marlene mountain
september 1988

they don't shoot horses do they?

Elizabeth Lamb is to be highly commended for printing Rod Willmot's 'In Praise of Wild Horses' (Frogpond 11:2) and Anita Virgil's 'Horse Sense' (Frogpond 11:3). Though I have considerable trouble with the anthropocentric term 'wild horses' from both authors (there are horses and then there are tamed horses; animals 'out in nature' are not 'wild'), they have brought to the surface some of the antagonisms seething within the haiku 'community.'

There is real anger involved. The largest problem seems to be that of perceived authoritarianism. Indeed, many of us do have strong views about haiku and as we write essays, publish anthologies, edit journals and present our haiku in books we often sound as if we have the final word. Fortunately, there is no final word. But since art in a vacuum is not nearly as interesting as art with dialogue, let's present our ideas--with passion, with consideration--and hope that in some way we can communicate.

I for one appreciate Willmot's entire discussion, especially that of 'authenticity,' 'mythified authority'' and, even more so, that of self-oppression within haiku. And, 'inner necessity,' what a marvelous term for why we do what we do. On the other hand, I was disappointed with Virgil's 'hot under the collar' approach because I know her as a much better examiner.

Most disturbing is her term 'Willmot's McCarthyism'--highly uncalled-for. I also had trouble with her implied criticism of horse shit. Why should any nature poet be uncomfortable with such a natural occurrence? It seems to correspond with the notion of expressing only the comfortable in haiku, that is, some moments keenly perceived.

And, ironically, Virgil criticizes Willmot for assuming his views speak for the masses, while she herself says, 'Lately, Willmot has tried to convince poets that the haiku can be the catch-all for most intensely felt emotions/experiences of a poet. It can't. ' (Italics mine.) On a positive note, the thrilling part of Virgil's article was to bring to light Willmot's phrase 'intimate exposures.' What a fresh and wonderful definition of haiku.

At any rate, another haiku/senryu debate is long overdue. To jump in, I for one find the dualism contained within most definitions of haiku itself unacceptable. This dualism is expressed in Virgil's, 'In poem after poem one discerns that the haiku presents, with studied detachment [huh?], man's [sic] interrelatedness with Nature, with the tangible world outside himself [sic].' (Italics Virgil's.)

Are we or are we not ourselves nature? Is the moon any more outside ourselves than it is outside the tides? Is the growth of a tree so different from our growth? Can/Should we really study to detach ourselves from nature, then study to interrelate ourselves? Is anything really outside ourselves? I reject the pyramidal view that has dominated philosophies, religions, and the arts, and deplore the consequences it has caused on earth. Must we continue to be subjected to hierarchical concepts which separate us from all other organisms?

We have been 'taught' alienation and it seems imperative now that we seek that which affirms the common ground of all organisms. Similarly, I reject adoption of the compartmentalization which so pervades Japanese culture--we have plenty of our own--as expressed in the dualism of haiku verses senryu. Those who wish to compartmentalize themselves, their experiences and emotions, are free of course to do so, but I feel that my wit, humor, anger, compassion, love--my observations and responses--are all of one piece and all of one poem.

No one owns haiku. Absolutely no one. Not even the Japanese. Haiku itself does not own itself. Whatever the origin or original intent (if indeed there has been one) of an art or artist, minds and hearts do not remain static. If haiku is a dead art, that is, one whose philosophy is relevant to a certain time and place, then may it rest in peace along with all those other intriguing arts of museums, anthologies and concert halls.

If, on the other hand, haiku is one of those rare exceptions in which an 'old' art is perceived as a living art, then by its very nature it is open to interpretation, that is, artistic expression, decade by decade, country by country---poet by poet. In fact, history has shown that haiku languishes or thrives according to vitality of perception and adaptability.

The Japanese Spirit, as the term implies, is a cultural phenomenon-- compartmentalized, of course--permeating not only the arts, but even more profoundly daily life. Though it definitely does not permeate our daily life, we toss about this term and its perceived ideas as if they were adequately if not completely understood.

From personal experience I would suggest that before these 'concepts'--which for the most part we have derived from books--are taken to heart and indeed imposed upon others, that one spend some time living in Japan (not as tourist, military personnel, etc.). One might then begin to find how much one doesn't understand the Japanese Spirit, and more importantly have a more honest opportunity to decide what one doesn't want to embrace of it--if indeed one could embrace any of it at all.

Until that experience, I for one believe that those who champion the Japanese Spirit and its complex paraphernalia for North Americans are under considerable delusion. I know that I have been, and it has been with much anguish over the years that I have had to relinquish my many intellectual attachments and identifications. Though I denied it at the time, I am now in agreement with the Japanese who with either amusement or disgust told me that Americans cannot write haiku-- meaning Japanese haiku. These days I can say that I have no interest in doing so. There are other matters to consider.

Is there a North American spirit? Is there a personal spirit? Have they been denied? Are either worth pursuing? Are we to assume a self-responsibility toward writing? Do we too have something unique to contribute to this small grouping of words? And what of the very name haiku?

Is haiku a haven--a necessary denial of reality in order to survive the onslaught of devastation caused by corporate greed, nuclear proliferation and all other forms of disrespect experienced by the planet and ourselves?

Or is it time to consider a global spirit in which all of us truly look at the environment in which we live--in better times called nature--and to write honestly about its condition? Is haiku another form of self-domestication--or with our poems can we find, can we acknowledge, mother earth, indeed, mother universe, within?

Wind Chimes #28 1989

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