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Dunes—An Introduction


(An Introduction)

BY Adelaide B. Shaw


Haiku, like dunes of sand, has shifted over time. The four great masters wrote as individuals with their own style and traditions. Buson’s approach differed from Bashō who came before him. Issa wrote in another way. Shiki went back to Buson and haiku evolved even further, including the change from hokku to haiku.
When translators first introduced haiku to the West, it was their translations, explanations and interpretations of haiku elements that came to be accepted as traditions. Yet, translations and explanations differed, and it was, and is, difficult to arrive at a definition of traditional haiku which is agreeable to all haiku poets. R.H. Blyth, for example, wrote of syllables; William J. Higginson wrote of sound units, not syllables. Richard Gilbert has written of –on and –ji; while robin d. gill writes of syllabets.
Rather than just discuss traditional haiku, this new section of Troutswirl will explore the traditions of haiku as well as how they’ve played a role in traditional, contemporary, and innovative haiku.
What are the traditions of English-language haiku? How were they established?  Are they relevant today? Which traditions are necessary for a haiku to be traditional? What is ignored, tweaked or added to be labeled contemporary or innovative? Does English-language haiku have its own set of traditions? Should it? Can it not?
These, and many other questions, will be discussed in Dunes.
Dunes is overseen by Adelaide B. Shaw.


Some open questions to readers: Where would you like to see this section go? What areas and topics concerning English haiku traditions—its shifting dunes—would you like to see explored and dug into?

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. I have to say first, that I am Hungarian, and we write haikus in Hungarian, with our logic, after, I translate them into English. Once I said during a dispute about haikus, haikus in the West, in Europe, that “as many person as many haikus”. I feel this is true, and I also differ the haikus written by women and written by man. This is without racism or sexism, I have no idea to blame someone on the base of gender. I love the women haikus, they are finely tuned, etheric, spiritual. We man, we are more stucked to the Earth, more direct. But both gender have beautiful creations. We insist of the syllabus counting, and we do not use the nature allegories more we write aphorisms, spiritual sentences, a joke, whatever we want to say.

  2. I think, sadly, what we have to live with are two different definitions of ‘haiku’ :

    The popular, Western, definition, which uses (confuses really) the term ‘haiku’ to designate any Japaneseque short form poem, whatever rules, or not, are employed.

    The Japanese definition (in my own view the benchmark,) which has certain structural requirements; seasonality (including cultural events which celebrate both nature and humanities’ response to the annual effects of the big wheel turning,) being so very important to the Taoist/Zen (et al) substrate of Japanese aesthetics – Japan’s intrinsic ethos.

    This is where senryu and zappai are useful categories, as they provide a local habitation and place for all the non-haiku poems (including much jetsom and flotsam!) which use SOME of the constructive elements of a haiku proper, but for non-haiku porpoises, typically.

    spring lake
    only my song
    disturb the wind

    But, I suppose, at the end of the day (when all is said and done,) ‘a rose is a rose by any other name’ – right? In other words, a haiku (or whatever) either works or it does not.

  3. Tom, This is one of my favorites from the Frech (I don’t speak French and have to rely on translations)…

    By the wayside leaves
    so tired of being leaves
    they fell.

    By the wayside Jews
    so tired of being Jews
    they fell.
    Edmond Jabes

    It’s been a long time since I pulled out my notes…I took these down decades ago…more years than I care to remember. Funny, I was so hungry for what this poetry contained, half the time I never copied down the author or where I got the poem from. Knowing a bit of the history of what brought this poetry about it important to understanding it. I am in your debt for bringing me back to it. Many thanks. Merrill

  4. There will be no attempt by me to “nail down” the truth or define any absolutes for haiku. It is hoped that we can explore the traditions of haiku that have come down through the years, which ones are still very much in use, which ones, if any, have been set aside. All opinions and ideas will be welcome.


  5. Tom, I will try to look him up…I have been greatly influenced by the French writers during WWII and how language was changed during that time and the influence of cultures on language.

    And Adelaide, I have to tell you I hope that many of these questions lead to broadening our concepts of haiku, not binding them in ways that restrict growth. I’m always a bit uncomfortable with trying to “nail down” truth. The more voices with different points of view the more thought and the deeper the thought will enrich us. Many thanks for putting this together.

  6. I hope this works out Adelaide, I am interested in the project.

    ps: you are right, Paul Mac does look like a teady bear :-) I know that this is sad, but I never met him. Maybe at the next HNA event, if
    I ever show up without canceling my fleight?

  7. Regarding “individual destiny” Bonnefoy’s point remains and it’s not what Merrill Ann Gonzales thinks it was. The Dunes project is very important partly because it will lead to deeper appreciations for the variety of understandings expressed by the variety of forms. Call these understandings “stances” implicit in the kinds of haiku — stances toward the world as a whole, but almost, more immediately, stances toward the reader, towards the poet’s community. Bonnefoy is of course speaking from within a special community of French intellectuals, his immediate audience. I for one have learned much from Bonnefoy about a variety of things. You should look him up! I was fascinated to hear of the impact haiku had had on this important and celebrated writer.

  8. I wish Adelaide all the very best with this new series too!
    Would be keenly following the discussions.

  9. I have to tell you, I am truly grateful for all the responses! And the depths they go to. Wonderful…I just copied it all down and can’t wait to read the article from The Japan Times, “Spring blooms early in art world”…
    Many thanks.

  10. Thank you all for your wonderful observations. Perhaps I do tend to compress things…I wish only I had the strength of mind and length of days to study all and every aspect of haiku for I find little more intriguing. But given an understanding of my limits and boundaries, I tend to follow the energy of a haiku…what it touches, its values, its shifting channels, its many depths and the conversions it creates. The labels we give these things are less important to me. I am grateful that so many poets here at THF share their great learning with me as it would be impossible for me to attain that degree of understanding. All I can rely on is the simple response a little old lady might have to an expression that she has come across. If that be simplistic, so be it. I have no illusions as to being any grander than this grain of star dust…blowing around in a rather stormy world.

  11. To answer Merril who wrote:

    “Also, I wonder why we’re revisiting the links between ELH and the origins of haiku.”

    A new student of haiku who has been initiated into the form with the 17 syllable, 5/7/5 format, will be surprised and confused to read what appears in the haiku journals of today. Where is the season word? How can a haiku be only one or two lines? Where are the 17 syllables? How is it that some haiku have only nine syllables or six?

    It is the hope that this section, Dunes, will give some background to those who are new to the form and show the changes that occurred, that the variants mentioned above are still haiku and which traditions of early haiku are still observed and in what way.

    It is hoped that both seasoned and new members of the haiku community will respond.


  12. Thank you for your input, Gabi. That was a slip on my part.

    While we’re at it, I see I also elided the word “for” in the last sentence of the second paragraph.

    My comments have to be typed hastily, I’m afraid.

  13. Dear Merrill,

    I am going to make something of a counter-statement here, and I hope you will find it to be encouraging and at least worth considering.

    I honestly don’t think we necessarily “know a good haiku” when we see it without first going through a fairly lengthy process of initiation into what haiku and its properties are–cuts, elisions, compression, seasonality, implications, sabi-wabi, karumi, hosomi, “objectivity”, and many more such things. And this involves many, many “explanations” that we internalize. We learn to see and value these things; we learn to replicate them in our work; and perhaps we may come to challenge and subvert them in knowing, meaningful ways, which also requires critical understanding, both on our part and on the part of our sympathetic and informed readers. It’s important, I feel, that we take none of this granted, that we don’t become “complacent” in our view of what haiku is and can be–even if, to be sure, there are many things that “simply” (my quotation marks here are skeptical) “hit us in the gut.”

    Garry Gay has a classic senryu on just this theme of “initiation” into haiku:

    Family reunion–
    again explaining
    what a haiku is
    (People’s Poetry Newsletter, August 1998)

    And I’m sure you know what he’s getting at! As Paul Fussell has observed, in a discussion of poetic technique, “The innocent eye sees nothing.” He means that we need to learn the conventions of art in order to appreciate and respond to them. And then there’s also the business of questioning and testing and building upon our initiations.

    This website is largely dedicated to the proposition that haiku is something worth discussing and thinking about. That’s what Virals, Sails, Periplum, Envoys, Fluences, Headsets, Dunes, and Montage have been largely about–and the space for comments as well, which is a space, at its best, to explore and grow. Of course, we all appreciate the specific, concrete examples. That’s the art itself, but it doesn’t necessarily “just speak for itself.” Good criticism will enrich our views of haiku, get us to see more, and get us to see new ways and to value new things. Of course, also, there are those who may (and do) reject the premises–and that’s their right. But that’s why we’re here, at THF, I think–to try to delve deeper, to discuss, to gauge where we’ve been, to chart directions for the future–in short, to take nothing for granted.

    Henry James once observed: “not only do I not question in literature the high utility of criticism, but I should be tempted to say that the part it plays may be supremely beneficent when it proceeds from deep sources, from the efficient combination of experience and perception. In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of the artist, a torch-bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother.” And James was, of course, both one of our greatest fiction writers and literary critics.

    Turning to haiku, I think we can say that we’ve benefited enormously from the work of such “torch-bearing outriders” as R. H. Blyth, Harold Henderson, Kenneth Yasuda, Makoto Ueda, William J. Higginson, Haruo Shirane, Richard Gilbert, and others. In fact, it’s hard to see how our haiku could exist at all without such “explainers” as Blyth and Henderson, who paved the way for the flourishing of haiku in English precisely with their explanations of what haiku is. But it doesn’t stop there; in fact, it never merely stops. “Everything is never said.”

    As for our connection with J haiku: I share your position that ELH stands largely on its own footing at this point. I’d say we’re less a branch than a separate sapling. But our practice does need to be informed as deeply as possible by fresh perspectives on classic J haiku and an awareness of contemporary currents in J haiku (including gendai). In addition to satisfying simple intellectual curiosity, such things give us more options for where to take our own haiku. It’s not a matter of slavish imitation; it’s a matter of comprehending and making informed choices.

    Learn. Master. Express. Question. Evolve. That’s what all art is about, I think.

    Lastly, I wish Adelaide all the best with this new series. I think it would be a great spot to explore both the form and content of our haiku across time.

  14. I though this to be a well turned phrase:

    ‘Seasons play an important role in Japanese culture, which has long celebrated the appreciation of ephemeral beauty as a reflection of life itself.’

    This seems, to me, to be spot on as a fundamental principal of haiku. This and the freeing of the spirit from the bondage of intellect, by showing, rather than telling – the former being, clearly, so difficult for our Western mind-set to fathom.

    The absence, oR not, of the haiku seer, in a haiku, seems not so important if we consider that the living moment includes both. Like quantumm physics insists. So, maybe Issa can stop turning in his grave, and this for fear of censure.


    winter lake
    only my eyes
    disturb the view

    — syllableº17

  15. My goodness, Tom, after reading your comment, I’d be half afraid to read Issa… Would you consider his haiku “individual destiny?”
    Also, I wonder why we’re revisiting the links between ELH and the origins of haiku. It’s quite evident that haiku has grown in many directions. Is there some sort of insecurity in its value or identity?
    It seems to me that you know a good haiku when you hear/read it… Does it need an explanation? (I know that explaining a good joke is impossible if you want to maintain its humor.)
    To me good art speaks for itself….for its own situation. To me good art is intrinsically about the individual in its context with the universal.

  16. Naturally, I wish this effort well, as I understand it: an attempt to map the various kinds of contemporary haiku. But the set up raises questions. The use of the word “individual” for Basho et al is anachronistic, and this point is important. And why leave out Chiyo-ni? Shiki is obviously a modern poet in his own search who drew on several traditions, including Basho et al. And in our effort to clarify the kinds of haiku being written today, we can’t lose sight of the impact of Basho et al. on modern poets. No less a poet than Yves Bonnefoy writes about the impact of Basho on his own search for reality, and says that once he had discovered Basho in translation, haiku helped him on his search. So while it may be important to sort through the kinds of contemporary haiku, some contemporary haiku poets may, like Bonnefoy, engage in a search for “reality in its unity” (Bonnefoy) — in fact, like Bonnefoy, they may encounter in the “original” haiku companions in this search. Finally, the interest in mapping contemporary haiku, which most of us are interested in, may indeed yield to a more profound interest in WHY haiku has had the impact it has had on the history of modern poetry, and that question is inseparable, it appears, from the need felt by modern poets to undo the damage done by individualism — what Bonnefoy calls “the preoccupation with individual destiny” — because it blocks one from experiencing “reality in its unity.” For Bonnefoy as for many modern poets, Basho et al. are invaluable as counter-models for modern individualism.

  17. I would suggest that this sort of conversation might start by reaching out to those living witnesses to earlier days in the development of English-language haiku: Anita Virgil, Cor van den Heuvel, Leroy Kanterman, Marlene Mountain, and others. Their perspective would be extremely valuable.

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