Sunday, May 14, 2006

Haiku Thoughts & Rantings

One the things that allow haiku to succeed between writer and reader are shared associations, shared cultural contexts, and shared assumptions. A haiku, in the original Japanese tradition, was intended to be "completed" by the reader, who brought his or her own experience to the poem, to fill in the details in so spare a form. The shared cultural history between reader and writer make that possible.

But what happens when we move haiku-writing to another language, another culture?

Some of the conflict about what a haiku is, especially in English-language haiku, comes from unspoken assumptions. It's why lots of haiku-writers assume a learning curve on how to write "real haiku," beyond the form itself, and into the spiritual and aesthetic content and style of haiku. As has been said, haiku is much more than just the syllable count. This holds true even if you argue, as many contemporary writers of English haiku do, for a reduced syllable count in English. It cycles back to the use of other elements of a haiku like kigo, season-word, wabi and sabi, the sense of imperfection in nature and the impermanence of all things—which are critical for giving haiku their "tone"—and the classical structure of two images, the long phrase and short phrase, and the turn (or hinge). All of these factors obviously go beyond the issue of syllable count, and perhaps have more to do with making a poem a haiku than strict adherence to the form of 5/7/5. (The arguments about what is "correct" syllable count in any given language, based on internal grammar and other linguistic issues, is all about form and not about content.) In other words, it is as much the content of a haiku that makes it a haiku, beyond all questions of form.

This is why we get into discussions about whether a poem is a haiku or not, or a senryu (adding elements of human interaction, humor, and playful irony) or not; and so forth. I note that these arguments tend to be based mostly on content. (Including the pedantic argument about whether humor, joking, and/or puns are to be allowed in haiku.)

But there is a deeper level to this discussion, for sometimes what one haijin labels as a non-haiku is labeled so simply out of a lack of comprehension of the poem's contents. For many traditionalists—beyond the problem of superficial Orientalism per se, i.e. the mere imitation of Japanese literary subject matters—the content of haiku must be limited to, or emphasize, natural settings, subject matters from nature, a lack of human presence in the poem, and so forth, and also certain tones and styles; anything outside that zone tends to get labelled a senryu, or non-haiku. (Hence also the diatribe against "joke haiku," which is an argument based on a very limited, puritanical idea of what haiku is or can be.) This reflects the assumption that there is a shared, historical, even fixed-in-time tradition: an assumption that we must imitate the Founders, or the Masters, at all times. (Whenever this comes up, I seem to find myself quoting Basho on this issue; he explicitly said do not imitate.)

On another front, we are told by some modern haiku experts that we ought to imitate a different group of masters than the classical Japanese masters—for example, the contemporary haiku journals—ignoring the founders of the poetic form. The argument here is that, in a new language, the form must change, so don't confuse yourself by reading that old stuff. This is a highly debatable stance, as it can tend to swing to the opposite extreme from imitating-the-masters towards imitating-the-disciples, and completely lose the spirit and content of haiku. It is prone to mannerism and the winds of fashion, because it is not grounded in the history of the poetic form.

One example of this fashionability issue is the contemporary trend towards ultra-compression in haiku: the minimalist exhortation to write a poem with as few words as possible. This is a debatable aesthetic stance because it assumes first that compression is inherently a positive aesthetic choice, which it may not always be, and secondly because when crosses a certain formal threshold, what you may be left with is a good short-form poem that is no longer a haiku.

An example of a poem that is an extreme case of this ultra-compressionist fashion is a poem that was published in a contemporary haiku journal, that consists of the word "tundra" centered on a blank page of white space. Now, I view this as an interesting poem, even perhaps a successful bit of conceptual or concrete poetry—but is it a haiku? No, in my opinion it is not a haiku, even though it was originally published in the contemporary haiku press. There are other aspects of aesthetic elegance in haiku that "tundra" completely lacks.

Arguing that one-word poems are haiku relies on the argument that haiku are more about content than form, yes, but then the ultra-compression camp contradicts itself because it then argues against content being the determinant by ignoring the other elements that make up haiku, as listed above: season-word, tone, two images, turn. The ultra-compression argument is thus inconsistent, in that it picks and chooses which of the rules for haiku it wants to follow, and which it wants to ignore. So, the argument comes across as facile and unconvincing.

In a related example of current aesthetic fashion getting a little bit out of control, let's return to the issue of which haiku masters to read, the old masters, or the new.

One justification presented for not reading the old masters that has been presented is that early translators of haiku from the Japanese into English tried to fit their translations into the 17-syllable traditional haiku count, or, even worse, tried to translate them into English forms seen at the time as equivalent, such as rhymed couplets. Therefore, we are encouraged to not read the old Japanese haiku masters, because "there are no good translations of them yet;" instead we are encouraged to read the contemporary American haiku print and online journals (wherein ultra-compressionist minimalism reigns as a dominant aesthetic).

While it is certainly true that many older translations of haiku into English made numerous choices that we might all wince at, today—for example, a famous volume published several years ago, A Net of Fireflies: Haiku Poems and Paintings, translated haiku into stereotypical rhymed couplets, on the justification that that would look more like poetry in English—there has been a tremendous surge in haiku-writing in the past 25 years, and therefore also a tremendous surge in good translations in the past 15 years, many of which remain in print at this time. Many translations of Basho, Issa, and Buson, the original three haiku masters, go for sense, and those other aesthetic principles, and are not slavish about syllable count. The more recent translations of Shiki and Senryu follow similar lines of thought.

So the comment that "there are no good translations, so don't read them"—what that sort of comment really means is, there are no brand-new translations that conform to the fashion of ultra-compression of contemporary American haiku. This ignores the possibility that maybe there don't need to be, and that maybe some of the existing translations are quite adequate, or even good.

Some of this fashion for ultra-compression is attributable to Cid Corman's influence on haiku poetry, and on translation from the Japanese. He was a minimalist poet, and was strongly influenced by haiku aesthetic, even when he wrote original poems in English, many of which were quite good. Having read a fair bit of Corman, in addtion to other translator/poets such as Sam Hamill, Robert Hass, Donald Keane, Lucien Stryk, and many others—I've been invovled with this haiku stuff for a long time now—I find a lot of what I read in some of the current haiku journals is strongly derivative of Corman and his circle. This is not a bad thing, but it is a fashion. And fashions are ephemeral, not eternal.

Just to be clear: I am not opposed to compression or minimalism in poetry, per se. In fact, quite the opposite. I strongly support compressed language in poetry as a general aesthetic. What i am opposed to here is the presentation of a fashion as a rule, or as an ultimate style for writing haiku in English. The problem is that ultra-compression takes a good idea too far, then presents it as a "rule." The problem with -isms, as I recently heard Margaret Atwood say in an intereview, is that writers are unruly; sooner or later a writer will write something that the people who support any given -ism will disagree with, and then the writer who was once the darling of the Movement will be vilified and spurned. That very situation, whenever you encounter it, is a marker for ideological fashion in literary criticism.

One last thought about the old masters vs. the new:

Frankly, telling people to not read the old masters, even in "bad" translations, and instead to read only what is in the contemporary haiku journals—well, it's like saying, don't look at any paintings before Abstract Expressionism, because figurative painting is inherently primitive and bad. I can only shake my head in amazement at such a sentiment. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! There is no advantage to thowing out the history of any artform, and glossing over its historical context(s), even if that history contains things we no longer agree with, and no longer practice ourselves, and might make us wince.

Even in a bad translation—and there exist plenty of good translations—there is a quality of awareness, intention, and depth in Basho and Issa, to name only two of the old masters, that I just rarely, very rarely see in the contemporary haiku journals. I say that as someone who reads the journals, has submitted and been published. I have nothing against the journals per se—they're great! But reading them and not reading the old masters, at the same time? I'm sorry, that's just bad advice—because it's only half of the haiku story.

To get the whole picture, you need to read both the new poetry and the old masters.

This can all be very confusing to the novice haijin, because very often these things are presented as "rules" set in stone for all to obey. So, let's look at why, by getting back to haiku and associations.

The situation is thus: To understand any given haiku, you have to have a shared cultural context in which to understand the poem (which is why so many translations of old Japanese haiku use footnotes), a shared sense of associations of words to images and meanings (the season-word is often an animal or plant associated with that season, that symbolizes the imagery and weather of that time of year, and stands in for the emotions associated with that time of year), and shared assumptions about the poem's intentions, message, content and form.

I can write a haiku, for example, in English, that "requires translation." For example:

in the dark cafe
the Stickist taps, LEDS glow—
wind in reeds, in reeds

To understand this haiku, you have to know: that the Chapman Stick is the shared musical instrument played by everyone on Stickwire (a subscription email-list), myself included, where I originally posted the haiku; that the Stick is a multi-stringed musical instrument that is played by tapping the strings behind the frets, not by strumming or plucking as with a guitar; that musicians often play gigs in cafes, coffeehouses, bars, and so forth, so it's a stereotypical setting to find a musician in; that LEDs refer to the indicator lights on musical amplification and processing gear that every Stickist, or every contemporary amplified musician, has to deal with when playing a gig; and perhaps that the repetition in the last line of the poem refers to a particular style of musical playing called looping, in which the Stick player uses an electronic device called a looper which is basically a sampler that you play short melodic and rhythmic fragments into, then the device keeps repeating them while you play new musical layers over the top. It's a whole style of playing music, actually, that many Stick players, myself included, are into.

So, did you get all that from this poem? No? Oh well!

So, anyway, I can post this haiku on an email-list for Stick players, and most everyone will get it; but if I post it on a regular online poetry board, it will no doubt be vilified as a non-haiku at worst, and a head-scratcher at best. You see? Shared context matters.

Another example: There are whole websites devoted to science fiction content haiku—scifiku—in which the writers and readers all share a wide knowledge of general science, the literary tropes and styles of science fiction prose, and the concerns of the SF genre as a literary genre, both in terms of content and form. A haiku that deals with first contact with alien life-forms will be comprehensible on the scifiku sites, but such a haiku will be incomprehensible on other haiku sites that have no other SF context, and where the average reader may not be familiar with SF as a genre.

Bluntly put, a haiku, like other poems, has to be comprehensible to the reader. But because the haiku is such a compressed, short form, which relies on telegraphing content and image with as few words as possible, there is a threshold of allusiveness and obfuscation that lies very close to the surface. One has to have a set of shared associations with one's audience. One has to assume that one's audience should be able to understand the poem, all other literary considerations aside.

To return briefly to the trend towards ultra-compression in haiku, another reason I question its validity is that, all too often, poems written from that ideology cross the threshold of comprehensibility, and become hermetic, obscure, precious, and pretentious—comprehensible only to insiders, but not to the uneducated reader. Frankly, this often strikes me as a parallel problem to the increasing insularity and hermeticism of the overall poetic field since it has become dominated by academia and the MFA workshops and various other -isms—poets writing only for other poets.

(This is also the main reason I object to Language Poetry, because it deliberately disconnects language from meaning. I have no problem with avant-garde text-sound poetry, such as that represented on; but that is a different concern. That is sound-performance using poetic fragments, words, and poetry as the elements structured into a musical, sonic experience. Theorists for Language Poetry have openly stated a hostility to performance—in which case it might as well be random painting with typography, IMHO.)

So, before I am accused of lowest-common-denominator populism, let me say: I am not arguing for keeping haiku within the thresholds of the known, the safe, and the familiar—hardly that, since I am often accused of being experimental and innovative in my own haiku writing—although many traditionalist and purists tend to choose that route. "If it ain't about nature scenes with no human content, it ain't a haiku!" No. Here, I disagree because "nature" is so much more than pretty scenes in the wilderness, or sentimental and lyric imagery copied from the Chinese and Japanese poetic traditions. (Fond as I personally am of such images and tropes, I do not think they are the be-all and end-all of haiku content.) Just because haiku has often been a quasi-lyrical and elegiac form does not mean that it must always be so. One can still follow the use of season-word, two images, and turn, and write about, say, pollution. Not all haiku have to be uplifting and spiritually-exalted and about happiness; the Japanese masters frequently wrote about loss, longing, suffering, pain, and despair; so there is precedent. I only mention this because I do notice a trend among many English-language haijin towards greeting-card-style sentimentality and uplifting emotion in the face of impermanence in their work; this can get very mannered and precious, because it seems superficial rather than intrinsic, expected rather than innate to the poet's experience.

What I am arguing against is lazy (or willful) ignorance on the part of the reader or audience. The poet is not required to make easy and simple sense all the time to the audience—as the saying goes, if you just want to communicate, use a telephone—and the audience sometimes needs to do a littlre more work than it wants to. I am arguing for stretching the boundaires by continuing to include new content into the haiku tradition. I argue for compression of expression, especially in haiku—my argument against ultra-compression-ism is an argument against fads and fashionable excesses and hermeticisms, and an argument FOR finding a balance between compression and comprehension.

So, a shared context and shared knowledge of content is required for haiku to connect with the reader—but sometimes, the haiku reader needs to do a little work, too, and do a little research, and a little self-education, in order to "catch up to" the haiku writer. To always make it easy on the reader IS pandering, and that, rather than anything I have said, is what exemplifies lowest-common-denominator populism. "If Homer Simpson can't understand it, it must be bad!" Ehhhhh ..... no.

People who know me know that I generally think that explaining a poem kills the poem—but we all spend a lot of time explaining and justifying our haiku around here. Think about that, for a minute. Why is it okay to have to explain haiku, but we don't like to have to explain our other kinds of poetry? Could it be that there is a double-standard in play? Is that because a lot of us are still new to haiku, and there are several learning curves going on? But could perhaps the urge to explain become necessary because of some of the reasons discussed above? Could it not also be a sign of growing ideology? Might it not also be a symptom of growing hermeticism and academic obfuscation based on various -isms? One wonders, some days, reading certain poems.

I think it's good to get these unspoken assumptions out into the open, where they can be discussed.

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