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Pop Quiz: Is haiku in English a socially relevant poetics in the 21st century?

Started by Scott Metz, January 06, 2013, 06:27:52 AM

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Scott Metz

Pop Quiz (single question):

Is haiku in English a socially relevant poetics in the 21st century?


Please answer "yes/no" to this question, and please provide a brief rationale and haiku examples to support your (yes/no) answer and statements.

William O



haiku is a useless thing, and the haiku poet is a useless person

how cruel
under the helmet
a cricket chirps


Don Baird

No, unfortunately.  It's probably less socially relevant today than it was in the 60s.  It doesn't have focus; and things without focus most often end up irrelevant.  JMHO  Give it more time though; there is a chance of recovery as the years go by.  We'll see.  We need a broader audience besides ourselves - regardless of haiku style.  That's why I wrote Haiku Wisdom the way I did ... mixing kung fu (and life) philosophy with haiku delivery.  It's for a broader audience that is generally "out of the haiku loop".
I write haiku because they're there to be written ...

storm drain
the vertical axis
of winter


Purely from my own direct experience running live events over twenty years, I'd say yes.

I've organised many live projects for haiku or renga/renku interacting with the general public, and both these genres have been liberating for many reasons, to people who have feared poetry most of their life.

Also my second renga city-wide project was a huge catalyst for people, including one I'll never forget, who had kept an awful secret about abuse during WWII, and opened up for the first time ever in over 60 years.

I gathered over 3,000 verses from mostly the general public, including a former Home Secretary (British Politician), and saw the effect on even more people.

People get put off poetry because of various reasons: it's elitist to them; not relevant; their teachers ridiculed them at school; or they didn't think they could be writers or creative, ever.

Other than Victorian poetry, most people cannot access modern or contemporary poetry, or have no interest.

Often haiku/renga projects provide a gateway into appreciating wider poetries, and act as an ambassador.

Unfortunately there is so much spam haiku, and doggerel labelled as haiku, and bad teachers regarding haiku, that it's an uphill struggle to persuade more people that haiku is a literary art worth pursuing.

There isn't the magnitude of people writing bad sonnets, spam sonnets for example, but the vast majority feel they can pen a haiku as it's only seventeen syllables and nothing else.

A lot of people like the Victorianesque translations of classic Japanese haikai verse, but would soon stop liking the classics if we got nearer to an approximation of how dense in meanings a haikai verse by Basho really was, and no one would bother to read a transliterated version at all.

Over the many thousands of the general public I've worked with over the years, and quite a few writers, the majority have been greatly moved by the haiku I've offered, whether Classic or Modern Japanese Haikai in translation, or Non-Japanese modern or contemporary.

On a literary level there is a problem as we've all read in anthologies by the big publishing houses, because other than perhaps Bill Higginson, hardly any modern or contemporary haiku sources are cited from the haiku world of people and publications we inhabit.

This is surprising considering we also have The Haiku Anthology tomes, and The Essential Haiku etc...

So re the general public, it's been a great success via my experiences over two decades, but re the senior literary scene, there is something missing, and it's the same problem.

What problem?  Well, in just speaking to one U.K. nationally famous poet, she said she was under peer pressure to write seventeen syllable ditties, and had bowed to that pressure.  Actually Tito did get her to provide a sound bite on one of his BBC Radio programmes, but time permitting, it was a very short sound bite.  Most radio shows, from Stephen Fry, to a recent one I was contacted about, only want shallow verse posing as haiku, over the airwaves.

Many mainstream poets who attempt haiku, fail abysmally, and that may be the main cause why haiku isn't socially relevant amongst the mainstream literary scene.   They fail to see the form because it's not a thing to do by the numbers as they presumed it would be, and we see some really bad poetry being provided by poetry experts, and so it shouts out that haiku must be bad.

More mainstream poets are jumping on the bandwagon on teaching haiku, badly of course, in most cases, and providing childish, not childlike, verses, and the same in some areas for renga, but oddly enough not to the same extent. 

As you'll know, globally famous artist Jeff Koons, and highly respected poet, and performance poet, Bob Holman amongst others, created American Renga, alongside a senior Pentagon military officer, who penned verses after the 911 attack which included the Pentagon building itself. The project was a huge success with big trucks trundling across America.

So yes, haikai verses are extremely relevant to the public, and certain mainstream poets, and the ways haiku and renga have taken off have never been healthier.  Sure, some of it is seventeen syllable poor poetry, but amongst that, there are diamonds, and not just from the haiku world we inhabit.


Quote from: Scott Metz on January 06, 2013, 06:27:52 AM
Pop Quiz (single question):

Is haiku in English a socially relevant poetics in the 21st century?


Please answer "yes/no" to this question, and please provide a brief rationale and haiku examples to support your (yes/no) answer and statements.
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Don Baird

Alan ...

I think he said a "brief rationale"  . . . hahahahahaaaaa!!!  Love it!  Hope all is well.  :)
I write haiku because they're there to be written ...

storm drain
the vertical axis
of winter


It makes up for other times when I didn't say enough, and it was brief, I didn't enclose the 3,300 renga verses! :-)

Hee hee hee!

Looking forward to responses from others, as we know a few miss discussions, and there's plenty here to respond to, both at this post, and open up to other posts.


Quote from: Don Baird on January 07, 2013, 02:16:13 PM
Alan ...

I think he said a "brief rationale"  . . . hahahahahaaaaa!!!  Love it!  Hope all is well.  :)
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Gabi Greve

Pop Quiz (single question):
Is haiku in English a socially relevant poetics in the 21st century?

Looking at the many haiku forums on FB, twitter  and elsewhere, I think yes,
it has become a "socially relevant poetics" .

This has nothing to do with the quality of the poems offered.  :'(
Greetings from Japan,
where haiku is  very much a "socially relevant poetics".
We got TV programs on "how to" and more books on "how to" than you would expect ...

Even my little village of  400 mostly elderly folks  has its regular "haiku meetings" ...
and not to speak of the many "social groups" who meet regularly to compose haiku in all towns and big cities.
Sorry, this got longer that I wanted, and "sorry" for the Japanese background.

Peter Yovu

I've been considering this question for some time-- I've delayed posting my thoughts here, as they are still somewhat fluid, but in the end I've decided to go ahead, if only to help keep things going. So . . .

Surely "socially relevant" will mean different things to different people. For many it will mean feeling part of a haiku community with all that implies. For others, its meaning will fall somewhere within the range of possibilities implied by effecting some sort of change, making a difference in people's lives, or in the culture as a whole.

But the question relates to "poetics", that is to say the art and technique of poetry, and this brings me more directly in touch with my own inclination-- stance if you will-- which is to believe (without being particularly attached to or insistent on the belief) that poetry, to be poetry, must be in some way revelatory, and that revelation (embodied in non-linear, intuitive language) of whatever is hidden, lost or denied is ultimately, eventually beneficial, and socially relevant in ways that may take time to become apparent.

I think the value of any art lies in its ability to draw participants into a deeper understanding of its "subject matter", bypassing, at least initially, intellection and moving toward intuition. In short, it has no agenda-- which to some may mean it will fall short of social or political relevance. But as I see it, not having an agenda gives the reader/listener (in the case of poetry) the opportunity to discover his or her own relationship to that subject, fostering feelingful contact. Haiku is not unique in this, but it does seem to be a core aspect of its "poetics", in theory if not always in practice.

I think it is fair to say that Japanese aesthetics (which inform haiku poetics, needless to say) have influenced Western culture-- consider wabi-sabi-- and been incorporated to the extent that the influence itself is no longer in the foreground. This is much less true of haiku itself, which (is it fair to say?) the majority of "mainstream" poets and the English language world as a whole continue to see as a Japanese cultural phenomenon which may be learned from and imitated but which is as genuine in the English language as "champagne" produced in the Napa Valley.

From this point of view,  "haiku in English" is regarded as something closer to "haiku in Japanese in English". And in many instances, this is  the case. The genius of the English language (with all its cultural felicities and limitations) has only sporadically been explored in haiku. Haiku writers seem reluctant to sail beyond Japan's territorial seas. And some who do are nonetheless drawn back by the undertow termed "gendai".

To my mind, this has bearing on any discussion of social relevance.

So haiku poetics, yes, insofar as they have been incorporated into the work of many poets of the past hundred years, have had and continue to have social relevance-- if one believes, as I do, that poetry itself does. However, haiku itself remains in a bubble.

Adam Traynor

I would like to say something, but the question seems kind of abstract to me. Maybe more people would respond if the question was narrowed down some?


I think I know where Peter and tray are coming from in their hesitancy to post their thoughts.  Perhaps I was too brief in my original reply, but mostly I was curious to see how others might respond before allowing myself to get too involved, especially since so many of you here have extensive experience with haiku as it is perceived and practiced in the wider world. 

That being said, I read Peter's response with particular interest.  I'm thankful he decided to share, and look forward to hearing more.  Likewise, for the sake of discussion, I might as well share my thoughts.  Given my scant haiku creds, I hope you won't think me too presumptuous for doing so.  Anyway, here goes . . .   

As Peter observes, social relevance is bound to mean different things to different people.   But even among the few responses posted thus far, I think we can see two major ways of framing the matter.  When we look for social relevance, are we asking if haiku can appeal to and enrich the lives of a wide range of people?  Or, are we asking if haiku is capable of incorporating and commenting upon themes of real significance in contemporary society?  The first question relates to haiku's public place.  The second relates to its poetics and greater meaning.     

Alan and Gabi make a good case for haiku from the first standpoint.  Their experience suggests that haiku can still appeal to a modern public, a quality which hearkens back to the old idea of haiku as a popularly accessible form in contrast to the dense and complex style of court poetry.  Professor Haruo Shirane comments on this democratic aspect of haiku in his essay 'Beyond the Haiku Moment':

'There is no poetry like haiku when it comes to this.  Haiku has a special meaning and function for everyone.  It can be a form of therapy.  It can be a way to tap into one's psyche.  Haiku can do all these things.  And it can do these things because it is short, because the rules are simple, because it can focus on the moment'.  (

For cultivating a social place for haiku, I think Alan exemplifies a type of haiku bodhisattva, as do many other teachers, researchers, publishers, and journal editors.  In terms of my own writing and knowledge of haiku, I owe them enormously.  Without promoters like Alan, we wouldn't even be considering Scott's question. 

But, for those of us who hear the call, a further challenge compels our attention.  Peter is right to point out that Scott specifically asks about poetics.  But, as writers, I think it is only inevitable that we interrogate our  craft if we truly wish to create viable and meaningful art.  Beyond giving haiku a place in society, how do we give our actual poems social meaning?  And, to this end, is haiku a capable form? 

Are the 'spam haiku' mentioned by Alan socially relevant?  Of course, we can always look at them as a sort of social inkblot test.  But, beyond representing blindly expressed symptoms, can we make our haiku part of the therapy? 

And what about the 'junk haiku' Hasegawa Kai describes?  According to Hasegawa, a vast portion of all haiku, in Japan and beyond, falls into this category (  I've written my fair share of junk haiku, like everyone at some point, or so I hope, at least for the sake of my pride.  But, when I'm honest with myself, I can tell when they're cheap or contrived, and I try to catch myself before releasing them on the world. 

To me, writing haiku by the numbers is anything but fulfilling.  Not that it is impossible to write another autumn wind haiku.  To do so has only become an even greater challenge.  Nonetheless, these conventions threaten to preclude honest and original expression.  Often, these haiku are just not all that I want my poetry to be and seem to fall short of my expectations for the remarkable possibilities of which the form is capable.  Of course, many may find it very rewarding to write conventional English language haiku.  There is nothing wrong with that.  It is great that people want to write and share their haiku at all.  But if we truly value the form, we must exercise some discriminating assessment.  We must have some sense for what makes a compelling and meaningful haiku. 

Recently, I read an article lamenting 'haiku ennui'.  In it, the author describes a sort of numbness that threatens to overcome us after reading about spring wind/the playground/all to itself or a snowflake/filling/the beggar's cup for the millionth time.  For our boredom with such poems, the author suggests that we should not blame the poets but our own deficiency of wonder.  We must take these haiku, he argues, as a call to exercise greater empathy.  In my opinion, this is absolutely fatal advice.  To be worthy of the name, art cannot and should not rely upon our empathy and wonder, it should incite it.  This is far more of a western view, I know.  Even Hasegawa speaks of the need for a 'superior reader'.  But how many of them can we expect to import from Japan? 

At any rate, take my examples above.  I wrote them off the cuff just a moment ago, totally uninspired.  They mean nothing to me.  Why should I expect them to elicit feeling in anyone else?  Maybe they'd pass for filler in a rather depressing greeting card.  Maybe there's no harm done if somebody else enjoys them.  But, why did I bother to write them?  And, moreover, are they worth reading?  Do we really want this sort of literature to represent haiku?  What makes them artful or relevant? 

In this vein, Peter's comments on art deeply resonated with me. 

'Poetry, to be poetry, must be in some way revelatory, and that revelation . . . of whatever is hidden, lost or denied is ultimately, eventually beneficial, and socially relevant in ways that may take time to become apparent. . . . The value of any art lies in its ability to draw participants into a deeper understanding of its 'subject matter', bypassing, at least initially, intellection and moving toward intuition'. 

A major element of art, as Peter describes it, hinges upon communicative ability.  We know art when it works, intuitively, as I think Peter implies.  For art to work, it must communicate.  And communication comes through relatability, that is, relevance.  In this respect, I feel that true art will always be socially relevant, and not just for one particular society or century.

So much for art in general, what about haiku?  In our efforts to create honest, communicative, and socially relevant art, will we find that the genre must be abandoned?  And, even if we can take haiku to a higher level, can we do so without sacrificing its democratic character?  Professor Shirane directly addresses this apparent conflict between haiku's mass appeal (so far as poetry is concerned) and its artistic potential.   

'The dilemma is this: on the one hand, the great attraction of haiku is its democracy. . . . However, if haiku is to rise to the level of serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have impact on other non-haiku poets, then it must have a complexity that gives it depth and that allows it to both focus on and rise above the specific moment or time.'

Shirane goes on to say that this is really a false choice.  Artistry and popular appeal, he claims, are reconciled in the essentially dialogic nature of haiku. 

'One of the assumptions that Basho and others made about the hokku (haiku) was that it was unfinished.  The hokku was only the beginning of a dialogue; it had to be answered by the reader or another poet or painter.  Haikai in its most fundamental form, as linked verse, is about linking one verse to another, one person to another.  Haikai is also about exchange . . . about mutual composition, about completing or complementing the work of others, adding poetry and calligraphy to someone's printing, adding a prose passage to a friend's poem, etc.'

While there may be less activity in collaborative forms today, the process of exchange seems to remain strong in the haiku world and makes for one of the form's most unique and promising aspects.  I am always excited to see the dialogues which emerge between the individual haiku published in journals.  In particular, the editors of A Hundred Gourds and R'r achieve remarkable effects through their choice and arrangement of content.  In my opinion, these dialogues are nothing less than a door open on the collective unconscious.  If that isn't socially relevant, what is?  According to C.G. Jung, we might have averted the First World War and other world crises if only we had known how to interpret such phenomena.  Manifestations of the collective unconscious, he argued, can remind us of our shared humanity and offer guidance in our efforts to address global issues.

But, dialogue, while important, cannot cover the whole problem.  What of our dialogue's content?  What is there to learn from a series of weather-report haiku?  Shirane also comments on the areas which a socially relevant English language haiku might explore and how it might do so.         

'Basho, Buson and other masters [elevated haiku to the status of serious poetry] through various forms of textual density, including metaphor, allegory, symbolism and allusion, as well as through the constant search for new topics.  For North American poets, for whom the seasonal word cannot function in the fashion that it did for these Japanese masters, this becomes a more pressing issue, with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace.  Haiku [in English] need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan.'

It is important to note that Scott asks about haiku in English.  Some claim there is no such thing, that what we are discussing here is something else.  True, it is different.  It must be and probably should be, if only because it takes shape in a different language and culture.  But I believe there is a translatable link consisting largely in the techniques which enable the powerful and transformative word and image relationships which characterize great haiku in any language. 

In Poems of Consciousness, Richard Gilbert distinguishes seventeen such patterns and techniques, many of which have ancient precedents.  Contemporary haijin continue to use these methods in ways that can be simultaneously convention-shattering, deeply traditional, revelatory, and primal.  Of course, aside from our fondness for numerology, there is no reason why we must limit ourselves to seventeen typologies.  In a recent essay for R'r, Jack Galmitz expands on Professor Gilbert's own innovative work in English language haiku.  Playing around with these techniques, I see no reason why we shouldn't be capable of composing authentic and socially relevant haiku on any subject.

Why then did I say no in my original post?

I believe we make a fetish of form and relevance of any sort at the peril of our art.  Carl Jung said that religion is a defense against the experience of God.  The poet must throw out all religion and speak from primal, honest, instinctive experience and feeling.  I am reminded of a quote posted on the R'r blog  ( some months ago.

'Art does not permit both artistic genius and artistic form to be studied at the same time.  When the attempt is made, the spirit of genius is taken to be conveyed through form, leading inescapably to the formalization of the spirit itself.  The result is called academicism or mannerism.'

Santoka Taneda speaks to this sense of spirit.

'Real haiku is the soul of poetry.  Anything that is not actually present in one's heart is not haiku.  The moon glows, flowers bloom, insects cry, water flows.  There is no place we cannot find flowers or think of the moon.  This is the essence of haiku.  Go beyond the restrictions of your era, forget about purpose or meaning, separate yourself from historical limitations – there you will find the essence of true art, religion, and science.'

I think Basho's sense of 'uselessness' captures the attitude we must take if we wish to create haiku that are honest, artistic, and relevant.  As writers, it is perhaps more important that we are absorbed with the world than with our message and form.  The medium is the message, and the poet as much as the poem is the medium.  Basho also speaks of the absolute importance of inhabiting the object of one's own poetic attention.

'In composing hokku, there are two ways: becoming and making.  When a poet . . . applies himself to an external object, the color of his mind naturally becomes a poem.  In the case of the poet who has not done so, nothing in him will become a poem; he consequently makes the poem through an act of personal will.' (Hass 234-235)

If a poet who deeply inhabits the world can speak from the core, it is my belief that his or her words will inevitably reflect the zeitgeist in a way which is relevant to all humanity across the centuries.

Believe it or not, I feel like I'm leaving out a lot.  As it is, thanks for putting up with my long-winded post.  I also wanted to comment on the haiku I chose as an example in my original response, but I've said more than enough for the moment.

I would, however, like to offer just a couple more examples of haiku for consideration,

in a tent in the rain i become a climate
-Jim Kacian

sperm whale sleeping losing weight on the couch
-Jim Westenhaver 

Interested to see where this will go . . .

S.M. Abeles

Naturally the question turns on how one defines "socially relevant."  That said, there is almost no definition of that phrase that would result in the answer to the question being "no."

Haiku is socially relevant in the 21st century because it is the leading form of poetry in social media, foremost on Twitter, and to a lesser degree on Facebook.  Twitter wins because one can much more easily avoid poor haiku and curate lists of haiku poets who know the genre, versus Facebook. My own Twitter stream brims with daily haiku (and Tanka, and other short forms) from many well-known maestros of the form, along with, perhaps more importantly, many more unknown but outstanding short-form poets.

Indeed, I believe that my daily Twitter stream constitutes the best poetry "journal" in the world.  I do not believe there is a close second.

For these reasons, and because (i) the genre is able to reach so many more people than ever before, (ii) so many new people have begun writing haiku, and, as a result, (iii) more people than ever before have been brought joy by the form, to me it is self-evident that haiku is socially-relevant in the 21st century.

While it is also likely true that there is more bad haiku out there than ever before, such trifling makes the outstanding the enemy of the perfect.  Were one to believe this undercuts the above points, then one would also necessarily believe that the addition of bad haiku outweighs the additional good to great haiku generated via social media, exposure, and practice. Yet consider the positive impact a great haiku has on you (e.g., a permanently imprinted memory, inspiration for your own poem, etc.) versus the negative impact of a bad one (e.g., shrug).  There is not comparison.

Just a simple poet.

The Empty Sky


Yes. Building on previous posts:  I recently heard that some school literature programs are in the process of replacing classic novels with owner's manuals.Perhaps the brevity will lend itself to the new curtailed curriculum (not to mention the increasing popularity of beherenowism in every field.) That sounds cynical. But I agree that quality notwithstanding, it does seem to be an extremely timely form.

This probably applies to haiku written or studied today in any language.


And a favorite socially relevant haiku:

no woods
to get lost in

-Vincent tripi


Pop Quiz (single question):

Is haiku in English a socially relevant poetics in the 21st century?

Yes it is.  I've been following this fascinating thread.  Many of you are far more knowledgeable and eloquent than I.  I can only share from my own personal point of view why I enjoy reading and writing haiku poetry and what about doing so is socially relevant to me.

I work on two haiku forums with poets from all over the world.  We are from different climates, cultures and races yet haiku provides a unifying force for us.  What is it that draws us to haiku?  I cannot speak for everyone, but I will tell you that when it comes to haiku,  I am consciously borrowing from Japan and maybe from the East in general their positive valuation of intuition.  For me it's intuition that sets haiku apart from other forms, although intuition may be found in a wide variety of the arts.  Yet when I read or write haiku poetry it's the intuitive experience I seek.  And, in my opinion it's intuitive experience and thinking that are sorely needed in my culture in the West.   

Because haiku is filling a real need for me, I consider it socially and politically relevant.  And, as I read and experience haiku from all over the world, my own world becomes enriched by sharing the experiences of others.  I often see climates or political events in a new light after I've read haiku from poets who live in a particular area.  Yet our commonality comes through also as private perspectives and matters of the heart strike a common chord.

My example haiku is one by Christopher Herold:

just a minnow—
the granite mountain wobbles
on the lake

I chose this one because in order to decipher it's meaning, one must make an intuitive leap.  On the surface it can be a reflection haiku, but it leads the reader to deeper levels.  One can see that from a small change, larger changes may come.  I think of all those twitter and facebook haiku being generated as our worlds become more globally and socially connected.  One can also see that even the appearance of great change can be an illusion.

Whether haiku will be a flash in the pan here in the United States or increasingly relevant will depend in large part on the poets and cultures who read and write it.  As I've stated, I think good haiku helps fill a need in Western culture and since all cultures are fluid and dynamic on ongoing need in the East as well.  When things are useful, they have a tendency to survive and thrive.  Again, my vote is yes Enlish language haiku is socially relevant in the 21st century.  Rebecca Drouilhet

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