Hopes for American haiku in the next year by Michael Dylan Welch
“What are your hopes for American haiku in the next year?” It may have been an awkward question, but many gave it some thought and came up with good answers. In this post Michael Dylan Welch gets a turn.
I would hope for more American haiku poets to see the value in joining organizations like the Haiku Society of America. I think we currently have about 700 members, give or take, and I recall that our highest numbers were once about 850, during better economic times. But I dare say we should be able to top 1000, and even 3000, given the number of people out there, just in the United States, who are actively writing haiku with a literary intent.
More important, though, I hope everyone continues to write and enjoy haiku, and share it with each other as a means of emotional and experiential connection. By sharing haiku, we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, even if just slightly, and this shared vulnerability has the potential to bring us closer together. I find this to be one of haiku poetry’s most endearing and long-lasting attractions.
Michael Dylan Welch is a contributing editor to both Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society and Juxtapositions: The Journal of Haiku Poetics and Culture, and is a founding associate of The Haiku Foundation. He cofounded the Haiku North America conference, now a nonprofit corporation of which he is a director. In 1996 he cofounded the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento, the world’s largest public haiku archive outside Japan, and currently serves on its advisory board and as webmaster for its website. In 2000, he founded the Tanka Society of America, also serving as its president for five years. Michael is currently first vice president of the Haiku Society of America. In 2010, Michael created NaHaiWriMo, or National Haiku Writing Month, which was first held in February of 2011.
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What is haiku? Haiku is what you make it. Haiku is what I make it. It’s collectively what each one of us makes it. However, the idea that it’s a nature poem is among one of the possible misunderstandings. Haiku poets in Japan do not carry around almanacs of nature words. Instead, a saijiki collects season words — because haiku is really after seasonality, not strictly just nature. Obviously, nature comes along for the ride most of the time, and thank goodness for that, but I think it helps to remember that haiku focuses on seasons — which includes human activities (about a quarter of each saijiki that I’ve investigated or been told about, or have a copy of myself, is actually NON nature). If it’s good for haiku to return to nature, fine, but the point of doing so is for the sake of seasonal reference. So I would say a genuine connection to seasons is valuable, together with a genuine connection to one’s emotions, as implied by the carefully juxtaposed images of each haiku. I also have no problem with inner-city poets writing urban haiku with very limited nature content, provided that they still value the seasons (Ebba Story has always come to mind as an excellent example of this sort of poet). And what is nature, anyway? Is a four-bedroom house any less natural for humans to build than is a nest built by a bird? Whatever our surroundings, the point of haiku is to pay attention, to simply notice, and to share ordinary experiences with extraordinary direct and simply language.
And should haiku have just one identity? I think haiku has many identities. And I’m grateful for it. As Jim Kacian has written, it’s the wrong question to ask “Is it a good haiku?” The right question to ask, he has said, is “What kind of haiku is it?” This relates to the idea that I see haiku as having many possible targets rather than rules, and any given haiku may choose (on purpose or by accident) to aim at particular targets and miss others — and be perfectly fine as haiku, provided that it doesn’t miss too many of the targets. To give haiku just one identity strikes me as trying to nail a jellyfish to a wall.
As for targets, the general public typically thinks that 5-7-5 syllables is the only target, and such poems, as you know, often fail miserably because they miss all the other valuable targets. But of course one can hit that target (5-7-5) and still write a good haiku if the poem also hits a preponderance of other valuable targets. One could even consider “nature” as being one of the targets, but again, I would suggest that the real target is seasonality, not nature.
Basically, I think haiku has many identities, and it is better off for it. This is true not only in North America and elsewhere (pick your language), but especially true in Japan itself. What I’m most concerned about is that some identities for haiku (the public sense that 5-7-5 is all there is to it) is not really an identity but a misunderstanding. Beyond that distinction, I think the various identities of literary haiku are welcome (which are much broader than gendai or traditional, for example). And I like to write various kinds of haiku too — as I know many other people do. I do not see this as a weakening of haiku, but a sign of its maturity (in whatever language, but increasingly so in English) — fracturing and becoming more specialized is a sign that this poetry is maturing.
Above all, though, as Higginson wrote in the first paragraph of the *Haiku Handbook*, the point of haiku is to share it, and by writing and reading haiku, as I aleady said, what we’re sharing is not just experience but a little bit of vulnerability, taking a sort of risk with another person by saying “this matters to me . . . and I hope it matters to you.” When a writer and a reader find common ground in a poem, and share a common vulnerability, that, to me, is haiku’s deepest reward.
Thanks for expressing your hopes for American Haiku for next year. Let us not forget also, hopes for American senryu–the human humorous side of the coin. Your definition:
“A good senryu is not merely a knee-slapper, though it can be that. It’s not just a showcase for puns or wit, although a good senryu can include cleverness or humor as part of a more resonate purpose. Rather, a senryu is a poem that wakes us up in a small way with it’s distilled, one breath moment of heightened awareness focusing on human nature. It’s a window into the human condition, freshly squeegeed. Senryu are, ultimately, poems of human self-awareness. They don’t have to be funny, but often it is good to laugh at ourselves through senryu. ”
…was my inspirational guiding light–when I first started out writing senryu. Still is.
Hopefully, we will not forget that human beings are natures most complex animal–and worthy of our finest senryu efforts.
The question Michael, is what the hell is haiku? For it to survive as a genre, it needs an identity, and it needs to return to its roots . . . A genuine connection to nature. Until this occurs, haiku will never be taken seriouly by the literary world. As Svetlana Marisova once told me, much of what is called haiku today belongs in Hallmark cards.
I appreciate all you do and have contributed to the haiku world. Keep up the encouragement.
Robert D. Wilson
Thanks for the comments. Merrill, you can read more about wonder in haiku at “The Seed of Wonder: An Antidote to Haiku Inflation,” online at http://sites.google.com/site/graceguts/essays/the-seed-of-wonder. And Don, I’ve written more extensively about vulnerability in haiku at “Seeing Into the Heart: Vulnerability in Haiku,” online at http://sites.google.com/site/graceguts/essays/seeing-into-the-heart-vulnerability-in-haiku. Here’s to a wonderful 2012 and sharing more of our haiku!
friends gather around
the boiling water
Michael, Sometimes the warmest and most powerful haiku are not the literary gems but the ones we share that bind haiku friendships together… a cup of tea around the kitchen table. You are so right to stress sharing … haiku as a friendly embrace… the comfort at a time of perplexity… the gossip of old friends… the snapshots from our travels … and on and on and on. Sharing our vulnerability … finding ourselves in each other’s awareness. Thanks for coming back to the childlike wonder of the art.
I really like Michael’s thoughts “by sharing haiku, we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, even if just slightly, … I find this to be one of … (most) endearing and long-lasting attractions”. What a fantastic thought he has visited us with here. I couldn’t agree more.
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