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Field Notes 5: Criticism

Started by Field Notes, January 25, 2014, 07:34:48 PM

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Peter Yovu

Michael Dylan Welch has long favored the idea that ELH should take steps to break out of the "haiku ghetto" and position itself, by various means, in the larger poetry community. In his contribution for FN5 above, he recalls Dana Gioia encouraging the "haiku community" to "champion its best haiku poets and its best haiku books to non-haiku poets", and to "find and promote . . . excellent haiku poets".  He suggests writing "in-depth articles for leading non-haiku poetry journals".

I believe Michael is to be applauded for his efforts in this direction.

There is probably no consensus about what "excellence" in haiku may be (just as there is little consensus about about what haiku itself is), nor much about who are the "best" haiku writers and which the best books. So it's unclear, at least to me, just what or whom to promote or how to go about it.

There are no doubt many readers (and writers) of poetry who would be interested and likely surprised to learn what has been happening in ELH since the 50's. An in-depth article on the subject might find its way into one or another poetry journal. Poetry magazine would be a logical place to try. The Poetry Foundation, which publishes it, has a mission to promote poetry in general and to make it accessible to a wide audience.

There may be reasons, however, they would be reluctant to publish such an article.
More about that soon.

With the appearance of Haiku in English last year, at least one case has been made for excellence in haiku. It is probably the best case that has been made up to now. As far as I know it has yet to be reviewed by any major poetry journal, despite having been published by Norton, who also published earlier anthologies edited by Cor van den Heuvel.

Its primary aim, of course, is to demonstrate that "excellence" in haiku is not a static or single thing. Various writers, as the book makes clear, have done different things with haiku, but the anthology's aim is not to demonstrate the excellence of writers themselves. It does not attempt to make a case for individual poets as "best" or even "excellent".

And in truth, about how many haiku poets would that be possible? Put it this way:
how many haiku poets are readily identifiable by their work? Only a few, I would say.

For the most part, haiku itself, the idea of it, the ideal of it, has been promoted over the writer him or herself. Some poets considered among the "best" write haiku which could have been written by any number of others. It would seem that anybody can write a good haiku. That is often promoted as one of its charms, what sets it apart from the more "elitist" stance of poetry in general. The problem for me is that many of the poems one finds in the journals and anthologies have exactly the feeling of having been written by . . . anybody.

Haiku is often regarded as a purity which the writer attains by draining himself or herself of individuality or personality. The individual is equated with ego; writing as an individual, or with individuality and uniqueness is merely an act of self-expression-- of pointing primarily to oneself.

That's not what I'm talking about. Nor am I talking about promoting more subjectivity. (Or less for that matter). Nor about psychological or confessional haiku, unless that is what truly matters to the writer, if elements of haiku are a means of bringing such explorations to life.

What I'm talking about is the individual as a unique expression of life-- and the writer as one means, by way of language, by which life gets to reveal itself. What I feel needs to be promoted is individual expression-- how you and I come to terms with the challenge and potential of haiku which, if we are serious, we have internalized (and perhaps metabolized) as an inescapable dimension of our lives. 

Here's the thing: I don't think poets and readers of poetry outside the "haiku community" want to know more about haiku, but rather about writers whose language has been lit up by contact with it. The virtues of haiku itself are easy to discover-- recent anthologies make a good case.  Non-haiku poets don't need, as some seem to think they do, to be educated about haiku but to be exposed to writers who have used it as a means to produce distinctive and significant work, writing which comes through a poet's struggles with with word, world, and self.

I believe criticism can play a vital role in this. There have been very few in-depth critiques of individual writers. Such explorations, done well, can bring subtle or difficult elements of a poet's work into the light, and serve to open doors to others. A good critic finds a third dimension where others could only find two. It is perhaps a somewhat ideal view, but I believe a symbiosis can take place between writer and critic, each bringing out the best in the other.

I would cite Allan Burns as someone who, by way of Montage, but more so Where the River Goes, has done good critical work, providing insightful portraits of various writers and giving some personal context for their work. Jack Galmitz, in his book Views, offers an often generous and in-depth look at the achievements of poets such as Mountain and Martone. His review of Mark Harris' Burl is sensitive and insightful. And Richard Gilbert has championed numerous (and in many cases previously unseen) possibilities inherent in haiku in such a way that, as I see it, the individual expression I am speaking of is given a broad range of "tools" to work with.

Of course none of that is possible without the poems themselves, without poets' willingness to explore. And yet sometimes it may be that the critic sees something the writer did not, or only intuited. Even good writers know only the half of themselves. Great writers perhaps somewhat more, but I'm not sure such a creature exists yet among ELH poets.

Nor do I think one will emerge by favoring excellence in haiku over excellence in individual writers.

Field Notes

Rebecca Lilly

I read with interest your thoughts on the absence of individual voice in haiku, and agree with your general observation that when a single good haiku is looked at by itself, out of context, it's not easy to discern who wrote it --it might conceivably have been written any number of good poets. However, I think this is, perhaps unfortunately, due more to the brevity of the form, rather than the 'no-self' philosophy behind it.

Unless haiku are linked, or are published together as a collection by a single poet, it can be very difficult to discern an individual voice. Most writers I know who don't care for haiku tell me it's because it doesn't allow for "digging," and thereby doesn't provide enough of an emotional or intellectual hook for the reader. I would say that while haiku delves, it offers a flash of insight, or momentary refreshment--sometimes quite a glorious one--but doesn't root around in the nitty-gritty, as that would require a longer form (either of poetry or prose). Again, it's the brevity of the single haiku that serves as both its strength, offering the power of concision when written well, and its limitation or inability in such a short space to tell a story or dredge up a chain of associations.

It occurred to me that it might be worth distinguishing between the individual voice (or distinctive style of a poet) and the personal nature of that voice (whether that voices aspires to the 'no-self' ideal and thereby tends to disappear into its subject, or whether it's deeply concerned with the personal self). A poet might have a distinctive and recognizable style, but a non-personal voice.

Field Notes

Penny Harter

One way to get haiku out of the "haiku ghetto" is for those of us who write all kinds of poetry (in my case free verse--or what some call lyric poems, prose poems, formal verse now and then, haiku and haiku sequences, haibun, the occasional tanka and/or tanka sequence, etc.), to put out books with multi-genres in them. Both my Recycling Starlight and my new book The Resonance Around Us, are combinations of genres, and they are in the mainstream because they contain "regular" poems as well as Japanese-related genres.

One problem I've run into by doing this, however, is that when I enter a contest, my books is the proverbial neither fish nor fowl. If I enter a haiku and related genres, judges ask is it a book of haiku or haibun (except for the online One Bowl which is all haibun)? Not exactly, though these genres are either sprinkled throughout or sectioned in the book. And if I enter a mainstream po-book contest, the book may be dismissed because it has haiku in it---many mainstream poets look upon haiku as not "real poetry", mostly because they haven't seen that many good haiku; they think of 5-7-5 treacle and/or spam-ku.

But that doesn't stop me from trying to integrate genres. It's all poetry, all on one continuum for me. And that may be the case for others of us who write in several genres, even fiction (and I've published a number of short stories over the years, too). I think it's a good way to get haiku out of the ghetto and into the hands of poets and poetry lovers in the mainstream.


Thanks for your provocation, Peter.

None of what follows addresses your thoughts about the relationship between the larger literary
world and haiku as when you say:

Quote"Non-haiku poets don't need, as some seem to think they do, to be educated about haiku but to be exposed to writers who have used it as a means to produce distinctive and significant work, writing which comes through a poet's struggles with with word, world, and self."

I would be most curious to hear what others think about that.

What I immediately thought of was how the history of Japanese haiku is right there to demonstrate what you say about the individuality of many of its most loved poets. For example, for all the comparisons that could be made between Santoka and Hosai, their voices --the ways they embody a relationship to the world-- are clearly distinct from one another; for me, most obviously in their different senses of humor.  (at least in the translations I have read).

A critic that has spoken of the "I' in haiku is Barthes, according to Jon Baldwin in his essay, "Qualities of Haiku (from Roland Barthes)" published in MH 43:3. Barthes' ideas of "Enunciation" and "Individuation" could be of interest here.

Quoting Baldwin, quoting Barthes about enunciation:

" [Barthes] proposes that the I or the ego is always present in the haiku to a greater or lesser extent,
though it is often concealed. The haiku teaches the art of saying I, 'but it's an I of writing: I write I, therefore I am'. ..."The enunciating subject is always there, present, and placing himself in the picture.  The body is present in the haiku even though the I (or me, or mine, or my and so on) might not be used."

Quoting Baldwin, quoting Barthes about individuation:

"The irreducibility, singularity, specialness, and uniqueness of the individual is related to the given
time and space of the individual.  Barthes terms this "individuation."  He quotes Bashō's definition that a haiku is simply what happens in a given place at a given moment.  Barthes finds this insufficient because it does not include the presence of the individual.  He wants to introduce the following nuance to Bashō's definition: 'that what happens surrounds the subject.' "

(The Preparation of the Novel is the original source of Barthes' comments-- a series of lectures delivered in 1979 and 1980 , published in 2003 in France, recently translated into English.)

Barthes' views here echo Merleau-Ponty's ideas of how the body animates the world:
"Perception takes place in me, not I perceive"
Phenomenology of Perception.

We also find the idea of breaking down the easy distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity in physics. The Uncertainty Principle for one.  I still don't quite have a handle on the amplituhedron that George has introduced here, but it seems like a rich image to explore.


Haiku; The Charming Art

Recently, I heard a radio interview with a famous actor. A good actor, in my opinion. Accomplished. The interviewer wanted to know how hard was it to talk in that affected voice for so long, in speaking about a specific film. And what an impressive and convincing performance he delivered with that memorable voice. Oh that voice that voice, she went on and on, just drew me in . . .

The actor said: The voice isn't acting. That's technique. Like hair and make-up is used to make me look a certain way. The voice is my way of fitting the structure necessary for the role. But it's not acting. Acting is what happens once all that's second-nature. No longer an obstacle to what I might discover.

Immediately-- I thought: haiku. Haiku is the voice I assume in the film called Poetry. I have to be a poet first to attempt a role with haiku in it. Or, at least, I have to get myself a fine haiku coach to limber me up for the role. A convincing haiku poet is years in the making.

Mr. Yovu's assertion that anybody can write a good haiku is arguable. Anyone can speak German too after years of study but still to a native speaker the language may sound infantilized. But he said good not excellent, I understand. And no wonder. Haiku was introduced in America and it spread like wildfire. We've all counted them out in 3rd grade. Probably not since then for most poets. But for those of us who have pursued our studies of haiku in English we're in a bit of a pickle. Betwixt and between. To shout or whisper.

On the one hand, if we tout ourselves as haiku poets we are no longer visible to mainstream poets. If we claim mainstream poet status the haiku community cries: Interloper. Or: Experimentalist. Or worse: Phony.

So what's an old school word tinker to do? All he wants to do is write. Butt this word up against that syllable make a lap-joint, a dovetail call it what you want--does it hold together? Does it make you want to sing once its done?

In this regard, I agree with Mr. Yovu's belief that non-haiku poets don't care about haiku as much as the heat of the language used by the poet. They are in search of the stand-out poet. The fire-in-the-belly poet. A top-tier athlete/poet to use an Olympic metaphor. Who cares what language they speak. (And as we see in the Olympics, they can emerge from even the smallest villages with grit and guts).

Thing is: Given the relatively brief confines of the haiku form, the haiku poet must stick the landing every time. In fact, the haiku lands on the page all dismount and no running start. Haiku is not a passive sport, charming as it might be. The reader's gotta be responsible for something.

The role of criticism in all this? I would say that non-haiku poets need to get up to speed on what's happening in modern haiku these days. How do we assist them? Well if you want to attract a poet's fresh eye you have flash a shiny new word their way or series of words. You basically have to fish with fire. No easy task. Excellence in poetry is achieved by individuals not genres. Absolutely.

If we are in search of greatness, let it be in the next poem we write. I agree with Mr. Yovu's skeptical view of the promotion of certain sub-categories of haiku over, say, overall outstanding poems by specific poets. Traditional, Contemporary, Innovative. Yes, thank you, I'll take elements of all three please. Not one over the other. Sometimes, I do feel like we're in some super-socially responsible charter school where everyone gets a prize just for coming to school that day. Contests are tricky. Judges are human. Prone to specific tastes, etc, etc...

I have always contended that haiku is no different than any other kind of poem. Different rules, no rules. It's the original language art. All the same mainstream poetry rules apply to haiku (no discovery for the writer, no discovery for the reader--push push push--go to the limit--some time-bitten coach screaming in you ear--That all ya got?!) And, by the way, it must sing for itself, with all its innocence and experience intact, or risk being forgotten.


My post crossed at the same time Rebecca and Penny responded.

I just love Recycling Starlight--it is a great example of the bigger picture you talk about, and
it is helpful to hear the "practical" issues that have arisen for you by mixing genres.

As Rebecca mentions, it seems like we might have different ways of thinking about "voice" here.

I believe that with any poet/any kind of poetry, you need more than a poem or two to get a sense of
their voice, though certainly haiku has its own particulars in this. (I think this is in part what Peter Newton is saying, along with the issue of brevity that Rebecca mentions-- if I understand correctly.)

This is where perhaps criticism could be truly helpful. Jack Galmitz made this effort with Views.

Gary Hotham

10 Feb 2014

Some comments for Peter Yovu's 6 Feb thoughts:

1/ re: "In his [Michael Dylan Welch} contribution for FN5 above, he recalls Dana Gioia encouraging the "haiku community" to "champion its best haiku poets and its best haiku books to non-haiku poets", and to "find and promote . . . excellent haiku poets"." 

I question the idea of a haiku community that can speak with one voice. Of course this is a suggestion from someone outside the haiku world and I would not be surprised that Gioia thought that because of the conference he was attending.  I also don't think there is one poetry community.  I do a lot of reading of poetry and I don't find a consensus of who are the best poets.  Sure there are poets who are popular and those who win prizes but that does not mean the whole poetry world thinks they are the best.   I would agree with Peter Yovu there is a problem with who do we promote as the best haiku writers.

2/ re:  "He suggests writing 'in-depth articles for leading non-haiku poetry journals'."

I suspect prose about haiku might be more acceptable than haiku. I think there are people in the haiku world who are skillful at prose and could write those in-depth articles. Of course what are "the leading non-haiku poetry journals."

3/ re: "Put it this way: how many haiku poets are readily identifiable by their work? Only a few, I would say."

I would say this is also true of the poetry world in general.  How many distinctive bodies of work are there like William Stafford or Robert Bly or George Oppen or Cid Corman or Ezra Pound or Wm Carlos Williams – or any of your favorite poets.

4/ re: "It would seem that anybody can write a good haiku. That is often promoted as one of its charms, what sets it apart from the more "elitist" stance of poetry in general. "

I think all those MFA programs offered by many institutions also suggest that anybody can write a good poem with some training.  So I don't think poetry in general these days is all that elitist.  Unless you consider an MFA a necessary credential.

But I remain a bit skeptical about the possibility anyone can write a good poem whether a haiku or a non-haiku on the first try or second.  OK, maybe one good haiku on the first try but what about numbers two or three or four or five...?

5/ re: "Haiku is often regarded as a purity which the writer attains by draining himself or herself of individuality or personality. The individual is equated with ego; writing as an individual, or with individuality and uniqueness is merely an act of self-expression-- of pointing primarily to oneself. "

OK, this idea that the haiku is some sort of transcendent experience or reflection of the divine or one-ness with the universe is also seen in the non-haiku world.  So I don't regard that as detriment or drawback to the genre.   I agree with Peter Yovu that poetry is a creation of words revealing the writer's experiences of life or states of being.

6/ re: "Here's the thing: I don't think poets and readers of poetry outside the "haiku community" want to know more about haiku, but rather about writers whose language has been lit up by contact with it. ... Non-haiku poets don't need, as some seem to think they do, to be educated about haiku but to be exposed to writers who have used it as a means to produce distinctive and significant work, writing which comes through a poet's struggles with word, world, and self."

That's a good point.  I really don't care to spend much time reading prose telling me what poetry is or what makes a great poem.  I want to spend my time reading good poetry.  I suspect most of us were attracted to writing haiku because we read some good haiku and wanted to do the same.  Later, probably like me, we went to the prose about what a haiku is and the mechanics and elements of a well done haiku after we realized that writing a haiku wasn't as easy as it looked.

7/ re: "I believe criticism can play a vital role in this. There have been very few in-depth critiques of individual writers. Such explorations, done well, can bring subtle or difficult elements of a poet's work into the light, and serve to open doors to others."

Excellent critics and well written critiques would be helpful if provides some self-conscious clarity about our process .  But I think this is a rare skill and hard work even when one has it. There is not pay for such work so it turns into a labor of love.  Then again how many good critics are there out in the non-haiku world? Who will we find and trust in the haiku world?  As I said above I think there are some in the haiku world who have the prose skills.  Do they have the mind of critic who will bring some penetrating insight into the work  individual haiku poets?  And help those poets with a better understanding of what makes an excellent haiku and how to continue their work?  A grand challenge.

One last thought about this is that I hope writers of haiku are reaching for excellence.  I think the conscious pursuit of excellence will create distinctive bodies of haiku by a variety of poets.   A few years ago I discovered Donald Hall's stimulating, thought provoking and raise the blood pressure essay, Poetry and Ambition.  His first sentence was:  "I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems."  Perhaps some currently writing do not have a desire to spend a life writing haiku.  But if you do please take Hall's advice:  write great haiku.  Take this work seriously.    Make the critic's life easy.

Paul Miller

I found this paragraph of Peter's troubling: "For the most part, haiku itself, the idea of it, the ideal of it, has been promoted over the writer him or herself. Some poets considered among the "best" write haiku which could have been written by any number of others. It would seem that anybody can write a good haiku. That is often promoted as one of its charms, what sets it apart from the more "elitist" stance of poetry in general. The problem for me is that many of the poems one finds in the journals and anthologies have exactly the feeling of having been written by . . . anybody."

I agree with Gary that the same could be said of "main-stream" poetry as well (as well as most of what Gary said in total) which makes me worry less about the ghettoization of haiku because I suspect most "main-stream" poetry passes unnoticed by even "main-stream" poets. And I disagree that one of haiku's charms is that anyone can do it. As an editor I can attest that not everyone can. And while it may be true that anyone can learn to write a good haiku, one way I think we distinguish our better poets is by longevity, the writing of many good poems.

More so, I worry that in our search for an individual voice we don't over-value uniqueness over quality. I have wondered aloud if Santoka and Hosai are perhaps overvalued because of their life story. This isn't to say they aren't good poets, but I suspect they wouldn't have come to our attention if they hadn't messed up their lives. Which of course begs the question: can a poet writing about their normal life ever be valued equally as one who had problems? It also asks if we aren't opening the door to poets to write poor but "shocking" haiku in order to stand out from the pack?



I know what you mean about the romanticism and exoticism that surrounds Santoka and Hosai.

However, I chose them as examples because readers know more about their personal lives than many other poets' lives. From a generalized look, their lives might be compared to be quite similar to one another, and yet they each have a distinct voice.  You could choose any two other poets to make the point, but I chose these two for the very reason that the way they have been romanticized might make us blind to the specificity of each of their voices.  I am not arguing for uniqueness in the way I believe you have interpreted it.

QuoteWhich of course begs the question: can a poet writing about their normal life ever be valued equally as one who had problems?

"their normal life"--normal is different for everyone, isn' it? and don't we all have problems?

I think history shows us that all kinds of lives can produce quality poetry and that is what is valued.

QuoteIt also asks if we aren't opening the door to poets to write poor but "shocking" haiku in order to stand out from the pack?

This seems like a leap, Paul, if I understand you correctly. There is a sincerity and honesty to both Santoka and Hosai's poetry; could you explain why you think they were writing to "stand out from the pack"? I personally don't find their work shocking.

Everything written opens a door for people to write poor haiku. 
Shock-value usually doesn't last long.
That is not what I mean by an individualized voice; I am referring to the specificity with which one embodies life, any kind of life.
It is a shame though when things are dismissed as mere shock-value because the subject matter, or an approach to writing, is out of gamut of the tastes and/or experiences of the reader. 

Mark Harris

regarding haiku: Does success equal publication, and does excellence equal success? As Peter implies, I think, in his introduction to this installment of Field Notes, not necessarily. Are we being shaped by our desire to publish? If so, what does that mean these days? In this era of the internet, of webs woven upon webs, can any of us doubt that information itself has value, and corporate giants are battling to control its trade? Try as we might, can we remain free of those forces? And yes, in sharing this I'm guilty of participation in that trade. Certainly, I'm no critic, it's just that as I read the comments on this thread to date, the word commodity comes to mind, and the following:

"An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the "authentic" print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics." –Walter Benjamin, from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)


"Many have spoken of the fact that English-language haiku remains imitative, in diction, in subject matter, and form, of the Japanese. Gilbert writes: "A main element for constraint acting on haiku composition has emanated from Shiki's ... compositional guidelines. [His] realist dicta for the beginner-poet regarding the composition of shasei ('sketch of life') haiku predominate." This is no doubt true, but while Japanese haiku remains a powerful influence, sitting on the collective shoulder of the English-language community and whispering in its ear, a louder voice seems to come from within: in the light of what Kacian has written, it may be fair to say that much of what we are producing is imitative of itself, resulting in what William J. Higginson calls "the increasingly fixed and limited notion of haiku that currently pervades much of the English-language haiku community." It seems to have developed a momentum and mass sufficient to exert a kind of gravitational force. Essentially it means that what many value most about the "best" haiku, a quality of being mysteriously and unmistakably alive, is being pressured to fit into pre-determined and familiar forms, into the idea of what a haiku is. What results is something less like "sketches from life" and more like "sketches from haiku.""—Peter Yovu, from his review in Modern Haiku of Big Sky: The Red Moon Anthology 2006


"A Poem is first of all an amulet, an OBJECT bearing energy (c.f. the objectivist poem as object and Olson's poem as "at every point a high-energy discharge"). The poem is first of all a charm, relic, medicine, compass, key. See, too, the ORACLE BONES of Shang dynasty China, scapulamancy as practiced even today by arctic peoples, and Marija Gimbutas' The Living Goddesses. We are not talking about the poem sitting on a page like a jewel in a ring but the two inseparable, Eshleman's THE ONE ART given its place. In this context, to "reproduce" (i.e. publish) a poem widely is to pass on as little of it as the "reproduction" of a painting or sculpture. We would speak instead of instances of a poem – think of the poet as writing down the poem again and again. The signed book carries a weak, memorial suggestion of this; those priceless books handmade by the poet in editions of twenty-six (Bob Arnold, Cid Corman, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jeremy Seligson, Emily Dickinson) come closer, almost close enough. The next step would be to take up Vietnamese tu phap or find an American equivalent to Japanese sosho. We must learn how to write again, from the beginning. Inscribed by hand preferably on stone, wood, paper, that which bears an organic relation to the world wherein its power resides, a poem is an act of sympathetic magic. Here we see Levertov's organicism brought to the medium itself. Crude, yes brut,an arte povera, WITHOUT ILLUSION of being "above" anything (much less "it all"). The poem as medicine. And life today is nothing if not in need of healing."—John Martone, reproduced/taken from The NEOLITHIC (re)turn in poetry, an article on his website


"my material is available in limited portions for noncommercial projects in the manner/spirit in which it was created. please ask for permission--out of respect for all artists who share our work. comments welcomed but replies are doubtful. in time relevant opinions will be posted if permission is granted."—Marlene Mountain, from a request in her website's Introduction.

Paul Miller

Hi Eve,

My comment re: Santoka and Hosai was not referenced toward your comments at all, rather they were convenient names to make a small point. Sorry if you felt it did so.

To elaborate on my "shock" haiku comment. Not directed toward Santoka and Hosai. Rather, Peter's comment that many haiku seem like they could be written by any one of a number of good haiku poets seems a call toward creating stronger, more individual voices (a good thing). The goal (questionable thing) being to reach further (if at all) into the poetic main-stream. He also suggests that this main-stream will want poets rather than poems. I agree. How often do we see "based on a true story" in movies? That shouldn't matter; the art of the movie should hold its own, not need to be propped up. To get back to my "shocking" comment. There is a painting in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which is a red circle on a white background. It was probably intellectually shocking when it was painted (as a reaction to realism or whatever was in vogue those days), but in my mind it has no lasting value, no art—just shock in an intellectual way. I worry that to get noticed by the larger poetic community poets will have to start writing "shocking" haiku rather than art. I've seen a lot of bad haiku that tries to shock through overt (but unnecessary) sexual references and language. My feeling is that the poet thinks they are writing cutting edge stuff because of the subject matter alone. Such poems may solve the ghettoization of haiku, but at a cost. However this is more a pondering than a real concern. I don't think any genre (sonnet anyone?) will ever make much of a splash in the larger scene.

I like to think my haiku, being based on my life, and through my voice, have some individualism to them. But I worry less about that than if I am writing something I can be proud of. I will surmise, however, that the writings of a middle-aged accountant with no history of drug abuse or mental illness, who works hard and is happily married, will make for poor book jacket copy, and thus poor offerings to the larger market. Let's be honest: hermits and addicts sell books.

Peter Yovu

Much of value to consider here. I for one find this encouraging, that people are willing to explore and inquire.

It may not be a universal problem, but when I think about questions relating to haiku, I quickly come up against the reality that "haiku" is not a single thing, but means different things to different people. This is not a problem so much when one is speaking about poetry in general. It seems to be accepted that poetry takes many forms. I'm not sure if that is the case with haiku; I suspect it increasingly is.

So when we talk about "excellence" in haiku, what are we pointing to? Here I would say that I believe that making distinctions has value. Making distinctions does not (necessarily) equal being divisive. I for one don't mind talking about traditional, or modern, or innovative approaches to haiku. They give some needed vocabulary in looking at different things haiku do. They are starting points for understanding each as it is.  But only starting points, which may be discarded as one goes further.

And of course, within those general distinctions, there are more distinctions that can be made. The "rules" that are often taught may apply to one "form" but not another. What is considered "basic" may not even apply in every instance, and there is the possibility that an "excellent" short poem which has few, or possibly none, of the defined "qualifications" for haiku might find its way into a haiku journal. (And that context might bring out otherwise unseen qualities).

It is why, forgive me for saying what I've said elsewhere, I don't think of myself as someone who writes haiku, though for the sake of discussion it is often convenient to do so. I think of myself as someone who writes short poems which have unquestionably been influenced by Japanese poetics, but also by other things-- aphorism, for example, itself something difficult to define and pin down and which has numerous forms.

For me, "excellence" resides in something on the page or spoken which is prior to haiku. I think there is something in us which initially responded-- deeply-- to haiku before we knew what it was. (It may have been, phenomenologically speaking, a bodily, or pre-cognitive response).

It was only later that we tried to grasp what qualifies a short poem as haiku. (And perhaps how to replicate the initial encounter). Doing so led different people in different directions, for good or ill, fluid or fixed.

I like the idea that writers of ELH (for the sake of conversation I'll call myself one) can "metabolize" qualities associated with Japanese poetics along with those of Western poetry. (This would include prosody, the sounds and rhythms inherent in the English language).

If this happens, there may be a new possibility in one's poetry whereby the poet  "rediscovers" those qualities, as needed, in the process of writing itself.

That is to say, he/she doesn't "apply" that quality, but encounters it as it makes itself known as a particular and necessary instance of the poem. The quality is individualized. This is perhaps when we can say that a poem is both personal and universal.

So qualities like "yugen," or "scent" to give two examples, are not fixed or even definable, but particular to the writer and ever-different (and yet ever-the-same) things. And ever-new and always available for discovery, which may speak to the "individuality" of the poem and poet, which to me is a hallmark of excellence. A rare thing, because it seems to involve letting go of what you have learned as something you need to apply, and trusting not that you have something which you can use, but that you are something-- something discoverable by way of art.

Teachers of poetry, if they are honest, will say (as was said to me) they can't  teach anyone how to write a poem. They can tell you what not to do, but after that, you're on your own.

Same for haiku, no doubt. But it often seems to me that a lot of writers hope that by applying certain principles ("rules" or techniques if you will) to haiku, they can come up with something "good" or publishable. And in truth, that does happen, though such work can seem generic, formulaic. But for me excellence can only happen when something much deeper occurs, something mysterious and immersive, when those principles are met as if for the first time, by a writer encountering him/herself along the way.

I suppose you could say that is my ambition.

Mark Harris

I work at an art museum, where along with the other preparators I handle art, install exhibitions, set up for classes, frame pictures, that sort of thing. Occasionally, I'll tackle an unusually complex installation or help plan the look of an exhibit from its early stages. Years ago, I went to art school to study painting. Art handling was a way to pay the bills at first; all these years later, here I am still doing it. It's good work. To hold a Rubens, a Maya chocolate drinking cup, or an Albers in my hands can be a thrill. And to share them with the public, that's also a thrill. On my breaks, I try to take time to peruse the galleries.

My coworkers and I witness a gamut of reactions to the exhibitions. Nudity can be offensive to some visitors. Others are shocked by, say, a painting of a lemon-yellow square against a larger violet-gray square framed by a square of a darker and more subdued yellow, a work by Joseph Albers who I mentioned earlier. It's one of my favorite paintings in the collection, one of a series called Homage to the Square. Although to some it might initially seem intellectual and methodical, not so. Albers was passionate about color. It's often been noted that color evokes emotion and, really, this painting is all heart. My description doesn't do justice to the original because the painting explores subtle relationships of color and proportion--and our sensual reactions to them--which can't be conveyed through words spoken or written. The painting is dated 1961, at what could be considered the height of the modern art era. Painting is dead, people have been saying ever since, and yet it never quite does die.

Albers taught at the Bauhaus art academy. When the school closed in response to the Nazi rise to power, Albers and his wife Anni emigrated to the U.S. where he was offered a job at Black Mountain College, a name familiar to those who associate the school with poets such as Robert Creeley, whose use of everyday speech and minimalism can inform writers of haiku as much as the work of his mentor William Carlos Williams. Creeley had his detractors, that's for sure; the critic John Simon, commenting on his poems, wrote, "They are short; they are not short enough."

As editor of Black Mountain Review, Creeley published the writings of Lorine Niedecker, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Jack Kerouac and others who were influenced by haiku and in turn influenced haiku in English. The review's cover art is beautiful, spare and strikingly modern. The first four covers were done by Katue Kitasono, issue #5 is by John Altoon, and #6 by Dan Rice. #7 by Ed Corbett consists of a solid black rectangle, not quite square, and a few delicate linear marks.

I'm rambling now, I know, it's just that my train of thought is taking me back to haiku and that wonderful way it has of being spare, specific, sensual, seemingly simplistic and yet able to inspire shifts to new ways of seeing  . . .

Field Notes

FN5 is devoted to criticism. Picking up on some things Michael Dylan Welch said about promoting ELH in the larger poetry community and the role criticism might play, the thread of discussion has followed the theme of "excellence" in haiku. To keep this moving, I asked panelists the following:

Say a few things about what excellence in haiku means to you. What elevates a haiku above
the average, or brings it down to marvelous earth? Or both.

Are you willing to provide an example or two of what you consider excellent?

Richard Gilbert has responded to this with an important (I believe) essay. Cherie Hunter Day has offered
up a poem by Philip Rowland which to her exemplifies excellence. I will add more responses as they come, and hope you will add yours. Here we go . . .

Richard Gilbert

Haiku and the perception of the unique

When talking about excellence in haiku, the larger context of what makes for excellence seems intrinsic to debates concerning art, and poetry, in general. From this wider perspective, it's possible to examine historical, aesthetic, philosophical, and cultural strands of evolving critique.

The main historical currents regarding excellence (in art, poetry, haiku) presuppose arguments (theory) related to critical judgment. To gloss the topic, in the US, poetic theory, from Imagism through the Beats, has swung through pendulum arcs between objective and subjective formulation. When excellence is critically objective, this implies that there are (provably) definitive elements of excellence apparent to the observer—un-reliant on and apart from subjective (personal) opinion. New Formalism is taken as a move in this direction. The violent reaction of more objective-oriented criticism toward Ginsberg's "Howl" reveals this polarity and a seminal moment in American poetry—perhaps the last time poetry can be said to have shaped the nation.

(Aside:) Of the 88 books selected by the Library of Congress in 2012 to define "Books that Shaped America," six are poetry collections. Of these, three remain bestselling, those by Whitman, Dickinson, Ginsberg. Two being 19th century poets, Ginsberg's "Howl and Other Poems" singularly tops the charts rivaling sales of Shakespeare's Collected Works for poetry collections in the 20th century, to date. (Cf. ''.)

If objective critique were to be perfected and agreed upon, artworks could be judged (ranked) in terms of excellence according to defined criteria. Objective critical theory would be then quantifiable; thus the "formalism" in new formalism. For this critical approach, excellence can be defined, objectively (i.e., formally).

Of late, science has studied human beauty, and via large-scale research studies, arrived at certain formal measures of facial structure which are statistically (multiculturally) identified as evincing beauty (e.g. formal features such as left-right facial symmetry, eye spacing). As within the field of poetics, this approach reveals an intriguing agon (tension) between qualitative, subjective impression (phenomenology) and formal (scientistic) verity-- an issue fundamental to modernity.

Subjective criticism, on the other hand, is reliant upon "the person of taste." That is to say we presuppose a few masters of taste (as there are master chefs), who due to their knowledge and experience should deservedly be seen as arbiters of excellence. Perhaps our most notable literary critics ultimately follow this line, in that objective criticism has foundered in its comprehensive program.

Seen this way, there exists a conundrum: we seek to arrive at formal determinants of excellence, and fail (though one may stump for partial success). We seek to find a critical view (a person/ those critics) which might provide the proper schema--yet do not find satisfaction.

The subjective-objective conundrum is a Cartesian duality which never completely resolves itself. We rely on critics for (subjective) personal insight, yet may also rely on (objective) articulations of formal determinants -- neither alone quite suffices. As a result, idiosyncratic brews (admixtures of both types of approach) are formulated. Formulations such as these tend to be playful mutts. A majority of published criticism in haiku has been of this sort. For example,  a haiku critic who does not understand Japanese language and has not lived in Japan, or associated themselves with Japanese poetry offers up Japanese terms and presents Japanese culture—and often feudal culture as well — as objective verity -- as "haiku-objective" knowledge. This represents just one critical boner in haiku studies, so it's not surprising "haiku studies" outside of Japan Studies, are not found in the university. It was just a few years ago that Gary Snyder, well-aware of Japanese poetics and culture, in his Ehime Award Lecture stated that the term "haiku" should be limited in use to indicate Japanese-language-only haiku (I take issue, but also admit his rationale).

In any case, I first became acutely aware of the objective-subjective conundrum reading "Egalitarian Typologies Versus the Perception of the Unique," by James Hillman (Eranos Lecture 4, Spring Pub., 1986), whose school of Archetypal Psychology is founded on the conception of psychological creativity (rather than pathology and/or the presupposition of a normative psychology). This small book of 59 pages contains examples from poets like Wallace Stevens, to help articulate its main points.

A typology is a schema, and presents itself as a formal basis for quality. Racism would be a non-egalitarian typology. An egalitarian typology, on the other hand, presents an equality of value among its "types" or groups. In personal and spiritual psychology some examples are Jungian typology (including personality types as determined by the "Myers-Briggs Type Indicator") and the enneagram (created by Oscar Ichazo). Familiar historical typologies include the 12 signs of astrology, the I Ching, Qabalah (Sephirothic tree), and geomantic and cosmological concepts (e.g. Fludd, alchemy) as well.

Last year, in my book of haiku criticism, "The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A New Approach to English-language Haiku" (recently reviewed by editor and Field Notes contributor Lorin Ford at ''), I proposed 24 "types" of techniques found in 275 haiku examples (presented in support). In composing this work I was aware of the problems inherent in objective critique. Nonetheless, if lacking any formal (objective) schema, one is left only with "persons of taste," and opinion. That is, endless and generally fruitless debate regarding questions of excellence and quality.

Hillman interests me because he poses a deeper polarity or dichotomy, regarding excellence: egalitarian typology versus the perception of the unique. It may be that any critic ("person of taste"), in advancing a rationale for excellence, unavoidably presents a schema as part and parcel of a logical, formal argument for quality. For haiku, one can speak of yugen, shibumi, karumi, wabi-sabi, etc. These terms, taken together, form an egalitarian typology. Critics will say that this or that haiku possesses more or less of one and another.

What does this mean, to say that "this haiku is excellent because it possesses yugen," or "this haiku is an excellent example of karumi"? Here the "person of taste" enters with their subjective judgment. We may agree conceptually with the definitional typology (those Japan-origin qualities), but can we agree on matters of taste? In fact, were we to agree as a community on a select group of haiku, say five per each representative Japanese-aesthetic category — we would then have achieved pure artistic totalitarianism. There is a real societal danger in combining egalitarian typologies with "persons of taste" who then dictate to the community – and one must either follow their pronouncements or exit (sometimes violently). In Japan, a study of Kyoshi's role as totalitarian dictator of Hototogisu is a case in point. One understands that in the history of haiku in North America, this has been a social issue, one that has involved the exclusion of talented haiku poets from publication, and by extension, the publication of many atrocious haiku -- all in the name of (purity of) taste. That is, "taste" was defined or grounded in judgment by "persons of taste" (predominantly or entirely male at the time; haiku journal editors and book publishers) who claimed proper knowledge of the Japanese form and therefore the English-language form of haiku. They were right and if you took exception, you were wrong. A documented case would be some decades of rejection of Marlene Mountain's thought, along with many of her haiku -- her work and thought are these days looked upon quite differently.

Hillman proposed an intriguing solution to the dichotomy of typology vs. the unique. He suggested a means of collapsing the duality, by shifting the basis of critical thought to "aesthetic arrest," an embodied experience (of an actual human being). Implicit here are kinesthetic truths, a kinesthetic phenomenology. Hillman talks about the "in gasp" -- the sudden indrawn breath, from which we get the word "in-spiration." We may not all agree on which experiences cause aesthetic arrest, but have probably all experienced this at one time or another.

From this perspective some interesting ideas can be drawn. The first is that a "person of taste" in defining excellence in a particular poem, or group of poems, may provide intellectual understanding, and at the same time not in any way move you, the art participant, the reader, towards aesthetic arrest. As well, a poem may in fact be intellectually excellent, and provide new motifs in art, which is grand -- yet you may not be especially moved by it. From the perspective of aesthetic arrest, there exist varieties, diversities of excellence, according to the diversity of persons, within poetic community -- from the point of view of each reader or person.

The experience of aesthetic arrest is a personal experience. So it would seem subjective. But on the other hand, the experience itself is likewise archetypal, universal, Hillman would argue. One may not know why precisely a given experience occurs in a given instance. Aesthetic arrest may begin through moments of "stopping," yet such an experience may also indicate a longer involvement in an artwork as an enriching contemplation, occurring over many years. Aesthetic arrest in this sense is not only that "moment" in which we in-spire, are arrested, it is also evolutional, subtle, complex -- interwoven into what we value in life, in art: aesthetic arrest as instigation, as subversion, seduction. As tantra, viral.

I muse that excellence must partly be related to taste, which itself is linked to aesthetic arrest (in both critics and readers). Aesthetic arrest, as savor, may likewise be evinced by the poetry of criticism. I was never so consciously arrested by the pleasure of the text, as and until I read "The Pleasure of the Text." The pleasure of Barthes has never truly left me. Aesthetic arrest may be instigated by study, generating a heightened, embodied sensitivity towards the work.

Yet this is not enough. Aesthetic arrest implies something genuine in our experience, and suggests that arts (artworks) have the ability to touch what is deep, in experiential value -- yet the aesthetic does not necessarily reside in the artwork, any more than it resides in Basho's "pine," or a beautiful sunset, or a lover's kiss. Aesthetic arrest cannot be "typed" or troped in this way. It's never about what's supposed to happen in engagement (or how a given poem is supposed to move you). Critics are fairly hated for their insistence in this regard. In fact, if an engagement is specified, arranged, predetermined, it's as likely to diminish aesthetic impact, or confuse it. "I will read this haiku to you, which is the best by Ms. X, and you should feel this from it and have such and so-and-so an experience" -- really won't cut it.

Is aesthetic arrest up to us? I think this is the crux: the perception of the unique. The point Hillman made which launched me into contemplations of how to critically articulate works involves the perception of the unique, as cultural value. The unique, Hillman argues, is something that is continually devalued, forgotten, discarded, in art, in criticism, even in conversation, in society. The perception of the unique is invisible. Is the repressed.

Most obviously, the problem is that one's perception of the unique cannot be easily shared (a talent for articulation in this regard must be assumed crucial, for the critic). And perceptions of the unique do not necessarily organize themselves either normatively or intellectually. Hillman argues that, nonetheless, the perception of the unique is at the core of aesthetic arrest, implying that this should be a central concern of criticism.

In my own work, I designed an egalitarian typology in order to present modes of technical similarity between groupings of example-haiku. Yet my (subversive) desire was to present haiku to which I respond aesthetically, am moved by -- that are arresting in some way. It's not too much to say that I love all the haiku I selected. Of course, it's laughable to say that I love them, merely. So the typology was useful.

That said, my love is not yours, nor should it be. Nevertheless, in each haiku presented I find an abundance of what is unique: both beyond compare and beyond comparison. This is something beautiful. And the more you give voice to it, the less unique it tends to become, in its arresting dimension. In psychology, one way to diminish the impact of a dream is to explain the story away, through interpretation. For this reason I generally avoid definition, or those modes of interpretation which extract meaning from the poem, essentially to its deficit, as a primary critical move. "This haiku means this or that." Stories (and poems) are often put to death when ostensibly resolved by meaning.

At this point I feel I've answered the first part of Peter's question, when he asks: "What elevates a haiku above the average, or brings it down to marvelous earth? Or both." (The answer must partly be your own, partly arrive from elsewhere, and partly relate to matters of intellectual and poetic engagement with formal verities, to the extent they exist, or you take them as existent values: an excellent haiku surprises, is in some manner genuinely aesthetically arresting, and appears as a unique "face" of perception, existentially and essentially, incomparable in some way.) Now, as to the last: "Are you willing to provide an example or two of what you consider excellent?" In The Disjunctive Dragonfly are 275 haiku, all of which (I feel) are excellent. It would be against principle to select out some small number -- this would defeat the concept of an egalitarian typology, altogether. So I don't feel I'm avoiding the question, or challenge, and would rather in turn challenge the reader to gather like-gems from sand all those works that move you, through their uniqueness.

The depth psychological move is to return in mind to those active dream figures, to treat them as alive, animate -- to open to those images (and poems, like dreams, are fictions, or halfway to such stars) -- in this way to become more receptive to their uniqueness, these unique faces of appearance, which stir or disturb. Unfortunately, critics like therapists tend to become too meaning-addicted. Though like love-making, interpretation can be done well.

When you walk around -- right now, in daily life -- how aware are you of the unique? This very single breath, your partner's face. A shadow, a tree. Aesthetic arrest can't be willed, yet for those into haiku, certain poems move us, deeply, and we experience -- what? Depth, emotion, presence, resonance are some of the terms in play.

What distinguishes haiku from other poetic forms most clearly relates to concision and "cutting," formal notions. In particular, the various ways a given haiku "cuts" relate directly to aesthetic sensibility -- the landscape of aesthetic arrest. What would a criticism look like, which begins with the perception of the unique, leading the reader further towards considerations of the unique, towards its greater valuation? This move would raise the valuation of the unique, rather than discarding its power via explanatory meaning, as we might discard the power of the poem, or dream.

Richard Gilbert, Valentine's Day
14 February 2014

Cherie Hunter Day

breeze a synonym for ash
            Philip Rowland

Five words.  Five words that propel thought beyond logic to a preconscious state of awareness—a momentary glimpse of wholeness.  It has lightning fast precision.  I remember reading this poem in R'r 11.1 (Feb. 2011) and instantly it became one of my favorite haiku. 

I'm familiar with Southern California wildfires.  One in 2007 forced us to evacuate our home because of immediate danger.  Thankfully our house was spared and when we returned there was an inch of ash that needed to be swept up.  Ash worked its way into everything—even under the gas cap flap on the car.  Because of the wind the ash was able to penetrate the void in and around things.  Breeze and ash are bound together in this give and take of definition.  Some breezes can only be observed when the ash is disturbed. 

A reader doesn't necessarily need to experience a major wildfire to appreciate this poem.  Think of an ash at the tip of an incense stick.  The slightest breeze both feeds the fire that produces the ash and disseminates the ash.  Air is both starting point and the end.  This toggle between microcosm and macrocosm gives power to these five words.  And its artistry doesn't diminish through a hundred readings.

If we consider the poem from an aural perspective, the music of vowels and consonants, this poem is a gem.  The movement from the long 'e' in 'breeze' through the staccato of 'syn.on.ym' to the open 'a' in 'ash' with the 'sh' at the very end is the trajectory of life.  The initial breath in 'breeze' carries though the small encounters in 'synonym' (like the rain pinging down obstacles in Eve Luckring's concrete haiku) to the final shush in 'ash.'  We feel the subtle echo of this music beyond words moving outward and inward.  It's primordial and pure poetry!  Thank you, Philip Rowland.

—Cherie Hunter Day


Gilbert 's book is clearly a watershed moment in HIE criticism. Through analysis of form, he helps us see a variety of cutting moves in the haiku game. At the same time, his analysis may beg the question for those of us who don't feel alienated from the ethos of Basho as articulated say by Pipei Qieu.  In many short essays on individual haiku from basho to Mark Harris, I have shown how cutting relates to a meditative process. These essays are available at
It may be of interest to some that this meditative process, brilliantly articulated by the traditional haiku cut, is not restricted to haiku. My essays on poems by many poets showing how this meditative process informs individual poems are available on
Finally, the cult of the unique has ideological roots that deserve close attention.
In my own poems, I explore cutting techniques in formats other than haiku. A recent lyric caught the attention of a major player in HIE because a segment of it struck him as suggestive of haiku. Does our fascination with very small texts precondition us to find larger formats lacking intensity?  Do we forget that to be a good haiku, the text must be well written? Well written as prose, as Pound said, or just well-written?

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