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Do you think future haiku artists will be more accepting of personification?

Started by Chase Gagnon, February 07, 2013, 12:38:01 AM

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Chase Gagnon

I have been reading haiku for awhile, (but havent gotten anything published until a year or so ago) and I have noticed some poems have been hinting at personification recently. Not toataly using it, just hinting at it. I'm just wondering if sometime in the distant future (say 100 years) if personification will be widely accepted in ELH? We'll all be dead by then lol, but it's just fun to think about.

From what I understand (and I am no expert), original haiku HAD to include some sort of nature theme. Now, many dont. and we call those poems senryu. but in Basho's day, if someone had made a senryu type poem... no one would have liked it because of the no nature theme. Just like today, if someone makes a personification "haiku", no one would like, or accept it. Again, I dont know a lot about haiku history... but I've been thinking about this for awhile now.

by the way, I'm not talking about personification like "the sun is smiling". maybe something like the sleepy moon or something along those lines.

Any thoughts?


I see personification all over the place in haiku.  But the best poems that employ personification often go about it in very sneaky or subtle ways.  Sometimes it emerges from intentionally ambiguous language in which the speaker, some other person, or simply a human quality becomes merged with an inanimate object.  I also see a lot of personification taking place in the transference of qualities between two juxtaposed images.  In these instances it's more implicit.  In the compressed form of the haiku, the reader simply cannot help but associate the qualities of the independent images with one another. 

Maybe we should be asking, where do we draw the line with personification?  I get the feeling every poet secretly wants to and tries to personify inanimate objects.  Deep down, I think we're all animists.  To a large extent, I think it's just an unavoidable human habit.  Inevitably, we project our feelings onto the world around us.  But there's an art to doing this in a way that lets others share in this natural experience -- showing them, not telling them, that the moon is sleepy.

I hope he wont mind me posting it here, but one poem by Scott Metz that's really stuck with me comes to mind as an example of this.

how we've. grown.
intimate. w the. sea
the. last. few. river. teeth.

-Scott Metz (R'r 12.1)

Is there not personification in this poem?  Strictly speaking, no.  We don't have a confused, bipolar, angry, or resigned river.  But we do have a river with teeth.  Yet, if necessary, we can still regard that detail as no more than a picturesque way of describing waves -- if necessary and if we want to.  But why do we want to?  Only because personification is a no-no?  More importantly, the poem implies that the river grows intimate with the sea in the same manner that 'we' have.  That's getting pretty close to personification.  But, of course, it is not explicitly stated.  In fact, this is the reader's own act of projection!   And there's the beauty of it.  Scott makes us do the personifcation for him.  Sneaky!  He pulls us into the experience.  Not only that, he does so in a way that echoes the theme of the poem itself, growing intimate, and apparently with some reluctance.  We have the sense in those teeth that there is some fight against the loss of individuality that comes with intimacy -- when we join the sea.  Furthermore, I like to wonder who 'we' are.  Who is speaking?  What's to say that we aren't rivers? 

This is such a cool poem for so many reasons, I could go on about it ad nauseum.  But I'm interested in what you or others might think.  Would also be interested in seeing other examples of good approaches to personification.

Great question, Chase!



Hi, Chase  The old Japanese masters did not shy away from personification, and when I go to Fay Aoyagi's Blue Willow Haiku World site I see that modern Japanese poets use it freely also.  Barrow asked for examples of personification.  I wrote a poem that used it that was fairly well received by poets on the forum.  The poem is:

waxing moon
the cicadas chant
my mantra

I've seen other examples of personification used here and there in EL haiku, but as you point out it is often frowned upon.  I think it's a bit silly that in the interest of perserving 'the real haiku' spirit, we've tried to become more Japanesey than the Japanese.

For me the litmus test when using personification is to see how it plays out in the poem.  If it makes the poem too precious or cute, I don't like it.  But there are many times when personification can work for me.  I think a good poet challenges the rules and strives not to become bound by narrow parameters.  So, Chase if you want to write about a 'sleepy moon'  I would do so and let the chips fall where they may.  Rebecca Drouilhet

Gabi Greve

Matsuo Basho used a lot of "nature" images,
but in fact writing about his friends.

Personification is part and parcel of Japanese haiku - and hopefully also in ELH.

Greetings from a snowy morning in Japan.

Gabi Greve

I just found a great hokku by Basho . . .

ayu no ko no shirauo okuru wakare kana

young ayu sweetfish
are seeing off the whitefish
and say good bye . . .
Tr. Gabi Greve

Written in March of 1689 元禄2年3月.

The whitefish are the first to go upstream to spawn, the ayu follow them one month later.
Basho and Sora (whitefish) are ready to depart for "Oku no Hosomichi"
and he has to leave his young disciples (ayu no ko) behind at Senju.

This hokku has the cut marker KANA at the end of line 3.
Basho at Senju

Greetings from Japan

Don Baird

Thanks for your posts, Gabi!  Always appreciate seeing you pop in! 

Personification is normal in haiku/hokku of which, as Gabi points out, was used frequently by Basho (and others).  I think one of the best ways to see what has been used in the past is to read a lot ... a lot a lot!  Reading the old masters besides the new ones of today is important.  The experience gives tremendous support you a poet's knowledge base of what was used and/or not.

So many folks teach.  So many of them have not read enough.  That's how misconceptions come about as to what is acceptable or not regarding older Japanese poetry styles.

I write haiku because they're there to be written ...

storm drain
the vertical axis
of winter


Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

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