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

With the author's permission, this article has been amended temporarily to appease an objection
to this journal's application of the 'fair use rule', as stated in the USC on Copyright Protection, to haiku. 

 

To Kigo or Not to Kigo:
Hanging From a Marmot’s Mouth
by Robert D. Wilson

 

a crane screeches,
its voice ripping the leaves
of a banana plant

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Makoto Ueda

A friend asked me recently, after reading a popular Japanese haiku journal, why much of the haiku she’d read, composed by Japanese poets, were similar to the haiku she reads in various Anglo-English language haiku publications, some even excluding kigo. She posed a solid question. This essay is my answer.

“Space and time are like the two lenses in a pair of glasses.
Without the glasses we could see nothing. The actual world,
the world external to our minds, is not directly perceivable;
we see only what is transmitted to us by our space-time
spectacles. The real object, what Kant called the ‘Thing-in-
Itself’, is transcendent, beyond our space-time, completely
unknowable… Perceptions are, in a sense, illusions. They
are shaped and colored by our subjective sense of space and
time.”

Martin Gardner, Mathematician
Brains and Reality by Jay Alfred (prologue)


Before time existed, when poetry was a way, and time was a bamboo leaf hanging from a marmot’s mouth, there lived a little boy whose mother and father were lowly servants for the rich man who owned the land that looked like a school of fish, an archipelago of stones that stretched across rainbows, off the coast of China, the land that later was christened, Japan. Although the boy didn’t attend school due to his lowly rank, he was a very intelligent child who asked questions about everything he saw and touched. The kindly rich man took a liking to the young boy and taught him in the early mornings, while his parents were cleaning his house, how to read and write. “When I was your age,” said the rich man to his pupil, “I too asked thousands of questions. Remember this: memorizing the answers is meaningless. What you do with the answers is the proof of your learning.”

Every morning, the old rich man, with few exceptions, save for sickness or an occasional royal visit, taught the young boy to read and write. It was something they both looked forward to. The boy was a fast learner, with the heart of a poet. His was a world of experience versus subjective aha’s and definitions that change as often as the tides, a blob of paint yielded by the moon. The rich man was a wise teacher and taught the boy, who now had reached the age of puberty, to seek out the wisdom of the clouds, the rain, the wind, and the other forces in nature that were continually reinventing themselves in a continuum of time without beginning or end, an oil painting that never dried. The servant’s son saw all of these forces as teachers, and through them, learned to think beyond human experience and subjective thought; the latter, a wide path that changes like a drunk man walking in circles in a square room.

The day came when the boy, now a young man, longed to see what was beyond the rich man’s kingdom. He asked his father for permission to travel into the unknown, a canvas of white space his parents had never traveled. His father took his son to see his master to seek out his counsel and obtain his permission.

“My son,” said the young man’s father, “has reached the age where mirrors are no longer relevant. He wants to travel beyond your kingdom into the white space that has no name. I’m uneducated and have not been there. I humbly seek your counsel, oh Lord.”

The rich man smiled, then asked his young protégée a question:

“How do all things come into being?”

“What is, isn’t; and what isn’t, is. I must find out for myself,” answered the young man. With that answer, the rich man clapped his hands and said, “You are ready to go. Follow the pipes of heaven.”

 

Introduction

In the Wild West before dawn, when the moon was full, and women were giving birth to babies in corn fields, white men, who came to North America from Europe, were up late thinking of ways to steal land from those they labeled heathens, not knowing that many brown-skinned people didn’t believe in owning land, that it belongs to the deities that dwell below the surface. They saw themselves as caretakers using earth, flora, and fauna to exist, not to reinvent the world into their own insecure images. There is much the Anglo race can learn from the indigenous peoples inhabiting this earth.

Is kigo and nature important to the integrity of haiku composition?

Why are some in the Anglo-West advocating a haiku-like poetry, they label haiku, that doesn’t see a necessity for kigo, let alone resemble the genre the Japanese shared with the Anglo-Western world over three centuries ago? Why are many justifying this stance by declaring that American haiku is a distinct genre apart from haiku?

Are Japan and the Anglo-West as different as some posit to justify the stance taken covertly and overtly by some American haiku poets that American haiku is a separate genre from Japanese haiku, and, therefore, necessitates a different set of rules? Take note, this is a stance taken by a vocal, well-organized minority of Anglo-American haiku poets who don't speak for the majority of haiku poets in North America; a majority who don’t belong to haiku organizations or read North American haiku journals, blogs, e-zines, and self-published books of haiku.

Ironically, this vocal grassroots minority has trouble defining their so-called ”breakaway genre.” Disagreement and confusion are rampant. Some say metaphors are taboo; others say they should be used sparingly. Some pontificate a necessity to jettison the S/L/S metric schemata indigenous to haiku, saying the English language is structured differently, and doesn’t have to follow the aforementioned metric schemata. To do otherwise, they claim, would be the Japanization of Anglo-Western ”haiku,” negating the Anglo-American cultural identity, which in itself is a mixing pot of cultures and subcultures, so vast and interwoven, one wonders how they can claim that haiku as the Japanese handed down to us long before the Anglo-Western colonization of Japanese universities is unsuitable for English-language usage.

Writes veteran Canadian haiku poet, George Swede, regarding the use of kigo in American haiku:

"I believe they are not necessary, but neither do I think that they should be ignored. Many fine haiku clearly indicate the season and many do not.”

He further iterates:

. . . of the “elements absolutely vital to the definition of haiku, the conclusion is unavoidable—season words are not necessary, although a knowledge of them can be useful, both for the composition of haiku and for the understanding of work written in foreign lands."

The Haiku Society of America webpage, regarding Anglo-American haiku, as defined by the Society’s definitions committee, consisting of Lee Gurga, Naomi Y. Brown, and Bill Higginson, states:

“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.”

Wrote Michael Dylan Welch in his essay, Up With Season Words, in his blog, Graceguts:

“I think seasonal references do often improve a haiku, but aren’t essential. Ultimately, I agree with the manifesto of the First International Contemporary Haiku Symposium, in which the first of seven conclusions is, quite simply, that ‘Season words’ are not absolutely necessary for global haiku. Whatever our preference regarding season words, each of us must find our own balance.”

Wrote veteran haiku poet and publisher, Jim Kacian, in his paper: Beyond Kigo: Haiku in the Next Millennium for Acorn Journal (2000):

 “In the new way of reckoning, however, a kigo is not an assumed part of a haiku, but a keyword is . . .”  “Kigo, then, operate as one large and important subset of all keywords, but are not the only words which a haiku may employ to the same effect.”

"Consider some poems from the recent international compendium Knots: The Anthology of Southeast European Haiku Poetry. While there is certainly plenty of 'spring rain' and 'autumn sky' as there ought to be, there are also poems such as these:

my best friend died –
some tiny grains of dust
on our chessboard

        Robert Bebek

 

deserted town –
hungry war victims
feed the pigeons

        Mile Stamenkovic"

 

“These poems,” states Kacian, “choose obvious and important subjects for their haiku moments. They are closely observed, have a moment of insight, have an emotive core which touches the reader. Few people would argue that they are not some sort of haiku, even though they do not contain kigo. But clearly ‘dust’ and ‘victims’ work in an analogous way here, and are the pivot and purpose of the poetry. These are not non seasonal anything. They are poems that work in the tradition of haiku which call upon a larger context than even kigo can supply for their impact. Recognizing and exploiting this is one of the chief characteristics of much of contemporary international, including Japanese, work. It seems somewhat beside the point to insist upon the one, when the other, more inclusive, covers the situation. There are many, many more such examples as these in Knots and in other contemporary books and journals of haiku.”

Kacian’s sounds like a carnival barker when he pontificates:

“Few people would argue that they are not some sort of haiku.

In other words,  Kacian is saying, "If you don’t believe like we do, than you are in the minority. I am stating what the majority ‘in the know’ think." That kind of logic might sell circus tickets or cars, but it‘s not sound academically (and lacks the facts needed to back it up). If the majority call a crab a lobster, does that make the crab a lobster? In the same light, Kacian states, ”There are many, many more such examples [poems like the two above] as these in Knots and in other contemporary books and journals of haiku.”  If others are doing it, then it must be right. If Kacian were on debate team at Harvard or Yale, his team would lose the debate using unsupported ambiguities to prove their point.

Continues Kacian, “Keywords, then, can replace the notion of kigo completely, and successfully, without radically altering the nature of haiku as we know it. And this is a successful, perhaps the only possible successful, means of doing so.” Only an individual with a flawed understanding of the role of nature in haiku would make a claim like that. In essence, Kacian is saying, "What was appropriate for Basho and his contemporaries, is outdated. Poets have since evolved. Haiku is no longer limited geographically to Japan. In an international forum, haiku needs a richer voice, one that can communicate internationally." The voice he talks about is the voice of the Anglo-Western mindset emanating from the same German-based university system Japan adopted near the close of the Meiji Era: a mindset that doesn’t view philosophy, poetry, art, theology, and aesthetics the same way that pre-colonized intellectuals and thinkers thought, when the Japanese cultural memory was defined by the Yamato language. This is something he’d be aware of had he done his homework before selling tickets to passersby.

What is richer than the unbridled creative power of nature? Humankind steps outside of nature, as if they were superior to all life forms, and want to shrink it to fit a mindset set on destroying this planet in as short a time as possible: Japan, Chernobyl, oil spills, global warming, racial and ethnic genocide, wars, etc. Nature is the only force humankind, in their ignorance, can’t control, let alone predict. This calls to my mind the "Chaos Theory" talked about by a mathematician in Crichton’s novel, JurassicPark. Scientists experiment and theorize to the point of playing god at times, but nothing in nature can be choreographed, and when scientists try to do so, the consequences, like what we are seeing in Japan, have been disastrous; and more often that not, covered up. Nature will go on; humankind, however, will kill themselves, unless they listen to and respect nature. 

The unbridled, unpredictable, creative force of nature: the Zhuangzi’s zoka, Basho’s zoka, Asian poety’s zoka, shamanic animism’s zoka, has much to teach the human race. Matsuo Basho said it was beast-like to ignore the zoka writing haiku. The centrical base for haiku is not Kenneth Yasuda and R.H. Bylth’s “haiku moment,” a concept borrowed from their misinterpretation of Zen Buddhism (a religion they mistakenly thought haiku was a literary invent of). Kigo is not a nature word in the sense that the German-based university defines and categorizes nature; nor is haiku a nature poem in the sense that the German-based university system defines and categorizes nature. The nature that Basho and other poets advocated and taught about to their disciples isn’t a part of Zen Buddhism per se. It’s a Daoist principal that I’ll go into deeper in this article; one that found a kindred spirit with Shinto and Japan’s indigenous shamanic animism, which Blyth called superstitious.

In the next millennium, then, international haiku,” expounds Kacian, will have dispensed with the notion of kigo in favor of the more overarching concept of keyword. This process is more evolutionary than revolutionary." [Word has it that humans will have to apologize to the apes for claiming they’re descended from the apes].Through such a development haiku will continue to be grounded in a universal system of value which is communicable to its practitioners and readership; there will be a smooth transition since none of the ‘classics’ of haiku need be thrown out due to the adoption of radically new values; and new work which speaks to a far larger and perhaps more contemporary audience will find acceptance within the canon of haiku because of the enlarged understanding of how such poems function [from a Western point of view]. And it is possible that one of the niche forms of haiku will have become the personal provenance of a truly unique sensibility, which might further restructure the way we look at haiku. It will be interesting to watch these developments over the coming decades as our old haiku becomes new. And this is necessary, since an unchanging art is a moribund art. Haiku, beginning its new international life, is anything but." The creative force of nature unchanging? It’s interesting that the basis for this theorization comes from a mindset that did not give the world haiku nor has a haiku master among them.

Writes Abigail Friedman in her book, The Haiku Apprentice:

“Much of the challenge and excitement of writing haiku in the West comes from the fact that there are no commonly agreed-upon rules. This is not so far removed from the situation in Japan. There, contemporary poets are challenging the existing haiku rules; in the West we are struggling to create them.”

Professor Michael F. Marra in his book, Modern Japanese Aesthetics, cites a series of lectures Nishi Amane gave in 1877 in the presence of Emperor Meiji, later published as The Theory of Aesthetics. In these lectures, Nishi, credited by many as a driving force behind the modernization of Japanese art and the introduction, conciliation, and acceptance of the German-based university system by Japan, having returned from two years of study in Holland, sought to introduce modern aesthetics that were heavily infused with the theories posited by Joseph Haven, in his book, Mental Philosophy, which Nishi translated into the Japanese language. Though a modernist influenced by the German-based university system, Nishi posited: “If one composes poems and songs without following rules at all, merely expressing whatever comes to mind, surely what results is not a form of poetry. If a road is very dangerous, winding to the right, returning to the left, climbing a precipice, then it must not be called a road. This necessity of sameness in difference: proportion and balance cannot be lacking.”

Translated by Professor Michael F. Marra
Modern Japanese Aesthetics

Lee Gurga wrote astutely in his introduction to Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku in 2000: “A crucial American deficiency is an incomplete or flawed understanding of what haiku is. Excessive individualism leads to the posture of whatever I want to call haiku is haiku."

“We have our own culture.”  “We have our own aesthetics.”  “We have our own language, which, hermeneutically and philosophically, doesn’t jive with the Japanese conceptualization of expression, thought, or biospheric identity.” Are these valid assertions? If so, how come they mimic, in many ways, the stance taken by R.H. Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda regarding Anglo-Western English language “haiku?” Why does their stance lack validation from the greatest Japanese short form poetry scholars in North America, including Donald Keene, Haruo Shirane, Makoto Ueda, Steven D. Carter, David Landis Barnhill, Peipei Qui, the late Michael Marra, etc.?

To address this stance and those related to it necessitates a series of articles. This paper is the third in a series of articles. In this article, I address this vocal minority’s position regarding the use of kigo in Anglo-American haiku.
 

Nature in haiku poetry is one of the least understood facets of the genre

American haiku is an impoverished subgenre of haiku. It is not a distinct genre. There cannot be two genres calling themselves haiku (a Japanese name for an American genre that claims to be distinctly different from haiku?) Either one is and the other isn’t. The following can be found on the Haiku Society of America website:
 

WHAT IS HAIKU?

“Haiku is a form of traditional Japanese poetry that involves a 17-syllable verse form comprised of three metric units of 5, 7, and 5 morae, which correspond to English syllables. In traditional Japanese methodology, the haiku is not only a poetic form of expression but also a manner of understanding the world. The brevity of haiku sometimes mistaken for simplicity, is meant to capture the world and existence in a single moment. It can be considered the form in which an epiphany is expressed. The deep sense of the transient nature of all existence present in haiku is rooted in its close associations with the religion of Buddhism and the Japanese concept of Yugen, a term for beauty that implies mystery, profundity, and a trace of sadness referred to as sabi.”


HOW TO WRITE HAIKU:

“Haiku imagery usually revolves around nature and communicates an abstract notion. Since the restricted form of the haiku does not allow room for much terminology, choosing phrases that are packed with verdant description while setting a certain tone is essential. These phrases are often compiled by using kigo, or words that are specific to each season . . . Above all, it is important to be specific and conjure imagery that opens up a full view into the moment you are experiencing and writing about.”
 

MODERN HAIKU:

“Although traditional haiku adheres to strict form and meter principles [?] and is bare of poetic adornments, modern haiku has extended the poetry form to fit the life and time of today. Modern haiku is sometimes looked down upon for its lax syllable count, use of metaphors, similes and rhyme, and unnatural images as its central focus. Modern haiku is also often described as the poet's direct experience of the world. However, it is hard to say whether the original masters of haiku would have focused so deeply on maintaining the tradition of the form or the simplicity with which it conveys what it expresses. Instead, it is surely possible that they may have considered the essence of the finished product more important. In this way, haiku has not changed much from the days of medieval Japan. Sarcasm and irony are tools that modern writers enjoy implementing within their haiku. Although haiku enthusiasts irritably disagree on a common definition for modern haiku, the main idea to remember is that the spirit of the haiku is what ultimately survives within the mind and heart of the reader.”

Note that form, rules, and more importantly, following the zoka (the creative, untamed spirit of nature, essential to haiku according to Matsuo Basho), are not considered vital in the HSA’s definition of Modern Haiku. This organization, claims Michael Dylan Welch, in his essay, Up With Season Words, in his blog, Graceguts “. . . can take pride in its central role in the history of haiku in English, in its ambiguous definition of modern haiku, the main idea to remember is that the spirit of the haiku is what ultimately survives within the mind, and heart, of the reader.”

States Professor Gilbert in his paper, The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A Study of Disjunctive Method and Definition in Contemporary English-Languge Haiku: “Given that the Japanese haiku is reductively misinterpreted and the English haiku undefined, the HSA definition seems a figment of culturally projective desire.”

HSA: “Haiku enthusiasts irritably disagree on a common definition for modern haiku . . .”

Michael Dylan Welch (Up With Season Words): “The Haiku Society of America simply isn’t as relevant, or even as necessary, as it used to be. It needs to change what it does and what it offers, or its membership numbers will stagnate or fall.”

Writes Professor Richard Gilbert in his paper, Kigo and Seasonal Reference: Cross-cultural Issues in Anglo-American Haiku: “The central issue for haiku in English may not be so much related to kigo and cultural superficiality, as with a central question Beat writers such as Snyder first articulated in the 1950s: ‘How do we grow our own souls?' That is, how do we grow our own culture?”

George Swede in his paper, Towards a Definition of the English Haiku: “Season words are not necessary, although a knowledge of them can be useful, both for the composition of haiku and for the understanding of work written in foreign lands.”

Marlene Mountain, from the mountain/backward, section two: “My current definition of haiku is that haiku can no longer be defined.”

Which form of haiku is legitimate and endorsed by the Haiku Society of America? The traditional? The modern? Or, does it matter?

One can’t ride the fence or a donkey backwards. If this minority of Anglo-Western poets have a distinct poetic genre, they should make a clean break, and give this new distinct genre a different name coupled with distinct rules (guidelines). Or, is this to be a genre without guidelines? The prevailing form most commonly featured in today's journals, e-zines, and workshops is the aforementioned modern haiku: the anything goes, no set meter, object-biased (mono), Imagist-oriented tossed salad that say little compared to the haiku penned in Japan prior to the Anglo-Western colonization of Japan’s universities that began in the late 1870’s.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of GENRE:

“A category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”

The sphere of those writing haiku in North America is too unorganized and divided, making a consensus as to what is and isn’t an Anglo-North American haiku, next to impossible.

Abigail Friedman could easily be the HSA’s spokesperson with her statement: “Much of the challenge and excitement of writing haiku in the West comes from the fact that there are no commonly agreed-upon rules.”

 

To kigo or not to kigo?

Australian poet, John Bird, in an e-mail to Beverley George published in an online Workshop recently, wrote:

“It is sufficient that we acknowledge the separate identity of Japanese haiku and English-language haiku.”

“Seasonality will not provide depth to English-language haiku, as it does for the Japanese.”

States Professor Richard Gilbert in his paper, Kigo and Seasonal Reference: Cross-cultural Issues in Anglo-American Haiku:

“ . . . it may be asked, what is the true intention of kigo? As a young genre, the English haiku has a unique opportunity to forge a refreshed sense of culture with regard to nature, and there may be more relevant philosophical issues at hand than the question of how to connote season words. A question yet to be addressed in English haiku is, what do we mean by nature?

Continues Gilbert: “One area of debate in Anglo-American haiku criticism has concerned the importation of kigo as a necessary concept for haiku practice. As haiku in English have no abiding kigo tradition, in some quarters the genre has been described as lacking in artfulness and depth. Attempts have been made to institute kigo practice, largely via the publication of saijiki (season-word glossaries); however, there is little evidence of poets having sought out these works, over the last several decades. As viewed from an Anglo-American perspective, kigo of Japan seem to convey a naturalistic indication of season, but little more.”

As previously mentioned, the majority of Japanese and Anglo-American haiku poets are confused as to the role of the kigo in haiku. Contrary to Gilbert’s assertion, many Anglo-American haiku poets inhabit a watered-down kigo-challenged culture taught to them haphazardly in a school system that doesn’t take the genre seriously, as evidenced by the references to haiku in most North American school textbooks. They have also relied too heavily on the outdated and faulty research of R.H. Blyth who was not a scholar trained in Japanese hermeneutics, aesthetics, or linguistics. “The Haiku Society of America,” says Michael Dylan Welch in his essay, A Look to the Future of Haiku in English, “can take pride in its central role in the history of haiku in English.”

Iterates Welch (Captain Haiku as he calls himself in the online blog with the same name) in his paper, A look to the Future of Haiku:

 “The American haiku community would surely be amorphous and unfocused without the unifying presence of the Haiku Society of America. Through its meetings, presentations, contests, and poetry readings, and through the sharing and discussion of haiku by its members, the Society has provided a dynamic literary forum central to the growth, study, and appreciation of this poetry. No doubt many haiku poets from Maine to California and beyond would have never met (even if only by correspondence) without the shared resource of Society membership lists and its members’ mailing addresses. It is in the details of this common interaction between haiku poets where the art and craft of haiku evolves. These details are vital brush strokes in the unrolling scroll of English-language haiku.”

Welch claims the HSA is the unifying thread that works together with other haiku publications and journals, North American haiku groups, as their spiritual guide, to popularize and spread haiku: “Before the Internet, the Haiku Society of America was the chief conduit for connecting with other haiku poets in the United States—and beyond.”

In the same essay, Welch writes: The Haiku Society of America simply isn’t as relevant, or even as necessary, as it used to be. It needs to change what it does and what it offers, or its membership numbers will stagnate or fall. A recent reduction in members might be attributable to the economy, but perhaps not. The HSA needs to offer new content or services of significant value that people cannot get online easily or for free.”

Welch feels this decline in influence can be partially altered by getting away from the Japanese conceptualization of haiku, prior to Shiki, as practiced by Basho, Chiyo-ni, Buson, and Issa:

 “The future of haiku in English has also been engaged recently with a movement towards gendai haiku. Gendai simply means 'modern,' and in Japan, while it might be foolish to attempt a definition, gendai haiku tend to be more subjective, abstract, and even surreal in comparison to more traditional haiku, even while retaining the form and other characteristics of the genre. This development is a positive sign for haiku in English in two ways. First, haiku poets writing in English are clearly paying attention to contemporary haiku in Japanese, rather than just the old masters, and perhaps for the first time American haiku poets are not decades (or centuries) behind developments in Japanese haiku.”

Welch and many other well-known members of this vocal minority should look within themselves for the answers, as reinventing themselves implies failure, doubt, and a poetic schemata that’s outdated. Welch urges HSA members and friends to follow the lead of Japanese Modernist poets, stretching haiku to new limits and vistas. What he and other HSA members fail to realize is the aforementioned Modernist Japanese poets are following what has been taught to them by the German-based university system they adopted in the 1920's, the same university system used in the Anglo-West.

Welch contradicts himself and other vocal HSA leaders, when he postulates: “More recently, subjectivity and abstraction, thanks to gendai haiku, is gaining more attention. But the gendai development is really the first shift towards a new type of haiku that finally mirrors what has been happening in Japan for several decades. This development is a positive one for English-language haiku because it facilitates greater range. It will hopefully not dilute haiku, but will enable poets to be attracted to the type, or types, of haiku that most appeal to them. As more types of haiku gain literary credibility, the potential is greater, too, for increasing the size and vibrancy of the haiku community and those who appreciate this poetry.”

If American haiku is a distinct poetic genre, why are they, as Welch claims, “paying attention to contemporary haiku in Japanese, rather than just the old masters, and perhaps for the first time American haiku poets are not decades (or centuries) behind developments in Japanese haiku?”  Why would a literary group say American haiku is a distinct genre, while at the same time adhering to and publishing the above? A genre doesn't try to emulate another genre nor to catch up with it.

Writes veteran North American CharlesTrumbull insightfully in his paper, The Importance of Seasons:

“Arguments against using a season word in haiku are voiced by (a) people who find it too difficult or artistically limiting to do so, (b) those who resist the Japanese season-word system because they find it too highly formalized and inappropriate for English poetry, (c) iconoclasts who want haiku to be whatever they say it is, tradition be damned, or (d) poets who would really rather be writing senryu or zappai (verses in haiku form that, respectively, treat human nature or are intended as pure slapstick). But haiku is, after all, nature poetry.”

Wrote University of Nebraska Professor Tom Lynch in his paper, Intersecting Influences in American Haiku, in 2001:

“Since the mid-1950s, literally thousands of collections of haiku poetry have appeared in the United States and Canada. Hundreds of thousands of haiku have been published in scores of magazines, and the rate of publication increases steadily. Yet English language haiku has not been accepted as a legitimate form of poetry worthy of inclusion in [mainstream] literary anthologies and consideration in critical discussions.”

Many belonging to the vocal minority compose a haiku synthesizing transcendental and Zen traditions into a haiku-like poetic form that's a cross between Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Suzuki, Gary Snyder, Mr. Rodgers, Jack Kerouac, Jerry Rubin, and William Carlos Williams.

To understand why American haiku has yet to be accepted as a legitimate form of poetry worthy of inclusion in mainstream literary anthologies and consideration in critical discussions, I have included in this paper a sampling of haiku accepted by various online American haiku websites including the Haiku Society of America website, and its literary journal, Frogpond, The Heron’s Nest, Modern Haiku, etc. Most of them make no differentiation between haiku and senryu, and lump them together either as haiku or as haiku/senryu; a further indication of the confusion as to what is and isn’t a haiku amongst this Anglo-American vocal minority:

breakfast cereal
with store-bought raspberries
Christmas morning

Jim Kacian

breakfast cereal with store-bought raspberries Christmas morning

breakfast: a time-centered object
cereal: an object
store-bought: a descriptive modifier
raspberries: an object
Christmas morning: a kigo (seasonal designator)

This haiku-like poem describes something the author apparently experienced. Sitting at his table, he savors a simple but delicious breakfast on Christmas morning. Eating a bowl of cereal with fresh fruit is delicious. Kacian juxtaposes lines one and two with Christmas morning. What does the juxtaposition do to unearth the unsaid, coagulate with the zoka, and say, other than to state the obvious, the color of the thawed red raspberries (out of season) calls to mind a primary color associated with Christmas: red; and the breakfast as a special feast, a present to himself on Christmas morning?

Object-biased? Yes. Subjective? Yes. Kigo-centered? No. What this short poem lacks is an identification and collusion with zoka.

States Professor Peipei Qui in my interview with her in this issue: “Bashô considered following zôka essential to all arts in this philosophical context.”

Basho's reference to zoka is not the object-biased physical side of nature. It is nature’s unpredictable, always changing, creative power.

Says Qui in the same interview: “ . . . following zôka to Bashô in the physical sense was to discover and appreciate the masterwork of zôka, and through doing so, to understand the way of a true artist.”

In Kacian's poem, there is little left to the imagination, which is the opposite of the unpredictable zoka. A good haiku draws its readers into the interpretative process. The use of kigo in Kacian's haiku-like poem is dead wood, unable to do anything but invoke memories of Christmas in other readers. Little room is left for readers to interpret the poem; mystery and suggestion not evident. For it to be relevant, the poet needs to blow life into the poem, via the “pipes of heaven,” infusing his thoughts with a strong connection to the zoka.
 

summer’s end—
rearranging gravel
in the Zen garden

Carol Raisfeld

summer’s end rearranging gravel in the Zen garden

Rearranging gravel in a Zen garden at the end of summer is nothing revelatory. It is an observation, nothing more. Raking ravel in a Zen garden at the end of summer is not a season event. Raisfeld's poem is not the fruit of a poet seeking to discover and appreciate the masterwork of zoka. “Summer’s end” reads like an add-on. It’s not the embodiment of kigo Matsuo Basho, Chiyo-ni, Yosa Buson, and other haiku masters of their day envisioned. Where in her poem is the voice of the unseen, the unsaid?

Professor Michael F. Marra in his book, Japanese Aesthetics – The Construction of Meaning, writes:

“The power of poetic language, thus, resides in its ability to say something by not saying it, or to say it by pointing at something else, or even by its indicating the opposite of what the poet intends to say.”

year's end—
what made me think I needed
a harmonica

year’s end what made me think I needed a harmonica

Carolyn Hall, Frogpond XXX:3

A haiku? No. It reads like an aside spoken jokingly by someone who's had a good year, although, at first, they thought it would be a bad year. Hall’s use of “harmonica” refers to its use by American Blues musicians. This piece has nothing to do with nature. “year’s end” is a kigo but, when appended to “me” and “harmonica” it loses its importance or relevance as a kigo.

Where is the true connection to nature as seen in the writings of Basho and Buson, literature that has withstood centuries, because haiku, when realized and understood, doesn't need to reinvent itself? I prefer the haiku of those who gave the world a genre of poetic expression unlike any other. That is what drew me to haiku in the first place. Haiku written without knowledge of what kigo is and represents, is lackluster, forgettable, and crude, as Basho admonished sternly to his students:

“Saigyo's waka, Sogi's renga, Sesshu's painting, Rikyu's tea ceremony --- one thread runs through the artistic Ways. And this artistic spirit is to follow zoka, to be a companion to the turning of the four seasons. Nothing one sees is not a flower, nothing one imagines is not the moon. If what is seen is not a flower, one is like a barbarian; if nothing one imagines is not a flower, one is like a beast. Depart from the barbarian, break away from the beasts, follow zoka, return to zoka.”

summer evening
coarseness of gingham prints
in the quilt

Lenard D. Moore

summer evening coarseness of gingham prints in the quilt

Where is the zoka in this short poem? “Summer evening” juxtaposed with “the coarseness of gingham prints in the quilt” is a nice sentiment. The heart of a kigo, in this instance, “summer evening,” must be more than a mood setter, or a nice correlation. This verse hardly invokes an identity with the creative force of nature (zoka).

Compare this with a haiku by Matsuo Basho, and we begin to understand why Anglo-American haiku is not taken seriously as a literary genre as Professor Tom Lynch asserts.

the harvest moon ---
I stroll round the pond
till the night is through

Meigetsu | ya | ike | wo | megurite | yomosugara

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Makoto Ueda
Basho and His Interpreters

The “harvest moon” is a kigo that sets the stage for lines two and three, turning the haiku into an activity-biased poem concerned with an ever-changing process versus an object-biased poem that fails to show a correlation of any depth between the creative power of nature (zoka) and the coarseness of a “gingham printed quilt.” Basho's haiku is of depth, complexity, that hints and suggests, without putting author-subjective words on the reader's tongue when the reader interprets the poet's verse.

“The harvest moon” is an autumn kigo (seasonal word) in Japan and North America. My brother in-law works for Gallo Wine, in California. Harvest season is when Gallo's employees work the hardest. A harvest can make or break a company such as Gallo. Their scientists study nature, soils, pest infestation, plant diseases, and other variables that can affect a harvest. These scientists take nature seriously and know too well that nature can be unpredictable. A haiku poet to write a memorable haiku must take and observe nature seriously. One cannot include nature in their poem credibly if they lack a competent understanding of its nature. A kigo is not a thing, it’s a process that never stops processing. It’s an object (koto) and not subjective (mono); the embodiment of a verb, always moving, changing, and totally unpredictable. Matsuo Basho lived amongst the trees, was exposed to the extremes indigenous to each season, saw nature's inconsistencies, and viewed nature as an equal. Whereas, an Anglo-Western poet has trouble accepting this precept, having been raised in a Judeo-Christian culture, where nature is looked upon as something God gave man to enjoy and look over. The power in nature is viewed as an expression from God the creator (displeasure, punishment, reward, etc.). Anglo-Americans are taught at a young age to appreciate beauty. There is a vast difference between the pre-colonized conceptualization of the zoka and the Anglo-Western conceptualization of nature. Mitsuyo Toyoda in his thesis, Approaches to Aesthetics: East Meets West, in 2002, saw a sharp division in the areas of philosophy, science, and religion between pre-colonized Japanese and Anglo-Western thought. “The traditional Western consciousness,” expounds Toyoda,“sees such characteristics such as regularity, uniformity, and symmetry as paradigms of beauty in Western culture.”

Professor Donald Keene identifies four aesthetic qualities peculiar to Japanese culture that counter the Anglo-Western conceptualization of aesthetic value and understanding: suggestion, irregularity, simplicity, and perishability. Further complicating this division of aesthetic sensibilities between the Anglo-West and Japan is the covert colonialization of Japanese thinking via the German-based university system, adopted almost universally by Japan in the later part of the 1920s, that educated and still educates Japanese students, scholars and future leaders in the aesthetics and philosophy indigenous to Anglo-West thought. This is why, as Welch writes: “for the first time American haiku poets are not decades (or centuries) behind developments in Japanese haiku.”

His evaluation is faulty, however. Anglo-American haiku is not catching up with Japanese haiku. Instead, Japanese haiku and Anglo-American haiku are becoming more and more alike, with the Japanese assimilating and synthesizing Anglo-Western thought regarding social science, art, and philosophy with their own cultural identity which is passing through a cloud that is becoming harder and harder to navigate; time, a melting clock, like in the painting I painted in 1966, Time is a Dirty Old Man, which was hung in a display at Robinson's Department Store in Los Angeles, that distorts perception as time goes foreword, what we know and feel; subjective and less concrete, their memories influenced by a nonsymbiotic juncture of Anglo-Western and colonized Japanese thought.

Moore's poem lacks the conceptualization of zoka that Basho and other great poets had when utilizing kigo. In fact, Moore's poem is similar in many ways to the colonized haiku penned today in Japan by haiku modernists. In order for modern haiku, Japanese or Anglo-American, to transcend the mediocrity it has fallen into, they will need to take to heart these words from Fujitani Mitsue (1768-1822):

“The poet's anxiety results from the subjugation of the guts—the aesthetic sacred dimension to the political rules of the body, or external reality. The poet penetrates and communicates with the inner self (kami) of the reader by dwelling within the 'spirit of words' (kotodama), which awakens the reader to the truth of his real, 'unidimensional' Being.”

Translated by Michael F. Marra
Modern Japanese Aesthetics

An example of Japanese haiku, which isn’t much different than that penned in America:

Crab apple flowers are blooming
Bending their heads
Tokeiji Temple

Masako Kakutani
The Moss at Tokeiji

Kakutani says she was influenced by the works of Modernist Japanese poet and author, Hagiwara Sakutaro. She majored in English Literature and Psychology in a German-based university.

“Crab apple flowers are blooming” is a distinct kigo reference, but when juxtaposed with lines two and three, “bending their heads at Tokeiji Temple,” the power and reality of the zoka becomes an adornment that paints a touching word painting, her tool to create this painting, a surrealistic, anthropomorphic scene . . . blooming crab apple flowers bending their heads at Tokeiji Temple, a temple that was a refuge for battered women.

Below is a photograph of a crab apple tree in full blossom, the second one, a close-up of crab apple blossoms. Neither photograph reflects the imagery of bowing women who have been battered. Neither do the two photographs indicate bowing women grateful for a new lease on life. Blossoming crab apple trees are not all the same. Some lean over when laden with fruit, but the blossoms aren't heavy enough to bend a tree limb, let alone a branch. Had the blossoms fallen, they would have called to mind the impermanence of life, the reality and acceptance of death, a far more poignant picture.

 

 

 

Basho's admonition, “Follow the zoka, return to the zoka,” doesn't mean: “Students, remember to include a kigo in your haiku.”

See the difference, when the true spirit of zoka is infused into a haiku:

the coolness ---
faintly the crescent moon
above Mount Haguro

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Makoto Ueda
Basho and His Interpreters

Basho's poem is an activity-(process) biased poem not centered around an object.

coolness: a condition caused by weather (a summer kigo in Japan)..Coolness is intangible and non-static.

the crescent moon:  an object, that occurs.

Mount Harguro is a sacred Buddhist mountain. It’s not a proper noun. Haguro translated literally means: feather-black. States Kato Shuson, a leading modern haiku poet, author, and critic specializing in Basho and his poetic style: “Through its semantic and phonetic effect, it creates the image of a black, massive mountain looming in the evening dusk.”

Basho's haiku is about a scene at night. Its subject is not an object or objects. The coolness, the outline of the sacred feather black mountain, the awe and spiritual reverence it inspires in Basho, collectively, centers the poem around the creative power of nature.

As a reader of haiku, it is my job to interpretthe haiku I read. Basho’s poem hints at and suggests. I cannot read into the poet's mind. His poem leaves room for multiple interpretations. Coolness, feather dark mountain, Buddhism blending with Shinto and Daoist thought, faintness of sight as the feather black mountain blends with the night, its faint outline barely visible due to the low light from the crescent moon. This is haiku at its best. This is why Basho's haiku are remembered today throughout Japan. The poet followed the zoka, saw it as a teacher, not as an actual entity, or seasonal indication marker, and by doing so, breathed life and memorability to haiku. Kigo is the heart and soul of haiku.

Modernist haiku poets in Japan and America are straying from and even poo-poohing the use of kigo, replacing them, instead with “key words,” unassociated with the zoka Basho sternly admonished his followers to follow.

country churchyard
folding chairs
on new sod

Paul MacNeil

Country churchyard folding chairs on new sod

“country churchyard”: an object and a generalized locale juxtaposed with “folding chairs on new sod”: objects (chairs); a non-season specific term used as a kigo.

I've grown grass in the U.S. in spring, summer, and early autumn. Grass grows quickly when seeded and tended to properly. Where is the zoka, the creative power of nature in this haiku-like poem? The juxtaposition doesn't form a contrast that unearths the unsaid. Neither does the poem hint at or suggest something deeper than that expressed on the surface. As a former church pastor, the scene MacNeil paints with words is common, especially in rural churches built upon a small patch of land. The outside lawns at many of these churches are used for potluck picnics, and other outside activities, depending upon the size of the yard. Where is the mystery, the impermanence, the unpredictability of nature? We don't have a clue as to the season or the weather condition. It's a very ordinary word picture, nothing more. One can grow grass in a week with proper care, two weeks at the most, as long as the sun is out, the ground has been tilled, watered daily, and fed the right nutrients.

Is this world-class haiku? Is this even a successful haiku? No kigo, no mystery, just an average scene, one would call shasei, an invent Japanese modernist poet, Masoaka Shiki, borrowed from the pleine air painting movement of Anglo-Western Europe, and insisted that his style would be haiku's salvation as the haiku penned in Japan during his lifetime, had fallen victim to mimicry, Basho worship, redundancy, and conformity, lacking almost any sense of freshness and vibrancy that had popularized haiku during its pre-formative and formative years when Basho, Chiyo-ni, Buson, and a little later, Issa, were literary pioneers, the common people and royalty applauding their work. Everything they introduced was a concatenate of Japanese and Chinese culture: Daoism, shamanic animism, Shinto, Zen Buddhism, other Buddhist sects, Confucianism, all interwoven with a love and respect for nature that is quickly disappearing in Japan thanks to the colonization by the German-based university system that interpreted philosophy, nature, art, and social sciences via a language unable to grasp or fully fathom the richness and breath of the Yamato Japanese language, a language not suited for the Anglo-Western world's view of the aforementioned, as much of what the Japanese believed in that regard was intuited and a deeply ingrained part of their socio-cultural memory. The word ”aesthetic” did not exist in the Japanese vocabulary until it was introduced by Anglo-Western aestheticians via writings, lectures, and Japan's assimilation of Western thinking. The Anglo-West's conceptualization of aesthetics was predicated upon a belief in a sovereign creator who made nature for the benefit of humankind. It was also predicated on the non-Judeo-Christian beliefs of those who worshipped Roman, Grecian, Babylonian gods, via Socrates, Plato, and other great minds. In time, many of these beliefs merged into a shared belief.

For instance, Christmas was originally a Babylonian holiday called Tamas. It was a celebration that celebrated the birth of their god, Tamas. They celebrated the event with Yule logs, decorated trees, etc. Easter was a day to celebrate the death of Tamas, and part of the tradition included the distribution of colored eggs (representing fertility). Even though the historical Jesus was born probably in June to a 13 to 14 year old girl engaged to a man near the age of 40, as was the custom at the time, to gain the allegiance of the masses who were converted to Catholicism, the two holidays became days to celebrate the birth and death of Jesus. The synthesis of various pagan holidays and beliefs with Roman Catholicism and, to a lesser degree, with some protestant sects, is still practiced today in Mexico, the Philippines and other countries conquered by the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese nations during the 14th and 15th centuries. In Japan today, Shinto and Zen Buddhism are often practiced as a synthesis of the two, since animism is very much a part of the Japanese culture from before China conquered the Ainu indigenous peoples of Japan, and afterwards.

coolness . . .
the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell

Yosa Buson
Translated by Robert Hass

coolness: a season specific kigo in Japan (summer). Important to the use of this kigo is its context in relation to verses lines two and three.
sound: an intonation heard, but invisible
bell: an object
leaving: an action verb giving life to an invisible intonation (sound)

This is an activity-(process) biased poem that is dependent upon the unsaid to give it meaning. What is the sound of a bell leaving a bell? What does coolness have to do with the haiku? The use of kigo is not a literary tool using comparative visual stimulation to bring its message home. It is the poet's job to compose the haiku and the reader's job to interpret it according to his/her cultural memory, biospheric locale, education, experience, etc. No one can climb inside the mind of Buson and know exactly what he thought when writing the poem. Hermeneutics, cultural anthropology, a close study of the Yamato language, and other influences must be considered when doing an exegesis of a style of haiku practiced by a given poet.

Nothing in nature is stationary when studied closely. Everything is changing, impermanent, unpredictable, inventing, reinventing itself over and over again.

The weather is crispy, cool, the area so silent one can hear the intricacies of the intonation of a sound emanating from a bell that has been rung. I think of early morning or late at night, when stillness of sound is most vivid for the majority of people. Yosa hears the bell rung, it is different than what he's heard before, something special, but intangible. For him, perhaps it is a religious epiphany, a moment of sudden revelation or insight. Nature speaks in its own way, not as an entity but as a creative power; the sound generated by the ringer of the bell, interacting with the “coolness” of the air . . . a merging of human and zoka . . .

It is such a poem, when the poet follows and returns to the zoka in the course of composing a haiku that gives life and deep meaning to this minimal word poetic genre that is unlike anything written by non-haiku poets. Basho, Buson, Chiyo-ni, and Issa are remembered for the life and depth they breathed into their haiku as students and observers of the zoka. In essence, oftentimes they would become one with the zoka while writing the poem. Not all of the poems they composed, however, were written during what some people misinterpret to be a haiku moment. Basho, for instance, inserted a few haiku he'd written during renga tournaments in a few of his travel diaries. Nevertheless, they are products of Basho's observation, understanding, and relationship with the zoka.

Consider the following haiku-like poem by veteran Anglo-American haiku poet, Michael Dylan Welch:

garbage strike
the neon Buddha
eats the rainbow

Michael Dylan Welch

Is it a haiku? Is it activity-biased or object-biased? Is there evidence of an in-depth understanding of and connection with the creative power of nature, the zoka? Of course, not. Welch is either copying or mimicking Japanese modernist poet, Ban’ya Natsuishi’s Flying Pope series, one of the worst imports from Japan, where haiku, as an art and cultural memory, is becoming more and more like Anglo-Western poetry due to the covert colonization of the Japanese view of life? Natsuishi has been heralded by veteran Anglo-Western poet, Paul Miller, in a review he wrote in Modern Haiku for Natsuishi’s book, The Flying Pope, as one of Japan’s top poets, even comparing some of his writings with Basho’s. Miller, like Natsuishi, obviously lack an understanding of haiku, both of them educated by the German-based university system that defines aesthetics from an Anglo-Western consciousness.

Confronting a flock of geese
the Flying Pope
suddenly stops

Ban’ya Natsuishi

Writes Miller:

“Despite its surreal nature, there is no doubt that this is a haiku. It has the keyword ‘geese’ (Ban’ya prefers keywords to kigo) and a cut. It does what the best haiku do: it offers a discovery or surprise, and leaves any interpretation to the reader. More important to this discussion, a poem such as this releases the poet from discoveries that only the poet could make. It instead allows poets to use their imagination and approach perhaps staid topics such as migrating geese from a fresh perspective. The question is no longer what do the geese mean to the poet but what might they mean to a flying pope?”

Miller calls Natsuishi’s poem a haiku because “it has the keyword geese” in it and a cut. A short poem is not a haiku because it includes a kigo or a keyword regarding nature nor is it a haiku because it uses a cut. Natsuishi’s short poems remind me of the haikai Matsuo Basho sought to rise up from in order to legitimize haikai as a genre to be taken seriously. Haikai prior to Basho consisted primarily of crass humor and comic verse, most of it made up. 

The Flying Pope
winks sometimes
to angels

Ban’ya Natsuishi
The Flying Pope

What Miller asserts is haiku Natsuishi is penning has nothing to do with the zoka and the Daoist beliefs regarding nature that dominated Basho’s haiku and much of the haiku written by Basho’s contemporaries.

I like the way Miller ended his review:

“I cannot think of a better way to end than with a haiku of Ban’ya’s that seems to touch upon that very decision each individual reader needs to make [as to what constitutes a haiku and the boundaries one can cross]:

Waiting
for the Flying Pope
on the cliff

Ban’ya Natsuishi”

“The art of haikai places fabrication before truth.” He also wrote: “Haikai is a joke within a fantasy.”

A pre-Basho Haikai:

The Sao Goddess
at the arrival of spring
stands when pissing

Sokan

Comments Professor Peipei Qui:

“Sokan’s verse is representative of the haikai spirit in its early stage, and this distinctive approach to language and poetry sets haikai apart from renga. However, because the appeal of early haikai lay solely in its boldness and humor, even to the point of being crude and frivolous, these verses did not possess lasting literary value.”

The majority of Japanese haiku poets, conservatives and modernists alike, have lost track of the true role and meaning of nature in their poems. Much of this is due, as mentioned earlier in this paper, to the Japanese adoption of the German-based university system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the influence of modernists, both of which I will address further in greater depth.


Compare Welch's poem:

neon Buddha
the exclusivity
of rhinos

Michael Dylan Welch

 . . .with the following penned by Natsuishi:

How many hair roots
have disappeared?
Flying Pope

Ban’ya Natsuishi

Whose is following who?

 

American haiku -- a distinct poetic genre?

Hoshinaga Fumio is one of Japan's leaders in the Modernist gendai poetry school. Declares Fumio in an interview with Richard Gilbert in 2004, for Modern Haiku: “I have repellence, revulsion exactly against the formal rules and approach, kigo, and various formal necessities.”

Twenty billion light-years of perjury your blood type is “B”

Richard Gilbert

Poems of Consciousness: The Miraculous Power of Language: A Conversation with the Poet Hoshinaga Fumio, pg. 172

Ni-ju oku konen no gishyo omae no B-gata

Hoshinaga's poem is not what one expects when reading a haiku by a Japanese poet. It resembles nothing written by Shiki, the so-called father of modern haiku; nor does it resemble the haiku written by Issa, Buson, Chiyo-ni, or Basho. It has no connection with the zoka, it's object-biased, subjective, and Anglo-Western in approach, expression, and style.

Another example:

Athlete’s foot itches –
still can’t become
Hitler

Hoshinaga Fumio

Adolph Hitler, the dictator Japan partnered with during World War II, juxtaposed with lines one and two, reads like a senryu or a segment from an Anglo-Western free verse poem. There is no connection with nature, the poem, if you can call it a poem, is object-biased, obtuse, and meaningless for someone in the Anglo-West. If discussed by a group of poets talking about its meaning in an informal get-together or at a meeting, the discussion would teach no one how to improve their craft, unless they saw it as something that should be avoided.

The examples of North American haiku I have included in my paper were penned by seasoned poets. I could have cited poem after poem written on online forums and workshops by new and understudied poets that receive praise and encouragement, which would make Shiki choke up blood; poems that break almost every rule, often tell too much, have poor meter, and lack a connection with the creative power of nature. But that would be unfair to beginners and the misinformed. I see on some of these same forums and workshops (some un-moderated) similar poems by Japanese poets. The gap between Anglo-Western haiku and Modernist Japanese haiku is closing.

Writes Professor Gilbert in his Kigo and Seasonal Reference:Cross-cultural Issues in Anglo-American Haiku: “From the perspective of the Anglo-American genre, as with all unique cultural treasures, kigo may be an achievement witnessed, studied and admired, rather than possessed. It is also quite possible that poets and critics will proceed along an entirely different line. In fact, for many it seems unclear how to proceed regarding the birthing of a kigo culture in English. Likely, poets themselves will open us to new haiku vistas, yet there also exists a need for further understanding.”

Many Anglo-Americans from the outspoken minority of haiku poets under the umbrella of the Haiku Society of America believe that kigo is a cultural entity indigenous to Japan, as kigo in the Japan saijiki (book of approved kigo) does not represent their views of nature, nor cultural memory. They also believe they are forging a new genre, yet refuse to give it an Anglo-Western name: thus, paradoxically, two genres with the same name.

Writes Gilbert, “Kigo is a culture. Because there is a culture, there are generally trends, but sometimes the change is drastic. . . . The saijiki is a collection of kigo; however, the entries in the saijiki do not cover all kigo. The saijiki is only one standard of kigo; kigo are always being born and have died within the nexus of haiku.”

Traditionally in Japan, a haiku poet is expected to use only words from an approved saijiki. If the season word they want to use as a kigo is not in the saijiki, it’s not allowed. Each word in their saijikis represent things sometimes exclusive to their culture. Some words have meanings that the English language doesn’t have for the same word, necessitating a hermeneutical understanding of the Japanese cultural memory in the place and time when a haiku is written, and today.

Writes Gilbert, “It is imagined that the contexts of seasonal reference in English equates to that of Japanese haiku, and by implication, that the literal contexts are virtually identical . . . What has been missing from these discussions of kigo to date is their cultural context, which reaches to the heart of their expression.”

It didn’t help that when Japan opened up its borders to the Anglo-West during the Meiji era, many Japanese, having no words in their language to express their philosophical, religious, and aesthetic beliefs, had to use a language used to translate the Bible to express these beliefs to their Anglo-Western counterparts. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier in this paper, English wasn’t a rich enough language to define Japanese beliefs, as the German-based university system adopted by the Anglo-West, from which Anglo-Western beliefs emanate, has no conceptualization of the Japanese mindset apart from the subjective limitations of their mindset. This resulted covertly into the colonization of Japanese thought, which the Japanese, eager to fit into the Anglo-Western world, bought to the extent that they imported the German-based university system to their shores, the educational system used today in Japan. The result is a watered down culture suffering an identity crisis, as you can see in many modernist Japanese haiku, which explains why my friend asked me why so much of the Japanese haiku she reads today isn’t any different or better than Anglo-Western haiku.

Writes Professor Michael F. Marra in his book, Modern Japanese Aesthetics:

“In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Japan was faced with the introduction, study, and digestion --- or indigestion --- of more than two thousand years of Western thought.”

“In addition,” continues Marra, “to the problem of mastering in a brief period of time the secrets of the political other, Japanese intellectuals were faced with the delicate task of linking their traditional thought to the newly imported philosophical systems. In the field of aesthetics, the major challenge was to explain a basic paradox: how to make sense of fields of knowledge such as literature, for example, that for centuries had been justified by Neo-Confucian scholars in terms of ethical principles --- 'to promote good and chastise evil' (kanzen choaku) --- according to the Kantian notion of 'purposiveness without a purpose.' How could the dependence (either religious or political) to which art had been submitted in Japan, on practical grounds, be transformed to a moment of autonomy and freedom?”

One has to remember that Japan had cut itself off from Western influence for centuries. Haikai had stagnated, Basho was elevated to a Shinto Deity, existing haikai schools each claimed to be a descendent of Basho’s school, monuments to Basho were everywhere; the poetry composed: legalistic and mimetic.  

That separation ended due to the insistence of a demanding U.S. Naval fleet during the Meiji Era in the 19th century. When the bamboo curtain was lifted, a socio-psychological tsunami hit Japan's shores that would have a dramatic affect on how Japan viewed the world and how the world viewed Japan; a tsunami that has yet to crest.

Three events rose from that momentous time according to Aesthetician Yamamoto Masao:

1. The Period of Enlightenment (1868-1878): Nishi Amane translated and adapted several important Anglo-Western works on Aesthetics, and addressed his country's top leaders. Nakae Chomin and Kikuchi Dairoku also translated and adapted Anglo-Western papers and books on Aesthetics. This was also the time when American scholar, Ernest Fenollosa, toured Japan delivering lectures on Aesthetics and the arts. He was a brilliant aesthetician and speaker who greatly affected the mindset of Japan's intelligentsia and its university system.

2. The Period of Criticism (1878-1888): A period represented by Tsubouchi Shoyo, Futabatei Shimei, Toyama Masakazu, Onishi Hajime, Mori Ogai, and Takayama Chogyu.

3. The Period of Reflection (1888-1910): it was during this time that Aesthetics was formally adopted by Japan's academia. Enter the German-based university system. Chairs for this new field of academics were filled at Tokyo Imperial University and Kyoto University, the first of many chairs. In time, chairs would follow in the fields of art, psychology, literature, etc.

Writes Michael F. Marra in Modern Japanese Aesthetics:

“Behind the vocabulary of aesthetics stood a thick layer of Western philosophy that extended from Plato's notion of Idea to the Hegelian system of Absolute Spirit. The importance of aesthetics required Japanese scholars to explain and justify the new 'science' in the light of Western epistemology.”

During the final 30 years, give or take a year or two, of the nineteenth century, Japan was faced with the Herculean task of assimilating and fathoming two millenniums of Western thought.

Someone once wrote, “The nation who controls language, controls the world.”

For Japan to enter and compete intellectually with the Western world, they needed to communicate on an equal playing table with their counterparts. Aesthetics was not a term used in the Yamato language. Aesthetic principles were culturally transmitted and intuitive in nature. The Yamato language was equipped for writing poetry and communicating the doctrines and belief systems indigenous to Japan. Even the Chinese words spoken by the Japanese had been adapted for use by the Japanese and didn't always coincide with their Chinese meanings. Japan's intelligentsia had to hurriedly find a way to link their traditional mindset to the psychology of the West. How could Japan put into words that would effectively communicate fields of thought (literature, philosophy, theology, etc.) that, as Marra points out, “had for centuries been justified by Neo-Confucian scholars in terms of ethical principles --- to promote good and chastize evil (kanzen choaku) --- according to the Kantian notion of 'purposiveness without a purpose.'”

Nishi Amane’s theory, who is looked upon by many in Japan as the driving force to modernize Japan and make it competitive with the Anglo-Western world, major focus was to make the ambiguity and abstract principles inherent in the field of aesthetics acceptable to the Japanese government and Imperial Court so that they would allow and sponsor the development of academic chairs in Japan's university system. Japan views aesthetics differently today than it did prior to opening up its shores to the Anglo-West. Currently, haiku in Japan and in America are becoming more alike than different. Is the utilization and understanding of kigo and other aesthetic principles different between Japanese and Anglo-Western haiku as Gilbert asserts? Or, are the two styles of haiku merging into one specific mindset?
 

Kigo: The Heart-beat of Haiku

Kigo is the heart-beat and essence of haiku. The Japanese cultural memory is one entwined with Zen Buddhism, Daoism, Shinto, and the ancient shamanic animism handed down by the indigenous Ainu, the original inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago. There are those who claim that Japan is a Zen Buddhist country, but fact, and a closer look, negate this Blythian cogitation.

Almost every article or interview I read today in English-language Anglo-Western literary journals, blogs, and how-to books, classifies haiku as nature poetry. Nothing could be farther from the truth when nature is understood through the Anglo-Western conceptualization of nature. Haiku is the merging of nature's creative spirit (zoka) with a poet's . . . The emptying of self until one feels a sense of timelessness in a now without preconception; a headspace easily grasped by shamanic animists and Daoists, unmarred by Anglo-Western teleological, German-based thinking and Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Kigo is movement, one breath from a continuum of breaths: the poet and zoka merging momentarily, the synergy, the piping of heaven, the unsaid and said, the is and isn't.

Shinto and shamanic animism both believe that animism is an actuality, which to the West (including Blyth) is superstition and thought, relegated to heathens and uneducated people. In the West, Judeo-Christian thought has permeated the geo-scape as has their German-based educational system, which places man above nature. To them, nature is not a force but the product of a Creator who controls its every expression and who assigns nature to be below and for humankind.

The pre-colonized Japanese mindset saw everything in life as its equal: nature constantly changing and never static. It cannot be controlled by man, and is unpredictable. The four seasons and the transformations they bring about are the flourishing of life, give rise to deep feeling, and artistic catharsis. Via all forms of Japanese art, every cultured person was taught to return to the cosmic, recognize its beauty and follow its movements.

Shinkei in the epilogue to Iwahashi Batsubun wrote:

"A man who is ignorant of the Way [of poetry] is blind to the shifting of the four seasons, unaware of the deeply fascinating Principle coursing through the forms and colors of the ten thousand realms. He spends his whole life before a blank wall with a jar pulled over his  head."

Nothing is what it appears to be. Nature is not predictable. It is never stagnant or subjective. It is the zoka, what David Barnhill describes as "the creative force of nature that has the spontaneous tendency and ability to exhibit transformations that are beautiful. These transformations occur at different levels, from the four seasons to the changes in a scene that occur from moment to moment."

Zoka is the transmutability of time and nature of intangible artists whose brushes never stop.

Wrote the Priest Shotetsu in Conversations with Shotetsu:

"...when one gazes upon the autumn hills half-concealed by a curtain of mist, what one sees is veiled yet profoundly beautiful; such a shadowy scene, which permits free exercise of the imagination in picturing how lovely the whole panopoly of scarlet leaves must be, is far better than to see them spread with dazzling clarity before our eyes."

Translated by Robert Brower and Steve D. Carter

Nature is always in a state of metamorphosis. A poet has within his or her ability to perform as nature performs. To find the essence of creativity, one must differentiate between the disposition of nature and the creative force (zoka) of nature. This is not to be confused with a spiritual deity. To understand haiku, one must understand zoka, which is a concatenate of Daoism, Zen Buddhism, Shinto, shamanic animism, and more. The Japanese believe the zoka is beyond man's ability to define, categorize, or predict.

Wrote Basho's disciple, Doho:

“The Master has said: 'Learn about pine from the pines and learn about bamboo from bamboos.' By those words he is teaching us to eradicate subjectivity. One will end up learning nothing with one's subjective self even if he wants to learn. To learn means to enter the object, to find its subtle details and empathize with it, and let what is experienced become poetry. For instance, if one portrayed the outer form of an object but failed to express the feelings that flow naturally out of it, the object and the author's self become two, so the poem cannot achieve sincerity. It is merely a product of subjectivity.”

Sazoshi, Kohon Basho zenshu

The majority of Basho's teachings regarding zoka and the path of poetry were influenced by the Daoist book, the Zhuangzi, which Basho studied, and adapted many of its precepts into his view of life and haiku.

An excerpt from the Zhuangzi:

“He sees in the darkest dark, hears where there is no sound. In the midst of darkness, he alone sees the dawn; in the midst of the soundless, he alone hears harmony. Therefore, in depth piled upon depth he can spy out the thing; in spirituality piled upon spirituality he can discover the essence.”

The Complete Works of The Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi]
Translated by Burton Watson

Writes Professor Peipei Qui in her book, Basho and the Dao: “Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the founder of the Shoman School [of haiku] who gained posthumous popularity as Japan’s greatest haikai poet, repeatedly instructed his followers to study the Zhuangzi. According to his disciples, Basho’s teaching on haikai “encapsulated the quintessence of Zhuangzi’s thought.” There has been up until Professor Qui’s book (She speaks fluent Chinese, Japanese, and English, making her uniquely qualified, according to Professor Donald Keene, to write on this subject) nothing written in any depth regarding Japanese Daoism; and what has been written have omitted several important aspects that have yet to be explored. 

“Part of the reason for this lack of Western Scholarship,” states Qui, “has to do with the complexity of defining Daoism. Modern Chinese scholars use two terms to define Daoist thought and religion: Daojia sixiang (Daoist thought) and Daojiao (Daoist religion): the differences between these two terms have made Daoism (an import from China) hard to explain.”  Further complicating the issue, states Qui, “is when we look at Daoism in Japan, where Daoist thought and elements of Daoist religion have mixed with indigenous Japanese thought and beliefs, to the extent that most Japanese people have never realized that there is any relationship between Daoism and Japanese culture. Not surprisingly, no consensus has been reached among scholars as to which elements of Daoism were transmitted to Japan and what role Daoism has played in Japanese culture.”

Studies regarding Daoism and its contribution to Japanese culture have increased in recent years but Western scholars have focused their research in the area of religion, leaving the influence of Daoist thought on Japanese literature untouched. Professor Qui’s Basho and the Dao is the first monograph in a Western language on the influence of Daoist thought on Japanese literature. It must be noted, however, that haikai, as it originated and matured during Basho’s lifetime, was also influenced by Buddhist and Confucian thought, as well as shamanic animism. Oftentimes many of these belief systems would fuse together into a concatenation of thought and theory blurring the boundaries of the aforementioned belief systems as well as others.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, of course, to see the influence of the Zhuangzi on Basho. He quoted from the Zhuangzi in his poetry, travel diaries, and urged his disciples to read and know the Zhuangzi. Writes Qui, “Basho put forth his poetic principle to ‘follow the zoka (C. zaohua, the creative) and return to zoka.’ A notion originating in the Zhuangzi and widely used in Chinese philosophy and literary writings, zoka implies the workings of the Dao in the natural creation and transformation of all things and beings.” She also points out that in Basho’s well-known haibun, Oi no kobumi (Essays in my pannier, 1697), “Basho declares that zoka is the single most important principle that runs though all the arts. This declaration --- one of the rare theoretical statements the master left in his own writings --- reveals the fundamental principle of his later years.”

Fortunately for the haiku world, then and now, many of Basho’s teachings regarding haiku and haiku theory, were transmitted to others via the writings of some of his disciples. Says Qui: “By drawing upon the Daoist ideas, he greatly reduced the formalistic limitations inherited by haikai and widened its latitude for spontaneity.”  These Daoist inspired teachings enabled Basho and his followers to transform haikai from a humorous, oftentimes bawdy hobby to a respected poetic genre.

Basho was highly influential, and although he did not invent haikai (later renamed haiku by Masoaka Shiki, a product of the German-based university system), he elevated the poetic art form to a new level; one of respect and artistic integrity. Haikai poetry took on a new dimension via its identification with the creative force of nature (zoka) as taught in the Zhuangzi.

Not familiar with the influence of Daoist thought on haiku, R.H. Blyth, who was not a trained academic or researcher in the field, saw haiku as a Zen Buddhist literary genre. His teachings have exerted a great influence on Anglo-North American haiku and still do, teachings that have marred the understanding of kigo and its true relevance to haiku. The German-based university system adopted by Japan from the Anglo-West has done much to colonize modern Japanese conceptualizations of haiku. This is why I asserted earlier in this paper, that Japanese haiku and Anglo-Western haiku are becoming more alike.  

We don't need to be a member of any religion or sect, nor do we need to be Japanese to acknowledge and see the value of the kigo in haiku as advocated by Matsuo Basho and many of his contemporaries. It is the essence of a haiku, the tool most adept at giving a voice to the unsaid. Kigo embodies haiku as a representation of the creative force of nature (zoka). It is not a nature word, a literary tool, or a seasonal marker. It is the breath and life of haiku poetry.  A haiku cannot be a haiku without a kigo that identifies with the zoka.

Nature, in the haiku mind, to be authentic, serves as a teacher and guide for the poet and for the informed interpreting the poet’s haiku. It gives a voice to the unsaid, paints a continuum that's objective, and is event-biased versus object-biased. A true haiku is not focused on an object. Objects are impermanent and external. The process is more important than the object. The unseen and unheard, the internal, when melded to the external, bring the poet to the floating world where intuition and perception are teachers. The Daoists in China called the creative force of nature zaohua (in Japanese, zoka: to create and transform) and ziran (in Japanese, shizenor ji'nen: natural and spontaneous).

Today, the word used to signify nature in general is shizen, but in Basho's writings it meant: natural and spontaneous, thus the danger of using modern day Japanese/English language dictionaries to translate text written in an earlier era. Zoka and shizen, as Basho used them, signifies nature's activity versus an object-biased subjective landscape or object in nature; process versus object. 

This is why I say haiku is not nature poetry, at least from the modern conceptualization of nature. It is much more. It is this much more that will transform haiku into the quality of literature Basho, Buson, Issa, and Chiyo-ni penned and envisioned during their lifetimes; a literature that is slowly losing its collective identity, influenced by Anglo-Western thinking in Japan and in the Anglo-Western world. Yes, Basho told his disciples to be different and unafraid of change. His intent, if one does a hermeneutical study of his writings, and teachings attributed to him by Doho and other of his disciples, was not to encourage them to bastardize the genre by turning it into something it wasn't meant to be. He wanted them to have a fresh voice, a fresh perspective in their poetry's content, of which the zoka, according to Basho, had to be present and understood if one's haiku were to be taken seriously and classified as a haiku.

The Chinese painter, Zhu Yunming (1460-1526), wrote:

"Everything in the universe has some kind of life and that the mystery of creation, changing and unsettled, cannot be described in forms."

As haiku poets, we can easily write haiku using a kigo, and the short/long/short metric schemata indigenous to haiku. We also need to understand and see the value of using Japanese aesthetics as tools or styles, remembering that as poets, we are dealing with an economy of words, which, out of necessity, must hint at, suggest and bring to life the unsaid.

To paraphrase a saying about playing the guitar by the late, great classical guitarist, Andre Segovia, haiku is an easy poem to write, but one of the hardest to write well. Most importantly, Kigo is nature unbridled. We can learn from Nature, by doing what Buson did when composing haiku: observe the zoka, the creative, unpredictable force of nature that constructs and deconstructs all objects. Once this is understood, a poet's haiku takes on new depth.

Let me put this into perspective:

The Chinese, of course, wielded a huge influence on the language, poetics, arts, and socio-theology of the Japanese people, having been the nation that colonized the Ainu (Japan's indigenous people) and introduced them to civilization. As time evolved, Japan's educated spoke Chinese, wrote in Chinese, and read Chinese. Education was limited to the inhabitants of the Emperor's Imperial Court. To be unfamiliar with Chinese poetry, for example, would mark a man as ignorant and unstudied. Poetry was revered by the Court and held in the highest esteem.

Let us examine a section of a poem composed by the Chinese poet, Lu Ji (261-303):

“He ceases his seeing and reverses his listening, / Thinking in depth and searching round; / His essence gallops to the eight extremes of the world, / His spirit wanders high to ten thousand yards . . . He empties the limpid mind, fixes his thoughts, / Fuses all his concerns together and makes words.”

The poet, Lu Ji, saw vacancy of mind and oneness with the zoka as the ideal mindset for a serious poet. True insight when composing a poem comes via the “observation in darkness” of the cosmos, and the ability to flow with its changing process. States Professor Peipei Qui in her book, Basho and the Dao: “Literary creation is based on the unity of the poetic mind and the cosmos.”

Compare Lu Ji's words with the teaching of Basho as shared by his disciple, Doho, which I quoted earlier in my paper:

“The Master has said, 'Learn about the pine from the pines and learn about bamboo from bamboos.' By these words he is teaching us to eradicate subjectivity. One will end up learning nothing with one's subjective self [a concept that runs counter to Welch's belief that “the future of haiku in English has also been engaged recently with a movement towards gendai haiku. Gendai simply means 'modern,' and in Japan, while it might be foolish to attempt a definition, gendai haiku tends to be more subjective, abstract, and even surreal in comparison to more traditional haiku, even while retaining the form and other characteristics of the genre. This development is a positive sign for haiku in English in two ways. First, haiku poets writing in English are clearly paying attention to contemporary haiku in Japanese, rather than just the old masters”] even if one wants to learn. To learn means to enter the object, to find its subtle details and empathize with it, and let what is experienced become poetry.

“For instance,” continues Doho in his recollection of Basho's teachings, “if one has portrayed the outer form of an object, and the author's self become two, so the poem cannot achieve sincerity. It is merely a product of subjectivity.”

The stillness of one's mind is the sanctuary where true poetry is born; a concept both Anglo-Western haiku poets and gendai (modern) poets need to infuse into their poetry.

It is the absence of a true understanding of the kigo's importance to haiku, coupled with the object-biased subjectivity in much of their poetry that is turning haiku into an easily forgettable genre. Too much emphasis is placed on the mistaken precept, popularized by Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda, called “the haiku moment.” The heart and magic of haiku is not a moment, an epiphany, a mythical ”aha” which is oftentimes an ”oh no.” Haiku is a genre unlike any other. Because of the economy of words and its connection with the zoka, haiku is a verse form of great depth that relies on the said and the unsaid.

Wrote Basho:

“Haikai has three elements: Sekibaku is its mood. While having fine dishes and beautiful women, one finds true joy in humble solitude. Furyu is its quality. While dressed in brocaded silks and satins, one does not forget those who are wrapped in woven straw. Fukyo is its language. One's language should stem from loneliness and represent the substance of things. It is very difficult to stay with the substance of things while joining in emptiness. These three elements don't imply that a person who is 'low' aspires to the high, but rather that a person who has attained the high perceives through the low.”

Translated by Burton Watson

Anglo-Western poets oftentimes see nature as something beautiful, worthy of being framed; an object to be enjoyed visually.

Wrote Katsuyo Toyoda in his paper Approaches to Nature Aesthetics, 2002:

“Beauty in nature cannot be described by the two-dimensional visual mode. Such senses as smell, texture, and sound need to be included in nature appreciation. Moreover, functional characteristics of nature also need to be included. If we merely put nature in a frame, much of the natural beauty will be missed.”

We need a broader concept of beauty beyond the Anglo-Western mindset conglomerate in order to understand the true aesthetic value of nature. If a visual appreciation is not sufficient for nature aesthetics, what natural elements other than visual appearance can we value aesthetically?

American haiku and Japanese haiku are not two separate genres. Haiku is a singular genre, a legitimate literary form deserving of serious consideration world-wide. Currently, like a drunk, haiku wanders aimlessly through the world's streets, confused, having little direction, forgetful of the zoka that forged it. It's sake, a concoction of this and that, invented by students enrolled in the German-based university system school of Culinary Arts.

Let us rise up from the mediocrity of hallmark card verses, Neon Buddhas and Flying Popes; from one word absurdities (“Tundra”), and subjective object-biased Imagist/Modernist short poems masquerading as haiku.

If we want our haiku to be taken seriously, we must do as Matsuo Basho admonished his students to do:”Follow the zoka, return to the zoka.”

Wrote Makoto Ueda, “In pre-modern Japanese aesthetics, the distance between art and nature was considerably shorter than its Western counterparts.”

The covert influence of the German-based university system and its interpretation of philosophy and aesthetics coupled with the missionary influence of the Bible on said subjects has done much to dilute Japanese haiku and foster the arrogant stance of a group of Anglo-Western poets who claim to have developed a distinct genre of poetry, unrelated as a distinct genre to haiku, which they ironically call American haiku, a poetry without agreed upon boundaries and definitions by its adherents, that lacks vitality, memorability, and the depth to become more than a wisp of wind that comes and goes. Until haiku (there is only one genre) can grasp the realty and empowerment of the zoka it will one day, as Shiki once said about the mundane quality of haiku composed during his lifetime, wither into obsolescence.

There is no need, as I posited in my previous article on haiku aesthetics in the Spring issue of Simply Haiku, to reinvent the wheel. Those who try, embody Trumbull's words: “iconoclasts who want haiku to be whatever they say it is, tradition be damned.”

Writes Professor Donald Keene in his book Japanese Aesthetics:

“The Japanese aesthetic past is not dead. It accounts for the magnificent profusion of objects of art that are produced each year, and its principles, -- suggestion, irregularity, simplicity, and perishability -- are not forgotten, even in our modern world of incessant change.”

The following English-language haiku proves there is no need to reinvent the wheel, to alter haiku into something that isn’t haiku. These poems are activity-biased, display an understanding of the zoka, and make use of the unsaid. These are haiku that can revitalize and redirect today’s haiku to the place it once held centuries ago.

a drop of pond
at the end of a beak
setting sun

Brad Bennett

 

oh rock …
how long will it take
to wear you down?

Ted Van Zutphen

 

Without a trail…
the silence of snow falling
around the mountain

Vincent Tripi

 

fields flooded
beneath the surface, somewhere
the river bends

Christopher Herold
 

a black split
down the boulder’s center. . .
end of winter

Bruce Ross

 

at the end
of the coal train's sound
winter dawn

Anita Virgil

 

frozen branches
measure the emptiness—
winter sunset

Lee Gurga

 

the river
the river makes
of the moon

Jim Kacian

 

calling
for the lost cat . . .
windchimes

Tom Clausen

None of these haiku need commentary. They are haiku that see nature as more than an object or objects. The nature in their poems are “nature words” used as a prop to paint a picture. Nature is the ever-changing, unpredictable creative force. They see nature beyond the surface, in depth, and it is this in-depth communion with nature that unearths the unsaid, which only haiku can unveil.

Wrote Aldo Leopold in his essay, Marshland Elegy:

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of crane lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words. Our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthy history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long sense entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. He is the symbol of our untamed past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

The future of haiku in English is the same as the future of Haiku in Japanese. Unless its march away from the heart and truth of haiku abates, it will cease to exist. If Basho, Buson, Chiyo-ni, or Issa were alive today, used an unknown pen name, and could write in English, their haiku would possibly be rejected by in-print and online journals. With their rejection notices would be the usual neo-intellectual advice such as:

  • Personification is not allowed.
  • Metaphors should be used sparingly if at all.
  • Your haiku sounds too Japan-like.
  • Join an online workshop and get some experience under your belts.
  • The word you call a kigo is not a true kigo.

One editor or wannabe haiku master will mete out advice, while another says the opposite. The majority of haiku in today’s journals, blogs, and e-zines are primarily Imagist-centric, short free verse poems that are subjective, object- biased, lack the aesthetic tools to adequately hint at or suggest, are void of memorability, and are divorced from the zoka Basho said was essential to the writing of haiku. Read a haiku in one of the journals, then read a haiku penned by Basho. Which one do you prefer?

Here are two haiku I gleaned at random. Read a haiku by Basho, then a haiku written today:

where is the moon?
the temple bell is sunk
at the bottom of the sea

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Makoto Ueda
Basho and His Interpreters

 

yellow leaves …
I search for
a tennis ball

K Ramesh
While The Light Holds Anthology

 

-----------------

twilight dawn
a whitefish, with an inch
of whiteness

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Makoto Ueda
Basho and His Interpreters


swarming flies ...
a mail order bride
to go

Svetlana Marisova

 

Which haiku above do you prefer and why?

Bruce Ross perceptively notes in 1993:

“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.”

For those who insist on bastardizing haiku, refuse to follow and return to the zoka, let them write short poems, called something other than haiku that depict the world as they have shaped it . . .

John Steinbeck wrote: “The new American finds his challenge and his love in the traffic-choked streets, skies nested in fog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the town lets wither a time and die.”

 

Notes:

  • I have the highest respect for Professor Richard Gilbert, and my disagreements with some of the things he has written are not to be misinterpreted as disrespectful. He is a brilliant researcher and writer who has done much to further haiku in the English-speaking world.
  • Jim Kacian is one of my favorite American poets.
  • I have great respect for George Swede, Charles Trumbull, and Lee Gurga. They have done much to further haiku in the English-speaking world, and I often read and reread many of their papers.