marlene mountain
june 1977

the plight of the haiku public

Individually, we are at various stages in our development as poets,
critics, and readers of haiku. When we come upon those who do not
write, think, or feel as we do, we can say that they don't understand
haiku. Or we can wait a bit. For each of us has a role which is, perhaps,
the most difficult of all: that of being a member of the haiku public.

In Leo Steinberg's article, 'Contemporary Art and the Plight of the
Public,' 1 we read how Paul Signac was angry with his friend, Matisse,
when he exhibited 'The Joy of Life.' And how a year later, Matisse,
himself, was extremely angry with Picasso's 'Demoiselles d'Avignon.'
Both paintings have since been proclaimed as major contributions
to modern art.

Professor Steinberg goes on to explain that when new art appears,
the ones who are the most upset with it are fellow artists. All of us--
as both artists and members of the public--feel shock, bewilderment, and
anger. We are shaken, feel a tremendous loss of familiar surroundings,
and are sincerely troubled. Professor Steinberg is sympathetic toward
the 'plight of the public.' But as he knows and as we all must come to understand,
art doesn't wait for its public to catch up with it.

Western haiku has had a short but colorful past. Though on a smaller
scale, it has been going through the fundamental changes in art each
generation faces. These changes in haiku range from a relaxation of
punctuation and capital letters to an inclusion of previously unacceptable
subject matter to a complete reexamination of the haiku form.

It is the latter change that has shocked some of the haiku public.
Perhaps the fear is that years of writing will be disregarded, that one
form (the juxtaposition of images) will be abandoned altogether, or that
haiku will become a type of free verse. However, if we understand the
nature of art (whether painting, music, literature, etc.) we need not fear
this reexamination. Whenever artists reexamine art (and themselves) it
is not from a lack of respect for traditions, but from a natural human

Unlike the other arts, haiku has no professional critics. Whether it is
because our movement is still too small to be noticed, or whatever, no
one outside the haiku world appears too much interested. Since we
must be poets and critics at the same time, we must take the
responsibility of criticizing our work fairly.

Allen Leepa, a noted art critic writes:

The primary role of the critic is concerned with the
work of art itself. Otherwise, the work becomes
weakened or lost if the critic functions as a prisoner
of fixed viewpoints. In other words, if art is viewed
as the expression of a static set of ideas, experiences,
aesthetic values, or even humanistic positions, the
critic will impose on the works that he [sic] sees, the
concepts, principles, and attitudes inherent in the
system of appraisal he is employing. This type of
approach--the belief in an absolute set of
fundamentals applicable to all the arts, of all times--
has led to innumerable aesthetic miscalculations.
Often, partial truths have been taken for the whole
truth. Roger Fry, for example, so strictly insisted on
significant form as the basis of art that, instead of
form being viewed as part of the total creative
statement, it became the criterion. 2

Within our movement, we have had and still have fine poet-critics:
Amann, Bull, Higginson, Hoyt, McClintock, Spiess, van den Heuval, and
Virgil. Each has contributed valuable criticism. Yet from 'somewhere'
we, the public, have been accused of being traditionalists,
conservatives, experimentalists, explorers, concretists, 5-7-5er's, etc. in
our syllable counting or lack of syllable counting. While we have
become accustomed to such extra-literary labels, they are not constructive.
These labels do nothing to improve criticism of Western haiku.

Though it may be somewhat unfair to single out terms (when so many
have come about), I do so now because two are very recent, and
because, as a member of the haiku public, I question the validity of
such labels.

The first: 'the concept of the barest minimum can be a trap. A trap
into which advocates of the mini-haiku school have fallen.' 3  Robert
Spiess' term 'mini-haiku' is unfortunate. (For some reason he feels
that he needs to make a distinction between a 17 syllable haiku--which
is becoming obsolete as the norm in Eastern and Western haiku--and
something shorter.) Had he used the correct word minimal to depict
this other kind of haiku, perhaps his esthetics could be understood.
Minimal Art of the 1960's has a firm place in the history of art as well
as in the thinking and feeling of many who understand it. Minimal Art,
especially the art of Stella, Judd, Flavin, Kelly, Poons, has given us
fresh perceptions--as art should.

The second: a quote by Gustave Keyser in an article by Spiess: 'All of the
scholars tell us the same thing: that in this haiku ['crow--autumn
evening'] Basho at last learned the effectiveness of such contrast and
comparisons and thereby raised haiku to new level of poetic quality. It
is the lack of this quality that I find fault with in most of the work of
today's brevity extremists. They lack meaningful contrasts or
comparisons that project subtle meanings and depths for a competent
reader. This new work is too shallow--usually a somewhat cold,
feelingless picture or statement. I wonder, is it because some of these
new poets are themselves shallow? Or is it because they merely
haven't learned enough about the haiku as yet and don't understand
what it actually is or does?' 4

Again, the 'plight of the public.' After all, it's been almost 300 years
since Basho 'raised haiku to a new level of poetic quality.' (He was
also known to lower it at times.) If you will excuse my
understatement: a lot has happened since, which has added to the
poetic quality of haiku. If Basho were alive today, I don't believe he
would say: write this way. I have a feeling Basho would still be

Haiku didn't stop with Basho--it began!

While I cannot accept the term 'mini-haiku' and am saddened to see
misinterpretations of certain haiku by those who don't feel them, I can
understand how Keyser might think that there are some brief haiku.
(Had he gotten more specific and sighted my 'sn wfl k s' 5 as extremely
brief, I could certainly agree with him.) However, I don't think it is
fair to lump individual poets together and call them 'today's brevity extremists.'
Nor do I think it is fair to wonder in an article if 'these
'new' poets are themselves shallow.' (Which 'new' poets?)

Hardly anyone would conclude that a brief haiku is shallow because it
is brief, anymore than one would assume that a non-brief haiku is deep
because it is non-brief. (We all would be upset if non-haiku poets
called us 'mini' or 'brevity extremists.') We have seen enough haiku
to know that all of us are shallow at times, regardless of the number of
words or syllables, or type of form, and that very few of us are deep
often enough.

But then haiku is not an exercise in depth. It is not an exercise in

Though there may be dissensions and questions here and there about
the Western haiku structure (derived mainly, I suspect, from some
good and some bad translations of the Japanese haiku), I know of no
one who is trying to abolish it. We know too many fine haiku in this
form. However, it seems that the form of Western haiku hardly got
started before it was forced into a non-creative semi-retirement.

While we all need a certain amount of security, we must not shut
ourselves off from the development of haiku. Otherwise, instead of
learning, we become embittered and learn nothing. If Signac
considered that Matisse was going to the dogs and Matisse claimed
Picasso's painting ridiculed modern painting, we can, of course, allow
ourselves (the haiku public) to misunderstand some kinds of haiku--
but only for a time.

We have much to learn about the Japanese haiku. It is not an open and
shut case as some would suggest. It is not enough to say that the
Japanese haiku is 17 syllables and that Western haiku should adopt
this form. The number of syllables or words in a haiku (Eastern or
Western) does not a haiku make. Nor does a specified form.

Americans gave a new spirit to Western painting. Perhaps we have a
similar role with Eastern haiku (the Japanese haiku could use a new

Whatever the outcome, we (Americans, Canadians, British, Australians,
Spaniards, etc.) have to figure this kind of poetry (and spirit) out for
ourselves: whether it be decade by decade or year by year. Certainly,
the Japanese are not standing in our way.

If all of us care, we can deal with our plight. We can have our
differences. We can even become interested in our differences. We
need not become bitter.

After all, we journey into haiku, hoping that the journey does not end.

1 In THE NEW ART, New York, 1966, p. 27 ff. 2 In 'Anti-Art and Criticism,' THE NEW ART, p. 140.
3 Modern Haiku 7:4, p. 26. 4 Modern Haiku 8:1, p. 34. 5 'the old tin roof' 1976.

Modern Haiku 8:3 1977; World Haiku Review 2:2 2002 [online];
from the mountain


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