Dr Richard Gilbert has contributed his comments on Peter Yovu's Field Notes series on The Haiku Foundation's forum, interviews and a commentary on his work by Jack Galmitz.
"I would never select a small sample of haiku as my "favorites," as it would show undue preference. I will say that in 2013, I have 275 favorite works, which are all previously published haiku, re-published in The Disjunctive Dragonfly.
This past week, you heard the Translatlantic Poetry reading Roberta Beary and Richard Gilbert // Transatlantic Poetry on Air
My reading begins at minute 22. During the reading, I selected 26 haiku by 26 different poets, from Haiku 2014 (Gurga & Metz, eds., Modern Haiku Press, 2014) to read -- so they are favorites in 2015 -- but only from that book! There are so many more haiku to consider as "best" or "excellent" composed since Disjunctive Dragonfly was written -- I mean during the time-period, July 2013-April 2015 (the present)."
Readers are also referred to an interview between Dr Richard Gilbert and Rattle Editor, Tim Green part of which is available at http://www.rattle.com/poetry/from-a-conversation-with-richard-gilbert/
ALL THAT ASIDE
Richard Gilbert partially answers the three profound and mystifying questions posed (in reverse order).
1) Why do you write [xhaikux]?
2) What other poetic forms do you enjoy?
3) Of the many wonderful [xhaikux] you’ve written, what do you consider to be your top three?
ALL THAT ASIDE: Partial answer to Question 3:
3) Of the many wonderful [xhaikux] you’ve written, what do you consider to be your top three?
In Field Notes 3, I wrote:
Reply #1 on: September 14, 2013, 07:34:34 AM
It’s rare to experience a poem that has caused me to rethink my approach. By “rethink,” I take this to mean “expand” widen my conceptual range or understanding; to become aware of new modes of possibility or approach within the form. Haiku that have catalyzed such experiences have been presented in various articles and books I’ve published since 2000.
I’d like to share a poem which has most recently caused me to see haiku in a new way. This same poem catalyzed a new category of disjunction, which I termed “forensic parthenogenesis,” and is now found as one of the newly coined “disjunctive techniques of ‘strong reader resistance’” in Disjunctive Dragonfly (Red Moon Press, August, 2013, 132 pp.). By way of explanation here is an excerpt describing this poem—with some additional examples (from pp. 98-100):
In “Forensic Parthenogenesis,” particulars of non-human sentient beings self-generate a cosmos (as environments, a wilds, expressions of nature) through strong disjunction; such beings appear as autonomous creatures (i.e. not as pets, or associated to the human body). Concerning notions of sentience, haiku that do not place themselves so strongly in alternate types, such as “misplaced anthropomorphism” or “displaced mythic resonance,” and usually utilize the genre-style of naturalist description.
In haiku with strong parthenogenic disjunction, transformative elements, though presented as objectively descriptive fact (naturalistic), will also often be “impossibly true.” As relatively urban/nature-insulated moderns, surrounded by environments of utility and digital realities, technology, etc., haiku possessing forensic parthenogenesis reveal something about how we sense wild nature. There seems an urge or desire for new forms of mythos here being expressed — new ways of animal dreaming — that are at the same time, animals dreaming us.
inside a bat's ear
opens to a star
Eve Luckring, 2011, RR 11:3
(The haiku which inspired this category. The idea that an animal (or animal particular) provides a motif or fulcrum for a new poetic cosmos, impelled via disjunction. The poet draws the reader into a unique contemplation, from “inside a bat's ear,” within its dark auricle, drawn from a creature of darkness, colorblind, ultrasonic, navigational, acoustic — and offers a mysterium coniunctionis (“mysterious conjunction”; a final alchemical synthesis) which may represent the unification of body, soul and spirit.)
in the nucleus
of a migrating cell
the summer sea
Mark Harris, 2012, MH 43.3
the blueness of a fox
falling petals death in war
Kaneko Tohta, 2012, Selected Haiku, Part 2 (Gilbert et al, trans., RMP)
clouds in a mare’s eye the fracture beyond repair
Clare McCotter, 2012; HIE 314
his own face
John Stevenson, 2011, Acorn 27
(As Tyrannosaurus Rex couldn't even touch its mouth, with arms so short. This poem of realism forges a connection between that most terrible king of predators and our own face, by implied contrast: with the crucial difference of touch.)
ants begin to look like an idea
Scott Metz, 2009; lakes & now wolves (MHP, 2012)
as the world fails saxophone in the lips of a walrus
Marlene Mountain, 2009; H21 130
Disjunctive Dragonfly: A New Approach to English-language Haiku http://bit.ly/1to12kB
Acorn -- http://acornhaiku.com
H21 -- Haiku 21 (Gurga & Metz, eds.), Modern Haiku Press, 2011.
HIE--Haiku in English (Kacian et al eds.), Norton, 2013.
MH--Modern Haiku Journal. http://modernhaiku.org
MHP--Modern Haiku Press. http://modernhaiku.org/mhbooks
RMP--Red Moon Press. http://redmoonpress.com
RR--Roadrunner Haiku Journal. https://roadrunnerhaikublog.wordpress.com
(see also: "is/let." https://isletpoetry.wordpress.com)
ALL THAT ASIDE: Partial Answer to Question 2:
2) What other poetic forms do you enjoy?
Field Notes 2: What can haiku poets learn from other forms of poetry?
September 11, 2013, 09:19:37 PM
I think of poetry (not just haiku) as being created in many many ways --
If it's not something new, in-process, with each new instance, i think you don't usually end up with good "media" (art product -- art is about production as a goal; a making).
So we can talk about what Gary Snyder called "The Real Work." For Don [Baird] "clarity" is key, a keynote, and a keyword. For myself, it might be: "the amorphous" or "the cloud of unknowing" -- the way of "via negativa." What comes into "focus" may be things I find only later find sweetbitter, later grasp.
And maybe there was something automatic, something like a trance, something like self-extinction.
"Clarity" poses a "something." It is a positive. Perhaps a centering, a "truth" -- in any case a "thing." An evident suchness; of this -- but not: that. However, in-process (poetic process, as acts of consciousness) I'm likewise deeply attracted to experiences of, as Chet Baker puts it: "Let's Get Lost."
When Jim Kacian wrote [the haiku] "pain fading the days back to wilderness" -- I felt instantly an engram of this experience -- as part of what impels me, as an explorer, a searcher; with a sense not of forging, but following. That's where I feel to go: or it leads me, or opening before me, as if in view, though purely imaginal: back to wilderness. Wildernesses. Not chaos and not clarity; a third thing.
The paths wind on, out, dissolve, into senses (sensibilities) of infinity. "Distance is the soul of beauty" (Simone Weil). And then you may meet up with a rock, a tree.
In the Buddhist Lojong mind-training system are 59 slogans. A few are related with absolute Bodhicitta ["the mind that strives toward awakening and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings" (Wikipedia)]. Primary is "Regard all dharmas as dreams." ("dharmas here means "things," "things in themeselves," "thing-as-such," "stuff.")
"Mind is fundamentally poetic in nature." Soul is "that which deepens" (James Hillman).
We tend to approach reality dualistically: there is literal, i.e "real" experience -- and by contrast there is fantasy: thoughts, dreams, fiction. Both Hillman and Vajrayana Buddhism cause us -- or, call us, to deeper contemplations -- to view consciousness, mind, life, less superficially. Hillman discusses this interestingly in his revolutionary work Revisioning Psychology. And in The Dream and the Underworld and in Healing Fiction.
It's quite significant to me -- this question or Koan -- of regarding all dharmas as dreams. Dreams bring us close to a peculiar experience -- at the moment of the dream it feels completely real, and yet the moment after, what has happened. Something, perhaps something powerful, even life-altering -- yet how do we place it? In Hillman's dreamwork, the key is not to extract meaning or symbolism from the dream (thus ending its story); but rather to return in active imagination -- to attend upon it, attend upon psyche. To learn what psyche wants or asks of us. The image here is that of turning towards a unique, unknown face. (A face likewise can be a landscape, a specific topos.) Hillman describes the process of "de-literalizing the literalizing function." The "literalizing function" is his better term for "ego."
I don't know about you, but for me, living in a purely literal world, as a literal being -- is like psychic death. A kind of pure fundamentalism -- even a form of idiocy. But that was the world I grew up in, the messages I received. So, just say "No!" to literalism (or singular, or rank literalism). Oh, it's been a lovely road -- to finding one's love.
You recall the dual rivers of Eros and Thanatos -- the sense of possession in love, the rapaciousness of death (Persephone in Hades). The great Rivers (psychic streams) of the underworld; Lethe, she of forgetting, her sister Mnemosyne, river of remembrance. Dis-habituation is part of the action of poetry.
This relates to the irruption of habitual mind, a "falling" "slipping" "forgetting" of your step. Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, discussed this concept as "shoshaku jushaku" -- living life "as one continuous mistake" (from Dogen Zenji).
In this context, what is clarity and what do we mean by it? To regard all dharmas as dreams, for Tibetan Buddhism, is a hint -- perhaps a finger hinting at the moon. "shoshaku jushaku" -- similarly. I'm not talking about haiku in particular here -- more about consciousness in creative-poetic flow. I don't think haiku necessarily present a particularly "special" form of poetic consciousness (what do you think?). In fact, we know that some number of poems appearing as haiku were first born in lines of longer poems, in letters, from hypnagogic pre- or post-dream states; from all sorts of places.
"Enriching" -- is a kind of keyword for me. To make ourselves more wealthy, culturally, psychologically -- in embodiment, in actuality, in the fullest sense of the word. The Cartesian dialectic of clarity/chaos seems at best primitive, psychologically. More evident to me -- more relevant is the dialectic: normal/abnormal. Is "ordinary mind" an oxymoron? A tautology? Who are we?
That's why I like the taste of haiku -- it's not an answer, it's food you develop a taste for.
So that's another keyword: nourishment. Sensuous, kinesthetic savor. Truly the pleasure of the text.
ALL THAT ASIDE: Partial answer to Question 1:
1) Why do you write [xhaikux]?
Re: Field Notes: Where do your haiku begin?
« Reply #21 on: June 19, 2013, 08:35:08 AM »
silence, what is
to be mentioned:
as far as how to speak where things concatenate
seems to be there is no me to be
I say "I prefer," the preference for a given word,
definition of rhetoric:
to persuade. silence
is what I see, the power of symbols to create reality. it serves no purpose
to belittle language, what is silence
for a languaged being.
an argument against.
choosing not to knot or unknot.
no having to cut silence in two.
before / after.
just a minute or moment.
between space and fear.
not having to compose a list.
not having to beg a word for prayer.
not that anyone would care to listen.
not a performance.
not silence, not the choice not to utter.
not shutup not invisible not mine.
that's what i like; when i prefer not
you remember the shapes of silence
as time transmits space, time unburdens itself
time does not dream or have a past or a book
time fuck shit piss blue mine love mend leaf kiss must call
an instrumental four letters, analogous
silence because I want you to find out
silence because I want you to look
silence because I want you to take the time
not to speak, silence because the ear
is made more sensitive to pressure variation
surrendering to the plenum of acoustic space
alive with endless reflection; all what has
been said, to rest to rest to rest, at times
silence is like this repeating itself
a book with pages of folded knowledge
silence has levels of silence,
thoroughly resting silence
completely thoroughly resting silence
silence which is neither thought nor unthought
silence which has no name
so with a will I need to be
so I must call to you
Haiku as groupings of trees
it was in the trees that the smell of the air came through her writing
never at night in the radiator sounds of home-baking and old bones
along the slice of water and sky where beneath the surface a poem
glides along. time stopped for the present. a moment or two. then
with new determination an ecology of selves shining and new
what was in the trees to begin with just before and just after love
when he had almost saved her. that she could write.
as a body born of words, inasmuch as clinginginto forms thoughts
as a body bones of words, in arrears as forms of whatstheuse of
words to which the world happens to be. how my furthering
unfurls against moving horizons as she writes preoccupations.
not everyone is safe, who can be saved, who can be safe and
these days our world tilts while I hold the sun without capture:
backlit skirted pantsuit in umbral fortitude descending the nautilus day.
taste the asian pear, gingko berry, the seed hidden within.
moon cradled you recall the voice of another I might be the distance
measured by drawing out string from here to there: do you remember
someone will remind you one day will say not I am here but I am there
that the thine that becomes the subject of one stroke of genius no as-if
about it, on the beach by the trees between two moments. that is me.
Commentary on track
I don't know that I can write "where do your haiku begin" in a prosaic manner. I seem to psychologically strongly resist the thought -- so I’m glad you left the form [thread moderator: Peter Yovu] and genre style open, as to comments. A lot of my writing is about some kind of contemplation of origins and poetic/consciousness process-experience (in my fantasy). Referring to the two poetic statements I sent to you [the poems above], I feel they are sincere or honest in addressing the question, in that their answers have arisen as unintended consequences, coming to your question at a tangent. In both writings, I later published a line (of four-letter words from “silence”), and several lines from “trees” as haiku, with little or no alteration.
As praxis, the answer of “where do your haiku come from” is “they came from there” (in these instances). In the midst of composition of (such) a longer piece, when writing those (later-extracted) haiku lines, I was sometimes partially consciously possibly aware of perhaps composing something with the power and form of haiku then and there in it; like hey, that cuts well, says it; yeah, Daddy-O. Yet it was after the fact of writing, later (much), working from an editorial head – like almost everyone, I’ve come to realize – that I saw there was autonomy. Luckily Roadrunner Haiku Journal is open-minded regarding experiments—the fact of R’r’s existence can’t be overstated; I felt encouraged, knowing there was potentially a place for them, a collegial, even receptive audience—unlike the longer poems themselves, which were posted as notional letters to a few friends; kind of like nightstands with doilies.
This compositional method isn’t typical; it’s just something I thought to try. The pieces were written within a week of each other; and I was thinking about haibun; the idea of embedding haiku into longer poetic forms; loosening the genre-concept of poem versus prose; hardly new ideas. Yet if writing for the reader always ends in 'goodbye'; to give that goodbye gist is something like mono no aware -- that cutting moment of resolution, wholeness/emptiness in presence/absence -- where a world breathes, dissolves, and conjunctives such as ‘and’; an abiding ‘with’ or an ‘or,’ or ‘however’ may exit the palette (so, an elemental palette?), along with similes like ‘like being’: A flowering world, lacking simile? Isn’t language always “like” something? Isn’t a poem, read, heard or sung a dynamic simulacrum? Simulacrum, yet paradoxically, the real thing. It's good to ask the question, though as a self as a national park as a managed trail as an air there I don't immediately find the ferry. Haiku take us here to there; wee ferries of the invisible or surely certain ineffable secret fantasies. Plus cargo. Like any good instrument that places the cosmos in your hands, it takes time to work the tools; the payoff is they can effect novel navigations to near and foreign shores. That's why I like reading excellent haiku, because haiku always begin there. And goodbye.
Haiku taken from the longer poetic writings above, and later published:
there in the trees to begin with just before and just after love
moon cradled you recall the voice of another I might be the distance
(Published in R'r 11.2, 2011.)
about it on the beach by the trees two moments between that is
time fuck shit piss blue mine love mend leaf kiss must call
along the slice
of water and sky
never at night
as a body born of words
as a body bones of words:
preoccupations she writes
that the thine that becomes the subject of one stroke no as if
(Published in R'r 12.2, 2012.)
2005 Interview - Richard Gilbert
by Robert Wilson and Richard Gilbert
(Originally appeared in Simply Haiku 3:1, Spring 2005)
RW: Recently you said, "Contemporary Japanese principles and techniques of haiku have yet to be properly integrated and valued in English haiku composition and thought. It may also be said that the era when the English haiku itself might provide an effective, autonomous aesthetic basis for critical judgment has yet to arrive.” How different is Occidental haiku from Japanese haiku?
RG: The question you ask could well become a book in itself—there are many facets and perspectives one could start from. I’ll direct my comparison to the modern Japanese haiku sphere. Specifically, the phrase “contemporary Japanese principles and techniques” is meant to contrast with the classical Japanese tradition, which has been the main focus of western haiku thought and practice. Contemporary or gendai haiku (“modern Japanese haiku”), while retaining classical principles at heart has undergone a series of radical evolutions much as the western arts have, say from post-impressionism (roughly contemporary to Shiki) to our artistic and cultural present. I have come to value, theoretically and compositionally, the magnitude and diversity of change in Japanese haiku over the last century. Many of the issues raised by modern western artists were likewise raised by modern Japanese artists, though of course in a different historico-cultural context. There are points of commonality in confronting “the modern.”
I wonder whether the English haiku world, through a classicist/traditionalist focus on one variety of haiku, has so far avoided not only modern Japanese literary history, but also our own modern-art corpus. By setting out a narrow set of classicist-inspired rules and definitions, the English-language genre seems to have largely sidestepped western art theories and perspectives concerning poetry, modernity and reality. There may be some irony in that gendai haiku represent a century of modern challenges to haiku form; consequently, there is an observable integration and validation of gendai haiku within contemporary Japanese literature. In fact, postwar gendai evolution was contemporaneous with the developing “traditionalist” English haiku!
Educating ourselves as readers involves the incorporation of modern Japanese and western perspectives alike, including cubism, surrealism, dada, magical realism, postmodernism and such, as these relate to haiku. I'm reminded of the gendai poet Hoshinaga Fumio, who recently commented that “realism . . . was a brief, temporary movement.” We might fruitfully discuss the problem of realism in western haiku; it seems the valuation of realism is a sticking point. In Japan, such discussions were on the table decades ago. And, aren’t classical haiku really a form of modern poetry to us, in English? In a curious twist, when I began reading Bashō, thirty years ago, I found his works to be postmodern—before that formal literary category existed! There’s something about the haiku aesthetic and style, classical or otherwise, that is very fresh, postmodern, futurist. All haiku are modern to us, aren't they?
Modern poetry often uses language freely (slang, dialect, idiolect) and irruptively (Stein, cummings, Cage, Language poetry, etc.). Japanese gendai haiku continues to undergo development. Imagine meeting a person who felt that the evolution of painting ended with post-impressionism—you might consider such an attitude provincial. Broadly speaking then, gendai Japanese haiku exhibit many of the principles, theories and techniques found in modern poetry or modern arts generally. Specific techniques would need more space for discussion. A number of haiku critics have rightly upheld the unique stylism of haiku, but overstated or reduced the intention, and thereby misread the modern. To give an example, George Swede declared that Ezra Pound’s 1913 In a Station of the Metro “is often described as a haiku by persons with only a tenuous knowledge of the form.” Notwithstanding his remark, Pound’s poem has also been described as an excellent haiku by those well-familiar with haiku. It's worth quoting Swede’s reasoning: "Successful as a short poem, it fails as a haiku because only the first line deals with an immediate experience while the second line involves the memory of an image that the poet uses overtly as a metaphor. A haiku is a haiku because all the images it conveys occur simultaneously in a person's present preceptions (sic) of the world (Haiku in English in North America (paragraph 3). http://raysweb.net/fall-haiku/pages/swede.html)." [As of 2015, in his more-recently published haiku, Swede seems to have evolved well-beyond his 1997 conception.]
I don’t think such a statement can be accepted, in terms of what Swede is saying about memory. In fact, the memory he’s speaking of is occurring “in a person’s [the reader’s] present perceptions of the world” along with the rest of the poem, isn’t it. I feel that Swede overstates and reduces the genre in his sine qua non, elegant as it is. I’m reminded of this haiku by Jim Kacian (found in his Presents of Mind):
looking out the window
which plays with the ‘moment’ of time and memory as a central feature of its haiku action. Which moment is immanent? I like this haiku precisely because immanence is distributed, so to speak. Swede uses this phrase: “haiku is a haiku because” in his critique. I think the truth of what haiku are, considering the range of haiku, is rather more difficult to nail down than a “because” and a definitive answer-in-a-phrase, as regards moments, memory, metaphor. This is one of the new departures that is now occurring in the genre: an expansion of technique and validation.
By examining gendai haiku, we may be aided in finding linkages, means and modes in which haiku fundaments can be fused or blended with elements of modern poetry. In other words, rapprochement. I wonder to what extent the western haiku genre has rejected other modern poetic genres in its quest for exclusive definition? Have we thrown out too much of the baby with the bathwater? The two questions, what is haiku? and, what can haiku be? are as relevant now as they were in 1950. Regarding gendai haiku principles and techniques, there are challenging issues of cultural context and translation to consider, as we’re talking about twelve decades of modern art. Where have our haiku pundits been, in these recent decades? One answer is, developing a tradition, laying down the bedrock; certainly valid work. But along the way, western haiku writers who have had modern ideas, and wished to experiment (often in ways similar to Japanese gendai haiku poets) have became discouraged, and even been castigated for their efforts.
Since we already have “modern haiku” in English, it’s not easy to choose a term which would imply contemporary—in an expansive sense. Gendai principles and techniques do exist uniquely in English; something presented in The Disjunctive Dragonfly [referring to the 2004 article in Modern Haiku Journal, available: http://research.gendaihaiku.com -- expanded to a 2013 book (132 pages), Red Moon Press]– certain disjunctive types may be more effective in English than Japanese—imagistic fusion, for instance, and certain forms of rhythmic usage. I find modern haiku to be tremendously exciting, profound and fresh, and wish we’d been able to forge a bond with our Japanese gendai brethren of the 60s and 70s. That would have been interesting, as many of those poems were allied in topic or perspective to modern western poetry in those eras.
Any excellent haiku is uniquely creative, existing in a national, regional context and language. While gendai haiku are an inspiration in English, techniques that are fitting in a Japanese context (concerns that crop up in a 400-year-old genre), may not be relevant. So a gendai development in English isn’t necessarily a matter of “capturing” a tradition—emulation takes you only so far. In this sense, one of the biggest differences between Japanese and occidental haiku is that of validity. Japanese haiku is central to the identity of Japanese literature, while English haiku has not yet produced a well-known poet writing in the genre as a means of recognition; we’re still working towards that day.
Some want their haiku cooked and spiced in certain ways, elucidated from specific perspectives. Others have a broader or more flexible palette. The same is also true in Japan; not everyone who writes haiku writes in gendai style. One can join haiku circles of every stripe. When it comes to judging important competitions, there’s generally a broad representation of judges. Tohta Kaneko (a gendai haijin and literary luminary) for instance, often appears as a critic or judge in a variety of haiku-society formats. So I would like to avoid altogether the issue of which haiku style is better, more pure, preferred—it’s mostly a matter of taste and perception. It comes down to “what is haiku”: not as definition, as some would have it; any “hard” definition that would cover every style becomes basically insensible when carefully analyzed. Gendai haiku have great breadth and have had a remarkable evolution. Perhaps wisely, there is no exact definition of haiku given in Japanese dictionaries. What does gendai haiku, east or west, have to offer? The ways modern reality can be uniquely spoken in haiku.
RW: While attending the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, you said you hung out with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and other Beat poets who have had a major impact on American poetry. They, of course, are a lot older than you. Ginsberg has since passed away. (I too met and corresponded with him, by the way.) How did they, as elder statesmen, influence your concept of haiku and poetic expression?
RG: Naropa Institute, now Naropa University, was a fantastic place for an alienated poet. My association with Naropa, as undergrad, grad student and later, event coordinator, grant writer, general factotum and uninvited guest, lasted a decade (1980-1990). During that time the school changed from an unaccredited hole-in-the-wall walkup on the Pearl Street Mall into a substantial, accredited, endowed institution. In December 1980 I arrived in Boulder from Danbury, Connecticut, sleeping in my ‘69 Dodge panel van, all worldly possessions within; mostly a tiny dresser and typewriter. Slept in the IHOP parking lot. In the previous two years I’d been rebuilding engines, and managing a steam-generation component-assembly division, in order to save for the school tuition. With a friend, had started “The Plant,” an alternative community to the isolated social hell of Danbury. Our group created a café society, producing several local arts festivals in 1979-80.
Just prior to settling in, I’d wondered if there would be attempted cult brainwashings, but to my surprise in the ensuing months I could hardly get anyone on the Naropa staff to talk about Buddhism, much less the odd-looking Tibetan gentleman glimpsed smiling or glowering from small desktop photographs. Instead, I was quickly caught up in a marvelous, spontaneous cultural experiment, not particularly florid in terms of drugs and booze (though Boulder was no desert), blooming with arts collaboration. There were plenty more dancers than poets in our student body of approximately 120 (including part-timers), so I got involved in dance, music performance and production. I’d come to Naropa to learn from those who had become successful poets, rather than studying with teachers who just talked about poetry—analyzed—and my expectations were not just exceeded—events went far beyond anything I could have imagined.
Everything that happened related to Naropa has affected my “concept of haiku and poetic expression,” which is, basically, life. One of the great gifts of Naropa was the lack of social barriers between teachers and students. Many of us were older students; I arrived, still BA-less at age 26. There was an emphasis on perception, direct examination and emanation of mind and the moment; teachers taught whatever they wished in whatever way they wanted. To mention a few examples, Larry Fagin read from his work journals, Anselm Hollo taught the Objectivists, Patricia Donegan taught East Asian poetry (and notably, haiku), Alan taught Blake. Gary Snyder avoided Naropa for some years, but began visiting summers to read and teach Beat history, the environment, and relations between poetry and Zen. A multitude of soirées, performances, parties, political actions—all sorts of events. Summers were filled with symposia: international students and teachers arrived from all corners. I was lucky enough to explore many new forms of therapy which involved energy, somatic focus and the arts—Lomiwork being a high point (with gratitude to Melissa Soalt, Christine Caldwell and Paul Ortel). A high point was the 1985 Jack Kerouac conference, in which most of the still-living Beats met together, many for the last time. Tim Leary was present, Burroughs, Paul Krasner, McClure and a number of others, along with the Naropa crew. I may be guilty of waxing romantic, but there’s a lot of unknown history and achievement connected with Naropa worth acknowledging. For those interested in research, the Naropa library has a unique and sizable archive of audio and video from the 70s on.
You have to be a bit loony to enter “The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics,” [http://www.naropa.edu/academics/jks/ug/writing-and-literature-ba/index.php] the moniker Alan gave to our Department. It’s difficult to describe the influence of a disembodied poetics, but it was Kerouac’s spirit that had created the context for the teachers and students and classes existing together, allowing space for the essential paradox of a 1200 year-old Tibetan Buddhist religious tradition intersecting with a bunch of autonomous and irascible American artists. The Beat spirit was perhaps vapor, but the Beats themselves were largely present in embodied form. As such, influence was direct, personal and idiosyncratic. I learned for instance how Greg Corso approached and taught poetry, and how he read (brilliantly); drank together and such. Did an internship with Alan, transcribing sections of his journals, so I got to know him. In exchange, he read and commented on my poems. Professional poets and artists are busy enough without teaching, and Naropa didn’t pay much, so we were all busy, crossing paths and hanging out in various contexts over the years. It wasn’t exactly chummy, yet we were in a small community in this trendy hick town, so there was a tight container and plenty of intensity.
The confluence of the Beat tradition and American poetic tradition on the whole never quite settled out of a somewhat confused stew for me during my time at Naropa—maybe the question wasn’t uppermost in teacher’s minds. I would have wished for stronger academics (which now exist I'm told). Sitting six students in a circle: Peter Orlovsky’s class. We start breaking down the word “white” into phonemic sounds, chanting, whispering “wh-“ “wh-“ “wh-“ “wh-“ “wh-“ “wh-“, until it’s no longer a word-part, just strange freaky energy, a few go on to the “”i-” “i-”, we get louder, softer. The energy locked into words. What is language? I recently performed this word/sound experiment with a college class here in Japan, as part of a “Nature Writing in American Literature” class. Bill Douglas teaching “Bebop Etudes” (musical poems) exploring polyrhythmic syncopation, left hand beating 3 against 4 with the right. I got into meditation and became a Buddhist. So, many personal encounters and phenomenal experiences, leaving me quite changed. I’m not sure that my concept of poetry altered greatly from studying with Naropa poets but it expanded into real living beings who offered unique discoveries—I particularly want to mention Pat Donegan’s love of haiku, patient critical comment on student haiku, personal mentorship and friendship, and her own publication of "Hot Haiku," now a treasured text. Discovery wasn’t just of knowledge per se, but the passion, life and interest of those presenting it. Sixteen of us entered the Poetics BA in January 1981, resulting in two graduates, myself and Gary Allen, now a poet and teacher. I've often wondered what happened to the 14 classmates who flew on. At the time the school existed in a state of great social flux, and something of the living Beat tradition was passed on in this context. How not?
RW: Your life has been a "wild toad ride." You've studied Asian poetry with an emphasis on haiku, psychology, Buddhism, music, diving . . . worked as a psychologist, built guitars, played in a band, produced and directed television programs, and currently work as a professor at the Faculty of Letters at Kumamoto University in Japan. And somehow you manage to meditate and write haiku and haiku related research papers. How does this zeal for life shape your haiku and haiku spirit?
RG: Maybe haiku and haiku spirit have shaped my life, rather than the other way round. I’d like to answer your question by discussing haiku and sacred space, since both define my supposed career. What is poetry, why do we need it, what does poetry do—to us, for us? In The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde affirms a sense that the poem, indeed all art, is fundamentally created as an offering. Our culture commodifies artworks, a rather aberrant activity, apparently, when viewed from the broad perspective of global art history. Hyde reminds the reader of a truth concerning artwork—the desire to offer a gift, not only to humanity but to the cosmos, the sky, sun, moon, animals, plants, universe, to the moment, to history, one’s ancestors, to the invisible. To offer in a sacred way. Mircea Eliade discusses another aspect of offering in The Myth of the Eternal Return, the means for constructing sacred space, and of enacting life within that space (and timeless time) of the sacred. Experientially investigating the absence and presence of the sacred has been a high value in my life, and also a “saunter”: a sense of being sans terre, without Earth, which has involved a meandering desire for holiness (cf. Thoreau’s essay “Walking”), a goal echoed in the last stanza of Goethe’s “The Holy Longing”:
And so long as you haven’t experienced
This: to die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.
A portion of my research has concerned oblivion: the figure of Lethe (personification of Oblivion), mother of the Graces. Why might Forgetting give rise to Splendor, Delight and Blossoming, the three Graces? Heidegger writes,
The oldest of the old follows behind
us in our thinking and yet it
comes to meet us.
That is why thinking holds to the
coming of what has been, and
("The Thinker As Poet," Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper & Row, 1971, p. 10)
To remember that thinking is remembrance . . . It seems the sacred is easily forgotten, and entering again, in the encounter is a sense of remembrance, a return of “the oldest of the old.” I’ve been interested in why not only the sense of poetry but the experience of poetic dwelling becomes lost. The danger inherent in a world, in any society, which loses poetic dimension and thereby becomes overtly literalistic is a danger perhaps greater than that of terrorism, perhaps a contributing cause. To know or feel the sense of poetry in life is to know “the coming of what has been,” to desire remembrance: to re-member the world, cosmos, oneself, a leaf, a tree. It may be that a necessary means of entering the zone of the sacred is the experience of oblivion.
Haiku are not always instantly irruptive, do not always enact a sudden shift, yet they seem to draw us into a new resonance, creating a sense of the sacred. Hoshinaga Fumio's haiku,
nigemizu e sengo no chichi wo oitsumeru
toward the mirage of water
the postwar fathers
chasing after . . .
(Kumaso-Ha, Honami Shoten, 2003)
is a haiku which seems to have layers (allusive adumbrations) of mirage: of image, time and space – Escher-like heads curling round tails. It's a haiku I work into, never quite out of. There’s an unfolding, sensed as lament which echoes back through millennia, through a myriad of cultures. I recall this haiku by Dimitar Anakiev:
spring evening -
the wheel of a troop carrier
crushes a lizard
(Knots: The Anthology of Southeastern European Haiku Poetry, Red Moon Press, 1999)
Its main image is violent, shocking. But this haiku is not merely violent. There is also a sense of sacredness. The context or field of reality is only partly given by the poem; the haiku requires rapprochement on the reader’s part. That is, the genre itself indicates the boundary lines of the sacred, and it is within the landscapes of the sacred, oriented by the genre as a whole, in which image and action occur.
Concision, disjunction and image elements largely contribute to a haiku’s effect, but these elements alone aren’t enough. If one reads the above poems quickly without a pause they lose much of their drama and vividness. So, what happens when we slow down, allow this unique poetic form to come to life? I would argue that in some measure we experience oblivion(s), if for instants, and through such psychological moments, remembrance. Mnemosyne, anamnesis, Lethe’s sister, is mother to the Muses. Such may be said for any art one becomes absorbed in and passionate toward; nonetheless, haiku are quite uncompromising in the way they cut into reality. There is extreme and concise rupture.
To my knowledge, the phenomenology of poetic process has not been explained by science. In fact, qualitative conscious experience itself has not yet been demonstrably elucidated—there is so much we experience and feel which remains immeasurable. Without being able to precisely measure or define, it is nevertheless apparent that haiku becomes a genre due to demonstrably unique modes of poetic encounter and dwelling. I should say that what is truly unique isn’t the experience itself, but its prevalence and intensity, when compared with other poetic and artistic forms.
We may tend to devalue the significance and importance of poetic movements which open us to the sacred, to remembrance, because of their immateriality; contrastive with the predominant materialist cultural ethos. I know I have, and it’s one reason for my returning to the wellspring of haiku. The haiku genre (which includes a reader) constructs an environment within which its language (i.e. symbolic representation) uniquely occurs. It may be a zest for life that draws me to haiku, but likewise a zest for oblivion and erasure. Not necessarily erasure in itself so much as what happens through it.
Some years ago, Barbara Dilley (Merce Cunningham dancer, Naropa Dance Program Director and former President) introduced me to “square work,” in which a length of bright red yarn is made into a large square on the dance floor, tacked down with a few bits of masking tape. What is within the square is defined as sacred space. Dancers (people) relate to the fact of the square, and to entering and exiting that space. It’s quite difficult to remain conscious as one steps across the boundary. A gap in consciousness occurs right at the apotheosis of transition. This is one of the consciousness research-questions we explored in an embodied manner as dance. There’s nothing much to taking some twine and making a square on a patch of bare ground. The square has only as much meaning and significance as is intended by the participants, and what grows from experiences of many crossings and movements (object and human arrangements) within and without. After the dancers have gone, seeing that red twine on a darkened stage, would an aura exist? Is there a magical quality to that bare ground, so carefully demarcated? I would say, yes, to a sensitive reader there is, because there is an intentional architecture, much like a temple or church, just much more minimalist. Haiku likewise possess an intentional architecture; hence natively embody natural and nuministic aspects of being.
These days I watch Sumo on television; the dohyo, or fighting square, is a sacred space. Rikishi (wrestlers) climb the steps and enter the outer-square area throwing salt, an act of purification, as they step across the sacred rope boundary embedded within the clay ground, into the inner ring. Above, a temple roof hangs suspended, emblemizing the divine. Such an arrangement of objects in space is an example of an archetypal sacred architecture, explored in Eliade’s works. The sense of sacred space existing or inhabiting cultural constructions is no doubt a deeply archaic if not intrinsic aspect of the human spirit. Haiku as poems are a bit like that length of red twine, though the boundaries and evidences of sacrality may appear more subtly. An objectively intentional aspect exists, not necessarily in the poem itself, but in the fact that sacred space inhabits the poem, the genre, out of which the poem presents new ideas of reality. Isn’t this what is implied by the term “poetic tradition.” The oldest of the old follows behind us in our thinking and yet it comes to meet us.
mirai yori taki o fukiwaru kaze kitaru
From the future
a wind arrives
that blows the waterfall apart
(Ban’ya Natsuishi, A Future Waterfall, Red Moon Press, 2nd ed., 2004)
In that art is an offering to the cosmos, the reader is returned by that offering to a cosmic sense or scene. Returned to the world purified and renewed by the “first” moment, the moment before creation.
Rising from the sea shedding the tank it’s surprising to be distant from fish, feeling weightless in the strangeness of air. What was that dreamlike place, filled with unblinking creatures, turtles with flippers, sharks large enough to blot out a far-off sun? The twine like sunlight is imaginal, extending along an invisible line between land and sea. Returning, vivid instants of memory quickly fade as a drop of ocean coheres within, adamantine. It is for that one drop so pure and crystalline that haiku seem to speak.
RW: You stated in your paper, The Disjunctive Dragonfly, "In virtually every aspect of haiku (form, metrics, content, kireji, kigo, etc.) the Japanese genre from Bashō onward reveals complexity and creative experiment, marked by a diversity of schools and sensibilities. One school or style cannot definitively be said to be more "proper" than another." Care to elucidate?
RG: Bashō articulated the concept of fueki ryūkō:
“eternal truth – trend, vogue”
which has been translated as ‘immutable mutability.’ This paradoxical concept indicates that while there may be eternal verities, one moment is not the same as another, and one time or era is not the same as another; there is progression. So in order to properly articulate truth, one necessarily inhabits the zeitgeist. If “fashion” were not significant, we could simply curl up with Bashō forever and never need compose another poem. That sort of idea seems decidedly contrary to his radical spirit. In each era there are new developments or unique articulations, and these also serve to inform later generations of poets.
RW: In a book review you wrote about Ban’ya Natsuishi's book A Future Waterfall: 100 Haiku from the Japanese, you state: "Throughout the past century, Japanese haiku culture has undergone a kind of reverse-mirror process to that in the West: a national, classical poetic form has been reformed, abandoned, rediscovered, and extended numerous times, as poets brought together their classical tradition with modernity." Why is this so?
RG: Yes, this is what I was discussing above, how gendai haiku in Japan have encountered and met numerous challenges of modern art and historical movements over the last 12 decades.
RW: You say "Haiku comes from the Earth." Please explain.
RG: This is a topic I hope to pursue at length in the future. Here are some speculations and two poetic excerpts, as partial explanation. Do you often contemplate the questions “what is poetry,” and, “what is haiku”? What is it about haiku that create their distinct taste? And, what do we mean by the Earth? As you approach the question, what do you think of first—and last? I just thought of sneakers, dreams and the smell of a skunk at night, visualizing its longitudinal white stripe running down a black back. What I’m reporting to you is subjective and phenomenological—I’m relating personal experience. We participate in the shared images I just offered, through language. A smell, a dream, an object—to what extent are these symbols—that sneaker (a bit dirty, untied, white and just inside a front door) has been somewhere, is representative of feet, persons on the move—childhood, perhaps, a sport. Every sneaker tells a story. But it’s also just what it is—an image. Its existence is psychological in the original meaning of the term: a logos of psyche, an aspect of the soul’s knowing, or depth. When we slow down and contemplate any image we begin to unfold and the world deepens—the world comes to us. This is a rather poetic statement, but if you’ll permit me, the sneaker you image and mine are different, with the qualitative differences impossible to sort out. My moon is not your moon and our moons are shared. Like the image, the poem is never singular. The image is diverse—as diverse as our communal human experiences of that image, and perhaps more. Any image in a poem has valence, varying with each reader. In pausing, contemplating, images take on “life” as we give them time, space, and attention; we attend to them, attend to their life, how they live, experience the nature of that life. By ‘image’ I don’t mean merely something visual: I’m largely following James Hillman’s view of images here (cf. Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account).
Jung once said that it is not psyche which exists within man, but man who exists within psyche. It’s still a radical idea, that the world is soul. This idea is expressed in the ancient idea of Anima Mundi, the world soul. Poetry may have an enormous number of features, “mean” and act upon us in diverse ways, but for me its primary function is ensouling. I am nurtured, nourished and revivified by poetry. From this fact, I can acknowledge a phenomenological loss of soul, and a desire for learning—a desire to learn what soul has to teach: the way images bring life and depth, and through these, shared community. Also as good poetry is an adventure, curiosity cannot be discounted. Haiku encounter and create “image complexes in time,” to paraphrase Pound, in unique ways; they speak the world uniquely. While it may finally be impossible to define this uniqueness, it seems worth trying, if only for the journey. Haiku travel, they have velocity. Haiku instigate journeys—which continue, opening out—haiku are celebratory! There are many features to haiku: lightness, fragmentariness, concision, brevity, humor, disjunction, paradox, etc. Yet the relation between haiku and Earth seems particularly relevant. The two Wallace Stevens texts below (Opus Posthumous, pp. 88 and 115) point to approaches to haiku in relation to the Earth—realities:
THIS AS INCLUDING THAT
It is true that you live on this rock
And in it. It is wholly you.
It is true that there are thoughts
That move in the air as large as air,
That are almost not our own, but thoughts
To which we are related,
In an association like yours
With the rock and mine with you.
In a secrecy of words
Opened out within a secrecy of place,
Not having to do with love.
A land would hold her in its arms that day
Or something like a land.
The circle would no longer be broken but closed.
The miles of its distance away
From everything would end. It would all meet.
RW: What one event or individual has had the greatest influence on you as a poet?
RG: Thank you, Abigail. Why did you leave, why did you never call?
RW: Haiku: To kigo or not to kigo?
RG: Do kigo exist in English? Or do you mean “season words,” “seasonal reference,” “seasonal theme”? Looking at what kigo are in Japanese haiku, it seems unfortunate that we use the Japanese word for something which is actually a different kettle of fish in our own literature. That being said, there seem to be two underlying issues. The first has to do with the traditional sense of Japanese haiku, which have kigo, developed from the hokku, and going back to renga, waka, and Chinese antecedents. The second issue has to do with nature. I would like to refer you to Hoshinaga Fumio’s comments [http://www.gendaihaiku.com/research/hoshinaga/interview2004.html] regarding kigo. He addresses certain language and cultural issues between Japan/non-Japanese haiku. Hoshinaga comes to kigo after discussing his means of composing haiku as “touch[ing] upon human heart and feeling by creating human mental images.” And earlier in the interview he states, "I do not believe the truth that the sea is blue. That I believe it is blue: an encompassing state of affairs that limits as blue, via the comprehension of my eyes: I believe only that."
I’m in sympathy with Hoshinaga’s perspective, which impinges on the use of kigo and seasonal reference, in that the sense of nature is irrupted out of realism. Hoshinaga concurs with the idea that, “You feel kigo through your heart (inner sense), not through seeing, touching, and so on.” His is a perspective that avoids the psychic poverty and bad poetry involved in literalism.
For me, the pith arrives in Hoshinaga’s statement that, "The Japanese sense of nature is in harmony, or the harmony of — person (human being) and nature [— no separation —] in its widest sense. Without the sense of harmony with nature, Japanese literature would become very weak. So to write about nature—from that position— embodies traditional haiku, and my position is the same."
Harmony as ‘no separation,’ in its widest sense, between man and nature. So, I would say that kigo or seasonal reference can create a sense of environment in haiku, which has been part of the traditional context, and is part of the modern as well. Yet it remains an open question as to what ‘environment’ pertains to. The question “what is nature” is likewise a poetic challenge. Hoshinaga also states, “sometimes you have to write naked.”
Kigo generally have a literary and evocative power in Japanese that does not exist in English—and can be highly idiosyncratic. Who would have thought that “athlete’s foot” (mizumushi) is found in kigo compendiums, or that the word “obscure” (oboro) would be a spring kigo (as it implies dreamlike, foggy), mist being a kigo phenomenon of spring.
There are now several projects afoot to create official kigo bestiaries for English haiku. As such projects move forward it seems important that modern Japanese literary history concerning the reasons why kigo have been resisted, subverted and rejected is accounted for in our own kigo programs. I’m not sure if we would want a haiku genre in which athlete’s foot must equal summer, and a rule for haiku in which “athlete’s foot” and “mist” cannot co-exist in the same haiku. After all, it’s a formal rule of kigo that there can be only one in a haiku.
In English we are used to a sense of freedom in terms of what can be allowed into haiku by topic and association—what sorts of relationships can occur. Using kigo as they have been applied in Japan, many types of objects and phenomena cannot co-exist. You’d have a lot of trouble getting a magnolia into an autumn haiku. It happens that this year in Kumamoto we’ve had unseasonably warm weather following two typhoons; consequently an ancient cherry tree in Haksui Village has bloomed in October. But you can’t mention this astounding occurrence in a haiku, unless it’s a gendai haiku—you’d be breaking kigo rules. Kigo can create social bureaucratizations of reality. In a haiku circle I belong to, I just received the message that we are to write on two kigo for our next meeting: ‘snow in a blue sky,’ and, ‘winter chill.’ Well, it barely snows in Kumamoto city in a given year, and it’s also been unseasonably warm. How could it have come to this, I wonder. It is difficult for us to entirely grasp the reasons why Hoshinaga and many other modern haiku writers have come to subvert kigo. I think we need to temper our kigo zeal, and not make the destructive critical choices that have occurred in some Japanese literary societies. I hope that consideration is given to the consequences of ordering and dissecting phenomenal reality into vapid sugar-plum visions of seasonal appropriateness. Our haiku thinking seems too often to be both restrictive and parochial as it is; why step backwards into artifice? At the same time, there is plenty of middle ground. I like Hoshinaga’s phrase “sense of environment.” I think it’s a useful idea, though more definitive in the Japanese context. As you know, I quoted Haruo Shirane’s expansive definition of haiku in Disjunctive Dragonfly (in the unabridged version here: http://www.gendaihaiku.com/research/):
Echoing the spirit of Bashō's own poetry . . . haiku in English is a short poem, usually written in one to three lines, that seeks out new and revealing perspectives on the human and physical condition, focusing on the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature, and on the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history. . . . this definition is intended both to encourage an existing trend and to affirm new space that goes beyond existing definitions of haiku (“Beyond the haiku moment: Bashō, Buson, and modern haiku myths.” Modern Haiku, 31:1, 48-63. p. 60).
It’s a general definition, written in the modern spirit which allows for a later discussion of technique and specific formal properties. One can see that haiku are not being defined by any particular technique or restriction on language use—kigo is not mentioned, nor is seasonal reference. Rather haiku “is a short poem . . . that seeks out,” and has a primary focus on, “the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature” (rather than a definitional focus on season specifically), and by conjunction extends to “the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history.” It’s a definition befitting the validation of haiku as a serious literary genre.
Reading Shirane’s definition over and comparing it with the new Haiku Society of America (HSA) definitions of haiku and related forms just published, I think a great opportunity has been lost. Discussing the HSA definitions will require another forum, but the quoted material below is relevant to Shirane’s definition by way of contrast: "Metaphors and similes [in haiku] in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently. A discussion of what might be called “deep metaphor” or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of this definition (HSA Newsletter, vol. XIX, 4, November 2004)."
This rather obtuse if not tortured language seems problematic. I’d like to offer the following 10 inquiries to the above two sentences.
- There are haiku existing which are “beyond the range” of the definition of haiku being given. What kind of definition is that? Wouldn’t this really be a definition of “certain varieties of haiku” rather than “haiku”?
- What does “deep metaphor” mean? It’s not a known literary term, so
- what is it doing in a definition, without explanation?
- What exactly is the “simple sense” of a metaphor or simile in poetry or literature? Since this is not illustrated,
- why is it assumed that we would all agree with whatever that would be for haiku (imagine how the reader unfamiliar with haiku might be confused by the use of these terms)?
- The idea that symbolism “is beyond the range of this definition” as much implies that haiku are mainly non-symbolic—though it’s known that a number of exemplary haiku, classical and modern, utilize varieties of symbolism—is quantity to be valued over quality? In any case,
- haiku utilizing symbolism (whatever that might be—it remains unclear) are “outside the range” (reach) of a definition. How hard is it, really,
- to include symbolism in haiku within the range of a definition? The upshot is that,
- haiku which utilize any ‘out of range’ techniques are marginalized; by definition.
- It seems that the HSA definition isn’t defining haiku at all, it’s defining a restricted variety of haiku and leaving ‘out of range,’ and hence out of visibility, varieties, features and qualities of exemplary haiku which it hints at, or dismisses (with the term “beyond”).
The definition put forth seems mainly that of what can be called a traditionalist haiku in English. I am amazed that the various ideas put forward in the last few years regarding haiku and the modern spirit both in America and Japan have been almost completely ignored here—with the nods to “deep metaphor” and “beyond the range” acting to mystify.
RW: The love for haiku and writing haiku has become a global affair, thanks in part to the internet and other electronic media. Yet there is a diversity of styles and teaching as to what haiku is and isn't. This has been confusing at times. One school of thought teaches this, another school of thought teaches that. Is there a common thread between these schools of thought?
RG: I think this question is difficult to answer without looking at specifics. Briefly though, I would say that haiku is a global genre that exists as a multitude of separate, autonomous literatures—I like your word, “affair.” We can discuss the global genre, but the idea of a “global literature” seems problematic, not least because of language issues—which leads to your next question.
RW: A follow up question. As the world becomes a closer-knit community via electronic access, will there be a symbiosis of synergy and focus regarding the understanding and composition of haiku?
RG: I think an energetic symbiosis has been occurring, to everyone’s benefit. There are some political questions, for instance the problem (and promise) inherent in the prevalence of English (or any one language) as an international means of communication; and associated issues of cultural ignorance and insensitivity. These issues or tensions wouldn’t exist, however, without the ongoing act of sharing, publication and interactive worldwide communication. Also, in that the haiku world is one of small publications, it is exciting to find online sites such as your own developing where haiku resources persist and are easily and instantly available and searchable. As I mentioned above though, if we consider that global haiku is not literature but “literatures,” we can expect diversity, idiosyncrasy, hybridization rather than lowest-common-denominator similitude, because haiku exist most strongly in their particulars and uniqueness, rather than purely in their universals. Tolmin, Slovenia is not yet L.A., thank god, and Kumamoto is definitely not Tokyo.
RW: One final question. What is the biggest fallacy propagated today in regards to the writing and understanding of haiku?
RG: Well, I’m very much a student of haiku and particularly living in Japan, ever the neophyte, I hope that my own fallacies will be amended over time, and don’t want to put myself in the position of the expert haiku knower. My writing for this interview has been speculative and extemporaneous—you’ve given me a platform and context I don’t normally have, and I thank you for the opportunity.
In terms of fallacies, there are various levels of fallacy. I am saddened by the new HSA definitions, as you’ve gathered. I feel they promote and maintain limited views of haiku which have plagued the critical theory in English for decades. Probably though, the most tragic fallacy is one which hasn’t been promoted by the main haiku community for some years, that English haiku are composed of 5-7-5 English syllables.
In general, strict haiku definitions seem problematic for the reason that such definitions lead to fallacies of restrictive validation, with the result that the genre can’t be taken seriously, in terms of how it critically defines itself. I mean, the great poems contradict the definitions! In both cases the fallacy is one of an imagined purity (of form, style, etc.) that ends up being reductive and short-sighted in terms of how it treats both the genre and poets. I think this sort of fallacy is about done, because many are interested in moving beyond an imagined “pure” traditionalism. In saying this, I hope my appreciation for Bashō, for instance, is evident. I contemplate his work on a daily basis. However, in many ways, modern works are tremendously exciting and inspiring—fresh and alive. The biggest fallacy we have may be that the best haiku arrive from the past. Likely, haiku come to meet us from the future, as remembrance.
The Spirit of Freedom
Aspects of Contemporary Haiku
Richard Gilbert talks with Udo Wenzel
(Originally appeared in Haiku Heute, 2007)
Udo Wenzel: Since the nineties you have been living, teaching and researching in Japan at Kumamoto University. During this time you have gotten a deeper insight into contemporary Japanese haiku life. Besides so-called “traditional haiku” there are also “gendai (modern) haiku.” What are the main differences between these two trends?
Richard Gilbert: Prior to my arrival in Japan, like most of my American-poet friends, I had virtually no knowledge of gendai haiku, was looking forward to researching the classical tradition and haiku fundaments. It was only after living here for a couple of years that I began reading more gendai haiku, and meeting poets. I can say that I found the poetry, techniques, and critical ideas to be eye-opening.
Your question about the differences between gendai and traditional haiku is challenging, because a reasonable answer involves a bit of relevant history, and not only aesthetic but also socio-political considerations. Ito Yūki (Ph.D. candidate, Kumamoto University), has just completed an article on the origins and evolution of gendai haiku, tentatively titled, “New Rising Haiku: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident” [http://gendaihaiku.com/ito/new-rising-haiku.htm]. He focuses especially on the wartime persecution of the New Rising Haiku poets – instrumental to an understanding of contemporary Japanese haiku. Unfortunately, his paper has not yet been published; in fact, it’s not certain he can easily publish it. Below, I’ll paraphrase from two relevant sections (though would have preferred to quote directly).
In the early 20th century, Takahama Kyoshi, one of the two main disciples of Masaoka Shiki, presided over the Hototogisu group (and its journal), which he had inherited from Shiki. Due to his dictatorial and uncompromising style, by the 1920s, several prominent poets had broken with him. Paraphrasing Ito, the ‘New Rising Haiku movement’ (shinkô haiku undô) wished to compose haiku on new subjects, and utilize techniques and topics related to contemporary social life. These poets frequently wrote haiku without kigo (muki-teki haiku), and explored non-traditional subjects, such as social inequity, utilizing avant‑garde styles including surrealism, etc. Therefore, along with aesthetic and technique differences, the New Rising Haiku poets, who began the gendai (modern) haiku movement in earnest, had strong philosophical, sociological and intellectual differences with Hototogisu and Kyoshi. During the war, over 40 New Rising Haiku poets were persecuted; they were imprisoned and tortured, and some died in prison. These progressive poets were also made to sign false confessions and denounce their own and others’ poetry and thought. Various progressive journals were banned and printing presses destroyed. Many of these poets, after a stay in prison, were sent to the front lines of the war. Ito writes that Takahama Kyoshi became the president of a haiku branch of the fascist government culture-control/propaganda group known as The Japanese Literary Patriotic Organization (nihon bungaku hôkoku kai), which was devoted to both censorship and persecution, along with a host of other war crimes. At the time, the Director of the society was Ono Bushi, whose title was: The Agent of Investigation of the Minds of the Nation’s Citizens (kokumin jyôsô chosa iin). Perhaps the most notorious statement published by Ono reads:
I will not allow haiku even from the most honorable person, from left-wing, or progressive, or anti-war, groups to exist. If such people are found in the haiku world, we had better persecute them, and they should be punished. This is necessary. (Kosakai, 169; trans. by Ito, with Gilbert)
At least one poet who survived imprisonment reported that he was commanded by the Secret Police to “write haiku in the style of Hototogisu” (Kosakai, 79). According to the fascist‑traditionalists, to write haiku without kigo meant anti-tradition, which in turn meant anti-Imperial order and high treason. As such, all New Rising Haiku was to be annihilated. Ito writes, “We are reminded of how the Nazis preserved so-called pure nationalist art, while persecuting the modern styles of so‑called ‘degenerate art.’” (Cf.Kosakai, Shôzô. (1979). Mikoku: Showa haiku danatsu jiken [Betrayer/Informer: Showa era haiku persecution]. Tokyo: Daimondo.)
One sees that, historically, “freedom of expression” in the gendai haiku movement was not an idle aesthetic notion. A significant context to modern Japanese haiku history links certain influential persons and groups promoting traditionalist haiku culture with Japanese national-socialism. It would be a mistake to assume, regarding these facts, that traditional approaches are inherently lacking or that traditional haiku culture is by nature nationalist, particularly these days – however, history leaves little to the imagination; more light needs to be shed on these facts, if only so that people outside of Japan can obtain a clearer understanding the context of gendai haiku.
The war ended half a century ago, and much of this information has been surprisingly hard to dig up, Ito has found. Clearly, the spirit of the gendai poets in the face of fascism, repression and persecution is laudable. The liberal, democratic spirit and freedom of expression exhibited by the New Rising Haiku poets remains at the core of gendai haiku.
Udo Wenzel:In the West, we know especially the “traditional haiku” or the classical haikai of the Edo-period, while gendai haiku is almost unknown here. Do gendai haiku appear in the literary public in Japan, in comparable measure to traditional haiku?
Richard Gilbert: Yes, definitely. There are likely several reasons for the lack of knowledge of gendai haiku in the West. First, there has been a strong focus on the classical tradition, as a traditional and well-established aspect of Japanese high culture and art. We might see this as a general cross-cultural convention; for example in the study of canonical Anglo-American literature here in Japan, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen may be academically valued in a way that 20th century authors are not. Conversely, there has been a stronger interest in Heian-era writers, The Tale of Genji, haiku of Bashō, that is, mainstays of the canon, in American studies of Japanese literature.
A second reason for the lack of knowledge of gendai works may have to do with the complexities of modern culture, and modernity. Classical works and authors have an established body of criticism and historical treatises to support research, compared with the modern era; their value is not usually questioned, while modern reputations tend not to be firmly established (in fact, a number of postwar gendai haiku poets are still living). Accelerations of history, rapidity of cultural change, and language reformation also play a role, and not just in Japan. As well, the gendai movement has been anti-establishment – perhaps another reason why academic acceptance, particularly outside Japan, has been slow. It may also be that the poetic techniques and references found within gendai poetry are interpretively challenging. The esteem now expressed for Santōka for instance is relatively recent (as Hoshinaga Fumio reports). So, this reason is related to the first, and has to do with interest and cultural value, both within and outside Japan.
Another reason may have to do with a combination of language, geography and literary aptitude, concerning translators and translation. As well as interest in gendai haiku, one needs knowledge of Japanese, colleagues, co-translators, and some integration into gendai society. Else, how is one to cope with, for instance, irony, nuance of era, sarcasm, cultural reference, slang, elements of wordplay, etc.? Translations from Japanese as well need to have power in whatever target language they arrive in, to create poetic impact. Generally speaking, when the co-translators are competent poets in their mutual native languages, the results stand a better chance than those produced by academicians or prose translators without a strong background in poetic composition. One of the problems with historical haiku translations has been an over-reliance on dictionary translation from afar, combined with a lack of familiarity with the cultural and linguistic contexts involved. This is especially true with concepts of kigo, ideas of naturalism in haiku, and syllable counting, among other issues.
Udo Wenzel: Why do we find here (in the West), where modern poetry has arisen, an interest primarily on the so-called traditional haiku? If you ask those responsible in publishing houses, you will hear that only the classical Japanese haiku is saleable. From where are these blinkers are coming? Is the gendai haiku - because of its content and structure - harder to understand in a foreign culture than the image which one might have of the “traditional haiku”? Or, is the West ever searching for something else, which is not available here?
Richard Gilbert: It is a bit ironic, isn’t it? I think I’ve touched on these topics in the above responses, but can add some remarks. Certainly, there are linguists, rhetoricians, Asian Studies researchers, scholars of culture, etc., investigating modern haiku around the world, though they are working for the most part in Japanese. For whatever reason, one sees few professional articles on gendai haiku. Looking to those groups involved in haiku, in North America, serious interest in haiku in English is not very great, judging by the small number of relevant journals, and one wonders about the future of this fledging genre. Within these American haiku groups, there has been a predilection for ‘strict’ traditionalist-classicist approaches. This is not always a bad thing when trying to establish ground rules, definitions, and compositional guidelines for a young sub-genre. On the other hand, many published haiku are formulaic, lack authorial creativity, and possess little sense of language creativity. At this point in time, the old guard which has presided over the North American scene for some decades is being enriched and provoked, if not replaced, by new views and voices. The interest in gendai haiku is part of this enlargement of the possibilities for, and valuations of, haiku in English.
The future of haiku as an international genre remains unclear. There is not yet a poet in North America who has achieved wider recognition as a haiku poet, and one wonders how seriously haiku will be taken until this occurs. Notwithstanding, haiku do not need to first become popular in order to be highly valued, so it’s my hope that new anthologies and critical essays will be published which select fresh and excellent haiku, from an expansive viewpoint, and discuss them, as we are only beginning to realize the potency of this new poetic form.
Udo Wenzel: You are engaged intensively with the problematics of kigo (Japanese seasonal words), and seasonal reference. Following your proposal, the transfer of the Japanese kigo concept or kigo culture into the west is very problematic. Would you please explain why?
Richard Gilbert: I think we have been utilizing something we call ‘kigo’ in English-language haiku, assuming there is a simple relationship between the word and its naturalistic indication. That is, “spring moon” or “autumn night” is exactly that, right? These words merely indicate the season, and provide a background ‘natural’ environment for the scene of the poem. What I’ve learned, and attempted to write about in the kigo articles, is that the naturalistic depiction of season is not the most significant connotation of kigo, in Japan. The paradigmatic differences are so striking, it seems best not to use the term “kigo” at all, outside of its Japanese context, and rather to stick with “seasonal reference” to avoid conflation and misinterpretation. In reality, kigo do not ‘belong’ to haiku, it’s the other way round. Haiku participate in kigo culture, a complex, idiosyncratic, aesthetic literary environment stemming from ancient Chinese literature and culture, creatively adumbrated and evolved over the many centuries of Japanese literature and genius. It is a cultural treasure, and does not seem universalizable. We no longer live in the kind of Confucian/feudal/aristocratic/mythic/animist pre-industrial world out of which centuries of kigo have been spawned, nor are we an island culture with a single ‘local’ context and set of myths. It is unfortunate that the literal translation of “kigo” is “seasonal reference,” because kigo, if taken in their purely literal sense lose nearly all of their (Japanese contextual) poetic resonance.
Another aspect of this misfortune for “kigo in English” is the historical emphasis placed on naïve imagism in haiku. The ‘thing in itself’ and ideas of ‘direct observation/depiction of the image’ (qua Imagism), which have resulted in the primacy of the realistic, naturalistic image in haiku, involves a savaging of the haiku environment. If this idea of “sketch of life” as applied to the naturalistic haiku is held to be a primary impetus and expression of Japanese haiku it is both mistaken and reductive – not just in relation to gendai haiku, but to the haiku of Bashō as well. How can the image (or image-schema) arrive which connotes more than naturalism or literalism, without leaving these entirely behind? Perhaps the creation of a novel kigo culture is a fool’s errand, but kigo is not what are most fundamental to haiku, in any case. If this were true, haiku would lack the universality they clearly possess.
For a further discussion of kigo, I’d like to recommend the first paper on the list shown here: http://www.gendaihaiku.com/research/kigo.html
Udo Wenzel: As a result of your teaching activities in Japan you came across various complex problems related to the syllable in haiku. How many syllables does a haiku need to be a haiku, or are we following, here in the West, certain wrong suggestions about what is counted in the Japanese Haiku?
Richard Gilbert: The question of ‘syllable’ counting is not all that complex, until you begin looking closely at the linguistics of it. One of the early surprises I encountered in Japan was that no one I met here, including haiku professors and scholars, knew the word “onji.” This surprise resulted in my first research paper written here: “Stalking the Wild Onji,” which details the whys and wherefores of syllable counting, which terms are used here, and some basic information about the history of haiku terms. The short answer is that Japanese people usually use the word “on” which means “sounds” for counting. And, “sounds” are not syllables. So we can say that most Japanese haiku have 17-on (sounds).
The article on “onji” I mentioned is available here:
Or as a PDF here:
I am not a trained linguist, but was helped in my research by two professors of applied linguistics, Judy Yoneoka, and Masahiro Hori, both at Kumamoto Gakuen University (and both bilingual). Judy Yoneoka and I wrote a long paper on haiku metrics, which can be found here:
or as a PDF here:
What we were able to experimentally show in our findings, corroborated by linguistics research, is that there is no one-to-one relationship between Japanese “sounds (-on),” and Indo-European-language-based syllables (we stick to English in our paper, so my expansion remains hypothetical). One reason for this fact is that Japanese is a moraic language, that is, ‘syllable-timed,’ while English is accentual-syllabic. Rather than a simplistic one-to-one syllabic relationship with -on, we found instead an accord at a ‘higher’ level of organization, that of the metrical template. What this means in practice is that the ‘best’ emulation of the Japanese verity is not and cannot be based on any set number of syllables. This idea is solipsistic, a linguistic dead end. Rather it seems one needs to consider phonetic rhythm, stress and (musical) time in accentual-syllabic language, in relation to (linguistic) metrical pattern.
We were able to demonstrate how haiku in English with six syllables accord well with 17-on Japanese haiku and were able to show how haiku in English with over 17 (English) syllables can also metrically accord with Japanese haiku form. Notwithstanding the potential variability of syllables possible in haiku in English, there are limits related to the metrical template of haiku, and we suggested that this metrical sense not only seems to govern the genre in English, but that almost all haiku compositions written and published in English serendipitously follow the metrical stylism we observed. The metrical template of 8-8-8 (three linked metrical phrases of 8 ‘pulses’), works as an identity between the two languages, Japanese and English. By ‘metrical’ I do not mean poetic scansion (not the idea of regular poetic meter), but refer to an underlying time structure apparent within haiku phrasing. The paper shown in the links above looks at the issue in more detail.
Udo Wenzel: You emanated from the American Beat tradition. In your early days, you had contact with writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder on the West Coast. They were less interested in kigo and syllable counting; from their beginnings on, they hoped more to achieve a sense of Zen-content in haiku. How do you see the importance of Zen for haiku today?
Richard Gilbert: I arrived at Naropa University at the age of 26. Prior to that, by 1978 a friend and I had founded “The Plant”, an arts organization in Danbury, Connecticut; I had published poetry in a few small journals. I grew up as an isolated bassoon-playing kid and early on got into geodesics, taking the train down to New York City’s “Town Hall” to attend lectures given by Buckminster Fuller. When in the 10th grade, our high school got a Moog synthesizer, which they stuck in a closet that I inhabited when not reading science fiction. Sometime later, I was accepted into the Department of Electronic Music at Hampshire College, at that time a world-class scene; but penniless, moved into a South Norwalk, Connecticut, slum. After two years of selling high-end audio gear in Norwalk, doing electronics work, welding whatever I could melt, and rebuilding some motorcycles and sports cars, I moved to Danbury, Connecticut, and became an apprentice engine rebuilder. This lasted about five years. The pay got me through a chunk of college as a Math/Computer Science major. Later, I joined a union shop as Director of Electronics Component Assembly at a steam power plant factory. My department assembled and tested the control panels for the steam generators we built for ships, schools and hospitals. Dickensian dinge toxic paint fumes no ventilation and noxious waste; you’re close to the money.
So, “The Plant” had an ironic connotation. “The Plant” was a revelation. A Friday night café society was created above a bar in the middle of town, in the midst of this violent, isolative society of immigrant Danbury, which spawned workshops, exhibitions and arts festivals. Around this time, a dancer friend, Colleen, who had driven with some friends cross-country, returned with glowing reports of the Naropa summer symposium, commanding me: “you have to go there.” After looking into the courses, I saved my shekels. Around this time I hired the first African-American worker in my company, who also happened to be the first woman hired to work the assembly floor. I was fired less than six weeks later under false pretences (she wasn’t, as she was in the union). As I had read Chogyam Trungpa’s Myth of Freedom and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, I was, on the one hand, hungry for spiritual knowledge, while on the other paranoid concerning the possibility of some sort of cultish brainwashing at the hands of those weird people living in the mountains of Boulder, Colorado, at some wacko school 2000 miles from my home stomping ground.
When I arrived in my rebuilt van, December 1980 (possessions contained within), I slept for two weeks in the parking lot of the International House of Pancakes and ate at same, until taken in by Larry who was on the dole due to his psychosis – he had an extra room. I was less stable then he, and grateful for his kindness to a stranger. (In a weird twist of fate, eight years later I became his therapist for a short while.) A few weeks later, during Naropa Registration Day, I was yanked on the arm by Frank Berliner, then-Director of Shambhala Training, who looked me in the eye and said, “Have you ever done meditation, do you want to learn? Do you want me to be your instructor? I’ll be your instructor.” As an alienated, depressed mess it was hard to say yes or no I just showed up a week later to give it a try and the rest is history.
I’m not really answering your question, except perhaps to point out that though I became involved in Tibetan Buddhism and committed to meditation practice and training, I’ve never located the perfect hot dog. Naropa and meditation have been two of the great blessings of my life, and there are many people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, including Frank Berliner, Chogyam Trungpa, Barbara Dilley, Paul Ortel, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Patricia Donegan, Lisa Haight, Shari Cuzelis, Lomi practitioners, dance therapy teachers, and many others. Naropa was at that time an unaccredited school of some 120 degree-attending students and a pretty wild and open situation. My experience is that poetry can’t be taught and meditation insight can’t be taught; however, teachers can open their minds to you in various ways, offer critical feedback, design various experiential happenings, practices, workshops, studies, and the like. My teachers were at times able to enrich my presence via their own, and extensive permission was given to explore presence, perception, and technique. I already had a sense of what “The Real Work” was (in Gary Snyder’s terms), and Naropa represented my first Real education, in terms of institutional possibilities. It was a lot easier than getting hot sulphuric acid off engine blocks – at first. Later, the moon cried “Mary”; I lost all hope and sense of self. Much later, it was those engines which led to an experience of the interiority of haiku, their cosmic alchemy, and I began to understand the power of alchemy in the elements of welding, burring, surfacing, quenching the psyche – the sensuousness and sheen of surfaces in the shops where I’d been annealing improvisational skills along with valve seats. In this manner I began to understand more of the human.
I think the question of Zen in haiku, or meditation and poetry (and the arts) is a touchy one and tends to float off to the aetheric heights, and thereby loose soul. I don’t believe there is a “Zen haiku” as such, only people who think that’s what they are. There are haiku that do relate directly to Zen experience, just as there are baseball and tennis haiku. That said, there is a long and noble history of Zen interpretation, or a "Zen reading" or "Zen treatment" of haiku in Japan, although not generally outside of Zen institutions. A somewhat similar sense of interpretation can be found in R. H. Blyth, whose voluminous works were a direct inspiration for the Beats (as described in Jack Kerouac's novel, The Dharma Bums). Due to this interpretive focus in North America at least, it seems that historically a Zen-like interpretation has been at times over-emphasized to the point of displacing or strongly mis-interpreting the main intention and even brilliance of haiku as a literary art. Blyth himself, his brilliance and knowledge of Zen notwithstanding, was not an involved practitioner of Zen in the traditional Japanese sense, if by that we mean 'a practicing meditator within a school and lineage, studying under a teacher generally acknowledged to be accomplished in Zen practice,' nor have been the bulk of western commentators who have applied Zen-like interpretations to haiku. There is a long history in Japan of utilizing certain haiku in association with koan practice in the Rinzai-school tradition, and Zen culture and perspectives may have much to say about haiku; at the same time, interpretation is not poetry but rather an avenue of discussion, usually directed to a certain purpose or goal. Bashō opened hokku to the field of mind, and thereby made what would later be coined “haiku” into a high art; Bashō composed haiku (hokku), not Zen haiku. In Buddhism, there are three jewels, the Buddha who serves as an example of actual human possibility; the dharma, which is the teachings; and sangha, one’s community. Usually, “sangha” refers to the community of fellow practitioners, a sort of insider’s group. Yet in a talk about sangha, Shunryu Suzuki once remarked, “Sangha is whatever awakens you.” In this sense, haiku may be sangha. It depends on you.
Udo Wenzel: Finally, would you please introduce some of your own haiku?
Richard Gilbert: I’d like to introduce three haiku:
a nun beats a drum;
fretful by the shrine
a drowning man
pulled into violet worlds
dedicated to the moon
without a decent alibi
Published in NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, volume 1, pp. 25-27 (Tokyo: 2004). http://noonpoetry.com
Udo Wenzel: Thank you very much for the interview.
A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert Part I (2008)
Robert D. Wilson and Richard Gilbert
(Originally appeared in Simply Haiku 6:4, Winter 2008)
RW: You've written a book (Poems of Consciousness, Red Moon Press 2008) that will affect the way people in the English speaking world look at and understand haiku and related genres. It's a long overdue book, Dr. Gilbert. Most of what has been written in scholarly terms about haiku has been penned by elderly scholars years ago, the likes of Donald Keene, Makoto Ueda, R. H. Blyth, Henderson, et al. Haiku is not a stationary entity. It continually evolves. What was written in the past about the genre doesn't necessarily hold true for today any more than what was written about in the past about music theory holds true in regard to today's music and our understanding of it.
Tell us your motive behind the writing of your new book. How has our understanding of haiku evolved in the past two decades and what is lacking in the same arena? And why is it imperative that we look to Japanese scholar/poets for direction and insight?
RG: My main motive has been curiosity and wonder. A mythology: a child looks at a wall socket, imagines wires behind walls tracking them back to the regional electric grid, the nature of electrons flashing on time's origin, the big bang. Fleeting images build multiple templates which become interpenetrating worldviews. A dream or vision of the ability to ken, to evoke a panoply of realities, accept complexities of multiple divergent realities—to "enlarge" reality, as Wallace Stevens urged. Summer days spent staring into sky: the gossamer sensation of existence. It's hard to separate haiku and the world. Near a Connecticut beach wishing to live beneath the water. The way its surface touches the deep.
"Mythology is a song. It is the song of imagination, inspired by the energies of the body" (The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers, Anchor Books, 1991, p.27)."Mythology is the poetics of the body singing about our cellular truth. Myth is a poem of the experience of being embodied and our somatic journey" (Stanley Keleman, Myth and the Body: a colloquy with Joseph Campbell, Center Press, 1999, p. xiii).
We, bipedal creatures possessing forward-mounted stereoscopic eyes, a pair of five-fingered hands: articulations of "energies of the body" into myth and song represent the imprint of human being, a scryer's visionary response to questions of being and identity, the question of who and what we are. A trail winds back into the space of silence, the space of history, the space of mind. In the poetry of Snyder, in the attitude of Thoreau's long essay "Walking," in Bashō's pilgrimages to ancient locales—and then there's Nenten Tsubouchi, a gendai poet, who seeks out hippos in zoos. [http://gendaihaiku.com/tsubouchi/nenten-tsubouchi-haiku.htm]. What have we come to? I think our contemporary era is uniquely reflected in Tsubouchi's excursions. Ezra Pound declaimed, "Make it new" and Bashō said much the same thing, if from a different perspective—each succeeding era necessarily writes its own eternity. What gendai haiku offer is a taste of that eternity, via the sensate manner of the image. To riff on this analogy, in the West from Escoffier on, great chefs have known that the nuance of taste involves smell, the pleasure of the eye, and memory. That "moment" of taste is not an "a-ha," but rather an extraordinarily complex scenario, in which multiple perceptions and cognitive "templates" merge and conspire to move one on, "enlarging" the gestalt of being.
Having a sense of "era" seems fundamental to gendai haiku. Among the many surprises found from studying haiku in Japan, the notion that "era" is as important to the poet as "self" or "place" or "season" has occasioned a re-orientation of my own poetic intentions.
In the pre-industrial, pre-scientific world, the passions contained in myth offered psychic structure, landscapes and "story" (stories as bodies, embodiments). Yet the old stories no longer contain us. How might it be possible to inspire the energies of the bodies of the future, as song? In that poetry represents an artful integration of consciousness and body, what modes might inspire depth and a greater sensitivity of vision? What will nourish us, as we move past nine billion at the end of the fossil-fuel age? The old myths died long ago. Lions, trees and elephants enter dreams; underfoot the grass, leaves falling beneath olive trees seen through panes of glass. Living deep in the bowels of the city, that sun. The dividing line between dream, imagination, technology, and the environment seems to be blurring exponentially and it isn't clear if we will remain.
To the question of care, an increasingly central question, gendai haiku offer the reader the shape of who we are in the shape of things to come, in resonance with archaic myth, the formal insights of previous ages, in which occasionally it can be noted the small sounds of frogs jumping as a stroke of infinite being held in water contained between cupped hands [the following haiku are found at http://gendaihaiku.com],
eki mae de mabushii jidai to ippai yatta ga (Hoshinaga)
near the station
drinking with the dazzle
of the era
mugi yo shi wa ki isshoku to omoikomu (Uda)
realizing death as one color
hibashira no naka ni watashi no eki ga aru (Onishi)
within a pillar of fire
natsu no yami tsuru o kakaete yuku gotoku (Hasegawa)
a red-crowned crane, cradled
as if on my way
sakura chiru anata mo kaba ni narinasai (Tsubouchi)
cherry blossoms fall —
you too must become
mata no ma no ubugoe megi no yami e nobi (Mikajo)
the birth cry stretches into
budding tree darkness
It's a bit like jazz, in that the poem resists you. Retreats from your humanity to its reality. Myths in previous eras relativized the human, placing human being within a psychic reality of powers, motions, motives, and beings far greater than us.
Have we lost our perspective? I believe we need an innovative means of mythologizing the body. Richer directions and dimensions for the psyche in approaching the world, metaphor and form. The moment of my existence in the space of this suburban room contains a desk which deepens into the scent of rained out crags woven through mist in a landscape emptied of voice. It's my hope that a newfound sense of wilderness will return to the city, so that beauty can again be found in nature via a re-founding of domestic environments.
To care for the infinities at the edges of the cornea. The universe as contained in a Japanese apartment or suburban garden: infinite views, winding paths. A certain necessary complexity, the complicity of multiple dimensions of poetic paradox seem necessary to reawakening ourselves to nature—through which we might at root find enough distance in beauty to do less harm, and more, to care. The deepest form of poetic insight may be that poetry is the world.
Gendai haiku partake of a tradition and culture in which, unlike that of the historical Judeo-Christian West, nature and culture were not extensively polarized. So gendai haiku exists as an invitation to the present and the future, in congruence with the past. This congruency is also an uprooting, accomplished via expansive and often experimental avant-garde language and techniques. Yet the old is likewise held in the new, in plying the form. The key to haiku, what makes it a brilliant literature, is that haiku cut through time and space as a primary means of birthing and articulating novel realities as environments.
In the 1950s the Beats asked the question, "How do we grow our own culture?" and recently the poet Hoshinaga Fumio commented, "Language is overworked, fatigued." The Beats knew where to start, Hoshinaga knows how. In a world without torture or needless suffering, there would still be, according to Jung, one imperative: to choose to individuate, to encounter the shadow, to grow. So I take your word "imperative" to heart. The great gendai poets know how to begin. At the moment, poets everywhere are searching for the taste of the new; do we hunger for revival even at the expense of survival? What can be learned from the Japanese poets is not the "how" but rather the actuality. How language is unequivocally refreshed. I intuit that we may one day live in a culture which embodies those "energies of the body" inspired by myth; essential poetic navigations which Campbell and others discuss as the roots of human soul. Until that time, gendai haiku is a great reminder, and more, that taste! The taste of an era. And it's brilliant.
RW: Your research crosses boundaries, less concerned with nationalities and language, and focused instead on a thorough analysis of modern haiku that transcends what was learned and promulgated via the early-modern haiku reformation spearheaded by Masaoka Shiki. As you aptly state in your book's preface, "Much of what has been communicated of the historical haiku oeuvre has been misunderstood in the West. Cross-cultural gendai haiku studies are thus in an embryonic state. Gendai haiku has been misunderstood in contemporary Japan as well, partly due to the promotion from the early 20th century up through the wartime period of Shiki's shasei (objective realist) sensibility." Please elucidate.
RG: In the book, selected acclaimed authors are presented, along with their poems and commentaries, with the goal of offering readers an experience of the richness of the gendai-haiku stream of culture. In addition a series of explorative essays present new modes of definition and perspective, with an eye toward inspiring authors, that is, the interest and curiosity of poets. Poems of Consciousness is just a beginning. Recently, the Association of Modern Haiku (gendai haiku kyōkai) published a groundbreaking saijiki in five volumes, one volume incidentally muki kigo or "non-season season words." You have to love it. Within each of these volumes many thousands of haiku and hundreds of authors can be found. It's an awesome achievement; a project begun some 15 years ago. While the AMH is the largest gendai haiku organization, many hundreds of circles and societies exist in Japan—it's said there are over a million active in haiku circles here. A given poet is often a member of more than one circle, or organization, and approaches and activities also vary broadly, depending on the presiding mentor (typically, poets of some stature found local circles and found their own independent journals). Strong poets are as unique and individualistic in Japan as elsewhere. What may surprise is how deeply the cultural tradition of the poetic circle, including the core social experience of the "haiku gathering-party" (kukai) permeates artistic practice. The poetic circle seems the very lifeblood of the gendai haiku tradition, and may be likened to the Western idea of the salon, regarding openness of thought, congeniality and provocation.
The signature haiku of Bashō, the "old pond" haiku was in part a collaborative composition, as Hasegawa discusses below. While Bashō is undoubtedly the poem's author, the historical record describes a drinking-party atmosphere with a convivial near-Socratic question and answer, concerning what might make the best capping phrase for the poem (the first phrase: "old pond—" or furuike ya is the capping phrase). In his book, Did the Frog Jump Into the Old Pond? [furuike ni kawazu wa tobikondaka] Hasegawa sets this scene and its goings-on in some detail (the following quotations are unpublished draft-translation summary):
Needless to say, in renga, and from the Teimon school, and even the Danrin school, the frog had been depicted as singing. But Bashō treated the frog differently, giving only the sound of its jumping into water.
Kikaku's offering of yamabuki ya represents a direct challenge to the existing renga tradition, as this flower had been long associated with frogs. So plying it in a new form of haiku [hokku] equates to a radical act. But in the end Bashō rejects Kikaku's suggestion. Bashō said,
The idea of yamabuki is elegant and evocative; however, the 5-on furuike ya is spare and substantial. From ancient times to now substantiality has been the mainstream of poetry. Kikaku's proposition of yamabuki is based on the waka tradition. The frog had been paired with yamabuki [Kerria Japonica, or Japanese Globeflower] from the age of the Man'yōshū.
. . .
"Kikaku's idea of [the flower] yamabuki is a challenge to the conventions of waka, because it brings together the unconventional combination of yamabuki and the frog's 'jumping in' sound—typically 'yamabuki' would be associated to the frog's melodious call [a sound similar to that of the peeper frog, in North America].
. . .
What Bashō wants to say is that a frog jumped—not sang. This was already phrased by the 7-5 section of the haiku. As a result this phrase could combine with either "furuike" or "yamabuki." That is, the sound of water exists in a different dimension than either "furuike" or "yamabuki". This explains why Bashō capped the existing phrase with "furuike ya," without minding the repetition [of the water imagery, e.g. "pond" and "frog" both connote water, and repetition in haiku has tragic consequences]. If you consider that, combined with yamabuki, neither Bashō, Kikaku, or Shiko ever thought that "a frog jumps into yamabuki," likewise the frog can't jump into "the old pond."
And, by joining the frog's jumping-in sound rather than its call, this creates a formula-breaking haikai. It is important to recall here that Bashō considered the act of formula-breaking to be itself a formula. With this philosophy in mind, "furuike ya" neither follows nor challenges convention: with this ku Bashō was liberated from the spell of any formula. He not only overcame the conventions of waka, which Kikaku was attempting to challenge; he also overcame Kikaku. (furuike, Chap. 1)
Here are Hasegawa's further comments on this topic, from our interview, found in Poems of Consciousness:
. . . "old pond" (furuike) exists in the world of mind. At the same time, "frogs jumping-in water-sound" (kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto)—real sounds existing in the real world—are a trigger (catalyst) for "old pond" (furuike). Summing up, a proper interpretation of this ku might be: on a late spring day (in the lunar calendar) Bashō was in his hermitage listening to the sounds of frogs jumping into water, and he envisioned an old pond, in mind.
In terms of interpretation, for example, interpreting the ku as: "there is an old pond and a frog jumped into it and then splashed the sound of water"—this interpretation would be of only actual things; but we can rather consider that … while "a frog jumped into the water" is a real fact, an "old pond" arises out of Bashō's world of mind—there is thus a juxtaposition of two alternate dimensions of being. Read this way, this haiku is not a scene composed of the viewing an object, but rather of listening to sounds, and furthermore, Bashō composed this ku via active imagination (the haiku is not shasei, an objective sketch).
The reality is that we have interpreted this haiku in a superficial way, without giving it deep reflection, perhaps thoughtlessly viewing the haiku image as, "a frog jumped into an old pond and then the sound of water"—this interpretation represents a misunderstanding. This haiku was written 300 years ago and it has been misunderstood for 300 years. (pp. 74-75)
I think if we can grasp the sense of kire (the disjunctive "cutting" of time and space) and the arising of the "world of mind" in haiku as a result of techniques of disjunction and paradox, and observe how eloquently and radically Bashō responded to a millennial poetic tradition, it's possible to appreciate the poetics and poetic spirit evidenced in gendai haiku. The spirit of Bashō and the poetic stream found in gendai haiku are one and the same. What Bashō calls "substantial" might equally be considered supremely fictional. Don't you think, reading the above, that the haiku tradition has been misinterpreted in the West, via all existing translations of "old pond" and any number of commentaries on Bashō and his poetics? Bashō's brilliant "eye opening" style represents the beginning of his later career, and he succeeded in developing further evolutions of this style and intention, these likewise discussed by Hasegawa and others.
The gendai haiku tradition partakes of Bashō's "world of mind," and like Bashō and other accomplished classical masters, extends a literary conversation. In a sense, haiku are never merely singular works of art, they swim in an ocean of poetry, in which any given term (e.g. kigo or kidai) and image has multiple reference to over 1000 years of literary history (poems, historical events, personages, authors, myths, etc.). In Buddhism, the "fourth moment" is described as a combination of past, present and future, which is yet none of these. Due to cultural context, haiku likewise have this taste. Though I value creative misinterpretation (first successfully plied in the haiku genre by Ezra Pound), translators and critics must give warp and weave to the deeper skeins of haiku, deepen what is already a multinational/regional poetics. I feel that we know quite little about haiku at this point.
RW: What is gendai haiku and how profoundly is the gendai haiku tradition intertwined with its classical ancestry?
RG: The classical and gendai streams are profoundly intertwined, as shown above, in Hasegawa's comments as an example—there are many other aspects of lineage connection that can be discussed, in terms of form, intention and style. "Gendai haiku" means literally "modern or contemporary haiku," and loosely refers to expansive ideas of the haiku form arising from the 1920s on, and more particularly to the direct progenitors of the gendai haiku movement, the figures of the New Rising Haiku movement, of the '30s-'40s. The New Rising Haiku movement is discussed in detail in a monograph and two published papers by Yūki Itō, now available online:
New Rising Haiku: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident
(Simply Haiku 5:4, Winter 2007) [http://research.gendaihaiku.com/ito/new-rising-haiku.htm].
A follow-up interview with Udo Wenzel, Haiku Heute, is a de facto second essay:
Forgive, But Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism.
Itō Yūki talks with Udo Wenzel (Haiku Heute, Winter 2007/2008) http://bit.ly/1BtiRF4
A thorough history of gendai haiku remains to be penned in English, and as Kaneko Tohta, a celebrated founder of the postwar gendai movement, quoted in Itō's monograph, explains, "When discussing the history of postwar haiku, many scholars tend to begin their discussion from the end of World War II. However, this perspective represents a rather stereotypical viewpoint. It is preferable that a discussion of postwar haiku history start from the midst of the war, or from the beginning of the 'Fifteen Years War [1931-45].'" In the above articles, Itō has done a masterful job of elucidating the wartime period, and this represents a great beginning for grasping the essentials of gendai haiku, in English. These papers reveal how intimately the art and practice of gendai haiku is woven into freedom of expression and the fundamental right of persons to colloquy, sans censorship. I believe such ideas are in tune with Bashō's spirit and sensibility.
As to the use of the term "gendai" in an English-language (international) context, I suppose it will be up to us, how to use it. I'm not even sure it should be used for any haiku natively-written in English. For instance, I would not say so-and-so a haiku is "gendai" as a matter of style, unless I meant it was similar in style to that of a known gendai poet of Japan (e.g. "this has a haiku style similar to the gendai approach of Tsubouchi"). In North America we already have the pre-existing term "modern haiku." Basically a literal translation of "gendai" it turns out. Literally, the word means "contemporary" but just as with "modern art," something more is implied, in terms of movements, categories, history and personages.
As of yet, we do not have a "gendai-like" movement in English-language haiku poetry, though there are some poets writing innovative works. I've searched for a term that might imply something beyond our so-to-say "modern" haiku (which presently equals shasei or realism haiku), and selected Marjorie Perloff's term, "21st century modern" haiku, which I introduced in the "Plausible Deniability" paper, included in Poems of Consciousness. But the term is awkward. However Perloff's discussion is intriguing:
The aesthetic of early modernism has provided the seeds of the materialist poetic which is increasingly our own. . . . what interests me is the unfulfilled promise of the modernist (as of the classical) poetic impulse in so much of what passes for poetry today—a poetry singularly unambitious in its attitude to the materiality of the text ...
I think "the materiality of the text" is provocative, and has much in common with poetic approaches that evoke an inherent awareness of language as language. (The techniques presented in "The Disjunctive Dragonfly" spring partly from this perspective).
To continue with Perloff's conclusion:
... to what Khlebnikov described as the recognition that "the roots of words are only phantoms behind which stand the strings of the alphabet." It is this particular legacy of early modernism that the new poetics has sought to recover. "To imagine a language," said Wittgenstein, "is to imagine a form of life."' (21st Century Modernism (2002), pp. 1-5)
Wittgenstein's haikuesque comment speaks volumes. So, I chose "21st century modern" haiku, as I basically sign on to what Perloff indicates as an "unfulfilled promise" regarding haiku, as of contemporary poetry—and appreciate Perloff's sense of scope, which extends at least from postwar poetry to the present (covering the entire North American haiku "tradition"). But I wonder if simply "new haiku" might be the better term.
I personally don't use "gendai" except to refer to poems originating in the Japanese, on the part of those poets associated to the progressive arts movements in Japan. There are postwar gendai tanka, as well as gendai senryu, as Onishi Yasuyo discusses. I suppose my main point is that we in the "Western" tradition of haiku, or tanka, or senryu, should probably refrain from using "gendai" as an appellation for our own innovative (especially non-shasei) poetics. As critics and leaders, if not innovators, can't we be creative enough to come up with our own terms for new varieties of haiku? I feel this will probably be crucial. For too long the critical tradition in haiku in English has been overly parochial and limited, if not exclusivist, in scope, and Japanese-imitational in nature. It's my thought that we can learn and appreciate, though innovate with autonomy.
RW: I read with great interest your comments regarding Blyth, who for many is a non-reproachable iconoclast revered for his insight into and translation of haiku. The American Beat poets of the late 1950s and '60s (Snyder, Kerouac, Corso, etc.) read his treatises on haiku and were greatly influenced by them; yet, you say he was biased towards classical haiku and held little value in modern haiku. "Blyth idealized the classical while devaluing the modern as at root selfish, small-minded, and confused." Your comments challenge popular thinking and will certainly shake heads. What are we to make of Blyth? Was he on or off the mark regarding haiku theory?
RG: Regarding haiku theory, he was on his own mark. Blyth sited or situated haiku in an idiosyncratic way, voluminously, and with great passion. As someone who was excited by haiku and Japanese culture via Blyth, I have great respect and admiration for his efforts. At the same time, it's worth asking why he isn't quoted and referenced by academicians these days. It's hard to know where to place Blyth. Certainly, if we consider him an authority on the meaning and cultural value of haiku, on its native soil, it seems valuable to re-work and enrich Blyth's interpretations. To do justice to this topic, a long paper needs to be written. In this short space, my colleague Itō and I would like to discuss Blyth's translation of an internationally influential haiku penned by Shiki.
First, here's a quote from a paper published in 2000 on haiku metrics written by myself and Professor Judy Yoneoka, illustrating a cross-cultural encounter with Blyth, as penned by Kerouac [http://research.gendaihaiku.com/metrics/haikumet.html]:
Even considering the increased interest in haiku form and its development, Japanese haiku and possibilities in English might have remained minor cultural footnotes if it hadn't been for the publication and popular success of Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, in 1958 (following the publication of On The Road, in 1957, and his resulting rise to fame). Kerouac did something for the haiku movement no amount of scholarship alone could, in creating the character Japhy Ryder, a scarcely-veiled portrait of the poet Gary Snyder. Japhy transplants something of the Japanese haiku ethos, or an imagination of it, into the heart of American vernacular. Japhy seems like a modern-day gloss on Bashō—a kind of Bashō cum Li Po cum Oregonian lumberjack: "From the beginning a woods boy, an axeman, a farmer . . . . his face was a mask of woeful bone, but his eyes twinkled like the eyes of old giggling sages of China, over that little goatee . . . . he'll make the top of your head fly off, boy, with a choice chance word." In his pilgrimages into natural settings and intuitive feeling for nature, acquaintance with Zen practice and philosophy, simple lifestyle and dwelling-place, Japhy tantalized and inspired readers with novel possibilities for perception, spirituality, lifestyle, and poetic process.
Early in the novel, Kerouac (as Ray Smith), living in Allen Ginsberg's (Alvah Goldbook's) "rose-covered cottage" in Berkeley, California, notes that, "On the walls are hundreds of books everything from Catullus to Pound to Blyth" (p. 17). These signal authors are the only ones mentioned. A few days later, Ray, hiking with Japhy, exults:
"Oh this is like an early morning in China and I'm five years old in beginningless time!" I sang out and felt like sitting by the trail and whipping out my little notebook and writing sketches about it. "Look over there," sang Japhy, "Yellow aspens. Just put me in the mind of a haiku. . . . A real haiku's gotta be simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing, like the greatest haiku of them all probably is the one that goes 'The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet.' by Shiki. You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet in those few words you also see all the rain that's been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles" (p. 59).
The Shiki haiku quoted and discussed by Snyder in The Dharma Bums is taken from Blyth's Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (1952, p. 517), who provides a commentary to the poem:
Nureashi de suzume no ariku rôka kana
The sparrow hops
Along the verandah,
With wet feet.
This might be taken as a model for all haiku. It is poetical and yet extremely matter-of-fact. It is like one of those perfect jokes, so simple, so inexplicable. The delicate three-pronged little marks on the floor of the verandah, so soon to dry up and vanish forever, as transitory as the pyramids or the solar system,—what an infinity of meaning in them!
It is an interesting contrast, the almost domestic, earthy vision of Japhy and the sense of Buddhistic universals in Blyth's speculations on impermanence. These two contemplative polarities, the sensual and the philosophic (especially Buddhist), emanated as prime Western responses to the presentational immediacy of haiku, and continue to inform North American haiku culture. (Haiku Metrics and Issues of Emulation: New Paradigms for Japanese and English Haiku Form [March 2000], available at http://research.gendaihaiku.com )
That was written in 2000. My appreciation of Blyth hasn't changed, though my understanding of Japanese haiku has. Let's take a fresh look at the "sparrow" haiku:
Our notes to the poem:
1) In the haiku pantheon, suzume (sparrow) is not a noble, aristocratic bird, such as a crane or hawk, but on the contrary a humble, domestic bird associated with routine village life and farming. Sparrows gather around ripening rice fields, particularly around harvest time. Images of local, rural farm life and a sense of ordinariness or plainness seem implicit.
2) The word suzume is not kigo (it's listed as muki kigo i.e. a non-kigo season word, in the gendai haiku kyōkai muki saijiki), as sparrows are seen year-round. Blyth placed this haiku in his "Spring" volume… At this time in his career however Shiki did not seem to have had a strong awareness or place an emphasis on kigo use in his haiku, and we find no kigo evident in this haiku: it is muki. Generally, suzume tend to occur in compound kigo of spring or autumn: suzume no ko (a baby sparrow) is a spring kigo; ina suzume (sparrows gathering in a rice field), is an autumn kigo—sparrows will nest under kawara, the ceramic roof tiles commonly used on homes, so are intimately wed to daily human activities and consciousness. We can say that the sparrow is familiar and "nearby"; in a sense, a domestic bird—from the human perspective. As a result, there are a number of truisms concerning suzume, such as suzume no odoriashi (a sparrow's dancing feet) which means, "Your calligraphy is bad!" Another, suzume no senkoe tsuru no hito-koe (the thousand sounds of sparrows, single sound of a crane), can be interpreted as "one crane's voice is stronger than a thousand sparrows"; a single opinion emanating from a powerful individual overwhelms a multitude of lesser voices. There are many suzume anecdotes, truisms and literary references.
3) In the haiku, the translation of "veranda" for rōka is incorrect (verandas are a common feature of Japanese homes, a small attached outdoor balcony used for drying futon, hanging clothes, etc., an absolute necessity in the rainy season, prior to air conditioning and the clothes dryer). The term rōka refers to a corridor or hallway within the home. The massive online Eijiro translation dictionary ( http://www.alc.co.jp/ ) offers these translations: corridor, gallery, hallway, hall, passage, passageway. The most common collocation is "down the hall," used to indicate a hallway in a home. Here it seems that Blyth has mis-set the site of the haiku, which has a number of consequences.
In Meiji-era speech, the no in Japanese implies ga rather than today's grammatically possessive meaning typically ascribed to this particle.
4) Literal translation:
nureashi de suzume no ariku rōka kana
wet feet | place of action | sparrow | action | walk | corridor/hallway | emphasis adverb
5) Close translation: Following the same image-story as presented in Japanese, we translate the haiku:
with wet feet
a sparrow hops
down the hall . . .
a more interpretive translation:
with wet feet—
down the hall hops
6) Our discussion:
Is the sparrow a real bird or not? The phrase nureashi, Itō feels, is too anthropomorphic to be accepted as a purely literal image possessing a simple, objective meaning. The noun-phrase (nure+ashi) is commonly used to describe wet feet after one takes a daily bath. Also, rōka is a hallway not a veranda; it's difficult to believe Blyth didn't know "hall," or "hallway" was correct, so we assume here a bit of translator's poetic-license. "Sparrow" (suzume) seems then to indicate or imply a person within a (their own) home. There is likewise implied an aspect of Shiki's artful self-reflection in this haiku. For us, the image has a sense of vulnerability, wry humor, and the poet's suffering, enfolded in the fragile, misplaced, rain-soaked sparrow.
Or, frail roommate, just after his bath? This haiku was penned within the first year following the death of Shiki's very close younger friend, Shimizu Noritō, who was likewise born in Matsuyama. They had been living together in Tokyo, and were in the same grade at school. Shimizu died suddenly of beri-beri (as the record indicates) resulting in a heart attack. As Shimizu's parents did not send money for medicine (cruelty? accident? poverty?), Shimizu's death at 18 was tragic and probably avoidable. As a result of these events, Shiki suffered severe depression, and rage. He wrote a letter to Shimizu's parents seven meters (23 feet) in length! Two of its sentences read:
I will hence aim to make your son's name celebrated, throughout my life. In order to accomplish this, I will first make efforts to improve my own name. I will risk my life for this.
Shimizu died on April 14, 1886. Shiki and Shimizu were intense and passionate young men, and were also roommates in the months prior to Shimizu's death; they were living in fairly impoverished conditions at the time.
We can say more about this haiku, in its wedding of domesticity with the natural world, the sweet, sad, slightly disturbing yet wry image of a rained-on sparrow hopping down the hallway. At the time this haiku was composed, in 1887, Shiki was in college, age 20. The following year he first coughed up blood. We sense the brave, brief life of Shiki's friend, and Shiki's own encroaching illness. The sparrow is revealed, or half-veiled…
In the comprehensive chronological collection of Shiki's poetic works in which this haiku appears (Kanzan rakuboku), immediately preceding the sparrow haiku is this haiku, which has a preface:
On the first anniversary of the death of Shimizu
rakka e ni kaeredo hito no yukue kana
a fallen flower returns - yet a man's destination …
This haiku is a play on the celebrated Arakida Moritake haiku (an important influence for Ezra Pound), which itself refers to a scene in a Zeami Noh drama (a significant fact missed by Pound and Blyth, discussed by Hasegawa in his book, haiku no uchū, and others). The Moritake haiku is:
rakka eda ni kaeru to mireba chōcho kana
A fallen leaf
Flew back to its branch!
No, it was a butterfly.
Shiki, in his play on Moritake viz Zeami asks, whither the soul of his dearly loved friend? Having exited this world, is a human death but a single "fallen leaf," and, unlike the butterfly, without return? Shiki desperately grieves for his friend and has sworn to devote his life to Shimizu's remembrance. This prior haiku frames and adds dimension to the 'sparrow' haiku which immediately follows it.
(As an aside, Blyth quotes the Moritake haiku as an illustrative example of poor poetry, criticizing an "over-reaching" of intellect at the expense of "imagination." He writes (to paraphrase) that haiku should deal with facts, not fantasy or illusion.)
Having a sense of era, of linguistic, historic, and literary verity concerning this haiku, we arrive at an alternate set of impressions and interpretations than Blyth. Is it excessively interpretive, to read into this haiku certain facts concerning Shiki's biography? In the West, artworks tend to be examined separately from their biographical context; the critical situation is quite different for the haiku genre in Japan, as readers are generally expected if not required to learn details of a poet's life and era in order to properly engage with and grasp their oeuvre.
We can add a few more facts in relation to the 'sparrow' haiku. Shiki's advocacy of the shasei (i.e. 'objective description') approach began in the late 1890s. So the 'sparrow' haiku cannot be shasei, as it wasn't until 1894 that Shiki met the painter Nakama Fusetsu and investigated realism in Western painting—from which he later developed his shasei sensibility. Shiki's formal advocacy of shasei in prose did not occur until 1900. It seems odd that Blyth would select as "a model for all haiku" this particular haiku from the youthful Shiki, prior to the application of his innovatory shasei approach which revolutionized the stultified 19th century haiku style, revivifying the art, and marking the beginning of the pre-modern era, for which Shiki is justly celebrated as progenitor. Possibly, Blyth's statement, "this [haiku] can be taken as a model for all haiku" must itself be taken with a grain of salt; perhaps less as a universal statement than a reflection of Blyth's own delight, accompanied by gaps in his contextual understanding, with his admitted predilection for "fact"-based haiku.
We return to Blyth's comment on the 'sparrow' haiku, with some responses:
"This might be taken as a model for all haiku. It is poetical and yet extremely matter-of-fact." We agree the haiku is poetical, yet due to the complex layering of image, reference and symbol, the haiku is anything but "matter-of-fact." It only appears so, via English translation and when stripped of significant cultural and biographical context.
"It is like one of those perfect jokes, so simple, so inexplicable." It is easy to agree with Blyth here, though one feels that his perspective on inexplicability resides primarily in a sense of the moment pertaining to the literal scene as conjured by the images, as he takes the haiku as shasei, an objective sketch. However, this haiku is more complex than the shasei concept posits, and different from it. There may be a perfect joke, but if so with an admixture of the human, that is the poet's frailty, intimacy, and grief. The self of the poet is really at the heart of this haiku. We cannot deny its "infinity" but it's equally about Shiki.
"The delicate three-pronged little marks on the floor of the verandah, so soon to dry up and vanish for ever, as transitory as the pyramids or the solar system,—what an infinity of meaning in them!" This is where Blyth ever again leads us, into gorgeously crafted Buddhistic universals. The vanishing, emptiness, and transitory nature of impermanence. I think this interpretative sensibility is part of Blyth's magic, his wedding of microcosm with macrocosm. Yet in conclusion, it seems doubtful that this was Shiki's main intention or motivation in penning the haiku; that is, the intention to move the reader into an awareness of "an infinity of meaning" arising mainly from the physicality of the presented images, the simple story of a sole, wet-footed sparrow on a veranda (sic). That the sparrow is inside the house seems to us a crucial point of departure—as if—has Shimizu returned, via poesis? We sense this reality as one of the intrinsic dimensions, kokoro (heart-intentions) of this haiku.
Blyth's use of "veranda" from an artistic point of view seems inspired. The word possesses great sound and rhythm, and enriches the poem in English. In fact, Blyth's translation proves to be a more powerful poem in English than our own—yet the misreading of the original image cannot be ignored.
Taking at random almost any Blyth translation, upon careful investigation we find the perspective, and at times the images themselves, to be at variance with original authorial intentions. They are deformed by the Blyth gravitas, which even as it expands our sense of philosophy and depth when reading the poems outside their native context, reduces the nuanced and multivariate sensibility found in many of the haiku he translated. At the same time, Blyth isn't completely wrong. There can be sensed a profound "suchness" in Blyth's translations, and certainly good haiku in Japanese possess this quality, often abundantly. As Hasegawa insists, in plying kire ('cutting') properly, a "world of mind" arises in haiku phenomenology. Yet this phenomenology seems to be both 'other-to' and more multidimensional than the universalized, objectified, 'fact-based' reality Blyth often paints as summation and primary sensibility, primary truth, in his writings on the subject.
The 'sparrow' haiku is made more powerful, we feel, by an informed understanding of the place, era, and significant relationships in Shiki's life around the time of composition, particularly in this case. This haiku was written if not for Shimizu with him in mind, subtly recalling him as remembrance. And now, in this very moment, we recall Shimizu a century later. This seems to be what Shiki wanted to accomplish, as he declaimed in his letter to Shimizu's parents. It isn't the universals but the particulars which seem most cogent here. Yet the universals aren't lost, just reified.
Now imagine, having read the 'sparrow' haiku above, and never having encountered any commentary on the poem, whatsoever:
The sparrow hops
Along the verandah,
With wet feet.
Would you honestly have found these three lines poetic, let alone haiku, let alone "a model for all haiku"? Without Blyth's commentaries, introductions, and thoughtful threading of Japanese history with Buddhist insight and Western-oriented literary acumen it seems doubtful that haiku as an exotic art-form appearing in the English language would have caught on, or would have turned on the Beats.
Blyth, on several counts misreads certain central intentions of the haiku tradition. Moreover it must be said he eviscerated the power and relevance of modern haiku (which he admits to disliking globally on principle: "Having thus indirectly blasted all modern haiku…" Cf. History of Haiku, Volume 2, pp. 333-34). When it comes to modern haiku, Blyth just didn't get it; how the poems worked, why they worked, and why such haiku provided the groundbreaking inspiration and the lifeblood of artistic movements throughout Japan's 20th century. Blyth has great strengths, and likewise limitations. A cautious approach to his commentaries seems sensible when looking for authorial intention in relation to the depth inherent in the Japanese haiku tradition.
As a translator, Blyth presented thousands of haiku via the creation of a powerful, relevant and modern poetics in English, with commentaries that spoke to real needs, even a hunger for truth, spirituality, and depth. For an artist, cross-cultural creative misinterpretation is a creative offering to anyone encountering such works. Yet reading Blyth as a primary source for comprehension of an ethos the outcome is too often a reflection of Blyth's own passionate preoccupations, rather than verity. As a result, haiku in North America has until quite recently been fixated on emulating an assumed "traditional" necessity for haiku literalism and shasei stylism. This is ironic, as throughout the 400-year history of haiku, the sensibility of realism represents but a very brief movement, in Japan. And Shiki himself frequently contradicted his own dicta—which in any case were not fully elucidated before his death. Enough is known though to say that pure objective description in haiku was for Shiki but a training-phase for beginner poets. His 'advanced' shasei concept was psychologically, imagistically, and conceptually complex—ideas which he only briefly outlined before his untimely death.
It seems reasonable as well to consider anew Blyth's translations in light of his penchant for Zen-Buddhist interpretation. In the critical tradition in Japan, Buddhistic haiku interpretations have been a tertiary issue. Concepts such as "a moment of enlightenment" are not a central concern of the genre. Here Blyth misleads, in that readers generally accept his interpretive view as prevalent and central to the tradition (I know I did). As well, Blyth advocates "fact" and the "objective," and we are his inheritors. Blyth's interpretive comments are quite often a creative product of his brilliant and fantastic perspective.
Hasegawa Kai, Furuike ni kaeru wa tobikondaka (Did the Frog Jump in the Old Pond?), Tokyo: Kashinsha, 2005.
____________, Haiku no uchū (Haiku Universe), Tokyo: Kashinsha, 1989.
Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, ed. [Modern Haiku Association], Gendai Haiku Saijiki (5 vols.), Tokyo: Gakushu Kenkyusha, 2004.
Shiki Masaoka, Kanzan rakuboku, 1 (Cold Mountain, Withering Trees, Volume 1) (collected works in chronological order; posthumous publication). Available:
A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert, Part II (2009)
Robert D. Wilson and Richard Gilbert
(Originally appeared in Simply Haiku 7:1, Spring 2009)
RW: As a follow-up question, you mention that the "post-war Beats (beatnik writers) saw a need to 'grow their own souls,' to break with traditional expectations, preconceptions and cultural morals." One means of accomplishing this was the voice they discovered in haiku, a voice that should have embodied Octavio Paz's statement:
Modernity is not outside but within us. It is today and the most ancient antiquity, it is tomorrow and the beginning of the world; it is a thousand years old and yet newborn . . . (modernity) We want to trap it alive but it flaps its wings and vanishes in the form of a handful of syllables. We are left empty-handed. The doors of perception open slightly and the other time appears, the real one we were searching for without knowing it: the present, the presence. (qtd. from R. Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness, "Author's Preface", 2008)
Beautiful words that capture the essence of gendai haiku. And what is gendai haiku but the haiku of today . . . now far removed from the misconceptions the Beats innocently adhered to in their quest to "grow their own souls." Or is it far-removed? The Beats forged the past into an expression of the now, regardless of those positive and negative factors that gave birth to their expression. To say as Blyth did that the following haiku is the essence of haiku is naive, the product of defective research (based on the resources available to him at the time), influenced by his belief that Zen Buddhism was a dominant influence on Japanese short form poetry and Shiki's conceptualization of shasei and gendai poetic expression.
(The following haiku by Blyth is discussed at length in "A Brilliant Literature, Part I."
nureashi de suzume no ariku roka kana
The sparrow hops
Along the verandah,
With wet feet.
RG: We've covered the above haiku in relation to Blyth's translation, in the last question last time (in the previous issue). To review, in analyzing Blyth's perspective, it's clear that his approach to "the essence of haiku" was idiosyncratic. Blyth, a strong reader, sensed an essence within haiku which he based upon intimations of Zen Buddhism. As a result of such convictions, there exists an interpretive power in his commentaries. Yet to be fair, his connotations often lack aspects of evident poetic dimension, registers of meaning, authorial intention, literary reference, etc., and as a result his commentaries may be reductive or misleading.
And yet, just as Kerouac turns us on to the soul, the sense of spiritual and philosophic dimension and presence in being, Blyth does much the same via his idiosyncratic approach to haiku and haiku-culture translation, in English.
Sure, it's about America, and Buddhism, but it's all about Kerouac too, in his celebrated novels. We don't expect Kerouac to be an expert scholar of Buddhism, though he might "write" Buddhism in a way that leans readers toward a deeper sense of amazement.
Similarly, Blyth is not an expert scholar of haiku, if we are to compare him to a Japanese scholar of repute—and not by a long shot. Also, Blyth was more a reader of Buddhism than practitioner. He was not directly engaged in the forms, rituals, and especially meditation practices of Zen Buddhism (a critique leveled as well against his teacher, D. T. Suzuki).
An unaddressed issue for the haiku world in America (in the major journals, in essays by pundits) is that for decades the Beats were spurned, while Blyth's work was put on a high-culture pedestal; perceived as an exacting source-point of haiku knowledge and wisdom. Ironically, the attempts by the Beats to formulate an American conception of haiku were inspired by their readings of Blyth and Buddhism. Such formulations as Ginsberg's "American sentences" and Kerouac's "haikus," whatever the "official" haiku world made of them, drew largely from the same well. We could reverse their positions somewhat—Kerouac, biographers tell us, was a profoundly committed novelist; Blyth, a radical, expatriate outsider. While their lifestyles and approaches to their prevailing cultures differed, perhaps it's unsurprising to find Blyth associated more as a naïve-romantic outsider-figure related to '50s-'60s cultural movements than a respected translator-scholar, by contemporary Japanologists and other literary scholars.
The image of the Beats has shifted somewhat over the last 20 years. Yet it seems a recent phenomenon that an eminent book editor (such as Dwight Garner, below) can proclaim that On the Road is his "personal best" novel pick:
Kerouac's On the Road retains for me its galloping, yea-saying potency. It certainly is the book that Changed My Life (groan), even if I feel a little hesitant about admitting it. (It'd be far more glamorous to single out something by Genet or Conrad.) But then I was probably right smack in the middle of Kerouac's core constituency—a fat pimply kid in suburbia who simply had no idea, until this book fell into his hands, that literature could promise quite this much. As a hapless young writer, too, I can testify to his emancipating example. As Thomas Pynchon said about On the Road in his introduction to his collection of short fiction, Slow Learner: "It was actually OK to write like this! Who knew?" ("Personal Best: On the Road by Jack Kerouac" in ground. [Garner is an editor with Harper's Bazaar and Vermont Times, has reviewed books and profiled authors for the Village Voice, The Nation, the New York Times, Vanity Fair and other journals].)
Kerouac's novels, and the poetry and performances of Ginsberg, Snyder and Burroughs, and others (McClure, Corso, etc.) continue to exert a powerful cultural influence: a "galloping, yea-saying potency," an "emancipating example." Yet Garner ameliorates his verve: "Was Jack Kerouac a great writer? Probably not. Will I reread him more gratefully than most Great Writers I can think of? Absolutely" (ibid).
It may be hard for those under 50 to believe that Kerouac and Ginsberg were authors whose very names were verboten in the halls of academe. Garner's apologetic praise bears witness to this historical context. The achievements of the Beats remain academically questionable. Kerouac may have been a "Fabulous Yellow Roman Candle"—but was it good writing? What do we mean, in even proposing such a logical conundrum? Novels and poems, and haiku in English: bones of contention. And here we are. Needed: New voices to find haiku literature anew, express it, comment upon it, for the contemporary era. While there has been some groundwork done in the '70s-'90s, lacking serious academic study, haiku scholarship languishes.
What the Beats have to do with haiku in America is partly what they have to do with Zen Buddhism, with street poetry, with getting back to the Bard, to relevance, and spontaneity as a primary act of literature, literary style, and lifestyle. It's what they have in connection with Alan Watts, with LSD and hallucinogens and jazz, the beat of the spoken voice and soul power, of the voices and visibility of the down and out, a search for the sacred, anti-establishment stances, consciousness awareness, politically, socially, and at least in mind, sexually. The Beat movement was a new attempt at citizenship in modernity, and in presence.
Ginsberg lived by Blake, chanted peace mantras at Vietnam moratoriums protesting the war in Washington, D.C. He was openly, flagrantly gay. He exalted drugs, not for recreation, but to know, to deepen, to stay up, to talk real, not ideal; instead, angry, confused, urban, searching:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
(excerpted from the first stanza of HOWL, arguably the most important American poem since Whitman: http://members.tripod.com/~Sprayberry/poems/howl.txt)
You know—read it and know, read it and remember. Read it and wake up! Is it any wonder the Beats were (and largely continue to be) shunned in college classes? How might even moderate, accommodating parents respond to those teachers who distribute such poems and novels to their children, celebrating a romantically desirable lifestyle which taunts the establishment, is in the swim with illegal doings, at odds with material success, money, and fraught with emotional and physical risk? And if you're living in Ohio, Creationism is in. No it's not easy teaching the Beats, or even acknowledging them, in the halls of academe. Yet their works continue to inspire new generations—the book sales remain remarkably high.
Oddly, Blyth is associated with this camp, due to his idiosyncratic Zen Buddhist bent, and cultural associations, in that the timing of his translations bursting on the Beats, the Beat renaissance, and early hippie eras, in the '50s into the '60s, provided a kind of literary celebrity to those in the know. Haiku in English, on the whole, despite the rules and definitions of the Haiku Society of America, or whoever sought to elevate the new genre, has likewise been rejected in academe, along with the Beats and Blyth (who was in a sense guilty of being off-Beat, by association).
At the dawn of our new century, an informal online discussion about Blyth by a group of eminent scholars on the PMJS (Premodern Japanese Studies) listserv occurred in 2000 . The conversation is excerpted below, due to space considerations, with apologies to all participants, in the hope of presenting a fair snapshot of how the figure and work of Blyth is viewed by knowledgeable scholars working in allied fields:
MM: For me, and I suspect for many others, [Blyth] was a hugely important early introduction and a key to my decision to study Japanese literature. But I realize I know next to nothing about him. (Dr. Meredith McKinney, Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University)
MW: . . . it would probably be true to say that Blyth's position in "the history of the study" of "the Japanese classics" is disputed. If my memory serves me right, a distinguished member of this list once said in a book review that he sometimes wished Blyth's books could be hidden away in the closed stacks of libraries, out of reach of impressionable undergraduates! (Michael Watson, Professor of Japanese studies and comparative literature, Meiji Gakuin University, Yokohama. Resident in Japan from 1980.)
RB: I don't know about being distinguished but it was I who commented somewhere, I don't remember where, about hiding Blyth's books. Although it is undoubtedly true that his books have had extraordinary influence, and I too was undoubtedly drawn to study Japanese in the first place by the likes of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, I now find Blyth's books quite appalling. The book quoted by Michael [The Genius of Haiku: Readings from R.H. Blyth], which I actually discovered in Japan a few years ago, only served to strengthen this belief. He led the charmed life of an English eccentric in Japan and was obviously indulged by his printer Hokuseido. I remember hearing once that his manuscripts were simply printed as is with no change whatsoever. It shows, I'm afraid. Is there anyone out there who wished to stand up for him? (Richard Bowring, Professor of Japanese Studies, University of Cambridge, UK)
DG: I also find him infuriating at times—why, for example, does he never give references for the poems he chooses?—but I do admire his range of haiku and his translations of them. (Daniel Gallimore, Associate Professor, Japan Women's University, Tokyo.)
RM: A few words in defense of Blyth . . . Whatever their imperfections—and I admit that Blyth can be a bit too exuberant at times (like Walt Whitman)—these earlier pioneers must have had some merit if they drew you "to study Japanese in the first place." While personal preferences are sure to change over time, we need not discard the sources of our early enthusiasms and hide them away from "impressionable undergraduates." Let them make their own judgments. (Robert E Morrell, Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature & Buddhism, Dept. of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, Washington University in St. Louis)
RB: The point about Blyth is that last season's fruit is still being eaten and last year's words are still this year's language. I find that a problem. (Richard Bowring)
RM: I am always more than somewhat surprised at the hostility which Blyth, Watts, D.T. Suzuki, et al., still provokes. Back in the early '60s, my mentor, Bob Brower, would almost have had a seizure if anyone so much as mentioned R.H. Blyth or Alan Watts. . . . But almost a half-century later, I am baffled by the antagonism toward Blyth and Watts. . . Note also how the "Beat Generation," is probably more about adolescent rebellion than about "Zen". I wonder why? (Robert E. Morrell)
MM: It crossed my mind that the study of "haiku" in general may be felt by scholarly circles in the west as just a little disreputable. We're all perfectly comfortable with tanka, and yes sure renga is fascinating stuff too, but when it comes to "haiku" . . . somehow more the province of the flaky and the merely popular conception of J[apanese] poetry. Of course this is putting it a lot more bluntly than most would be prepared to acknowledge, but might it nevertheless have a grain of truth, or is it just my impression? And if it's so, how much can this be laid to the door of Blyth, and to scholarly fastidious reaction to him? (Meredith McKinney)
JB: i think some people who are into haiku without having japanese like it because it is philosophical rather than because it is literary. philosophical in a rather sentimental sense, i mean—all about oneness of existence, etc. one can't do that so easily with tanka or renga. . . . i remember reading blyth on zen in english literature when i was fourteen, beside lake okanagan in british Columbia . . . and i imagine blyth did something to turn me towards japanese literature, along with d.t. suzuki, who i read during the beat age. ditto alan watts. but i don't recall ever thinking of any of them as a tower of wisdom or learning. i guess all they did was let me know that there was an interesting civilization out there on the other side of the world. a good corrective to what i was getting in school . . . now that i think of it i remember getting quite excited about the title 'zen in english literature'—the idea that the former could be found in the latter seemed positively brilliant. it still does. who would have the nerve to title a book like that today? these people who stand there at the beginning of the world, the opening of a new horizon—i say let them make their mistakes and be appalling—. . . one way to teach japanese literature is through the images that we in countries other than japan have had of it ... (Janine Beichman, Professor, Daito Bunka University and Visiting Scholar 2008-2009, Columbia University.)
RB: I don't want to be misunderstood here. The study of haikai literature is extremely interesting and important and Shirane's recent work on Basho shows one way how to do it properly. What I find difficult to accept about Blyth is not the translations as such but his gushing, undisciplined prose, which I find difficult to read and impossible to take seriously. The Zen business is also a major stumbling block and has to do with his uncritical acceptance of the writings of Suzuki. No one has ever persuaded me that haikai or later haiku have ever had anything to do with Zen. See the truly excellent article by Robert Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism" in History of Religions 33.1 (1993). (Richard Bowring)
(Please see http://goo.gl/tH3vQ3 for the full discussion. PMJS continues as a "google list" group: http://groups.google.com/group/pmjs)
To recap, as imagined soundbites in an NPR news overview:
"The study of 'haiku' in general may be felt by scholarly circles in the west as just a little disreputable. . . . [Haiku studies being] more the province of the flaky and the merely popular conception of J[apanese] poetry."
". . . A distinguished member of this list once said in a book review he sometimes wished Blyth's books could be hidden away in the closed stacks of libraries, out of reach of impressionable undergraduates!"
"I now find Blyth's books quite appalling."
"He led the charmed life of an English eccentric in Japan and was obviously indulged by his printer Hokuseido. I remember hearing once that his manuscripts were simply printed as is with no change whatsoever. It shows, I'm afraid."
"I also find him infuriating at times"
"The point about Blyth is that last season's fruit is still being eaten and last year's words are still this year's language."
"Back in the early '60s, my mentor, Bob Brower, would almost have had a seizure if anyone so much as mentioned R.H. Blyth or Alan Watts. . . . Note also how the 'Beat Generation' is probably more about adolescent rebellion than about 'Zen.'"
"People who are into haiku without having Japanese like it because it is philosophical rather than because it is literary. philosophical in a rather sentimental sense . . ."
"What I find difficult to accept about Blyth is not the translations as such but his gushing, undisciplined prose, which I find difficult to read and impossible to take seriously."
"The Zen business is also a major stumbling block and has to do with his uncritical acceptance of the writings of Suzuki. No one has ever persuaded me that haikai or later haiku have ever had anything to do with Zen."
Blyth and the Beats are to an extent twin constellations. It's essentially a twinned critique: "philosophical in a rather sentimental sense . . ." This is a problem for the Beats, a problem for Blyth, a problem for naïve-romantic composition and interpretations of haiku in English, and a problem for the future of the genre.
Yet in contrast to the various degrees of disparagement in the discussion above, it seems to a person, everyone who had anything to say was inspired by Blyth, Watts, Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, the Beats, in some admixture:
"For me, and I suspect for many others, [Blyth] was a hugely important early introduction and a key to my decision to study Japanese literature."
". . . it is undoubtedly true that his books have had extraordinary influence…"
". . . I do admire his range of haiku and his translations of them."
". . . these earlier pioneers must have had some merit if they drew you 'to study Japanese in the first place.' While personal preferences are sure to change over time, we need not discard the sources of our early enthusiasms and hide them away…"
". . . I am baffled by the [contemporary] antagonism toward Blyth and Watts."
"i remember reading blyth on zen in english literature when i was fourteen, beside lake okanagan in british Columbia . . . and i imagine blyth did something to turn me towards japanese literature, along with d.t. suzuki, who i read during the beat age. ditto alan watts."
What's not being overtly stated, beyond such declarations that "these early pioneers" were "a key to my decision to study Japanese literature," is that a whole generation of Japanologists, and other academics in the humanities were likely inspired by the radicalism of the era in which these contemporary scholars were themselves youthful students and researchers. What of the life-changing, life-enhancing, life-inspiring realities mentioned, brought about by the writers in question? Why the protracted silence? The texts are, simply, academically unsuitable. In the haiku world, the depth of irony is Shakespearean. Has the life of inspiration through the vehicle of art ever been further distant from the garnering and teaching of contemporary democratic knowledge? Yet this situation presents an opportunity, an open field, resulting from silences decades long.
I would wish for a svelte and savvy Kerouac, but even if she existed, there are no North Shore houses for rent at $50/month facing the sea, no safe hitchhiking. If bohemians abound, cynicism attends smarts, and who can blame them? The radical alternatives of earlier postwar eras have failed. This is what both the Beats and Blyth offered: alternative cultures, deepened philosophies and a new poetics.
Modernity is not outside but within us. It is today and the most ancient antiquity; it is tomorrow and the beginning of the world; it is a thousand years old and yet newborn... [Modernity] We want to trap it alive but it flaps its wings and vanishes in the form of a handful of syllables. We are left empty-handed.
Modernity, our moment, our "era"—a concept crucial to gendai haiku, is the only gift we are given and can give: this empty-handed presence. Did the Beats fail, and did Blyth? Not if we are inspired. It's worth reading Kerouac again, and Ginsberg. Yet they also recede, as Blyth recedes, as the past recedes. What remains is passion as expressed in the ideas and stories. And good storytellers are rare enough. The inspirations of the era of Blyth and the Beats can be examined in the light of contemporary scholarship, in an integrated fashion, as part of a search for a new and deepened understanding of haiku poetics:
The doors of perception open slightly and the other time appears, the real one we were searching for without knowing it: the present, the presence.
under barns and naked —
the motionless world of time
February 12, 2009