A Useless Thing And A Useless Person
“A mere tale of a tub, my words are idle.” —The White Devil, II. i, 92, John Webster (1580?-1634)
Haiku is a useless thing, a haiku poet is a useless person.
This statement may antagonise 99 out of 100 haiku poets. At least it may make them stunned and unhappy. However, it is probably the most important thing about haiku and haijin from the viewpoint of our mindset or attitude towards this little form of poetry we seem to love so much. Forget or ignore it, you will be opening a Pandora’s box of all ills which would corrupt haiku and haijin.
Ideally, this editorial should be written and read in Japanese, as a lot of cultural and historical nuance and implications would be lost in translation for some key words such as ‘useless’, ‘amateur’, ‘dilettantism’ or ‘pastime’. Not only that, but these English words are themselves impregnated with already established meanings and connotations, which are different from their Japanese counterparts and will hinder accurate understanding. In other words, readers could be reading something different from what is intended—a case of reading cross-purposes. For instance, in the English logic, that which is ‘useless’ would be discarded outright as something which would not be worth considering; ‘useless’ would, therefore, be a condemnation. ‘Amateur’ is a dirty word. Both these words in Japanese connote a special frame of mind of writers or artists which transcends the mundane and materialistic world where ‘professionals’ flourish. This intellectual ascendancy has been influenced by the literati tradition in medieval China. So, readers are advised at least to bear this point in mind when reading what follows.
Karo-tosen is an old Chinese saying which has been adopted in Japan, though seldom, if ever, used nowadays. Karo means a fireplace in summer and tosen means a fan in winter. What is the use of a fireplace in hot summer? What is the use of a fan in bitter winter? The saying should now be self-explanatory. Yes, it is to describe something useless or uselessness of things. And we haiku poets had better be, and are, karo-tosen.
Towards the end of April (lunar calendar) of the year 6 Genroku (1693), one of Basho’s disciple, Morikawa Kyoriku (1656-1715), was preparing for his return journey to Hikone Domain (in today’s Shiga Prefecture) where he served as a high-ranking retinue. Kyoriku had been staying in Edo since August of the previous year. He was in company with his Lord, who was serving sankin-kotai obligations in the seat of the Tokugawa government. Sankin-kotai was a duty imposed on feudal lords requiring them to live part-time in Edo and part-time back in their provincial domains, while their wives and children were required to permanently live in Edo. This arrangement was a key policy of Tokugawa to keep his retinues under tight control. In the early August of 1692, Kyoriku met Basho for the first time, formally becoming his disciple. For the following nine months, the two kept in close contact, becoming important for each other, not least because Kyoriku taught Basho art. So close they were that Basho took the trouble of writing a long farewell letter to him on his departure from Edo, which happens to have become one of the most important documents to study Basho’s thoughts. Called Kyoriku Ribetsu no Kotoba, the letter provides us with an insight into the deepest feelings of Basho. One key sentence goes: yo ga fuga wa karo tosen no gotoshi, or ‘My haikai is like karo tosen’, namely ‘useless’.
What are we to do if Basho says that his poetry is useless? His was not an idle remark of self-mockery or of amusing Kyoriku in a light-hearted way. It was mentioned after a long and hard navel-gazing reflection on his life. There have been numerous academic studies on this point. Quite apart from them, it certainly provides us with enormous food for thought. Let us look at some of its ramifications.
Two things, inter alia, corrupt haiku and haiku poets—money and politics. When something becomes useful for one, it will become useful for others too. Utility begets exchange value which then begets monetary value. You may well think haiku would never make money. It does in Japan. Not serious money, obviously, but enough to corrupt. Fortunately, haiku is not making money in the rest of the world. If anything, it’s the reverse, i.e. poets are losing money as far as haiku activities are concerned. Thus, outside Japan, haiku is still useless commercially and therefore does not sell. May this situation last long!
Politics is twofold: internal and external. Externally, haiku can be mixed up with political interests in a broad sense as, again, can be seen in Japan. You can win votes if you are a famous haijin! And once again, this does not seem to be happening outside Japan. Internally (i.e. inside the haiku community), there is this notorious negative haiku politics which, regrettably, exists inside and outside Japan, and in abundance, at that. This is because haiku has become useful for some individuals and associations to exploit for non-haiku purposes, including the ingredients of politics such as power, influence, rivalry, control and domination. Haiku must become politically useless again.
Another cause for the possible corruption of haiku and haijin is one’s lust for fame. This desire is also strong in humans along, with desire for money and power. The desire to achieve fame may at times be beneficial if it is in moderation or under control for such poets as are in need of such desire to spur them into writing haiku. However, if the desire becomes excessive and starts dominating the haiku poets’ life, it can cause untold damage to the poetic health and the resulting works of poets under the spell of this undesirable desire. Judging from the unbelievable display of this lust for fame everyday, haiku has regrettably become too useful for the poets in this regard. The worst aspect may be when poets do not realise what sorts of ill effects the lust for fame can inflict on haiku and how. When one hears, in the ‘victory speech’ of those who win prizes of a haiku competition, the expression of ‘I am humbled…’ , one would recoil at the hypocrisy of it all. Haiku should be rendered useless once again in terms of bringing fame to the poets.
Haiku has also become almost too useful in fooling oneself into believing that s/he is special. We all become incredibly happy when someone makes us feel that we are special. Those who are insecure and with low self-esteem would become especially euphoric. Those who are arrogant would feel they are even more superior than they already think they are. So why wouldn’t haiku do the same trick? Haiku seems to be liable to make poets cliquey and falsely elitist. They tend and love to form small closed societies of special people, shutting out the uninitiated or outsiders, especially the so-called ‘mainstream’ poets. This is most unhealthy and deprives haiku poets and non-haiku poets alike of the opportunities of cross-fertilisation and the joy of mutual-company. If haiku is made useless in making poets feel special, then such a precious feeling will disappear overnight and haiku poets would become more modest and open, i.e. normal people. Uselessness of haiku is especially to be desired here.
Our relation with haiku is little different from our relationships with other human beings. Most misunderstandings, unhappiness, rows or conflicts between humans occur at least partly because of the failure of one to accept the other as he/she is (one of the most difficult things for us to achieve), or more importantly, both to accept each other as he/she is (because most of the time both parties are failing but nevertheless accuse each other of the failure) and the relationship as it is. The reality is that each of us expect too much from, paint rosy and impossible pictures of, impose our will of what the other should do and say, judging impossible goals and standards we set. Then, when our expectations are unfulfilled, we punish the failure of all these other people, and sometimes, ourselves, too. Ironically, this same occurs in the most tender of all human sentiments, love. We create impossible images of others we love, and if they turn out to be different, we blame them for the illusions we, ourselves, foolishly created.
Unfortunately, and in exactly the same way, for the great majority of people, it seems, haiku cannot be but indescribably special, exquisitely beautiful, seductively mysterious, unfathomably profound, inaccessibly esoteric, unrealistically difficult and, yes, almightily USEFUL. Thus, haiku is made their idol, like an object of mad love. The unbridled idolatry begins like lovesickness. This cannot be the right way. Haiku should, once again, be made useless. Otherwise, these people will live in a fool’s paradise, and they are destined to find the fallen idol and love lost, or else condemned to an eternal state of falsehood.
Though haiku is and should be part of one’s way of life, it is best to keep it one’s pastime. To put it another way, it would be best if one would remain an amateur in haiku. Dilettantism has long been an important factor of Japanese intellectual and cultural life. It is partly derived from the special world of literati in ancient and medieval China. Of course there were professional haikai masters. Basho was one, until he gave it up in disgust. In our time, there are two ways one can be professional in haiku: a professional haiku master, and a university teacher of haiku. Even in Japan, both professional haiku masters and haiku academics are few and far between. And haiku academics are not necessarily haiku practitioners. If they are, they are not necessarily good ones. Outside Japan, almost definitely there is not a single professional haiku master in the strict sense of the word. The number of haiku academics must be less than the number of fingers of of our hand.
These professionals are outside of our concern, however. For them, exceptionally, haiku is not only useful but vital. Our concern is related to those who think and behave as if they are professionals, plus their sympathisers. With this pretension can come a host of anti-haiku and anti-art behaviours and remarks which are all around us. It would be better for them to behave like amateurs, which is what they are, in their own interest as well as others. Remaining amateurs does not mean that we cannot be knowledgeable or a good influence for others. Apart from preventing negative behaviours and remarks, something about being amateurs provides us, in a much more positive sense, with special qualities which help create good haiku—a sense of freedom, humility, honesty or whatever. Uselessness is the essence of dilettantism.
Thus it was that uselessness, ironically, was the most precious possession and the source of inspiration for those genuine poets such as Basho (especially after he abandoned his career as professional haikai master), Santoka, Hosai, Soseki, Dakotsu, Bosha and Hisajo, to name but a few. This may be a difficult concept to understand for those Westerners who are accustomed to materialism, logic and purpose in everything. Uselessness of haiku is to deny materialism, to find something amusing in an illogical world and to indulge in the activity without a purpose. It is not so-called spiritualism, which is another trap people easily fall into. If you take the spiritual route, you fall into the Zen trap. If you take the materialistic route, you fall into the trap of falsely making haiku useful. How can you fall into such traps so easily? How will you be able to avoid them? Simply drop spiritualism and usefulness from haiku.
There are many other things for which people try to make haiku useful. Some of them are ostensibly for good causes such as using haiku for educational purposes or for healing. Even then, haiku should not be presented as something like a useful medicine but pursued for its own sake, i.e. useless art of poetry. If as a result haiku ends up in having some educational effect or healing power, let be.
However, perhaps the worst aspect of treating haiku as a useful thing is the extraordinary and excessive seriousness with which people take it. It may be because of the Western logic that anything which is not serious is not worth doing, and, therefore, haiku must be a serious business as we wish to do it seriously. I never cease to be amazed at all those outlandish behaviours which are displayed in the name of haiku. One such behaviour is someone getting so angry, aggressive or upset as to attack others as if going to war. The other is someone so obsessed with haiku as to regard it as the most important thing in life. Intrinsically, haiku is a useless thing and a haiku poet is a useless person. At least it should be.
About the cover :
ABOUT THE COVER ARTIST
Annie Bissett: ART WITH HAIKU SPIRIT
With this edition, the World Haiku Review begins introducing feature illustrations for its cover and contents page by select artists whose works not only reflect excellence, but which are imbued with “haiku spirit”. For this feature’s premier, WHC’s World Haiku Review is pleased to present the illustrative work of American artist, Annie Bissett.
The illustrations selected for the cover and contents pages of WHR 5-1 were created by Annie Bissett as projects with the illustrator’s blogsite, “Illustration Friday,” and are personal pieces Annie Bissett has done her pleasure. She says that she considers these pieces as visual haiku. She is pleased that our editors have made the same connection, and that they have selected two of them for World Haiku Review.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA, and raised in upstate New York, illustrator Annie Bissett returned to Massachusetts in 1979 and began her career in Boston. With a major in English and a minor in math, her ability to visually synthesize data and information led her to focus her
career in the area of “information graphics.” She first worked in textbook publishing and then learned computer graphics at PCWeek magazine where she became Assistant Art Director before setting off to begin a successful freelance career. Her illustration clients are diverse and have included The Washington Post, National Geographic Society, The Wall Street Journal, Fidelity Investments, and Johns Hopkins University among others.
Several years ago, after nearly 15 years of working digitally, Annie began to explore different mediums, looking for a warmer and more organic expression for her own personal artwork. She experimented with collage and spent more time simply drawing with a pencil. Some digital work based on her pencil drawings can be viewed at her website, AnnieBissett.com. In her personal work, Annie seeks to capture the essence of a particular moment in a spare but graphically strong image, much like a visual poem or haiku.
Annie has also been nurturing an ardent interest in Japan. She has studied Japanese language for 4 years at Smith College and recently, because she received so many comments that her latest illustration work looks like woodblock prints, she took an intensive with New Hampshire printmaker Matt Brown in Japanese-style woodblock printing. To literally look over her shoulder as she learns to master this difficult but beautiful medium, visit her woodblock website, Woodblock Dreams.
Three verses by Annie Bissett, composed on her trip to Tohoku last year:
ON A TRAIN
Women are laughing aloud
as businessmen sleep.
At this country inn
the baths are always open.
Warm arms welcome us.
THE MISO MAKER SPEAKS
Love is like miso,
a fermentation process.
Time makes a marriage.