marlene mountain
reviews of mm
essay on haiku


by Michael Dwyer:

haiku as crutch/the buck-naked empress: Marlene Mountain's revolution

For as long as I've been connected to the haiku world (three years-not very long, but long enough for something to have happened), I've been waiting for someone to take Marlene Mountain seriously. Instead, I've been treated to the same haiku/non-haiku non-discussions to which she refers in her essay 'belly up/pushy/pissed/mine,' published in Brussels Sprout Vol. VII:1. I have also seen numerous examples of slavish acceptance, to which she doesn't refer. Neither attitude, in my opinion, does much to advance or promote haiku. What is needed, what is always needed, is a discussion of the basic issues-what is it we are trying to accomplish, how are we trying to accomplish it, and most importantly, to what degree are our efforts successful? When the arguments rage much beyond these topics, as they do today, what results is the staleness Ms. Mountain alludes to also in her essay. Is it a psychological haiku or a serious senryu? Gosh, I just don't know. It is this staleness she is attempting to confront in her haiku and criticism, and she does so with woefully little support from the haiku community. My intention in this essay is to begin to offer that support, even if some of it is in the form of criticism.

What is it we are trying to do? As haiku poets, our oft stated goal is to take a kind of snapshot of life. Then we look deeply into the snapshot, hoping that our mind's shutter speed was fast enough to eliminate the blur that comes from being alive. We fix on one moment hoping to see all moments, on one relation hoping to see all relations. Dragging Zen into it, by looking at one moment, we are hoping to see the one Moment; by seeing clearly one relation we hope to see the one Relation. That big ol' oneness. That is what we are trying to do.

By what means do we intend to accomplish this modest goal? By writing what is known as haiku, a form of verse whose poetic potential was first uncovered by a man named Basho who lived in Japan in the seventeenth century. Basho discovered over a number of years that haiku could be used to express deep feeling-thoughts, and left in the wake of his life a trail of comments that eventually became a sort of canon of haiku. This canon included rules on tone and subject matter, but as his life evolved, so did the rules. In the beginning he believed that haiku should spring directly from the poet's experience with nature, and from this came his most famous poem, quoted at the beginning of Ms. Mountain's essay: 'old pond/frog jumps/sound of water.' Towards the end of his life, however, he was less certain: 'deep autumn/other people/what do they do?' is what he wrote. Other poets, following Basho's lead, adopted, then adapted the haiku to fit the demands of their own lives: Issa filled it with tears, Buson with colors. Shiki, in the last great expansion before the form landed on our shores and exploded, denied 'the modern world' as a legitimate subject of haiku, but demanded that its previous insistence on reality, or observation be dropped. His reality, his window on oneness, was the imagination. He wanted to just make up haiku, which was exactly the opposite of what Basho had done to raise haiku to its exalted purpose in the first place. So that's what he did. And despite the wailing and gnashing of the old guard's teeth, it too was good. What did all these pioneers have in common? They all saw themselves as descended from Basho. They all called what they wrote haiku.

Into this tradition steps Marlene Mountain. She, too, sees herself as descended from Basho. Having been part of the first American expansion of haiku, which dispensed with syllable-counting and opened the form to include human emotion as a proper subject, she finds she is still limited by the form. She desires further expansion. She wants haiku to open up to three increasingly essential parts of her experience-the discovery/celebration of womanity, grave concern for the future of the planet, and her anger at the earth's history of male-dominated leadership which has prevented the first and caused the second. The three directions are all represented by the haiku she quotes in her essay.

hot night pushy for women our rights our rites our riots

old pond a frog rises belly up

i think therefore i am pissed

While these poems are not haiku like any we've seen before, unless we were loyal Wind Chimes readers, given my earlier analysis, that haiku has a history of expanding to include anything anybody has really wanted to call haiku, there can be little doubt that these are haiku. What is never discussed, probably because nobody feels he quite knows what Ms. Mountain is talking about and is therefore unqualified to judge, is whether or not they are good haiku. This is the real issue. To what degree are these 'new' haiku successful? I contend, familiar with both the context of the poems and in agreement with the ideas expressed therein, that much of Ms. Mountain's work in these three areas does not live up to the artistic standards of her previous work, or even the lesser standards of contemporary English-language haiku. Ideation has replaced poetry, and political correctness is masquerading as craft. The empress, folks, is buck-naked. It is for this reason she is largely ignored, and not as she implies, because of some patriarchal commie plot.

How does one determine whether a haiku is good or not? There have been lots of attempts at objective definition, but they're all pretty subjective, and I can think of only one that everybody believes. Haiku ought to be short. If it gets too long, either in the reading or the perception, it doesn't work anymore; things get blurry. Haiku is judged on the same basis as other poetry, the same basis we use to judge everything. Does it touch us? Does it move us? Does it make us see? One is acceptable, two are preferred, three and Kodansha puts out a book about you.

Ms. Mountain, in her essay, proposes another-does the phenomenon being written about exist? If it does, and especially if it's something that's been hidden or oppressed, then it's good, however the poem may come out. There are problems with this, however. In theory, if haiku equals life, then life ought to equal haiku, and everything that resides in the one should have a place in the other. But haiku is not life. It is not The Path, The Way of Life, The Way of Seeing, The Truth, or Oneness. It is an exercise whose performance is thought to bring one to these things. It is a crutch. Even a perfunctory glance at the Tao Te Ching yields that: The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.' Both Basho and Santoka Taneda, to mention two with whom I'm familiar, thought at times their devotion to haiku had become a hindrance to their spiritual growth. Mere descriptions of a person's feelings, while they may be haiku, are not necessarily good haiku. If they were, there would no longer be something called haiku. It would simply be life, indistinguishable from all other things that go by the same name. A similar form of this argument applies to Ms. Mountain's other contention, that if a poem violates all the current limits of the form, it will in all likelihood be a good haiku. If everything is haiku, then haiku no longer exists. If a person is not willing to accept the notion that certain limits, however arbitrary, are essential to the very existence of the word 'haiku,' then said person can hardly be allowed to go around wearing the related, but no less arbitrary label 'haiku poet.'

No, the evaluation of Ms. Mountain's haiku must be performed using traditional poetic criteria. The evaluation must ignore, however, the possibility that readers may not be familiar with the subjects and perspectives of her haiku. Poets are not responsible for the times into which they were born, only for shedding a little light on them. I will use as examples the four haiku quoted in her essay.

hot night pushy for women our rights our rites our riots

Does it touch us? Does it move us? Does it make us see? For a while it does. 'hot night,' while not as precise as it might have been, gets the job done. It conjures up heat, conjures up desperation. 'pushy for women' clarifies the heat. It's anger. 'pushy' presents the idea that the anger is not well-received. It also indicates that the setting of the poem is a social one. 'for' makes the anger righteous; it's hard to be against someone who's for something. An image is beginning to form. An argument, a demonstration, a one-sided flow of emotion.

But then it falls apart. Abstractions take over at the word 'women,' quickly rendering the poem inert. 'women' is too large a concept to be used in the middle of a haiku. There's too much it could mean, and not enough that it does mean, for it to mean anything. The reader takes her or his best shot-they see their mother, or the start of the Boston Marathon, or old pictures of suffragettes, or the Ladies' Guild Auxiliary. Or more likely, they delay their creation of the image, waiting to see if the word's context will become clearer.

Which it does not. 'our rights our rites our riots.' The first r is the killer. It's again vague to the point of meaninglessness. Rights are things; you can point to them. If you don't, the reader's on her or his own again. And, heaven help us, now they've got the phrase 'women our rights' floating around in their heads, and they all know what that means. And it has precious little to do with what Ms. Mountain was pointing at.

It's unfortunate, because right after that the words begin to work again. 'our rites,' while again maddeningly vague, at least restricts the reader to a particular area. The reader might think of childbirth, which would lead them to both their own mother and the good mother earth. If they're sharp, they may even get fertility, nurturance, love and life. Provided this happens, and provided the reader doesn't think, as I did at first, that the poem is about women's right to riot, 'our riots' contrasts beautifully, returning to the anger of the beginning of the poem, forcing upon the reader a complete image-women being righteously pissed. But at what!? From the poem, you can't tell. No snapshot has been taken, nothing has been given that will touch, or move. Nothing has been seen. Readers, if they bother to analyze the haiku, try to get it started, may arrive, as I did, at a sense of admiration for the whole lot of stuff that is in there, but few readers are writing an essay about it. Most readers will see the poem for what it is-a fairly well-crafted piece of selfindulgent reportage, and will pass over it on their way to the next.

old pond a frog rises belly up

This poem could be effective as it is. Even Basho's frog will die. However, we know Ms. Mountain, and that's not what she's driving at. We kind of know what she's driving at, but she's missed it, which is why the haiku disappoints. Frogs rise belly up every day. Why is this one significant? We're sure it's because somebody, probably Dow Chemical, dumped something in the pond and poisoned it. But knowing it is not the same as seeing it, knowing is not caring. Knowing does not lead to action. For this haiku to do its job, we need to see how the frog died and why the frog died. We don't, so it didn't.

i think therefore i am pissed

Cut me some slack. Wit is not poetry. Wit was passed off as haiku, but that was before Basho made it something one could aspire to. There are no problems with any of the words per se, as Ms. Mountain claimed in her essay. There are, however, grave problems with the words in this particular order. Does it touch us? Does it move us? Does it make us see? At its best it volunteers a patently false observation, that the only rational response to the world is anger; at its worst it high-handedly dismisses such readers as would be too stupid to agree with her. 'i drink therefore i am pissed' would have been wittier, and more effective, although not real effective, because it might have made the connection between alcohol, anger, and violence, perhaps then extending to rape, male domination through fear, and then patriarchy. Anger has a very real place, I feel, in haiku, but the anger must be real, not, as in this and many of Ms. Mountain's haiku about anger, derived and distant.

long time in coming haiku mine not theirs

Here we begin to see where it all might lead. Although still overly conceptual, colors find their way into the haiku through the phrasing. 'long time in coming' tells of a struggle, of the ups and downs. The reader's mind is open, much like it was after 'women' in 'hot night,' but this time 'haiku mine' completes the thought, and gives the reader the poet's feelings of affirmation. And she does so magnificently, avoiding the phrase 'my haiku,' which would have asserted the poet's self at the expense of the struggle. Finally, the poem ends with 'not theirs,' which completes 'mine,' balances the rhythm of the haiku, and reaches back to inform the reader as to whom the struggle was against, without forcing her or him to take sides as in 'i think.' It is a snapshot, a precise rendering of that first moment after the battle has been won, how the whole world suddenly seems quiet. We come to our own struggle, our own life. We see the occasional victory and, for a moment/for eternity, become heartened. Even readers who have not read The Dream of a Common Language.

In conclusion, Marlene Mountain's revolution is real. Like all revolutions, however, it's taking its sweet time figuring itself out. It aspires to go beyond the current boundaries in terms of form and content, but what it really wants is to reclaim the old freshness, the vitality the form once had. This is where history and critical acceptance/rejection come in. The essence of haiku, the freshness and vitality, has been present since the beginning, if not always visible. The rules get worn out though, and need to be replaced from time to time. But how do we know what new rules to install? By comparing the haiku the new rules create to the old haiku, the ones that are responsible for the desire to create new ones. If they don't measure up, the new rules are to blame, and should be modified.

Brussels Sprout 5:2 May 1990

mm essay/response: 'i say essay'
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