Editorial – Internet Culture and Haiku


Everything has two opposite sides. Truism? These sides include a positive side and a negative side. Another truism? So what are the positive and negative sides of internet culture and how do they affect haiku? No truism at all.

Haikai wa bundai-jo ni aru uchito omoubeshi –
Bundai wo orosuto furu hogu to kokorou beshi

One should understand that haikai is [valid] only while on the bundai table. Once down from the *bundai, it is no more than a scrap of paper.

(*Note: bundai is a small table to put kaishi, tanzaku, brushes, ink stone and ink well but here, it symbolises a session of renku meeting.)

This famous remark by Basho, recorded by Riyu and Kyoriko, is interpreted in two ways. Firstly, Basho is talking about the importance “Za” (meeting, or community) plays in haikai – in the shape of haijin who are meeting in one place, the special kind of atmosphere this creates, the exchange of views, the conversation and all sorts of other interactions; poets’ laughter, their teaching and learning etc. Once the results are to be recorded on paper, it is no longer haikai itself.

In thinking of this interpretation, one has to admit that the internet provides a new kind of “Za”, even if haijin do not actually meet in person, and therefore it is different from a physical meeting of these poets in one place. However, the internet has made it possible for us to enjoy a new type of human communication and “meeting” on a world-wide basis, which has already been made use of by haijin, especially renku-jin. This is a great advantage of the internet.

The second interpretation is that when one is composing a haikai poem, one must do it fairly quickly. One must not elaborate too much or for too long. One must “dash it off”, and ideally concentrate on something that comes naturally at the bundai. If it is laboured, or proves too complicated or difficult to compose, one should throw it away as it is no more than a scrap of paper.

This is an important teaching of Basho’s, but one also hears the same teaching given by contemporary Japanese haiku mentors. Not that one should write haiku at top speed, but that one should not take too long to compose a poem in haikai. The internet is all about swiftness – an instant transmission and an instant reply. This characteristic of the internet makes it an ideal place for haijin to form a habit of writing haiku relatively quickly without too much elaboration – certainly another merit of the internet culture.

There are many other obvious advantages. One notable example is quick access to knowledge and experts, which is not so easy in the physical world. The other is that the internet is a leveller, in the sense that it breaks all sorts of barriers, especially national and cultural barriers, and those created by the hierarchical and sectional structure which the haiku world tends to form. The internet has made it possible for a newcomer to learn about haiku much more quickly than otherwise because here, he or she is given access to all sorts of help which is freely available. The list of these advantages (including potential ones) is long.

Over these hopeful signs and promising prospects, a shadow is cast by disadvantages, some of which are perhaps not even recognised by internet haijin. Also, the advantages discussed above can sometimes become disadvantages. For example, the speed which is the essence of the internet can be a problem in many ways. Speed, by its own nature, tends to make the exchange and the advance of haiku postings, especially discussions, fast – well, too fast in many cases. Consequently, many people quickly get behind or left out. They may have and wish to express something which could be valuable and useful to others. The speed is harming their participation and lowering the standards and quality of the poems and discussions. I would wish to suggest or recommend that we should generally slow down and keep a steadier and more meaningful pace. This does not mean that we should forget the importance of rhythm, flow and momentum with which activities must proceed on the WHC mailing lists. However, we must not allow the speed to force people to flood the lists with hasty postings of inferior, imperfect and unfinished works or half-baked or ill-informed pieces of discussion.

There is a much deeper problem concerning the speed issue. Firstly, the shortness of a haiku poem can be, and is, exploited and even abused because it ostensibly suits the speed culture of the throw-away society, spin-doctor world and slick but superficial commercially orientated modern life. A significant part of the internet is also governed by such frivolity. George Swede characterises an aspect of haiku well when he says, “The haiku is like the computer chip of poetry” (1). By this he means the amazing power of haiku with its ability to express so much in so few words. This advantage of haiku must not be abused.

Secondly, the speed unfairly favours those who are quick, repetitive, intrusive and loud, regardless of the validity or quality of what they say. Those of the opposite qualities often get effectively silenced or sidelined. In the absence of a steady and considered series of postings with sufficient time for reflection, discussions can be, and are, from time to time debased into mere boast, dogmatic statements and criticism ad hominem with equally unpleasant counter-attacks. Haiku-rage is the ugliest face of internet haiku, just like road-rage or trolley-rage (supermarket), all of which are products of the speed age.

Thirdly (and most importantly), the speed culture is really an antithesis to the spirit of haiku and the kind of way and style of life needed for writing them. The internet environment may in part be creating conditions contrary to that which is required for composing haiku.

Last but not least, the problem of speed means that although the internet is a wonderful thing – if good, correct and useful information or opinions are swiftly disseminated – it would quickly become a dreadful vehicle if the information or opinions were mistaken, inaccurate or dogmatic. For example, if a haiku term is given in an inaccurate or mistaken sense, especially in glossary presentations (“haikai”, “zappai” etc), it could quickly spread like wild fire and infect so many people. What should remain just an opinion, a point of view or guidance can be broadcast on the internet and gain disproportionate circulation, with a result of it becoming a “rule” or a dominant convention. The list of examples of this is long: Zen, present tense, the Haiku Moment, excessive and mistaken use of so-called juxtaposition, minimalist stripping of everything, “don’ts” for poetic expressions, metaphors, anthropomorphosis, “sentence”, cause and effect, personification, the use of “I” and many others. Also, the culture and way of life of a country which has the dominant position in the internet use, also quickly become a dominant influence in the field of haiku as well. They are all valid in their own ways, but not so to the exclusion of other ways.

The World Haiku Club wishes to be a broad church where different schools of thought co-exist in a symbiotic manner, and where less dominant voices, cultures and languages are also given a chance to develop and prosper. It also wishes to be a free and creative environment where encouragement is given to those brave and sincere pioneers who have the courage, drive and talents to undertake the serious business of experiment and innovation. Their voice is, by definition, lonely and little understood as it is miles ahead of the conservative majority. It needs to be heard, and it is heard, indeed, at the World Haiku Club. On the other hand, the voices of conventional mass, especially of the old guard and fundamentalists, need no such encouragement since they are over-protected.

There are other problems which need to be addressed and the list is not necessarily short. The important thing is for each one of us to realise that the internet culture is a mixed blessing or a double-edged sword. It is, therefore, entirely up to each one of us to strive to find ways in which its advantages are maximised and its disadvantages minimised.

(1) George Swede, The Haiku as a Match for Existing Western Contexts: Some Speculations, presented at the Haiku Canada Weekend, May 1999, Toronto.



World Haiku Review

“A Crow and Two Snails” by Susumu Takiguchi
is a mosha (copy) executed as a study
of an
ink drawing after Hokkei, one of
Hokusai’s followers

This entry was posted in Editorials, Haiku, Vol 1-3 November 2001 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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