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haiku: a poetry of absence or an absence of poetry?

The following paper was presented at the PALA (Poetics and Linguistics Association) 2015 Conference at Canterbury University, Kent, UK on 16th July 2015. 

Minimalism in Contemporary English Language Haiku

The popular perception of haiku as three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables persists in the mainstream poetry world and beyond as if nothing has changed since the first Western translators counted the onji, or sounds, in traditional Japanese haiku and created that misconstrued but enduring template fleshy enough to support a traditional English syntax.

And while putting flesh on bones might be a useful metaphor for the construction of formal and free verse, contemporary English language haiku practice is often more akin to the trimming and polishing of bones to create a form where point of view, adjectives and even verbs may be dispensed with entirely. 

This 30 minute presentation will analyse examples of minimal, micro and monostich haiku from British and American practitioners and ask if the absence of the language choices and structures traditionally available to the poet results in an absence of poetry.

Since I was properly introduced to contemporary English language haiku around ten years ago I've been on a bit of a campaign: to try and restore some respect for the quietly spoken and often maligned haiku. But even the most successful campaigners have to accept the best advances are made gradually so I’ll be happy if you leave this room taking just two things with you today:

1.that syllable counting is not at all an essential element to writing haiku well, and 2. the plural of haiku is haiku (think sheep and fish).

Anything else you take away is gravy. And talking of metaphors…

Haiku have been described as ‘little pictures’, ‘moments frozen in time’, ‘one breath’ poems, ‘small epiphanies… Snapshots of the quotidian taken from unexpected angles… The tiniest of elegies. Breaths of emotion, some light, some dark[1].

More straightforwardly, contemporary English language haiku are short poems, mostly arranged in 3 lines, that use an image from the natural world to convey or express an emotion or feeling. But that fails to communicate the sense of wonder, or sudden shift of consciousness, or a new way of seeing that well-crafted haiku can offer.
The haiku’s non-identical twin form, the senryu, is similarly constructed but has traditionally been associated with human nature/social issues, but the difference between haiku and senryu in our contemporary world can often be blurred. So many, and so much, of our lives unravel in urban contexts. Is ‘end of the school year’ a seasonal reference to summer (in our hemisphere) or a human construct? And aren’t human beings part of the natural world anyway? So for the purpose of this presentation I’ll refer to all the poems as ‘haiku’. 

I’d like to blame Twitter whose 140 character restriction has resulted in millions of people writing the most banal statements in 5/7/5 syllable lines and hashtagging #haiku. And the woman who is gradually filling the world with cat haiku books – just take a look on Amazon. And people who write SciFaiku …

At the end of 2013 the BBC World Service invited me on air to comment on the winning entries in NASA’a haiku competition[2] organised to promote the MAVEN launch to Mars.

‘We don’t want you to be nice about these,’ the interviewer said to me. That was a relief. There were over 12,000 entries: an enthusiasm for poetry writing that was only eclipsed by the staggering absence of any poetry. Here are two I like to call, ‘It’s haiku, Jim, but not as we know it …’

It’s funny, they named
Mars after the God of War
Have a look at Earth  

United Kingdom                       

Maven’s engineers
write in binary while we
count some syllables.        

Connecticut, USA

I'm pleased that responsibility for these lies on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the responsibility for the widely accepted 5/7/5 syllable count travels further back in time to 19th and early 20th century translators[3] of original Japanese classical haiku who counted their 17 sounds (some of which were grammatical suffixes, sounded punctuation, or attitudinal instructions to pause, express wonder), noted their internal three-part structure, and set about reproducing them in English. And creating what I like to call ‘winter duvet’ versions (i.e. a few togs too many) and eliminating any poetry of suspension and suggestion.

The 5/7/5 structure of haiku has been further enshrined into consciousness by primary school teachers hammering syllable recognition into the fresh little brains of their charges[4].

But contemporary understanding of the differences between Japanese and English suggests that 12 syllables, or less, would create a haiku of similar effect. (E.g. the one syllable English word ‘bone’ would have 3 japanese on – bo/n/e.) 

But that’s not to say effective haiku can’t be written according to that formula.

mid-winter evening     
alone at the sushi bar –
just me and this eel

Billy Collins [5]

Collins, known more for his exceptionally popular collections of free-verse, explains that he counts syllables not out of any allegiance to tradition but because I want the indifference and inflexibility of a seventeen-syllable limit to balance my self-expressive yearning. With the form in place, the art of composition becomes a negotiation between one’s subjective urges and the rules of order.[6] Sonnet writers might use a similar argument.

To be fair, he has created a haiku where I can’t detect any superfluity, no words squeezed in to pack out a predetermined shape. It’s constructed from 2 enjambed lines (that we’ll refer to as a phrase), a break, and a single line (that we’ll call a fragment). The break, marked at the end of the second line with a dash, is a feature of classical haiku called a kire.  In Japanese haiku that break would have been illustrated by a kire-ji – a ‘cutting’ word, like ya.

Collins’ haiku features a particular season and scene, adds gentle irony with a precise observation. The break or kire is a kind of structural support and creates a juxtaposition of the two parts. There is no explicit comparison, but some kind of relationship is suggested. What does it mean? What is the language doing? Let’s come back to meaning and the reader’s interpretation of a text later on. For now I want to ask: is haiku poetry?

So what is poetry?
Perhaps the most straightforward definition of written poetry is ‘words shaped on the page to have a particular effect on a reader’. The Collins haiku and the ones I’m about to show you use the page’s white space in the same way as the majority of poems. But what of language, what of content? Haiku’s brevity, apparent simplicity and its associations with Zen and nature have contributed to a reputation that often demotes it from the realm of literature to the levels of  banal description, aphorism or pop-philosophy. Its misleading democratic accessibility (after all, who can’t count syllables and fill in the blanks?) has created a genre of pithy idea. punchline or a quick-fix poetry languishing in cliché. 

And I have to admit that reading through dozens of journals and anthologies preparing for this paper I often found myself cheering from the ‘absence of poetry’ camp, almost convinced I would turn up today not to praise haiku but to bury it! But that’s a fate familiar to any poetry journal editor or poetry competition adjudicator, regardless of the form: there tends to be a fraction of good work amongst swathes of mediocrity or poverty. Let’s rise to the top of the pile.

Some of haiku’s absences are immediately obvious: titles, little or no punctuation, upper-case letters. Others relate to their language choices: an absence of opacity and explicit figurative language. But that’s not to say they lack the ability to resonate.

the girl we didn’t like
with fireflies in her hair

Harriot West [7]         

finally getting
the why of loneliness - 
bright sun on ice

Lorin Ford [8]

Both of these haiku are constructed of two parts; they use juxtaposition; they use language that’s familiar. And they contain a precise or concise perception or observation.

‘Image as a vehicle for idea or theme’ is something I’ve spoken a lot about in my years of teaching both poetry and prose. I’m not claiming any originality of thought here only expression. I acknowledge Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’: objects, situations or events that evoke an emotion. Poet Robert Hass talks about the ‘power of the image… the implicit idea that anything can contain everything.[9]’ And what Henry James says in his ‘Art of Fiction’: The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implications of things.[10]

The source of James’ quote feels particularly appropriate for West’s haiku (a fragment, dusk, followed by a phrase over two lines) which manages to create a succinct narrative with its suggestion of backstory and reflection in lines 2 and 3.

Dusk: a time suspended between dark and light. Entre chien et le loup as the French say, ‘between dog and wolf’, between two states, between two perceptions. None of that is told to me. But the word’s juxtaposition (through line break rather than being specifically marked) with the following two lines asks me to try and make sense, to pull on strands of meaning, for me to interpret and interact with the text. I shift from a state of neither darkness nor light, to the darkness of memory and a suggested ostracising, to the image of literal light – fireflies – and maybe the metaphorical light too of ‘insight/understanding’.

Innate or ‘distilled metaphor’[11] is often the way haiku communicate. They demand the reader’s attention to the imagined.

Lorin Ford’s haiku combines statement and image – a phrase (finally getting the why of loneliness) and a fragment (bright sun on ice) and explicitly marks the juxtaposition with a dash.
I find this haiku less transparent than West’s. The statement, the why of loneliness, doesn’t give itself up immediately. There’s an air of mystery/obliqueness and I find myself going back to the beginning after the fragment in the final line, asking myself how and why the image of bright sun on ice informs the statement. Does it inform the loneliness? Or does it inform the narrator’s understanding/ clarity of thought – the finally getting? And what about that expression: finally getting? Does the use of the vernacular distance the haiku from its poetic function? Or does it anchor the haiku to familiar experience?

There’s an element of subjectivity in the appreciation of any poem. What if Ford had written:

finally getting
bright sun on ice

For me there’s a barrenness to the haiku now – a loss of poetry from both the rhythm of the why of loneliness and the semantic interest created by the unusual questioning of an abstract state. I’d be even less satisfied by loneliness sitting on a line of its own too, proselytising its abandonment, waving at the reader to notice it.

But let's ask the question: how much can you successfully pare away from an already brief form and still make poetry? 

pig and i spring rain

Marlene Mountain [12]

American poet, Marlene Mountain, has been experimenting with single line or ‘monostich’ haiku since the late 1960s and this is one of her most anthologised.

From a formal aspect there’s a seasonal reference, what’s known as a kigo in the Japanese classical tradition, with spring rain. There’s a natural caesura, or breath pause, after pig and i: an invitation to consider its juxtaposition with spring rain. From a semantic point of view: pig and i is a more formal choice than ‘me and the pig’. And pig rather than ‘the pig’ creates a kind of archetypal pig, something more than a specific farmyard oink.

Use of the lower case personal pronoun is quite common in contemporary EL haiku: the argument for it is often the dilution of personal ego - but there’s too much of a whiff of Zen in that for me. And it’s an argument that feels contradictory too: a lower case i seems to draw even more attention to itself than the standard upper case, which we’re so familiar with we hardly notice it (as long as it’s not overused). But here I’m actually in favour of the lower case for the parallel it appears to draw between the pig and the narrator, both as equals in the spring rain, on the balanced see-saw-like single line.

pig and i – spring rain

But … is the prettiness/tentativeness of spring rain making me see the pig, probably the least pretty of animals, (and the haiku) through rose-tinted spectacles? Someone else would have to analyse and argue for that case.  
Poet, Jane Hirshfield, describes haiku as a single moment’s precise perception and resinous depth.[13]

That’s what Anita Virgil’s haiku[14] feels like for me:

not seeing
the room is white
until that red apple

The uncompromising attention to the images (white room/red apple) creates, for me, the same mood as William Carlos William’s ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, and was, perhaps, inspired by it. The lineation slows down the reader’s perception, reveals the scene in stages. Although the order the poet has chosen reverses the poet’s original experience (she saw the red apple and then noticed the white room).

But where would the surprise be for the reader in: after seeing the red apple I noticed the room was white. We need to have the apple stain, or illuminate, the whiteness of the room we have already entered to appreciate the contrast.

I think there’s a case here too for arguing the idea of MYTHIC RESONANCE in haiku. Apples and red apples echo Roman and Judeo-Christian myths; they’re the instruments of fairy tales. In a sense there’s a vertical dimension to haiku that exploit that potential: something that classical Japanese haiku explored fruitfully with literary and historical allusions, allusions that were often lost on a Western audience unfamiliar with the culture.

Staying with the Imagist influence:
 except the swing bumped by the dog in passing

Robert Grenier [15]   

Grenier’s single line, or monostich, haiku is an accumulation of image and movement out into the page. Breaking this into lines would introduce pause and stasis.

Any explicit mention of the swing’s motion is absent. And yet we see it. And perhaps we feel it too: the continuous present participle at the end of the line returns me to the beginning of the haiku each time I read it.

What is this moment? Why does it resonate? Something so precisely observed adds importance to it perhaps? I’m also struck by the unusual way it opens in media res as if we have walked in on this suddenly revealed moment where everything is still except…
Let’s remain with stillness (and transformation) with four words from Welsh born composer and poet, Hilary Tann[16] [17].

we become

In Creative Writing and Stylistics Jeremy Scott provides a framework for the stylistic analysis of poetry[18]. I’m always keen to put haiku to the same kind of rigorous tests I’d subject free verse to, or any other kind of poetry,[19] so I took one of my haiku and tied it to the ‘Scott Analysis’ rack.

Monday morning
we share
each other’s rain

This haiku [20] was published in the Financial Times in October last year, a winner in its Haiku at Work weekly competition. Unusually for haiku competitions run by non-specialist organisations (remember the haiku crimes committed in the NASA competition), the adjudicator was a well-known haiku poet and critic, Jim Kacian, founder of The Haiku Foundation in the US, and someone committed to expanding the critical debate around haiku writing. So it was refreshing to read, each week, haiku that rose above the Twitter dross, haiku tempered by craft.

But back to the ‘Scott Analysis Rack’ where my haiku is gently stretching and let's apply some pressure. 

General Understanding: summarise it in a couple of sentences. What is it about?
It’s about that Monday morning feeling on a rainy day and travelling to work with other people on public transport.

Semantic analysis. Look for semantic deviation and relate this to your overall understanding in a. i.e. what the poem is about.
a. People don’t rain, so it’s initially illogical that they could share it with one another. The idea of people travelling together by bus or train isn’t directly stated but ‘Monday morning’ and the act of sharing something suggests people in close proximity so the idea is implicit.
b. The use of the 1st person plural creates community rather than an individual experience. The act of sharing something brings people closer. There’s togetherness rather than isolation

Grammatical patterning. Look for grammatical and syntactical patterns, structures that are deviant from ‘perceived linguistic norms’. Explain how these work in terms of what the poem is about.
a. There are two implied parts to the haiku: a fragment/ and a phrase over two lines. But certain words are foregrounded. With /share at the end of the second line the reader recognises the grammatical structure is incomplete. There’s a sense of hesitation in the line break before the ‘unexpected’ image of ‘each other’s rain’ on the next line.

Phonology. Patterns of rhyme, alliteration, assonance or other sound elements that can be related to what the poem is about.
a. Consonance and alliteration in Monday morning. And the eye rhyme of Mo/mo too.) There’s assonance in we/each. (These are unifying effects of sound that pull the poem together)
b. The first line is trochaic dimeter: Monday morning. The opening weight of those first syllables suggests heaviness. Compare that with the iambs in line 2 and 3: we share/ each other’s rain: which create a lighter rhythm, suggest, perhaps, a lightening of mood in the recognition of not being alone?

Graphology. Does the text deviate in any obvious way? Can these be connected back to what the poem is about?
a. No title. No punctuation. No capitalisation at the beginning line 2. (I did capitalise Monday as I felt it would draw more attention to itself with a lower case ‘m’.) Are these things just haiku being tricky? Do they contribute to what the poem is doing as a whole?
b. If every mark on the page matters to what a poem is doing then every absence should have a function too. If haiku are the smallest of lyric poems, moments of resonance captured on the page, then the absence of ‘noise’ should be considered. Suspension and suggestion can be railroaded by flamboyances: linguistic and graphological. Seven words interrupted by punctuation and unnecessary capitalisation would introduce pause and formality at odds to what the haiku is attempting to achieve: unity, a single moment of ordinariness made extraordinary. Resonance in the quotidian.

Monday morning
we share
each other’s rain

This hasn’t been an exercise to try and persuade you of this haiku’s brilliance. Although I am quite happy with it and for a poem of 7 words it took me longer to complete than you might think.

I wanted to illustrate that haiku can be, or should be, muscular enough to withstand scrutiny, close reading. And I also wanted to try and expunge their reputation as mainstream poetry’s country bumpkin cousin: naïve and embarrassing to have around in sophisticated company.

Let’s have a brief respite from text before I conclude:

Barnett Newman
Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? 1966
I can’t help but draw an analogy between colour field painting and haiku. The ‘apparent’ simplicity of what’s on the canvas and what’s on the page. How the divisions/juxtapositions seem to suggest something to us; the invitation to the viewer/reader to participate in meaning.

Writing and reading haiku
One of the problems I identify within the haiku writing community is to do with form: there’s a tendency to default to the popular phrase and fragment or fragment and phrase structure rather than consider each haiku individually.

Another problem I identify is also to do with form: poets who only write haiku and nothing else – no other type of poetry or prose – and seem to believe that haiku can say everything they have to say. Hey - if a sonnet can’t be a universal voice then a haiku has no chance at it.

Haiku practitioners writing unconsciously, rather than making conscious craft choices, can lead other poets to think of haiku as ‘a poetry of quick-fix or shortcut, a neat pre-emption of failure to think further and really explore what language can do.’[21]

Although perhaps an equal amount of responsibility lies with the reader of haiku. Our 21st century society cultivates a culture of noise and activity, a culture that can easily overlook the intrinsic power of the ‘small’ and the ‘quiet’. One of our top poets is alleged to have said that reading a haiku collection or anthology is like being beaten to death with a swan’s feather.

And I have a certain amount of empathy! But perhaps that’s to do with the way we read? Can we slow down? Create the space around us for a single haiku to speak rather than rushing from page to page before its words have had a chance to find a place in us, like a crow settling on a bare branch on an autumn evening[22].

I’ll close with one more haiku I recently came across that challenged my idea of what is and isn’t possible in such an economic form.

Until I read it I’d have bet good money that any attempt at political or social statement in haiku would be an abject failure: an overstated soap-box mini-rant. But this one works for me: it makes me think and laugh, wonder and despair. I‘m not going to spend any time analysing it: at this point I’m handing over to you, the readers. Let it work quietly on you before you come to any firm opinions. Hold it in your head. Some might accuse it of cleverness or banality, or of there being an absence of poetry altogether. But what about you? Is there space for you in it, among the 9 syllables of its 5 words?  

America –
you and
that pizza

Steve Sanfield [23] 

Thank you.

[1] David Cobb, Foreword, The Humours of Haiku (Iron Press 2012)
[5] Collins, Billy, She Was Just Seventeen, Modern Haiku Press, Lincoln IL USA 2006
[6] Introduction, Haiku in English, The First 100 Years, eds Kacian, Rowland, Burns, WW Norton & Co, NY & London 2013
[7] Kacian, Jim, Rowland, Philip, Burns, Allan eds., Haiku in English, The First Hundred Years, WW Norton & Co 2013
[9] Roadrunner November 2007 Issue VII:4
[11] Scott, Jeremy, Creative Writing and Stylistics, Creative and Critical Approaches, Palgrave Macmillan 2013, p.179
[12] Haiku in English, Ibid
[13] The Heart of Haiku, Kindle Single, Amazon Media 2011
[14] Van Den Heuvel, Cor, ed., The Haiku Anthology, 3rd edition, WW Norton & Co, 2000
[15] Haiku in English, Ibid
[19]  ‘Going organic: line break in free form haiku’: an analysis of how line break choices available to the free verse poet can be effectively applied to haiku.
[20] Financial Times, ‘Haiku at Work’, Thursday 24th October 2014
[21] Rowland, Philip, ‘From Haiku to the Short Poem: Bridging the Divide’, white lies, Red Moon Anthology of English Language Haiku (Red Moon Press, Winchester VA, USA 2009)
[22] Bashō’s (Matsuo Kinsaku 1644-1694) famous haiku: on a bare branch/a solitary crow/ autumn evening (Narrow Road to the Interior and other Writings, Translated by Sam Hamill, Shambhala Boston & London 2000)


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