ABSTRACT: English-language haiku has stressed the concepts of brevity and simplicity to a further extent than the Japanese haiku, pushing minimalism as far as humanly possible short of saying nothing, aiming at the Zen-inspired idea of the haiku as a free-verse, “wordless poem.” The way in which early translators and theorists approached the original often failed to acknowledge many literary and linguistic features of Japanese haiku, largely ignoring haiku as language-poetry and instead reading them in terms of Zen inspired simplicity, with a focus on the psychological aspect of capturing heightened, “haiku moments” in a diaristic fashion, or else interpreting the images in Japanese poems though free association even when the original poems were highly stylized and followed poetic clichés with precise meaning and complex use of language. In its lack of normative cultural implications, instead making personal readings the basis, Haiku in English came to be seen as a poetry of indeterminacy — a collaborative process between poet and reader — with each poem being open to interpretation rather than referring to an established matrix of coded words that evoke a highly allusive literary tradition. In losing the Japanese implications and focusing on an individualist, psychological/spiritual approach, English-language haiku both divorced itself from strict Japanese tradition and developed a genuinely new poetics with its own unique canon, built around minimalism and thus exploring haiku as extreme micro-poetry to a greater extent than has generally been seen in Japanese practice. Comparing and contrasting two well known haiku, one by Marlene Mountain, the other by Kaneko Tohta, and further exploring the issues these differences raise, we can see the ways in which prevailing ideas on the nature of brevity and simplicity in haiku have affected meter, diction, length, punctuation and aesthetics in English-language haiku, and can use this knowledge to further inform the development of English-language haiku in terms of the aforementioned elements of poesy.
by Clayton Beach
There has been a tendency toward what Richard Gilbert has called “atomization” in contemporary English-language haiku (ELH). This uber-minimalist approach is never more apparent than in Cor van den Huevel’s “tundra,” a single-word poem that is perhaps the perfect example of the fullest extent to which this tendency can be taken, though it lacks the two part structure many hold to be necessary of proper haiku.
The single portmanteau word — poem-word, or “pwoermd” — remains a popular trend on the experimental side of ELH. Nick Virgilio’s “fossilence” is an excellent early example; instead of mere juxtaposition of two concepts — fossil and silence — they are concentrated and blended into a single word, creating what is perhaps the shortest possible distillation of the idea of “haiku” that still allows for the characteristic base section and superposed fragment in what is already perhaps the shortest form of poetry in the world. However, these composite neologisms have precedent in English language poetry outside of haiku, thus while we might extend the definition of haiku to embrace this practice, it is a technique that is neither novel nor unique to the world of haiku in English; some haiku are pwoermds, but not all pwoermds are haiku.
While some theorists demand rigid adherence to the 2-part formula for haiku in the English language, others allow for the occasional artful exception to the fragment and phrase ideal, for there are a variety of examples in both contemporary and classic Japanese haiku of “one image” ku, though these are of course generally seen as deviations from the standard formula and still contain some kind of disjunctive effect.
Putting aside the controversial, “one image ku,” when concentrating exclusively on haiku that contain a bipartite structure centered on blending and juxtaposition, the tendency toward extreme brevity in ELH is often touted as being more authentic and true to the spirit of Japanese haiku than a fuller treatment in longer, more lyrical lines, with well meaning poets admonishing beginners for writing in “5-7-5,” the syllabic pattern often associated with haiku due to its extensive (but not exclusive) use in the original Japanese. Charles Trumbull writes:
“Haiku has been described as “the wordless poem.” Because of need for brevity, the haiku poet must use language with extreme economy and accuracy and employ techniques that are very different from those used in crafting Western style poems.”
This idea of haiku as a “wordless poem” completely different than Western poetry was first put forward by popular Zen philosopher Alan Watts, and the extreme brevity advocated in the name of wordlessness is held to be a reflection of the spare minimalism, nonliterary and economical language supposedly found in the poetry of Bashō. However, while these assumptions have attained the status of “common knowledge” in the word of ELH by virtue of repetition, they are not accurate reflections of the more complicated truth regarding Japanese haiku, something I will explore in the course of this essay.
While I’m not opposed to brevity and simplicity in haiku, pursuit of them as an end rather than a means — at the cost of creative liberty and poetic value — is, in my view, ultimately short-sighted, restrictive and antithetical to both Japanese tradition and good poetics in general. Some in the ELH community have taken their crusade against syllabics and length too far, for too long, disenfranchising poems that they deem unsuitably long for no other reasons than dogmatic thinking, ignorance of the original tradition and artistic inflexibility.
Perhaps the extreme position some take on the issue of brevity is an heirloom of the Anglophone “haiku wars” of the 1970’s, when die-hard 5-7-5 syllable counters squared off in vigorous debate with a new generation of free verse haiku enthusiasts who were pushing the form in new artistic directions. In order to gain artistic freedom, the chains of the past had to be broken — and the bean counters did not give up without a fight — so some poets in the world of ELH took a more severe, all-or-nothing stance than was really justified; rather than saying “haiku need not be 5-7-5,” the dictum became “haiku should not be 5-7-5.”
Lingering vestiges of the bitter enmities formed in this period can be seen in the exclusionary “no 5-7-5” motto of the NaHaiWriMo (National Haiku Writing Month) and a general preference for poems around or less than 12 syllables — an approach suggested by William Higginson in the 1980’s to be a more accurate reflection of the amount of space it takes to say in English what would have taken 17 morae in Japanese. Thus (the argument goes) the shorter, free verse haiku is a closer approximation to the original Japanese than a strict 5-7-5 in English, because morae are shorter than syllables and the Japanese take longer to say something; brevity is the soul of haiku.
And indeed, if we look at a haiku such as
shizukesa ya iwa ni shimi iru semi no koe — Bashō
quietude. the cicada’s voice permeates the cliffs (trans. Clayton Beach)
My translation here follows a pattern of 3-5-5, just slightly more than Higginson’s ideal of 12 syllables, so he is on the mark in this case. However, if a haiku has a few words that are short in Japanese but long in English, the translation can just as easily balloon out as shrink down:
tsuchifuru ya tsurikawa de yomu sangokushi — Hiroaki Fukumoto
Yellow dust from China —
hanging from the train strap while I read
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (trans. Clayton Beach)*
At 6-9-7. the 17 morae in Japanese have expanded to 22 syllables in English. So a few words or concepts that take more space for expression in English can radically change the proportion between the length of a translation and the original 17 morae. Add this to the facts that Japanese is a language of implication and insinuation, can often leave out parts of a sentence that would seem strange to do in English, and that Japanese haiku has developed many symbolic associations over the years to pack more and more information into the same receptacle, and all of these factors can often make up for any slight discrepancies between the length of the English syllable and the Japanese mora.
On average, the simplest haiku in Japanese can indeed come between 12 and 17 syllables in English, depending on one’s approach to translation, while more complex haiku can translate to 20 syllables or more. In other words, the haiku in Japanese still translates to about 17 syllables, with a plus or minus 5 syllable margin of error. This is without even getting into the Japanese haiku that break the 5-7-5 rhythm by exceeding the standard of 17 morae, a practice not uncommon in Bashō’s time and that would become the greater part of an entire movement of “free verse” haiku in early 20th century Japan.
ELH poets are perhaps touchy on the topic of syllabics in haiku because of widespread ignorance regarding the topic of haiku in the general public, and the default assumption by the uninitiated that haiku is defined by the 5-7-5 count and little else. However, once one is past the stage of the rankest neophyte, it quickly becomes obvious that the 5-7-5 model is not anywhere near as onerous or clunky as some would have us think, and well-crafted haiku in English can fall naturally to within a few syllables of this general rubric. Many ku naturally break down into almost 5-7-5, with small adjustments like 3-7-5. or 5-7-2. In these almost 5-7-5 poems, the superposed section is generally slightly shorter, but the base section often fits within 10 and 12 syllables. Other variations find each line short for 4-6-4, or all even at 5-5-5. Thus, while rigid adherence to syllable counting is anathema to the writing of good haiku in English, it is equally true that any strict aversion to poems that approach or exceed 17 syllables is unfounded, with little evidence to suggest that poems under 12 syllables reflect the existence of enough content to fill a 5-7-5 haiku, were they to be back-translated into Japanese. There are many haiku in English that have counts as brief as 2-3-2 or 2-2-2, but are these really more authentic to Japanese haiku tradition than a 5-7-5, as advocates of brevity claim?
One of the biggest perceived sins that comes from counting 5-7-5 is “padding” the poetry — adding an extraneous “and,” “a,”or “the” in places where they aren’t completely necessary, or else filling the verse with extraneous imagery or adjectives, cluttering the poem just so that every syllable is filled. Some haiku enthusiasts take their admonishments to such an extreme that beginning students end up afraid to use any connective tissue whatsoever, thus the dictum of eliminating all extraneous material can lead to a choppy delivery. In the name of wordlessness, even veteran poets (who remember the tyrannical reign of the 5-7-5) can be caught meting out a few paltry syllables, poetic misers hoarding all of their pronouns, articles and God forbid they splurge on an adverb or an adjective.
Some perhaps take this tendency as fidelity to the direct transliteration of Japanese syntax, such that Bashō’s earlier ku would be rendered more along the lines of “stillness / enters into rocks / voice of cicada;” a wordless poem. Japanese syntax puts the verb at the end of a phrase (rocks into enters), but beside that slight adjustment for the sake of coherence, stripped of any words not directly equivalent to the Japanese, and giving the images in as close of an order to the original as possible, this style of “Japonism” in ELH is accurate in the sense of literal transcription of the Japanese original, but unfortunately results in what is often an artless contortion of the haiku itself as well as the English language. Literal translations of Japanese actually can completely miss the thoughts and ideas being expressed — by ignoring idioms, poetic clichés and implications that are apparent to those in the native culture but that aren’t reflected by a literal word-for-word translation.
For my own ear and sense of poetic rhythm, such stilted delivery also results in a unpleasant choppiness, a list of verbs and nouns telegraphed like the grunted speech of Tarzan, or the comedic syncopation of William Shatner’s exaggerated delivery of spoken word poetry. Overt telegraphing is unpoetic, inelegant and ultimately culturally insensitive in the way that it dons an Orientalist mask and mimics non-native English speakers for rather arbitrary reasons. There are times when it’s difficult to tell whether a poet is trying too hard to be terse and edgy, or is simply not fluent in the English language. Japanese haiku does indeed twist language to artful effect, but this is at crucial points of juncture through breaks in syntax or cutting words (kireji), and oftentimes the sections separated are still full of particles, adjectives and connective words that function as normal, flowing — even poetic — phrases. Katakoto, or “baby talk,” is held up as a justification for extreme derangement of syntax, but katokoto in Japanese has more to do with a simplicity of mind and childlike innocence that is a stylistic evolution of previous concepts like elegant confusion and poetic madness, and is used with skill and precision as linguistic play, perhaps even a literary sort of Dadaism. Katakoto certainly has nothing to do with wordlessness as it is interpreted through a lens of Zen mysticism.
Because I still regularly see poems that are being work-shopped in online groups being taken to task for having too many articles like “and” or “the,” poems being criticized for following a count of 5-7-5, since I still regularly come across telegraphed haiku published by beginning as well as experienced poets that sound forced in their syntactic derangement, and since I still see punctuation largely abandoned or simplicity being touted as an absolute requisite for haiku among writers of the English language haiku, I believe it is necessary to carefully examine the premise that less is better, or that less is more “authentic” to tradition — when it comes to dropping certain elements of speech, telegraphing lines or eliminating punctuation in ELH. I will do so primarily by contrasting two popular haiku about pigs, one in English, the other in Japanese, as well as treating some of the ancillary topics that the differences between these two poems — and thus the two traditions — raise.
pig and i spring rain
— Marlene Mountain
This ku was written in the 1970’s, early in Mountain’s career, and has remained a favorite for its wordlessness and child-like simplicity. Compared to the fluffed up 5-7-5 of the day, Mountain’s poetry glinted sharp and brilliant as Occam’s Razor itself, providing many with the answer to a question they didn’t even know they had asked, clearing the way for an artful, literary English-language haiku that was not bogged down by artificial constraints and counting on one’s fingers. Mountain was an early adopter of the “one-line haiku,” an approach some suggest is more authentic due to the single line presentation in Japanese. This poem is important and beloved in the ELH community, and rightly so; it helped lay the ground for a new poetics centered on exploring what haiku could mean in English without the monkey of 5-7-5 hanging on its back, and it established a new voice and visual format that would influence several generations of haiku poets.
buta to ware mo harusame
(trans. Clayton Beach)
Here I have made a rough translation of Mountain’s famous ku into Japanese, to see exactly how it translates mora-wise. In its concision, Mountain’s ku has fallen far short of a full haiku, even by the standards of brevity in Japanese — breaking down into a 3-3-4 count that sounds a bit unpoetic and reductive in Japanese, lacking as it does any allusions to previous Japanese haiku tradition or layers of meaning through word associations or pivots. Adding the kireji “kana” to the end would stretch the poem to a roughly bipartite 6-6 and make the language sound slightly more literary, but still, this is a full 5 syllables short of a standard haiku, and even shorter than the 7-7 short verses from linked verse. In this case, the ELH penchant for brevity has far exceeded that of the Japanese, rendering what in Japanese comes across as a rather flat verse that lacks the usual nuance of traditional haiku.
And that’s the strange thing — while in the west we often talk about simplicity of language in English haiku, the Japanese haiku still retains a large amount of “bungo,” the classical, formal literary language residual from the courtly tanka, or “waka.” Kireji, the cutting words so often touted as a requisite for haiku, are in fact often inflected verb tenses or particles that are no longer used (or now used differently) in normal speech than in written language. Medieval haikai differentiated itself from classical poetry by using the old formal language in playful, ironic ways: twisting conventions and adding slang, unrefined imagery and focusing more on the everyday world outside of the Imperial palace and its elegant clichés. So compared to the highly elevated, ornate language of emperors and princes, haiku was simple — but it was still elevated above common speech. Even today, even the most progressive haiku still uses some of these ancient conventions that have long fallen out of use in regular speech and retains an air of literary elevation on a linguistic level. Bashō’s poetry, while often presented as simple and austere in English, was actually often quite literary and complex, multifaceted, allusive and playful in its contortions of language and poetic tradition.
It was Shiki in the late 19th century who criticized the literati and drifted away from the literary elitism of previous generations, and his disciple Kyoshi who insisted on unadorned description of nature. However, Shiki despised tired tropes and cliché used without honest feeling, not necessarily all literary language, and he could be quite playful, while Kyoshi wanted to go back to tradition and at times revived phrases that would have been seen as formal even for Bashō — he simply wanted to take the recent trends of radical politics and social commentary out of modern haiku and focus on nature and an idyllic vision of the Japanese tradition, rejecting modernism rather than elevated diction.
Mountain’s ku is pure and honest — an open page — but there is no elevated diction, there are not even any details beyond the pig, the authorial “i” and the rain. One gets a sense of interbeing in connection with the land and nature through “and i,” and perhaps a smell of the farm pungent with a raw, animal scent from the “pig” and the fresh “spring rain.” But what the pig is doing, its personality, whether or not it really feels like spending time with the “i” there in the rain, even why “i” is there — to slaughter the pig or feed it slop, or is the speaker merely trespassing across the field on their way somewhere else?—beyond that amorphous feeling of unity and contentment implied by “spring rain,” there is very little detail or particularity. There is not a single action or adjective beyond the seasonal setting: just pig, person and impersonal nature. What they’re doing, beyond coexisting, is completely unsaid. Even the sense of contentment and peace relies on assuming that the rain is a light mist falling on the speaker’s face and the relation with the pig is amicable, and assuming a Zen calm and serenity as the default tone of haiku. It very well might be the torrential downpour of a mid-Atlantic thunderstorm in May with a surly and uncouth sow who the speaker needs to wrestle into its pen — in English, seasonal references are not necessarily precise, normative evocations of emotional tone. The pig could be one of any sort, and so too with the spring rain, like the storm that lashed my windows as I wrote this on an April evening. That said, of course the general tone seems does seem to suggest a peaceful, contemplative scene, but such is the problem with unspecific wordlessness—the reader can interpret it as they will.
In ELH, the haiku is often presented as a poem that is finished by the reader in a creative act, thus this level of minimalism and incompleteness is seen as an invitation for open interpretation, the poem is opened to the “white space” in which the reader is invited to interpret the poem as a kind of literary Rorschach test. This wordlessness is actually expected by many as a defining feature of the genre, and poets can be criticized for supplying too much. Mountain’s poem is imprecise and subjective, so there are no wrong answers, thus reading takes on an individualist approach to choosing significance in an ostensibly objective portrayal of reality, in the absence of symbolism or metaphor. In that sense, contemporary English language haiku is a poetry of indeterminacy and subjective reader experience.
On the other hand, in traditional Japanese haiku, while the reader must recognize the signs that point toward hidden meaning, these are generally a set group of topical tropes (topoi), or else precise seasonal indications (kigo) that have established normative connotations over the centuries through poetic tradition. Thus, “autumn evening” immediately conjures up the idea of loneliness and melancholy. “Summer moon” brings up the romance of the shortest nights of summer, when one cannot stay with their lover long and the dreams in which lovers visit each other are ended all too soon. “Cherry blossoms” calls to mind a deep longing and attachment for the fleeting and ephemeral beauty of the world that puts one at odds with their spiritual goals of non-attachment.
Personal, subjective interpretations do not belong to the world of Bashō’s haikai, for images have an “essential implication” called hon-i, meaning they represent something specific, decided a priori by normative cultural values, thus seasonal references not only target a very specific, codified period of time within a highly graduated progression through the calendar year, but also have fixed emotional attributes and set connotations. The lack of this system of short-hand cultural markers in haiku in the English-language is perhaps the most fundamental difference between the two traditions, and raises questions about how much the haiku in English can ever be called “traditional” when it fails to incorporate such a major component of what “traditional” means to the Japanese haiku.
inoshishi ga kite kūki o taberu haru no tōge — Kaneko Tohta
a wild boar arrives, and eats the air. spring mountain pass (trans. Clayton Beach)
Our second pig arrives with a stamped hoof and gnashing of its teeth. Here the base section is not the chopped up, broken jumble of syntax modern Japanese haiku is sometimes described as, but a straightforward, declarative statement just as I have translated it. At 5-4-4, the translation clocks in just over Higginson’s ideal of 12 syllables, but well over Mountain’s terse 5. Interestingly, this ku is irregular in its count, breaking down to something like 7-7-6 in Japanese. In my translation, the period could also have been indicated by an em dash, semi-colon, line break or a mere space; in Japanese the previous phrase has ended conclusively with the infinitive of the verb, and a new thought is started, but no classical kireji has been used. The juxtaposition is created merely through a single break in syntax, almost exactly the same way Mountain created the cut between “i” and “spring rain.” Thus, there is no need to worry about “translating” the kireji — in this case the sense of cutting in English is largely as it is in Japanese.
However, punctuation can be of great help in English. In the Japanese language, punctuation is largely enunciated through particles, verb inflections etc. and the written language technically needs no extra punctuation for clarity. That’s the main reason haiku has no external punctuation marks. Certain kireji, like yo and ka (よ, か), are actually the (spoken) Japanese equivalents of the exclamation point and question mark, respectively. In English, punctuation is generated though rhythms of speech and tone when spoken and in the written word it creates ambiguity to leave the marks out, whereas Japanese punctuation is often through an enunciated emphatic particle, giving the word weight in the meter and making added visual punctuation superfluous.
Unless the multiple possible readings created through lack of punctuation are desired, the practice of dropping all punctuation in English is an imitation of a natural feature of Japanese that doesn’t function neutrally in English the way it does in the source language — it calls great attention to itself in an affected sense of transliteration — and thus can distract from the poem. If anything, abandoning punctuation ignores the emphatic particles that often serve as kireji and fails to translate them into an English equivalent. Thus, punctuation marks are often our best equivalent to the function of cutting words, so we would benefit from using them sparingly, but artfully, rather than completely discarding them.
As ELH has developed, the ambiguity caused through lack of punctuation has given rise to layered pieces that break down into several possible readings, especially in one line haiku. But in the cases where a question mark might be called for, echoing the cutting word ka (か), for instance, leaving it out is the very opposite of fidelity to the Japanese haiku. Increasingly, in the more experimental journals, some one-line haiku in English have begun to utilize punctuation again in order to reflect the more varied use of cutting one finds in Japanese haiku:
half autumn color. Come take my hand in the ghost land and — David Boyer
Here the period separates the seasonal reference and calls attention to it, keeping it from flowing in one uninterrupted train of thought, much in the way ya (や) is used in Bashō’s “quietude” (shizukesa ya), while the “and” creates further cutting by adding a sense of incompleteness akin to the -te form of a verb, which while not listed as a classical kireji by Haruo Shirane, is used extensively in haiku to create cuts and leave verses with a sense of open-endedness. In that sense, this treatment of punctuation is much more in line with Japanese tradition than a ku like Mountain’s
just a touch of deer within tall things that just grow — Marlene Mountain
Without punctuation, this haiku tempts us to read it as a single thought, but when that becomes paradoxical, we are then forced to start parsing the language into smaller, digestible phrases. Is it “just a touch of deer within. tall things that just grow,” or is it “just a touch of deer / within tall things / that just grow.” Without any punctuation, the poem is left open ended, and in this case that adds some depth and a tendency to read the poem as several simultaneous superpositions of possibility. At its best, the one line format exploits the ambiguity inherent in not giving line breaks that shape the content, and yet there are times when the effect is jarring or unwanted, thus completely abandoning all punctuation for stylistic purposes can end up with unwanted implications, innuendos or unintended comic effect through bathos in bizarrely blended images.
Regarding Tohta’s boar, there is a two step action on the part of the animal; it bursts upon the scene, and then eats the air. This is a dynamic pig, alive and full of spirit and vigor, eating the air greedily, perhaps tasting the scent of the poem’s speaker in the breeze. The seasonal reference, “spring mountain pass” also has a secondary connotation of danger or excitement; the character for the word “mountain pass” has a secondary meaning of “crisis” the way the word crossroads has both a literal and figurative meaning in English. So there is a bit of a pun in the superposed section, indicating that the unexpected encounter with this feisty animal is a bit of a “spring crisis.” In fact, haiku in Japanese often use irregular meter to express heightened emotion or distress on the part of the poet, thus the extraneous syllables are a conscious distortion of meter with a traditional implication, adding a sense of tension and chaos to the ku.
Both of our pigs share a warm vitalism and sense of nature, of being alive and in the moment, both share a connection between a human speaker and the natural world, but in Tohta’s ku we have a much more detailed picture: the setting, a mountain pass in spring; the action, a boar bursting onto the path and snapping at the air; and then we have secondary clues to the speaker’s emotional reaction to the events through punning on the kigo, not to mention a tendency toward extending length beyond the normal 5-7-5, playing with the meter in a way that is the opposite of brevity.
Yet, Tohta is hardly one of those obscurantist, avant-garde gendai poets who revels in excessive literary games — on the contrary. His work took modern haiku into a more humanist vein, and he was vocally against literary pretension, looking to the humble, direct simplicity of Issa as the ideal haiku poet. While his juxtapositions could be surrealist, he’s not the kind of poet one would call effete or over-intellectual. And yet, his poem is considerably more complex, literary and full of detail than Mountain’s idealistic simplicity, and he errs on the side of extending the haiku, of making it more expansive and explicit rather than open-ended and amorphous. This doesn’t make his ku flat or too literal though — there still remain some unanswered questions and a feeling of wanting to know more — it piques the interest and gets the imagination going.
The interesting thing about Japanese haiku masters is that they’re often disparaging literary pretentiousness while simultaneously taking their own poetry quite seriously and putting an enormous amount of effort and craft into their work, which sounds to me a lot like the pursuit of “literature.” Thus, when we repeat their admonitions against “literary pretension,” we have to take it in context — as a rejection of the extreme classism, conservatism and literary cronyism of previous generations, and a bit of Japanese self deprecation and humility, or else perhaps viewing haiku as an embodied personal philosophy rather than an external art of mere wordplay; for some, haiku is also a way of living and seeing in addition to being literature.
While “pig and i” will remain a beloved and quintessential English language haiku, we must accept that some ELH theorists have quite oversold the idea of simplicity in Japanese haiku, taking Shiki’s theory of objective life sketching to extremes that far exceed even the simplicity of the most straightforward of traditional Japanese haiku. In order to find any Japanese haiku that exhibit the kind of extreme economy in language used in “pig and i,” we have to look to avant-garde free verse haiku poets of the early 20th century, like Ogiwara Seisensui:
ishi no marosa yuki ni naru — Ogiwara Seisensui
a stone’s roundness turns to snow (trans. Clayton Beach)
With a count of 11 morae split 3-3-5 or perhaps merely 6-5 in Japanese, and translating to around 7 syllables in English, this ku comes very close to the brevity of “pig and I,” but ironically, this is a haiku that many conservatives in Japan would not consider legitimate haiku. In terms of meaning, it is slightly more surreal and paradoxical, exceeding the simplicity of thought found in Mountain’s ku. In order to justify the extent of brevity promoted in English haiku through the lens of Japanese tradition, we have to embrace the avant-garde and admit modernism into haiku, something that early ELH theorists like R. H. Blyth and Harold Henderson detested and did their best to stymie by echoing Kyoshi’s conservative dictums on natural beauty and proclaiming non-conforming poetry as “not haiku” while expounding upon their ideal of the “traditional” haiku in English.
The further irony is that if we accept Mountain and Seisensui’s briefest works as reflecting a legitimate form of haiku, then we have to contend with the fact that Seisensui also pushed the limit of length in haiku to its maximum, writing some extremely long haiku:
botan ichiben ichiben no ugoki tsutsu hiraki tsutsu sugata totonou — Ogiwara Seisensui
peony: petal by petal
as it moves, as it opens,
slowy takes its shape (trans. Clayton Beach)
With 29 mora in Japanese, and 20 syllables in my English translation, this poem challenges the assumption that haiku cannot relish in excess language — the original is full of repetition/parallelism, alliteration, and assonance. And this is not the first haiku of such length; both Bashō and Buson have a few ku that far exceed the normal allotment of syllables. In fact, most of the time, when a Japanese haiku deviates from the 5-7-5, it is generally to exceed the length — a poet finds the strictures preventing them from expressing certain ideas, or it is a stylistic manner of saying “I’m so ecstatic (or distraught) that I don’t have time to count syllables!”
molasses dance of moonflowers the story folds itself into a crane — David Boyer
This ku by David Boyer has 18 syllables, only a single syllable beyond 17, but it inhabits the opposite end of the spectrum of ELH from Mountain’s early work, in that it is maximalist in its effect. Instead of merely having a simple image as the superposed section, it has a somewhat elaborate and abstract one that is almost a base section itself; “molasses dance of moonflowers” plays on the contrast between dark syrup and white flowers while connecting through the sweetness of both, while also perhaps playing on the suggestion that the movement of the flowers is “as slow as molasses.” These layers of contrast are almost sufficient for a stand alone haiku. The actual base section is also compound and complex; “the story folds itself into a crane” could in and of itself be a successful stand-alone haiku in the minimalist vein, like van den Heuvel’s “the shadow in the folded napkin,” but when modified by the antecedent phrase, it grows even more mysterious and resonant, with the white flowers transforming into the paper crane while “the story” is left to the reader’s imagination. This haiku is complex and has many layers of contrast and affinity between the images, but it does not revel in superfluous words and padding; every word is chosen carefully and used with precision toward meaningful effect, and when put together the base and superposed sections resonate and create more than the sum of their parts.
In the end, however, Boyer’s approach to haiku ultimately falls in the same tradition of Mountain’s “pig and i,” in that the origins of one line haiku in English inescapably lead back to her pioneering work in introducing and extensively developing the possibilities of haiku in English in a single line. If Mountain’s minimalism is justified by the first poem by Seisensui, Boyer’s maximalism is equally validated by Seisensui’s longer ku, even though it certainly pushes the boundary of what still feels cohesive as a single haiku. To be sure, even though it is long by haiku standards, Boyer’s ku still has an economy of language and concision that is characteristic of haiku—it simply is longer than is generally promoted by the stewards of brevity.
Just as Japanese haiku average about 17 morae and seem to top out around 30 morae, 12-15 syllables seems to be a comfortable average for ELH, with 20 syllables being near the maximum a haiku in English can withstand before it starts to fall apart from instability. Or, at least, 20 syllables seems to be about the most anybody regularly attempts with any amount of success.
Even Mountain’s later work occasionally revels in more linguistic play, multiple cuts and longer, more complex structure, as seen in her “just a touch of deer,” and in the following ku:
before the dew unsettles a cardinal dries off the sun — Marlene Mountain
While haiku are always short poems, the exact extent to which “brevity is the soul of haiku” differs from poet to poet — even from poem to poem by a single author — and minimalism has always been a style that falls in and out of favor from generation to generation. There is always a school that promotes spartan simplicity and raw feeling on one hand, and a more literary minded, intellectual school on the other. While Mountain’s “pig and i” was groundbreaking and perfect for its time, such simplicity is no longer entirely necessary for our poetry (though neither is it entirely obsolete), and even the poet herself took to more complexity as her mature style developed and changed with the times.
Banality is merely the antipode of obscurantism, and neither extreme is desirable in any literature that aims to move hearts and communicate effectively. Poems like van den Heuval’s “tundra” and Boyers’ “molasses dance” inhabit the outer range limits on the spectrum of brevity and simplicity in haiku that show how, while haiku certainly has boundaries as a genre, it also has a great deal of variety and space to play.
Homogeneity in verse is not something to aspire to as a community, and the hive mind sometimes tries to police aesthetics that are arbitrary and dull when faced with challenging work. In his book, The Poetics of Japanese Verse, Kōji Kawamoto offers some critique on shasei realism, objectivity and simplicity in haiku:
“The problem lies in Shiki’s readiness to equate the ability of a verbal description of a concrete object to move men’s hearts with the ability of the real object to do the same . . . Shiki was not necessarily a rigid adherent of biased realism even when it comes to realism vs. idealism and the question of objectivity, nonetheless, his remarks on shasei led to considerable misunderstanding of the function of poetic language and literature in general . . . Shiki errs in assuming that these objects can be incorporated into a poem merely though the simple process of identifying them by name . . .”
Thus, we don’t actually get a full vision of a pig, or spring rain, merely by mentioning them. There must be a few salient details, a bit of specificity for any true sense of realism to emerge — there is such a thing as “too simple” in haiku. Kawamoto drives the point home even further.
“Perhaps it can be postulated in a very general way, that the literary success of any haiku poet or school or period largely depends upon the awareness of the fact that a tendency toward stylistic simplicity can lead to sheer banality despite insistence and measures to the contrary”
Here Kawamoto warns us against the trap of simplicity for its own sake. The periods when simple aesthetics like shasei and karumi were in vogue created a large volume of inoffensive but mediocre haiku that few people cherish today. Some of the harshest critiques of the poet Chiyojo were centered on the simplistic interpretation of Bashō’s “karumi” aesthetic that was the hallmark of her teacher Shikō (a disciple of Bashō) and was quite in vogue at the time she was writing. Her one-dimensionality is not a unintentional fault, but was actually the style of her time. And Shiki’s ku are not without their critics either; Kyoshi felt the shasei approach was shallow and needed a deeper profundity. So ironically, though shasei in ELH is often promoted as Kyoshi saw it—looking for deep profundity in the every day—Shiki was a playful poet accused of immaturity by his own disciples, insofar as they felt his style was superficial and not allowed to mature due to his untimely death. Shiki reveled in the use of language as play—haiku as poetry and wordplay rather than deep philosophy—even creating multiple personas from which he wrote, and he engaged the world with a painter’s eye rather than a philosopher’s heart.
Kawamoto is also critical of Blyth’s original focus on the Zen in haiku, a major and almost fundamental premise in the Anglophone interpretation of the soul and spirit of the genre, attributing it to exoticism rather than an accurate portrayal of haiku:
“Most of the post-war beat generation and subsequent haiku poets [in English] first came to haiku and developed their interest in this literary genre mainly by way of Zen. In actuality, this manner of assimilating the haiku is no more than a manifestation of a form of fascination with something foreign and exotic and may be seen as having corrupted a more accurate picture of haiku.”
Insofar as ELH minimalism is based on an outlook that views haiku as expressions of Zen metaphysics along the line of them being ‘one breath koans,’ it simply isn’t a culturally sensitive or accurate interpretation of Japanese haiku. Byth’s descriptions of haiku are ecstatic and seductive, but ultimately hyperbolic and distorted by his enthusiasm for Buddhist interpretation, with him often evaluating the success of haiku by the “quality of their Zen.”
“Haiku require our purest and most profound spiritual appreciation, for they represent a whole-world, the Eastern world, of religious and poetic experience . . . Haiku are to be understood from the Zen point of view . . . the mood in which they are written and in which they are to be read, is the same as that of Rōshi [Zen master], the same as that of the Diamond Sutra and the verses of Hekiganroku [Blue Cliff Record, a collection of Zen koans] . . . Haiku is the final flower of all Eastern culture; it is also a way of living . . . Haiku is not only poetry . . . it is a way of life, a mode of living all day long; it is religion . . . haiku is a kind of satori or enlightenment . . .”
Blyth’s writings are sprinkled with these kind of proclamations, but his saying that haiku are to be meditated upon like a koan from the Blue Cliff Record and that every nuance equates to some aspect of Zen scripture is equivalent to if someone else said that English sonnets are not just love poems, but expressions of Christ’s perfect love and the Christian faith, that they are not just poetry, but ecstatic visions of Christian gnosis and the eternal love of Christ. Yes, Shakespeare was ostensibly Christian, writing in a Christian nation, but this coincidence of fate and cultural background does not necessarily imbue every syllable of his poetry with theological implications and overt Christian allegory, even if an extremely enthusiastic foreign critic who had recently converted to Christianity decided to say so (and managed to convince his countrymen that it were true). Certain Japanese haiku poets have indeed put more Buddhism into their poetry than others, just as certain western poets have done with Christianity, but that doesn’t make it an essential feature of the haiku in particular, for it is an underlying feature of all poetry and art of medieval Japan. Furthermore, the prominence of Buddhism in haiku has faded into the background with the rise of modernity, with periods of Shinto revivalism and modern Agnosticism flavoring the haiku of their eras.
Japanese haiku was first and foremost poetry for much of its history, and thus has long been subject to literary aesthetics. The Buddhism of its practitioners has shaped it to a certain degree through normative cultural assumptions, but Zen is by no means the main factor in the vast majority of haiku. Haiku as a lifestyle and discipline has indeed been promoted by poets like Ishida Hakyō; “haiku is not intellect . . . Rather it is flesh. It is life . . . haiku is not literature . . . haiku is raw life,” and it has had its periods of status as anti-literature or non-art, but those are far from the only positions, nor are they exactly the dominant ones, and living the life of a haijin isn’t so much a religious matter as a matter of imbuing one’s poetry with what Tohta would call shisō, “existentially embodied thinking,” which he sees as “an ideology, but not an ‘ism’”… rather “a living conceptual framework integrated with and absorbed into daily life — both a form of consciousness and personal philosophy.” Thus haiku is an intense engagement with the act of living and being, and every haiku poet brings their own personal philosophy to haiku, be they Buddhist, Atheist or Christian, and these outlooks on life might very well change the poetry as it leaps from poet to poet and culture to culture.
Harold Henderson was a friend of Blyth’s and a founding member of the Haiku Society of America. As a member of the committee to define haiku for the society he was integral in forming what I call the “orthodox haiku in English,”or the “ELH orthodoxy.” This is the dominant set of views and “common knowledge” explanations for haiku that one finds in American ELH and which has spread to the broader English language haiku traditions in other countries. One might also call this “haiku sensu Blyth,” for his four volume set of haiku translations was a cornerstone of this understanding of haiku. One often finds Blyth and Henderson’s ideas repeated on blogs, in magazines, books etc. as incontrovertible facts about haiku, and seldom do people examine where these ideas came from, or question their accuracy. When the ideas are reflected in Japanese criticism, the source can often be traced back to Kyoshi and his strict neoclassical model, but often the ideas are simply inaccurate and unique to the world of ELH. In recent years their work and ideas have come under closer scrutiny by western scholars, but the rank and file of poets writing haiku in English still have a great deal of investment in this vision of the form.
Blyth and Henderson’s interpretations of Japanese tradition are largely the basis of the strong fixation on Zen in the early days of haiku in English. It is incredibly telling to read early interpretations of Bashō’s haiku written from the orthodox ELH perspective and compare them to the more culturally informed and literary nuance of Japanese scholars like Kawamoto.
蛸壺や はかなき夢を 夏の月
takotsubo ya hakanaki yume o natsu no tsuki — Bashō
octopus pots — these fleeting dreams, the summer moon (trans. Clayton Beach)
“Here the religious implications are obvious, even if we do not go into the Buddhist symbolism of the boat and the moon. It is, however, worthy of note that whenever Bashō uses the word “dream,” he seems also to be thinking of human life . . .”
Henderson takes the fleeting dreams as Buddhist allegory for life, he conjures a boat from his imagination to reference the Parable of the Ferryboat, and takes the moon as a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. If interpreted as a koan, this haiku is a serious meditation on the transiency of life, the illusions of our hubris and the redemption offered by the luminous moon. But is this what Bashō was thinking? What does this haiku say from the context of poetic tradition, looking at the traditional associations of the words and how they’ve been treated in Japanese poetry, how does a Japanese haiku scholar read this poem?
“Here a most peculiar mood is created by the assortment of “fleeting dreams,” an elegant cliché at the core of the courtly waka tradition — and the obviously vulgar yet comical image of the pots used as octopus traps . . . the word hakanaki (“fleeting” or “ephemeral”) was an essential epithet for the word yume (“dream”) . . . When we read Bashō’s haiku, we are amused by the image of an octopus . . . dreaming a fleeting dream with little thought for the fisherman in the morning. The traditional treatment of hakanaki yume further impels us to associate this dream with those of melancholy love. In this way, the eccentric image of an octopus sadly dreaming of love . . . blends together a heightened sense of absurdity and pathos.”
So on one hand, one of the founders of the ELH tradition takes this poem as an austere and serious Buddhist parable, while by Japanese poetic standards it is a comical juxtaposition of romantic cliché and vulgar image, resulting in utter bathos! Could the two interpretations differ any more?
Kawamoto’s book was written in Japanese for a Japanese audience and later translated into English. It is a rare glimpse into in-depth literary criticism on haiku from the Japanese perspective, and it puts forth haiku as a sophisticated literary genre that is a playful mix of the elevated and the vulgar, but most definitely a literature that plays upon previous Japanese poetic tradition while at the same time innovating and moving forward. What is striking when reading his criticism is just how incorrectly Blyth and Henderson have interpreted much of Bashō’s work, and in general the nature of traditional haikai. The picture of haiku they painted using the poetry of Bashō shows a simplicity of thought and freedom from literary artifice that wasn’t necessarily there, simply because they didn’t catch the cultural references or subtle implications, blinded as they were by a Western perspective of the haiku as “exotic” and their search for Zen allegory. When Blyth or Henderson rates haiku by the quality of the Zen, this is utterly tone deaf to the reality of haiku criticism in Japan, which looks at skilled use of traditional language and fresh insight into the essence of the subject. While Bashō’s final karumi aesthetic was more shallow, imagistic and rather similar to Shiki’s conception of shasei, the poems of the sabi period, which are his most popular and frequently discussed, are steeped in the Japanese literary tradition even when colored by an undercurrent of Zen detachment.
One of the most famous quotes from Bashō about haiku mind, often put forward as a koan-like proclamation to empty one’s mind and destroy one’s attachment to self, is, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself.” Of course, according to the orthodoxy of ELH, this is a profound call to sit out in the forest listening to the sound of nothing reverberating through the bamboo and trees until you are struck with enlightenment and can finally write an authentic haiku full of Zen.
Kawamoto on the other hand, reads this as an admonition against subjective and personal interpretation of natural images, but rather than saying it is about achieving a Zen state of “no-mind” and merging with the plants in satori, he states that Bashō is urging poets to respect literary tradition and conform to the “essential implications” (hon-i) of these elements, acknowledging the traditional implications even when playing around with them ironically; “In Bashō’s haiku, the temporary rejection of the traditional was always followed . . . by a return to the time honored notions of hon’i.” Thus, “going to the bamboo” is not a Zen matter, but a literary one. It is not destroying the ego, but keeping it in check and respecting the encoded meanings and normative associations of imagery established in the imperial anthologies of waka, thus recognizing the inherently romantic implications of a summer dream, even if it is being dreamed by a doomed cephalopod. This was a turn away from the previous Danrin school of haikai, which had often been wildly satirical of and contrary to the essence of courtly language.
This also has ramifications regarding kigo, or seasonal references, in Japanese haiku kigo have essential implications that are coded and add deeper meaning to the poem, but if used incorrectly, the subtext suddenly gets very confusing. Thus, Japanese haijin spend a lot of time learning their proper use. There are a many kigo that if translated directly would be completely unrecognizable as a seasonal implication, as they have a stylistic association with a season on a culturally specific basis due to poetic tradition. So there’s nothing natural about kigo, it’s highly affected and stylized, and it relies on shared consensus of the “essential implication” of a word. Kigo falls between the subjective and objective, occupying the realm of the intersubjective.
In English language haiku, there is a tradition of more personal interpretation vs. normative connotation, so kigo in the strictest sense doesn’t actually exist. We see this reflected in the ELH focus on haiku centered on “nature vs. human nature,” abandoning the strictly seasonal aspect of traditional haiku to focus on a looser concept of nature, pulling the human out of haiku in a way that Kyoshi advocated, but is completely out of line with haiku from Bashō to Shiki, and much of the modern, gendai haiku. In Japanese, there are kigo that are entirely cultural, for instance, “temari,” a stitched ball that is given to children on New Year’s Day.
naku neko ni akamme wo shite temari kana — Issa
the little girl makes a face
at the mewing kitten (trans. Robert Aitken)
This haiku is an idyllic picture of a New Year’s Day, but there’s no “nature” there beyond a domesticated animal, and the focus is on human nature; the little girl teases the cat that wants the new ball for itself, giving it the “red eye” (equivalent to sticking one’s tongue out). So season can have nothing to do with the pastoral, and can be urban and human centered. This is without even delving into the ironic and deconstructive use of kigo in some gendai, where authors twist kigo in a way that remains in the tradition of haiku in that it respects the implications, but only by utilizing contrast and irony for effect in the way Bashō contrasted courtly language with vulgar imagery.
In English, if there’s no set emotion or essential implication for, say, “spring rain,” then it can’t be used ironically, or traditionally, or to give you a clue as to what the rest of the poem might mean, it’s just naturalistic description — and that’s very different than a true “kigo,” even though you could call it a “seasonal reference.”
Ultimately, this is the biggest barrier to anything written in English truly being part of the Japanese haiku tradition; the coded language and cultural topoi established first in the Imperial collections of waka and then later through haiku saijiki (seasonal almanacs) do not translate in the same way features like cutting, disjunction, simplicity or the love of nature can. Insofar as haiku is steeped in the more untranslatable linguistic and literary heritage with corresponding cultural assumptions in Japanese, the English-language haiku fails to connect to Japanese tradition in a meaningful way.
Thus, while haiku in English is an interesting body of poetry that is inspired by the Japanese haiku and does retain several key elements, there remain severe barriers to importation and adaption of the “traditional form” in English. This is both good news and bad. The strictures put on English-language haiku in the name of Japanese haiku tradition in the past are largely hypocritical and sometimes completely inaccurate, for there is no truly “traditional” haiku in English, at least regarding Japanese tradition, and the original expositions of the form in English were riddled with inaccuracies that distorted our ideas of that tradition. This knowledge liberates us to experiment with what haiku might mean in English, since we’ll have to build much of our own tradition from the ground up, but it also leaves the question of why we persist in calling our work haiku in the first place, and continue to claim fidelity to the Japanese form.
The positive side is that Japanese haiku in the 20th century and beyond has proven to be flexible, and in the more liberal side of the modern tradition, there is increasing commonality and connection between the traditions in Japanese and English. So long as we recognize the differences between the traditions, and don’t represent our way of approaching haiku as reflecting Japanese practice or being the one true way — so long as we don’t misrepresent Japanese practice through repetition of misinformation — we can be inspired by the Japanese haiku and learn a great deal from it while developing our own interpretations of the form and still feel we are part of the haiku tradition. That is to say, we are part of the haiku tradition in the broadest sense, but we can not write “traditional haiku” in English. It is a mistake to follow Kyoshi’s conservative dictums on haiku when writing in English, for he likely would not have recognized any such work as authentic haiku. Only by the most liberal of Japanese conceptions of haiku are the two genres connected.
Perhaps the most important points (regarding the English language haiku community’s urge toward brevity) involve Kawamoto’s exposition of the function of meter in Japanese prosody. It is a lengthy essay that discusses the entire origins of the theory of metrics in Japanese poetry across several generations, so I will try to reduce his voluminous study to a few crucial revelations:
1. The basic unit of Japanese metrics is a “bimoraic foot,” a two mora unit accented on the first mora, somewhat like a trochaic foot in English.
2. The underlying meter of haiku is three bars of 4/4 time, corresponding roughly to three lines of trochaic tetrameter, with 12 possible accented beats and 24 “eighth notes” that reflect possible positions in the meter where the morae may fall.
3. Each of the 5-7-5 mora “lines” are overlaid on this metric framework, one line per bar of 4/4 time, with some feet having single a mora with its duration stretched out or a pause after it, making the syllable counts odd numbered and leaving a fair amount of blank space as silence or a caesura at the end of each 5 mora line and a briefer caesura in the 7 count line.
4. “Extra syllables” are added to the form without changing the meter simply by filling out the empty spaces generally left blank at the end of the lines, most “hypermetric” lines still nest into 4/4 time, with extreme modern deviations incorporating occasional tri-moraic “triplets” that would change a single trochaic foot to a dactyl.
5. Meter in Japanese poetry does not come from natural linguistic features, but is an artificial, performative element of poetic tradition, separating poetry from natural speech. This is because the Japanese language lacks the pitch, duration or accentual stress patterns necessary for building the more traditional poetic meters found in Chinese, Greek or English poetry.
This information has a number of important ramifications for adapting haiku into English. The most interesting facet is that haiku’s bi-moraic foot, 4/4 meter and overlaying 5-7-5 pattern all are a result of the language lacking the traditional stress patterns needed for long-form metrical poetry. In other words, haiku sounds like poetry not because of its inherent phonological or semantic structure, but because of a tradition that has developed around performing it as poetry; the structure is a learned experience of metrics, rather than a natural rhythm of speech. This explains why after a brief period of free verse, both conservative and avant-garde Japanese haijin alike returned to the 5-7-5. Without it, Japanese poetry simply doesn’t sound much like poetry at all. The occasional deviation, if it fits the meter, can still sound like verse, but otherwise, it falls apart and becomes mere prose. Bashō recognized this implicitly in his oft quoted advice, “If you have three or four, even five or seven extra syllables but the poem sounds good, don’t worry about it. But if one syllable stops the tongue, look at it hard.”
Looking at haiku in English, however, we have a wealth of poetic meters available, and all of them sound like poetry. Our free verse can be variable and adjustable and still not lose a sense of our accentual rhythms the way Japanese verse does without a set pattern. So whether our verse falls into regular iambics, trochees or slightly more varied free verse, it still largely sounds like poetry, or it least it ought to if we strive for authenticity. Japanese haiku, it turns out, has a heavy beat and a meter that is exaggerated in comparison to the rhythms of regular speech, so any interpretation of the genre that says our haiku should avoid sounding too “poetic” is off the mark: Japanese haiku uses elevated, literary diction and has a strong, regular pulse that separates it from prose and clearly demarcates its status as verse, thus haiku in English, no matter what style it chooses, should be recognizable as verse rather than mere prose, if it aims to emulate the actual Japanese tradition of haiku as best it can.
It also follows that any argument against the authenticity of the 3 line format in ELH is completely wrong. The 5-7-5 pattern, when placed over the 4/4 meter of haiku in Japanese, has caesuras that generally fall after each sub-group of morae, which makes them function very much like a line in English verse. In fact, most of the Japanese contests and journals that accept ELH insist on a three line format. So while the one line haiku has a rich canon in the English language and the format has some very strong merits in terms of literary aesthetics and novel techniques that have grown from it organically over time, it is not a particularly accurate reflection of Japanese practice and can be seen more as an evolution within ELH than a traditionalist interpretation. The one-line format can obscure the meter, and, barring careful punctuation and obvious cutting that creates a tripartite rhythm, will lead away from the Japanese haiku rather than towards it. This is not to say anything negative against the practice of one-line haiku, for many of the finest ELH being written today follow the format, but we must recognize that any argument for this practice in terms of it being more “traditional” than the 3-line format has little basis in fact.
( / x ) ( / x ) (— —) (/ x)
pig and i < > spring rain < > < >
Now, we can return to Mountain’s pig and examine it metrically by the standards of Japanese 4/4 meter. If we give a weak stress for the rest after the single, strongly stressed syllable in the middle foot, as happens in Japanese meter, we have two trochees and a spondee, giving three feet of roughly trochaic meter, then an empty foot. This is closely analogous to the bi-moraic meter of the first line of a Japanese haiku. So, metrically, this emulates what’s going on in Japanese haiku very accurately, it simply concentrates the entire poem into the space of a single first line. Whether this similarity was intentional or coincidental, I find that Mountain’s intuitive grasp of haiku spirit and form was often quite impressive. She consistently cut through the nonsense and grasped the essence of the form insofar as it can be expressed in English, even when she bucked ELH orthodoxy and made a new path for herself.
However, just because Japanese meter is trochaic doesn’t mean we can’t use a more natural iambic meter in English haiku, though I do find it interesting that Mountain’s ku demonstrates in English an affinity to the natural meter of Japanese haiku. Moving forward, for those interested in exploring meter in ELH, keeping this flexible framework in mind and experimenting with slight deviations within the concept of a 4/4 time framework overlaying the text would be profitable, much more than restricting poems to arbitrary numbers of syllables with no set beat or meter and the resulting anarchy.
Now that we have seen that the extreme brevity of Mountain’s ku is not actually all that in-line with traditional Japanese practice in terms of poem length and number of images or details, and that poems like “tundra” and “fossilence” are absolutely extreme takes on the concept of brevity in haiku in English that stretch the genre to its limit, there is a final interesting way in which Japanese poetics can be used to re-frame an element of our own approach to the adaption of the haiku. That is, the popular feature of our briefest expressions of haiku — the “poem-word,” — can be seen as a valid analogue to a feature of the Japanese haiku tradition, the kaketoba (pivot word), and thus it can be expanded upon and used as part of a fuller form that opens new horizons for the haiku in English.
hito ni seishikarita tori arasou yo — Shin’ichi Takeda
Life and death for man;
a battle fought by chickens
on the paddy stubble (trans. David Burleigh)
Here the phrase “life and death” seishikari, functions as a pivot word, sharing the symbol 苅 (kari) with the first word in 刈り田 (karita), or “paddy stubble/harvested rice field.” However, like fossil and silence in fossilence, seishikari and karita have been blended together as seishikarita. The fact that the kanji used for the 2 shared syllables, kari, is the one contained in the word for the concept “life and death,” 苅, rather than the 刈り that would normally be used in the word for the kigo of harvested rice field, or “paddy stubble,” means that the entire phrase also functions as the neologism seishikarita, “rice field of life and death.” The kigo is embedded in this neologism and must be teased out by recognizing it in the blended word. This dual meaning deepens the metaphorical resonance of the ku in a more nuanced and complex manner than is communicable in English translation, where the pun/pivot disappears. This usage ties in to the long Japanese poetic tradition of kakekotoba, which was a crucial part of the poetics of courtly waka.
Because the fusion of words into novel portmanteaus has been a prevalent feature of Japanese poetry for over 1000 years, the concept of “pwoermd” is nothing new to the Japanese haiku tradition and fits perfectly well in the context. However, in terms of practice, in Japanese the blending is used to save space in the 5-7-5 form while showing linguistic playfulness, generally tying the superposed and base sections together and emphasizing the blending of multiple images, becoming the bridge between what are in some cases two very different worlds. I know of no Japanese haiku that consist of a single blended word. In the ELH “poem-word,” the blended word becomes the entire locus of the poem, and the brevity puts an immense amount of focus on the neologism, with the word becoming almost a mantra upon which to meditate, reflecting perhaps the Zen obsessed idea of haiku as wordless koan.
It would be interesting to see more poets working in English expanding beyond the singular pwoermd and using these blended words the way they are used in Japanese haiku — as pivots between sections in a normal haiku — rather than giving them the entirety of the focus; using them to open up a more complex way of blending phrases and imagery. Individual (not blended) pivot words that create double entendre or multiple ways to read a line have been used extensively in one-line ELH for some time now, but the portmanteau is generally seen as a poem in and of itself, and has yet to make regular headway into the body of longer haiku, where it has the most promise in terms of moving the genre in novel directions in English while re-engaging with Japanese tradition.
In conclusion, English-language haiku has stressed the concept of brevity and embraced its practice to a further extent than the Japanese haiku, and long ago found the limits of this trajectory, pushing minimalism as far as humanly possible short of saying nothing, aiming at the Zen-inspired idea of the haiku as a “wordless poem.” However, the way in which early translators and theorists approached the form often failed to acknowledge many literary and linguistic features of Japanese haiku, ignoring haiku as poetry and instead reading them in terms of Zen inspired simplicity and focusing on the psychological aspect of capturing heightened, “haiku moments” in a diaristic fashion, or else interpreting images though free association even when the original poems were highly stylized and followed poetic clichés with precise meaning and complex use of language (rather than directly painting subjective experience in the simplest terms available). By missing the normative cultural implications of many haiku and in instead making personal readings the basis, ELH became seen as a collaborative process between poet and reader, with each poem being open to interpretation, rather than referring to an established matrix of coded words that evoked a highly allusive literary tradition. In losing the Japanese implications and focusing on an individualist, psychological/spiritual approach, English-language haiku both divorced itself from strict Japanese tradition and developed a genuinely new tradition with its own unique canon, built around minimalism and thus exploring haiku as extreme micro-poetry to a greater extent than has generally been seen in Japanese practice.
While this indicates a significant level of divergence and differentiation between the two genres, exemplified by the two pigs of Mountain and Tohta, ultimately the diversity in practice illustrated by the contrast between the two enriches and broadens our vision of the possibilities available in the haiku genre as a whole.
However, oftentimes this gradual divergence on the part of ELH has been couched as if it were adherence to Japanese tradition, with many believing Blyth’s misinterpretations of the genre as fact, and truly believing they were writing “traditional haiku.” If we are truly to engage with the Japanese haiku as literature and learn from it as an antecedent of our own poetry, it should be seen that many of our early impressions were, if not completely false, certainly warped, and certain restrictions on length, content and outlook that have been imposed upon the English language haiku in the past can be loosened without fear of losing authenticity to the spirit and tradition of Japanese haiku.
There have been some ELH “traditionalists” resistant to the modern Japanese haiku (gendai), and other ELH poets who model their poetry after this liberal tradition. While the brevity of ELH goes far beyond that of Bashō, we can allow for the extreme brevity practiced in ELH only insofar as we admit that modern Japanese haiku is indeed a valid part of the broader haiku tradition, and we should admit the modern Japanese haiku as valid, for if experimental Japanese poets like Seisensui cannot use the word “haiku” to describe their work, surely what we do in English has even less veracity as authentic haiku. The ramifications of this acceptance of modernity in haiku is that minimalism is not the only acceptable interpretation of the genre, and that expanding the complexity of both the base and superposed sections — working in longer lines that have a sense of metricality, using more complicated literary language or even working in or close to the 5-7-5 syllabic pattern — and leaving the realm of strict objective realism all are valid choices that can be made within the broader tradition of haiku, with precedent going back to Bashō, and which carries all the way to the present day.
Often, when someone in the ELH community makes a pronouncement about the true nature of haiku, they use Japanese tradition to justify it. But when one then uses more accurate information about Japanese tradition to challenge that person’s view of haiku, they suddenly become completely uninterested in Japanese tradition, and begin to speak of their own view of poetry, or else their adherence to a unique Anglophone tradition. However, even anglophone haiku has never been truly unified in aesthetic and outlook, as evidenced in our “haiku wars” and ongoing debates. Thus any move to strictly define the genre is going to result in the disenfranchising of non-conforming poets and promoting internecine conflict.
In many ways the modernist and post-modernist schools in Japanese and English language haiku have more in common philosophically with each other than with the traditionalist schools in their respective languages; the conservatives are rule bound and love to call anything that doesn’t confirm to their vision “not haiku,” while the liberal schools look to expand the form and make it more inclusive.
While there are significant differences in English haiku and Japanese, I don’t think it’s helpful to segregate Japanese haiku from the English, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Arabic ku etc. traditions, in that all ultimately come from the single germ of the traditional Japanese haiku. They have differentiated immensely, with some bearing only vestigial traces of the original, but like every leaf on the tree of life, each brings its own unique expression to the form—just as different poets and schools have added new visions and interpretations to the tradition over the years—and all trace back to the same roots.
Rather than pretending every branch is equivalent and interchangeable, that our differences are minimal, and thus erasing important cultural distinctions, or saying that our traditions are too different to even be considered part of the same tradition and thus suggesting we abandon the word haiku, driving an artificial wedge between cultures and separating poets who share a common interest, I urge a cosmopolitan approach to haiku as a broad, multicultural tradition with its roots in Japanese poetics, and I urge poets to seek out the other traditions, interact with poets from other linguistic and cultural traditions and find out what they bring to the form. Haiku is in a unique position to be a poetic genre that embraces many languages, styles and cultures under one canopy, but only if rigid, dogmatic thinking is set aside.
It must, however, be stressed that strictly “traditional” haiku does not exist outside of the Japanese haiku and its matrix of word associations and master-disciple lineages, so while I say that we all belong to a single broad tradition, it does not mean that ELH is in any way “traditional haiku,” or that there are no borders between the genres. Everything we write in English is modernist or postmodern haiku, and it remains significantly different from the Japanese haiku in crucial aspects.
As the internet brings us closer and closer together, inclusivity and respect for differences in aesthetic becomes more and more important. Hard-fast rules in haiku have always had two functions, to give power and prestige to those wielding them as a cudgel, and to give direction to those who are lost without them. Basho knew the rules of haikai and regularly flouted them. Shiki cast the entire apparatus of haikai and its literati out the window and created a new name for the genre. The pendulum swings back and forth between innovation and nostalgia, but the history of significant haiku poets is the history of writers who have engaged with tradition while adding something new, who have given us a unique and fresh perspective on the haiku and cut another facet on this tiny jewel of world literature.
While simplicity and brevity are fine goals in any poetic tradition, these will mean different things to different poets, and one certainly cannot judge the quality of a ku by its syllable count or the bare simplicity of its diction. I challenge haiku poets writing haiku in English to open their minds to the expansive and literary side of haiku in addition to the minimalist and atomized. I challenge poets to explore the many different schools of haiku in Japan as well as other language traditions, drawing inspiration from what they find.
There is nothing wrong with the unique tradition formed by Blyth and Henderson’s idiosyncratic visions of haiku, it has in fact created a vibrant new form of poetry, but we do both the Japanese and English-language haiku traditions injustice when we make broad generalizations that fail to recognize the fundamental differences in approach between the two, just as we make an unnecessary schism between two branches of that same tree when we fail to recognize the many similarities and affinities they continue to share. We do even more damage when we close our minds and refuse to consider that other approaches to the form within our own communities are equally valid to our own, and that haiku has a very colorful, complicated and rich history that only grows stronger with diversity.
Some of the commentary on the haiku contained in this essay has appeared or developed from earlier commentary I’ve made on the “Virals” feature of the Haiku Foundation website, on message boards and in private correspondence. I greatly appreciate the all of the counter-arguments, insights and conversation shared with members of the English-language haiku community on these poems and haiku in general, particularly from Richard Gilbert, whose views on the topic are often particularly illuminating.