by Susumu Takiguchi
When I first got involved with haiku poems written in the English language some twenty years ago, two things instantly stood out. One was that curious thing with which everybody seemed to be obsessed: the haiku moment. The other was something understandable enough, but still peculiar: identifying or linking haiku with Zen.
They stood out simply because neither was anything I had ever heard of in Japan, for at least the last fifty years. It seemed much less likely that other Japanese had heard of them before I was born. I asked a countless number of Japanese haijin if they had perhaps heard of them. The answer was invariably “NO”. Generally speaking, from the point of view of anyone on this planet, by definition, foreigners speak “foreign languages” as their mother tongues. It would not, therefore, have surprised or worried me if foreigners had said something — or anything — foreign to me. That’s their job. However, since they were talking about haiku, it was an entirely different story.
To ascertain why such had become the case, my initial enquiry was to ask, circumspectly, those who seemed to believe in, or who were under the strong influence of, these two curious and puzzling things. They gave me either a blank look or a pitying smile. It therefore became blatantly obvious to me that even to discuss these two things — and possibly many others like them –- with these people, would be an uphill struggle. Such conversation could be more like a mine field if I were to be so reckless as to challenge these holy grails.
Every other line of haiku books or articles in English, and every other word coming out of the mouths of haijin writing haiku in English, spoke passionately about these two things, and made affectionate reference to them. Remarks of leading haijin were quoted as proof of validity and legitimacy, generally presenting these precious two things as gospel. Their haiku world seemed to be governed by them. People of other nationalities, seemingly talking all sorts things in their mother tongues, turned out to be saying the very same thing, only more strongly, once their remarks were translated into English for me to understand. Just as Pat Boone saw “your face in every flower”, so I started to see these two mysterious references in every item I laid my hands on — for instance, in titles of haiku publications and the names of publishers: Haiku Moment (one of the most celebrated anthologies), Snapshot (one of the most prestigious haiku publications), A Zen Wave, FROGPOND (from “splash”), AHA Books, Press Here, presence, still and Zen Haiku by Santoka Taneda (the subtitle of a famous book). Not to mention many thousands of Internet mailing list commentary and critique offered for haiku poems, and haiku discussions which touted terms and subjects such as “capturing the moment”, “one-breath poem”, “time capsule”, “a frozen moment”, “here and now”, “stillness”, “deep stillness” and so on and so forth.
Undaunted, I set out to make a proper enquiry into the cause and effect of these two seemingly all-important icons of haiku in English, of which millions of Japanese haiku poets have been totally unaware. This study was divided into two stages. In the first and superficial stage, the more I studied them, the more I felt how ludicrous they were — and what an extraordinary thing it all was that foreigners had got it all wrong for fifty years — or even over a hundred years! No wonder that I found precious few haiku in English to be anything remotely like Japanese haiku. And no wonder at the same time I should hear Western haijin say of what they’ve read, how very few contemporary Japanese haiku are at all like their own. However, I thought there must be something more to it.
Hence, the second stage, where I decided to dig deeper and tried to get “inside” the minds and hearts of the Western haijin. It was simply unthinkable that these people had been deluding themselves for 50 or 100 years, totally satisfied with churning out false or fake haiku based on false or fake notions. Naturally, my thoughts were directed to enquire whether or not such Western approach to haiku had any merit in itself, irrespective of its legitimacy or relevance to Japanese haiku. In other words, even supposing they got it all wrong from the Japanese point of view, do their resulting poems have any literary relevance and worth in their own right, whether or not they are called haiku? This last point seemed to be the bottom line and their last bastion of defence. As a young American student of haiku poetry put it recently, “…Is there still a clear-cut definition of haiku, or did people the likes of Jack Kerouac ruin it all for us American writers?” (Melissa Haney)
Three sets of my conclusions at that time could be summed up as follows:
Firstly, both “haiku moment” and “Zen approach” are good tools for Westerners to try to understand this “mystical” thing called haiku in the same sense as “things Japanese” must, almost by definition, be mysterious and inscrutable to Westerners. They are like using a Geiger counter to discern radioactivity, or a stethoscope to diagnose a malfunction of our bodies. However, these two concepts are not, and do not, create haiku itself any more than a Geiger counter is, or creates, radioactivity. More importantly, there is much more substance in haiku than these two concepts could carry. They might be useful, like a guide dog, but if one is over-reliant on, or worships them, especially to the exclusion of other important considerations, the resulting effect would be severe limitations.
Secondly, the description of the “haiku moment” or Haiku=Zen=Haiku indicates such “wonderful occurrences” which, in reality, would be few and far between, if even at all. I had rarely seen haiku poems which would come anywhere near the height, profundity, intensity and many other almost impossible attributes which the “haiku moment” and Haiku=Zen=Haiku concepts seemed to be celebrating. While such wonders might occur occasionally, to me they would be like religious miracles or fruit machines. It seemed, therefore, not only churlish, but almost a sacrilege to dismiss them outright. The right attitude for one, I concluded, was simply to look fondly forward to a day when a haiku poem would finally be created which truly satisfies attributes of both these conventions.
Thirdly, I concluded that there could, should and would be a positive way out. Given that it would be neither possible nor desirable for a non-Japanese nation to write haiku in precisely the Japanese way, one positive and worthwhile thing for them to attempt, I thought, would be to try creating a new form of poetry based on, or inspired by Japanese haiku, or a new form of haiku which was different from Japanese haiku. The endless debate of whether or not to call something haiku seemed counter-productive and pointless most of the time. So long as one realised that the “haiku moment” and Haiku=Zen=Haiku had little to do with the actual Japanese practice, one would be on the right track. The poems thus written in the West could be developed, as they have been for the last 50 or 100 years, as one of the new and non-Japanese haiku-like short verses, or short-verse-like new haiku, provided that “haiku” was released or liberated from the pedestal on which it had been raised. Iconoclasts were once again summoned to serve, but this time they must be found among the “haiku moment” people and Haiku=Zen=Haiku followers, and not among outsiders such as the Japanese. In other words, I was quite clear that these fallacies must be broken by those who had created or fallen into them. This seemed to be a more realistic way forward than the second possibility as described in the preceding paragraph. In fact, it could open up all sorts of literary possibilities of merit. These possibilities added to my optimism about the future of world haiku, which I will deal with later.
These reflections became my convictions by 1997, the time I had first conceived holding a world haiku conference which could, with luck, make a difference and trigger off a new kind of world haiku movement. The strength of my convictions kept the movement going against all odds, sneers and oppositions.
And then came the breakthrough in 1998. One of the Japanese Basho scholars living outside Japan, and whom I respected greatly, had his major book published that year. I am, of course, talking about Professor Haruo Shirane, and the book in question is the now-famous Traces of Dreams – Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho. On first reading, there was no doubt in my mind that this book would have almost a revolutionary effect on the fundamental thinking about haiku of non-Japanese people, albeit a slow, quiet and subtle effect. I was at once glad and relieved that many American (and by extension, the world’s) haiku conventions would be corrected by this book, or at least reconsidered.
As a Basho scholar myself in the 1980s I was familiar with the work of such scholars as Ueda, Akabane, Yasuda and this Professor Shirane himself, all residents in a land foreign to Japan. Their writings were indispensable toward my research as they differed in methodology from the usual works issued from the oceans of nationally resident and homogenous Japanese Basho scholars. I believed that a non-Japanese academic approach, especially methodology, was needed for the study of haiku in general, and of Basho in particular. For this purpose, it was obvious that people like Professor Shirane, bi-lingual and living outside Japan, were ideal explorers, unfettered by restrictions in Japan as well as unbiased by foreign misconceptions. Their risk, however, was that they could, as has happened to so many, be dismissed by their peers in Japan, while at the same time not be understood by those Western people who held prejudices and ignorance about Japan. They were, in fact, like gold dust.
In the following year, what could be even more important for the world haiku movement happened, if at least from a short-term point of view. In July 1999, I attended the Haiku North America conference in Chicago where Professor Shirane read a paper which would later be published in Modern Haiku (Vol. XXXI No. 1 Winter-Spring, 2000): “Beyond The Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths”. My first impression was that what Professor Shirane said in the paper was, in fact, a most obvious thing for any Japanese haijin, although not every one of them could express it in such a lucid and “kind” way. However, as I had been studying exactly the same issue, I was also painfully aware that his paper would have a profound — and even devastating effect on many Western haijin who would refuse to stand corrected by his powerful and persuasive argument. This might not happen overnight, I predicted, partly because Professor Shirane was so polite, kind and positive in what he had to say, but mainly because Western haijin, especially those who regard themselves well-established, could have had the natural and predictable reaction of resentment, defensiveness, or even hostility — for as long as it would take them to become humble or confident enough to take the bull by the horns. No one likes to be criticised.
Much encouraged as I was by Professor Shirane’s hugely important input for the betterment of the world haiku movement, I could not help having mixed feelings. At that time, I was already in the advanced stages of my preparation for WHF2000. The event was to be held in just over six months’ time. I planned to ask people for a series of papers dealing with the “haiku moment” as a major topic of debate. From the point of view of this anxious organiser of the first world haiku conference, Professor Shirane had “got in first”, in the true sense of the word, even if by pure accident. He had dealt with the very same subject superbly well. Not only was the WHF2000, therefore, denied the honour of dealing with this important issue properly and for the first time in the world haiku context, but also Professor Shirane had left an example which would be hard to follow. He had already covered many of the things which I had originally planned to say about the “haiku moment”. Repetition of his points would only be redundant.
Consequently, I had to make a change of plan for WHF2000. For this purpose, I had many discussions about the “haiku moment” and Professor Shirane’s paper with the late John Crook who had keen personal views on the subject. I also discussed the issue with other people, including Brian Tasker, a fine and balanced thinker on haiku poetics in Britain. Out of these discussions emerged the idea of having a special project at the WHF2000 debating chamber, whereby four or five papers would concentrate on the sole issue of the “haiku moment” and the Zen-approach in response to Professor Shirane’s “Beyond The Haiku Moment” essay. Both John and Brian agreed to this while I proposed to read a paper which would be an overview of the issue. Martin Lucas of Britain and Dee Doughty of the USA also agreed to join in this project. (Dee’s paper was read in absentia as, at the last moment, he could not attend the Conference.)
Brian talked in defence of the “haiku moment”. John defended both the “haiku moment” and Zen-approach while emphasising that Western haiku, based on these two attributes, had become a viable and respectable literary product of fifty years or longer historical development. Dee’s paper presented examples of alternative approaches to “haiku moment” and Zen-haiku. Martin’s paper attempted to assess Zen’s influence on haiku in a more balanced manner, showing a way forward by not clinging to either extreme. The aim of the project was to demonstrate the importance of dealing with the “haiku moment” and Zen-approach questions properly, thus triggering an active and productive debate across the world, especially focusing on the Shirane essay. The overall impression was that the Western haijin were feeling (and not without reason) “attacked” by the Shirane essay and were therefore put on the defensive.
This was perfectly understandable. Most of the Western haiku conventions, “do’s and don’ts”, guidelines, teachings, and “advice” have emanated from the basic thinking and various components of the “haiku moment” and Zen-approach. So, should these two foundations collapse, then the whole of Western haiku would be in danger of collapse. It should therefore be obvious that believers in the “haiku moment” and Zen-approach were in need of reviewing the whole process through which these two things had developed, and if necessary, doing something radical about them. Professor Shirane, of course, was not attacking the Western way. On the contrary, he was offering a helping hand, if such a gesture were to be welcomed, so that Western haiku would be given a chance to develop to full potential — a potential which may have been limited by the “haiku moment”.
I had exactly the same motive as Professor Shirane. I do not go along with those Japanese haijin who dismiss, outright, Western haiku or any haiku outside Japan. I am in favour of any creative endeavour. I endorse any effort to bring forth new worth, value and merit out of tradition in art and culture. I am in favour of innovations and experiments interacting with historical evolution. I am in favour of haiku being related to other forms of poetry or art, being put to test in various ways and being expanded both in form and content. I am against fakes, irrelevancies and works of inferior or no quality. I am against dogma. I am against misconceptions and misinterpretations. I am against restricting the creative urge and rich subject matter with which we humans are blessed. Why limit our gifts? After reviewing the last 50 or more years of Western haiku, we might benefit by giving it another 50 years or more to further develop.
Eighteen months past WHF2000, two-plus years from the Shirane essay and over three years since the publication of his “Traces of Dreams”, things seem to have moved forward in a significant way. The current state of play of world haiku could be described as a “state of flux”. While from a negative viewpoint, it is in confusion, I would rather call it “creative chaos”, which is no bad thing. Whether it is negative confusion or positive chaos, at least two “undesirables” seem to have emerged, as might be expected in such circumstances. One is a set of fundamentalists who have dug in their heels, fanatically shouting hackneyed slogans and clichés of the “haiku moment” and Zen-approach to such an extent that some of them are even advocating abandoning Japanese haiku or ignoring the Japanese perspective, including Professor Shirane’s contribution. The other is a set of rather sly and dishonourable people who, like chameleons, have conveniently adopted a camouflage, or jumped ship and are now joining in the new chorus condemning the “haiku moment” and Zen-approach, while hiding their own pasts of blindly following these two doctrines. These are people beneath contempt. Fundamentalists are at least honest — but mad. The polemics over “haiku moment” and Zen-approach are definitely not behind us. On the contrary, they have not yet properly been argued.
Between these two extremes are those confused people who now do not know which way to go. They are, in fact, our hope. In this sense, the more confused they are, the better. There are many talented poets in that group, and I have no doubt that the confusion, ironically, will lead them toward writing good haiku. Professor Shirane started to lift the lid from the cultural Pandora’s box. WHF2000 pushed it wide open. There have since been repercussions in many places, including Japan. Parallel movements have been underway, especially in forums such as Haiku North America, which now has definitely become one of the most important meeting places where new ideas are initiated and old conventions are tested.
Should we be pessimistic or optimistic about the future of world haiku after the serious reappraisal of the “haiku moment” and Zen-approach and the many conventions emanating from them? And what of reviewing the state of play in countries including Japan? Definitely optimistic. Most optimistic, even. And this diagnosis is coming from a normally pessimistic person. My observation and instinct tell me that we are now on one of the richest and most fertile grounds of haiku creation in terms of its form, style, contents, scope, variety, depth and width of coverage. This kind of outlook is unprecedented in its long history. It has become a genre of world literature with all its glorious individual, regional, cultural and linguistic diversity. What wonder! What a fantastic cultural phenomenon!
Needless to say, we still have problems. We always will, in fact. There are problems of translation, of definition, of purists versus vanguards, of taboo areas such as eroticism or human horror and misery, of egoism, of the gap between haiku and non-haiku poets, of negative haiku politics which those mean-minded indulge in, of shallow or misguided understanding of haiku, of all sorts of confusions and muddle-headedness about haiku, of putting haiku on a pedestal and of proliferation of inferior haiku or “anything goes” haiku etc. However, in the bigger picture, these difficulties are infinitesimal compared with the almost miraculous cultural, artistic and spiritual benefits that haiku has succeeded in bringing to us all. We must not take these benefits for granted as we have with air, water or freedom. We must cherish haiku and let it grow further. We must liberate and protect it from the tyranny of haiku fundamentalists, haiku rogues or terrorists, from abusers, from the art-killers including political correctness or self-appointed high-mindedness, from superficial worshippers as well as misguided haiku teachers and pontificators.
There is little we can do, anyway, about some of these problems. For instance, too many people seem to occupy themselves worrying about all manner of rubbish haiku or at least works of inferior quality, as if they were given a special mission (by whom – by themselves?) to bash and punish them. Inferior works have always been prevalent in any art, as in anything which humans have done. It would be extremely depressing even to think about the enormous quantity of rubbish haiku churned out everyday. However, there is nothing we can do about it. More worrying — but in the time which could be saved by stopping their worry (about that which does not need worrying about) — what people should address is the top end, where standards and quality of haiku still leave something to be desired. As a rule of thumb, if someone becomes busy worrying over somebody else, it indicates that the worried someone has something about himself which is even more worrisome.
Now, reverting back to my optimism about the future of haiku, we have abundant evidence to prove it within our own ranks. Ferris Gilli of the USA has demonstrated at Hibiscus School, in her elegant and quiet way, how some haiku practiced in America (or at least her haiku) can offer an excellent and invaluable direction to haiku; one of the best testimonies of “haiku moment” put to good use. Sonia Cristina Coman of Romania has proved how a non-native speaker of English can write good haiku in English, and how haiku could be a “universal language” (at least among haiku poets). Mitty Abe of Japan has convinced us that haiku could be enjoyed in more ways than one by introducing photo-haiku and other multimedia innovations. Paul Conneally of the UK is bringing haiku to those who have never encountered it before, connecting different regions of the world through haiku events, and he is encouraging poets of haiku to explore the genre from different angles in addition to his indefatigable efforts to help schools and local communities to learn and enjoy haiku. Paul David Mena, Carol Raisfeld both of the US, Serge Tomé of Belgium, and Micheline Beaudry, of French-speaking Canada, are proving that hitherto taboo areas such as erotica and sexual love can legitimately become a profound and worthy haiku subject. an’ya (US), Sue Mill (Au) and Alison Williams (UK) have succeeded in teaching beginners basic haiku composition without imposing any particular rules or school of thoughts. Englishman, John Carley has just begun his directorship with WHCpoetrybridge, bringing haiku poets and non-haiku poets together by spanning a bridge between the two, adding new dimension and paradigm to haiku. Debi Bender of the US is introducing deeply-felt study and views of Japanese women poets, especially haiku poets, in her special project, adding to her correct approach of “going directly to the sources of Japanese haiku”. She has been doing many other things to deepen the understanding of haiku in new ways, of which the WHCshortverses list is a hugely successful example.
These are merely a small number of examples within WHC to support my optimism. There are many other people in the Club who also give me positive signs for optimism. Looking beyond WHC, I detect all sorts of good signs, which are increasingly underpinning my optimism. The good news is that there are an increasing number of people who share my optimism. So long as clear water keeps on pouring into muddy water, the latter will become clear in time. Similarly, so long as good haiku poems keep on being produced, bad haiku poems will probably sink to become sediment on the bottom of the haiku pond. Or, to paraphrase a remark by Nagai Kafu (1879-1959, a Japanese novelist): bad haiku poems are a filter through which to pass the good.
[In this March issue, my essay on the “haiku moment”, “A Haiku Moment of Truth”, is reprinted from the influential Japanese English-language weekly magazine, Look Japan. It can be found in the “Karakuchi Ronso” feature, which is designed especially to deal with controversial topics. Professor Shirane was awarded the first prize of the World Haiku Festival 2000 Essays Contest for his essay reviewed in this editorial – ST]