Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part II PDF Print E-mail

Reinventing The Wheel:
The Fly Who Thought He Was a Carabao

by Robert D. Wilson
 

There is a folk story in the Philippines about a fly who thought he was taller than a carabao (water buffalo). Bored with the normal routine indigenous to being a fly, a young fly one day flew away from his home in a dung heap near a pig farmer’s house to see what the world had to offer. Tired, after flying for what seemed like forever, which to a human is not far at all, the young fly decided to land, get his bearing, and rest, as the sun was about to set. He saw a black splotch and decided that’d be a safe place to land. Unlike the dung heap where he’d lived, his landing strip was furry and soft.

When the young fly woke up in the morning, the world seemed tiny compared to the world he usually woke up to. He didn’t know he’d landed on the back of a sleeping carabao. The carabao was standing now, slowly walking to the rice fields, pulled by a young brown skinned human child. “How can I move,” wondered the little black fly, “without using my wings?”

In the rice field, there were three carabao waiting to be yoked. Looking down at the carabao, and since he’d been transformed once before from a lowly maggot into a winged fly, the fly thought he’d been transformed into a giant fly, taller than the carabao.

The sea darkens ---       umi kurete
Faintly white                     honokani shiroshi
A wild duck’s call            kamo no koe

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Makoto Ueda

The Japanese poetic genre, haiku, became popular in the Western Hemisphere due largely to the influence of the poet, Gary Snyder, who, in turn, influenced Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and other Beat poets to write haiku. Snyder was an avid outdoorsman who taught himself Zen meditation techniques, and had been a student at U.C. Berkeley, where he studied Asian culture and language. At the time he met Kerouac, via Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and Gregory Corso, he was a part time student at The American Academy of Asian Studies where Alan Watts and Japanese Modernist painter, Saburo Hasegawa, were teaching. At this school, under the tutelage of Hasegawa, he learned that painting could be used as a stimulus and portal to meditation.  Snyder applied this same concept in writing poetry. He saw haiku as a Zen poetic form that would adapt well to Hasegawa’s theory regarding meditation. He began a serious study of haiku using the writings of R.H. Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda as guides. Later he would travel to Japan and convert to Buddhism.

Snyder encouraged his Beat friends to study the writings of R.H. Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda, as books in English about haiku in the 1950s were few and far between, including English-language translations of poetry penned by the genre’s founding poets. Snyder saw in these books a poetry bathed in Zen, with a belief system that’d free him from the status quo he no longer was buying. Zen was a gateway to a metaphysical world that was whatever he wanted to paint; a liberation that was, in reality, an illusion his mind created; the is and isn’t, co-captains on a flight with Captain Kirk on the US airship, LSD.

Snyder is not a great haiku poet and, although he credits haiku as having a big influence on his poetry and mindset, he didn’t write a lot of haiku, preferring, instead, to write free verse, which he excels at. He credits the Imagist poets, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, as important influences on his style of writing.

The following two haiku by Snyder are subjective (object-biased) and focus on objects instead of on the process. They say nothing profound, and leave little to the imagination, being concrete, precise, and succinct (rules advocated by the Imagist movement.).

They didn’t hire him

                 So he ate his lunch alone:

The noon whistle

 

A truck went by

                         Three hours ago:

Smoke Creek desert

 

An example of what Snyder called haiku, which is anything but a haiku:

pissing
watching
a waterfall

This incomplete sentence, far from being a poem in any form, lacks juxtaposition, metric rhythm, and literally tells all, which is the antithesis of haiku; which, out of necessity and purpose, due to its economy of words, describes and hints at. It’s also something a 6th grade student might say to another boy in prepubescent jest.

Studying Blyth’s four book series on haiku, Snyder saw a haiku-like connection between some non-haiku poetry, which Snyder was drawn to, and haiku, as explained by R.H. Blyth, Kenneth Yasuda, Harold Henderson, and two professors at the American Academy of Asian Studies. 

Many intellectuals in the West, especially those involved with the arts and philosophy, were tired of what they perceived was a watering down of thought and art; and the cloning of individuality. Influenced by Imagist poetry, Modernist poetry, haiku, the writings of Suzuki, the defining of aesthetics and thought by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and other outspoken Western intellectuals from the German-based university system, they were open to change. Armed with what they thought was a renaissance of thought and the seeds to recreate culture to their intellectual satisfaction, many in the Beat movement and other free thinkers perceived a likeness between some of the genres of Western poetry (primarily free verse Imagist) and haiku. The time was right for the beatification of thinking that would stretch boundaries, and forge new paths via exotic cogitation, especially the Zen of it is and it isn’t, where man tuned in, turned on, and turned off  . . . which Dr. Timothy Leary, a friend of Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, used as an invitation to anyone who would listen, to pass go, purchase pure U.C. Berkeley laboratory grade LSD (a friend of mine was one of Leary’s chemists), and receive instant nirvana without an ounce of effort. The West, beginning with The United States, was entering into a social upheaval that would dethrone Ed Sullivan, The Saturday Evening Post and Norman Rockwell as society’s spokesmen, and replace them with Mr. Natural, Toulouse-Lautrec, The Beatles, W. C. Fields, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Purple Haze acid, with strychnine thrown in as a cost cutting measure.

Prior to this, in Japan, towards the end of the 19th century, artists and intellectuals had grown tired of centuries old traditions, the follow-the-leader herd mentality that’d pervaded the Japanese cultural landscape before opening up its borders to Western influence in the latter part of the Meiji Era. When the borders were opened, a love affair with almost anything Western rose up like a brush fire out of control. Students studied in France, Germany, and some in America. Japan’s Kyoto University, called by some the Yale of Japan, adopted the German-based University System and taught aesthetics from the Western point of view. Translations of European and North American poetry and novels were suddenly available. The extent of this influence was the atom bomb to Japanese thought and tradition. Soon, other Japanese universities would follow suit, inundating Japanese thought to a point near extinction, if Japan could not find a relevant way to teach these subjects in their tongue, and to rise above the o-hum of tradition and unquestioned norms. As a twixt of fate, many in the United States were equally hungry for the alternative mindset Japan and China propagated via religion, art, poetry, etc.  

Wrote Professor Michael F. Marra in his book Japan’s Frames of Meaning,

. . . “so much of modern Japan --- including the university system and modern organizations of knowledge -- were built on German models. Western hermeneutics had a profound impact on how philology, religion, history, and the humanities came to be articulated in Japan. In other words, whatever goes under the umbrella of Japanese literature, art, religion, history, philosophy, and so on would not exist in its modern form without the paradigms that hermeneutics provided in forcing Japanese authors to talk about Japan with a language that was originally devised for interpreting the Bible."

In doing so, there arose many misunderstandings between the West and Japan, some of which still exist today. The Japanese language wasn’t a suitable vehicle to express, debate, or define their own philosophy and aesthetics, let alone to do the same with Western ideas and theories.

Enamored with haiku and Zen, Blyth, who resided in Japan, saw haiku as an expression of Zen, denying the relevance of any significant contribution to the genre via Shinto, which he called primitive (a biased insult to the Japanese people who have blended Shinto and Zen into a conglomerate religion that expresses their collective cultural landscape and memories.).

Added Blyth, “Taoism was animistic to a strong superstitious (shamanistic) degree. Confucianism, a yet stronger influence in Japan, as providing something lacking in the Japanese character, loved ritual rather than living creatures, and affected only the unsavably [the publisher’s typo, not mine]un-poetical people . . .”

Blyth displayed an archaic colonist respect for the religious heritage of the Japanese or Chinese peoples save for Buddhism, which he interspersed with a love-hate combination of misinterpreted biblical scripture, and the morality that colored his cultural memory.

Blyth went on to state, “The Japanese, not in any case a nation of philosophers . . . “

Philosophy defined: The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence when considered as an academic discipline.

A nation without philosophers is a nation without thinkers. The Japanese have many philosophers. Their language, as I previously stated, was not equipped to transfer their philosophy into words that would explain to the West what their philosophical conceptualizations meant. Japanese aesthetics and philosophy were inbred, and a part of the Japanese culture. Japan is, and was a nation with fine minds and great thinkers. With their doors closed to Western influence, the need for the Japanese language to express to others the meaning of their philosophy, etc. was moot. Now that the doors had opened, the nation as a whole had to rethink their belief systems and traditions, and find a way to express this body of thought to themselves and to those in the West.

In Blyth’s four haiku book series, his view of haiku is more Western than Asian. He saw haiku in poems written by Wordsworth, Shelley, Thoreau, Keats, and other poets popular in America and England.

Wrote Blyth, “There were elements in the character of Keats which prevented him from writing much haiku poetry.”

Keats didn’t write haiku poetry nor did he claim to. Opined Blyth, “Of Wordsworth, it is not necessary to say anything. To The Cuckoo, The Glow-worm, The Green Linnet, A Poet’s Epitaph, To My Sister, and a dozen others are full of the spirit of haiku and nothing else. In the poetry of Wordsworth and that of haiku there is this seemingly unimportant, but deeply significant common element; that the most ordinary people, those to whom Buddha preached and for whom Christ died, are able, if they will, to see it.”

Blyth and Yasuda’s writing exerted a great influence upon Gary Snyder and those he came into contact with; an influence tainted with modernist misconceptions, colonial  thought, a lack of understanding and/or agreement between Japan and the West regarding the definitions of many aesthetic and philosophical terms and theories.

Snyder meeting Kerouac was a momentous occasion that started a domino effect, setting into motion a series of events and connections that would, in time, affect the Northern Hemisphere politically, spiritually, and sociologically. Had Snyder not met Jack Kerouac via Allen Ginsberg, and influenced him in regards to Zen Buddhism and haiku, haiku probably wouldn’t have caught on with the number of people it did.

Kerouac’s book Dharma Bums, published in 1958, a year after his seminal book On the Road, was published by Viking Press, introduced Kerouac’s conceptualization of Zen Buddhism and haiku to America’s youth and disaffected intellectuals. On the Road, describing Kerouac’s wild toad ride from the East Coast to San Francisco with Neal Cassady, was an instant hit with America’s restless youth who were disillusioned with the Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post/wear a skinny black tie and starched white shirt to church/Joe McCarthy/look alike/talk alike/ the commies are coming/ oops, there goes the neighborhood/Reader’s Digest/brusha brusha, new Ipana toothpaste/Marlborough Country/Burma Shave mindset of their parents and neighbors, who they felt had forgotten how to think, thus becoming puppets of the marionette master, Captain Kangaroo.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is credited with planting the seeds that lead to the hippie/free love/turn off, tune in, and turn on socio-revolution in the mid 1960’s that changed the face of North America and its allies, forever. Thus the reception for Kerouac’s Dharma Bums was guaranteed.

“i see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up into the mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em zen lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures"

Dharma Bums loosely chronicles Ray Smith’s (Kerouac) friendship with Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder). Japhy is portrayed as a mad lunatic Zen monk who’s seen the flame of truth and introduces Ray Smith (who is the narrator in the book) to Zen Buddhism, haiku, and a mindset he felt let his soul out of jail. Jack Kerouac was a gifted writer who wrote the way he spoke, free from literary constraints, with a free flowing stream of consciousness his readers perceived as genuine and in tune with their disaffection. In Dharma Bums

"-- colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization."

Kerouac wrote a few good haiku, which he included in his Book of Haikus. He was a natural writer and able to write almost anything at the drop of the hat, but to call him a serious student of haiku because he wrote a few hundred haiku, would be an untruth. The haiku he wrote and talked about in Dharma Bums were largely influenced by the teachings of R. H. Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda, thus rapidly spreading Blyth and Yasuda’s influence regarding haiku, flawed as it was, to a huge audience.

Wrote Kerouac,
"The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don't think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again . . . bursting to pop.

Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella."

The rain has filled              4

     the birdbath                   3

Again, almost                     4

 

In my medicine cabinet      8

   the winter fly                       4

has died of old age             5

 

late afternoon--                  4

the mop is drying              5

on the rock                         3

Jack Kerouac
Book of Haikus

“’Look over there,’sang Japhy [Gary Snyder], ‘yellow aspens. Just put me in the mind of a haiku . . . A real haiku's gotta be simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing, like the greatest haiku of them all probably is the one that goes 'The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet.' by Shiki. You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet in those few words you also see all the rain that's been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles.(A good description of Masaoka Shiki’s shasei style of haiku mixed in with Imagist thinking.)

Jack Kerouac
Dharma Bums

The Beats weren’t a disciplined lot, nor a cultural substrata that took kindly to formulaic artistic expressions. Many led nomadic lifestyles, their brains often under the influence of  “something.” They were “on the road,” expanding horizons, trying this and that, grocery shopping in the market of now; sampling, tasting, and creolizing what they liked most into their own frames of mind. Needless to say, with few exceptions, the Beat poets were nomads; yet, it was through their experimentation, open-mindedness, and thirst for knowledge, coupled with others with a poetic leaning (my father was one of them), that sowed the seeds that fostered and stimulated the birth of the Western English-language haiku movement. 

Kerouac’s haiku was far from earth shattering. He didn’t follow the traditional S/L/S metric schemata indigenous to haiku and lacked a solid understanding of the genre apart from what he’d speed read through in R. H. Blyth’s four book set on Haiku, and Kenneth Yasuda’s The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, with Selected Examples, coupled with conversations with Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth. With the exception of the second haiku, the one above and below are simple object-biased statements, focused on objects versus the process of becoming or changing. The second haiku about the winter fly is a good haiku, and indicative of what Kerouac could have done and improved upon if he were to have taken the genre seriously.

In a haiku, the object takes a back seat to the process taken to form a clear intuitive mental impression of the object(s) and to one’s emotive reactions.

Wrote Professor Haruo Shirane in Traces of Dreams,

“The ’unchanging’ implied the need to seek the’truth of poetic art’ (fuga no makoto), particularly in the poetic and spiritual tradition, to engage in the vertical axis, while the’ever changing’ referred to the need for constant change and renewal, the source of which was ultimately to be found in everyday life, in the horizontal axis.”

Jack Kerouac, like the other Beat poets, tested the waters for a while but found a better reception for long free verse poetry. Zen was “in” towards the end of the 1950’s with a lot of young people, thanks to the writings of Snyder, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, and the transcendental aura that experimentation with psychedelics induced; a mindset that blossomed during the mid-sixties into the Hippie social revolution. Blyth’s connection with Zen and his belief that haiku was an expression of Zen came at an opportune time.“… haiku is an aspect of Zen; that haiku is Zen, Zen directed to certain selected natural phenomena.”

With the advent of the television, American students were no longer buying carte blanche the Stepford herd mentality. They no longer read the news, they saw the news, heard the news; a generation that was sense-oriented, the new media stripping away the isolation America harbored, esteeming itself  as the bastion of democracy and all that’s right: Norman Rockwell’s America, Reader’s Digest America, Joe McCarthy’s America, Love it or Leave it America; its flag a god unquestioned like the Emperor of Japan was thought of until he was forced to sign and promulgate publicly the announcement that he was just a man, and not a Shinto deity.

By chance, fate, and timing, R.H. Blyth and, to a lesser degree, Kenneth Yasuda, played a pivotal role in influencing and shaping the North American haiku mind outside of the classroom. This influence is larger today than ever before.

Wrote Haruo Shirane in his book Traces of Dreams, “R.H. Blyth believed that reading and composing haiku was a spiritual experience in which poet and nature were united.  Zen, which becomes indistinguishable from haiku in much of Blyth’s writing, was ‘a state of mind in which we are not separated from other things, are indeed identical with them, and yet retain our own individuality.’ Haiku is the appreciation of a thing by a realization of our own original and essential unity with it.’’

Wrote Blyth in The History of Haiku, Volume One, “There is no separation between the thing and its meaning, no finding the universal in particular natural objects, or human beings.”

This is a belief many of us subscribed to during the psychedelic 60’s. We’d drop acid (lysergic acid diethylamide) and wait for time and existence to melt into a now without boundaries, where mind and matter undulated in sensual intercourse, and what is, the canvas painted with illusions Buddhas dreamt in daydreams while awake.

Blyth’s assessment that haiku “is the appreciation of a thing . . .” is biased conjecture and inaccurate, reflecting the influence on him by the Imagists and his negative reaction to Japanese Modernists who were, at the time, going through an artistic identity crisis, having a deep infatuation with Western thought that lasted decades, and set into motion a tide of restless disdain for Japan’s poetic heritage.

Haiku is event-biased. It cannot have as its focus an object or objects.

R.H. Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda (influenced by Masoaka Shiki, who, in turn, was influenced by Western philosophy and aesthetics, especially impressionism) conceptualized haiku as a poetic genre centered around a concrete object which unveils its true self via the “haiku moment,” that magical rabbit-pops-out-of-the-hat-and-hands- the-poet-a-pass-that-allows them-to pass go-and-collect the big aha!

The heart and soul of haiku

Informed haiku poets realize the importance of zoka (nature’s creative spirit), which is never static, constantly changing, constructing, deconstructing and renewing itself in what Shirane refers to as the “horizontal axis.”

Once nature’s removed from a haiku, it seizes to be a haiku. Without zoka, words are just words, objects are just objects, everything static and unmoving like a still-borne child.

Zoka is the creative force of nature that creates, de-creates, and recreates the cultural landscape and nature as we experience it. Zoka is not an entity but a force. Without zoka, haiku is meaningess. True haiku cannot be contrived or subjectively sculpted to support one’s personal mindset. It’s a poet’s conversation and interaction with a force that can’t be harnessed nor controlled or conjured up in a magical “aha” moment that causes an event to happen NOW; the poet and the object of nature becoming one. 

Nature is more than words to include in haiku and tanka. Nature is more than postcard views and beautiful flowers. Wrote Professor David Landis Barnhill in his essay The Creative in Basho’s View of Nature and Art,

“The creative animates all things, and in doing so, gives them the beauty of flower and moon. Life is animated by a divine breath, which unifies all things in a single cosmic vitality, yet makes all things distinct. Nature is ever-shifting, and these transformations --- of each moment and through the four seasons, are the flourishing of life. They give rise to deep feelings and to outstanding art. The artist, and every cultured person, should return to this cosmic creativity, recognize its beauty, and follow its movements.”

the winter sun ---
on the horse’s back
my frozen shadow

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Makoto Ueda

 

What does it mean to “enter into a subject” in order to write true haiku?

Posits Professor Shirane, “. . . to follow the fundamental movement of nature and the universe and to realize the creative forces of the universe within oneself.  If, as [Basho’s] Backpack Notes observes, the artist follows the Creative [Zoka] and ‘makes a friend of the four seasons,’ a movement governed by Zoka, the artist will respond to the movement and rhythm of nature, especially of the seasons, which provide constant inspiration for poetry and art.”

Wrote Matsuo Basho regarding zoka,

“The fundamental spirit that stands at the root of Saigyo’s poetry, Sogi’s linked verse, Sesshu’s paintings, Rikyu’s practice of tea is one and the same.  Those who practice such arts follow the Creative and make the four seasons their friends. What one sees cannot but be cherry blossoms; what one thinks cannot but be the moon. When the shape is not the cherry blossoms, one is no different from an animal. Leave the barbarians, depart from the animals, follow the Creative, return to the Creative!” (Nihon koten bungaku zenshu 41:311).

Haiku poets don’t create in the same context as the zoka. One cannot speak an object into being simply by giving it a name. Zoka exists and is not dependent on anyone or anything. When a poet includes a kigo in a haiku, it’s not a symbolic gesture, where a poet robotically adds a kigo to his or her poem in order to make the poem a haiku. This inclusion of a kigo is ersatz; of no value to the poem. It’s adhering to a poetic dictum to authenticate something that isn’t understood, thus watering down a poem’s depth and the connection it must have between the said and unsaid. In essence, this forms a barrier between zoka and object, between the creator and the created. During renga tournaments, public events, this was a different matter. The tournaments were thematic and not dependent on one’s experience with the chosen theme, or whether or not it’s fictional or nonfictional.

The use of kigo in Western haiku is poorly understood and blurred. This is due in part to inaccurate exegesis, inaccessibility to ancient manuscripts, a researcher’s inability to read ancient Japanese Yamato text, a lack of familiarity with how the Japanese utilized Chinese characters in their prose and poetry, poor teaching, and/or lacking a deep understanding of the Japanese cultural memory and cultural landscape. Every kigo word had a specific meaning which all proficient poets were expected to know. The usage of words had to subscribe to the dictates of teachers and tradition. Japanese poets were highly skilled in hiding dissident political statements within the context of specific kigo, which had more than one meaning. Poetry in Imperial Japan was often used for this purpose.

As an example, read the following waka (tanka), authored by Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) that was included in the Kokin Wakashu, the first Imperial anthology of Japanese poetry, translated by Professor Helen Craig McCullough:

Longer than ever before                 Saku hana noo
Is the wisteria’s shadow ---             Shita ni aururu    
How many are those                      Hito omi
Who shelter beneath                     Arishi ni Masaru
Its blossoms!                                  Fuji no kage ka mo

On first reading this poem, it appears to be a pretty nature poem. Due to the textural complexity indigenous to the Japanese language and the Japanization of the Chinese language, a kigo can have more than one meaning. What a word means overtly can mean something else covertly. Though beautiful with colorful spring blossoms, a wisteria is a vine that overcomes and strangles other plants. The character for wisteria was the same one used to write the name of the Japanese ruling family during the time of this tanka’s writing, Fuji. The Fujiwara Family’s name translated means: field of wisterias.

The author’s surname, Ariwara, translated means: the field of the past.  Writes Professor Michael F. Marra in his book Seasons and Landscapes of Japanese Poetry,

“In this poem, the poet Ariwara no Nahira, who was also a victim of Fujiwara power despite his direct decent from an Emperor, complains about the fact that everybody is now allying with the powerful field of wisterias, and forgetting about the past glory of his own family, Ariwara, which literally means: the field of the past.”

When a Westerner composes a haiku, he or she isn’t bound by these cultural distinctions. The weather in America is similar as is the flora and fauna. Western usage of kigo isn’t bound or dictated by tradition nor is kigo used to transmit information. Authenticity is pertinent to haiku. To compose a haiku about cherry blossoms from one’s home in the Arizona Desert would be a far stretch unless, of course, one has encountered cherry blossoms before in another place. The kigo used by Westerners need to reflect their cultural and landscape memories.

When one shuts out the individual subjective illusions that comprise human thought and tunes into the five senses, the mind becomes receptive to the unsaid and its connection to the exteriority of what on the surface appears to be a simple three-line poem, utilizing a vowel specific economy of words.

a late summer cicada
at the top of his voice
chirping, and chirping

Shiki

If one takes into context the origin of haiku, a different picture develops than what Blyth and Yasuda had painted. Haiku originally was part of linked verse (renga) and as such, the emphasis of haiku was not placed on a direct “aha” haiku moment where one obtains a momentary oneness with a thing or things. Instead, the purpose of linking was to provide a bridge that leads from one world to another, like when a person goes to an amusement park . . . a world where reality and imagination link together to form worlds, real or otherwise, that hadn’t been experienced before: Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and so on, in a continuum of time, one experience affecting the other, always changing, never a snapshot, or a glimpse of a singular “aha.”

As Professor Shirane points out in his essay American Haiku and Myths, the world the participants in the haiku sequence (renga) created was imaginary: the linking of more than one participant’s contribution and illusion, subjective and objective; a group activity. “The basic idea of linked verse was to create a new and unexpected world out of the world of the previous verse. One could compose about one's daily life, about being an official in China, about being a warrior in the medieval period, or an aristocrat in the ancient period. The other participants in the haikai sequence joined you in that imaginary world or took you to places that you could reach with your imagination. In short, linked verse, both orthodox linked verse (renga) and its comic or casual version (haikai), were fundamentally imaginary.” 

The composition of a haiku is not dependent upon a moment, as Kenneth Yasuda and R.H. Blyth stressed, based on the now, what some in the West refer to as the “aha” moment of illumination! What is now? By the time one composes a haiku reflecting the now and reading and rereading it until it has the right cadence and sound, the now is long gone.

Haiku can be inspired by something from the past such as a memory:

At sunset this fall
Evening, I wrote on a wall:
I’ve gone on ahead

Kobayashi Issa
Translated by Sam Hamill

A haiku can also be a reworking, revisioning, or a response mitate of another’s poem, like Buson did with Basho’s famous poem:

By the old pond 
A frog ages –
Fallen leaves

Yosa Buson
Translated by Paul Elliott

The old pond ---
A frog jumps in,
water’s sound

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Makoto Ueda
 

Haiku can even speculate about the future such as:

Two cranes, side by side,
Forage on, unwittingly.
One will soon be dead

Kobayashi Issa
Translated by Sam Hamill

 

“There is no separation between the thing and its meaning, no finding the universal in particular natural objects, or human beings.”

This is veiled religious proselytism. Japanese aesthetics are essential tools in the formation of a haiku but one needn’t think like a Zen Buddhist to write a quality haiku. Had Blyth done his homework, he would have known better than to label haiku a Zen genre requiring writers of haiku to think like a Zen Buddhist. We don’t need to become one with a tree, a frog, the moon, or something else in Nature. What individuals conceive in their minds are individual allusions based upon cultural memory, education, experience, etc. It, therefore, is impossible to become one with an object in nature, as subjectivity defines what they see and feel.

 

A haiku can serve as a greeting

Writes Professor Sonja Arntzen, in the introduction to the new book she co-authored with Naomi Beth Wakan, Double Take,

“I would suggest one reason for why short forms have had such a long life in Japan was the role they played in communication. If most members of society are going to compose poetry for impromptu exchange in day to day communication, it is simply better if the poems are short.”

A haiku recognizes that nothing is static; that everything’s in motion, and continually constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing. Nothing stays as it is. The Japanese see poems differently than their Western counterparts.

To the Japanese, fixed meanings are non-existent. A poem can mean one thing, yet when combined with contrasting lines, a whole new meaning is formed. This is what a juxtaposition is, contrasting two opposites together to say something completely different; including the said and the unsaid, aware that words cannot express what isn’t said, unless they are incorporated into the poetic language that can say what prose cannot say.

For many adults in the object-biased West, juxtaposition doesn’t sound logical. “It either is or it isn’t.”  Ironically, as children, those with this mindset had no problem with what is or isn’t, their minds open, not blurred by subjectivity and the indoctrination of Western educational institutions, their zoka unrestrained, unafraid to paint, to draw, and sing. Inhibitions come later when they’re taught in school and by parents to see everything in black and white, to compare things with other people’s “things,” and to eventually compare themselves with others, closing their minds out of fear that they will not belong or be thought of as a loser . . . the West, a false reality fed to Westerners by the media who control what they see on television, hear on the radio, in the theater, on news broadcasts, music listened to, and much more . . . 1984 and the Stepford Children, dancers in a ballroom who keep their inner child locked up in closets they’ve lost the keys to.

Haiku and the haiku spirit offer poets and informed readers a path that will resurrect the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Brave Lion via the juxtaposition of Kansas and Oz . . . a world where thought isn’t regulated by insecure people with the need to be in charge.

Kenneth Yasuda’s aha moment is a myth. Time doesn’t stop still. One doesn’t write a haiku to see the light. He or she writes and reads a haiku as a greeting, a farewell, an exercise, a form of meditation, a transmission, a methodology to bring to light the unsaid. For many, the composition of a haiku is a serious avocation.

When I compose a haiku, I climb inside the poem, following the brush, the brush follows me, on a journey into the subconscious mind, where all my senses have been stripped, not searching for a magical apparition to appear out of nowhere, and hand me the whole enchilada on a silver plate, because, if one needs the magical aha to write a haiku, how come so much of today’s haiku written by well-known poets are anything but an aha?

J.W. Hackett, an early pioneer of American haiku and a devoted student of  Blyth’s teachings, wrote in The Way of Haiku in 1967, the year I graduated from high school,

“ . . . the best haiku are created from direct and immediate experience with nature, and this intuitive experience can be expressed in any language. In essence, I regard haiku as fundamentally existential and experiential, rather than literary.”

This statement influenced by R.H. Blyth cannot be academically substantiated unless a writer adheres to modern Western philosophical and aesthetic thought. To write about Japanese haiku one must wear the sandals of those that wrote the haiku. To do otherwise is to operate within a schizophrenic fog where one’s mindset defines another’s mindset.

Kenneth Yasuda is credited with introducing to English-language poets the concept of the experience-biased "haiku moment," which he claimed gives a poet the inspiration and motivation for writing a haiku. In essence, Yasuda claimed one had to think like a Zen Buddhist in order to write an authentic haiku.

If Western poets want to write quality haiku, they need to accept the fact that following a certain set of rules and using tools developed by the Japanese is important as the aforementioned are time-tried and established. Using these tools and adhering to the rules doesn’t make a Westerner a Japanese wannabe or poser and more than someone following Zen Buddhism in America can be called a Japanese wannabe or poser. This goes with those who learn karate, and those who prepare sushi in their homes.

Our minds are our minds. Each of us are an individual. There is no one like any of us. Our lives are painted in our minds and psyche textured by cultural memory, education, parental upbringing, experience, good and bad, no one able to inhabit the myth that conformity is king. We are individuals, regardless of the biospheric locale we are raised in.

Let’s keep ethnicity and bias out of this. With every art or discipline there are time-tried rules to adhere to that were created to help us to do our best. Reinventing the wheel is unnecessary. 

Although Japanese, Kenneth Yasuda’s opinions regarding haiku were modernist, and influenced by Western thought. In Yasuda’s translations, he used a strict 5–7–5 syllable count in English, which, as we know today, makes an English-language haiku sound awkward and, oftentimes, forced. Strangely enough, the first and third lines in his translations are end-rhymed. He mixed two opposites to create a whole, with the same success as someone trying to connect the wrong ends of two magnets together.

Kare eda ni / Karasu no tomarikeri / aki no kure

On a withered bough / A crow alone is perching / Autumn evening now

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Kenneth Yasuda

Yasuda’s use of first and third line rhymes wasn’t necessary. It’s as if he were trying to make haiku more attractive to Western readers. Japanese short form poets don’t write rhyming haiku. Haiku, when correctly approached, has its own built in metric schemata (5/7/5). The use of rhyming in a translation can be confusing, lessens the use of ma, and could serve as a negative model for poets of the mythical West.

Yasuda’s Zen/pop “haiku moment” theory caught on with many haiku poets in North America. His Zen/pop aha moment sounded exotic, a concept that continues to influence many modern English-language haiku poets. In Japan, most of Blyth’s and Yasuda’s theories were rejected or ignored. 

Blyth also erred in that his pronouncement isn’t a universal truth accepted by a conglomerate of religious and philosophical belief systems interwoven into the poetry of Basho, Buson, and Issa, and the mindset of Japan’s commoner peoples. Many in Japan today, as in the past, adhere to a belief system influenced by a combination of Zen Buddhism and Shinto. How or why Blyth didn’t address the influence of the Shinto belief system that’s tightly entwined with Zen Buddhism in Japan and to see its relevance, is a mystery to me.

Daniel M. P. Shaw, in his Master of Arts Degree dissertation entitled The Way forward? - Shinto and a 21st Century Japanese Ecological Attitude (2005), writes,

“After their cultural importation from China one-and-a-half thousand years ago, Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist beliefs and practices proceeded over time to be combined and exchanged with those of Shinto. This relationship was particularly true between Buddhism and Shinto to the extent that, for example, before too long, the grounds of many Shinto shrines were also home to Buddhist temples. This extremely close relationship was by no means just a physical one but metaphysical, too. The two religions spent centuries struggling over how to explain one in terms of the other. Of particular focus was the role of the Shinto kami within the Buddhist cosmological system. At one point in history the kami were considered to be Buddhas at their most enlightened form, at another, they were lesser spirits in need of enlightenment.”

The kami is very important to Shinto. They are what the West refers to as spirits (Protestants and Catholics think of kami as demons [evil spirits]). To a Shinto follower, kami were everywhere, both in nature and in urban areas.

Kami are felt as spiritual presences in the world by a person or persons who are clearly felt as a spiritual presence(s), causing awe, fear, etc. Their presence can be felt, often strongly, emanating from natural flora, fauna, or as the origin of phenomena.

Continues Shaw,

“Such feelings are sometimes comparable to the Western aesthetic idea of the sublime. Certainly, under the towering Fuji, at the foot of a thundering waterfall, in the midst of a summer storm or struck by a plummeting gorge, the presence of kami is felt. However, it is also there when marveling upon the intricate minutiae of a beautiful flower, in the caress of a gentle breeze, the magic of birdsong and in the brief midnight encounter with a darting fox caught in headlights. Sensing kami can be uncomfortable, too, when hearing the wind moaning through trees, for example. The vital energies or powers sensed in each of these awing presences are not the kami per se. Mono, mi or tama are the Japanese terms used to describe the vital energy or power perceived in experiencing the kami. The very presence of this power is the kami.

 

It should be noted that kami do not discern strictly between the ‘natural’ world and the ‘man-made’ world. Followers of Shinto believe humans are very much a part of nature as well as all human creations.”

This is a belief common to animism and subscribed to by most indigenous tribes throughout the world, including Native Americans, some of whom are descendents of pre-civilized Mongolians and Chinese who’d crossed the then existing land bridge from Siberia to Alaska where the Bering Strait is today.

Kami can be present in seasons or particular times in seasons (e.g. harvest) or even in Time itself, just as they are present in meteorological phenomena and even concepts. Even people, dead or living, can become kami or manifestations thereof.

The Emperors of Japan were considered gods and are still considered by many in Japan today as descendents of the gods, knowing that Emperor Hirohito’s announcement after the end of WWII was a forced “do or die” declaration. The Emperor wasn’t deified by Zen Buddhist monks, he was a Shinto deity.

Flawed exegesis and research, though well meaning, can be damaging. The flaws in Blyth’s interpretation and conceptualization of haiku went unnoticed when his four book series on haiku were published. Very little scholarship and quality translations were available to those outside of Japan. Blyth’s books started a domino affect at a confluence of minds, fate, and timing, that popularized and educated people hungry to know more about Zen Buddhism, alternative paths, and things Asian. His writings did what a haiku should do: juxtapose two opposites in order to create a surplus of meaning that would allow the unsaid to merge with the said, thus creating a revelation that breaks through the mu (void, nothingness) into the ma (an objective, meditative ‘now’ unaffected by past or present) where one can see past “things” into an event-biased world that continually changes, as do those who enter this experiential plane, where words aren’t needed, their use limited to the knowledge, experience, and cultural memory of haiku poets. The trouble with Blyth’s equation is that the juxtaposition of two opposites never merged.

When composing or reading a haiku, it’s important to ponder the surplus of meaning, and to be aware of the role played by expressive action in promulgating the Being (koto) of things. In a haiku, “the importance of objects (mono) described in haiku are nominal when compared to the process leading to the intuitive understanding of these objects and to emotional responses.”

Translating a Japanese haiku into English is extremely complicated as there can be multiple meanings for a single word. The translator has to be familiar with the writer, seek the right translation, and somehow make the poem sound good for its readers, be in tune with the intuitive, the geographic mindset, and customs in place during the time the poem was written. The translator of poetry from another age must have a sound, thorough understanding of the Yamato language and modern Japanese. Add to this the absence of punctuation, gender, tense, and linguistic forms taken for granted by the Western world, it’s easy for a translator to make errors, mistranslate, and, therefore, to reflect his own bias in a translation, as did Blyth with his firm, unbending belief that haiku was a Zen Buddhist poetic genre.

During Blyth and Yasuda’s age, to translate a poem accurately from the Yamato language (which was the language Buson, Basho, and others of their age used) to the English language was and still is a major undertaking. How does one translate the word “beauty,” for instance, into English, when there is not a word in the Japanese canon that describes beauty as defined and understood in the West? Take, for instance, the term “individual expression.” It was a foreign concept to a culture taught since birth to view life as a communal expression, a society that shared responsibilities collectively in the artistic arena: renga (linked poetry), the tea ceremony, musical expression, as well as haikai (haiku) and waka (tanka), which, during this historic passing from the antiquated to a contemporary world that could communicate globally, was predicated upon prescribed terms: Confucian morality, Chinese aesthetics, the acceptance of honkadori, historically repeated formulas used as a base to build longer passages, etc.

Wrote Professor Makoto Ueda in Basho and His Interpreters,

“One should remember that the word-for-word translation is no more than a very rough approximation of what the original words say, since in no case does a Japanese word correspond exactly to an English word.”

Asian and Western mindsets see things from different planes of thought; one prone to object bias, the other, event bias (the object versus the process; a process dependent upon cultural memory, influenced or uninfluenced by Chinese and/or Western mindsets). The term “Asian” is a conglomerate that may or may not define something specific in the indigenous mindset of the person describing the meaning of something another culture may not see or understand in the same light. The challenge for Japan when it opened up its borders to the outside world was how to communicate to a modern world what the Japanese thought and expressed with words and terminology in a conceptually different way.

An example:

Ernest F. Fenollosa, an American invited by the Japanese government to lecture at the Higher Normal School in Tokyo, which would eventually be named the Tokyo Imperial University, in 1898, on the subjects of aesthetics, philosophy, literature and the arts, was challenged with introducing to Japan’s educated elite and University students, words, terms, and concepts foreign to their grasp of the aforementioned, the Yamato language by design, intuitive and unsuitable to explain and define metaphysical and philosophical concepts which the Japanese for ages understood via cultural memory and social absorption, and, therefore, had no need to have words to explain what they had been inbred to know. This lecture also presented a major challenge for those who were entrusted to translate Fenollosa’s lectures in a way that the Japanese people would understand clearly. This ignited a duel between realists and idealists, which in turn led to a debate between two writers: Mori Ogai and Tsubouchi Shoyo, labeled “Submerged Ideas.”

Ogai stood in one corner championing the notion of beautiful as symbolic of the idea lying behind all reality. On the opposite side of the ring, Shoyo said that art must be realistic and not idealistic due to the obligation of artists to report ideas, not definitions, or to aid in the development of said ideas. That was a philosopher’s job. Shoyo valued creativity above all, where an artist creates something realistic and, at the same time, this work becomes a mirror that his audience can identify with. Who won the debate? It was a draw. No one could agree on the definitions coming from distinctly different mindsets.

Imagine translating from English to the Japanese language concepts that have no name or definition in that language, and trying to somehow make your translation understandable to a people who wanted to communicate with and learn from the global world community.

Imagine the difficulties of translating the following section of Fenollosa’s speech (Fenollosa had to speak as clearly as he could to his audience and the interpreters had to find the right words, terms, etc.; to even transcribe it so it could be understood.):

“There is no standard for its [art’s] ultimate criticism, but the unique one, which it affords itself. Each great work of art prescribes its own law to itself; hence it is the sole business of the art critic first to divine sympathetically the idea intended, and then to comment on the purity of its realization. Hence, to train the pure art faculty to feel individual synthesis, is the primary object of all art education; and if all of the professional art schools in America were abolished tomorrow, it would be a far less serious matter than the possibility of introducing into our public schools a system of training which shall normally develop the art faculty among the people.”

Note: Aesthetics is a Western term introduced to Japan. What Westerners call Japanese aesthetics, are to the Japanese styles of expression manifested through the arts (the style of yugen, the style of sabi, the style of impermanence, the style of shasei, and so forth). It was and still is a monumental task finding a common ground for Japanese and Westerners regarding aesthetics. The field was too new, and too little was written during Blyth’s time.

Wrote Blyth, “Haiku is the poetry of meaningful touch, taste, sight, and smell; it is humanized nature, naturalized humanity, and as such may be called poetry in its essence.”

Blyth was only partially correct in his assertion. Who is to say or judge what is and isn’t meaningful in a poem? Touch, taste, sight, and smell are four of the five senses in the Western mindscape. The unmentioned sense is hearing. Hearing is vitally and culturally important regarding haiku. Haiku were, originally, meant to be spoken aloud as greetings, goodbyes, blessings, as part of linked verse competitions and assemblies, and as a vehicle to transmit secret codes by various poetic families (schools). 

Japanese is a monotonous language that lacks inflection: the poetic beat of haiku is its S/L/S metric schemata and the right choice of words. Like the cricket’s chirp and the cicada’s drone, the closer one listens to their tonal emissions, the more intricate and varied the intonations become. Haiku is a tonal poetic voice, a symphony of little, an epiphany of delicate undertones that reveal more and more, each time they are read aloud. After I compose a haiku, I recite it out loud, cognizant of where to pause, listening closely to each variable, looking for the perfect meter, one that gives life to a small creation with a surplus of words.

Writes Koji Kawamoto, “The late twelfth-century poet and critic Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204) aptly described this interrelationship between rhythm and oral recital in his Notes on Poetic Style Through the Ages (Korai fiteisho),

“Simply read aloud or recited (chanted) poems have a way of sounding strangely sensual and moving. By nature, poems sound good or bad, according to the reciter's voice.”

Wrote a tone deaf Blyth,

“Haiku have no rhyme, little rhythm, assonance, or intonation. It is hardly necessary to read it aloud.” (. . ).  “ . . . most Japanese can with difficulty understand a spoken haiku. Written in Chinese and Japanese characters it is grasped by the eye rather than by the ear or the mouth.”

Traditional Japanese poetry to many Westerners is atonal and flat sounding based upon syllabic meter that lacks stress and accent. Posits Professor Shirane,

“ . . . this is only true in a very narrow sense of lacking the kind of regulated beat found in iambic pentameter. When one or more phonetic qualities ---pitch, loudness, length, and timbre (fuzziness, hoarseness, sharpness, etc.) --are emphasized, as they frequently are in Basho’s poetry, the syllable is stressed or accented, creating a rhythm. Equally important are the patterned or melodic variations or repetitions of sounds.“

Professor Michael J. Marra, in his book, Japan’s Frames of Meaning, cites modern day scholar, Fujita Masakatsu, who in turn, interprets a passage written by the Japanese philosopher, Nishitani Keiji, ". . .  the particles in poetry point at the place prior to the differentiation between feelings (koto) and things (mono). In other words, poetry opens up a view of the world of pure experience, while its language brings koto to light without ever exhausting it. Things (Ding, mono) are always particular things (aru mono) The fact that they (mono, koto) are is the difference that a thing makes to human beings (mono), and this difference is voiced by the language (Kotoba) of poetry.”

Of the five senses, three are organ specific: smell, touch, and taste. The other two, sight and hearing, are essential to art, which includes poetry, painting, music, and prose. Take music, for example. A person can compose music, another can play the music, and still another can derive pleasure by listening to the music: the intricacies of tone, melody, codas, rests, etc. that can touch the listener and the musician emotionally, affecting mood, demeanor, and much more, giving a person passage from exteriority to the internal, where kokoro (mind) and kotoba (words), which are the primary ingredients of Japanese poetry of aesthetics, exist.  

The same principal applies to sight. A person can paint a painting, and others can enjoy the painting, which makes use of design, patterns, colors, shadings, and texture. Each of these can affect the subjective illusion of the viewer. Japanese poetry is not an art of exteriority. The internal is the breath and heart of Japanese poetry. Many in the West think of Japanese poetry as ambiguous, steeped in mystery, not comprehending fully what it entails to say much using an economy of words. This ambiguity is the poet’s way to communicate and express in an understandable way what Toshihiko and Toyo Izutsu in their book, The Theory of Beauty in the Classical Aesthetics of Japan (p. 28), term “the insubstantiality and delimitation of the human existential field.” In other words, awareness and illuminative cognitive exploration of the unsaid and unseen can be accomplished, bringing about a comprehension and awareness that can only originate from within in the fragile eggshell of the human psyche. 

Haiku is more than a three-line, S/L/S poem that anyone can effectively write or master in a year or two, then self-publish a book of their poetry, which is a common practice today. Much of the poetry labeled haiku in many journals and e-zines are amateurish, lack depth, ignore the rules, and are far from memorable, not because the poets aren’t talented or dedicated to haiku, but because they have been misinformed by outdated research, and by those who advocate a short form three-line poem that pollutes the essence of the genre by championing the needlessness of kigo, the S/L/S metric schemata indigenous to the genre, and failing to recognize the depth and illumination possible through the use of Japanese aesthetic tools (styles). Like any art form, the composition of haiku takes discipline, practice, and study.

The Japanese language contains much more than what can be expressed with words, especially when confined to haiku. Writes Steven Heine in Philosophy East and West, ” . . . the multiplicity of meanings of the semantic field cannot be contained by the syntactic grammar, and, therefore, require a suggestive and deliberately ambiguous expression which opens up rather than obstructs their philosophical ground.“

Wrote Professor Marra regarding the poetic process essential to the composition of quality haiku,

“Man (the poet) and nature (the alleged object of representation) belong to the same field. The presence of nature is not denied by the imposition of the poet’s conceptual scheme over a reality that only exists in the mind of human beings. At the same time, nature produces and informs the conceptual schemes that the poet employs while talking about nature.”

This cognizance comes from the yoke of the delicate eggshell called human life, whose rightful spokesperson is poetry. Man is aware of his boundaries, but at the same time knows that beyond these boundaries is the unsaid that he cannot articulate. He either knows what he doesn’t know or, at least, has a sense of the unsaid, the nothingness that is more than darkness (wu).

It should be added here that colors, songs, textures, etc. would seize to exist without words. Words don’t create; they articulate out loud what one believes and thinks. Words are seen and spoken, internally and externally. They are the articulation of what the poet’s inner psyche makes of zoka. They are subjective as they articulate the poet’s illusion, indigenous to the individual poet’s mindset influenced by cultural memory, education, experience, parental upbringing, etc.

Someone might read the following haiku by Basho and say, “Whoopie, what’s so special about this ?!?”

Oh, my!
What a beautiful dress I’m wearing:
The cicada’s shell.

Basho
Translated by Michael Marra

First of all, this haiku isn’t a shasei or someone’s instant coffee “aha!” Nor is it an assemblage of well placed words split into three sections. When a person speaks, the words come out in a stream of consciousness, every word connected to the next. When composing a haiku, a skilled poet knows to utilize cutting words, rests, stops, punctuation, something that tells the reader to reach out, using one or all of the five senses, to explore, dream, interact with the unsaid in an integrated, discontinuous synergy. Rests are often excluded by many Western haiku poets today.

Threaded into the words is something larger, deeper, and, more often than not, taken for granted and not understood: the poet’s spirit, breath, voice, passion, and intellect. When you take this into consideration, this haiku by Basho takes on a whole different dimension.

Words give existence to the existing when understood and used correctly. Words, therefore, become subjective if used incorrectly to describe something influenced by one’s limited knowledge. 

Blyth believes differently, “ . . . a thing is really not a thing until it has a word, a spoken word, as its own expression; and a word is not really a word, that is, is not a poetic word, unless it is a part of a thing, the extension of it, the thing heard, the thing speaking. Things without words, and words in a dictionary have no existence. They are either dead or not yet born. A (real) word does not express a thing. No thing can express another.”

As I stated previously, words don’t create; they articulate out loud what one believes and thinks. Words are seen and spoken. They are the articulation of what the poet’s inner psyche makes of zoka. They are subjective as they articulate the poet’s illusions, indigenous to the individual poet’s mindset influenced by cultural memory, education, experience, parental upbringing, etc. Words are words, whether spoken or unspoken, as in thought. It is imperative also to recognize that mere words are just that: words. It is what we do with them, and how we interpret them, that give them substance and true meaning. 

The wind is not an object per se. It cannot be held nor seen unless manifested by interaction between another element(s). If I don’t have a name to call the wind, does that mean it doesn’t exist? I can sense the wind, hear the wind, see its handiwork. It exists objectively (koto=thing as being) to make movement possible. Mono (thing as object) is the content of the movement. The wind exists (koto). What it contains is a thing or things (mono). If I see something, then I can expect to see something manifested.  What I suspect is subjective, what is, without preconception, is objective. It preexisted, exists, and continues to reinvent itself, always changing, never static. In a haiku, the focus is not the specific object (mono) but the process (koto) that reveals the object (mono) and its interaction within the poem.

The Japanese language is complex. When one says BEING, the question to be entertained is what BEING refers to. The Japanese language is the soul of the Japanese people. It’s more expressive and, like the Greek language, which is equally expressive, definitions of a single word can be exhaustive, having many meanings, depending on the context it is used in. The term “word” is not to be equated to Blyth’s misinterpretation of the word when he cites the Gospel of John, verse 14, in the New Testament, “The flesh is made word, and dwells among us.”Blyth twists the aforementioned scripture around to fit it into his rhetoric schematic. I use the New American Standard Bible here as I’ve found it to be the closest translation to the original Greek. Wrote Blyth, “The flesh is made word.”  The biblical Greek this verse was penned in says, “And the Word became flesh . . .” We are faced with two opposites, that which Blyth quotes, and the actual words themselves. The flesh is made word versus “the word became flesh.” This illustrates the complexity of language and hermeneutics. In biblical Greek, Word in John 14:1 is translated: logos. Logos is not a grammatical word. It is similar in nature to zoka, meaning source or creator of life. In the West, this creator of Life is an entity, not simply a force. The word as used by Blyth when comparing a backwards version of John 14.1, cannot be defined by a dictionary without a context to place it in.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Blyth’s reasoning is akin to declaring that mono and koto are the same words; that Zoka is the same as the Biblical Logos.

Letters, by themselves, are things (objects). When letters are assembled to form words, the words in themselves are objects as well. Think of them as musical notes. When one composes music, the music comes about via the skillful assemblage of notes. They cannot be haphazardly assembled. Composing music to the Japanese is akin to the composing of haiku, as all poetry is, in essence, song. The Japanese language is a flat sounding monotone language. The rhythm in haiku comes from the haiku S/L/S metric schemata coupled with appropriate breaks brought about via cutting words, or, for Westerners, the usage of punctuation. 

Contrary to Blyth’s mindset, the Japanese have no trouble understanding haiku read aloud, and to hear them read by the right person, can be an aesthetic experience.

Wrote Professor Ikuyo Yoshimura from Japan in an e-mail to me this evening, “In a Japanese haiku meeting, we traditionally read haiku out loud which we select. We do not read our own. This is one of the reasons that haiku is the literature of group, ‘Za no bungei.’ ‘Za no bungei’ means literature made by haiku meeting.”

Haiku, before Shiki, was called haikai. Haikai originally was the beginning of a linked verse in renga that consists of three sections, adhering to a 5/75 metric schemata. Renga was a verbal activity, a form of social entertainment. Some of the verses were made up and did not consist of something that actually occurred. Haikai, thanks to Basho and other poets of his day, was also used as verbal greetings and partings. For Blyth to say that haiku for the Japanese is something to be seen instead of to vocalize is a strange statement. Perhaps he spent too much time looking for comparisons between Wordsworth’s poetry and haiku, a poet he mentions over and over in his writings. Wrote Blyth, “Haiku is as its best when it is simply Wordsworthian, that is, Wordsworth at his most simple, a sort of thought in sense. It is at this point that haiku and English nature poetry coincide.”

Man is not above nature as the Judeo-Christian culture mistakenly asserts (first God, then man, and finally, Nature). As a person, I have no power over nature nor can I direct its creative force (Zoka). As a person, my thoughts will never be identical to another person. What is often promulgated by an individual is his or her illusion as to what something is or isn’t. Nature cannot be defined nor can it be predicted. Nature is a continuum of motion that never stops. It invents, destroys, reinvents, and isn’t dependent upon words or word definitions to exist. Imagine if there wasn’t a word in Japanese that could define or classify a typhoon. Does that mean it doesn’t exist?

One cannot become a tree to write a haiku about a tree because to do so would require subjectivity, as all homo sapiens think differently, their thoughts (illusions) sculpted by experience, cultural memory, education, parenting, etc. To assume to become a tree metaphysically and to think like a tree is a far stretch and not a part of the Caucasoid cultural memory or Judeo-Christian beliefs. To dive into the Zen of this even more, who’s to say if one tree doesn’t think differently than another tree, and by whose definition do we define the existential heartbeat of a tree?

Wrote Professor Shirane in Traces of Dreams, “This ‘self’ (ga) . . . is not the modern notion of ‘self’ but a selfless state free of personal desire (shii).  Only a selfless ‘self’ . . . one that ‘follows the Creative’ . . . can enter into the subject.  If the poet’s feelings are not sincere, the heart of the subject and that of the object will not be united, and the result will be ‘verbal artifice’ (sakui).”

Professor Shirane states eloquently, “Without spiritual cultivation and the ability to enter into objects [animism?], the haikai poet will not have the power to discover the high in the low, to find beauty in the mundane. . .

Object and self as ‘one’ and ‘following the Creative’ implied an approach that did not depict the external world or express an internal state so much as to explore the relationship between the two.”

To put it plainly, the external becomes internal and the internal, external. Whether I’m outside and gazing at the moon, or have closed my eyes and see the moon via memory and past experience (as I’m sure Shiki must have done, being confined to his bed), I am seeing the moon exclusively through my eyes as influenced by my current emotional state and cultural memory. Haiku is a combination of  “ever changing” and “non-changing.” Nothing is static and unchanging. If a thing doesn’t change, it doesn’t exist. Without the concatenation, however, between the “non-changing’’ and the “ever changing,” a haiku cannot be composed. To understand this concept clearly, think of the two terms as a juxtaposition, the combination of two ideas to form a completely different idea. The unchanging are the truths (makoto), rules required to formulate a haiku. Truth is not a thing. When a haiku poet juxtaposes the unchanging with the ever changing, a haiku is born. This is a concept that’s not dependent on religion or cultural memory. Makoto is a reality. Every artistic discipline has rules to follow. Japanese short form poetry is not moral or amoral, beautiful or ugly. To make a distinction between two opposites necessitates subjectivity.

Can one get to a point where he or she is completely selfless; and by whose determination is this selflessness validated? Buson’s writings and poetry have exerted a marked influence on my interpretation of this compound question. Yet again, my interpretation is my interpretation. Ideally, I like to go outdoors and find a quiet place conducive to meditation and non-interference via human and mechanical noise. I remember one time sitting beside a stream-fed pond in a shady area surrounded by oak trees. I emptied my mind of thought and preconception, soaking in the sounds, feeling the breeze, sensing the silence . . . my mind, momentarily, a tabula rasa. When I opened my eyes, I continued utilizing my senses, and watched my blank tablet form thoughts directed by what was seen and not seen. When the unseen doesn’t exist, comprehension of the seen becomes blurred. I saw what looked in my mind to be a belt wrapped around the tree’s mid trunk. The haiku then began to appear.

Caucasian people in the West, with all of their senses in tact, often take the totality of their surroundings for granted. I once took a group of 6th grade children on a night hike. One of the students hiking with us that night was blind. After the hike, I gathered the students together and asked them to share what they’d seen and heard. The blind student described more than anyone else who’d attended the night hike. Lacking sight, she’d learned to see with her four remaining senses.

As a minimal poem limited to 17 syllables, a haiku is not a realistic painting or a photograph. The Japanese language is rich, as many of their words entertain a multiplicity of meanings that cannot be contained or always expressed in a short three-line poem, thus the need for aesthetic tools (styles) like ambiguity, yugen, and suggestion. A haiku poet hints instead of telling all.

Granted, Westerners have languages (English, French, German, Serbian, etc.) that differ radically from the Japanese language. The argument could be made that those conversant in a language other than Asian languages don’t have to follow rules that give breath, space, and depth to a poetic genre that’s Japanese in origin because Westerners are faced with the same syntactical and grammatical limitations and problems. This argument, once a Westerner understands haiku as it’s meant to be understood, becomes needless, as evident by reading talented Western haiku such as:

the old cat
hesitates on the doorsill—
a falling leaf

William Higginson

five hundred A.D. -
the Korean potter smiles
at a passing cloud

Hortensia Anderson

rising tide
a blue heron lifts
the dawn

Susan Constable

Though Yasuda’s and Blyth's writings on haiku are immensely informative, they’re interwoven with the flawed conception that haiku is a Zen Buddhist poetic idiom, which reflects their subjectivity towards haiku.

The “haiku is a Zen Buddhist poetic genre” theory has been debunked due to new research and the accessibility of Japanese texts previously unavailable to translators and researchers.

Posits Professor Peipei Qui in her essay, Reinventing the Landscape,

“In order to reinvent the kikobun [travel journal] as well as the poetic landscape, Basho widely referred to the Daoist classics, especially the Zhuangzi, to generate its poetic essence.”

Qui further states, “ . . . the Zhuangzi appeals to haikai poets because it asserts an aesthetic attitude that sees beauty in ordinary and even ‘low’ things/beings, making it possible to discover profound meaning in the down- to-earth topics and vernacular language of haikai and to regenerate poetic essence. In other words, the Daoist classic can help transform a newly invented haikai word (haigon) into a mediating sign, which translates the superficial meaning of a verse or text into the intended meaning and provides the necessary context for poetic dialogue.

One can see clearly the Daoist influence in Basho’s Oi no kobumi, which starts out with a self declaration by Basho, ‘In my body, which has one hundred bones and nine openings, exists something I have called Furabo. I must have meant that my body resembles spun silk that is easily torn in the wind.’ This passage was inspired by this passage in the Zhuangzi, ‘The hundred joints, the nine openings, the six organs, all come together and exist here (as my body) . . . it would seem there must be some True Lord among them. But whether I succeed in discovering his identity or not, it neither adds nor detracts from his Truth.’”

There are many references to the Daoist Zhuangzi in Basho’s haibun and poetry. Take, for instance, the following poem:

Is that warbler
Her soul? There sleeps
A graceful willow

States Professor Makoto Ueda in his book, Basho and His Interpreters, “[this poem] alludes to a passage in the Chuang-tzu describing a daydream in which Chuang-tzu’s soul becomes a butterfly and flitted out of his body.”

The Chuang-tzu, interchangeable with Zhuangzi, is the Daoist scripture.

Writes David Landis Barnhill in chapter two of Matsuo Basho’s Poetic Spaces: Zoka: The Creative in Basho’s View of Nature and Art,

“The countless references to Chinese religious and aesthetic thought require that we place his [Basho’s] texts in the context of Daoism and Confucianism, as well as Buddhism, and in the context of the Chinese aesthetic tradition (both poetry and painting), as well as Japanese literature. If we do that, we will find a wonderfully rich world view.”

Let me add to Professor Barnhill’s statement that Ainu shamanistic animism and the Shinto faith also affected Basho and his contemporary’s conceptualization of life, aesthetics, and art.

Japan at the time Blyth wrote his books on haiku was caught up in a tug-of-war between Western influence and its own beliefs. They were at odds with one another in that the terms Western theorists and philosophers coined for philosophical and aesthetic terminology, theories, and definitions were missing from the Japanese language. Most of what the Japanese believed philosophically and metaphysically were intuitive and ingrained in their cultural memory because, for the Japanese, aesthetics is more than a series of rules that dictate a course one must follow in order to create a certain tone, mood, or to illustrate something. Language is the spiritual heart of its people.

Writes Professor Donald Richie in his booklet, A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics, “What we would call Japanese Aesthetics (in contrast to Western aesthetics) is more concerned with process than with product, with the actual construction of a self than with self-expression.”

The Japanese had to use words foreign to them, to convey to the object- biased English-language culture, their beliefs based upon an event-biased viewpoint. This created a lot of confusion and misconceptions on both sides. Equally, the Japanese in their thirst to learn beyond the walls of their country, which had for centuries been cut off from the Western world, found themselves attracted to the ways of the West, and since their language was unable to convey the philosophical and abstract terms in a way that coincided with Western meanings, a university system based upon the German model was formed in Japan that taught aesthetics, philosophy, hermeneutics, and literary theory from a Western point of view, necessitating Japanese students to study and speak with a language that was originally used for interpreting the Bible. This influence changed the thinking of many modern Japanese poets and artists. The more they studied, the more indoctrinated they became with Occidental thought.

Even with this indoctrination, the Japanese people would never be able to fully assimilate Western thought, as their mindset was a part of their cultural spirit and memory. Much of the poetry produced by Japanese students using the Western conceptualization of aesthetics, hermeneutics, philosophy and art were awkward sounding, and failed to generate widespread acceptance.  One can only be who he is, and who he is, is dependent on more than the education he receives. One’s cultural memory plays an important role as does the way one is reared. A child is born with a tabula rasa (blank slate), and the first 5-6 years of life is a child’s most formative years, cognitively.

This tug-o-war between the East and the West, caused a major upheaval which fueled the fires for advocates of intellectual change that, out of fear of reprisal, had remained overtly quiet regarding the arts, philosophy, and aesthetics during the Meiji Age, as Japan was passing into the 20th century, and wanted to keep pace with, and not feel inferior to, Western countries; the greater the exposure, the higher the flames. This upheaval posed questions that had to be answered. Haiku was in danger of being assimilated into something it wasn’t.


Questions that needed answering amongst Japanese poets:

*How do they maintain our own national identity?

*Are haiku and waka (tanka) legitimate literary genres?

*Can they adopt Western words to communicate Western ideas to their people, even though they’ve never used these words and terms nor have an equivalent in our own national language?

*Do they reeducate society and jettison the old?

*Is there a medium they can agree upon and meet each other in the middle?

Japan was entering the 20th century, a new era that necessitated changes in order to communicate globally in business, education, the arts, politics, diplomacy, etc.

Scholars like Blyth and Yasuda were caught in the middle. How to translate Japanese thought and words, archaic and modern, to the Western world that also was going through an upheaval of change, specially as it pertained to the arts? The old, the new . . . What is and isn’t “beauty?” What’s acceptable morally and by whose standards is this determined? The “what is and isn’t” an invisible what without an ever, the West and Japan, viewing life through different lenses: “To be or not to be?”  Blyth, Yasuda, and other like-minded academics were translating and introducing Japanese poetry to the Western world at a time when Japan was going through an identity crisis. Add to that, the difficulties faced by Blyth, Yasuda, and others to communicate the Asian mindset to a people with a radically different mindset, one can see how easy it was to make mistakes. Perhaps if they had the tools that are currently available to translators and researchers, coupled with a deeper understanding and assimilation between the two cultures, the mistakes they made would have been lessened.

“Haiku is the poetry of meaningful touch, taste, sight, and smell; it is humanized nature, naturalized humanity, and as such may be called poetry in its essence.”

A problem the Caucasoid dominated West has in interpreting and understanding haiku is how it perceives Nature. Those adhering to the Judeo-Christian faith are taught that God is the creative force, man ranks second, and nature is there for man’s pleasure and use. Man is not part of nature nor one with nature. He is above nature, and its god (keeper). I say Caucasoid because most Native Americans, many Mexican-Americans, Haitian and Cuban-Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Filipinos have belief systems that differ from the generic Judeo-Christian belief conglomerate. The mythical West is primarily a Caucasoid invention brought about by aggressive colonization and a disregard for beliefs and social customs that differed from their Judeo-Christian conquerors. Many inhabitants of this invent are relatives who were forcibly taken from their homes in Africa, then shipped and treated like cattle by slavers and slave owners.

This mindset does not view life the same way as the Japanese whose cultural and communal identities are immersed in Shinto, shamanic animism, both tightly interwoven into the Zen Buddhist and Daoist theoscape that dominates Japan. The poet and the object of his versification, nature, are not different entities. Nature and man are both parts of nature and the creative force (zoka), instead of God, is nature. The reality that exists existentially in the human mind is an illusion, each person with their individual illusions based not upon science but on cultural memory, experience, geospheric conditioning, education, parenting, etc. There are no words to express the totality of nature and its creative breath. Exteriority is not a part of the Japanese poetical voice. Poetic ambiguity is a style (tool) that articulates the cognitive perception behind the imaginary and the determination of boundaries in the human conceptualization of logic.

Blyth in his pronouncement, “it is humanized nature, naturalized humanity,” was defining Japanese poetryfrom a Western headspace; a headspace that, incidentally, was shared by many Japanese intellectuals  to different degrees, including Masoaka Shiki.

Blyth was a product of his age just as we are a product of this age.

Some Blyth’s colloquialisms:

“Haiku poetesses are only 5th class.”

“Nowadays, most Japanese can understand with difficulty a spoken haiku.”

“Haiku has no mysticism to it.”

 

Time For a Change

Haikai in Japan, by the time Masaoka Shiki came into prominence (the passing from the 19th into the 20th century), had degenerated into a “you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all” genre that had lost its relevance. The genre made extensive use of a vocabulary that was not in tune with the times. The haiku lacked depth, and said little. Haikai, in Shiki’s estimation, had become the equivalent of Hallmark card poetry.

Wrote Professor Donald Keene in his book, Dawn to the West,

“The innumerable thousands upon thousands of tanka and haiku composed since ancient times all seem different at first glance, but under careful examination, it becomes apparent how many are alike. Pupils plagiarize their teachers, and men of later generations plagiarize their predecessors. A man who can convert the stone of old poems into the jade of new ones is acclaimed as a master poet, even though he never presents an original idea.”

The haikai world consisted of different schools, whose priority wasn’t to write or promote quality haiku, but to enhance their reputations and pocketbooks, each claiming to be champions of Basho who had by this time been deified by the government as a Shinto saint.

Shiki took it upon himself to save the two literary genres, haikai and waka, from the lows they’d sunken to, to insure their survival in the 20th century. So the mediocre wouldn’t be associated with true haikai and waka, he renamed both genres, haiku and tanka.

According to Suzuki Sadami, a researcher of Japanese literature and editor of numerous collections of important archival series, in an interview by Raquel Abi-Samara in May 2008, entitled “How would you define Japanese Modernism?”

“Around 1900, writers such as Masaoka Shiki and Kunikida Doppo embraced impressionism as a new style of poetry and prose that derived from European expressionist methods and that called for writing based on the five senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting.”

Japan’s embracing of Western philosophy, aesthetics, and art would not only affect Japan’s conceptualization of poetry but the world’s as well. The world was at a crossroads poetically and artistically, the East and the West influencing one another, with neither fully understanding the other, as words were inadequate to explain to the Japanese concepts they had no words to describe. Likewise, the Western world found it hard to comprehend and fathom concepts that were next to impossible to explain to them due to the inability of the Japanese language to communicate the unspoken, as well as the strong Judeo-Christian influence permeating Western culture, wherein the animistic beliefs of the Japanese were thought of as myths, folk tales, and superstitious beliefs that had no validity in the academic arena.

As previously mentioned, Shiki was strongly influenced by Western thought, philosophy, aesthetics, and art that was flooding into Japan during his time. One of these was the plain-air art of Europe; nature sketches from life, so to speak. It made such a great impression on him that he took it as the guiding motif for the new “haiku,” and called it shasei, sketching from life.”

He did not discover the term. It’s a Chinese word that can be traced back to the Northern Sung Dynasty (969 AD-1126 AD). During Shiki’s time, shasei was a word used to praise nature paintings, although originally it was a term used to indicate the way to figure things out in a painting without a need to use brushed borders (mogu). The process of brush bordering utilizes an intricate, careful layering where one using ink brushes and pens, stains and dyes the border of an art piece with little to no sketching or drawing, thus making it hard to see solid lines or curves in a painting. To Shiki, shasei was the elimination of extraneous ornamentation and an attempt to preserve and capture the essence of flora and fauna. The word’s usage eventually evolved into a descriptive term that described the way to firmly comprehend the vital spirit of flora and fauna to reach the very breath of their innermost soul.

Chin Dynasty artist, Zou Yigui (1686-1772), in his treatise, Notes on Painting of Oko-ban, refers to shasei, according to Saito Mokichi in his treatise on shasei, ”as an expression of ‘animation’ or ‘the divine soul’ and never as a simple linear bordering of objects as contemporary Japanese artists and poets in general took the term to mean.”

After discovering Western philosophy, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), a brilliant, determined, outspoken, and terminally ill poet and watercolor artist,  grew disgusted at the sad state of Japanese poets and the schools that schooled them, more interested in building their reputations than with the composition of quality haiku and waka.

He saw shasei, as applied to painting, symbiotically compatible to poetic expression and changed his poetic voice to reflect his conceptualization of shasei. He was introduced to the term “shasei” by his artist friends, Nakamura, Fusetsu, and Asai Chu.

Wrote Shiki in Byosho Rokushaku, on August 7, 1902,

“Placing a vase of flower branches by the side of my pillow, I do an honest sketching of it and, while doing this, I feel as if I gradually understand the secret of nature.”

Mokichi calls this “seeing into the reality of things.” Shiki wrote this from in his sickbed where he was dying from tuberculosis and caries of the spine. He was unable to leave his bed and was in excruciating pain and under the influence of morphine, which was administered twice a day. Shiki’d been bedridden for the past seven years prior to writing this. His father was a samurai. True to his upbringing, Shiki was a warrior, a man determined to live life to its fullest and not be a prisoner to fear and self-pity.

When he painted from his bed, many of the things he painted did not exist in the small yard next to his room, which he could see through a window. Shiki had to rely on his imagination and the zoka to envision, sense, and feel with all of his senses the objects he painted. He closed his eyes and felt the colors, tastes, textures, etc. He felt a duty to awaken what Japanese artists had lost track of: a sincere respect and reverence for nature. It worked well for him as a painter, therefore, he applied it to writing haikai and waka, which he later renamed haiku and tanka, after having re-elevated and renamed the status of the two Japanese literary genres. 

Shasei is not the shasei many today in North America classify as shasei. It is much more than the simple “aha” sketch of something outside that’s visible and sown in the now. The farther the West gets away from using and recognizing the importance of kigo in haiku and tanka, the harder it becomes for Westerners to comprehend the intricacies of Japanese grammar and the theocratic inbred functioning of the unsaid, which is not a word.

Shiki introduced the concept of shasei (“delineation from nature” or “sketching”) to describe his use of realistic images and contemporary language. The state of haiku as a literary art had ebbed and was no longer taken seriously by most intellectuals. Shiki sought to reverse this trend and spent the remainder of his short life to do so.

Haiku, of course, historically, was more than a sketch, a realistic painting that captures a given moment and, by the skillful use of words, instills in the reader emotions, an understanding of the unsaid, etc.

Writes Koji Kawamoto in his book, The Poetics of Japanese Verse, “The haiku is a genre of poetry which consolidates everything it needs into its own seventeen-syllable universe, relying heavily upon the mental associations and inference of the readers who are brought into contact with its descriptions and images. The haiku poet says all he wants within the confines of his poem.” 

Haiku can’t function as a painting as Masaoka Shiki conceptualized, that captures a specific moment. Haiku isn’t a realist poem. It’s suggestive, limited to a certain amount of morae, deals with past, present, and future, and can serve as a metaphor, allegory, or symbolic representation. Haiku can also be a vehicle that covertly transmits secret information, and makes a social statement by refiguring cultural memory.

Shiki defined shasei as the "depiction of objects as they are" or "the faithful representation of an actual scene" as opposed to ideals or imaginings. He saw haiku as a poetry of a single object. Writes Kawamoto, “[the problem with shasei is] 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. Even a ‘real’ medium like a photograph leaves a large gap between the scene presented before our eyes and that actually experienced in person.”

Wrote Michael F. Marra in Essays on Japan, “Language reconstructs experience by putting in grammatical form the results of introspective analysis. Therefore, by reducing experience to conceptual categories, language fails to represent reality; whose portrayal falls prey to distortion and error, since language cannot catch the immediacy of the experience.”

“ . . . the chemical analysis of the process of knowledge reveals that this is nothing but a series of metaphors.”  Friedrich Nietzsche

A famous American photographer, my friend, the late Meryl Simmons, told me, when I asked him how he took photographs that resembled paintings, “The secret is in cropping, patience, and waiting for the light to hit the right spot, paint the right shadow, and envision at the same time, what affect you’re hoping to bring into being.” What he said next, took me by surprise.  He told me that photographs are one dimensional illusions, not the real thing. thus concurring with Kawamoto’s assessment regarding the ineffectiveness of shasei haiku. What portrays the real thing, and the real thing, are different entities. True shasei is unattainable. Its source is the fragile subjective human mind. Non-subjectivity is nearly impossible if the focus is an object or objects. The combination of object bias and subjectivity aren’t the ingredients one uses to compose a haiku. They are, however, ingredients that would work well in an Imagist or modernist poem.

Two examples of Shiki’s shasei:

matsu no ne ni         at the root
usumurasaki no       of a pine tree
sumire kana             light lavender violet

koi shiranu               a fancy-free cat
neko ya uzura o       is about to catch
torantosu                  a quail

Upon reading haiku like those two above, it was obvious to me that Basho was the better poet. Why then, did Shiki lash out against Basho and call him a second rate poet? Wrote Seishi Shinoda and my close friend, Sanford Goldstein, in their book, Songs From a Bamboo Village,

“Shiki attacked professional haiku teachers who wanted to commercialize their idolatrous veneration of Basho” and how this crass commercialism produced plagiarism and second rate poetry that was destroying the credibility of haiku. Doing so got him an instant audience, as it was illegal to say anything bad about Basho, which was what Shiki wanted. One must remember that his days were numbered, and he had no time to waste. 

Wrote Goldstein and Shinoda,

“… Shiki’s primary aim was to show where Basho’s real genius lay. Shiki used the tactic of shocking his readers by pointing out Basho’s bad poems. Most of the master’s haiku, wrote Shiki, were worthless, the good haiku, only a small percentage of the total number.” 

Shiki was a wise man and knew his audience well. He’d done his homework, thus, in speaking out, he wrote in a way similar to the way Marc Antony spoke in his famous speech to the Roman masses regarding Brutus in William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar,“ I come here to bury Caesar, not to praise him,  . . . for Brutus is an honorable man.”

Basho had been deified as a Shinto God. Shrines were built in his honor. It was against the law to criticize Basho or his poetry.

Stated Eiko Yachimoto in Sketchbook (February 2009):

“What annoyed him a great deal and made him furious at the end was the attitude of quite a few tsukinami renku masters who were busy securing their businesses and social positions by building a Basho’s pavilion, a Basho’s haiku stone or the likes for his 200th death anniversary. Shiki deplored to see Basho turned into a religion that defied any criticism. He had to fight. His method was so practical that he dared to say: Basho wrote so many bad haiku, so few great haiku. He wanted to shock those who blindly followed the religion of Basho.”

“Shiki’s famous principle of shasei, or objective sketching, has a strong proof of success in his essay, brilliance in his tanka, but only rather occasional success in his haiku, which must have been inevitable because 17 syllables allowed for haiku that are often too tight if the poet depends on objective sketching only.”

This haiku shows us that Shiki’s conceptualization of shasei was changing as he grew sicker and sicker, and matured as a poet.

furusato ya                   My hometown
dorira o mitemo           wherever I look
yama warau                 mountains laugh with verdure [lush green vegetation]

This is a subjective poem, not an objective sketching. Nor is it realistic. Mountains don’t laugh, at least not visibly (a Shinto follower may sense that a kami’s dwelling in the mountain and, perhaps, sense that it is laughing). Shiki here is utilizing some of the aesthetic tools Basho used: yugen, makoto, ma, and personification (mountains laugh). Shiki admired Buson for his style, and economy of words. It should be stated also that Shiki admired Basho as a poet and said that he wrote 200 good haiku and called Basho’s “frog jump” poem a perfect haiku.            

Shiki spent his final years confined to a sickbed with a window to look out.  One of his final three haiku written the day before he died is hardly a shasei:

The sponge gourd has flowered!
Look at the Buddha
Choked with phlegm.

Translated by Donald Keene

Dawn to the West

States Professor Donald Keene in his book, Dawn to the West, “Sap from the sponge-gourd (hechima) was used as a medicine to stop coughs or break up phlegm, but his family had been too busy ministering  to the other symptoms of Shiki’s final illness to remember to collect the sap on the night of the fifteenth, as prescribed. Now the vine is a flower. Shiki, sensing that nothing can cure him or even alleviate his pain, sees himself objectively (and, even with a touch of haikai humor) as a Buddha-to-be choking on his phlegm.”

A shasei poem?  No.

Shiki was a brilliant visionary, critic, and poet, who regenerated haiku and saved it from a slow death. Prior to his revision of haiku and his denouncement regarding what was then the current state of haiku, haiku had sunk to a state of mediocrity, the poems unmemorable, and save for a few, second class. Shiki rescued haiku from falling into obscurity, just as the Imagists in England and the U.S. were seeking to revive Western poetry from what they felt was excessive, too flowery, and corny. Shiki and the Imagist movement both had integrity, a mission to accomplish, and threw out life rafts to what they thought were sinkingships. All were good poets and the world is better off because of their courage and vision.

Every great person makes their share of mistakes. Shiki was not exempt. His remarks regarding shasei became a source of confusion in Japan and throughout the Western world.

Posits Kawamoto, “Shiki errs in assuming that these objects can be incorporated into a poem merely through the simple process of identifying them by name. The implication is that every object has an established name, and by merely evoking these names poets are able to recreate a portion of reality directly into their poems. In this way, the scene can spontaneously move the viewer's heart. But as Mallarm sarcastically put it, ‘The forest where the real trees flourish cannot be put on paper.’ Saying ‘dandelion’ does not immediately conjure up a yellow flower before the eyes. What makes us believe that a dandelion really blooms there is a function of the poet's craft or, putting it more accurately, his ability to choose and arrange the right words to produce this effect.”

 

The current state of modern English-language Western haiku:
Influences, practice, deconstruction, and death

As stated previously, R.H. Blyth’s writings played a major role in influencing the direction and mindset of the modern English-language poetry movement taking shape in the United States in the 1960’s. There was no official haiku organization or centralized voice. People attracted to haiku were without a sound, definitive definition of haiku. Only a few good books were at their disposal. Many drew their initial inspiration from the writings of Jack Kerouac and, to a lesser degree, by other Beat writers and poets, abetted by the love affair American college students and the intellectual elite were having with Zen Buddhism, . . .  the exoticism of newness, counter to the accepted inbred norm of the follow-the-herd mindset indigenous to the era. Anthologies, handbooks, and  collections of English haiku surfaced such as the Peter Pauper Press set of haiku and tanka books; translations and exegesis by scholars like Donald Keene, and the publication of Harold Henderson’s update of his book, Bamboo Broom, with a new name, An Introduction to Haiku.

In 1968, the Haiku Society of America (HSA) was formed, which by default and dedication, became the movement’s leader. The HSA, however, did not, and still does not represent the majority of Americans, who were and still are taught the rudiments of haiku by the American public school system via textbooks whose authors don’t take the genre seriously and lack a sound understanding of haiku. It’s taught as a minor literary form with almost no reference to or understanding of the culture that bequeathed it to the Western world. Read one textbook, you’ve read them all. The authors echo one another like battery-operated parrots: Haiku is a nature poem consisting of 17 syllables and three lines using a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern that contains a nature word (kigo).

The modern English language haiku movement under the umbrella of the HSA, like David against Goliath, sought to educate the public and reform their conceptualization of what a haiku is and isn’t, and with the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, their influence from 1989 to the present has spread world-wide, forming alliances with European and Oceanic nations who share like notions, and inspiring the formation of other American haiku clubs from California to New York. The United States still exerts the greatest influence on what has become a growing worldwide movement, under the umbrella of the HSA. This group and the groups it’s influenced have done both a service and disservice to the English-speaking world’s collective conceptualization of haiku. Haiku in America was at its infancy and had very few resources to draw upon. They were also without the Internet, and, therefore, had only a small impact on the output of American haiku, their voice limited to and propagated by small press journals, word of mouth, newsletters, and a few well-written texts and translations by scholars.

After the formation of the HSA, the group formed a definitions committee consisting of Anita Virgil, William Higginson, and Harold Henderson, to clearly define haiku and senryu.

They defined haiku as an “unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature. It usually consists of seventeen onji.”

In 2003, the HSA, seeking to refine and improve upon the HSA definition of haiku, formed a definitions committee consisting of Lee Gurga, William Higginson, and Naomi Brown. Anita Virgil bowed out, seeing no need to change the existing definition of haiku.

The new definition said nothing new and read like a generalization that says nothing,

“A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”

Fortunately, they added the followed below the new definition,

Notes: Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today's poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements. In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen "sounds" (on) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximate the duration of seventeen Japanese on.) Traditional Japanese haiku include a "season word" (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a "cutting word" (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem. In English, season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues. The most common technique is juxtaposing two images or ideas (Japanese rensô). Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word. Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are commonly avoided. (Haiku do sometimes have brief prefatory notes, usually specifying the setting or similar facts; metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently). A discussion of what might be called "deep metaphor" or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of a definition.

These Notes are generalizations, lacking academic explanation, and bolster beliefs based primarily on the writings of Blyth and the Imagists. For instance, what is the reasoning behind the avoidance of similes and metaphors, the jettisoning of the S/L/S metric schemata?

Haiku pioneer, Michael Dylan Welch, offers the following definition of haiku,

“What, then, is haiku? Put briefly, haiku are short, objective poems conveying a keenly perceived moment of heightened subjective awareness. They present a distilled perception and apperception of the external world. In the sense that there are ‘no ideas but in things,’ asWilliam Carlos Williams [an Imagist poet] has told us, haiku focus on the things of the external world, behind which may lie, by implication, the various ideas, biases, or emotions of the internal world. Haiku are imagistic in nature, use common language, and are best if devoid of judgment, analysis, metaphor, simile, and—in the Zen tradition—other rhetorical, intellectual, or ego-assertive devices. Haiku succinctly record the essence of a moment in nature, or reveal the truth of human nature. They present the ‘thing’ simply as it is, in all its rich ‘suchness.’ Indeed, as noted American haiku poet James W. Hackett has asserted, ‘lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku’ (256). Further, haiku are open-ended poems of suggestion and implication, seeming almost incomplete on first reading, and do not explain or tell the reader what to think or feel. Rather, they rely on the reader to have a common, universal response to the object or event portrayed. It is thus the haiku poet’s burden to choose and craft his or her image to generate that reliably universal response. It is in the ‘aha’ moment of grasping the poem where the reader participates with the poet in experiencing the original moment of awareness—and it is this very process that makes haiku rewarding.”

These same pioneers were also greatly influenced by the Imagist school of poetry, a short-lived, but highly influential movement made famous by Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, William Carlos Williams, H.D (Hilda Doolittle), Amy Lowell, Wallace Stevens, and D.H. Lawrence, and other well-known American and English poets.  

Wrote Haruo Shirane in his book, Traces of Dreams, referring to the haiku in The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van den Heuvel, published in 1974, which was the first major anthology of English haiku,

“Much of the haiku, which is usually written in three lines, focuses on moments of intense perception, especially the sensory aspects of physically small objects, or on a particular instant in time, commonly referred to as ‘haiku moment’.”

Shirane further stated, “The majority of these haiku in English as well as haiku translations from Japanese are done in the style of the Imagists and Modernists such as Stevens, Elliot, and Williams.”

Rebelling from the popular poetry of their day (by Longfellow, Wordsworth, etc.), this group of poets jettisoned moralistic poetry and flowery speech, opting instead for an economy of words, concrete imagery that focused on a succinct, specific thing (object-biased), to discover its essence, utilized the vernacular of everyday speech, positing that the autonomous individuality of a poet was better expressed via free verse than the norm practiced at the time by Wordsworth, Longfellow, etc.

Ezra Pound in the pages of Poetry Magazine, published in America, penned the following manifesto to define the fundamental tenets of the Imagist movement:

1.Direct treatment of the "thing" whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3.As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

Below these tenets, Pound added:

 "An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."

A simpler way of putting this is found in the introduction to The Imagist Poem (William Pratt, Dutton, 1963), "Essentially, it is a moment of revealed truth, rather than a structure of consecutive events or thoughts". 

The Imagist movement dealt a severe blow to the iambic pentameter. Influenced by haiku, European philosophy, the Modernists, and the itch for something beyond the mundane, they sought to change the Occidental poetic landscape which, until then, had been the drumbeat tapped by Wordsworth, Longfellow, and other poets of that age; a drumbeat that had, in their eyes, become stale, well-worn, and passé.

Theirs was a cadence of free flowing verse whose cadence was determined by the individual poet, versus the poetic norm: a no nonsense versification that was concrete, used no unnecessary words that communicated “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."

Ezra Pound’s famous Imagist 14 word poem, In a Station at the Metro:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Like the Beat poets in the 50’s and early 60’s, many haiku poets today are abbreviating and reconstructing the genre, lacking a sound understanding of haiku, and thus, without malice, are unknowingly bastardizing and watering down what they call Modern American Haiku, which, in reality, is haiku-like poetry that’s more akin to Imagist and Modernist poetry. Kigo is being disregarded, meter’s become unimportant, as long as the poems in mention are no longer than 17 syllables. The S/L/S metric schemata is rarely followed; Japanese aesthetics, the tools used to give haiku its heartbeat, are more often than not, ignored, and those using them are sometimes accused of being Japanese wannabes, which to me, is a racist innuendo that’s part of the cultural memories of Caucasoid Americans.

R.H. Blyth wrote, “. . . even where English haiku lack a season word, when they are too long, or have too many adjectives, or tend to morality or emotionality or philosophy, they have something in common with Japanese haiku.”

Blyth goes on to say, “This common element is sense in thought, thought in sense, the thought is not mere thought, but the thought subsumed in sensation; the sensation is not simply sensation, but the sensation involved in real thinking, that is, poetical thinking. When they are divided or divisible, when the word and the object, the man and the thing are in anyway separated or separable, no poetry, and especially that of haiku in any language is possible.” 

Blyth’s postulation sounds reasonable via a quick read. In actuality, however, it’s not accurate. The Japanese mindset and the Caucasian Western mindset are very different, and come from different sources. Caucasian thought comes from a cultural landscape steeped in Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, and Teutonic influences. How the West understands a given word and how Japan or China perceives the same word can be poles apart.

Without clearly definitive rules, a growing number of Western haiku poets are composing whatever comes to his or her mind, the result: a non-poetic fart. Sameness in difference; proportion and balance, must exist in order to form a haiku.

Imagine a gymnastic event at the World Olympics, in which the athletes have no set rules, and are free to do their own thing within reason, as long as what they do resembles the gymnastics routine they are participating in. How would the judges score the athletes and by what standards? The Zoka  isn’t stifled by the rules of the genre it helped to form. It’s people who stifle the Zoka. In nature, there’s balance: the food chain, tidal currents, interdependency, etc. and we are today experiencing what happens when human kind upsets this order: Global Warming, the extinction of animals, insects, flora, and perhaps the extinction of life as we know it if this disregard for nature’s order continues to escalate.

Wrote Lee Gurga in 1997,

"An important change that is occurring in American haiku is the decrease in those being introduced to haiku through Japanese culture and an increase in those discovering haiku from the poetry-writing arena . . . I think that the world's haiku poets recognize our common heritage in Japanese haiku, and at the same time acknowledge that Japanese and American haiku will likely grow apart."

There is no reason for American haiku and Japanese haiku to grow apart; nor is there a justification for the bastardization of a genre that is occurring amongst an extremely small group of haiku poets in colonized America.

There is no need, nor impetus to reinvent the wheel and alter haiku to a point where it is beyond recognition, where people call a poem a haiku because it has “the haiku spirit.”  The best English-language haiku composed by Americans are miles above what The Heron’s Nest recognized as the publication’s top two haiku in their quarterly February 2011 issue:

migrating geese ---
the things we thought we needed
darken the garage

Chad Lee Robinson
 

Looking
Not looking
Roadkill

Christopher Herold

Perhaps like the fly who thought he was a carabao, Gurga fails to see the entire picture, thus distorting his importance. What good is a common heritage if some Westerners jettison literally everything that makes a haiku a haiku?

Some other examples of short poems being heralded today as good haiku:

Christmas pageant ---
the one who had to get married
plays virgin Mary

Lee Gurga

Gurga’s poem is not a haiku except in appearance. It is object-biased and not event-biased. The focus is on a cute play of words, the juxtaposition between line one and lines two and three ineffective, as the combination of the two segments fails to create a new entity or reveal the unsaid. It is a subjective poem that reads more like a comedian’s joke.

This is a close relative of Cor van den Heuvel’s

dark road
sparks from a cigarette
bounce behind the car

Cor van den Heuvel

What is special or memorable about this haiku-like poem? It’s a poorly written shasei, capturing a common everyday sight like that captured in an Edward Hopper painting, only emotionless, leaving no room for interpretation, and unable to develop a surplus of words. He sees something and writes down what he saw using a short compact generalization.

Cor made a mockery of modern English language and literally snubbed his nose at convention by penning what he labeled a one-word haiku. Meter? No. Aesthetic? No. Event-biased? No! This kind of “aha” revelation reminds me of the instant revelations uttered by people tripping on LSD. Words are objects, nothing more. Their purpose is to name other objects. The color red, for instance, wouldn’texist if it had no name. A poem is formed when a person expertly assembles a rhythmic unit that gives life and substance to the unsaid. Without meter, a haiku is not a haiku nor is it a poem of any kind. This is what I am referring to by asserting that haiku is being bastardized and has lost any sort of unified identity, and is in no way like the haiku the Japanese call haiku. Buson would shake his head at this mockery. So would Buson, Issa, and Chiyo-ni. Even the outspoken critic of traditional Japanese haiku who called Basho, in essence, a second rate poet, Shiki, would shake his head. This is not what Shiki envisioned when he set out to reform haiku, and later, tanka.

Tundra

Cor van den Heuvel 

(Curbstones, 1998)

The following by Michael Dylan Welch is a close relative of Cor van den Heuvel‘s so-called one-word haiku:

night
falling
snow

Michael Dylan Welch

A haiku? No. A poem? No. Shasei? No. Shiki would never call this incomplete sentence a poem. If this so-called haiku and the one-line faux “aha” by Cor van den Heuvel are indicative of modern English haiku, the time isn’t far off when the global haiku community will need a Shiki to come along and rebuild a sinking ship. 

after-dinner mints
passed around the table . . .
slow falling snow

Michael Dylan Welch

Where is the mystery in this haiku-like poem? Where is the meter, the unsaid, that certain something that makes this poem different from an Imagist poem? Welch writes some beautiful haiku as well. When he writes haiku, he is either on or off, his meter is inconsistent. The following haiku by Welch is well-crafted, meaningful, with an excellent command of imagery:

wet beach sand—
a sandpiper's song
of footprints
 

I stayed up all night
trying to dream about you

Paul David Mena

Mena’s poem is a sentence; a statement. It says nothing new. It has no meter.

The following haiku by veteran haiku U.S. poet, Billie Wilson (no relation), was awarded the distinction of being named the Heron’s Nest POEM OF THE YEAR for 2010:

campfire sparks-
someone outside the circle
starts another song  

Billie Wilson

Compare this haiku-like poem with the eloquence of Bruce Ross’ haiku. The difference is night and day.

sleepless night
the space between
two stars

Bruce Ross

Campfire sparks . . . someone outside the circle starts another song.

Billie Wilson’s poem consists of two parts; an incomplete sentence and a complete sentence:

1. Campfire sparks

2. Someone outside the circle starts another song.

Sparks (object)   someone (object)    circle (object)   song (object)

There is an active campfire. Someone nearby is singing a different tune than what is sung at the campfire. The juxtaposition between lines one and two and three is ineffective as what was meant to be a contrast is a comparison of two similar activities at and near the campfire that’s not uncommon, nor can the combining of the two parts create a surplus of words, that in turn makes sense of the unsaid, thus creating an entirely new picture.

In contrast Bruce Ross’ haiku is activity-biased, objective, with a focus that’s not centered around as object like Imagist poems usually do. Ross’ focus is the space between the two stars. How is the space between two stars causing sleeplessness? It is a poem that invites the reader to complete it using his or her own cultural memory and life experiences.

sleepless night(object)
the space between
two stars(object)

Bruce Ross

Billie Wilson’s haiku-like poem is an object-biased poem more akin to a bland Imagist poem. I say “bland” when I think of Ezra Pound’s famous Imagist 14-word poem, In a Station at the Metro:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough

Haiku is not a schizophrenic entity with multiple personalities. A frog isn’t a toad, and a tadpole isn’t a sperm cell. This, however, is what many are thinking; there are two forms of haiku: English haiku and Japanese haiku. In some ways, the North American English-language haiku movement is championing the mediocrity of haiku that Shiki went up against at the beginning of the 20th century. The only difference is the mediocrity composed during Shiki’s era (Meiji) was the result of crass commercialism and the idolatrous veneration of Basho by competing schools of haiku each claiming to be the true champion of Basho and his haiku. It should be noted that Basho was deified by the Japanese government in 1879.

Richard Gilbert inadvertently below describes the bastardization of haiku and the reasoning behind it,

“To a large extent, the evolution of form in English haiku has been wedded to the qualities Blyth (along with others) outlines above, whether considered from an aesthetic, experiential, or literary perspective. That is, the Japanese haiku, and the literary culture which bore it, has provideda model example for a new form of English, and indeed global, poetry.” (vol. 4, p. 980).

Blyth, Yasuda, and others made some glaring mistakes in scholarship and, instead of setting the record straight, some like Gilbert, justify these errors by saying, in essence, that since Blyth’s books have already influenced the English speaking world’s perception of haiku, it is best to accept those mistakes; mistakes he acknowledged has altered the English-language conceptualization of haiku poetry.

What Gilbert describes below is Imagist and Modernist poetry calling itself haiku.

“English haiku has firmly established itself as a distinct free-verse poetic form, and in general, the passion for some sort of ‘mirror-like’ emulation of the Japanese haiku has in many quarters either devolved into or achieved (depending on your point of view) mere inspiration, complete autonomy, or divergence.”

As a “distinct free-verse poetic form”, why is English haiku still being called by a Japanese name. Either it is haiku or it’s not. The dictionary definition of “distinct”: recognizably different in nature from something else of a similar type: the patterns of spoken language are distinct from those of writing (Apple Dictionary). This not new, however, but a continuation of the kind of haiku that was included in The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van den Houvel, published in 1974, which was the first major anthology of English haiku.

Wrote Haruo Shirane in his book, Traces of Dreams, referring to the haiku in the aforementioned Haiku Anthology,

“Much of the haiku, which is usually written in three lines, focuses on moments of intense perception, especially the sensory aspects of physically small objects, or on a particular instant in time, commonly referred to as ‘haiku moment’.”

Shirane further stated, “The majority of these haiku in English as well as haiku translations from Japanese are done in the style of the Imagists and Modernists such as Stevens, Elliot, and Williams. “

“English haiku has firmly established itself as a distinct free-verse poetic form …”By whose measure? English haiku as conceptualized by the small word-wide group of English-language haiku poets under the influence of on- and off-line haiku journals and workshops, small press publishers, and local, regional, national, and international haiku organizations unrelated to Japan.

Why does Gilbert omit the millions more educated in English-speaking university and public school systems not under the aforementioned influences, a body of people including students, educators, those harboring beliefs counter to the aforementioned clusters; experts in the fields of hermeneutics, aesthetics, and English literature, etc., who see things through different eyes?

Adds Shirane, “ . . . the passion for some sort of ‘mirror-like’ emulation of the Japanese haiku has in many quarters either devolved into or achieved (depending on your point of view) mere inspiration, complete autonomy, or divergence “

Many people, including myself, who adhere to the Japanese conceptualization of haiku, are not emulating Japanese haiku when we compose haiku. We see within the genre a path, a way to compose poetry that adheres to tenets that are proven, work well, and produce first-class haiku. This posture by some spokespeople for the so-called English Haiku Movement is defensive and accusatory. M. Kei, Captain Haiku (Welch), Paul Miller, etc. hurl these accusations and faulty reasoning whenever someone questions their assertion that English haiku and/or tanka is a separate genre.

To compose “mirror-like” emulations of Japanese haiku is impossible.

Bruce Ross perceptively notes in 1993, wrote,

“The fourth generation [of the mid-1980s on] of American haiku poets has through experimentation all but obliterated the requisite form and substance of classic Japanese haiku: there is a consistent lack of seasonal references, surrealist techniques and figurative expression are introduced, regular prosody is eliminated, and human, rather than nature, subjects are increasingly emphasized. Contemporary American haiku has been made a poetic vehicle for eroticism, psychological expression, political and social commentary.

Regarding the importance of meter in haiku, Koji Kawamoto writes in his book, The Poetics of Japanese Verse, “Line length, as we have noted above, is the determining element in Japanese moraic meter. While this fact remains unshakable, closer examination of the matter reveals, however, that in addition to the larger framework of seven- and five-morae verses, there indeed does exist a system of smaller, less immediately apparent rhythmic patterns functioning at the level of the individual line. These patterns serve to bring a degree of variation to the otherwise monotonous movement of seven-five (or five-seven) rhythm -- a fact which, taken to its logical conclusion, clearly suggests that there is more to Japanese meter than just counting morae and pausing at verse breaks after all.”

There are several excellent English-language haiku poets on terra firma who compose first-class haiku that captures the essence of true haiku. They are not Japanophiles or copycats. Their haiku are far superior then what many are passing off as modern haiku today. They make use of Japanese aesthetics because these tools capture the true essence of haiku, which is not subjective or object-biased. They respect the genre and its spirit. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, just the need to understand and learn from the wheel.

Some examples of English-language poetry written within the sphere of haiku poetic rules and guidelines:

ground fog
up to my ankles
in moonlight 

Jim Kacian

Kacian’s a talented haiku poet and someone who’s studied the form. The above haiku follows the S/L/S metric schemata, effectively utilizing Japanese aesthetic tools, and allows room for a surplus of words to express the unsaid in his haiku. His use of juxtaposition is excellent, contrasting line one with lines two and three, the two opposites forming a symbiotic whole that gives Kacian’s poem a whole new dimension, inviting the informed reader to interpret the haiku.

Ground fog + ankles and moonlight = an event-biased haiku: the poem is not focused on the fog or the ankles. The focus is the connection between line one and lines two and three. Ground fog tells that it is cold, the air conjoined by hot and cold air. Combined with moonlight, we know it is either nighttime or pre-dawn morning. How does moonlight tie in with the fog? Why is the moonlight shining on his ankles up to his knees? This is an area each reader has to answer for him or herself. This poem is rich in yugen. At the end of line one, though not using a substitute for a cutting word (punctuation), the juxtaposition causes the reader to stop and reflect in what is referred to as ma.

The following haiku are written by American haiku poets. They are event- biased, adhere to the S/L/S metric schematic indigenous to haiku, kigo is utilized, as are Japanese aesthetics. They are beautiful haiku that allow room for an informed reader to interpret the haiku according to his or her own cultural memory, experience, etc. They have depth and make excellent use of the unsaid. Haiku of this caliber is true haiku. Reading these haiku convinces me that American haiku and Japanese haiku don’t need to be two different entities. North Americans and the Japanese may have different cultural memories and cultural landscapes. The two cultures can have different meanings for words and view life from different spiritual or Gnostic eyes. The Japanese aesthetic tools used are, as the Japanese define, styles. They are styles (tools) that work to unearth the unsaid in a poem utilizing an economy of words. Think of them as tools. And remember, one needs a full toolbox to build something correctly.

mother’s scarf
slides from my shoulder . . .
wild violets

Peggy Willis Lyles

 

morning bath
clouds & birds float between
still wet limbs 

Anita Virgil

 

traveling, too,                                   
on a seat by the window                    
green melons 

Michael McClintock    

 

A small group of people who claim to be the vanguard and spokespeople of the so-called Modern English haiku movement in America, are just that, a small group of people whose influence doesn’t go far beyond the on- and off-line journals, magazines, private web-pages, self published books and anthologies, how-to books, and haiku association meetings that, with few exceptions, fall under the umbrella of the HSA. The majority of people who write haiku in North America don‘t belong to online workshop, haiku associations, or reading on- or off-line journals. The majority who write haiku are the product of the education debacle in the U.S. public school system where haiku is taught by teachers with little to no understanding of the genre and wouldn’t know Basho or Issa from the man in the Moon. They plan their haiku lessons around a paragraph or two in the teacher’s edition of their English Literature textbook written by sound alike pseudo scholars who parrot one another by writing principally the same definition. This should be the number one priority of the movers and shakers of the so-called vanguard and spokespeople of the Modern American haiku movement. Until this debacle in the public school system is replaced with a credible alternative, the vanguard and spokespeople of the Modern American haiku movement needs to influence school districts, textbook publishers, county superintendent of schools offices, and the State and Federal Departments of Education.

Blyth’s books contain excellent material and scholarly translations. Even with some mistranslations and flawed concepts, his work is pivotal, providing the English-speaking world with an understanding of haiku theyotherwise wouldn’t have had access to. With this said, Blyth’s books influenced many North Americans. Nevertheless, misconceptions and errors in translations can affect the conceptualizations of haiku and related genres of those relying on their scholarship for answers and understanding, thus the huge responsibility a translator and researcher must bear and take into consideration.

The following interpretation of a Japanese modernist poet’s haiku is an example of how Blyth’s misconceptions regarding haiku are currently affecting English-language haiku:

Paul Miller in his review of Ban’ya Natsuishi’s book, The Flying Pope, made the following exegesis of Basho’s famous “frog” poem:

 the old pond— a frog jumps in, water’s sound

Writes Miller, “What makes Basho’s iconic ‘old pond’ work is that he gives the reader a comfortable base to start with before he makes any imaginative leap. Everyone knows what an old pond is, so when the reader gets to the last line he or she is pleasantly surprised by the freshness of the sound moment.”

A good way of saying nothing about the haiku’s essence.

Acclaimed Japan haiku poet, Madoka Mayuzumi, in a lecture given on January 25, 2010, at the Cultural and Information Centre of The Embassy of Japan in Brussels, Belgium, wasn’t impressed with what she calls a poor understanding of haiku by the French people.

Reports Dr. Gabi Greve, “Observing the seasons is ingrained in Japanese culture, and these arts also use a minimalism which creates much more than meets the eye. In haiku, there is that empty space between the lines, which speaks at least as much as in the lines themselves. The writer will say the bare minimum -- and then, the educated reader will understand what has been said and what has not been said.”

A haiku must have this elusive “blank” or space which expresses meaning as much as the words contained in the haiku. In translation, she called this the “literature of silence” or of "things unsaid" (in Japanese, yohaku 余白) -- but the educated reader would understand what had been left unsaid. Haiku is a joint undertaking between the author and the reader.

States Dr. Gabi Greve in her account of Madoka Mayuzumi’s speech, “She compared haiku with a tapestry of words -- the spaces between the threads are as important as the threads themselves.”

Haiku avoids the direct expression of emotions, which it arouses in the reader or listener, and therefore transcends them.

A haiku must have kigo -- without a kigo, it is not a haiku.

She told us about the wealth of vocabulary that exists in Japanese, e.g. for the mountains in different seasons. She told us that the Japanese observe the moon very carefully, and that they love it when it is almost perfectly full even more than when it is perfectly full.

She asked us how many words exist in French for rain. Ten perhaps? In Japanese, there are about 440... just an example... this is because Japanese people have been observing nature and the seasons closely and writing about them for centuries.

She also told us that every letter written in Japanese must start with a seasonal reference (or if not, must contain an apology for its absence).

She had been asked about the rules -- why does such a short form of poetry have to have so many rules? Her answer was that because the rules are fixed, poets can develop a high level of artistry within them. She compared this to the floor exercises of an Olympic gymnast. The floor perimeter is perfectly defined, and the best gymnasts know how to use this space to the full -- not to remain only in the centre, and not to place even one toe outside it.

In Japan, she said, haijin were returning to loving the rules after a period of experimentation.

The English haiku community doesn’t have to be the fly who thought he was a carabao. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Quality haiku is attainable without a need to change the genre into something it’s not. English-language haiku doesn’t need a facelift. English-language poets must accept the challenge, be disciplined, and strive, as the Japanese still do, save for those influenced by Western thinking and misconceptions that run counter to Asian thinking, to work within the rules to compose haiku that is far superior to the “junk” haiku showcased and heralded by those who have swallowed and added to Blyth’s and Yasuda’s errors.

When Marc di Saverio submitted the haiku below, I found myself doing what I rarely do after reading a haiku. I read it and reread it, and each time I read it unveiled new truths. Most haiku are not memorable. Many in the West are object-biased and leave little for the reader’s imagination. di Saverio’s leaves a pleasant aftertaste. It employs yugen with his haiku’s usage: why the slow windless steps?

What did that have to do with winding the dandelion clocks?

What is a dandelion clock?

now with slow
windless steps I wind the
dandelion clocks

Marc di Saverio

steps: object

dandelion clocks: object

now: present tense

The two objects in di Saverio’s haiku are not the poem’s focus. The focus is unseen, without a word to describe it. As an informed reader, it’s my duty to complete di Saverio’s haiku with my own interpretation. If a haiku can be easily understood, it’s telling too much. The magic of haiku is its ambiguity, the hints and visual juxtaposition between opposites, the unsaid and the said, and the use of other aesthetic tools (styles) that, when understood and used correctly, create a surplus of words that stimulate one’s imagination. An event-biased haiku is in a continuum of motion. Nothing thought by the human brain is an object. The brain is a computer.

Thoughts are born, figured, refigured, and very much alive. Once a thought enters the brain, it’s combined with other thoughts. These thoughts and their assemblage deepen the cognitive process. No haiku can be purely shasei, as shasei is a sketch of nature, based on what one sees. In reality, every human paints his or her own illusions based upon cultural and landscape memories, experience, education, parental influences, etc. When I read a haiku, I don’t try to understand what the poet who composed it meant unless I am studying the haiku. I let the reading of it (silently or audibly) paint thoughts in my cerebral cortex. Because objectivity is almost impossible at this point, I interact with my subconscious mind, entering into the interpretative; every thought signaling a synaptic nerve to ignite another; concatenating every associative thought and visualization until a canvas of understanding is painted. No other person can paint the same exact painting you or I may paint in our individual minds. A good haiku is alive.

Haiku is the scent of green tea, the space between this and that, the giggling stream, the visualization of zoka, the marriage of contrasts, the fragile reflection of the human psyche; construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction; the dance of leaves, the song of crickets, the unsaid, the “aha” that comes from meditation instead of a magic wand giving one the impression that he or she has written a hot haiku; a tear, a breakthrough, the twinkle of stars, time and space, ambiguity, the sameness in difference and difference in sameness; activity bias, the re-animation of frozen sea slugs, the sound of a water jar on an icy night, crawling tides, tearful fish, the floating world, water’s sound, the moon’s mountain, rock’s absorbing cicada songs, the loneliness of a crow swallowed by night, blossoms on the waves, gazing at the cut end of a tree, the Way, the Fuga, Heaven’s River, clarity, the ushin, what Professor Esperanza Rameriz-Christensen in her book, Emptiness and Temporality, says: “embodies the essential nature of poetry in reflecting the depth of the poet’s mind, it’s utmost concentration, such that there occurs a felt fusion between mind and language, or subject and object, and words themselves are liberated from their finite semantic boundaries in ordinary linguistic usage.”