Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Haiku is not a lyric poetry form

A haiku is not a lyric poem, although many Western poets, who often misunderstand the nature of haiku, persist on treating it that way. That is an ongoing confusion, I believe.

You encounter these misconceptions and misunderstandings almost any time you read an essay by a Western writer, poet or non-poet, about haiku. Almost equally often, you run into it in essays by non-poets trying to understand and explain poetry. Few really understand. I do not in any way advocate "poetry for poets," or any other kind of cliquish insularity about poetry—although I do find it humorous when contemporary poets who write fairly obscure and difficult poetry complain about the lack of audience for their poems. Such poets often seem blind to how they've become their own worst enemies, when it comes to having any audience outside other poets.

Most writers naturally bring to their interpretations their own cultural biases, having not traveled or studied foreign cultures enough to have expanded their perspective on life or art. Which of course is a general issue of translation, not only a problem with Westerners and haiku. A lot of superficial translation only brings over the words, without recreating the context. Most Western poets, when they explore or adapt poetic forms and styles from other cultures, end up using them as just new forms for lyric poetry. Lyric poetry has a compelling grip on the Western soul, Western history, and Western poetics. It isn't really surprising that Western poets mistakenly view so much poetry from other cultures, such as haiku, as lyric poetry, because the lyric is so embedded in the Western literary tradition mindset that it goes unremarked and unquestioned, it is assumed to be the natural state of affairs. I've tried to point this out to certain poets before, and found myself in a situation parallel to telling a fish that in fact it's breathing water.

One of the very great benefits of immersive travel, of living in other cultures, of studying other languages and cultures, is that it puts your tribal assumptions about the nature of life and art into context as one mindset among many; you come to realize that every piece of wisdom you were raised to believe was universal and natural is in fact local and arbitrary.

So, it's natural that most Western writers, encountering haiku, would adapt the form to their own lyrical poetry needs in their native language. But this often misses the original spirit of haiku, while copying the form's model and scope. Lots of Western haiku are merely 17 syllable poems. Many of these are technically senryu rather than strictly haiku. A senryu is a poem in haiku style that is about human nature, is often humorous, and often topical; in other words, the subject matter and tone of the poem are what make it a senryu rather than a classical haiku. Again, I see most Western poets don't make this distinction, or even know it's there to be made.

A haiku can have great evocative emotional and/or spiritual power, because it evokes some powerful completion in the reader. The nature of the classical haiku aesthetic is that the haiku is intended to be open-ended, allowing the reader to "complete" the poem out of his or her own experience. The reader brings their own life to the poem, thus completing it in ways unique to that person. The poem itself maintains a certain detachment from outcomes, a certain openness and ambiguity, that allows for multiple interpretations, even in such a short poetic form.

There is rarely ever one specific meaning to a great haiku, as though it were a puzzle to be solved—a tendency among Western writers and readers is to treat literary criticism as analytical puzzle-solving, which can often overwhelm savoring a poem in simple appreciation—or as though it had a definitive, singular interpretation. This is one of the key points of misunderstanding haiku: this openendedness in interpretation, this diffuse sense of meaning, which the reader must complete for themselves.

Haiku often seem mysterious and exotic to inexperienced Western poets precisely because the Western mental habit is to look for definite, tangible meaning, imagery, and interpretation. We always look for the story, and we tend to impose a narrative where there isn't any, simply because we're used to thinking that way. We even tend to impose narrative onto non-linear poetry because the dominant literary form in our culture has become the narrative prose fiction form, so we make a habit of thinking in terms of linear narrative.

We are a culture dominated by left-brain Apollonian consciousness; we are a culture where we are taught in school that to understand a poem means to analyze it, unpack its meaning, paraphrase it, bring the poet's biography to the interpretation, and so forth. To find out what the poem means. (This way of teaching poetry during school often puts a lot of readers off poetry from an early age.) We are trained to unpack a poem's meaning, to believe that there must be a meaning in there, somewhere, even if it's hidden. One of the reasons there has been a rebellion against overt meaning in contemporary literary circles is that in part it's an unconscious reaction against the way we've all been taught poetry (or literature in general) in school, to analyze it for meaning. Regardless of reaction or rebellion, the habit of thinking, the mindset, remains in place for most Western writers; so that when they encounter a form like haiku, which has become a popular international form for writing poetry, they still to try to unpack and analyze meaning.

Lyric poetry always had a meaning, a story, or a message, even if it was a simple "I love you" from poet to beloved. Western lyric poetry began, historically, as Medieval love poetry. Its roots lie in the Provençal troubadour and trouvére poetries, and similar upwellings of secular poetry begun throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages. This was not the first invention of lyric poetry, of course, since the ancient Greeks and Romans had also practiced such styles; but it was the origin of the modern ascendancy of the lyric, after it had been disused for some time.

Most of this doesn't actually matter to the classical haiku poet. It's not that the haiku poet avoids including moments from his or her life—in fact, that's part of the aesthetic, the keen observation of nature, of daily life, of human response to nature. But the personal, the humanistic, is often de-emphasized. Haiku is not to be misunderstood as a form of nature poetry, though, because in the same way that the reader must complete the poem out of their own experience, human consciousness is the unavoidable lens through which we encounter nature. And humans are an integral part of nature—the mind/body split, the division into a human vs. nature dichotomy is, again, a Western attitude that is not native to the haiku aesthetic—humans are the conscious part of the natural world, the part that contemplates and reflects upon itself.

The closest we have come in Western philosophy to this viewpoint is Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the noosphere, and later on the Gaia hypothesis, in which human consciousness is seen as the planet's neo-cortex, the part of the overall gaian system that has awakened to self-awareness and self-knowledge. But this is still a minority viewpoint in Western culture, even considered heretical in some quarters.

For a lyrical love poem, although haiku of love and longing have always been written even in Japanese (albeit most often in the modern period, a period influenced by Western culture), a more appropriate form is the tanka. The tanka has a much longer history of being an actual lyrical poetic form, so using tanka to write love poems or lyrical poems in English is entirely appropriate.

Another important aspect of the haiku aesthetic that is counterintuitive to many Western writers is the removal of the personal self from the poem. The essence of lyrical poetry is the persona, whether or not it's the poet's own persona, the "I" and "you" of the poem. A lyrical poem usually exists within a specific psychological space—not a limited or unvaried one, but a specific one nonetheless—which is that of persona meeting world, persona meeting other persona, persona engaged with inner self. In other words, there is always the "I" present, even when fictionalized. There is always the personality-ego present, the mental mind, the self-aware consciousness of personhood. There is always an assumption in lyrical poetry that a persona is present, is part of the writing, part of the poem.

The authentic haiku aesthetic carries the self-aware "I" much more lightly. Persona is frankly irrelevant. The strong Zen Buddhist influence on the origin of haiku is at the root of this aspect of the aesthetic: transcendence of the "I" and a kind of egolessness in observing the world are core elements of the genuine haiku aesthetic. It's not even about the poet's response to the natural world, via observation and engagement, so much as it is about the poet becoming the means by which the natural speaks directly, via image and action, to the reader, even as the reader completes the poem out of his or her own experience and sensibility.

Senryu, by contrast, are heavily laden with the persona, both the poet's persona when the poem makes ironic and humorous commentary on human foibles and human nature—which, let's face it, is a form of judgmentalism, and judgmentalism is exactly what Zen works to transcend—and also the personae in the poems themselves, when character interacts with character under the puppet-mastery of the writer's control. Lots of writers are very conscious about directing their characters and plot. Haiku by contrast is not invested in the writer being in control of things, but rather works to let go of all that.

This is not to say that there is no art and craft to haiku. It is, after all, a poetic form, with a normative aesthetic. Human consciousness is used whenever poetic craft is employed. We shape the world with our words, to the best of our ability. That's what writers do. We shape as much as respond. Haiku aesthetic is as much a sensibility as is lyrical poetry. And like lyrical poetry, lesser haiku fail in part because you can see the scaffolding. At their best, all poems dissolve into direct internally-recreated experience within the reader: the scaffolding of craft and form dissolve, the words become what they signify, the magic of poetry is that it becomes very real.

This is where poetry and music do meet—often misunderstood, again, by those who see only the surface aspects of either art—this point where the elements of craft and sound dissolve into direct experience. This is how we are deeply moved by all great art, this direct connection. Facile comparisons are often made about the similarities between poetry and music, but most of these comparisons go only skin-deep, focusing on the elements not on the totality. And that's really the problem: the lack of deep awareness that many even poets lack about their own art. One can tolerate ignorance only when it's innocent.

What craft and art there is to writing haiku is in the service of making the poem a direct experience, an immediate perception, an "aha!" moment—often called by commentators the "haiku moment"—the synergistic experience that is a poem coming to life. Craft serves the haiku moment. It's essential to the poem, but it's in the service of what the poems leads to.

And that's what I'm really trying to get at here: my impatience with skin-deep facile criticism. My impatience keeps getting retriggered by encounters with articles and books that continuously recycle the same mistaken assumptions about haiku in particular, and poetry in general. In this instance, I am prompted by yet another round of misunderstandings about haiku. I might get back to that later.

So now we've gone a long way towards defining what haiku is not. I've defined before what haiku is, as have many others, many better haiku writers than myself. My main point here has been to remark upon the most common error Westerners make when encountering haiku, which is to collapse the new form back into the familiar tropes of lyric poetry. Not everything fits under that tent, even though the lyric style has come to dominate poetry at this time. The solution is to study haiku more in its native context, and absorb the classical haiku aesthetic for what it can offer us, as an alternative to the dominant tropes of contemporary Western poetry. To the extent that one can absorb something more authentic about haiku, one may find one's entire poetry-writing endeavour refreshed and reinvigorated.

crescent of light
brushes spruce out my window:
summer moonset

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