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A Modest Proposal: Haiku in English is haiku, not poetry

by Thomas D'Evelyn


Looking at Haiku in English (HIE; Norton, 2013) as a historian of poetry, I see several aspects worth commenting on: HIE as an anthology (which raises the issue of selection and canonicity); the differences between this and other anthologies of Anglophone haiku; the editorial matter as interpretive or descriptive; and the relative value of individual haiku. Some of these aspects would require too much space, some can be covered by general comments, the last requires some examples.

The intention of the book, judged by the editorial material, appears to be not simply to collect the best haiku but to document the case for the proposal that haiku is poetry. The various arguments made by the editors do not seem to me to succeed in making the case, in part because of a lack of coherence at certain points, in part because the editors didn’t first question the definition of poetry itself. The argument seems to be played out among established hierarchies. Why raise the issue “what first is poetry?” if we can assume what the audience believes. Best let sleeping dogs lie. But the problem then for the historian is what the audience believes. I have no way to discuss that except by inference, so I won’t do that here.

That said, the editors seem to graft the question of poetry onto the question of modern poetry, or contemporary poetry. Poetry is modern poetry; and we all know what modern poetry is? Modern means “contemporary”? Here the idea that haiku is “contemporary” seems paramount. But historicist claims are famously sticky. In masterful hands, they are tactical. The role of the concept of modernity or the contemporary, is crucial at certain moments in the history of poetry. Whether in Catullus’s Rome or Baudelaire’s France, the claim of the modern is tactical: to promote the new style in face of the traditional hegemony. But in the case of HIE, the claim of the contemporary produces slippage in the argument: are we supposed to believe that contemporary haiku is “modern” by contrast to poetry in general or modern by contrast to a more traditional haiku, or both? Or is poetry automatically contemporary? The argument that haiku in English is poetry may well be lost in the argument about a particular contemporary style of haiku being representative of haiku-in-English. There are signs in the state of the debate about HIE that those who feel this way see the anthology as excluding other kinds of contemporary haiku; they see HIE as a manifesto. This comes as no surprise to the historian of poetry.

One may say a little more. Given the ideology of the editorial matter it does seem that there is an “American” assumption that good haiku are written by interesting individuals (see the thumbnails) who display the American virtue of individualism, even iconoclasm. Haiku then would ideally capture something arbitrary in the writer’s experience that marks it as unique. This would justify the approach to interpretation that favors impressionism over analysis connecting the text to beliefs shared by others. Perhaps contemporary haiku as envisioned by the editors involves a kind of “will-to-power,” a happy-go-lucky nihilism.

Trying to make sense of all this gives one a headache, so we turn to the haiku collected here with relief. Something occurs to me repeatedly as I peruse this anthology. While I see the good-natured nihilism, I don’t see the anxiety about poetry. At best, I see mindful very short texts that respond quite well to rational criticism. The clarity of the language, the seamlessness of form and significance reminds me not of poetry but of the family of short forms that includes aphorism, maxims, pensees, etc. (see Gary Saul Morson, The Long and the Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel,  for a discussion of the traditional prose short).

So maybe brevity is the soul of haiku and the problem faced by the haiku writer is the problem of exclusion. How much can be excluded before you cut into the bone? How deep a feeling can a very short text produce? What’s the trick of making a very short text memorable? Since this is a literary problem for every writer, haiku can be read as exemplary of very short texts (I need not mention the success of flash-fiction today).

Perhaps this goes without saying, but the real “trick” is to have rediscovered the form in terms of its original ethos. Peipei Qiu’s work leaves no doubt about the importance of the Zhuangzi for that ethos; and at a time when Taoist studies are becoming more and more metaphysically nuanced, the historicist argument that the Zhuangzi is “outdated” must be chalked up to a simple failure of imagination. But this is a digression, for HIE has little to say about this way of understanding haiku.

If one had to pick a representative work – representing that is the best version of the editorial intentions – one could do worse than cite a haiku by Peggy Willis Lyles. For one thing, she has the courage of the contemporary form. “I brush / my mother’s hair / the sparks”—this has the immediacy of a pop song. It perfectly realizes a contemporary moment. It is “sentiment” raised to the level of formal perfection. I hope nobody misunderstands me when I compare this to a pop song. Pop songs often capture moments of some intimacy; they do not submit them to much development; the form does not allow it, and writers of popular songs know the limits of their form and their audience. (Heavy poetry critics have made the case for, say, Bob Dylan as a “poet” but the execution of the argument seems excessive and more about the critic than Bob Dylan, who hardly needs such attention.) It is not “poetry” because its economy of form befits an economy of significance. The moment is what it is; those “sparks” hint at a personal relationship that shall remain unexplored. The tenderness, one supposes, of brushing her mother’s hair is sufficient unto the day.

On the other hand, a Big Poet can find himself caught in the mirror of haiku form and looking a little strange. Paul Muldoon’s haiku comes as no surprise to the reader of his poetry. “A hammock at dusk. / I scrimshaw a narwhal hunt / on a narwhal tusk.” Really? Perhaps precisely because it lacks the immediacy of a pop song, this haiku sounds like an exercise in form, form for form’s sake.

But Muldoon’s haiku, with the repetition of “narwhal” as if it were a tongue-twister and mere sound, does illustrate a key point. Repetition is basic. Form in art, regardless of size, depends on repetition, but for purposes eluding Muldoon here: repetition serves to make real its double, movement or change; repetition makes change evident. (The writer of shorts, Lydia Davis, is a master of repetition.) Take as example Peter Yovu’s piece: “she slips into / the ocean the ocean / slips into.” Read this as many times as you wish, the mystery remains, and the mystery is coded in the repetition of this very big thing, “ocean.” This is no formal mystery: Ocean IS mystery. Can the ocean itself be compared to a woman who slips into it? What can the ocean slip into? If the ocean is a traditional name for “what surrounds us,” one feels a dizzy imaging this horizon slipping inside its own horizon. Aside from the verbal slide, the rhythm conveys a sense of vertigo. This is both clever and provocative. It embodies a vertiginous question that irritated Plato into thought. And everybody worth the name of thinker since.

A variation on Yovu’s elegant repetition (I’m not saying one haiku is based on the other: they are both based on a seminal idea of form) is Philip Rowland’s “inside an envelope / inside an envelope: / funeral money.” Where Yovu may strike a metaphysical note, Rowland discovers the pathos of discretion in the face of death. Again, using repetition, the haiku captures a moment of ultimate reflection. The subject matters. Death and Ocean: two mammoth themes. While both of these texts are “original” in the simplicity of their design, they are also traditional in their topics. They are unique without being arbitrary, profound rather than solipsistic.

Finally, contemporary haiku may draw intertextually on the origins of haiku in the Japanese early modern period, thereby gaining authority by innovating, marking a difference within a dense undergrowth of tradition. Jane Reichhold does this in “autumn / taking a dirt road / to the end.” This is both “classic” (Bashō’s Japanese tradition, which she knows intimately) and utterly at home in the English language. It resonates every which way. It is “classic” in more senses that one (or two).

So I do find much to admire here. I have always loved writing that is short; I try to practice “writing short” whenever I write. Years ago, I studied Greek and Roman epigram and traced its influence through European languages. I teach “writing short” in various genres. For the last ten years, I have specialized in carefully balanced couplets framed on models supplied by classical Chinese poets, especially with regard to the making of resonant images. That training has prepared me to enjoy HIE – though “enjoy” may not be the word. I don’t like them all. It seems that many of the haiku collected here are intention expressing what the editor calls “sentiment” and that alone is not enough for me. Given the contexts provided by the anthology, many of the more famous writers represented here seem over-valued. Many of the haiku collected here are verbally clever but lack the verbal resonance and the deep sounding of the bottom of the heart I want in any literary text, however short. Each time I put the book down, I come away believing even more strongly that to write a good haiku in contemporary English is quite an accomplishment for a writer.




Tom d'Evelyn

Tom D’Evelyn retired from editing and publishing in 2011. He has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and was books editor of The Christian Science Monitor in the 1980s. After that he was an acquisition editor in the Humanities at Harvard University Press and managing editor at Boston University. He ran his own literary agency for ten years. He began teaching adults in Providence before moving to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he works part-time as a writing mentor and freelance editor.