marlene mountain
review of mm


Divergences in Haiku

Hiroaki Sato


What do I mean by 'divergences in haiku'? I mean divergences in American haiku, divergences in Japanese haiku, and divergences in American and Japanese haiku.

First, about divergences in American haiku, they are seen in the type of haiku that Cor van den Heuvel, the editor of three editions of The Haiku Anthology (the latest from W. W. Norton, 1999), and the majority of haiku writers in the United States accept as proper haiku and the kinds of haiku Allen Ginsberg and some others write. Ginsberg's posthumous book, Death & Fame: Last Poems 1993-1997 (HarperCollins, 1999), for example, has a series of 53 pieces 'written'-the editor and Ginsberg's longtime secretary Bob Rosenthal tells us-'in Allen's form of American Haiku (seventeen syllables with the common haiku associational enjambment of senses but carried through on a single strophe each).'

I must stress, of course, that Cor's accommodative range is far wider than he lets on. Still, you can say that Cor's view of haiku is based on the definition worked out by the Haiku Society of America-to be exact, by a committee created by it. It famously proclaims: The haiku is a 'Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature.' In this view, the 'haiku moment,' however defined, is crucial. As Cor says with uncharacteristic politeness in the foreword to the third edition of his Haiku Anthology, what Marlene Mountain calls 'pissed off poems,' for example-pieces that 'express her outrage at what we have done and are doing to harm the environment and to limit the freedom of women'-are, 'however admirable, something other than haiku or senryu.'

Here are some of Marlene's haiku. These are taken from sequences, but Marlene thinks individual pieces can be looked at independently. I'm sure most of you will not regard them as haiku.

well, just who the hell do you think fucked it up, caterpillars

spring in america water unsafe food unsafe sex unsafe

i'm committed to your maleness even more to the moon's femaleness

scratched into the mountain shadows of the moon

a dirty business but someone has to be mother nature

Similarly, Cor-and most haiku writers-will not regard Ginsberg's haiku as really haiku. Here are some examples:

Bowed down by the weight of nebulae he crouches underneath the hill.

A bat that's bigger than your ear watches you sleep while you dream him there.

In the midst of coition a blood-red worm spurts out his heaving ribcage.
(18 syllables)

The rose-girl kneels weighed down, iron tanks on shoulder, coccyx, calves & footsoles.
(18 syllables)

(I must say I don't really understand what Bob Rosenthal means by 'seventeen syllables with the common haiku associational enjambment of senses but carried through on a single strophe each,' except that Ginsberg evidently meant to write one-line pieces consisting of 17 syllables. As I have indicated, sometimes Ginsberg uses more than 17 syllables.)

As for divergences in Japanese haiku, they may be sought in the split between hokku and senry˛-or, if you wish the lineage to be longer, even in the nature of haikai itself. Haikai sought 'humor' in verbal tricks and knowing allusions, producing, as a result, a great many puzzle-like pieces, along with more or less straightforward ones.

At the latest, divergences date from the splintering after the death of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) among those who studied haiku with him. Basically, the split was into two camps: those who decided to remain 'traditional' and those who decided to seek 'non-traditional' paths. The former group is famously represented by Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) and his magazine Hototogisu; the latter less famously by Nakatsuka Ippekir™ (1887-1946) and others. (Kyoshi advocated the kach™f˛getsu, 'flower-bird-wind-moon,' as the true and only subject matter of haiku. Interesting enough, Shiki evidently thought more highly of Ippekir™, which makes the speculation possible that Shiki may have taken an even more radical path than Ippekir™, had he lived longer.)

In reality, these groupings, traditional and non-traditional, are simplistic and do not even begin to intimate the great complexities that we have seen in the hundred years since then. At the bare-bone level, one group went on to ignore the syllabic count and the inclusion of kigo, and the other group, while not diverging too much from the 17-syllable pattern and the use of kigo, nonetheless moved to express a variety of ideas and sentiments.

Finally, as to the divergences between American and Japanese haiku, these have occurred-or appear to have occurred-largely because American haiku writers have tended to move in one direction, although, even before haiku-writing became a good literary activity in this country, a notable segment of Japanese haiku writers-or, shall I say, professional haiku writers-had fragmented.

To put it differently, and here we ignore Marlene Mountain, Allen Ginsberg, and others for the moment, American haiku writers have tended to move with a few guiding principles, while Japanese haiku writers have not. To judge by the HSA definition, one of the principles for American haiku writers is associated with Zen-like enlightenment ('the essence of a moment keenly perceived'); it is as if the brevity of the form has to be equated with the temporal briefness of the matter to be described. Another principle is the need to connect humanity to nature (as the HSA definition cleverly puts it, the moment to be described has to be one in which 'Nature is linked to human nature').

Here, it is worth noting that the HSA definition is offered as that of the Japanese haiku. As I point out in my article, 'The HSA Definitions Reconsidered,' which has appeared in Frogpond, XXII: 3, this definition, if shown to Japanese haiku writers, is likely to arouse considerable skepticism among them. To quote myself from the article: 'Today it may be possible to describe haiku but not to define it. This is indicated by the haiku dictionary Gendai Haiku Dai-jiten (Meiji Shoin, 1980). Its entry on haiku describes the history of the term, but makes no attempt to say what a haiku is. Both in form and content, all you can say is that a haiku, be it composed in Japanese, English, or any other language, is what the person who has written it presents as a haiku.'

I am amused to recall this is more or less what I said when I started to talk about such things with Cor van den Heuvel many years ago. As I have discovered recently, it is also just about what I said when I was asked to write an entry on haiku for The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics a dozen years ago.

[This was originally a talk given at the gathering of the Haiku Society of America on September 18, 1999.]

{Used by permission]


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