Imagery in Haiku and Breaking the Rules
But many of the old masters' haiku and haibun, in Japanese, contain outright declarative or interrogative parts. Many haiku use emotive and/or aesthetic words: ideas rather than things, telling rather than showing.
So, where do we find a balance? Where do we draw a line? When does a haiku become aphoristic, epigrammatic—a wise or witty saying—rather than a haiku? When does imagery in haiku become too much, too metaphoric, too dense, too rich? The line is not always clear.
This issue came up with my haibun Green Man, which got responses describing it as Surrealist or DaDaesque. In fact, I wrote that haibun to depict the change of state of consciousness from human to vegetal: the awakening of the Green Man, and the falling away of the human. The haibun, thus, begins with straightforward syntax, and evolves towards a very different, "experimenta" syntax.
With Green Man, I ran afoul of those expectations and "shoulds" that have accrued around writing haiku in English. I have noticed before how, when a form or style is borrowed from another culture, then takes on its own life in a new language and culture, there is always a tendency to ossify style into something fixed in the new language, and make some hardfast rules out of what in the original were only trends and tendencies. Part of this is simply the process of transition. Yet when you go back to the original haiku masters, you see that every one of them broke all the "rules" that are commonly proposed today for haiku in English. Such rule-like "shoulds" include: imagery; detachment depicted as an avoidance of emotion-words; the season-word (kigo); the fashionable trend towards ultra-compression (because of the different linguistic syllabics between English and Japanese, which is a somewhat legitimate argument, if you don't carry it to the point of absurdity or "tontoisms"); and so forth. Most of the haiku "rules" or "shoulds" in English are debatable, and if you examine the original Japanese haiku canon, you see as many exceptions to the "rules" as you do submissions.
In this debate about the haiku "rules," I am sometimes reminded parallel debates around jazz classicists like Wynton Marsalis and his attempts to museumify early N'Orleans jazz as the prototypical style of jazz, the legitimate and only kind of jazz—and ignoring several other whole and vibrant traditions within jazz, not least of them free jazz and cool jazz. Louis Armstrong was a great jazzman, but putting him on a pedestal to be worshipped as being the inventor of the entire tradition, as Marsalis does, is too extreme, and quickly becomes absurd. (I don't know that Armstrong himself would care to be put on that pedestal, either.)
My haiku and haibun, such as Green Man, as well as others, sometimes get accused of being experimental or innovative—and the accusations contain a tone of disapproval, as though innovation was an inherently bad thing. I can say that I never set out to be particularly innovative, although I admit to being exploratory, and following where the brush goes. I just write what I write. I'm not trying to stir things up—usually, things get stirred up by the more tradition-bound haiku reactionaries, irritated by something I've done. Well, I can respect their position—as long as they respect mine, in turn. Seems only fair.
The problem is, those same haiku traditionalists seem willing to ignore the truth that if anyone was a literary experimenter, it was Basho himself. After all, he invented the form we know now as haiku, by experimenting with hokku (the opening three-line stanza of a renga chain), renga, and waka—in his own era he was considered quite innovative. Basho's was an exploratory, experimental spirit. His literary innovations were presented as such during his working lifetime, and were not without controversy. That he established a school of poetry is without doubt, however. He started something new, quite intentionally and dramatically, sending ripples throughout Japan's existing literary scene. I take Basho as my role-model and mentor, for what I do with haiku and haibun. I always come back to Basho's admonition, from his few preserved commentaries about haiku-writing: Do not imitate the masters. Seek what they sought.
Issa's body of work is full of "rule-breaking" haiku. He often breaks away from purely imagistic haiku, and uses personification and anthropomorphisms in his famous animal and insect haiku, ascribing to them the same emotions humans have; some of his haiku are forthrightly humorous rather than contemplative; others are purely philosophical, and contain only one image, not the two contrasting images often required by the "rules"; still others are one-sentence haiku, rather than two fragments with a turn, or hinge.
Consider one of Issa's best-known Buddhist-philosophical poems, which contain perhaps one image, if any. This haiku is considered a masterpiece by many (translated by Sam Hamill):
this world of dew
is just a world of dew—
and yet . . . oh and yet . . .
tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara
This deep longing for the world and all it contains, even though we know it is illusory and impermanent. I have felt this poem myself, at times. You know that attachment is the source of suffering; but you can't help it, loving the world, loving people in it. All love, like all things, in this world, will die. And yet . . . oh, and yet . . .
Here's another one-image Buddhist haiku by Issa:
he sits all alone
in freezing rain for us all,
this great stone Buddha
hito no tame
Setting aside the human-centric idea that only humans have emotions, and that animals or stones cannot—a notion I have always found particularly puzzling, as anyone who has ever lived with a pet knows full well that animals have a full range of emotions—the poetic use of anthropomorphism in haiku has precedent in Issa.
Some critics dismiss Issa as the exception that proves the rules, or as the only one able to pull off these rule-breaking haiku. But that is selective redaction of the canon, and ignores hiaku by Basho and Buson that also break "rules," as also did some of their followers.
The point is that the haiku poet who is open to the world, who has beginner's mind, is always going to break some rules, at some point—simply because they are pursuing the haiku spirit wherever it goes, rather than blindly sticking to the "rules." The masters are always explorers and innovators; it is the disciples that codify things and make fixed rules. Which spirit would you prefer to pursue?
So, to return to imagery in haiku, it is of course central, as it is to much other poetry. The problem is not in the use, or not, of imagery, but in the rigidity of how people conceive the "rules." In terms of imagery, in fact I believe it is entirely possible to create a poetry that consists entirely of sequenced images, like Minor White's photographic sequences, or non-verbal, non-narrative films such as Baraka, in which the audience/viewer/reader generates (or projects) a narrative and story-line for him or herself out of what is presented. With no overt storyline and no foreground storyteller, telling you what to think, telling you what's going on, the images can speak for themselves, and lead the viewer/reader through a somatic (re-created) experience.
I am very much a visual poet first. The words in my poems support, often inadequately, the images that I perceive with my mind's eye, as real before me as if they were visions. The words point to the images, for me, before they mean anything on their own.
So, I think this type of use of imagery is quite possible in haiku, tanka, haibun, and their related forms.