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Do we need this haiku?

I heard something inspiring during yesterday’s commute, Krista Tippett’s radio show, On Being.

This episode was about creativity. Her guest was Neuropsychologist Rex Jung. When asked to define creativity, he fleshed out three components. Ideally, in his opinion, a creative act will be novel, useful and also, social. Novelty doesn’t need much explanation. It seems to be the first aspect of creativity that occurs to most people.

Useful, on the other hand, is a more interesting concept. (Was Duchamp’s urinal useful?) Often, artists that I would describe as amateur, whether painters, writers or so on, throw the idea of usefulness out the window. As long as their art dealt with their emotions of the moment they put the onus on everyone else to see its value. This leads me to the last aspect, art’s social value.

Photo by Annie Leibovitz

In all honesty, if a work of art doesn’t have social value, if it doesn’t have usefulness, is it really art? All art is made with an intention to communicate. If a machine (William Carlos William’s red wheelbarrow or Pete Seeger’s banjo, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender”) that was made to produce something doesn’t produce the thing it was designed to produce, the onus sits squarely on its inventor’s shoulders.

We don’t always think of art in this fashion. Whenever I hear a new song, the first thing I ask myself is, “Do we need this song?” I think writers would do well to apply a similar test to their poems. Assume that readers will ask, “Do we need this haiku?” followed by “What is it trying to offer me?”


This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Ellen,

    I agree with you, and I like the fact that your father copied poems into his WWII diaries.

    My father came from a time in which it was thought that learning by rote (or, “learning by heart,” as the saying used to go) was a useful teaching tool. As painful as the learning process may have been, he took some pride in the fact that in his forties he could still recite Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” (which begins, “Under a spreading Chestnut tree….”) by ‘heart’.

    Plato famously banned poets from his ideal social/political state, “The Republic.” He gave two reasons for doing this: one, that poets were mere imitators of the world, and thus separated from ‘truth’, and two, that poets incited passions rather than promoted the faculty of reason. But he was willing to let poets back in if the defenders of poetry could “show not only that [poetry] is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?”

    But I submit: isn’t delight enough, and more than enough?

    Larry Bole

  2. I can’t speak to the critical works cited, but do see so much growth with poetry in all the blogs I read. A new generation of poets is growing, and growing fast; and also people who are retired are creating blogs and writing poetry, along with writers of many years. This is not new information, of course, but it says to me that we need poetry.

    Can we really evaluate our own work, our own time? Somewhat, and good to try, and also an ongoing process. We might send a friend a poem and learn a long time later that the poem gave our friend courage. I also was moved by seeing how my father copied poems into his World War II diaries.


  3. When Dana Gioia’s essay “Can Poetry Matter?” appeared in the Atlantic in 1991, it sparked a firestorm of debate and discussion over the role of the poet in today’s world – a dialogue in which Gioia participated on radio, television, and in print.

    Can Poetry Matter?
    Essays on Poetry and American Culture
    Tenth-anniversary edition, with a new introduction by Dana Gioia

    Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture was first published by Graywolf in 1992, and was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. The 10th anniversary edition includes a new introduction by Dana Gioia.

    Can Poetry Matter? is an old-fashioned sort of literary book, part literary criticism, part social commentary, and part plain good reading. Addressing such subjects as the poet as businessman and New Formalism as the real avant-garde, it also includes pieces on the life and work of such diverse figures as Robinson Jeffers, Weldon Kees, Robert Bly, and Wallace Stevens. In an age when literary discourse often seems either bleached of any real content or academic to the point of inaccessibility, the essays in Can Poetry Matter? are certain to educate, provoke, and, perhaps most of all, delight readers. They also establish Dana Gioia as one of the foremost cultural observers of his generation.

    —From the publisher’s note

    Table of Contents

    Can Poetry Matter?
    The Dilemma of the Long Poet
    Notes on the New Formalism
    Stong Counsel (Robinson Jeffers)
    The Loneliness of Weldon Kees
    The Anonymity of the Regional Poet (Ted Kooser)
    Business and Poetry

    Two Views of Wallace Stevens
    • The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man
    • The Emperor of Hartford

    Bourgeois in Bohemia (T. S. Eliot)
    The Successful Career of Robert Bly

    Short Views
    • John Ashberry
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Jared Carter
    • James Dickey
    • Tom Disch
    • Maxine Kumin
    • Radcliffe Squires
    • Theodore Weiss

    The Difficult Case of Howard Moss
    Tradition and Individual Talent (Donald Justice)
    The Example of Elizabeth Bishop
    The Poet in the Age of Prose

    The essay itself:

    Can poetry matter?

  4. I would just like to add the comment that the attribute “novelty,” when applied to the arts, needs LOTS of explanation!

    One might also want to delve into the differences between social value, social utility, and usefullness in general.

    The whole concept of “need,” when applied to the arts, is kind of silly in my opinion. One doesn’t “need” anything except air, water, food and, depending on climate, shelter and clothing (and, of course, whatever becomes necessary to procure these things), and all these things only if one wants to stay alive for however long one can.

    Gene, since you are a writer, after you have written something, do you also ask yourself, does anyone need this?

    You might find relevant an essay by the American poet Dan Gioia titled “Can Poetry Matter?” published in a book of essays with the same title. Just substitute “haiku” for “poetry.”


    P.S. In 1939, Paul Valery, in an essay titled “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” writes that “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.” Echoing Valery’s notion, William Carlos Williams, in his Introduction to “The Wegde” (1944), says that “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” In the same essay, Williams also says, “The arts have a ‘complex’ relation to society.”

  5. For me, haiku is somewhat of a lifestyle. I think in haiku (in the calm moments–when time is forgotten). Haiku is a grounding of the self and in the process one forgets oneself. It is a treasure to be in that state and maybe that is why I treasure haiku.

  6. As I see the forsythia bloom again, decades-old perennials in the yard begin anew, I know creativity is not always about novelty for me (though I love to learn). Also true that every year is different. If I can compose haiku which have a little of the beauty I’ve always lived with in the Midwest, that is my hope. Perhaps it’s a way of saying thank you. Ellen

  7. Do we need love? Do we need humor? Do we need enlightenment? Do we need to lean to look at things from the perspective of “The Other”? If so I would say we need haiku, we need art, we need cartoons, we need music … we need creativity in our lives as much as we need air, food and water.

  8. Gene’s post suggests the question: in what sense do we need haiku? Perhaps in the sense that many people need the songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Gutherie. When something vital and true takes shape in a song, a poem, a painting, whatever—we seem need it, or most of us do.

    I’m not sure that a needs test would help me write better haiku, though. Art doesn’t have to be great for me to need it. It doesn’t have to live long to affect me for years. If I sense a living thing in a poem of mine (perhaps by filling in the blanks), I need that poem, regardless of what other people think.

    Like many of you, perhaps, I am often preoccupied with the smaller concerns of writing. So, how can we write better haiku and make ourselves useful? I was glad and chagrined to read these passages from Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless It Moves the Human Heart, a book about the teaching of writing:

    "Everything contains significance. But some significances are more equal than others. The writers who we agree are the great ones deal only in matters of proved importance. They are great because their subjects and themes are great, and thus their usefulness is great as well. Their souls are great, and they have had the good sense and the courage to consult their souls before their pens touched paper. Go and do likewise." (p. 151)

    And a little later:

    "It is your soul I am talking about. I’ll say it again. And if, upon examination, you find your soul inadequate to the task of great writing, then improve it, or borrow someone else’s…. Dissatisfied with the makeup of your old soul? Trade it in. But always trade up, and make the new one a great soul, capacious, kind, and rational, for only a soul of such quality will produce the work you aspire to." (p. 153)

    In search of haiku soul power, some of us might dwell on zoka (see "The Creative in Basho’s View of Nature and Art,” an essay by David Landis Barnhill in Matsuo Bashō’s Poetic Spaces: Exploring Haikai Intersections, by Eleanor Kerkham). Some of us might re-read Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish. In any case, let’s keep searching.

  9. The haiku foundation article that initiated Alan’s self promotion, is a well written and thought out article I highly commend. When I compose a haiku, (the reception of my work not self promotion will be the final denominator), I must be cognizant of more than the meter. For me, it is imperative to connect with Zoka, nature’s creative unpredictable spirit. It is also imperative that a haiku be about koto (the act of becoming) versus mono (the final so-called result). And finally, a haiku’s ability to say what words cannot is vital.

  10. This question is indirectly, yet comprehensively covered at the same time, in an essay being published in the Summer issue of Notes from the Gean.

    Setting that aside, I run workshops where I’ve seen how effective being enabled to write haiku is beneficial on a huge scale internally. Whether these workshop participants go on to have their haiku published or not is somewhat irrelevant, but of course, it can prove useful for new people to haiku to have their haiku in magazines, to help reinvigorate the genre.

    Haiku writing, and reading, offers me a great deal, both pain and joy. I know of at least two of my haiku that have meant a great deal to many individuals:

    lime quarter
    an ice cube collapses
    over jazz

    the rain
    almost a friend
    this funeral

    They are quite diametrically opposed yet both have brought a lot of wellbeing to readers and listeners. The funeral haiku was adopted by at least person by repeating it mantric-like internally as he went about the painful process of organising a funeral for a deeply loved one.

    Lime quarter is very much a people’s poem as well as loved by a number of haiku writers, and other poets. It has always intrigued me why this poem sincs with such a wide cross section of people. I remember being fascinated when I couldn’t help but overhear a group of family members discussing this poem amongst themselves at a Christmas event one year. They completely got it, and owned it, yet didn’t know it was a haiku, or what haiku was.

    If a verse can transend its label, and tags, and mean something deeply without those weights, than perhaps it has done something useful.


    lime quarter publications credits:

    Presence No.13 (2001); Bristol Evening Post article//Latimer’s Diary (2002); (2003); Haiku Friends (Japan, 2003); BBC 1 – Regional arts feature (November 2003); tinywords, (2004); City: Bristol Today in Poems and Pictures, Paralaia (2004); Seven magazine feature: “Three lines of simple beauty” (2006); BroadcastLab, ArtsWork Bath Spa University (2006 – 2007); : Blogging Along Tobacco Road: Alan Summers – Three Questions (2010) Twitter Seven By Twenty (2010); See Haiku Here haiga (Japan, 2011); haijinx volume IV, issue 1 (2011); Derbyshire Library Service Poem a Month (June 2011); THFhaiku app for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch (2011): THF Per Diem series Haiku of the Senses (March 2012); Multiverses 1.1 (Spring 2012)

    the rain publications credits:

    Azami #28 (Japan 1995); Snapshots 4 (1998); First Australian online Anthology (October 1999): Blithe Spirit article On minimalism and other things DJ Peel Vol 9 No.3 (1999); tempslibre (2001); Cornell University, Mann Library, U.S.A. “Daily Haiku” (Oct 2001); The Omnibus Anthology, haiku and senryu (Hub Haiku series 2001); Hidden (British Haiku Society Anthology 2002); The New Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2002); First Australian Haiku Anthology (2003); (2003); Birmingham Words Magazine Issue 3 (Autumn 2004); seven magazine feature: “Three lines of simple beauty” (2006); tempslibre (2010); Blogging Along Tobacco Road: Alan Summers – Three Questions (2010); Travelogue on World Haiku Festival 2002 , Part 2 (Akita International Haiku Network 2010); The Temple Bell Stops: Contemporary Poems of Grief, Loss and Change (2012); THFhaiku app for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch (2011)

    Award credit:
    Highly Commended, Haiku Collection Competition, (Snapshot Press 1998)
    Joint 9th Best of Issue, Snapshot Five (1999)

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