Editorial Corner – March 2003 Editorial
How to tackle war haiku
War divides. It forces people to corners where they do not necessarily wish to be cornered. Thus, sides are taken and differences get exacerbated. Views become exaggerated and belligerent. Friends turn into foes. Opinions become voiced in black and white terms. All the complications of life’s grey area, namely the most or all of life, get over-simplified and dogmatised. Prejudices, suspicion, hatred and emotion have dominion over all the things which help us become or remain civilised. In this process, are we becoming more human or less human?
shun-shu ni aku wo sarasu wa ikusa kana
the worst of both worlds –
However, all this, depressingly, is not even anywhere near the worst aspects of war.
So, what would happen if haiku poets wandered into this war zone and share the war haiku they write with others? The experience in the Internet world has shown that they would do exactly what is described above. All the real world’s divisions, hostilities, propaganda, prejudices and ferocious attacks and counter-attacks get mirrored in the conduct and poems of the haiku poets in this virtual world. With almost military precision, flames flare up and fighting, albeit verbal, erupts. The real war, essentially, is repeated in the cyber haiku theatre.
in Mesopotamia, fought also
This is deplorable and sad at least on two accounts. Firstly, it speaks poorly of haiku. If war haiku cannot be written without it being degenerated into propaganda or political point scoring, it would harm the scope and potential of haiku as a legitimate form to deal with such a serious subject as war. Secondly, it speaks poorly of human beings. If they cannot distinguish the actual war and political stance towards it on the one hand — and war haiku as a form of poetic and artistic expression on the other — they would degrade themselves into political machines, i.e. non-poets or non-artists. Of course, there should not be war. However, war has not disappeared from the human history yet.
There is actually a third way where haiku poets intentionally use haiku to promote their political purposes truly in a serious and sincere way and regard it as a legitimate and justifiable part of haiku writing. This is outside the scope both of this Editorial and the World Haiku Club. Such an attempt, if done really seriously and sincerely, must be respected but the distinction between genuine intentions and cheap political demonstration may be difficult to perceive.
So far, in the Internet war zones, we have had displays of low and coarse feelings of little or no literary merit, including naked anti-American sentiment, hysterical reactions to it, strained raw nerves, tendentious preaching, pipedream for peace, one-sided fixed ideas, entrenched prejudices, mob copycat slogans, shallow political naïveté and all manner of predictable statement of the obvious. Occasional posting of good war haiku have been smothered in the fog of verbal war.
Some might say that if haiku poems and their authors express anger, hatred, patriotism, nationalism, prejudices, suspicion, jingoism, arrogance, actual exchange of war of words or even fanaticism or madness, it would simply be reflecting the realities of life. There may be an element of truth here and something which may be worth pursuing. However, these realities need not be re-acted twice. In other words, one war is enough, if ever.
Where, then, does all this leave us? War is a negative drama where just about everything about human nature plays its part, from timeless heroism to the blackest of evils, from the sharpest brainwork to the most wicked guile, from seemingly justifiable moral stance to the most questionable ethical pretence and from the latest technological excellence to the most barbaric tools of war. Peace, on the other hand, is the opposite side of the coin: the positive drama played by the same actors, save a number of important exceptions such as supposedly-lawful violence (sometimes questionable as the current war may be and other times laws are simply ignored). In other words, peace is not the absence of everything in a war. On the contrary, what constitutes war is also in existence in peace, such as the human foibles and weaknesses mentioned above. War and peace are different reflections of the same thing, i.e. human nature. That is why it is important not to dismiss war unquestioningly from the themes of haiku.
Quite the contrary. If war haiku can be shared (no problem when writing them for oneself) without replicating the actual war in a literary form, it must be done. At least, that is the policy of the World Haiku Club. To do so is to look into the realities of human condition in order to attempt at depicting them in a literary form. Ultimately, haiku is about “fuga no makoto” (poetic sincerity, honesty and truth). Therefore, we, as haijin, would be missing a huge chunk of truth if war is excluded from haiku’s content. This is no doubt a departure from the traditional school of Japanese haiku which is represented by the Hototogisu School which has been developed from the old haikai in which war was not necessarily excluded. Even Masaoka Shiki dealt with war:
naki hito no mukuro wo kakuse haru no kusa
hide the corpse
of the dead soldier
(English version by ST)
There is a famous episode whence Takahama Kyoshi, the founder of the Hototogisu School, was asked by a reporter after the last war about the reasons why he never wrote haiku on war (the implied point being why he did not oppose to the war through haiku), and replied that he was a mere haijin and that haijin’s job was not war. If one is a member of this School, then one should probably stick to its teachings. It would, however, mean limiting the scope of haiku, and exclude even such (a non-controversial but) excellent example of good war haiku:
a new war –
I search grandpa’s eyes
still hiding old wars.
There have been quite a few good war haiku springing up from WHC’s efforts and it is hoped that these will inspire other people to write and share war haiku in the spirit of WHC’s experiment. As was already said, war covers everything human. Therefore, one would not be short of what to write: the futility, violence, madness, sorrow, tragedy, heroism, valour, love, excitement, bereavement, destruction, cruelty or patriotism. The following are some of the examples:
a bush war
one man on the run
a million suffer
john tiong chunghoo
a mother mourns the son
who’ll never go to war
as spring begins
young soldiers join the old…
in another place
Dead ‘American’ soldiers,
piled side by side – Baptist,
Muslim, Indian and Jew
from cradle of
civilization to burial ground —
a butterfly flits above
the tank turret
And still carrying
on the back his cargo
the killed horse