And do we not love Basho’s work precisely for its Chaucerian embrace of all reality, from the “highest” to the “lowest”? Shirane’s almost paradoxical description of Basho (quoted by Scott) as an anti-traditionalist who did not reject the past intimates the dialectical power I find in his poetry, an ability to transcend the kind of rigid categories that scholars are sometimes overly fond of.

    At The Haiku Foundation (not The Hokku Foundation…that would be quite a different beast…) I’d like to think we celebrate what Basho above all set in motion and all that that tradition has become and is becoming here in the early 21st c. To me, the haiku tradition evinces-like the history of any artform-complex continuities and discontinuities that are a lot more interesting than a single sharp binary opposition between something once called “hokku” and something now called “haiku”.

  35. Merrill,

    In this case the leaves, historically, are from genetically-modified grafts.

    It is important to keep in mind that I am not saying those who write modern haiku should be writing anything else. If that is what you like, then continue doing what you like by all means.

    Instead I am just pointing out — and you also seem to agree on this basic point — that modern, post-traditional haiku is not the same in its aesthetics and principles as the old hokku.

    I am not here to convert anyone from writing modern haiku to writing hokku. I am simply commenting to clear up the long-standing confusion of modern haiku — specifically post-traditional haiku — with hokku.

    All I ask is that the two not be confused. They are neither the same in name, nor in aesthetics and principles, nor historically. The recognition of that basic, verifiable fact is all I ask.

    Beyond that, all value judgments on the relative merits of hokku and modern haiku are up to individuals, and as I said earlier, in matters of taste there is no disputing.

  36. It comes down to life and death. If it does not grow it will die. If it’s able to grow, renew it will be vital and a living thing. I think Paul’s post really sets forth a brief history of that growth. I for one choose life… Scott’s posts also reinforce the motive of that growth. I understand David’s passion for the root, but you have to put forth a stalk and green leaves if you want the plant to live. The leaves are not a different plant than the root.

  37. Scott, you quoted Shirane:

    “To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world.”

    That is completely in agreement with my view of hokku, which, while respecting and grounded in tradition, works in the present and is thus always new and fresh.

    You added further from Shirane:

    ” Haikai was, by definition, anti-traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.”

    Now one must read this very carefully, because it can be very misleading, as is obvious when one considers that something that does not reject the past is here paradoxically termed “anti-traditional,” “anti-classical,” and “anti-establishment.”

    We have already seen that Bashō did not see himself as rejecting the traditional aesthetic common to the contemplative arts, but rather as continuing it — the same aesthetic one finds in Saigyō in waka, Sōgi in renga, Rikyu in tea, and Sesshū in ink painting. That is why Shirane’s loaded use of English here leads the reader to false assumptions and misunderstanding.

    Haikai as Bashō understood it in his maturity was not “anti-” tradition. It embraced tradition, only manifesting it in a different way.

    Similarly, the mature haikai of Bashō was not “anti-” classical. Instead it incorporated the “classical” aesthetic while modifying it by admitting ordinary subjects as worthy — not just singing nightingales, but croaking frogs as well — mixing traditionally “high” elements with “low,” yet avoiding falling into mere vulgarity.

    And certainly Bashō was not “anti-” establishment in any Western sense. He admired and tried to live the poetic life as he understood it, a life reflecting not only earlier Japanese poetic traditions, but reaching all the way back to the classical Chinese poetry of the Tang dynasty. Nor did he fight against the social establishment of his day, in fact his verse came precisely during a relatively calm period that saw the rise of a Japanese mercantile middle class — precisely the “bourgeoisie” of the Genroku era, the kinds of people from whom Bashō earned his living.

    I think Shirane’s words were thus poorly chosen, and inaccurate and misleading for Westerners if taken at face value and without extensive qualification.

  38. By the way, Scott, being myself a long-time master of the typo, I appreciate your term “Confusionism,” (“…an intricate interweaving of Shintoism, Daoism and Confusionism) and would consider it a very apt expression of what has happened to modern haiku in the West since its origins.

    You wrote:
    At it’s core, hokku/haiku is anti-traditional, anti-establishment.

    First, of course, I would repeat that one must distinguish hokku — to which your description does not at all accurately apply — from modern haiku — to which it often does apply.

    The “anti-traditional, anti-establishment” character you attribute to much of modern haiku is a notion from the America of the 1960s, not from the aesthetic tradition of Bashō, Onitsura, and the other writers of hokku.

    Though we obviously do not (and need not) share the same approach to verse or aesthetics, I think we can both agree that, however one may analyze it, modern post-traditional haiku is not the kind of verse written by anyone in old hokku, nor does it share what Henderson called “Japanese conventions,” meaning the traditional aesthetic.

    As for all the rest, there is no disputing matters of taste.

    1. “As I have shown in my book Traces of Dreams: Landscapes, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes [the vertical, leading into the past, as well as the horizontal, the present/contemporary world]. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti-traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.”

      -Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment”

  39. To assume that Bashō would approve of what modern haiku has become is to assume that he would abandon not only the aesthetics fundamental to what he practiced and taught, but also that he would approve of abandoning the fundamental aesthetic principles of all the Japanese contemplative arts.

    That is simply wishful thinking on the part of those involved in writing the kinds of verse contrary to the principles by which Bashō wrote.

    What Bashō meant by not copying him was that one should live one’s own poetic life within the same aesthetic shared by its predecessors, not that one should completely change or abandon that aesthetic.

    Of himself and his views he said:

    What Saigyō sought in waka, Sōgi in renga, Sesshū in painting, and Rikyū in the tea ceremony — ALL THESE ARE PERMEATED BY ONE THING.
    Those who understand fūga follow Nature and are friends to the four seasons. In what they see, there is a flower; in what they think, there is the moon. Those for whom a form is not a flower are barbarians; those whose thoughts are not the moon are like animals; abandon barbarism and leave the beast. Follow Nature and return to Nature.”

    When we are advised to “follow not in the footsteps of the men of old, but rather to seek what they sought,” we are directed back to that fundamental aesthetic, not to creating our own simply to be new and individualistic; that is simply the modern Western misconception that
    what is old must be discarded, and only what is continually new is good. That is not the approach of Bashō, but rather that of the modern fashion industry.

    People today may write any kind of verse they desire with any aesthetic preferred. But it is simply fantasy to think that by doing so, one is in any way doing something of which Bashō would have approved or would have seen as in any way a continuation of his own teachings.

    Those coming from haiku to hokku often tell me, “If Bashō were alive to today, he would write about such things as jet skis, guided missles, cell phones, etc. etc.”

    And I can only say with certainly, “No, he would not, because to do so would have violated the aesthetics fundamental to everything he wrote and taught and lived.”

  40. “What would Basho and Buson say if they were alive today and could read English and could read haiku done by North American poets?

    I think that they would be delighted to find that haiku had managed to cross the Pacific and thrive so far from its place of origin. They would be impressed with the wide variety of haiku composed by North American haiku poets and find their work most innovative. At the same time, however, they would also be struck, as I have been, by the narrow definitions of haiku found in haiku handbooks, magazines, and anthologies.”

    -Haruo Shirane (Beyond the Haiku Moment)

    This quote is from the year 2000 for those who haven’t really read anything about haiku poetics that was published after the 50s and 60s by Blyth (who could have found zen in cookbooks and phonebooks) and Henderson.

    20th and 21st century haiku is *supposed to be* different from work done centuries before it. It must be. That’s the point. That’s the beauty of it: it continues haiku’s radical spirit of change, experimentation, playfulness, transformation, breaking the rules/norms, conventions, creating new and exciting fusions (Buddhism was never just Buddhism but an intricate interweaving of Shintoism, Daoism and Confusionism). At it’s core, hokku/haiku is anti-traditional, anti-establishment. To repeat and mimick the styles and molds of older poetry would be boring, unimaginative, and uninspiring, and would be precisely what Basho warned others against: “Never content yourself with the drivel of the ancients. Just as the four seasons change, all things become new. Everything is that way” (trans David Barnhill). To which his disciple Tohō added: “As time moves on, the art of haikai will go through its own thousand transitions and ten thousand changes, but all transformations based on makoto (genuineness) will be part of the master’s art.”

    Basho also warned us not to copy/mimic him cause it would be boring; just the other half of the split melon. 20th and 21st c “non-traditional” haiku (Japanese or English) represents that radical spirit and idea of change. To want others to stick to a narrow, hyper-limited idea of what hokku/haiku should be (and an historically inaccurate and warped one at that) is completely antithetical to the very foundation of what hokku/haiku is supposed to be about.

    “. . . while there may be eternal verities, one moment is not the same as another, and one time or era is not the same as another; there is progression. So in order to properly articulate truth, one necessarily inhabits the zeitgeist. If ‘fashion’ were not significant, we could simply curl up with Bashō forever and never need compose another poem. That sort of idea seems decidedly contrary to his radical spirit. In each era there are new developments or unique articulations, and these also serve to inform later generations of poets” (Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness).

  41. Paul McNeill:

    “The force of the language shows the reader the break. Japanese language, especially from the past has no punctuation. Why do you? Why did Blyth? Blyth made wonderful translations to poems but showed them to the world in the guise of traditional Western poetical form used since at least Elizabethan times. Commas sprinkled, Capital letter, period, occasional semi-colon or colon. Why?”

    Because English is not Japanese, not the formalized and clipped “hokku” Japanese of the Edo period in grammar, syntax or vocabulary, nor in the use of phonetic symbols instead of upper and lower case letters and borrowed Chinese characters mixed in with them, nor in its use of “cutting words” where now in hokku we use ordinary English-language punctuation. Nor is English even modern Japanese, with its two sets of phonetic symbols and its revised kanji vocabulary — a modern Japanese that has, incidentally, adopted punctuation from the West because of its proved usefulness in clarity.

    Blyth not only used conventional English capitalization and punctuation, he also used conventional English grammar, syntax, and upper and lower case letters. In short, when writing in old Japanese one uses its conventions; when writing in English one uses its conventions, which by the way experience has shown work superbly in English-language hokku.

    If others — Paul among them — choose to apply other conventions in modern haiku, that is quite another matter, and entirely up to them. I only deal with hokku.

    “Hokku” Japanese had no articles, no “the,” “a,” and “an” or their equivalents; nor did it distinguish singular and plural. Now if you are going to use one characteristic of old Japanese — the fact that it used “cutting words” instead of punctuation — to say how verses should be written in an English-language cultural environment, then be consistent and apply the other characteristics to English verse — adopt cutting words, use phonetic symbols and Kanji instead of Roman letters, — adopt Japanese structure and lack of articles and singular-plural distinction when writing verses in English. It would make just as much — or rather just as little — sense.

    But none of that is really what is at issue here. What is at issue is the fundamental nature and principles of hokku compared to modern post-traditional haiku, which is generally so different as to have nothing in common with the former but brevity. So far no one has spoken to that issue.

    As I pointed out earlier, even at the founding of the Haiku Society of America, Harold Henderson foresaw that if modern writers did not understand, or were to abandon, “Japanese conventions,” by which he meant the aesthetics underlying hokku (and even to some extent traditional haiku), then one had better find a new name for the result, because the old would not longer fit.

  42. Thank you Paul. I will come back to that often to learn…to watch how haiku will grow and inform and teach us of its nature. These discussions are so valuable for what we can learn from each other. Thank you.

  43. Well, David,

    Years ago, in other fora, we have had some of this discussion, you and I. I still do not except your premise that some or most of what I write is qualitatively different from the poems you term “hokku.” I choose to use the word “haiku” despite its apparent coinage by Shiki about 11 decades ago.

    Two weeks ago, four friends started an on-line renku with a hokku (don’t know your feeling about this word, renku, but it represents the haikai that was rising in the Century of Basho, the 17th, long before Shiki, as you know). The previous renga form of much more stylized Imperial Court poems also began with a hokku. Hokku being the term for the first verse of renku (or the older renga). Poets in Japan, today’s Masters of renku use the word “renku.” So I do, too. Each of the four of us wrote a summer haiku, one of which we democratically chose by consensus as the hokku. In a few weeks I’ll be in a live group to write renku, an annual event for me — this will be the 11th year. And, that hokku will also be a haiku: cut and seasonal (autumn as it will be September by then). You may know that about half of a renku is seasonal, the other stanzas deliberately not. Generally the only cut verse is the hokku . . . the following, internal verses are not haiku (or your “hokku.”). So yes, I and my partners do write and call verses “hokku” that begin the linked forms just as for the last… oh, thousand years?

    My own haiku, that nearly everyone but you know as “haiku” — in Japan and around the rest of the world, I consider as mostly traditional, many heavily of nature and with either kidai or a narrower kigo. Some may not be in the saijiki of Kyoto, being instead North American in character and origin. Still, go to the April 19 Montage at this THF site and find haiku by the late Paul Williams, Marian Olson, and me, selected not by me but by Allan Burns. _The Good Earth_. He chose seven from each of us to celebrate a country/local kigo: Earth Day. I posit to you that all seven of mine, or most, look just like what you teach, _except_ they are not English-punctuated in the manner of Blyth. Two might be pivots or imperfect pivots (requiring the assumption of short verb) to be read in two directions. The rest are completely cut, broken without needing any punctuation. The force of the language shows the reader the break. Japanese language, especially from the past has no punctuation. Why do you? Why did Blyth? Blyth made wonderful translations to poems but showed them to the world in the guise of traditional Western poetical form used since at least Elizabethan times. Commas sprinkled, Capital letter, period, occasional semi-colon or colon. Why? Paul Williams used a few em dashes as does Marian. I will not parse their haiku, not my role, but they have kigo and are often cut (caesura, whatever term is current). Mine mention farm, fence, car, road traffic and have a person, hiker. Yet, as I read them now, they are nature oriented and seasonal as mentioned. If I sprinkled Blyth’s punctuation (seems superfluous) would they look like your ideal from the past?

    Purpose? I write to share. I try to express, to show two or three things and their interrelations, to a reader or listener who might find seven or eight other things. This expression so as to allow that reader/listener to enter into the experience, perhaps to share my insight again with me. I can even read the Old Haiku Masters and sit by the rice fields and hear the work chants, or see the heron’s legs and the waves lapping, or even at least comprehend the cherry experience on the mountain slopes seen from Yoshino, despite my never having been there. Could Old Basho see my egrets and Venus? Would he get the possible reference to Shakespeare as time for love fades into the dawn? Certainly wouldn’t know Shakespeare, but might hear the fleeting love as the egrets fly off for a day’s work? [see the Montage cited.]

    I’m not foolish enough to equate what I write, and what my various haiku teachers and editors have shown, with Classic haiku in Japanese, or even Japanese haiku in more traditional modes today. The language is different as is my ability; the cultures are miles apart as is some of the geography, fauna, and flora. Yet, a cormorant is a cormorant, fish are fish, and streams have their own cooling wind.


  44. ” I would be interested to know if those who write haiku, which is probably most people reading *troutswirl*, agree that ‘modern haiku — particularly post-traditional haiku — is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of the nature and aesthetics of the old hokku’.”

    My position is that an historical study of the development of modern haiku from its origins to the present day make that an inescapable and rather obvious conclusion.

    It does not mean, of course, that modern haiku in all its various forms is not valid for what it is; it is just that what it is is not a reflection of the nature and aesthetics of the old hokku, nor even, in the case of post-traditional haiku, a reflection of the old traditional haiku — but it is, as Harold Henderson predicted would happen if what he called “Japanese conventions” were not understood or ignored, a new “Western” kind of verse having little in common with the old hokku but brevity.

    I think this is something that must simply be recognized as reality, like that fact that Bāsho wrote hokku in the wider context of haikai, not “haiku.”

    Such recognition changes nothing in the right of individuals to write whatever kinds of verse they prefer. It just clears up the confusion that has long obscured the matter, and that benefits everyone.

    It also enables people to more clearly respond to the question that heads this discussion, because the shared aesthetics of a given form of verse are critical in determining purpose.

  45. I also know that if my consciousness is not linked to nature it becomes self centered and inward, cut off and isolated. Nature is an “other” that we can relate to in some manner. So I hope it’s understood that when I say human experience that experience is not truly complete without the “other”….

  46. The subject of this sailing is “What is the purpose of poetry”.
    If it’s not about the human’s perception of existance I don’t know what it could be about. My own perception is that of transcience as well as a multilayered consciousness. Being aware of more than one thing at a time and often having them be in conflict or confirming each other and the reconciliation of the events as they pass. It’s a pretty good movie I have to tell you.

    But I also know that there are prayers/poems/cries too deep for words. I know all of it is holy. Is haiku able to hold such things?

    I’ve always felt that haiku was a transcient thing…I’ve always resisted putting it in a book because it would be fixed and I’d look back some day and see a half truth there since I didn’t know what came after when I wrote it. I’ve always loved that aspect of it. I’m toying with Jim Kacian’s concept of the anti-story to see if it might help me reconcile these things. In order to do that I have to be able to see all the layers at once.

  47. We’ve veered somewhat, though not entirely, from the question which heads this Sailing, but this matter seems to have some momentum, so I’d like to encourage others to join in, perhaps on the point made by David and underscored by Gabi. At the risk of entering into a hokku:haiku skirmish, I would be interested to know if those who write haiku, which is probably most people reading *troutswirl*, agree that “modern haiku — particularly post-traditional haiku — is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of the nature and aesthetics of the old hokku”.
    David, you’ve offered a strong challenge here, calling much into question. And something I often say, if only to the pines outside my house, is– if we as writers are to grow, we need challenge.

  48. “I often say that modern haiku — particularly post-traditional haiku — is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of the nature and aesthetics of the old hokku — a seeing of it not for what it was, but rather a projection onto it — to use your term and Jung’s — of what was already familiar from Western poetry and culture.
    David Coomler”

    I agree! !!

  49. Peter,

    I would agree that a sense of impermanence is found throughout all of hokku, but it was not individualistic; it was a part of the culture.

    Anxiety is not at all a characteristic of hokku, nor a negative sense of incompleteness, though it may be found in later haiku. In hokku one finds a recognition of the transience of all things combined with acceptance, and incompleteness was something to be valued, not feared.

    But again, this aesthetic of impermanence was not individualistic; it pervades older Japanese literature, whether hokku or waka or even Nō. It is one of the fundamental aesthetic principles on which all are based, and transience remains an essential characteristic of hokku today, as it was of old hokku.

    You quoted,

    “American haiku poets don’t grasp the idea that the shadow has to have risen up and invaded the haiku poem, otherwise it is not a haiku.”

    No writer of old hokku would have even considered such a statement as valid — if they had even understood it — and I would venture to say that there would probably be a great many in modern haiku who would suspect it better defines the preoccupations of the speaker than what they write. But modern haiku is so various that practically anything one may say about it is true of someone somewhere.

    You also quoted,

    “The least important thing about it is its seventeen syllables or its nature scene.”

    I think this reflects the fundamental misunderstandings that led away from the old hokku and into modern post-traditional haiku. The subject matter of old hokku was Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. It was not merely a “nature scene.” There was no dichotomy such as one finds today in modern haiku between those “about nature” and those dealing with other matters. In old hokku everything was about Nature, even verses in which a writer spoke of himself, because humans were considered part of and another aspect of Nature, and of course this was further enhanced by hokku being presented in a seasonal context.

    The hokku aesthetic thus represented a view fundamentally different from that expressed by Bly. His view leads toward the sense of “self,” whereas the aesthetic of hokku led away from it.

    Again, the transience so apparent in the hokku of Bashō is not anything peculiar to him because of any personal trials; it is found throughout older Japanese writing. Bashō is honored not because he created an aesthetic of transience, which existed centuries before his birth, but because to some extent he lived the existing aesthetic.

    The whole history of old hokku is reflective of the words of Kamo no Chōmei, who was born in the middle of the 12th century:

    “Though the flow of the river never ceases, the water passing moment to moment is never the same. Where it eddies, bubbles rise to the surface, bursting and vanishing as others replace them, none lasting. Thus are people and their dwellings in this world — always changing.”

    And like all of hokku, that is simply a recognition of the impermanence inherent in all things, and not in the least peculiar to Kamo no Chōmei any more than the same when expressed in the hokku of Bashō or Onitsura is peculiar to either of them.

    I often say that modern haiku — particularly post-traditional haiku — is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of the nature and aesthetics of the old hokku — a seeing of it not for what it was, but rather a projection onto it — to use your term and Jung’s — of what was already familiar from Western poetry and culture. I think that is what we see in the quotes you gave.

  50. Traditional Japanese haiku teach me a lot about going beyond personal judgement, beyond concepts of beauty and ugliness, beyond concepts of lightness and depth etc.

  51. What I am saying is, and I may be misled by what others like Bly have said and by my own preferences and projections onto the early masters, is that they allowed their “anxiety”, their sense of impermanence and “incompleteness” to come into their work, though not necessarily as subject matter. I’d guess you would agree, David, that anxiety, a “sense of incompleteness” etc., were integral to how they lived and what they wrote. Otherwise, it would be formulaic. It is one thing to study a doctrine of impermanence; it is another to deeply feel and experience it, as apparently Basho did, and perhaps Santoka and others. I would say that the clear and steady observation of nature may open up more than what the senses reveal: I don’t think one can be truly open to nature without being open to oneself, in ways that are not always pleasing. The poem does not have to be “about” war, or sex or violence, but will be all the clearer, the sweeter, the more poignant and mysterious for its author having allowed the psychic pressure they exert into his or her awareness. It is, after all, what the Buddha did.

    I’m sure there are others reading this who are more qualified than I am to talk about this. I have not made the early masters and hokku my primary focus, and I don’t want to impose something I feel strongly about onto something where it may not belong. And yet…

    The matter was brought out some time ago. Bly made the statement I quoted above in the 80’s. Here it is again: “American haiku poets don’t grasp the idea that the shadow has to have risen up and invaded the haiku poem, otherwise it is not a haiku. The least important thing about it is its seventeen syllables or its nature scene.” It was brought out again when M D Welch published the correspondence between Cor van den Heuval and Bly in Issue 2 of Tundra, which came out in Sept. 2001. Reviewing the correspondence, Lee Gurga said: “Even allowing for some overstatement [in Bly’s statement] I think the observation is something that needs to be considered in North American haiku…”. Michael McClintock made a similar statement. I explored it more recently in a review of the Red Moon Anthology Big Sky.

    I do think it relates directly to both the questions raised in Envoy 4 and the one raised in this Sailing, first asked by Paul Miller, “what is the purpose of our poetry?”

    And here I have entered a bit of a shadowy neighborhood– I know, because I feel exposed. I am not a scholar, folks, but I do regard this as important.
    What I don’t do is insist you agree.

  52. Hi, Guys, I guess the worst part of hell is no voice at all. So I do understand what Peter is getting at even if I found from my own experience that even if I found the words, no one could do anything about it…and that there are many aspects to any human being. I ended up tossing them since I did not want others to feel that the shadow was my true color. But I can understand a person being in the darkness and finding that it is his true nature…and that too needs a voice.

    Although most of the really great haiku I’ve read of the darkness has also found room for the light…either with humor or by any number of human means

    Might I recommend to you “KNOTS: An Anthology of Southeastern European Haiku Poetry” edited by Dimitar Anakiev & Jim Kacian. If you can get a copy, it’s a “beautiful”
    book…in all the ways “beauty” has been revealed to us here.

    I am much in debt to the Japanese in many ways to come to grips with my own darkness and to learn from it. I only argue that we make room for the voice… As there were many times when there were no words…there were no means of expression…only endurance.

  53. “During the greater part of the history of hokku, it would have been virtually impossible — given conditions in Japan — to escape from the darker realities of life. But instead of writing hokku about them, writers instead adopted the aesthetic of seeing them in the wider perspective of the Buddhist concept of transience, amid which wars and rumors of wars are just waves on a vast sea of impermanence.”

    Thanks for your words about hokku and life in the Edo period, David!

  54. Peter,

    My perspective is, as you say, a bit different.

    During the greater part of the history of hokku, it would have been virtually impossible — given conditions in Japan — to escape from the darker realities of life. But instead of writing hokku about them, writers instead adopted the aesthetic of seeing them in the wider perspective of the Buddhist concept of transience, amid which wars and rumors of wars are just waves on a vast sea of impermanence.

    Bashō wrote:

    Summer grasses;
    All that remains
    Of warrior’s dreams.

    That is not an anti-war hokku, nor a pro-war hokku. Instead it transcends both by placing a long-past event in the context of the impermanence that touches everything from the ephemeral morning glory to a worm boring into a nut to the weakened, wind-blown body of an old traveller.

    It is not that the writer has brought these things — messiah-like — out of darkness through some kind of deep personal struggle between consciousness and the shadow — but simply that he has recognized the transient nature of all things as an inherent part of reality. That is a part of the contemplative nature of hokku because it was part of the Buddhist cultural background in which hokku developed.

    Modern haiku is another matter. It is often heavily influenced by Western poetry and concepts of the poet as a revolutionary figure, it is not surprising that the issue of social consciousness arises — suggesting that one should bring social issues and political events into verse. But that is not done in hokku.

    Instead, though there are a few exceptions, hokku on the whole deliberately avoids deaing with subjects that disturb the mind such as war, violence, and sex. That is because the human mind is so prey to temporary emotions that one must pull far back from them so that they are seen in a much wider and more tranquil perspective in order to properly understand them.

    Otherwise, one faces the syndrome of which Aldous Huxley was so aware when he wrote that without this kind of perspective, the pillars of society that are so concerned with social issues are likely to become their own Samsons.

    And of course one must beware of a false either / or dilemma. Leaving war and violence out of hokku does not mean that awareness of it is not admitted into consciousness. It just means that one is looking for a deeper perspective than the current whirlpool of turmoil sweeping through the evening news.

    But again, I am speaking of hokku, not haiku, and cannot prescribe for the latter.

  55. Since I mentioned Basho, this is a version by Robert Hass:

    The morning glory also
    turns out
    not to be my friend.

    It takes a good deal of courage to remove one’s projections from nature (and from each other). Bly’s version may tilt even more toward that view of the poem:

    The morning glory—
    another thing
    that will never be my friend.

    Another of Basho’s, also taken from Hass:

    Autumn twilight—
    a worm digs silently
    into the chestnut.

    The avoidance of the difficult details of the night might lead one into a moony trance, but again, Basho is willing to look closely at what the moon reveals, not what it enchants.

    Again from Hass:

    Weathered bones
    On my mind,
    A wind-pierced body.

    This may strike us as terrifying, but again, to not be overcome by a journey to hell, or death, to be able to express the experience without a trace of self-pity, is bracing.

    These two by Santoka are in a similar field, but maybe with a bit more humor– (they are from *Mountain Tasting*):

    Today, still alive;
    I stretch out my feet.


    Some life remains;
    I scratch my body.

    Reaching back again, this one from Taigi, a version by Cid Corman

    So each so many
    stars making their appearance
    and the cold cold still

    At the risk of making too great a leap, I would also offer this from Saito Sanki (1900-1962) translated by Makoto Ueda, as will be the poem following:

    Autumn nightfall—
    the skeleton of a huge fish
    is drawn out to the sea.

    Certainly a very subjective, dream-like haiku, but one which comes, I feel, from a similar place as the last Basho I cited, and the two by Santoka, a very dark place indeed, and I realize that for some it will not be a good example of a poem that shines for its author having faced the darkness, but that may be true of all the examples I have given. And anyway, I would not wish to get too caught up in the image I give of darkness leading into light, except in a most general way. I do believe in the need to face our difficult places, but not all of our work is going to shine, or give relief; some may get stuck in the dark—I think it’s a risk we have to take in order that we may produce (to paraphrase John Stevenson) beautiful failures.

    Are you encouraged or discouraged by Ogiwara Seisensui’s:

    Butterfly’s wings,
    most beautiful in the world;
    pull them.

    Or by this, which I wrote about 20 years ago:

    start of day
    the butcher’s
    white apron

    I appreciate the question, David—it pushed me a bit further, out of my laziness.

    I’ll be looking for examples from English language haiku, and I hope others will as well, and David if you wish to add or challenge from your perspective on hokku, I’m sure that would be interesting.

  56. Hi, Peter,

    I don’t know any poet that doesn’t work through innumerable haiku/poems etc. in his/her journals of a dark nature dealing with the darkness of life. I know I’ve thrown away reams of it.

    Writing it was a way of going through it with someone without really burdening friends and relatives. But most of the time I could never find the words that could translate most of it so that it was of any interest for publication. I sneak it in sometimes but often it’s not recognized or understood. But I understand your point about the darkness. You can’t see in bright light.

    I’m a black and white artist and the darks are what give any drawing it’s power…the black lines the grace. Still, most people only see the bird in the tree…the blossoms on the branch. It is a bit of a joy for me to bring light out of darkness though. I can’t deny that.

    I just had published a bluebird haiga in “red lights” Vol. 5 No.2

    the verse read:

    spring water flows
    with the sound of it mingling
    in your song
    bluebird, bluebird,
    I’m as thirsty as you….

    The bluebird was drawn half in shadow and half in light…giving the bluebird different markings in my drawing than it owns. The branch cuts through the shadow rising to light.

    Perhaps it was too oblique for most people to follow. Shall I give up the gentleness to enter the darkness more deeply? But would that be following my own reason for being?

    Many questions on this post. I’m not quite so thirsty any more!
    Thanks guys. This is great.

  57. Peter,

    You wrote:

    “The best art, the best haiku whatever the subject, shines the brightest when it has come through the dark.”

    Can you give several examples in support of your statement, with the backgrounds that cause you to say both that they are the best and most shining, and that they are thus because they have “come through the dark”?

    Just curious.

  58. I posted the following comments under Envoy 4 but it doesn’t seem to come up there, so I’m repeating it here, where it also has some relevance.


    War stood at the end of the corridor

    The subject of this envoy is of daunting importance I believe. I would say I have avoided it until now, and even now I come into its neighborhood with trepidation. There is something about shadowy material that wants to protect its own turf, to keep observers out, hissing in dark corners at the intrepid with their candles, curiosity and determination.

    There are elements in the human psyche that would do, and have done, and likely will continue to do, acts of astonishing cruelty upon others, and which turn upon the individual as well, if you consider how vicious one’s “inner critic” can be. It wants, for reasons I can’t say I fully understand, to keep us out of that neighborhood. But we have to go there, or it will come to us. The corridor, after all, starts with you and me, and it ends with us.

    This is a view not all share. There are many who believe that such cruelty and violence originates outside of us. For all I know they’re right, but I don’t find the view workable. It seems to compound things.

    In a review I did a couple of years ago, I quoted Robert Bly, who said: “American haiku poets don’t grasp the idea that the shadow has to have risen up and invaded the haiku poem, otherwise it is not a haiku. The least important thing about it is its seventeen syllables or its nature scene.” If this raised hackles in the community, I barely heard. Maybe I’m foolish to bring it up here, but surely it fits, surely it pertains to the poem we are considering, and to the question of what haiku may be, how it signifies, and what one may say about its “purpose”.

    Robert Hass, in his essay “Images”, opens this a little differently. Speaking of Basho he says: “Capable of enormous clarity, of an extraordinary emotional range, there is at the center of his work… a sense of the sickness or incompleteness of existence”. Perhaps I am only fitting it to my case, but I read this as referring to the unconscious and to the shadow realm. What Bly seems to be saying is that Basho and others worked with this sense of “sickness” or “anxiety” (a word Bly uses elsewhere re: Basho), which may be the anxiety one feels approaching any dark neighborhood, including, especially, the one within. But he did enter. More than anything, one might argue, this is what gives him his authority, and why we delve into his work even today.
    Iraq and Afghanistan stand at the end of a corridor so long, and with so many side hallways leading to the TV room, the movie theaters and the beach, as to be ignorable. I find myself making occasional forays beyond these distractions, then retreating to my comforts, including sometimes, this blog. But the shadow realm is a superconductor—the atoms of war and violence smash into one’s heart at the speed of light—or, if you will, the speed of darkness. In fact, if you will allow the quantum analogy, they exist at both ends of the tunnel simultaneously.

    I don’t think Bly’s statement is far removed from Scott Metz’ question: “If we want to stop the atrocities of war and their destructive repercussions, shouldn’t we be writing about it then, instead of, say, birds and baseball?” I do not wish to resume the tensions that arose earlier here, but I do wish to respond to Scott’s question.

    I don’t know what I *should* be writing about, but I know that if I stay in my comfort zone as a writer, it is usually because I have not wanted something challenging, or squirmy, or with teeth, to reveal itself. I probably do this most of the time. It comes partly from laziness, stopping too soon with my explorations, sometimes saying, under the breath of my breath: someone will publish this, it’s good enough.

    I’m not saying my poems or yours should always have teeth or look like dragonfly larvae. But if in our writing there is a persistent ignoring of our larval natures and a preference for our angelic natures, we may be giving strength to forces which will emerge somewhere, grow wings, and maybe drop bombs.

    Can poetry stop wars or violence or cruelty in the world? I don’t know. I do believe however, that engaging with one’s whole life in any art may be a means of discovery, of self-uncovering. The more we see about ourselves, the less we need to act out. I don’t know that this needs to be a conscious purpose, and certainly not a program or agenda, but I do know that when I come across work in which it is evident that the author, or painter, or composer has faced him or herself, has allowed some shadow material to rise and has found the means of showing what was found, I am grateful. It has often been said, in different ways, that the role or purpose of the artist and spiritual seeker is to go into the depths, into hell if need be (and as many myths demonstrate), in order to reveal the living light upon their return. It is a paradox of great art that it may find beautiful expression for what is most repellent. The best art, the best haiku whatever the subject, shines the brightest when it has come through the dark.

  59. Yea,I know…that’s what I meant about the voice of humanity…
    It’s always different! You can never reach the end of exploration. I never cease to be amazed by that changing voice. One never knows what worlds each person holds inside of them…and as it unfolds…it’s pretty incredible.

  60. BLAKE
    Dr. Edmund Gosse

    They win who never near the goal;
    They run who halt on wounded feet;
    Art hath its martyrs like the soul,
    Its victors in defeat.

    This seer’s ambition soared too far;
    He sank, on pinions backward blown;
    But, though he touched not sun nor star,
    He made a world his own.
    I’m not sure I agree with this poet’s perception of Blake, to me Blake reached further than most poets I can imagine, and touched stars Dr. Gosse may not know exist…but that last line
    meant something to me. I take my truth where I find it. I leave the rest where it lies.

  61. Hi, John, Your comment about the “small world” reminds me of a poem I read as a child, about William Blake. The poem I read and I’m not sure I have it available any more, but it ended:
    “He made a world his own.” That left an indelible impression on me since I was stuck in a body cast and had to invent my play mates etc. It does lead one to create a place where things can be adjusted to our perception of perfection, doen’t it? or at least a place easier to comprehend than we encounter sometimes in the world around us…we can isolate just that one thought or concept and concentrate and meditate on that.

  62. I’ve sometimes been asked to speak at schools on the topic of why I write poems. My first poem was published when I was eight years old (an anti war poem about the American Civil War) and I’ve been a nearly daily writer since age twelve. What impresses me, at ground level, about the idea of the purpose of writing poems is that the motivation can and does change at different stages of life and poetry is so flexible that it can be redirected to a great many purposes, even by a single individual.

    My first motivation had to do with claiming power. We can forget how powerless we were as children. I found that a poem was a small world in which I could decide what was important – what should be included and what should be banished. I had all the powers of an adult within the borders of my poems.

  63. Poetry is an vehicle that enables an audience to
    share the emotions that a poet’s imagery conveys
    (when successful).

    from: As For Poets, Gary Snyder

    As for poets
    The Earth Poets
    Who write small poems,
    Need help from no man.

  64. When I discovered haiku after a long career in editing and publishing (a seeming detour after a PhD in Comp Lit with a concentration on “lyric”), I was fascinated by it as a “genre” that offered something unique. Since then, I’ve tested this proposal by every known means and it still holds good, with nuances of course. Because it is a verbal construct, poetry has to deal with the problem of universals/concepts: how to make these responsible to experience? Poetry’s moral value comes from cleaning up the language, deconstructing cliches, etc. But also asking radical questions: When is a pipe not a pipe? Anyway, haiku, with its double structure, is shaped by just this tension between the univocal “eternal” (often conveyed in myth) and the equivocal happening of being in the situations we find ourself in. This is the original cut and all the various cuts analyzed by Gilbert are subordinate to it; a preoccupation with small cuts may hide from us the Big One! Anyway, my love for haiku has refreshed by love for other genres of short poem and the discussions we are now having are quite stimulating to poet and critic alike. I read and write haiku to explore the “cut” in experience: the “way” our daily narratives are animated by the gap between the finite and the infinite. Haiku in this sense is a meditative genre par excellence, not unlike the sonnet with its inward turn. On the Single Island Press blog, we invite discussions of this aspect of our current conversations.

  65. Poetry is a special sort of communication.

    In a comment on the discussion occasioned by Viral 4.3 (Penny Harter’s poem offered by Sheila Windsor) I wrote that “It is human nature to both seek and resist others.” I believe that poetry is the perfect vehicle for this balancing act. It allows us to suggest communion at a level not usually touched upon by the prose of “shooting the breeze,” “policy and procedure manuals,” or “instructions for assembly.” But it also, as Wallace Stevens says “resist(s) the intelligence almost successfully.”

  66. I was looking for one of the phrases of the French poets that I loved years ago, but came across this by Andre Breton (1896-1996)
    On the Road to San Romano

    Poetry is made in bed like love
    It’s unmade sheets are the dawn of things
    Poetry is made in a forest

    Translators: Charles Simic & Michael Benedikt

  67. When I was a child and learned brush stroke from a Chinese nurse it seemed wonderful that the images she would put on the paper could rise to what sounded like song to me. For me words were difficult as I seem to have been raised in a “silent” surrounding. My memories were created visually. During a time when I could no longer physically express myself in art I turned to poetry. I had read poetry all my life and had some success with it at school – at least the teachers thought it was good. I wasn’t so sure. Words to me seemed of endless meanings and colors and shapes…shapeshifters always. How does one walk on quick sand? But I found that life sometimes can become quick sand and during that time I discovered the French surrealists who recreated poetry during WWII. Something connected in my mind…in my spirit (if you will.) Here we all were swimming around in quick sand! How amazing that was to me. What do I want from poetry? Oh, sometimes I would wish that just the right word or phrase would come to me that could hold some of the wonder of existance in it. But I have never felt that poetry has any more purpose than just BEING. To me it is the voice of humanity. If our spirits are fed by it, so much the better. If our lives are healed by it, so much the better. If we learn things we never knew, so much the better. But to me it has got to be free of purpose other than being true to itself… If one form does not fit it, find another form. And when enough people find your form good for them you can become a choir.
    Poetry for me it exploration. It will be wonderful to hear all the other responses to this question. You guys always give me so much to think about.

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