Home 2003-2012 Simply Haiku 2011 Spring 2011 Features Interview with Haruo Shirane
An Interview with Professor Haruo Shirane PDF Print E-mail

Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature, Columbia University

by Robert D. Wilson


RDW: You stated in a paper you wrote this past December, American Haiku & Myths, “One of the widespread beliefs in North America is that haiku should be based upon one's own direct experience; that it must derive from one's own observations, particularly of nature.” This is a widespread belief not only in North America but in other English- speaking European and Oceanic countries as well. You further went to state, “We are often told, particularly by the pioneers of English-language haiku (such as D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and the Beats), who mistakenly emphasized Zen Buddhism in Japanese haiku, that haiku should be about the "here and now". This is an extension of the notion that haiku must derive from direct observation and personal experience. Is this widespread belief valid?

HS: I don’t think it is a matter of valid or invalid. Haiku can be based on direct experience and it can be about here and now. But that is not a rule or requirement of haiku, at least of Japanese haiku. The kigo, or seasonal word, means that the haiku is anchored in a specific season, which is usually the season at that time. In that sense, the haiku is about the here and now. However, historically, there were two kinds of haiku (called hokku in the pre-modern period): those that were based on experience and those that were based on a specific, pre-established topic (dai). The dai could be about a place or object that one has not experienced directly and would thus be fictional or imaginative. Haiku derived from haikai, or popular linked verse, which involved a journey (in the course of linked verse) through time and space, often to worlds that the poet imagined or knew about only through poetry or literature.

Of the two experiences, the immediate, personal one was probably the most important, but it did not mean that it was based on real facts. A haiku about strong stem of young bamboo, for example, might be about the strong character of a young boy. It is an implicit metaphor. It looks like it is about an immediate object but it is actually about something else.

RDW: A follow-up question: In my understanding of Japanese aesthetics and hermeneutics, the Japanese view life as something that is continually changing, evolving, in a continuum of time, that’s far from predictable. If so, wouldn’t the concept propagated by the majority of English-language Western books, publications, and journals regarding “the haiku moment” run counter to the Japanese mindset regarding haiku? I ask you these questions because the majority of haiku I read today in Western journals are often too descriptive, lack the unsaid, and point to objects versus the process of continually becoming. When I compare “Western” haiku with Japanese haiku, it’s as if I am reading two different genres of poetry. Japanese haiku is more than a compilation of word (objects) assembled together to form a short form poem of 31 syllables or less.

Some have even gone so far as to postulate that “Western” haiku is a different genre, that Westerners instinctively have a different poetic metric schemata, therefore, negating the need for the S/L/S schemata indigenous to mainstream Japanese haiku; and finally, accuse those who utilize Japanese aesthetics in the composition of haiku as Japanophiles and Japanese wannabes. I understand their desire to maintain their own cultural identities, which in a melting pot like The United States is hard to categorize. I see Japanese aesthetics like ma, yugen, makoto, etc as tools that’re essential in the writing of a minimalist poem, which suggests, hints, and gives equal value to the said and the unsaid.  What are your thoughts, Professor?

HS: As for world view, there is no such thing as a Japanese view of life any more than we can say there is a fixed American view of life. What Japanese believe today differs from what they believed before WWII, and what they believed before WWII is different from the previous period, and so forth. Cultures evolve rapidly particularly with new technology. That said, there tends to be a closer attention to time in Japan and particularly to passing time and to the brevity of things. This comes in part from the Buddhist tradition but it also comes from centuries of a poetic tradition that pays attention to that aspect of life, to quickly passing things such as the cherry blossoms scattering or to the waves in the wake of a boat. The “haiku moment” may capture that or it may not. The main point is that Japanese haiku is not as clearly defined as North American poets tend to think; there is a wide spread of  perspectives in the Japanese haiku, which makes it a rich genre. 

As for the second issue of whether North Americans should try to imitate Japanese poets or be faithful to their own instincts and traditions, I would say:  be faithful to your own instincts. There is no point in trying just to imitate Japanese haiku; that is impossible in any event due to differences in language, form, and thought. There is only a resemblance between the two, which is sufficient. American or British haiku should be unique; that’s what makes it important and interesting. It is the result of cultural fusion, which is a great thing. Imagine the opposite case. Should the Japanese try to spend all their time trying to compose sonnets in Japanese? No one wants a poetic straight jacket.

RDW:  Is what's labeled today as modern English haiku, truly haiku or are they short imagist poems? In other words, do you feel that the haiku published in the 1974 Haiku Anthology edited by Cor van den Huevel, of which you said in your book Traces of Dreams, "The majority of these haiku in English as well as haiku translations from Japanese are done in the style of the Imagists and modernists . . ." has matured, and risen above its similarity to Imagism?

Spread on the roadway,
With open-blown jackets,
Like black, soaring pinions,
They swoop down the hillside,
The Cyclists.

Amy Lowell (Imagist poet)


On the wood paneling,
the shadow of my lantern
looks like a bell.
I got drunk last night
and tried to ring it.

Andrew Riutta (American tanka poet)


HS: I think that North American haiku has matured; it is not simply Imagist. That was a little bit of an exaggeration for me to say that. This particular example (Andrew Riutta) is good because it has a narrative built into it. I am curious why you gave me this example since it looks like a tanka and not a haiku. I personally see no reason why haiku poets should confine themselves to three lines; five lines like this is fine and it often produces more complex poetry. The main weakness of North American haiku today is the lack of depth in some of the poetry. Poetry should have some complexity to it so that when you reread it, you see something new or there is something that lingers in your brain or heart. The test of good poetry, haiku or not, is that sparks the imagination of the reader. Haiku is as much about the reader as it is about the poet.

RDW: Was Shiki influenced by Western modernist thought and to what extent? His poetry and insistence of the use of shasei, and the immediacy of the moment, coupled with a focus on an object versus experience is closely aligned with the beliefs of the Imagists as well as those postulated by Blyth and Yasuda. So is Shiki’s outlook that everything in haiku should be concrete truth, the negating the existence of metaphor and personification. How deep has Blyth and Yasuda’s conceptualization of haiku, influenced by Shiki and the Imagists, affected the haiku poetics today in the English-speaking modern haiku movement as personified by the American Haiku Association? And has this influenced modern Japanese haiku? Is this a good influence or a negative influence? Please elucidate, Professor Shirane.

HS Yes, Shiki was influenced by modern notions of poetry and literature, but he was equally influenced by the waka (Japanese classical) tradition and Chinese poetry. So there is no straight line here from West to East. One of the most important of Shiki’s contributions was his use of language; he did not confine himself to classical Japanese or to the vocabulary of earlier haikai or waka poets. Instead, he turned to contemporary language and topics. At the same time, he continued to be acutely aware of seasonal words and of the power that they had (both in the past and in the present) in connecting the poet to his or her readers. Haiku is basically communal poetry, and sharing in vocabulary and topics (both old and new) was an important part of that. The difference between Shiki’s use of classical Japanese and modern Japanese tends to be lost in English translation, but you can imagine a poet using both Shakespearean language and modern American and you get some idea of the language and stylistic range.

Yes, one could say that Shiki stressed concrete truth in haiku, but that would also be a gross exaggeration. Even in  modern haiku that appear to be objective, there is always an implicit metaphor or implicit personification. There is some overtone that implies an emotion or thought. I don’t think he ever advocated the erasure of metaphor and personification.

RDW:  Is it imperative to utilize Japanese aesthetics as tools in the composition of English haiku? Due to the genre's shortness, is it possible to compose a haiku in English without being object-biased? Can Western haiku poets possess a double vision, an awareness of an object and the unsaid, and at the same time, view haiku objectively as "a text in constant motion objectively”?

HS:  I don’t think there is a need to utilize Japanese aesthetics. What is Japanese aesthetics anyway? Is there an American aesthetic? Disneyland? The Wild West? Walden Pond? Baseball? You can find an aesthetic where you want to. It is not a given, and it is constantly changing. Poets make their own aesthetics, through their poetry, and they draw on the aesthetics of those who came before them. It is both inherited and created, but it is not fixed. North American haiku poets can draw on a certain vision they may have of Japanese aesthetics, but each will have his or her own view, and that is the way it should be. Or they can choose to ignore Japan.

Yes, it is possible to compose an English haiku that is not object-biased. I don’t think there are any set rules here. The only thing that I would stress is the need for haiku to have overtones. This is true of all poetry. That is what distinguishes poetry from prose, the fact that something radiates beyond the literal meaning of the words, that you are saying one thing but implying more than that. If that implication or overtone comes from intertextual resonance or from some literary or cultural reference, that is fine. Or that implication may come from a simply image or landscape. One is not necessarily superior to the other.

RDW:  Kenneth Yasuda in his book Famous Japanese Haiku says haiku poets should avoid using metaphor, simile, or personification. George Marsh says the same thing, and so do others. How come so many have bought into this hook, line, and sinker. Haiku utilizes an economy of words. It suggests, it utilizes the unseen. In Matsuo Basho’s famous Sado Island haiku, it would be easy for a Westerner to see and read it as a description of what Basho saw (object-biased), but if one is familiar with the area, the history of Sado Island, and the Japanese use of symbolism, they would see this haiku as one making use of  the metaphor. Am I correct? 

HS: The Sado haiku is actually a good example. It appears to be simply an objective, image-based poem drawn from personal experience. However, it suggests much more. On  one level, it is about the loneliness of the poet, or the smallness of the individual beneath a vast sky or heavenly landscape. On another level, it is about all the people, including poets and artists, who were exiled to Sado Island over the centuries and about their sense of isolation. So this is not intertextual (reference to a specific earlier poem) but it is referential, drawing on the cultural memory of Sado. So this poem can be read literally and at the same time as an implicit metaphor. This is a poem with deep overtones.