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Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years
Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, Allan Burns (editors)
Introduction by Billy Collins
W W Norton & Company, 2013, New York
Hardcover, 5 x 8, pp.439
ISBN 978-0-393-23947-8
$23.95US; Can $25


A review by Jane Reichhold

 

Year by year the interest in haiku has been growing. More people are studying the form, more haiku books are being sold, and more are being written. To top off this good news came the announcement that the highly respected book company, W.W. Norton and Company, was doing an anthology of haiku. Norton has been the publisher of most mainstream poets and anthologies of their various collective efforts, so the haiku community was thrilled to be included – at last.

When it was revealed that Jim Kacian, the editor in chief of the anthology, was starting with Pound’s “in a metro station” I wondered if he was doing a haiku book to exhibit a new closeness or connection between what we often refer to as ”mainstream poetry” – free verse in its many variations with authors published by well-known publishers – and the form of haiku. There is a definite lack of understanding among the dedicated haiku writers of how much haiku influenced and became simply a part of the poetic tools used by this pool of poets. I was cheered by this thought because I do feel that for too long there has been a “them” vs. “us” attitude among haiku writers and other poets and I was hoping that Kacian could, with well-chosen examples, pull haiku together, make it shine, and place it in the mainstream.

When I first flipped through the actual book, I was startled by the large amount of haiku written in one line. There were far more one-line haiku in Haiku in English:The First Hundred Years, a style that Kacian favors and fosters, than are currently in magazines and haiku books. For someone without a large overview of the current haiku styles, they will get the wrong impression of what is actually being written and in what style.

As I read the one-line haiku, it became apparent to me that whoever had done the choosing of the poems to include in the book was not very rigorous. One-line haiku can be as good as any three-line haiku in the hands of the experienced. The main weakness of the form is the ease of a one-line to become a simple run-on sentence. It is absolutely vital that the author understands, and uses, the concept that a haiku is composed of two parts – the fragment and the phrase, especially when there are no line breaks to show this hallmark of haiku. Experienced haiku writers can create the cut with grammar; persons less adept need punctuation. When they leave out the break the one-line haiku becomes simply a sentence without punctuation. It is then possible for one to pick out any sentence of vision or genius in a work and declare it to be a one-line haiku as I suspect in the case of Ashberry’s poems. For readers, it is too easy for the eye to swipe across the one line in one movement. The line breaks stop the reader’s eye, give the brain the time to form an image, before continuing on to capture another image to add to it and then! the image that pulls the poem together. Just printing one line of illogical words does not make a haiku no matter how well-known the name.

This brings us to the next question of the book. I foresee a new past-time among haiku writers of thinking up all the persons who “should have been in the book, but were left out.” If it had been Kacian’s intent to show the haiku in the toolkits of established poets, it is evident he has done too little research. With just one evening of thinking, I wondered what his reasons were for leaving out Sylvia Plath – she wrote at least 8 sequences using 3- and 5- line stanzas that show her understanding of haiku and tanka. Alice Walker wrote a book of haiku – Once: 1968. Maybe the subject matter – an abortion – was not seen as being enough haiku-like? W.S Merwin’s book Finding Islands was declared to be haiku yet he is not here. Where are Cats and Their People, in Haiku, by Louise Lessin, and Ruby Lytle's What is the Moon: Japanese Haiku Sequence – haiku of the world as seen by a Siamese cat? Rainer Marie Rilke, in his final four years was exploring haiku and tanka and the poems, written in French, but have been translated into English since the 1970. Where is mention of Lorine Neidecker and her work in the 50s? Kenneth Patchen and his pre-haiga work? Also needed  to be  mentioned is Robert Hass’s work, not only as a translator, but also as a haiku writer. Then there is D.S Lliteras who has published haiku in his novels, and even written a novel about haiku and has a book of his own work. The search will probably continue as others add the names of more should-not-be forgotten authors.

I am sorry but Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years offers an inadequate and crippled view of the importance of haiku in literature. If one allows “names” to be added to the list by finding un-intentional haiku in prose and sequences, due to the writer’s understanding of the haiku form, one would have to add Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein – they used haiku thinking without the form. Here is the book waiting to be written.

In the second paragraph on page xix Kacian gives the purpose of the book: “. . . to tell the story of English-language haiku, to identify its most singular accomplishments in its century of existence and to place them in their context. . .”

This the book does to some extent. When I closed the covers on the last page I was aware of a huge arch—a bell-curve going from the first fumbling attempts to imitate a Japanese haiku, rising in a swell of most excellent works from the early days of English haiku writers and slipping downward as haiku became global to end with examples of haiku that many would hardly credit to the most liberal interpretation of the genre and most would not be accepted for publication. If this were the truth of the matter, the book would be ending with a very bleak result – single haiku being forced to become more and more exotic to keep up interest or find new images.

The difference between what Kacian and his two friends (why did he pick them? – he needed two persons with long experience in the haiku scene to fill in the gaps in his knowledge/experience) portray as the situation with haiku and reality is so wide one wonders how they ever found the courage to publish this book. Only by plucking out the haiku from its much wider value and contribution in literature and poetry has he been able to make it sound so small and insignificant.

By choosing to organize the haiku and authors in a rough chronological order, the reader who turns page by page is bombarded by such a bewildering array of haiku that they neither stand alone (even when there is only one on a page) nor relate to each other.

Kacian’s restriction of his choices to only single haiku strips away the richness of haiku that had been combined into sequences, renga, or with other forms of symbiotic poetry and/or artwork. His silence on these topics threatens to swallow up the good intentions of his goal.

I can imagine that having Billy Collins write the Introduction was intended to demonstrate how a mainstream poet, and a popular one at that, has embraced haiku enough to put his name on the cover of a haiku anthology. I hope it sells many books for you, Jim, and I do hope that there will be people, not acquainted with haiku, who will be seduced into buying this book due to his name and will discover, in this way, the form of haiku.

However, when one reads what Collins writes in his Introduction, the thinking person will wonder if his words and opinions are that good for the project. I have read and enjoyed several books of poems by Billy Collins, a two-time Poet Laureate, but this was the first time I had read his prose. As I was reading, these thoughts kept flickering just above the logical intake of information: “Billy Collins writes prose like this? This is what he thinks? Maybe he gave the job to a freshman lit major? If he has all this knowledge about haiku, how can he insist on writing haiku like a 1950s novice?”

My patience with Collins’s Introduction splintered when he began, on page xxxii, to quote excellent haiku as examples of how he thought one should define the form. These examples were brutally cramped into Collins’s prose only with slashes and quotation marks.

“The startling effects that can result are based, not on analogies but on immediate connections, “A page of Shelly / brightens and dims / with passing clouds”, “jackknifed rig / a trooper waves us / into wildflowers.” The contrast is often between the natural and the man-made, for example, “in the stream / a shopping cart / fills with leaves.” The natural world sometimes lies next to the world of human activities as in “I lay down / all the heavy packages— / autumn moon.”

Who wrote these very good haiku? Are they his? I didn’t think so as these showed evidence of an understanding and appreciation of Japanese poetry and were well-written – not Collins’s style. I stopped to search for indices or footnotes but found none. As his desecration of the haiku form continued on the next page, I began to recognize more and more of the poems. I had read them somewhere. I had even published a couple of these haiku. These were not the work of Billy Collins, but whose haiku were these? Later, as I read through the haiku in the body of the book, I found them, with the names of their authors at last. (At the end of this review are the haiku quoted here with their authors and printed in their original form.) For a long time my mouth hung open in astonishment. How could a poet, especially a writer, quote so much of the works of others and not give them credit? Who is responsible for letting him get away with treating haiku and haiku writers so shamefully? If anyone hoped that the name of Billy Collins would form the bridge between haiku and mainstream poets, one must accept that a few boards are missing and instead there is our collective ire.

As I turned from the introduction and was confronted by Ezra Pound’s oft-repeated “Metro Station” experiment in haiku, the thought crossed my mind: Maybe it is best that the breach between mainstream poets and haiku is as wide as it is and we should leave it be.

If you are male and are included in Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, you are among very good company. If you are female, you should count yourself as very lucky to be among the 54 of your gender who made the cut out of 236 authors. If you are not included in the book but feel you should have been based on the number of prize-winning haiku you have written and /or the degree of your activity in the haiku scene with books or magazines written, you can perhaps more readily see the gaps and omissions of the book.

First in line should be the women. While they form a mere 23% of the authors of Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, the number of their haiku form an even more disappointing 16% of the total poems. Please forgive my loud screams, but this is just wrong! While haiku is often seen as a “male genre” (to even it up, tanka is often seen as a female genre in Japan), yet in English these two ideas have become moot as both genders practice and excel in the forms. It would have been so easy, and economical, to add a couple more haiku to those pages for authors with only one haiku – who were mostly the women. I thought that by now it should be clear that editors should not use the power of their maleness to misrepresent those in the scene – to shunt aside and make invisible deserving women.

Not only were women disadvantaged in their representation and haiku in the book, even their magazines, among others, were left out of the list on page 379. Where is the name of moonset, Blueberry Haiku, Mirrors, A Hundred Gourds, Haiku NewZ, Lynx, Simply Haiku, Sketchbook, Shot Glass, Woodpecker and, and, and?

I do hope that, in spite of these listed and surely many unlisted omissions, the book will ignite a new interest in haiku. Still if that newbie reader fails to use the Internet to find the wealth of sites (only the Matsuyama Shiki Salon is mentioned in the book) available for instruction and education, he or she is seriously handicapped in this day and age of learning. There is no page of further reading to list the many how-to books or volumes of critique except those by the Kacian’s male friends listed in the biography.

I am very grateful for the information in the biographies of birthplaces and dates, but I am wondering why Kacian listed only the book needed for the haiku credits for women, but for the men, he gives print to every one of their accomplishments. Not fair!

My other complaint about Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years is the complete lack of mention how haiku has and is popping up in other genres. Kacian completely ignores, and fails to mention, haiku as the very kern of poetry. How it enriches and shines in novels, artwork, sculpture, and public works – even advertising.

I would like to close by offering another conclusion for a hundred years of haiku in the hands of English writers. Yes, when you think of all the haiku written in that period, it is true that many have been written and many ideas have been used. Does that mean we can only search for unusual haiku situations and write our contemporary haiku in ways that are farther from the form in a quest of newness? On this path lies death for the form. However, we writers who have been most snubbed in this book are already on the path of giving the haiku form new life – collaboration. By combining haiku with haiku for sequences, with other poetic forms as tanka and renga, or with art and images, and prose, can the haiku retain its brilliance and its brevity to shine out even more clearly. If we keep haiku in little boxes of single poem anthologies, it will wear out its welcome in English to become a butterfly pinned to felt.

 

Note:

Only the authors and haiku quoted by Billy Collins in the Introduction in this review are shown here.

 

         A page of Shelly
brightens and dims
                with passing clouds

                                                            Rod Willmot

 

jackknifed rig
a trooper waves us
into wildflowers 

                                                             Robert Gilliand

 

in the stream
   a shopping cart
       fills with leaves

                                                             Alan Pizzarelli

 

I lay down
all the heavy packages—
autumn moon 

                                                            Patricia Donegan

 

 

 


Jane Reichhold has published over thirty books of tanka, renga, haiku and other poetry, with two of books published by Kodansha International: How to Write and Enjoy Haiku and Basho: The Complete Haiku. In 1987 she founded AHA Books Publishing Company, and the magazine Mirrors International Haiku Forum. She co-edits the journal LYNX with her husband Werner Reichhold, and started the Tanka Splendor Awards and anthology series (1989-2009).