VOLUME 1: ISSUE 1
Staying with the Moment – Our Western Haiku Tradition
This is a continuation of the debate on the future of haiku in the West. It refers to an article by Haruo Shirane originally published in Modern Haiku 1. Professor Shirane’s main point is that we in the West are fundamentally wide of the mark, in the development and understanding of haiku based on the Haiku Moment. I wish to challenge his proposition that the way forward is to encourage the writing of fictional haiku. It also refers to Martin Lucas and his discussion on Convergence and Divergence: valuing variety in haiku2.The intention here is to make is an argument for taking a position, that puts our haiku tradition in a positive context, not one that disregards it as simply conservative or conformist. At their best, haiku are truly subversive: they question all the notions of creativity which poets hold so dear; they transcend individuality and put us in touch with the greater whole and they can catch us out by their natural sincerity. Sincerity is devalued in our sophisticated culture where it’s either deemed worthy of mockery or reduced to crass sentimentality. Perhaps most challenging of all, haiku get right behind that endemic fear of intimacy. All of this is in keeping with (haii) the spirit of haikai: the anti-conventional, anti-traditional stance that constantly seeks new perspectives, described by Professor Shirane in his book Traces of Dreams. The concept of the Haiku Moment has tremendous potential in this area and surrendering the fixation on poetry as a personal creative statement is challenging.
In fact, it’s hardly surprising that the mainstream response to haiku is cynical or it’s perceived as being permanently in need of a make-over by various self-regarding individuals. As I’m someone who describes haiku as uniting, not separating, I wanted to find a way of bringing this debate into balance. This isn’t something that I’m doing alone, but something that we are all involved with one way or another. After all, we’ve chosen to write haiku as a kind of poetry that stands apart from other kinds of poetry. So what is it? Even though haiku elude a specific definition, there is still a haiku tradition. A Western haiku tradition and particularly a tradition of haiku in the English language.
Although haiku is nomadic and there is no way of haiku set up for us, there is the paradox that tradition offers theory: a time-tested way of doing something that has worked in the past. The value of theory in haiku needs to be confirmed. Spontaneity is one thing, putting it down on paper is quite another. Theory offers a model which describes what happens in practice and indicates ways of dealing with various dilemmas from a consistent viewpoint. But just because something fits a precedent doesn’t prove the theory; just as working without theory stands in the way of reflective practice, and personal dogma is the worst of all possible worlds. Theory is a starting point from which to search for new perspectives.
So let’s consider briefly how we arrived at our current model of haiku based on the haiku moment. There’s no doubt that what we do is based on a partial understanding of Japan and Japanese culture. According to Shirane3, haiku after Shiki is the result of cultural interchange as Shiki was influenced by Western notions of literature and poetry, particularly realism, the first stage of which Shiki termed shasei or sketching from life. Professor Shirane goes on to explain that Shiki sought to revive actual feeling or sensation (jikkan) because haiku had become stuck in convention. Shiki was to make the first step in the internationalization of haiku – what is now a unique model of fusion, balancing both poles between East and West.
In the West, during the post-war upheaval of the fifties and sixties, it must have seemed so refreshing to encounter and imbibe ideas that turned our conventions onto their heads. The fundamental Japanese aesthetics of simplicity and understatement remain attractive to Westerners. What also occurred was the introduction of a psychology which countered the egocentric Western model with an Eastern view that not only emphasized interdependence, but questioned the existence of a self at all. Just as the idea of the individual was gaining ground in Japan, so some westerners began to reject it.
The post-war development of haiku in the West took Bashô as its icon and the old pond poem as its model. Shiki’s later developments were also included, which Haruo Shirane dosen’t take sufficiently into account in his criticism of Western haiku. The emphasis was on Bashô, but not exclusively so. Much of the understanding was gleaned from reading books on haiku written in English by R.H.Blyth, Harold Henderson, Kenneth Yasuda and also D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts4 among others. By the early 1960s, the foundation of Western haiku had been laid. Between them, Blyth (along with Suzuki and Watts), Yasuda and Henderson had brought the three elements of the spiritual, aesthetic and literary to bear on the early understanding of haiku. The emphasis was on the immediacy of the moment, something that has endured precisely because it runs counter to our usual experience of always wanting or needing to be somewhere else. It’s an antidote to the striving of our culture.
What I believe is important to most of the people involved in haiku in the West is the ability of the haiku to bring us into contact with each other. Haiku unite rather than separate and perform a social function, just as they do in Japan, that of communication between strangers. It’s the quality of the interaction that is so disarming and the authenticity and the fleeting nature of it that gives haiku a tacit element of spiritual truth. This is a spiritual truth that resonates with the Eastern notions of harmony, interdependence, non-interference with nature and the abiding truth that everything changes. The value of restricting haiku to genuine experience as opposed to using fictional content that has been completely made-up, is the vulnerability of the writer is conveyed and shared by the reader. Although the West is liberal, we seem to find it hard to be open with each other. Creating fictional haiku would compromise the genuineness that separates haiku from other forms of writing. Fictional haiku would also run counter to the understanding that haiku is not egocentric, which as I’ve already said, is the most challenging feature. Creating imaginary worlds is not difficult for us, we do it all the time. In our everyday lives with never-ending media input, the boundaries between reality and fantasy are blurred enough already. In the West we need more grounding, not more escape.
Haiku in the West has developed as a poetry of things as they are; living in the real world and by doing so, discovering what that is. Although the interior verses of a renga may be another matter where it’s possible to draw the images from the store of experience, the sources of which may be life, literature or film etc., yet always connected with reality. The free-standing haiku has its integrity in genuine experience; one of its original functions was to act as an anchor in a renga.
An area of concern mentioned by Professor Shirane is that of metaphor. There is a major difference between the naturally occurring metaphor to be found in haiku and the ones contrived by individual poets. A simple example can be found in this haiku by Stuart Quine 5:
|into the busker’s cap
a chill wind blows
I am not questioning the authenticity of the author’s experience conveyed by the scene which is firmly in the here and now. But immediacy demands immediate associations from the words used. Firstly, bronze is a metal commonly associated with the heaviness of sculpture, which doesn’t correspond in any way with the lightness of autumn leaves. The potential allusion to bronze leaves as coins, or instead of coins, introduces an element of inhumanity or even mockery, which pushes this haiku towards senryu. Further, as a verb, to bronze means to render unfeeling or shameless which, perhaps unknowingly, compounds the senryuesque quality even further. Haiku have a fragile ecology that is easily overwhelmed by the choice of words.
It would be unfortunate to move haiku further towards the poetic conceits of mainstream poetry with the amount of personality and personal style being disproportionate to that of feeling and experience. The quote by novelist Arundhati Roy is always worth repeating:
A generous writer leaves you with a sense of the world they have evoked. A selfish writer leaves you with a sense of their own brilliance.
If that is true of fiction then it’s even more true of haiku, due to its brevity and its emphasis on genuine experience. The idea of brilliance does need to be surrendered. The contrived metaphor is confrontational. It sets up an argument between what is and the way an individual chooses to represent it and in doing so, separates rather than unites.
Another of Shirane’s criticisms of Western haiku hinges on what he describes as the two fundamental levels that haiku operate on. The scenic level is the horizontal axis and the vertical axis is the deeper connection to what he calls cultural memory, a larger body of associations that the larger community can identify with. It’s not so that the emphasis on the moment in Western haiku deprives it of being able to work on both horizontal and vertical axes. It is precisely because the poem is in the moment that the communication is freed up to move it beyond the personal.
In the West at the beginning of the 21st century, where the sense of community is so fragmented, haiku rely on a kind of archetypal transference to evoke an experience, feeling or image that can be shared with writer and reader being essentially interchangeable. As in Cor van den Heuvel’s 6
turning the pillow
to the cool side
which unites us in our restlessness. Archetypal everyday activity is the contemporary Western equivalent of Shirane’s concept of ‘cultural memory’. Any failure has more to do with our lack of discrimination in what we publish, than the failure of the model. What we lack in the West is Japan’s tight sense of history. Writing on an epic level about a war or the loss of a leader as Haruo Shirane suggests, just won’t work because of so many conflicting views. Haiku provides us with a vehicle of communication which is empathic on a take it or leave it basis. Because haiku don’t (or shouldn’t) set up arguments, any response is legitimate; as in Michael Mclintock’s 7:
|dead cat. . .
to the pouring rain
You can ignore the cat, or as Mclintock did, be caught in the moment for long enough to notice its mouth open to the rain with all the associations that follow.
Haiku and senryu are linked by the essential unguardedness as in Bashô’s frog poem, which Shirane describes as a text in constant motion. One of the many legends surrounding this poem has it that the jumping of the frog caught Bashô unawares and that spontaneity led to the reformation of the genre. Whether that legend is true or not, it’s the unguardedness of haiku which is so appealing and its strongest feature. If we take unguardedness as a core principle, that means that no one can set out with the intention of writing a haiku. They simply occur at those moments when we are least identified with being a poet. No one has control and the poem reflects that. As it stands, the Western model of haiku based on the moment can be a poetry of honesty, vulnerability and trust. All of these are qualities that are increasingly rare in modern life. As Haruo Shirane points out haiku is the beginning of a dialogue and most often the reply is beyond words. It’s a moment when personal boundaries dissolve. In deepening that dialogue, let’s keep haiku as the poetry of genuine experience and remain open to the haiku moment wherever it might occur.
Serious academics and mainstream poets may continue to remain unimpressed by haiku. In our throwaway culture, selling out to their values and writing fictional haiku isn’t likely to impress them much either. It seems right to abandon any overt attempt to convert everyone to an appreciation of haiku. Anyway, haiku is already studied and commentated on by the haiku community. More importantly, haiku has the ability to reach anyone by its non-assertion; the choice of responding or not remains open. We need do no more.
Or do we? Martin Lucas makes an argument for divergence, which he describes as a departure from convergent haiku in which everyone shares similar aims. Divergence includes the avant garde and surreal. He explains that each divergent haiku is different in its own way and ‘is more tolerant of subjectivity, authorial intrusion and idiosyncrasy’ and says that divergence is valuable as a strategy for digging ourselves out of a rut. Whenever we don’t get what we want, instead of questioning ourselves and our motives we try and manipulate external factors. This is a culture of blame. Staying with and developing a haiku tradition based on the immediacy of the moment, is hardly going to lead to us all writing the same poems, and anyway a certain amount of repetition is part of haiku culture – poems speaking to each other. A similar experience expressed in a similar way is an affirmation of our shared reality, whatever other differences we might have. When Lucas says that
if we follow convergence, the centripetal force, we spin towards a single point of communally acceptable, perfectly objective, egoless anonymity. This may look like some kind of Zen ideal, but the result is a mass of haiku that are faceless, mechanical, inauthentic and derivative;
it’s already happening and the above describes the content of the average haiku magazine. Yet haiku isn’t some kind of socialist Zen poetry. Uniqueness is not denied, but simply absorbed, so it no longer glares and finding a balance with that isn’t easy. The haiku poet remains in the background, bowing out of the poem to offer the reader the same moment on their own terms. Haiku can range from being moments of simple awareness and moments of poignant human emotion; to being moments of absorption into universal activity. This absorption being the interdependence of everything happening at the same time, yet in isolation.
But haiku certainly do seem to be in a rut. This is something that Francis Gallagher 8 picked up on when he described most published haiku as mercifully brief doggerel comprised of exhausted clichés, auto pilot junk and the plonkingly obvious. Gallagher describes his ‘poetical’ agenda to de-couple the haiku and tanka from their Japanese roots to move them towards European minimalist forms, the epigram and lyric. In that sense, divergence is nothing more than eurocentric thinking: a colonising of haiku. Divergence is actually a myth – just short free verse poems labelled haiku to give them some kind of credence.
So what is a haiku? If we are to go along with Hiroaki Sato 9 who states that
Both in form and content, all you can say is that a haiku, be it composed in Japanese, English or any other language, is what the person who has written it presents as a haiku.
It’s a haiku if you say so. By this argument, anything can be a haiku which is pointless and trivialising and can only cause haiku in the West to eventually drift into irrelevance. Such an argument is further complicated by the 1999 Matsuyama Declaration 10, which states that haiku are easy to write is an over-simplification. The simplicity of haiku is a paradox. The Matsuyama Declaration also gives undue emphasis to the avant-garde and surreal while stating that haiku is a poetry of the people. The avant-garde and surreal are elitist. The true strength of haiku is its ability to reach out to ordinary people through the events of everyday life. The good intentions of the Matsuyama Declaration that urges poets the world over to resolutely pursue ways to condense their own language are to be applauded. However, I doubt whether haiku can become all things to all people without sacrificing its spirit and its essential genuineness. The concept of the haiku moment isn’t duplicated in other forms of Western poetry. A single focus is needed and the immediacy of the moment is where all lives, human or otherwise meet:
|the house cold
after my absence
the cat sleeps closer 1
Sato also questions the Haiku Society of America’s 1973 12 definition of a ‘poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature.’ Whether or not that definition applies to Japan any longer is not our problem. That definition grew out of the process started by Shiki and the subsequent history of internationalization that I briefly described earlier.
The immediacy of the haiku moment, with its circular narrative that can only bring you back to the beginning is haiku’s constant redefining of itself moment by moment. The problem of a haiku definition is dispensed with. The problem of cause and effect is also dispensed with as it’s not that one thing leads to another but that one thing is another. Immediacy is difficult to corrupt if we are honest with ourselves and with what we write, precisely because so much is precluded. More than just poetry, haiku are a study of psychology and semantics. Haiku deconstructs both poetry and poet to develop intuition, a conscious awareness, an ever-deepening sense of both connection and of letting go.
However, two changes could be proposed to the 1973 definition. Firstly, that we drop the emphasis on perception and instead say keenly experienced. Haiku are experienced, senryu are perceived. We perceive through our senses and we also perceive through our habitual conditioning. Secondly, instead of linking to nature, we could say that our inner life is linked to the external world which brings haiku and senryu closer; with haiku moving towards purity of experience. The one-breath form to a loose maximum of 17 syllables stays the same; but the content becomes limitless. Our perception is limited, our experience is limitless. The way of haiku then becomes a noble way of self-questioning as it brings us closer to reality as it is. Of course, we do need to be aware of the danger of creating a haiku ideal that can seemingly never be attained. We also definitely need to remain alert to the stink of Zen Haiku is secular poetry and any spirituality should be integrated into the poem. What is invisible should remain invisible.
Dee Evetts 13 once pointed out, it’s more likely that haiku and senryu run along a spectrum; some are more haiku, some are more senryu and some are in between. The way I see it is that haiku and senryu are defined by attitude. Haiku are without attitude towards their subject. Senryu reveal an (often unconscious) attitude towards their subject – they both present a moment of revealed truth. The joy of senryu is we often end up laughing at ourselves and the joy of haiku is that we forget our self-centredness. Senryu can open a light-hearted window into the quirks of our personality. An example of senryu from my own life:
my sister brings a plant
bigger than mine 14
At the age of fifty, I was more than a little surprised to find myself momentarily immersed in glum resentment and sibling rivalry as my elderly mother proudly placed her second gift of the day next to mine.
While I’m inclined to agree with Francis Gallagher when he complains of the haiku poet’s idiot obsession with nature, I need to question his statement that we don’t have a living relationship with nature. He’s obviously never spent the night with a mosquito! We actually have a relationship with everything which haiku reflect. Perhaps this is the problem with the avant garde and the surreal. They are out of relationship. They have lost contact.
So what is going wrong with haiku? Francis Gallagher accuses haiku poets of not being real poets but cranky members of a cult. The train-spotters of poetry. He describes the kind of people who join cults as having very small stools. Eccentric we might be, and although we can hardly be described as a cult, I think he’s on to something with this business about stools. The BHS consensus states that the best haiku do not just recreate the ‘haiku moment’, pictorially or in a narrative way; they hint at something beyond; they present a movement.”
This is the problem, haiku have become constipated. So many descriptive set-pieces in nature. So much absenteeism, so much phoney enlightenment. So many caricatures of Bashô’s old pond. And this is something that Harold Henderson also commented on back in 1974, when he refuted those who seem to believe that only impersonal, nature-oriented, and not obviously emotional poems (i.e. the old pond type) are worthy to be called haiku 16. Haiku, which is truly a poetry of interaction has become a poetry of observation. It seems that haiku will remain a poetry of observation until it becomes an actively conscious self-editing practice. The main challenge for haiku, judging by what is published these days, is that people seem content with just making observations.
One way of dealing with this is to consciously return to Shiki’s three-stage model of sketching from life; selective realism and makoto or truthfulness, (which is also a process of self-questioning), that was outlined by Lee Gurga 17. The first stage begins with simple observation in which the poet learns to leave aside their own preferences and accept the world as it is. It’s quite likely that this early stage in developing a haiku mind is a struggle for most western poets who yearn for self-expression rather than self-scrutiny and as Gurga points out it can be boring. The second stage was named “Selective Realism” by Makoto Ueda 18. According to Lee Gurga:
The art of selective realism can be said to have been achieved when the poet is able to perceive, select and express the true nature of things.
The third stage is makoto or truthfulness, which Ueda describes
...as a higher principle of selection – by being true to his own inner life, the poet is drawn to scenes, and within those scenes to objects, that express his inner life (and beyond it humanity) most directly.
In other words, a process of unifying humanity through poetry. After all, haiku is a poetry that expresses inner feelings through outer reality. A reality that we all share to some degree – a reality that no single individual can claim as their own.
Makoto or truthfulness describe the haiku which are the most moving; those that give a glimpse into someone else’s life and in doing so allow us to meet them there. Expanding the concept of haiku beyond nature into the urban (or predominantly human world) must happen. And the way into haiku is through senryu. In fact, senryu runs alongside Shiki’s three-stage model precisely because we are unable to escape our conditioning so easily. Observing our attitude through the writing of senryu can create the compassionate mind necessary to reach the truthfulness of our inner lives. It’s also true to say that this is not necessarily a three-stage model in a linear way. Sometimes we are sketching from life, sometimes we are in truthfulness and at other times we can catch ourselves out through senryu.
Divergent haiku appeal to the ego, they should more properly be called Myku. The problem with divergence is that they cause us to take ourselves too seriously and to become precious about our little creations. The need for divergence seems to come out of the creative impasse of not having control. Adaptability just becomes adulteration. It can hardly be said that haiku based on the moment has been exhausted and it doesn’t get any easier, it gets more subtle. The challenge always comes back to sustaining simplicity, the karumi, the light touch without regressing into shallowness. If we need to experiment, we could experiment by writing less for a change.
The delicacy of feeling that haiku have seems to run throughout Japanese culture. There’s a lovely Japanese film called Afterlife that I saw recently. Directed by Koreeda Hirokazu, it tells the story of a relay-station to heaven where the recently deceased assemble. While there they have one week to choose a single memory from their lives, which is recreated and filmed. Once they have viewed it, they pass on to heaven with only that memory in mind, everything else being wiped clean. Most people choose simple memories: one person chose travelling to school on the tram, feeling the breeze on his face. There’s also a Mr Watanabe who claims his whole life has been dull and that he can’t recall anything. He’s made to view seventy videos, one for each year of his life and eventually chooses a moment in the park with his wife on an idle afternoon. Some can’t remember accurately, so they embellish and some lie outright.
I felt this was such a haikuesque film, and what if it were true? What if there were such a place? Haiku is an ideal medium for this – a ticket to heaven – and you won’t need to lie or embellish. You’ll be able to rest in peace in your moment of truth. But what if you are an avid writer of divergent haiku? In my desperation, this is where I need to use the oldest persuasive trick in the book against divergence. The staff won’t be able to recreate it for you, you’ll have them scratching their heads saying sorry, we can’t do that one. A Scottish participant at one of my workshops once remarked that what he liked about haiku, was the economy of words. So grandiosity is out and surrealism too, as there’s no budget for special effects. Instead of going to heaven you’ll be in limbo. Forever.
Back on earth, haiku also stand as a performance and the ideas of the Russian theatre director Stanislavski seem highly relevant here. Stansislavski noticed that actors were straining to feel the emotions of the characters they were playing. He suggested that instead of trying to feel the character’s feelings, the actor should simply do what the character needs to do in context. For example getting up repeatedly to look out of the window could portray longing or impatience. So a haiku needs to physicalize well in both time and space with an element of dramatic tension that does something. A one breath theatre that stays with the feeling and follows the circular narrative of haiku that always brings us back to the beginning. Shirane’s notion of a text in constant motion.
In haiku as theatre, both performer and audience are condensed into one and it’s the immediacy that creates the vacuum of absence that replaces haiku writer with haiku reader. Why shouldn’t we consider a haiku ideal that can do this? Such an ideal isn’t unattainable, just rare. A rarity that corresponds with the realm of Peerless Charm which Zeami 19 (the founder of Nô Theatre) described. According to Zeami,
Peerless Charm surpasses verbal expression and lies in the pure realm that lies beyond the workings of consciousness. A conscious appreciation of this beauty constitutes Fascination.
Zeami says that:
…this moment of Fascination represents an instant sensation that occurs before the rise of any consciousness regarding that sensation, a Feeling that Transcends Cognition.
It’s in ordinary life when we least expect it, that haiku occur. A haiku doesn’t need to fly, just to get up and walk. It needs to be able to come true. What’s the haiku doing? What’s the underlying mood or feeling? If the feeling can’t be named then perhaps we are approaching Peerless Charm and Fascination.
In the West, the spirit of haiku and its search for new perspectives means moving backwards as well as forward in time and with the amount of information now available, all of history is condensed into the present moment. The medieval Japanese poetic concepts such as Sabi and Yugen have hardly been touched yet or they are dismissed out of hand. They are worth studying in depth and William LaFleur’s The Karma of Words 20 is a good place to start. The word Sabi was recently used and followed by the the word loneliness in brackets. It just isn’t that simple. Our understanding in the West of loneliness seems so limited, perhaps because we are so self-centred. My Oxford dictionary defines solitude as loneliness for instance.
In the West, our poetry stands to be so much enriched by studying these Japanese concepts, not just sabi and yugen, but the wealth of Japanese poetics. There is a fear of imitating the Japanese when actually it’s about what these feelings and ideas mean to us and our intuitive response to them. The concept of the haiku moment is an example of that. On an authentic level, it’s not imitation but integration; a true internationalization that will enrich and inspire us. We still have much to learn from the Japanese and judging by the examples of Gendai haiku I’ve seen, perhaps something to teach them too. Everything moves in cycles and haiku is no exception. If we are going to sustain the growth of haiku in the West, we need to do at the beginning of the 21st century, what Shiki did at the end of the 19th in Japan. We need to be continually seeking to revive the actual feeling or sensation and the surest way to do this is by staying with the moment.
|after an argument
on the future of haiku –
the wind in the pines 
20 May 2000
 Beyond the Haiku Moment, Haruo Shirane, Modern Haiku, Vol XXXI/1
 Convergence and Divergence, Martin Lucas, Blithe Spirit, Vol 10/1
 Traces of Dreams, Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Bashô, pg 38
 R.H.Blyth, Haiku, Vols 1 – 4, Harold Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku, Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku, Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, D.T.Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture
 The Iron Book of British Haiku
 The Haiku Anthology, 2nd edition 1986
 In a letter to the editor published in Presence #11
 Divergences in Haiku, Hiroaki Sato, Blithe Spirit, Vol 10/1
 Shimanmikaido ’99 International Haiku Convention, (The Matsuyama Declaration)
 Brian Tasker, The Sound of Rain, Bare Bones Press 1999
 The Haiku Path, Haiku Society of America, 1994
 A presentation at the launch party for The Iron Book of British Haiku
 Blithe Spirit, Vol 10/2
 The Nature of English Haiku, British Haiku Society, 1996
 The Haiku Path, Haiku Society of America, 1994
 Haiku in America, Lee Gurga, Blithe Spirit, Vol 9/1
 Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, Makoto Ueda
 On the Art of the Nō Drama, The Major Treatises of Zeami, translated by J. Thomas Rimmer and Yamazaki Masakazu
 The Karma of Words, William R. LaFleur, California University Press
 Brian Tasker, The Sound of Rain, Bare Bones Press 1999