What is Poetry? Haiku and the Lyric Form

VOLUME 2: ISSUE 2
JULY 2002

What is Poetry?
Haiku & the Lyric Poem
Tobias Hill, UK

One of the questions addressed by this [WHF2000] Conference is whether and to what degree haiku can be regarded as poetry. I would like to approach this problem by explaining what I value in poetry, and then considering how and whether haiku embody these characteristics. However, I would also like to put my own values in context, to show how I have come to my personal evaluations, and to this end I will say a little about how I became a poet.

Some poets come early to their calling. There are hints of their talent at an early age. George Szirtes, for example, began to read before he was two years old.  He tells the story of his parents’ dismay when they found him obsessively staring into the cutlery drawer in their Hungarian kitchen: it took the local doctor to realize he was reading the newspaper under the fish forks. It may be that such people are born writers. This was not the case with me. I entered the world with no distinguishing features except an all-encompassing allergic rash, and in this less than perfect state, I continued for many years without showing any interest in words at all. Until I was seven, reading and mathematics went together in my head as trials by paper. The only thing language had over numbers was that stories tended to have better endings than sums, although in some cases, what Peter did with Jane was only marginally more engaging than what 2 could do with 3. Nevertheless, stories had pictures, clues to their solutions, and I suspect it was this, rather than any pleasure or skill, that turned me away from the career of a physicist and toward the vocation of poetry.

At that stage, I found that writing meant nothing to me, and less than nothing.  I don’t know if others felt the same. I haven’t asked; but I suspect so. Books were hard graft, and their existence seemed opaque, because as children, we possessed the powerful memories of people without script. We had more stories and poems in our heads than we knew what to do with; they mutated and bred, apocryphal, from street to playground to campfire. Poetry was hopscotch, the Lord’s Prayer, shipping news. In retrospect, I see how characteristic this is of poetry: that it is not only in my life that poetry existed before writing, but in the history of poetry and writing themselves. Written poetry is deceptive in this way. It is easy to overestimate the proximity of poetry to other written forms, just as it is too easy to underestimate its relationship to music and rhythm. And this is a point of some relevance to comparisons of haiku and lyric poetry. Not all lyric poets are writers. The lyric came long before the page. But in its indigenous script, the haiku has come to have a strong page presence, stronger and more sophisticated than the alphabeticised lyric poem can achieve. This is something I mean to return to later.

When I think of childhood, it is a time so buried in poetry and rituals that the reality of those years is hard to keep hold of. I believed the poems and stories we told. Once, my best friend and I convinced ourselves that we could fly with nothing more than the aid of bathroom towels and a large wall. Now the memory of the pain has worn off, I am left only with the recollection of the power of that story. Any sense of art or artistry was decidedly secondary. The power of poetry and prose is something I saw again in Japan, where for two years I encouraged Japanese children to colour the dog purple, the chicken green and the cat black.  The classes were very large, sometimes reaching 100 students, and the students were very small, sometimes as young as two. It was not the ideal combination of numbers. However, at least some of the children were old enough to be gullible, and anyone who is gullible is also old enough for fiction.

”Why do we have to colour the dog purple?,” the children would ask.

“Because, in England, all the dogs are purple”, I would tell them. Even now, there is an entire generation of people growing up in Aichi province who believe that England is overrun with purple dogs and other excitingly coloured domestic animals and even people and heavenly bodies, from the puce postman to the pink moon.  Now, when I hear definitions of terms such as poetry and prose or lyrics and haiku, I am often struck by the emphasis on art and artistry, on technical features. It seems to me that if haiku are poetry, they should qualify or be disqualified in some more fundamental way than this, since I believe poetry itself is more fundamental than its rhythms and meters.

By this time, I had begun to write, first intermittently, then daily: writing is an addictive occupation.  I found myself the proud, but secretive owner of lyric and narrative poems, haiku and sonnets, short, short stories and long, short stories and novellas. I also found myself largely indifferent to distinctions of genre.  The techniques of different forms seemed like various means of achieving the same end – that being good writing. Only poetry seemed substantially different.  More than a genre, it felt like an approach to writing. It seemed a discipline in which every element of language was taken up and consciously used. The language was made to work in more dimensions than seemed possible in prose, as if poetry possessed different rules of physics. It seemed to me that in the best poetry, almost nothing was arbitrary, from the length of a word to the rhythm of its syllables, its shape on the page, its place in the line, its shape in the mouth, its fizz on the tongue.  Poetry is language at its most decisive, its most intentional.

In English, my haiku were very formal, and in Japanese, very bad.  At parties, my Japanese friends would ask me to recite my kindergarten standard descriptions of red dragonflies resting on high mountains.  Then they would laugh until they fell off their chairs. My own response to haiku was a mixture of delight and envy; envy of the physicality of its indigenous language. My instinctual response was to consider the haiku as poetry, and here I am particularly speaking of the haiku written in kanji. I remember once visiting a park, a cycle-ride from town. When we arrived, we found it was not possible to enter the garden by the main gate. A plum tree grew there, very old and bent, and visitors had to use a side entrance.  Inside, we found a classic Japanese garden – that is, everything was intentioned and in its place – the pool, the bridge, the trees and stones.  Nothing was without intention, except, apparently, the tree in the gateway. We unpacked our picnic and idly considered the unenterable entrance. It was some time before we realised that the tree in the gate was a poem. The character for tranquility, kan, is a tree in a gateway. The gardener had grown his written language.  How could any poet not be envious of that?

It seems to me that the tree in the gateway was a poem: A concrete poem, in a way that no alphabetical expression could ever hope to achieve. The tree seems poetry to me because of the rigorousness of the intention behind it and the elegance of its expression. For me, this intentionality is the first characteristic of poetry, and it is a clear characteristic of haiku.

Over time, I have come to an agreement with myself about what I value in poetry. These things are not in any way meant to be rules for writing verse.  These are observations prescribed by myself to myself, and formulated from a poet’s point of view, and I give them now in the light of this. I would like to look at how each relates to the haiku, just as I have done with the question of intention and non-arbitrary language.

For me, the second characteristic of poetry is formal evolution. I believe poetry is the cutting edge of language. There are people who ask whether poetry is important today. In this question, I think there is an implicit awareness of the age of poetry.  After all, if we compare poetry to other literary methods, we find that it is almost incomparably old. The novel and the short story are young forms – so young that you can count their combined centuries on the fingers of one hand; whereas, poetry is old as language. There has been poetry as long as there has been rhythm –as long as there have been jokes. People question whether poetry is moribund, in part, only because it has been in existence for so long.

In answer to these people, I would examine the three forms again: the novel, the poem and the short story. I would look at how they have technically evolved. I find that the media of fiction have hardly changed at all in their short lives. They are comparatively static. There has been no great advance in their form since Tristam Shandy. The colossal movements of the twentieth century are not greatly reflected in their structure, only in what their structure contains. They are formally stagnant. On the other hand, poetry has changed almost beyond recognition. Poetry responds to history, it revolves to face revolutions, it reacts century by century. In this way, poetry is lighter on its feet than prose, although its steps go deeper. It is the cutting edge of language, the point where most innovation occurs. Fiction moves in its shadow. Inevitably, poetry is the medium which reflects its time and place most intimately, and this, in part, is why it has flourished for so long. The most modern form of writing will always be poetry.

The very fact that we are here today at a world haiku event suggests that the haiku may fulfil this need for formal development. It would be a very dull Conference if all haiku were still haikai. In becoming a global form, the haiku has had to change. To pick on a simple example, there is the question of differences in syllable concepts between Japanese and European languages (where London will count for four beats in one and two in the others). On a broader scale, the haiku has been formally developing for many decades, and will continue to do so.  There is no longer a single set of rules for writing haiku: there are only observed strengths. This is a healthy characteristic. The first rule of poetry should be that there are no rules.

For me, the third important characteristic of poetry is emotional honesty. Truth is a word I hesitate over. However, I think good poems ring true, not necessarily in a straight factual sense, but in the emotional truth behind the facts. Not every poem I’ve written happened as it happens in the poem, but I try and get the sense and feel of it right. The best poems don’t spin yarns. They don’t tell tales. These things are wonderful as purple dogs and puce postmen, but for me, they are provinces of prose. The best poems always go deeper than this. It is ironic, of course that the subjects, which involve the most emotional honesty, are also the hardest to write about. Love and death are not as easy to examine squarely, in ways that will reach others. The more intense emotion is in a poem, the harder it is to control the writing, and the harder it is to write for other people. Once you start adjudicating poetry competition, you become intimately familiar with the lyric poem that relies on intensity of emotion to make it valid. Often, these poems are about cats.  Sometimes, dead cats, sometimes almost dead cats. A few months after Princess Diana died, I unwisely agreed to judge a poetry competition.  One entry compared the princess to the poet’s dead flamingo. Even if I had a dead flamingo of my own, this poem wouldn’t have reached me: it was burning off emotion, using poetry for something personal, not public.

What is so bad about this kind of poetry? Why shouldn’t people use verse for private purposes? There is nothing wrong with it at all. Private poetry is a way of coming to terms with difficulties for millions of people, and in this role, I suspect the haiku is as eminent as the lyric. There are more people writing for an audience of one, for the self, than will ever buy a book of mine or any other contemporary poet.  In this sense, private poetry is more successful than public.  But there is a difference between the two. The experience of writing private poetry can be powerful:  often the writer imagines that it will be powerful for other people, too. It hardly ever is.  Public poetry is a gift, written for others before it is written for the self.

From its conception, the haiku has been a public form. It is also characterised by an intense and complex charge of emotion. The best haiku ring absolutely true. In its emotional structure, the haiku bears the same psychological hallmark as traditional Western forms such as the sonnet: that is, there is often a point in the haiku where the image and accompanying emotion twist back on themselves, a volta. It is also worth saying that the weaknesses of lyric poems and haiku are often similar. Both are susceptible to sentimentality. There is nothing worse than a cod haiku except a cod rondeau. Emotional intensity can be the strength and weakness of both lyric poetry and the haiku. On this point, I find no reason to differentiate between them.

The fourth characteristic of poetry is the technical equipment that goes into its construction. By this, I mean — with regard to the Western lyric — rhyme and rhythm, assonance and alliteration, and all the other tools of the lyric tradition. The individual words in poetry can carry more weight than in fiction. They are more like physical things. You can touch them with your tongue, like loose teeth. Poetry is a shaping and carving, and you can line up the methods like a sculptor’s tools. Rifling through the toolbox, it’s striking how powerful these tools are, particularly in comparison to those used in prose. Rhyme and rhythm are power-tools and etching acids. In some bad poetry, they get over-relied upon, just as other bad poems over-rely on emotion.

I want to say something about the techniques used in Western poetry — to pick over the tools (of which I am measuring haiku against): the first one I want to look at is the short line. The Black and Decker short line tool. It comes with batteries included and a lifetime guarantee. It has two settings; line break and stanza break. Both kinds of break do something to language. A good break has something in common with a well-placed comma. A line break in the wrong place is like a full stop.  In the middle of a sentence.

Stanzas and line-breaks are also more flexible than the solid ink of standard punctuation. Breaking can emphasize a word, or the space between words.  It can back up a rhyme or rhythm, or it can work against rhythm. It can give poem space, or its absence can create density.

Most of all, I think line-breaks let poetry take breath. They are as natural as breathing. They breathe in clear white paper, which becomes part of the poem, and which balances the intensity of lyrical poetic writing. The genius of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the best haiku is that line breaks don’t happen every ten beats or five syllables, but that they happen where they happen where they naturally belong.

Two more tools for the Western box: rhythm and rhyme. These also do specific things to language, and what they do isn’t very different. One of them repeats a beat. The other one repeats a sound.  They both set up repeating patterns.  Patterns — in writing, in music, in a carpet, in a fern-head — give the onlooker or listener a particular sense. The audience gets to understand something that is going to happen again. They get to predict the future. There is even a certain trickiness to rhyme and rhythm, because they create a sense that, “Ah, this word fits, this is the way the poem should end; this is right”. Rhyme and rhythm are similar as nails and screws. They do the same thing in different ways.

Using too much rhyme and rhythm will carve away a poem until nothing is left except patterns. The patterns clunk into place with the dullness of “the cat on the mat” and “the rain in Spain” — the poem becomes predictable as a bad pun.  Good poetry is not about getting the rhyme exactly right. A poet who wants all rhyme and rhythm to be flawless is working on patterns instead of poetry, reducing it to mathematics, a craft, a love for tool-work instead of what the tool-work can express.

In all genres, perfect patterns miss something. The most beautiful art isn’t always perfect in this sense. Michelangelo’s “David” would not be better with perfectly proportioned hands, nor would “The Prisoners” be improved if they were released from their unfinished block of marble. Kurosawa’s films would not be better with Dolby Sound and Technicolour. The desire to turn the painting straight on the wall is not the desire that makes great poems or novels. People may hanker for patterns to be perfect, but perfect symmetry is soulless. The rhyme and rhythm in good poems often have some kind of asymmetry. It makes them more alive. Someone once asked Jean Renoir why he didn’t improve the camera work in his films.  He answered that “The perfect product is perfectly dull. You have to give a little humanity”. This is true. You just have to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, a thing made with the utmost professionalism and often with all the soul of a dead donkey. In good poetry, especially good contemporary poetry, rhyme and rhythm are used in ways that humanise language. Instead of perfect rhyme, there are half-rhymes, vowel rhymes, rhymes and rhythms hidden inside lines like nuggets.

There are people who would say these tools are the poetry in poetry. This is a little like saying the paint is the painting: of course it is, and of course it isn’t. I suspect that often, when people say that the haiku is not poetry, what they mean is that it does not use the same toolbox as the Western lyric poem. But technique is only one characteristic of poetry; it is not the most important, and the haiku comes with its own bag of tricks. In particular, there is the importance of the way the ideogrammatical haiku looks on the page, the physical images of its characters, the way such a haiku will reach the reader first through these things, then, through the more abstract levels of grammatical language.  This brings us back to the characteristic intentionality of poetry. Rhyme and rhythm are incidences of intentionality; they are ways of making language lie close alongside the physical world. So, too, are the concrete poetic qualities of the haiku. If the tree in the gateway is intentional, how much moreso is the haiku?

The fifth thing that characterises poetry, for me, now and at the age of four, is musicality. Poetry is as close to music as it is to prose. The music comes out of looking at language, knowing it inside out. It’s a way of showing what you mean without having to tell. More than fiction, poetry makes language work in many ways at the same time. There is the physical sound and rhythm of it, and the abstract, grammatical sense. Poetry is both sense and sensation. It communicates in the musical contact of tongue, teeth and breath; then it communicates again in the grammatical ways that all writing communicates.

Sometimes the music is complex. Onomatopoeia is a term usually applied to a simple kind of echo – “wow wow”, “miauw”, “tick-tock” — the utterances echoing the sound of a dog, or a cat or the rhythm of a pendulum. “Why ‘tick-tock’”?, is a question to start with; why not “tock-tick”?  Why not “tock-tock”? Go listen to a grandfather clock. Its it an accident that the smaller, sharper vowel sound comes first? Does the movement of “i” to “o” echo a physical movement? is this kind of onomatopoeia the same as the onomatopoeia of “woof”, or is it more complicated? How much more complex can such echoes become?

There is nothing primitive about the musicality of poetry, except the directness with which it communicates itself. Here are some examples:

“Every streetlight that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum”.

“Horse-flies siphon the green dung,
glued to the sweetness of their graft”.

“A cry, a greening hollow undulation
Echoes slapping across the enclosed bathing-pool”.

I chose these extracts by picking three collections of poetry at random from the bookshelf behind my writing desk, and opening each book at random. In the first passage, the rhythm of words echoes the drum, which the words describe (and the footsteps behind the drum). In the second passage, the poet contrasts the smooth sibilance of the first line (which makes it easy to say) with the “stickiness” of the second, where the texture of hard consonants and long vowels on the mouth, lips and palate “echo” the physical texture described by the words (“Glued to”). In the third passage, the word, “echoes” itself is echoed by a line of two-syllable words, in which the vowels begin sharp and fade away into longer, softer vowels, concluding with the single, extended syllable of “pool”.

T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill and William Empson are not poets associated with extensive use of onomatopoeia. Had I set out to find a really obvious example of the echo in poetry, I might have chosen the work of Hopkins, e.e.cummings, Carol Ann Duffy or Seamus Heaney.  But the complexity of the passages above is typical. In the first, the heard-rhythm of words, echoes two rhythms heard in nature. In the second, the felt texture of words “echoes” a texture felt in nature.  In the third passage, the rhythm and tone of words echo the rhythm and tone of a natural echo.

Most media in art are linked to the five senses in a fairly clear way. Music is aural; painting, visual; sculpture visual and tactile; opera aural and visual. So, there is something ghostly about all language as a medium. It has no texture, no colour, no smell, no taste. It can be sound, but the sounds often seem to be abstract — so that the most beautiful novel in English will sound meaningless to someone who speaks only Japanese.

But this is not the case with poetry. Rhythm and rhyme, assonance and alliteration, repetition and rhyme, assonance and alliteration, repetition and line-breaks — the echo in poetry and the patterns which create it cross the grammatical boundaries of languages. We can pick up some understanding from these things even when we don’t quite understand the languages in which they are expressed:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe
all mimsy were the borogroves
and the mome raths outgrabe.

Matsushima, ah! Matsushima! Matsushima!

How do we understand that? What is it that we understand?  Imagine that this morning we were to go on a field trip to look for the musicality of words.  We find a churchyard in walking distance of here, sit in the yard and listen to the church bells. Each of us writes down a word to echo the sound of bells. I write “oranges and lemons”. Are my words right?  Are my words better than anyone else’s’? Everybody here has an ear for the way language echoes real things. There are many other words, in other languages or in an invented language, which could echo the sound of bells.  But negatives are also illuminating: imagine that someone in our church yard lacked an ear for this musicality.  Say the word they used to echo the sound of bells was “beep-beep”. Or “Trevor MacDonald” (actually, Trevor MacDonald isn’t so bad). How do we know that “beep-beep” is not a good echo of the sound of church bells?  How do we know that “ranges and lemons” is? We know these things because we have a talent for the musicality of languages. In poetry most of all, language is not entirely abstract. It grows from the senses; from the eyes and ears and from the ends of our fingers.

Does the haiku fulfil this characteristic of poetry? Is the haiku an expression of the musicality in language? For me, this is the point of greatest divergence between the Western lyric and the haiku. The acid test is whether any of the poetry in a Japanese haiku will reach a listener who has no knowledge of that language, in the way that an audience will hear the music in Dante while being ignorant Italian.  And I think that haiku that achieve this element of poetry are rare. It is as if the emphasis of the haiku’s poetics is different from those of the lyric.  The Western lyric still exists as much in the voice as it does on the page.  Its native alphabets provide readers concrete expression on the page. On the other hand, the ideogram provides an entirely different environment for the Oriental poem. It allows words to grow in a walled garden. It gives the haiku an extra dimension which alphabeticised verse can only attempt in mawkish “concrete poetry”. I feel that the haiku has adapted to the page to a greater degree than the lyric poem.

What does this mean when the page is altered? What happens when haiku are written in Western languages? This is a question which has been at the edge of my mind throughout the writing of this essay.  How great are the differences between haiku in Japanese and haiku in alphabeticised scripts? My feeling is that they are considerable.  The haiku in alphabet is like a sonnet that cannot be read aloud: a whole level of meaning has been removed from it. In such circumstances, I think it is entirely natural for new techniques to be applied to the Western haiku. I wonder if there may not come a time when Western and Eastern haiku begin to diverge more noticeably. I wonder whether the development and contemporary techniques of each will become distinct. It seems entirely possible to me that the alphabeticised haiku and the ideogrammatical haiku become as different from one another as the scripts they are written in and the traditions in which they are read.  If so, I hope there will still be world haiku conferences, and that I will be able to continue to attempt bad haiku in Japanese. If not, I will have to find other ways to make my Japanese friends fall off their chairs with laughter, and although this is not always difficult, I suspect none of those ways will give me as much satisfaction as the writing of seventeen syllables.

Read at WHF2000, London-Oxford, August 2000

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