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Field Notes 5: Criticism

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

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Field Notes

Criticism is the subject under scrutiny for Field Notes 5. To get things started, we asked panelists to have a go at this difficult matter. They were up to it, and we hope you are too. Jump in.

Field Notes

Eve Luckring

Dear Reader,

Before I can answer some of Peter's questions directly, I believe it would help if I explained a bit about my relationship to criticism. This unfortunately makes the following a bit longer than I would like for an on-line forum.

I appreciate criticism that makes me think about an artwork/poem, or an artist's/poet's body of work, in a new way. Usually this is because the critic puts the object of discussion in context of something bigger:
–the histories that surround the work,
–the formal attributes of the work in relation to other poetry/art (of the past or present),
–the social/cultural context that the work intersects with
–the life experiences and artistic/philosophical inquiry of the artist/poet
A good critic has to be very well informed.

All of this said, I want the art/poetry being discussed to be the center of the discussion and not simply an "excuse" for the critic to position themselves in regards to a particular ideological platform.  In other words, the critic needs to have a strong investment in the work itself and how it contributes, or is poisonous, to the field being looked at. Why is this work worthy of our attention, whether we may "like" the work or not. Of course I think critics speak most passionately about work they love,  and choose mostly to write about issues that reflect their own deep-felt interests.  That is why we can learn from them even if we disagree with them.

I believe English-language haiku does not have nearly enough in-depth critical discourse; however, while putting this commentary together, I realize that there has been a good foundation laid for future development.

Honestly, I think only a very small percentage of the "haiku community" has interest in the type of more scholarly criticism I crave. This makes me sad because I feel this type of reflection and contemplation--thinking about how something works and the contexts that surround it-- can help deepen our relationship to what we do. It seems that many think of criticism as only an academic exercise (I do not equate scholarly with academic).

I prefer criticism that is written accessibly, without a lot of jargon, but I am also willing to learn new vocabulary and investigate reference material in order to better understand something I am unfamiliar with, if it seems relevant.

I believe good criticism challenges me to educate myself further, to ask questions about what I am doing in my own work, puts me in conversation with others about topics I hold dear to the heart, and, on a fundamental level, to interface with language and thought differently than in my creative work. I have always read visual art criticism and I also read literary criticism outside of the field of ELH.

Off the top of my head, ( I'm sure I am overlooking more examples ) some recent memorable criticism of ELH books and poems that I have read:

•Bill Higginson's book review of Fay Aoyagi's Chrysanthemum Love, (MH 35:2, 2004)
•Francine Banwarth's book reviews in Frogpond-- because of her refreshing approach, which traces her own process of discovery in the reading of poems.
•R'r's Scorpion Prize commentary, particularly Robert Grenier's--Scorpion Prize #22, R'r 11.1--so refreshing
•Jack Galmitz's Views, a group of essays which includes discussions of a whole body of work by a single poet--we need more of this.
•Phil Rowland's introduction to Lakes and Now Wolves, Scott Metz's collection.

I do not agree with everything said in these various writings but all have connected me deeply with the value of haiku .

It is actually other types of critical writing about ELH that I am most interested in--writing that moves beyond reviews of individual poems and books.

Though they concentrate more on Japanese poetry, Hiroaki Sato, Makoto Ueda, and Haruo Shirane all have offered us invaluable insights in some essays that address English-language haiku.

Below, I have made a brief list of the types of things (from recent publication) I would most especially welcome more of. Again, though I do not agree with everything put forth in the following essays, they offer many invaluable points of consideration.

•Peter Yovu's "Do Something Different" (Frogpond 31:1,2008) -- This essay was timely, looking at the formal potentials of haiku in a way that expanded upon what had come before it. Written with the specific audience of the journal in mind.

• Charlie Trumbull's, "Meaning in Haiku", (FP 35:3, 2012)-- another timely essay with the journal's readership in mind, very honestly and accessibly written.

•Ian Marshall's "Phenomenology and Haiku's Aesthetics of the Body: Or, Biking with Bashō and Merleau-Ponty"   (Frogpond Journal;Winter 2011, Vol. 34:1)--  Merleau-Ponty's philosophy is important to my own work and I am glad someone else recognizes its kinship to haiku.

•Jim Kacian's various essays about haiku, particularly "Haiku as Anti-story" (MH 42:1, 2011).

•Richard Gilbert's "Plausible deniability: Nature as Hypothesis in English‑language Haiku" contained in Poems of Consciousness-- I am deeply invested in teasing out haiku's relationship to "Nature" for myself, and so it was with curiosity and relief that I read this quirky, syncretic, philosophical questioning. I have been bugging Richard to develop it further.
And also The Disjunctive Dragonfly, the original essay and its recent expansion into a book.

• Jon Baldwin's "Qualities of Haiku (from Roland Barthes), ( MH 43:3, 2012)--I believe Baldwin has made another publication on Calmeo called "25 Ways of Looking at a Haiku", that is also based on the same, Barthes' recently translated, The Preparation of the Novel. I am a fan of Barthes in general and was pleased to learn more of what he had written about haiku.  Baldwin highlights well some of Bathes' more provocative interpretations about how haiku performs and supplies a nicely focused supplement to Empire of Signs.

•John Stevenson's "Haiku as Dimensional Object", (FP 36:3, 2013)--the creativity of this approach reminds me of Borges.

• Jane Reichold's Symbiotic Poetry-- I have not read this yet, but I am very curious. It is good to see haiku put in a larger context this way.

I'm sure there are other good examples, but this is long enough.


Michael Dylan Welch

Concerning haiku, how do you regard the current state of criticism? That is, criticism of individual poems and poets, of collections, anthologies etc., and also of the genre in general?

I think generally the state of criticism in haiku is okay, but not stellar. In years past (I think of the old Inkstone magazine), there were some reviewers who could be nasty and polemical, and I think they did that just to stir the pot. That's ultimately not what haiku needs, and comes across as whiny. Haiku needs deeper analysis and criticism. I remember one reviewer I had for Woodnotes who told me she always included something "negative" in each review "for balance." That appalled me. It seemed gratuitous, and was a shallow way to approach being balanced and well-reasoned (and the gratuitousness showed in her reviews, which I stopped commissioning for Woodnotes).

At the 30th anniversary Haiku Society of America retreat I organized in 1998, I remember something said by our featured guest speaker, Dana Gioia (famous for his "Can Poetry Matter" essay in The Atlantic, and later becoming chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, appointed by President Bush). In Dana's talk on "Perceptions of Haiku by Non-Haiku Poets," I remember him saying that the haiku community would do well do champion its best haiku poets and its best haiku books to non-haiku audiences. He quoted Nick Virgilio (not by coincidence--he's a fellow Italian), and said that Virgilio was a case in point, a poet worth promoting, and that we should find and promote other excellent haiku poets. So instead of writing a summary of the haiku poetics of leading haiku poets for Frogpond or Modern Haiku or the Haiku Foundation, how about writing such in-depth articles for leading non-haiku poetry journals? It would be harder to get published there, but that's exactly he point. We have to try harder, and aim higher. Dana's suggestion was that by promoting a few of our best haiku poets, we can generally raise the perception of haiku amid mainstream poetry. In addition, he said that unless a bad book of haiku is particularly prominent, why waste time reviewing bad or weak haiku books or saying negative things about them? That doesn't mean one should never review a bad book, but there's definitely something to be said about promoting what's good ahead of what's weak. This is not just an extension of what my mother always said: "If you can't say something nice, don't say it." Rather, it's a deliberate choice to celebrate what's excellent, perhaps even to the point of hiding (if that's the right word) what's not so good, at least in the context of mainstream poetry. I would tend to agree, as this sort of stance would help the haiku community get out of its own ghetto and to stop being so self-involved. But shucks, here I am telling this TO the haiku community, which is part of the problem.

One inherent problem with reviewing is that we're a small community, so we pretty much know each other, sometimes very well. That fact has the potential to inhibit honest reviewing if one needs to be critical, or can make for overly supportive reviews. So many reviews are not really about the book in question at all, but more about the relationship of the reviewer to the writer, at least among haiku books. Consequently, we might do well to solicit reviews of haiku books by non-haiku poets. Such acts might risk a reviewer not knowing what to look for in haiku (season words, juxtaposition, and so on), but I think it's worth the risk -- the best poems often work without such extrinsic knowledge. We should trust more outside reviewers to find the truth, or the failings, of our haiku.

What more or different, if anything, would you like to see?

As you see it, what role does the "haiku community" play in criticism? Would you like to see it play a different role? How so?

Can you recall a review or any piece of critical writing which stands out for you as a model for what you might like to see more of?

Forgive me for mentioning one of my own pieces, but one I'd like to see myself live up to with future reviews is my review of the "Unswept Path" anthology. See Reviews that place content in a larger context are the ones that I most often prefer to read.

Critical writing is not just book reviews, of course. There are key pieces of criticism that can change our way of thinking, like the writing of Haruo Shirane, for example, and some of the writing of Richard Gilbert, when you dig through it (yes, for example, let's once and for all put an end to the use of the word "onji"). I've particularly enjoyed particular essays by Paul Miller and Lee Gurga, and was proud to have published The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics by the late Paul O. Williams, which contains many fine models for anyone to follow when writing critically, in terms of careful, fresh thinking mixed with clarity and accessibility without being needlessly complex. (I now have copies of the book available for sale again.) I also have a closet interest in using library and Internet resources to find academic papers and dissertations on haiku (Japanese, usually), and these often serve as objective models on analysis that are well worth emulating. I routinely discover gems of scholarship by excellent writers who write about haiku very well yet are nearly always completely removed from the English-language haiku scene. They're writing about Japanese haiku, of course, so they have no need to be involved with English-language haiku, or even be aware of it. But in contrast, I believe one of our best writers about haiku, Makoto Ueda, has benefitted by deliberately keeping his finger on the pulse of English-language haiku; he subscribed to Woodnotes, Frogpond, Modern Haiku and a few other journals, and you could see their influence in his translations (and he mentioned this in at least one of his books). Ultimately, criticism, whether by fellow poets or by non-poets, is a symbiosis with the poets. I believe life, art, and poetry, is best when it's a balance between the head and the heart. E. E. Cummings reminded us that "feeling is first," but he didn't say that feeling is all that matters. Analysis counts too, and that's why criticism is important for all arts, including haiku.


Allan Burns

looking deeper
and deeper into it
the great beech

—John Wills

Haiku criticism at its best is that kind of looking directed at haiku itself.

The principal function of such criticism is to help readers see what's happening in haiku (both individual poems and the genre) more clearly so that they come into a deeper appreciation of its many subtleties. Criticism aims for both elucidation and evaluation so as to provide readers with a sense of orientation within the ongoing flood of production. It must combine keen perceptions with wide experience and should also remind us that reading haiku is itself an art. Henry James once described the critic as "the real helper of the artist, a torchbearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother." As James demonstrates, the best critics are often practitioners. But the history of literature also shows that good critics are even rarer than good artists.

I'll mention just a few examples of English-language haiku criticism (a field still very much in its infancy) that stand out for me.

A pioneering work and one unlikely ever to lose its significance is Harold G. Henderson's Haiku in English (Charles E. Tuttle, 1967). Henderson's writing was a model of lucid, generous, intelligent, flexible, and informed appreciation and discrimination. Early ELH was indeed lucky to have had him.

A significant and groundbreaking work in terms of examining the achievements of individual haiku poets is Barbara Ungar's Haiku in English (Stanford, 1978). (There are several books with this useful title!) It studies haiku and related genres by Amy Lowell, Jack Kerouac, and Michael McClintock and suggests what further work along these lines—which I believe will come in time—might be like.

Tom Lynch's essay "Intersecting Influences in American Haiku" (University of Nebraska, 2001) is an extremely valuable study of contemporary American haiku in relation to both classical Buddhist-influenced Japanese haiku and homegrown transcendentalism as initiated by Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman and transmitted through the work of the Imagists and the Beats. We could use more such studies that connect haiku to larger literary currents.

For its close readings of individual haiku, Martin Lucas's Stepping Stones (British Haiku Society, 2007), with a focus exclusively on British haiku, is a suggestive and insightful work.

Two ambitious and stimulating essays of fairly recent vintage that have examined and challenged prominent trends within haiku composition generally are Peter Yovu's "Do Something Different" (Frogpond 31.1, 2008) and Lucas's "Haiku as Poetic Spell" (Presence 41, 2010).

For compact histories of ELH (and by virtue of their emphases literary histories are also always works of criticism), there are Charlie Trumbull's "The American Haiku Movement" (Modern Haiku 36.3, 2005 and 37.1, 2006) and Jim Kacian's "An Overview of Haiku in English" (the afterword of Haiku in English—there's that title again!—W. W. Norton, 2013, edited by Jim, Phil Rowland, and me). We await the first book-length history of ELH.

Of course, these are just a few touchstones. I'm not trying to compile a bibliography.

I'll close by mentioning two works that I believe have done something quite rare by elucidating the sublime and transcendental potential of haiku art: Eric Amann's monograph The Wordless Poem (1969) and Robert Spiess's A Year's Speculation on Haiku (Modern Haiku Press, 1995).


Bruce Ross

                                                        Haiku Criticism

Is it in the Japanese spirit to have haiku criticism? Yes. Each school has its own poetics that is expressed in their discussion of haiku. Is it in the spirit of the rest of the world to have haiku criticism? Yes and no. When honest, this latter criticism does or should connect with understanding what haiku is as a poem. Some of this latter criticism is a repetition of even the earliest, though valid, non-Japanese criticism. In Japan haiku criticism has tended to be impressionistic or, shall we say poetic, within the cultural and formal elements of haiku, perhaps related to how haiku has always been practiced in given haiku groups. In the worldwide justly so fascination with haiku, the most widely practiced poem, wild and wooly attempts at criticism have occurred. The individual haiku and lifework of a give haiku poet should be at the center of haiku criticism. Beyond that, attention to what stands out in a given haiku that makes it an engaging aesthetic experience should be a focal point of haiku criticism. All this should be predicated on an understanding of haiku form and its subject matter. In most adaptations of poetic form (changing the meter, rhyme, and idiom of a sonnet as with E. E. Cummings, for example), the basic qualities of that form are nonetheless present. With Shiki's working out the nature of modern haiku, the response to more radical approaches to such haiku (phrase length and number, psychological approaches, etc.) was, Do what you want but why call it haiku? So implicit in haiku criticism is an understanding of that question. Is such a question being addressed in contemporary haiku? Not really. Certain presentations of psychological idioms (some no more than a mental phrase), non-Basho-like "lightness" of simplistic representation, telegraph-like phrasing, lengthening of line lengths as "poems," and the like occur as winners of contests and are frequently published in major journals, often in a freewheeling way, as if an experiment is being carried out with the form at the expense of the form. As the modern call of free verse, form is never more than an extension of content, is baldly applied to haiku, something is lost and nothing is gained other than a too short poem. A look at what makes haiku unique, perhaps as a special form of metaphor or "absolute metaphor," if you will, should be part of that question asked two centuries ago.

Field Notes

Richard Gilbert

1) Concerning haiku, how do you regard the current state of criticism? That is, criticism of individual poems and poets, of collections, anthologies etc., and also of the genre in general?

So little of it, so few places for it.

2) What more or different, if anything, would you like to see?

More thinking out of the box; open-mindedness. Fresh criticism that inspires poets and readers to compose freely, and read with newfound passion, interest, intensity; to witness critical ideas presented through new media as creative genre expressions; the THF forum, its various blogs and their comments, represent one example; criticism may also extend to poetry, video, documentary, biography; greater academic rigor.

3) As you see it, what role does the "haiku community" play in criticism? Would you like to see it play a different role? How so?

Blinds > mysterious mirrors. Words are also things, in a way. Substances, forms, shapes. Often half-hidden, yet revealing, even as they limit. It's thought that nouns may be the last parts of speech to evolve. Nouns seem the most concrete things, yet conceiving a symbolic-represented engram (word) for the thing is an exceptionally abstract act; a cognitive tour de force. Who speaks, and to what world, and for what cause, what reason, with what evidence, to what effect? Paz wrote that the poem is minimally "two." Audience, even as dream, is a noun, that is. Don't we struggle with invisibility, questions of home, past and future, societal eventualities, and increasingly, planetary ecology? Haiku community isn't unitary: diverse groups worldwide share this common interest.

One question is how haiku-critical exploration might enlarge its scope to reach beyond the genre, to speak to those interested in poetry, full stop. Will "haiku community" as such recede into mouse-holes of somnolence? To see things fresh, having something to push against: enervations inherent in "tradition."

3+ (Earlier written to Peter in a chatty letter): I've been musing lately that:
There are readers
There are poets
There are critics
There is community
There is sociality
There are group networks
There are group functions.

Among these, participants have differing needs, goals and expectations. For instance:

If you are fractured, do haiku represent:
Sanity, purity, healing, therapy?

If you are urgent, do haiku represent:
Social challenge, exploration, agon?

If you are tired, do haiku represent:
Freshness, re-invigoration, novelty?

If you are bored, do haiku represent:
Surprise, delight, reversal of expectation?

If you like language-interaction with consciousness, do haiku represent:
Novel language use, coinage, neologism, experiment?

If you like lineage and form, do haiku represent:
Continuity missing in culture, or in life at large?

If one is relatively socio-economically stable, do haiku represent:
A lifestyle choice, a set of values, mores, an ethical base?

Some of the above queries may fit for poetry in general, yet others seem more genre-specific. This itself is critically interesting, don't you think? As a community, visiting various groups and symposia, are we overwhelmingly white, middle-class, bourgeois? Or should that read "of the well-educated professional class ,and successful"? Would the average age of our community be somewhere north of 50? Should we take an interest in new poets who are 20—30 something? Where are they, where's the new talent? By all means let's invite them in. I sometimes think we are really going somewhere, but then have doubts.

Actually, my thoughts and planned campaign of a haiku sailing pilgrimage around Japan is a critical response (and performance art piece) relating directly to all of the above. I hope to reach a larger audience; to connect more expansively: haiku < > society.

4) Can you recall a review or any piece of critical writing which stands out for you as a model for what you might like to see more of?

Good criticism feeds mind and soul! Kermode, Perloff, Bloom, Benjamin, Vendler, others. Now and again, The London (and NYT, and LA) Review of Books—all have enriched my life. The essays and prose works of Octavio Paz, "Testaments Betrayed" by Kundera, many additional works.


Alan Summers

"What really constitutes good writing in haiku as poetry?"

George Szirtes had this to say about haiku (22 January 2014

"Haiku form, in the 5-7-5 syllable sense, is one of those readily fitted for Twitter with its 140-character limit. I rarely thought to write haiku before going on Twitter, but once on there I experimented a good deal, writing about the form itself before going to write seriously in it. I do now and compose ever more frequently in series treating each haiku as a self-complete poem that then joins with others in some narrative or dramatic form. The writing of haiku has brought out something in my work, possibly a kind of plain-spokenness and a greater willingness to engage with the abstract. I save the absurd and the tangentially poetic for prose."

I've met George Szirtes on a few occasions, but we never discussed haiku.  He is also a fellow consultant on an online literary magazine which contained a substantial section on haiku including a short essay by myself.  Many poets choose to go the 575 route, perhaps because it feels lyrical, without the extreme brevity that regular haiku writers use.   The adaptation of the Japanese cutting technique called kire, in haiku, is not something that is easy for many poets to read into a verse, and understand, perhaps it's too alien? I wonder if there are two main camps, haiku as haiku and haiku as poetry.  Oddly I've rarely experienced difficulties with the general public understanding a haiku poem, but poets regularly writing outside the haiku market do appear to have some or great difficulty at times.

Why is this I wonder? I don't have any ready or clever answers.  I just know that haiku appears to be too sophisticated even for some poets regularly published in the best of literary journals.  I experiment with various approaches to haiku, and the puzzlement however open appears the same:  I feel that 575 haiku will always have a place in poet's hearts, where they need more words, and at least have the equivalent to a line of poetry. 

There are many people who only write haiku as tweets, and consider 140 characters just enough for a haiku, whereas for many here we could easily accommodate at least two haiku, and even start a third.   Perhaps it is a combination of the attempt to utilise the kireji cutting, making a tiny verse into two smaller verses surrounded by an acre of white space that bamboozles many, including experienced close readers, and poets?  

"What really constitutes good writing in haiku as poetry?"  Is it engaging in more communication outside the regular haiku groups that we haunt?   Does outreach, guest-readings, and talks, school, college and university visits, and performances help?   How many regular haiku writers visit educational establishments?

Have we gone so minimalist that it is impossible for the public - who are aware of 575 verse, and also possibly read some translation versions of classic haiku from Japan - to be allowed on the same page any more?   Are we in fact excluding the very people we wish to have included?

Before regular performance poetry events many page only poets grudgingly gave live readings, mumbling into their books, avoiding eye glance or eye lock, wary of those who even loved their work, and understood it or were prepared to.  Is there a danger that we risk those dark ages, despite a huge movement of people enjoying live poetry?

In Bristol (England, U.K.) I remember having to do crowd control for a poetry slam.  Bristol was the bigger scene, bigger than London, and poets were even interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on the BBC's Newsnight flagship program.   I've even had to move two haiku poets to the top floor of a bookstore for health and safety reasons, due to popularity, excitement, overcrowding, to continue their book signings.  So it can happen to haiku poets too.s

Poets should be communicators, surely?  Are we front line reporters coming back with what we've witnessed, or not?  Shouldn't we be both across the page and across the room at the party?   Something is missing, despite the recent surge of quality books around haiku that should appeal to the public.  Nowadays there is more to poetry than just good writing, but it helps, if only to start from there, and then engage, not as soldiers, but fellow communicators.   After all, the age of cellphone cameras, selfies, and constant social media interconnecting is upon us, and haiku has always embraced new media from Basho onwards.

It will be interesting to see the impact of the two recent books of Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W.W. Norton) and Where the River Goes (Snapshot Press) this year into next year, plus more big books on the way.

Next time I meet George Szirtes I will certainly touch on haiku, maybe even have a haiku book to hand.

Alan Summers, With Words


Kristen Deming

  Someone wrote that "Thoughtful criticism itself is an art and a creative act."
The question of criticism led me to think more about the role and responsibilities of the poetry critic/reviewer.
  Literary criticism is about the reader: teaching him, guiding him, and putting the work being reviewed into some context or historical perspective. It is not about the critic himself or his ego.
   I admire those in the haiku community who step forward to write criticism and reviews. We rely on them to be honest without causing pain; to tell us what works and what doesn't work in a constructive way.
  In my opinion, haiku criticism/reviews have been excellent for the most part, and gently done. If there has been any hesitation in being more assertively critical, it might be worry about breaking the "wa" (harmony) of the haiku community. However, the open exchange of ideas is worth the risk.


George Swede

Scattering Amplitudes

Recent discussions here and elsewhere have attempted to provide explanations for the evolution of English-language haiku in the 21st century. They have been brave attempts to understand haiku that are often incomprehensible, at least in terms of established ideas about the form. Perhaps what we need are concepts from outside the realm of literary theory that can illuminate gendai or the new haiku.

I have found a recent discovery in physics that might help.  It is the amplituhedron,  "a jewel-like geometric object" that greatly simplifies calculations about how particles interact. It seems to make unnecessary two bedrock assumptions of physics, locality and unitarity (Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine, 27Sep13):

"Locality is the notion that particles can interact only from adjoining positions in space and time. And unitarity holds that the probabilities of all possible outcomes of a quantum mechanical interaction must add up to one. The concepts are the central pillars of quantum field theory in its original form, but in certain situations involving gravity, both break down, suggesting neither is a fundamental aspect of nature".

Perhaps established ideas about the haiku are also not fundamental. Why not use the amplituhedron as a model for stimulating new and vital thoughts about what really is haiku's true nature.  But first, more from Wolchover:

"The amplituhedron looks like an intricate, multifaceted jewel in higher dimensions. Encoded in its volume are the most basic features of reality that can be calculated, "scattering amplitudes," which represent the likelihood that a certain set of particles will turn into certain other particles upon colliding".

Isn't the collision of images the primary techniques of gendai haiku poets.? And, the concept of "scattering amplitudes" might be useful for explaining what happens when images collide.

( , accessed January 22, 2014)


Mark Harris

Poets are often leery of literary critics. People who write haiku have a pronounced aversion to "critical thought" and other such wordings that emphasize intellect over what you might call heart. At the same time, people want their work to be read with as much care as they gave to the creation. 

To me, the sort of exploration and dialogue Peter encourages through Field Notes is inspiring. The ability to write critically about poems on a level that enlightens is rare. Few are so gifted. While that shouldn't stop the rest of us from thinking through and writing down our critical impulses, we might do well to pause and remember kindness.

A friend and I touched on this topic in an email exchange a few days ago. I wrote: 

         "It is difficult for me to write about poems, in part because I am leery
          about unbalancing the poet's words. You know, every sound and rest and
          letter is creating a whole that can be changed by what the critic hangs 
          onto, or bolsters, or tears down. Violence can be done. Maybe more
          insidious, the poem can be taken, made the critic's in a way. So, critical
          writing that is constructive must be wrought with attention and
          delicacy. You have a special talent for that--I am not up to it.

          When last year I tried to explicate to you a few of my own poems, I could
          not get the balance right, and kept adding information, sapping energy
          and mystery from the original until I regretted saying anything.
          Comedians know this--once you stop to explain a joke, it's no longer
          funny, the timing's shot and you might as well exit stage left."

There's the desire for silence, for leaving well enough alone. And yet, I often hear people talk about how they struggled to find just the right word to complete a haiku.  What makes that word "right"? There's the beginning of a conversation that may challenge our individual assumptions. The good critic can help us there.

After Seamus Heaney's death this past August, I turned to my copy of his Opened Ground: Selected Poems. The collection concludes with The Nobel Lecture [1995], which I'll quote here:

          "Without needing to be theoretically instructed, consciousness quickly
          realizes that it is the site of variously contending discourses. The child in
          the bedroom listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish
          home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up
          from behind both the signals of some other distress, that child was
          already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a
          future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously
          ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, skeptical, cultural, topical,
          typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible."

In my view, that's an apt observation of how we navigate our worlds, so full of various and conflicting signals—as in the voices of critics, for example.  Does it bother me that my own contending discourses are "impossible," taken all together? On the contrary, that's where I hope to begin.


Don Baird

It is very difficult to write a critique whether it is in a genre of music, art, or poetry, et al.  Creative art categories often have rules; they are just as often ignored - the artist's creative force looking for a way out - to be set free.  A critic must understand the boundaries (if any) of the art form under his/her scrutiny before he/she can write even the first word.  Haiku style has become wildly varied while contentions continue as to what it is - are there boundaries - is their structure?  This atmosphere makes it nearly impossible to be a critic of haiku without sounding like a know-it-all-windbag of a pit-bull dog.

I imagine if a poet writes exactly the same style the critic enjoys, the poet will do well in the review.  However, if the critic is of a different sort than the poet, the poet just might find the review contentious - even hateful.

Critics are forgotten, however.  The poets and their work live forever.  Beethoven was hated by a critic at the beginning of his career.  Later, down the road, Beethoven won him over but not without taking a few beatings in the media.  Today, Beethoven is a hero and almost as well known as God.  In the meantime, his early critic goes unremembered - and will forever.

There are two things I suggest regarding critiques: 1) don't write them; 2) don't read them.  However, if you decide to write one, be understanding, be as creative as the person you are critiquing, enjoy the process, find the good, be kind, and be honest.  In case you decide to read a critique of your work, be brave.

Field Notes

Cherie Hunter Day

Criticism is rarely perceived as fair and warranted. It's difficult to get past severe judgment and unfavorable comments and remain open to the evaluation that might be helpful or positive. Criticism is so distasteful that one of the most popular workplace performance review strategies is the "feedback sandwich": sandwich criticism between two pieces of praise. Shaping behavior by positive feedback has been the mode in classroom teaching for many years. It used to be gold and silver stars next to names on poster board charts. That's a very visible reminder of who is helpful and compliant and who is uncooperative. More recently it's earning *bee*bucks, colored pieces of construction paper, handed out at the beginning of the day and subtracted for each infraction of the rules. This strategy can easily backfire. One morning in fourth grade my son handed his daily dole of *bee*bucks back in to the teacher and said, "Keep these." In effect, he told his teacher, "You'll have them all by the end of the day anyway." To him they were just pieces of colored paper, nothing real or substantial.

We are in the "everyone is a winner" age. View one episode of American Idol during the audition rounds and see how criticism works for some contestants and fails to bring expectations into line for others. Clinical researchers now think such reactions are related to the recipient's self-esteem. Abundant praise for people with low self-esteem leads them to choose safer goals and makes them less persistent and less motivated in the long run than those with better self-esteem. Criticism for those with inflated self-worth is completely disregarded, often with considerable hostility.

The submission process for writers is an indirect form of criticism. The journal editor either accepts or rejects the work. Very seldom do they comment or make suggestions. It's up to the author to determine the next course of action. They can either send the work to another journal, rewrite the piece, set it aside, or discard it as a last resort. The author can keep the process closed or open the process to workshop. Facebook is chock-a-block full of pages for posting material. I suspect that receiving all those "likes" works for some folks and backfires for others. It might, in fact, make some writers more passive and dependent on the opinions of others.

These difficulties with praise/criticism exist in haiku as well. It's rare, but I appreciate when editors take the time and effort to pen encouragements or make suggestions. Bob Spiess, Elizabeth Searle Lamb, and Peggy Willis Lyles were legendary for their kindness and support. I've also received notes and e-mails from readers and friends sharing how much a particular haiku meant to them and why. It's a genuine connection that sits outside the praise/criticism dichotomy. It's a thank you without the calculating aspect of the "feedback sandwich." I'm advocating more thank yous in the haiku community. If a haiku moves you, tell the poet, and tell them why. Crafting a thoughtful response not only increases goodwill, it sharpens analytical skills, which in the long run makes us better poets. 


Peter Newton

I'd say criticism is alive and well in the haiku world. Seems like there's plenty of book reviews in the major and minor journals. They don't all just sing the praises from what I can tell. Though many do, deservedly. What strikes me is that many constructive and critical book reviews are written by editors who are poets with certain tastes and tendencies. Few reviews are completely objective. But we have come to trust the opinions of others. And these opinions offer valuable tools by which we can improve our own writing.

What I'd like to see more of as far as criticism goes in haiku circles is self-criticism. A tough thing to do. But, for example, there is a book recently out by Jean LeBlanc called The Haiku Aesthetic: Short Form Poetry as a Study in Craft (, 2013)  which I believe addresses a necessary and underexplored area of discussion: The literary nuts and bolts, if you will, of the short form using some of the author's own poems as examples of both successes and failures. 

I like the attitude of a fellow poet who says: we're in this together. Who else but oneself to hold up as an example of what works and what doesn't work in making a poem. Poetry is an act of discovery. It is okay to admit that we all begin with a blank page. The novice and the Nobel laureate. Let's say to each other: Here are a few things I think I've figured out about the process of writing a haiku.

LeBlanc's book offers an inclusive approach consistent with the haiku spirit. We can each benefit from looking at our own work through a critical lens. But it not only takes time and space to gain the needed perspective but a willingness to point out one's own flaws as a writer. Doesn't mean their fatal personal flaws--just lapses in technique maybe or following the wrong voice at times. False starts. We all do it. Poems rarely fall from the sky fully formed. Most of us have to build the thing from the ground up and hope it withstands the wind, the rain, and the repeated scrutiny of our own ear.

We need a larger body of this kind of self-critical study in the Western haiku world, it seems to me. Yes, anthologies sell. Individual how-to books by prominent poets sell. But what is our commitment to improving the overall practice of the craft of poem making. "Skin in the game" is a phrase that comes to mind. I guess I need to get to work on my own self-critical essay: "Confessions of a Haiku Frankenstein: How I Failed as a Poet and Learned that Every Poem is a Process of Bringing Myself Back to Life." Or something like that.


Tom D'Evelyn

Theory and Practice of HIE Criticism

Note: to justify these comments on "poetics" I need only point to the new issue of "Noon," Philip Rowland, ed: as I show below, a mindful reading of the poems in this journal actually produces the kind of thinking about form and selfhood I am doing here. We start with poems. Criticism is inseparable from close reading of texts. Texts are critical. Critical theory emerges in its own right from close attention to the practice of poets.

1. Close reading of classic, canonical poetic texts soon teaches the critic that texts (the word is rooted in the action of weaving, warp and woof) are produced as speech doubles on itself, folds, returns, thus commenting on itself. Shakespeare's "SHAKE-SPEARS SONNETS" (1609), among other things, is a radical criticism of the selves of the tradition of the sonnet. This is a critical commonplace; it SHOULD be commonplace in HIE criticism. 

2. The question of "self" is inseparable from literary criticism. Poems unhinge language from normal use as a medium of reference to an object or objective state of affairs; references within poems are not solely determined by the referential use of language; rhythm, rhyme, all the devices of poetry, heavily qualify that objectivity, sometimes subverting it altogether in favor of a different ontology (e.g. Zen). There is an "implied author" in poetic uses of language which "sort of" doubles for the author; the concept of "persona," foregrounded by Ezra Pound, is widely accepted as one of the ways of discussing self in poetry. Haiku, with its roots in Zen meditation, often depersonalizes the speech-act as if the poem projects from a nothingness, or an emptiness, a "fertile void" or perhaps the dead void of popular nihilism.

3.  In a wider discussion of "selfhood," selves or identities can be seen as structured by what is called "non-identical return." That is, selves (identities) are shown as processes, continuities with gaps and leaps and deep structures which sponsor reflective moments of "non-identical return" in which the continuity of the subject is confirmed by something other, different, surprising. Transformation is always a possibility; religious ideas often help structure these moments (see below). This is very useful for literary criticism because poems always involve repetition (form is itself repetitive) and surprising "turns" that throw weird light on what is happening.  In Catherine Pickstock's Repetition and Identity (Oxford 2013), she writes, "the self must be a living, dynamic symbol, fusing sense and reference, fiction and history, able to traverse, prehend, and grieve, decipher and fulfill the allegories of nature."

4. Regarding HIE criticism, it seems to break down into two kinds, practical and more experimental. These kinds are determined by their occasions. Within the HIE culture, we see practical criticism practiced in many different venues: exemplary is the Facebook page Haiku Ink. "Experts" there "critique" the work submitted, often showing great sensitivity for the writer's intentions and degree of skill and literary sophistication. The norms brought to bear come from the "soup" of formal notions originating in traditions old and new: whatever serves the moment, that is, the "kindness" of the job to bring a more mindful awareness to the occasion. Since at this level of practice, the question of persona rarely comes up, the effort being to "say" something clearly, distinctly, and perhaps memorably, the question of self remains a question of the author's real self and what this self feels, what "it" wants to say. The idea of self in Emerson's "self-reliance" holds sway: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you is true for all men, -- that is genius. . . ."

5. A more experimental, analytical approach fits journals like "Noon" edited by Philip Rowland. This carefully curated journal presents haiku in the mix of other short forms. The general take-away is that the poems favored by the editor of "Noon" are aware/make us aware of the hybrid nature of form. These texts frequently surprise the reader with experimental weavings of this and that, references, points of view, tones.  Such a self-consciousness about form may raise questions about the "self" implied by the poem. Certainly the material in "Noon" acknowledges the possibilities of self as suggested by Pickstock: "the self must be a living, dynamic symbol, fusing sense and reference, fiction and history, able to traverse, prehend, and grieve, decipher and fulfill the allegories of nature." Compare this with the Emersonian self of "Self-Reliance"!

6. It would be cumbersome to note all the mixed kinds that appear in the current issue of "Noon." One may generalize and say that curation appears to favor styles that in their repetitions and returns do not wander too far from a clean diction, a spareness of syntax, which these poems share with a large number of modern American poems indebted to the early Imagist movement and various members of that family. The book, carefully edited by Rowland, opens with a suite of poems – well, a series – by Peter Yovu (disclosure: Peter edited this piece). In their diversity they suggest the range – the different kinds of poems – available to "Noon" readers, who do include haiku or ku or H (as I call it when pressed) among the poetic, or non-poetic, forms of literature. Yovu addresses a range of topics, including authentic speech ("the second story"), the politics of drones ("a drone"), poetic allusion ("so luscious"), and metamorphosis as unconscious self-exposure ("words furred"), in a variety of styles and shapes. The first and fourth touch on classic subjective themes: authenticity and blockage ("the second story/falls into the first   rubble/at the back of my throat") and the revelatory animal form ("words furred over my awkward animal toward you now"). This "singleton" (or one-line ku) makes a good case for the type. The unfolding of the syntax follows the sequence of events as well as the total context: intense diction in "furred over" (past tense); the invention of a verb, "fur over" corrected in the progress of the sentence as "over" becomes a preposition: "over my awkward animal" – which thematizes the "non-identical" aspect of the repetition of syntatic form. This depends on a nod to the traditional distinction between "animal" and something more "spiritual" in the human (which distinction is probably not worth bothering with except in irony as  here). The text explodes – as a good text should – with renewed energy as it returns "non-identically' (that is, surprisingly, creatively, critically),  to its repetition (its syntactic closure, "toward you now"). Try cutting "now" and you feel a perhaps widening of reference (Keats?). In any event, it is a very strong opening to a very compelling issue of "Noon." Yovu is a very careful, efficient, economical, even minimalist writer, if by "minimalist" we can include the sudden opening up of a view to the abyss as achieved in "words furred."

Rare in the poems included in this issue of "Noon" (with a few exceptions) are the lyric resonances one experiences in poetry influenced by the New Criticism – say the work of John Crowe Ransom, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Louise Bogan, and so on. An exception would be Anna Arov's exhilarating 'revision'? Please see the poem in situ.


you advised when writing
I should take a step back
make it less personal
change settings
the 'he' to 'she'
       so when touching you
I was touching her
             kissing her
then I lost the thread
and she was kissing me

I could feel her warmth

her fingers pulling my ear
and I was not in love with you
This could be placed within the sonnet tradition for its sense of dialogical situation, its drama, its irony, it's sexiness, like a less-naïve e.e.cummings than . . . what? Something new (feminist)?   

8. That said, there are texts here--less brilliant, perhaps, as poems, than Arov's jewel -- which taxonomy would place in the family of "lyric." A hybrid "ku-lyric" is poem by John Levy.  It's a "lyric" put through HIE-related extreme minimalist reduction: "minute hand / hour hand/ second hand/ armada." The repetition of the list of "hands" on the clock does not prepare us for the surprise of the "return" to the larger, more general, interruptive (even eschatological) concept brought forward by "armada." But the "leap" is justified the more you think about it; and so the poem becomes memorable, the depth of feeling quite personal (if not paranoid!). Upon closer inspection, the sequence of "hands" – minute, hour, second – yields an interesting complex "wave" structure: ordinary, bigger, then suddenly smaller, as if the heart were beating faster, time more urgent, time LESS along with the timelessness of "armada." Is there word play in the "arms" – as opposed to hands – of the besetting "armada" (etymology shows this as a distinct possibility); such wordplay is "technical" and "witty," which indexes the "self" of the poem.

9. Scott Metz's contribution at first glance fits easily into the general family of HIE: "the river entering the / sea a sheet of / paper." While the look-feel of this text (the lines ending in words that make the line-ending no ending) is experimental, the verbal event closely resembles that of many contemporary ku. The elegant visual aspect – the absorption of the energies of the river into the greater body of the ocean flattening and indeed dispersing its identity – leads the reader into potential metaphors such as "blank sheet of paper." Depending on one's mood as a writer, this could be depressing or thrilling! Here again the "self" is an ultimate subject of the poem. The analytic toughness of this poem – presenting a kind of critical moment to the reader's judgement –makes it exemplary of a certain potentiality within HIE.

Eve Luckring's love of risk sometimes leads to profitless obscurity (at least profitless for my small brain) but sometimes startles with the breath and cogence of the non-identical return. I'm thinking of

        a delta
     of refrains
you who speak of clarity

Suffice it to say that it seems to be about non-identical return: "a delta of refrains" (returns) subjected to the primal elements of nature and mind (sun-scrubbed . . . salt) – that wave of tensions collapses into a climax of address: "you who speak of clarity." The old regime of Cartesian "clarity" is engulfed in the energy of this wave. Cartesian self becomes part of the soup of consciousness. Now that's really something!

11. It is not uncommon for a poem in "Noon" to directly confront the questions raised by criticism. Elizabeth Robinson's "On Terseness" situates itself in what critics call the aporia: the no-way through moment or "interruption" of repetition's identity. "Here's how I interrupted my story. / How I burnt my fingers on a match." The pun on match captures the "romance" of repetition and non-identical return; a "match" or double (return) can often lead to interruption. The poem moves into a mythic scene: "Underneath the great deluge" – the "deluge" being the great interruption and foretaste of the final "show-down." The final lines return to "mere" repetition as "surfeit" never to be absorbed, fleeing "within the bulk of itself." The use of "itself" there recapitulates the "I" of the poem in its not-self never to return?

12. I really should stop. But I will continue reading the poems of this issue of "Noon" and other periodicals  at  This blog is called "Meridian: Remarks on Contemporary Poems" and is devoted to the practice of criticism in light of the theories adumbrated here. (Interested editors, please send review copies to me at PO Box 4177, Portsmouth, NH 03802, and of course I can work with digital texts.)

Field Notes

Peter Yovu

look up




In a poem, as in life, (in poem-as-life and life-as-poem) there is always more going on than any analysis can reveal. I find this to be true of the poem above. It is by John Martone, and appeared in the latest issue of Noon.

So what is the point of analysis? What is the point of criticism?

The words jar. They connote a taking, even a tearing apart. How can we talk about this? Is there an approach which may loosen up some of the negative associations one may have around criticism?

Though it is not generally spoken about in relation to haiku, I recall the origin of the word verse as: a turning, as the turning of a plow, or line of poetry.  The sense here, of course, is that a poem turns from line to line, each successive line giving a different but connected view, even if the connection is distant.

One "progresses" through the poem line by line until a whole is realized.That sense of wholeness will be more felt than anything else, the web of connections known to the body as the body knows its own wholeness through every part. Coming to this sense of wholeness, if indeed one does come to it, is the point at which one may say that one likes a poem, or does not. You could say that this is the body's own critical response. And for many this may be sufficient.

But I would contend that looking deeply into a poem, examining it, and yes, analyzing it, serves to enlarge it— paradoxically, it serves to enlarge the whole. I'd like to explore how that might work.

If a poem is a series of "turns" working toward a sense of wholeness (a wholeness some of whose parts may only be intuited) then perhaps what is
required of the critic (or critical reader) is that he or she review (view again) the poem in a similar fashion, by turning it, looking at it from different perspectives. This approach regards a poem as, though composed of lines, not linear, but as something with contours and depth. As something alive.

Each part reveals the whole. Here one quickly enters into the realm of paradox, because each part reveals a different whole. Perhaps one could say that each part reveals the whole differently. This becomes the joy of reviewing any work of art. Without such re-view, the sense of wholeness
may settle, and the poem become an object, a fixed rather than a living thing. It would be akin to a sculpture which one cannot or does not walk around. And cannot touch.

I like to think that criticism can take this approach. It is an approach that does not lose sight of the whole. It is grounded in feeling, and is therefore an embodied approach.

The tendency with analysis is to lose sight of the whole. To lose the diamond for the facets. So I would say the best criticism regards analysis as a function that doesn't get too enamored of itself, that realizes that analysis is in service of something greater. This, on a more universal level, is the concern of Iain MacGilchrist who writes about the dangers of the left (analytical) hemisphere of the brain seizing control and taking precedence over the right hemisphere, that portion of the brain which deals with the totality of what is presented.

The totality of what is presented does not exclude the subjective. It strikes me that a good critic will be keenly aware of this. It is a phenomenological approach, basically. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram
writes: " . . . the ambiguity of experience is already a part of any phenomenon that draws our attention. For whatever we perceive is necessarily entwined with our own subjectivity, already blended with the dynamism of life and sentience. The living pulse of subjective experience cannot finally be stripped from things that we study (in order to expose the pure unadulterated "objects") without the things themselves losing all existence for us".

The critic has the function of revealing windows. It is a wonderful experience to tell a dream to another, or to several people, and have one or all say what they have seen, often something one has not seen for oneself. In this process, usually the feeling associated with a dream remains present, and may be strengthened by looking at various elements.

But the critic also has the role of revealing where windows are foggy, or missing, or, when looked at closely, are not windows at all, but stenciled pictures on the wall. The critic is the one who senses that a poem has not done what it set out to do and is willing to re-view it to find out why. Or who sees that the poet took too much control over the language, or settled for an easy effect,
or . . . .

I have presented a rather idealized view of criticism. Briefly, I also want to say that there can be great value in criticism which is biased, partial, emotional, infuriating, uninformed, etc. If nothing else, such writing may serve to stir us into a response, if only to find out how we really feel about something, or even that we do feel something strongly. 


So, does it help to look a poem like Martone's to get some idea of how it works? Only if doing so enlarges that sense that one may have (as I have) that this is, brief as it is, a work of art. My remarks may not do that, or do it well, but I am willing to try. And in any event, I welcome the possibility that there is someone reading the kinds of poem many of us are putting out who is capable of such enlargement. I welcome as well the possibility that there is someone capable of showing where what you and I are doing falls short, or where trends and habits are taking over, where art is being colonized by technique, among other things.

look up




Martone sets his poem down in a way which will be familiar to any who have experienced his work before. The vertical, one word (or two) to a line format emphasizes the moment to moment shifts that language and perception make. (Can one word be said to be a line? This is the first of several subversions— turnings from below— the poem enacts. It has the effect of slowing down time, and perhaps of allowing us to see that a part or  particle is in and of itself a whole).

The poem directs us downward, and yet the first two lines are "you/ look up", which I will venture to say creates a kind of perceptual eddy, a slight displacement. It's emphasized by the double space just following, after which we learn about that from which we (the poet and I) are looking up: from planting. We're on solid ground, and we have some idea now of what we're seeing.

But then the poem turns again, is subversive again. The expectation would be that some thing is being planted, a seed or bulb, but instead, what the poem is directing us toward is not the thing itself, but a quality or state the thing— the bulb— possesses. Again, as we go down slowly, word by word, we don't know what that is, and finding out is delayed by another turn, by something else, this time another category of thing: a season, a turning in time.

It is rather dizzying, as looking up at the sky can be after concentrated work in a garden, or on a poem.

Can a bulb and the fall, two very different but mutually involved entities, both "possess" the same thing? In this case, the poem tells us that what they possess (and are possessed by) are "new/ spaces". But looked at closely, what we see is that the bulb's "new space" is not exactly the same as the fall's new space, as the former is being planted into the later.

The poem seems to be saying that the act of planting (and the act of writing a poem) reveals or creates something new— it opens up a space which we were not previously aware of.

And it is— dare I say it— what close reading does: opens up a space where new meaning may be discovered, which even the writer may not have known.

And here, yes, it helps to look up, to take this poem's season back to the beginning and immerse ourselves in the clarifying sky, the vastness of which contains and goes beyond any new space we may have encountered on our journey.


Francine Banwarth

It seems to me that first we have to deal with the word "criticism." In the best sense one evaluates, analyzes, interprets, that is, carefully studies and offers an insightful response, which can be based on historical, social, or other approaches. Taken by itself, however, the word "criticism" has a rather negative and more narrow connotation, and that is why in my personal experience, I find it difficult to express honest criticism when I feel a work has little merit.

I imagine we've all participated in workshops and critique sessions where the air becomes uncomfortable and the silence unbearable while everyone tries to figure out something nice to say about a particular haiku or haibun, for example. It is engaging and energizing to evaluate and discuss work that is worthy and promising or innovative and challenging, but even done in the kindest way, an honest, less-than-positive response is difficult to deliver and often difficult to receive. Without some form of creative criticism, however, we fail to grow as individuals or as writers and artists, so it seems essential that we learn to express and receive constructive literary criticism.

It seems to me also that criticism is dimensional. For example, a book review may be just that, a review of a collection on a level that is a personal response rather than a critical assessment. The reviewer may choose to focus on what he or she finds positive and rewarding and avoid areas that are more problematic. I believe we see this type of approach often in the haiku community and that it is an approach that can be valuable to authors and readers alike.

I find that some of the most insightful evaluations are often offered in the foreword to individual collections and anthologies and that they can serve as  models for study in the haiku genre. As far as critics go, we can be our own best critic. We can look at the work we produce from a detached viewpoint, that is, step into someone else's shoes and self-evaluate, if at all possible. If we practice that approach, we may gradually learn to offer, receive, and filter "criticism" with a mature and open mind. In that way, criticism itself is an art form.


Paul Miller

The Haiku Community is a wonderful thing. In contrast to the larger poetry scene where haiku is often marginalized, if not outright dismissed, the Community is welcoming and encouraging—not to mention educationally beneficial. Without the Community I don't know if I would still be writing haiku—the genre/format/etc that seems to fit my poetic goals the best. I know I wouldn't have gotten any better. I have many friends in the Community that I enjoy seeing at meetings, conferences, casual get-togethers, and corresponding with over email. I enjoy discussing and sharing poems.

However, what makes the Community so wonderful is also its worst attribute. Since I have so many haiku friends, it can be hard to criticize their work. I've addressed this elsewhere, but to recap at thirty-thousand feet: haiku are often personal poems—about our daily interactions with the world—so it is hard not to hear criticism as criticism of the self, of the interaction, not the poem. Yet criticism is what we need. Without it we won't grow as poets.

In a larger poetry scene of a hundred thousand poets criticism is less of an issue. The Community being the size it is, I know I will undoubtedly interact with that person at some future point. This leads many reviewers to shower praise on the slightest of books. While this may be encouraging to the poet, it is not helpful to their development; and less helpful to a reader who might be thinking of spending their hard-earned cash on the book. With that in mind I have always tried to be honest but fair in my reviews. Years ago a prominent haiku poet objected to my calling another poet "one of our best," citing the fact that we were all doing the best we could. He was essentially arguing for "participant" trophies for all. But that does my poetry no good.

In my roles as editor I have seen the effects of criticism. In response to what I thought were honest and fair book reviews I have seen poets get angry, lash out, and sometimes cancel subscriptions. In declining to accept submitted poems I've been told I didn't know anything about haiku. Admittedly, as a writer, and because I'm human, I've had those interior reactions as well (well... not the canceling part). However, it is important to realize that none of us write brilliant poems all the time. I have been grateful (later) when editors rejected my lesser work (I probably didn't realize it was lesser when I submitted it because the latest discovery is always the brightest) and equally grateful when an editor offered a critique or suggestion. However, there are many ways to criticize someone. Interestingly, a quick Google search for a definition of "criticize" brought up these two definitions:

         1) indicate the faults of (someone or something) in a disapproving way
         2) form and express a sophisticated judgment of (a literary or artistic work)

Clearly we should aim for the second definition, and be open to it when it is directed at our own work. It doesn't mean we have to like someone's judgment of our haiku, or agree with it, but we should view every judgment as a learning opportunity. A fellow poet once pointed out a particular and reoccurring theme of my haiku—one I wasn't aware of. If they hadn't had the gumption to criticize my work I might never have realized that. 

The yoga studio I attend likes to call our workouts "practices", which might be a good way to think of our poetry. We are not masters; we are just poets on a path. In that light we might be open to "a sophisticated judgment."


Wow, there is a lot here to take in here,
from *bee-bucks* to quantum field theory.

I'm still wending my way through all this, but
grateful for all who shared their thoughts.

Tom, in your post,

the river entering the
sea as a sheet of

This poem is by Scott Metz, not Emma Bolden.

It is elegant, I agree, and your notion of the
"non-identical return" ( if I am actually understanding what you mean by it)
expresses well how it works.

Lynne Rees

For me there are two fields of criticism, although they can of course overlap. Literary criticism that will discuss and explore the social and historical context of a work/author. And writerly, constructive criticism - the kind we hope to get from editors and workshops - that responds to the work on the page: its form, structure and language choices. The latter focuses on what the work/poem is doing (or hopes to do) and how it achieves that. In this kind of criticism the writer's experience/existence is irrelevant. The words on the page are the only thing to consider. Perceived intention and perceived achievement.

I know it's difficult, no matter how far along in our writing career, to completely separate ourselves from the work, to create the divide between writer and writing, but it's essential if we're to develop and grow in any genre.

And the only way to do that is to put ourselves in the critical arena, and learn how to receive and offer criticism from/to our peers and from journal editors (if they choose to give it) we submit work to. But that arena needs boundaries - we're not instinctively 'good' or 'well-behaved' critics - guidelines should be laid down by a moderator/facilitator and adhered to.

And it's also up to every one of us to be honest about ourselves and our writing before we enter that arena. Why are we there? Looking for praise, acceptance and approval? Wanting to develop as a writer? Wanting to be part of a constructive discussion that will help us and others?

Finally: learning to offer and receive constructive criticism in a writing workshop has been an invaluable tool for me in life generally.

Philip Rowland

One further correction: Scott Metz's poem reads:

the river entering the
sea a sheet of

[no "as" -- a significant difference, I think]

Since Emma Bolden was mentioned, let me quote also the poem that immediately precedes/leads into Metz's (in the issue); juxtaposition being another kind of criticism, perhaps:


I am a liar. Look: under these clothes I am hiding
a body. I'm waiting for an axe, a ditch. I'm shopping

for cement shoes, a lake so dark that none
of its languages have words for surface or shore.
(See also for correct lineation of Anna Arov's poem.)

Quote from: eluckring on January 27, 2014, 01:55:55 AM
Wow, there is a lot here to take in here,
from *bee-bucks* to quantum field theory.

I'm still wending my way through all this, but
grateful for all who shared their thoughts.

Tom, in your post,

the river entering the
sea as a sheet of

This poem is by Scott Metz, not Emma Bolden.

It is elegant, I agree, and your notion of the
"non-identical return" ( if I am actually understanding what you mean by it)
expresses well how it works.

Field Notes

Errors noted have been corrected.


Peter Yovu

Mary, many thanks for this.

How much, if anything, do you think applies to haiku criticism?


Hello, Peter - I am new to haiku and perhaps naive, but this article felt quite timely to current haiku criticism.  Maybe our poems and souls are too gentle for all that fierceness?  however intelligent and provocative.


I agree with Mary, and it reminds me of Bill Higginson's comment, years ago, about toughening up book reviews.

It ties in with what I said above also, and a conversation with George Szirtes I've held since.  He's not the only one wondering where the poetry is going in haiku.   Syllablic haiku is a strong factor amongst poets outside the haiku movement that we know: There are also proponents of this approach that feature Jim Wilson, who does deal in cogent arguments. 

I always feel we have something to learn from those outside the haiku community, and even from outside the poetry groups.

What do others feel about the link that Mary gave us, and whether we need to, should do, keep in touch with the larger world of poetry?   Perhaps we don't, but I'm not sure about isolation. 

We do have a number of haiku writers who are poets at large outside haikai literature.  Is it a break from writing the "other poetry"?


Quote from: MarySquier on January 28, 2014, 10:06:50 PM
Hello, Peter - I am new to haiku and perhaps naive, but this article felt quite timely to current haiku criticism.  Maybe our poems and souls are too gentle for all that fierceness?  however intelligent and provocative.
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Lorin Ford

I enjoyed reading the interview via the link Mary provided. This has me smiling, and I agree with the spirit of it:

"I'd support a law making every poet write a review as the price for writing a poem." - William Logan

William Logan and the Role of the Poet-Critic

There are 10 more interviews with 'poet-critics' on Contemporary Poetry Review, should anyone feel like browsing through them. Such interviews are a good idea.

Writing a review at all takes focus, concentration, thinking about the poems... *someone else's* poems.  We don't have to be good at it, and probably won't be until we're well-practised at it. Reviews can range from simple appreciations through explications right up to scholarly analyses. Each will appeal to a different readership/audience.  I think we need the variety, and all haiku poets should be encouraged to write a review from time to time. Those more experienced and/or more educated, I believe, should refrain from the urge to take a piece out of the throat of anyone who has attempted a review they disagree with or feel disdain for.

My personal preference, in reading reviews, are for those that allow me something of a preview of a book, some indication that the reviewer has attempted to engage with the actual poems contained within. What I dislike most are those (thankfully, comparatively rare) pieces which make me feel like an eavesdropper, where the intended audience seems to be a few mates whom the reviewer is in dialogue with or wants to impress.

- Lorin

Ellen Grace Olinger

Thank you for this conversation.  There is a lot here to read and learn.  For now, I saw that Kristen Deming echoed the thought that Criticism is an art in and of itself.  I've thought that as well, as I've read criticism in education, poetry, and other fields.

As I read reviews, I mostly appreciate a clear summary of what the book is like, and perhaps a few sample poems.  Let the reader decide.  Sometimes I wish I had read books before the reviews, so I can evaluate for myself before joining the broader conversation.  A review may have seemed too negative, or too positive - thereby putting pressure on the poems that didn't need to be there, in my view.  This must be where the art of criticism is so important.

As for haiku criticism in the form of essays and books, I don't feel qualified so far to speak to that topic.  But I remember in educational and psychological research the difference between basic and applied research.  Always felt both were equally valid, even though the former might not bear fruit for a long time.  My gift was to translate the research into teacher preparation classes.  In some areas, it seemed a small group of people were writing for each other - were peers - and that surely has its place. What I didn't like though, was when the journals that did the translation of research into practice weren't seen as equal by some (or so it seemed). Or different areas of the field were in competition.  I'd say to my students, this is education, we should be helping each other.

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