VOLUME 2: ISSUE 2
a brief discussion of the haiku spirit in English literature
It goes without saying that most non-Japanese people who enjoy haiku, myself included, will have actually spent most of their lives reading something other than haiku. We will have been educated to read in our native tongue and, even if we did study some foreign literature at school and university, it’s unlikely to have included any haiku. Even once we have discovered haiku — not until the age of 21 in my case — it’s again unlikely that unless one’s a hardcore enthusiast, haiku are going to take up more than half one’s reading time.
A preference for haiku is a personal matter, but which for many will be rooted in a general love of poetry. Yet it is worthwhile to consider whether the preference for haiku may have come from somewhere deep within one’s native literature: to look for the haiku moments within English, American, French, or whatever literatures. Of course, most (perhaps all) native literatures have now absorbed the haiku genre such that good haiku in any language is regarded as good literature. The influence of haiku on Anglo-American literature has been thoroughly surveyed by critics such as Earl Miner1 and Haruo Shirane2, and no doubt similar tales can be told by scholars of other literatures. What this essay attempts is a personal and eclectic presentation of haiku moments in English literature. These are not seventeen-syllable haiku embedded in an alien literary genre – play, poem, novel– but rather moments of literary insight which seem comparable in effect to what haiku achieve and which might therefore be called ‘haiku moments’.
Some selections I first read before I encountered haiku, some afterwards. In all cases, I am aware of a usually unintended meeting of sensibilities that might lead denizens of English literature such as myself into the world of haiku. R. H. Blyth observes quite simply that:3
Proverbs, in poetry certain phrases, in prose a stray sentence here and there,
– these correspond to haiku in the sense of being the peaks of poetic feeling and insight.
More specifically, he reflects that haiku in English literature4
is emotion recollected in moments of tranquillity – this is what is overlooked by so many poets. This tranquillity of the poet is an essential element, for it corresponds to the tranquillity, the point of rest, of all living things.
Haiku moments are moments of self-disclosure. Many writers are too frightened to be themselves, while for others, the act of revelation comes too soon or too late, and yet for others they are too busy to stop still and simply be. For Bashô, the haiku moment is often embarrassment at the presence of nature or of history; he cries like a helpless baby, perhaps most famously at Hiraizumi:5
The summer grasses –
Of brave soldiers’ dreams
As Shirane argues, Bashô’s haiku happen at the juncture of the past and present worlds:6
To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world.
The haiku moment in English literature arises out of some critical encounter with the Other that leaves the Self reassured of its individuality; past and present need each other in order to feel real.
Blyth’s examples of haiku in English literature are taken in the form of triplets, and yet it seems to me that the haiku moment may be better appreciated within a more complete context, as in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Proud Songsters’:7
The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs.
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all time were theirs.
These are brand-new birds of twelve-months’ growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.
The beauty of this poem is in the way that a rough, colloquial rhythm — the stresses on the middle of each line (‘sing’, ‘whistle’, ‘dark’ etc.) — runs into warm, inclusive end rhymes (‘pairs’, ‘wears’, ‘theirs’). The vitality of the young birds is contrasted with a deep sense of the mystery of their creation; now they are making all this racket when but a year or so ago they were inanimate matter. Moreover, these birds sing at sunset with a confidence ‘as if all time were theirs’ which no doubt those older folk, wearied by the world, have lost, and it is to the older folk that one feels the poem is addressed. The joy of birdsong is not denied; it is merely set in its wider context of before and after, and this movement is surely typical of haiku as well. As James Reeves writes,8 Hardy has ‘an instinctive communion with all life, human, animal, vegetable’, and like his much shorter-lived contemporary Masaoka Shiki,9 ‘is at his best when his eye is firmly, piercingly on the object.’ It is the objectivity of the poem that yields the haiku moment.
Unlike the Victorian and early modernist Hardy, the novelist Jack Kerouac is of a generation that knows Zen and haiku, has probably even read Blyth.10 Dean and Sal are the ‘proud songsters’ of Kerouac’s On the Road 11who desire and just occasionally achieve a communion with nature. These moments are too self-conscious to be true haiku moments. They describe what it is like to be at one with nature but fail to communicate that feeling to the reader, although that is perhaps the fault of the genre. One is still reeling from the speed of the narrative, which moves as fast as the various vehicles in which the young men traverse America, and cannot help feeling
that the wheels are still turning when they have their moments of truth:12
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.
Of course, this moment is instantly knowable, but it is more philosophy than poetry. It is somehow too diffuse to be described as ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. It is a turning point in the book but one which gives point to all that rushing narrative rather than saying anything new in itself. The real haiku moments arise when the narrator (Sal Paradise) is able to have compassion for things as they actually are, and in that regard the book is full of mono no aware, that pathos at the heart of things. Mono no aware is as present in the rough logic of the style as in what is actually observed:
The girl disengaged herself from my talk and joined the sailor and the others. Slim was dozing on a bench. I sat down. The floors of bus stations are the same all over the country, always covered with butts and spit and they give a feeling of sadness that only bus stations have. For a moment it was no different from being in Newark, except for the great hugeness outside that I loved so much.13
I got out of the car and stood swaying in the darkness. The whole town had instantly gone to bed; the only noise now was barking dogs.14
Even these examples are probably too obvious to be pure haiku, but they are certainly representative of the transience which this novel is all about. Wouldn’t Bashô have approved?
If Kerouac writes in retrospect of haiku, William Blake is surely the most irrepressible champion of the haiku spirit prior to Meiji. He writes with childlike simplicity; he has a holistic vision that seeks to reconcile opposites; he believes in infinity; he even has a verse about the haiku moment:15
There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find,
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it; but the Industrious find
This Moment & it multiply; & when it once is found
It renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed.
This is not haiku, and the long poems generally, such as Milton (from which this quotation comes), are too polemical to qualify as such. The haiku spirit is to be found instead in the short lyrics such as the Songs of Innocence and Experience where the space in which the poetry resonates is so much huger. Even apparently polemical statements are rendered as poetic objects:16
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
The beauty of this poem is that while its meaning is clear enough, the actual sense is elusive and is glimpsed only briefly in the reading. The experience is similar in effect to many haiku but is made more intense by the binding of reason and imagination. Blake is asking us to embrace one of his famous contraries and if the experience is just too intense, we can always turn to haiku for reparation. Haiku is also about the reconciliation of contraries but is affective enough to cleanse the mind, affective rather than rhetorical:17
The burning sun
It has washed into the sea –
There is a madness about Blake’s attempts to reconcile opposites which recalls Shakespeare’s King Lear. As the blinded Gloucester remarks, ‘I see it feelingly.’18 The tragedy of that play is Lear’s rejection of the nature which has sustained him, a denial that is surely anathema to haijin everywhere. In a fascinating essay entitled ‘The Japanese Character as Mirrored in Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies’,19 Gorô Suzuki implies that rather than looking to Shakespeare for snatches of haiku, it is fairer to both genres to find the equation in what they say about Nature. Comparing Hamlet with Bashô’s ‘Furuike’ poem, he writes that20
the world’s shortest [sic] haiku poem and Shakespeare’s longest drama share a common image of silence, generated from, hyperbolically speaking, the tempestuous roaring and moving ultimately towards the ‘experience of original inseparability’, or in Neoplatonic terms ‘the primordial oneness’, that goes beyond distinction and discrimination. Both are the explicit expression of admiration and respect for creative and awesome Nature.
In my own research on Japanese translations of Shakespeare, I found that one of the hardest challenges facing translators was how to pace and organise the language so that there were indeed silent moments among the torrent of words, since Shakespeare in Japanese is always more wordy than the original. One of the techniques, which even contemporary translators have used, is to render the heightened or reflective moments in the seven-five syllabic (shichigo chô) of traditional haiku. The rest is prose.
Finally, there is Hemingway, whose relaxed style and acute poetic observations are beloved by Japanese readers. The importance of environment in determining character in his novels is comparable to the season word in haiku in the sense that the haiku moment derived its meaning from a seasonal context. Moreover, as in haiku, the relationship between phenomenon and context is expressed with the slightest of touches, as in this excerpt from The Sun Also Rises:21
He sat down and looked at her across the table. I went out. The hard-eyed people at the bull-fighter table watched me go. It was not pleasant. When I came back and looked in the café, twenty minutes later, Brett and Pedro Romano were gone. The coffee-glasses and our three empty cognac-glasses were on the table. A waiter came back with a cloth and picked up the glasses and mopped off the table.
This is a piece of narrative which obeys the laws of physics. The Sun Also Rises is one of Hemingway’s Spanish novels, and the writer is at pains to explore the peculiar tensions that arise from existing in a foreign environment. As a non-Japanese who dabbles in an originally Japanese form, I find the following remark enlightening:22
‘You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You’re an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.’
No doubt the writing of haiku can become self-redeeming, a way of knowing that even culture is not an end in itself but a window on infinity.
As a postscript to this essay, I append a series of haiku I wrote at a kukai held at Susumu Takiguchi’s house in September 2001, which each in turn describe cryptically the thirty-seven canonical plays of Shakespeare. See if you can guess which one they each refer to – please contact me with your answers at:
The haiku are reproduced in order of composition.
A dream of love
Takes the most unimaginative of
Creatures to make it happen.
Hysterical old man
With a grizzled beard lets
The orchestra get on with it.
Which the characters concerned
Don’t find so funny.
Avoid the colour
Yellow if you want to come
Out of this one smiling.
The birds and the bees.
The starry firmament.
The same old story.
The most exotic
Of flowers attracts the Roman
Secateers for the parlour.
A play for those
Who dare not say so much
How much they hate the world.
8. Murder most foul
Upon the heath by something
Wicked this way comes.
The power of wood
And printed paper unleashed
Upon an island.
An innocent boy
Trapped between a bad king
And the future.
This king, like a good
Poem, breaks holes through halls
And captures the princess.
A prince’s playmate
Drinking sherry by the gallon
And spewing out words.
Banish plump Jack and
Banish all the world – the prince
Had made his own world.
The prince had counted
Out his days in syllables
And they still didn’t fit.
A very special joint
Served up for dinner in
This Roman tragedy.
Ladies, hold on to
Your handkerchiefs if you want
To keep your man.
Somehow it is always
The dog which one remembers
About this play.
Pasting poems in
The forest – just why did they
So fail to impress?
The girl’s virginity
Tested to the extreme.
A beautiful horizon.
Kings and queens, exits
And entrances. We have seen
It all before on the lawn.
Harry Redbeard screws
All for the sake of a son.
The mirror as the poem takes hold.
A desolate prison.
By the summer estuary.
A mouth gone wild.
The barons have become
Places in the mind
Daggers at me.
The gentle summer rains.
A great eagle
Has become for just this moment
The master of the universe.
Ancient Britain made
By the Roman invasion.
Raped, yet purified
By her experiences,
She finds a safe haven at last.
All’s Well That Ends Well –
I’ve given away
The name but not the story.
Lovers in autumn
Have not yet forgotten
The games they used to play.
At Herne’s Oak. Something
More sudden than he’d expected.
Only kill the general
If you have the gift of the gab
War is a metaphor
For sex in this one,
With neither side winning.
Winter fades imperceptibly
Into spring, but not before
The grizzly’s had his fill.
The less said about
This one the better these days,
If you want to avoid flying saucepans.
Come back in a year
And we might be
Ready for you.
In Vienna tests
The judgement of all.
1. See The Japanese Tradition in British and American Literature, Princeton University Press, 1966, 1st ed. 1957.
2. See Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô, Stanford University Press, 1998, Ch. 2, ‘Bashô Myth East and West’.
3. Haiku, Vol. 1: Eastern Culture, Hokuseidô Press, 1981, 1st ed. 1949, ‘Haiku in English Poetry’, p. 265.
4. Ibid., p. 266.
5. The Narrow Road to Oku, tr. Donald Keene, Kodansha, 1996. ‘There I sat weeping, unaware of the passage of time.’
6. ‘Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashô, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths’,
7. Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy, ed. James Reeves and Robert Gittings, Pan, 1983, p. 69. The poem is from his collection Winter Words (1928) and was set to music by both Benjamin Britten and Gerald Finzi.
8. Ibid., p. xiv.
9. Hardy lived from 1840 to 1928, Shiki from 1867 to 1902.
10. Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (1958) is about someone who writes haiku and he also wrote a novel called Satori in Paris (1966).
11. Penguin, 1972, 1st ed. 1955.
12. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
13. Ibid., p. 36.
14. Ibid., p. 277.
15. William Blake: Selected Poems, ed. P.H. Butter, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1982, p. 153, dates from 1804.
16. Ibid., p. 46, ‘Eternity’, from Songs of Experience (1794).
17. The Narrow Road to Oku, pp. 116-9.
18. King Lear, IV.vi.147.
19. Published in Shakespeare in Japan, ed. Tetsuo Anzai, Sôji Iwasaki, Holger Klein and Peter Milward SJ, Edwin Mellen Press, 1999, pp. 35-50.
20. Ibid., p. 43.
21. Folio Society, 1999, p. 215, 1st ed. 1926.
22. Ibid., p. 142.
© Daniel Gallimore