Robert D. Wilson: Is Haiku Dying?

Chen-ou Liu: Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally


Vol. 8, No. 15, Winter 2011

Jim Kacian: Haiku as Anti-Story

Chen-ou Liu: The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku

David G. Lanoue: Issa's Comic Vision

Ikuyo Yoshimura: Kato Somo, the First Japanese Haikuist to Visit the United States

Dr. Randy Brooks: Haiku Poetics: Objective, Subjective, Transactional and Literary Theories

Vincent Hoarau: Suggestiveness in haiku through the work of Svetlana Marisova

David Grayson: The Sword of Cliché: Choosing a Topic

Robert D. Wilson: To Kigo or not to Kigo

Saša Važić: What's the Use

Tomas Transtromer awarded Nobel Prize


Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011

Haruo Shirane: Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths

Geert Verbeke: Haiku Study & Photo Haibun

David Burleigh: In and Out of Japan: The Contours of Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Kigo – The Heathbeat of Haiku

Michael Dylan Welch: Haiku Form and Content

Richard Gilbert: Kigo and Seasonal Reference: Cross-cultural Issues in Anglo-American Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part I: The Importance of Ma

Matthew M. Carriello: The Contiguous Image: Mapping Metaphor in Haiku

Richard Gilbert: The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A Study of Disjunctive Method and Definitions in Contemporary English-
language Haiku

Bruce Ross: The Essence of Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part II: Reinventing The Wheel: The Fly Who Thought He Was a Carabao

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Vera Markova’s “Ten Haiku Lessons”

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Tranströmer and his Haikudikter

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Haiku Poets' Last Line of Defence

Michael F. Marra: Yūgen

Robert D. Wilson: Simply Haiku Winter 2011 issue's Featured Poet: Slavko Sedlar


Jim Kacian, USA




So here we are.

You've heard that one before. It's a common expression, so common we might hear a hundred times and not think twice about it. But common though it is, there's something glad about it, something that cheers us and makes us feel at home. Its knot of language holds its energy tight within it in a way that we can't quite exhaust. And so we might use it, again and again, without tiring of it.

I'd like us to consider this expression a moment, piece by piece:  here  = in this designated time and place;  we= the conjoined mass of like-minded men and women;  are  = have existence. And binding this together,  so  = as a consequence of what has happened before; or, more colloquially, with knowledge of the situation. Every part of this phrase, and its order, matters: how different would it be if we were to say "we are so here", or, "we are here, so", or simply, "we are here".

So here we are. And to the "hereness" and the "weness" and the "areness", the "so" is  ba.

If you look up  ba  in any Japanese-English Dictionary, you'll find it means "place" or "site" or "occasion". And these are all true in the most general sense—ba  is a pointer to a kind of awareness that something of importance is happening in time and space. Everything, properly considered, is of importance, but we, being the limited and biased creatures we are, can know the significance of only a few of such things at a time, so we need a way of saying "this one—this one's important". And this is true for each of these meanings—this place, this site, this occasion—and in a way that is especially pertinent to such a group as ourselves, haiku poets, preternaturally interested in "this one".

Take "place", for instance: just now, Plattsburgh is ba. Elmira is a place, but it's not ba, not to us, not now. Plattsburgh is where it's happening, Plattsburgh is where, as a consequence of what has come before—like-minded men and women—exist. Plattsburgh is the "so" of that phrase. Elmira is very nice, but Plattsburgh is ba.

And Thursday at 10:30 A.M. is ba, and the Plattsburgh International Haiku Conference is ba. There are many other candidates that will emerge today and in the ensuing days of our lives, places and times and occasions that will want to be and will actually be ba for us, but for today, here it is, and we are in its midst.

This ba, this knowledge of the situation, can take so many shapes and directions that it's impossible to list them all, but you can gather that at its largest, it signifies a grounding of who we are right now, in this place, at this time, the whole package that we might sum up as our awareness, our consciousness, our reality.

So here we are.  Ba. Now what?

The answer is, perhaps not surprisingly, now  everything. Ba is the basis for pretty much everything we do in haiku. In fact, ba is the message of haiku: so here we are! Of course haiku is not message-driven, and I don't mean to suggest that the value of all haiku can be reduced to this simple mantra. But I do wish to argue that ba  is the jumping-off point, without which we wouldn't really know what or how any particular haiku means. And in fact we depend upon it in all instances to ground our poems, to make them mean something to others—in fact, acquiring ba was the "learning curve" we all experienced when we first came to haiku. Ba is the place where haiku reside, and while it is possible to write poems in haiku  form  or on haiku  topics  without a sense of it, one cannot be said to have written  haiku  until one finds this place and dwells there. Further, the specific sense of what ba might be has come to us in a very definite way, for historical and political reasons, and I think it might interest you to explore these reasons, and the powerful effect this has had on the conception and practice of western haiku.

* * *

First, though, let's consider how ba has affected us in our own writing. Think back to those early days of our haiku apprenticeship. Remember those poems that we wrote in the throes of our first infatuation? How we carefully counted syllables, neatly arranged our three lines—flush left, staggered or indented one and three? How we toyed with this adjective or that—I'd like to use "malleable" but "perverse" has the two syllables I have left. And when it was done, how pleased we were, we'd done it, and it was surely one of the best things ever done in the form, how pithily it stated the profundity of my vision, how deftly it married the melliflousness of the language with the wisdom of ages. And we mailed it off to Modern Frog Nervz with our self-addressed stamped envelope looking forward to our dollar's return—we don't do this for the money, of course—and when it did come back, it contained no dollar but a terse note saying Not Quite or Are You Serious or Have You Considered Taking Up Golf Instead. And we were convinced that haiku editors were idiots if they couldn't find the artistry, the craftsmanship, the deep sense of our little gems.

Obviously this did not discourage us—or at least not enough—so here we are! And now, in hindsight, we might look back upon those times and admit, grudgingly, that perhaps yes, those editors did know a thing or two, that maybe there was a thing or two about haiku we didn't yet fully possess, and that yes, perhaps the language was a bit stilted, and perhaps the lines padded out, and just possibly we were trying to make a point through abstraction or philosophizing. Okay, let's admit it, maybe they were right. I hate it when that happens...

And now we can look back on those times and perhaps we can smile. We have come over to the other side, and if it were our lot to have to evaluate those same early poems, or others just like them, we'd have to admit that we'd reject them as well. What's happened to us? Have we simply given up and given in, merely kowtowing to the prevailing notions of haiku in order to get published once in a while? Maybe some of us feel that way. But I'm guessing that for most of us, we recognize that we've learned a few things along the way, some things that make the writing of haiku more difficult, more challenging, more artful. What we've learned, in fact, is ba.

T. S. Eliot, in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," wrote "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone." By which he meant that no artist invented himself in a vacuum—rather, all artistic meaning arises from both an understanding of as well as a break with the tradition that is the ground of that art. And for proof we need look no further than ourselves: what did we make of the first haiku we saw? Even if it came clear to us, how could we evaluate it other than to say whether or not we liked it, whatever that might mean at the time. And if we looked at this same poem again today, knowing what we know now, would we not regard that poem differently? What has been added? Our knowledge of haiku, its practices and practitioners—in short, ba: "that which is a consequence of what has happened before." Eliot again: "Some one said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know."

Now it is true that every one of us, and every poem, contains its own ba. So it's not so simple as to say either you know everything you need to know about haiku and so are included in the group, or you do not, and so are not. What is significant about Eliot's realization is that at least some part of what we are doing as poets must find its breath and life within the tradition of poetry. If I were asked to write a poem and took out a chisel and carved a figure out of stone, you might say that's very nice (or not) but what I wanted was a poem. To think that a sculpture would be an equal swap suggests my lack of understanding of the history of poetry, where no poems have previously come in the shape of sculpted stone. This doesn't mean they won't in the future, but for the moment we have no means of communicating with each other, because I haven't spoken intelligibly within the tradition, that is, within ba. And if I argue that that's what I mean by poem, well, that's fine, but I'm going to have trouble communicating with others who have a more historically accurate sense of what's usually been meant by the word.

So it is with less extreme distinctions as well. I may well have my idea of what poetry is or ought to be—that's fine, that will help the art grew, if I'm any good and I can manage to say something important interestingly and well. And we can call this my personal ba. But if none of my readers is able to connect with it—that is, if it doesn't line up with the historical and communal ba—then we will all end up frustrated and nothing will be accomplished. So while no poem can come completely outside of ba in the personal sense, it is ultimately the communal sense of ba that we measure it against.

And we know this to be true. Poems that come from outside ba, even when witty or poetic or poignant, are often laughable from within it. We all know poems written for the popular market, such as

I wait for you to
Clean the rugs. Hack! Hack! Here: my
Best hairball to date.

Deborah Coates,  Cat Haiku

We can, of course, find the story in this, and even with a casual glance ascertain that it's been written according to the formula. But even with the aid that the book's title supplies, we can't find ba, and for a good reason: it's not present. Not that the poem doesn't have a context—it's just not haiku's context, but rather that of the poet. When a poet has come to terms with ba, he or she might make these two contextual ideas coincide—in fact, that's what it means to be accomplished. What haiku poet is more idiosyncratically herself than Marlene Mountain? And yet so here we are:

pig and i spring rain

Why does Marlene's pig possess more ba than Deborah's cat? Is it just that we know Marlene (or know the part of herself she exposes in her work) or is it something else here? After all, we're talking about five words, five syllables—how can this be enough to create a world and an empathy? And the answer is, it isn't. What makes it whole, what makes it resonate, is ba: knowledge of the situation.

This is old news in the haiku world. The significance of ba has been critical to the understanding of classical Japanese haiku for centuries. It was the discovery of and implementation of ba, in fact, that elevated haiku from a punny leisure activity to a serious literary pursuit. Consider, as an example, this poem by Teishitsu (1609-1673), chief pupil of Teitoku, who founded the Teitoku school, the dominant school of haiku just prior to Basho:

suzushisa no katamari nare ya yowa no tsuki

condensing in the air –
the midnight moon

It is obvious this style of poem comes from an earlier understanding of what was possible in haiku. It is what at one time was termed a poetic conceit: that is, an overdriven metaphor which in this case is intended to be a bit of a witty surprise as well. And we can appreciate it—there is something interesting in the notion that the air might gather itself into a solid block of coolness, especially after a hot day. And then, there it is, its refreshing whiteness shining down on what had been parched and hot before, the other side of day, the goddess of the night, the moon. So as these things go, this is pretty good.

But if it's so good, why did it disappear? The truth is, it hasn't—there are thousands of poems written like this every year, and some of them find their way into print:

The mystery is:
here is the fork in the road,
but which way is up?

William Warriner,  Corporate Haiku

You may prefer one or another of these, but the impulse, and the level of accomplishment, is about the same. It's apparent both poets can count, both are capable of creating a bit of suspense, both reach a level of achievement. And certainly both are better than what we usually get from absolute beginners:

When dawn is breaking
rustic leaves gusting in the wind
the pumpkin shivers.

Ron Dawson,  A Cache of Haiku

This is not meant to be an indictment of Ron Dawson or his poetry: we all start somewhere. However, Mr. Dawson has had the bad advice or judgment to put a sizeable portion of his early work in print, and so has needlessly exposed himself to a certain amount of criticism. That's what happens when we send our children out into the cold, unfeeling world. But if he wants to, if he reads and studies and practices, Mr. Dawson will get better. And how will he get better? He will acquire ba. I could be wrong, but my assumption is that neither Ms. Coates nor Mr. Warriner has any interest in getting any better.

As we all know, improvement is not an instantaneous process, nor is it automatic, no matter how much we desire it. Consider this one:

ara nani tomo na ya kinô wa sugite fukutojiru

well, nothing's happened —
and yesterday has come and gone
fugu soup

For those of you who don't know, fugu, what we call blowfish, is a Japanese delicacy which, if not properly prepared, can paralyze and kill the eater. Isn't the playfulness of this poem very like that of Teishitsu and Warriner? We can easily imagine the poet, probably a young man, eating fugu on a dare, and now, safely on the other side of yesterday, watch him crow a bit—see, I did it. But bravado aside, nothing about the poem invites deeper reflection: it's just a joke. And who is the author of this poem?

Yes, it's Bashô, but before he became Bashô. This poem originates from around 1678, when he was 34, so the poet was no newbie at this point: he has been studying for seven years with his master Soîn in Edo, was considered by this point a rising star of the Danrin school, and had even taken on Sampo and Kikaku as students. Yet it's easy to identify this as a relatively immature effort. Compare it with this:

kareeda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure

on a withered branch
a crow has settled —
autumn evening

It's not just the somberness of the content that has changed here—everything's different, not least the poet himself. This poem, written in 1680, only two years later, suggests what a great distance Bashô has come.

* * *

This movement from amusement to literature is the reason why we're here today. If haiku had remained the jokey plaything it was prior to Bashô, then it would have had its fifteen minutes and disappeared, just as the purveyors of contemporary trash haiku will have their populist fling and then we will hear no more of them. This seems fitting: very little has actually been accomplished in these poems, and in fact, if any of us turned our minds to it, I'm sure we would have no difficulty writing, in the space of an hour or two, quite a good-sized book of trash haiku on virtually any subject we might think of. And perhaps we ought—perhaps we should have a workshop on Commercial Haiku, brainstorm a topic, and let fly. It might even be fun. But even if we did that, it wouldn't compel us to change our routines, endure the hardships of travel, perhaps take a day off from work without pay, to gather and discuss them. Why bother? Yet here we are, and it's Bashô's fault, Bashô and his followers and their followers and the translators and the critics and theorists and the early practitioners and our fellow poets—it's all our own fault. Since we recognized the power of ba and featured it in our poems, we have made something significant of it, something more than a nonce poetry. It may not make us rich or famous, but it has something that keeps calling to us, and we answer.

Since ba has had such a powerful effect on our lives, it's worth having a look at how it has come to us here in the west. It's one thing for Bashô to adapt a local custom, but quite another for a completely different culture to identify and adopt such a foreign concept.

Japan was a closed culture for a very long time, so we in the west knew nothing of haiku (or its predecessors) for its first several centuries. Only after the so-called "opening" of the islands by Commodore Perry in 1853 did we catch a glimmer of what kinds of things were happening there, and even then there were few non-Japanese who could speak the language and had the wherewithal to interpret what they were witnessing. And it was these very few people, largely a group of artists and intellectuals from Boston, who were responsible for creating the cult of  Japonisme  that emerged. These people—Ernest Fennelosa, Edward S. Morse, Stuart Bigelow and others—were the interpreters of the East for the first fifty years of our contact with it, and we came to view it largely through their eyes. As you might imagine, simply cataloging the range of activities and norms of another culture would be a staggering achievement—opining on their value is something else again.

Haiku was an art wholly endemic to Japan, which made its interpretation all the more difficult. Nevertheless, as early as 1869, or a mere 16 years after Commodore Perry's invasion, the first non-Japanese book of haiku appeared—in Bulgarian! It was, of course, a book of translations of original Japanese poems. But consider the challenge—even if you get the words right, what do they mean together? And even if we catch the literal and idiomatic meaning, how do we discover the poetic sense?

Isn't this just like our own first encounters with haiku? But with this important difference—when we encounter something unknown to us, we have the resources to learn more. The earliest writers and translators, on the other hand, had either to ask the Japanese, or make the best guesses of which they were capable, given their own understandings and backgrounds—that is, given their own ba. This accounts for the interesting if wrong-headed assumptions and dictums we find from this period, such as Basil Hall Chamberlain referring to haiku as a "poetical epigram". But for the first time non-Japanese could begin to fathom what haiku poets had been working at for those many centuries. Not until Lafcadio Hearn took up residence in Japan in the 1890s was thoughtful and balanced consideration given to what had been attempted, and even then Hearn was no specialist (his interest was primarily folk song). It was another decade before other scholars, Japanese and outsiders, began publishing their considerations of what haiku were.

Simultaneously while exporting of their own culture, the Japanese were also importing western culture at a great rate. In fact, there was real concern in the 1920s that the Japanese might jettison their entire way of life for a western mode of being, and it was due at least in part to those Boston intellectuals that some of the old ways were maintained and revalued in Japan. Amongst the ideas that gained a foothold in Japanese culture at this time were a new foundation for commerce, a familiarity with western philosophical dualism, and an acceptance of western-style arts, especially painting and literature. Some of the modes of the day imported wholesale into Japanese discourse included naturalism, surrealism and dada.

This free-market cultural exchange has had an enormous impact on, among many other things, the history of haiku in the west. I don't mean simply that haiku was coaxed out of its indigenous home to be interpreted by Lafcadio Hearn, revisioned by Ezra Pound and contextualized by R. H. Blyth, though these things are extremely important. Even beyond that, something was going on in haiku in Japan that was unprecedented and which has never been repeated, at precisely the moment we began taking it on board here.

As we recollect, Bashô elevated haiku in the seventeenth century to a literary art. It remained in good health for a time, as his disciples kept the practice alive and taught others well. But after a time, and inevitably, haiku declined, returning again to wordplay and slickness of treatment as opposed to the depths of emotion and allusion it had come to feature at its zenith. There were two revivals of haiku as high art, each centering on the work and personality of a particular master of the art, first Buson (flourished 1760) and then Issa (flourished 1810), but neither created the widespread systematic schooling that Bashô had managed, and so haiku again and quickly slipped into a retrograde condition. It was in this state when Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor.

But through an unbelievable piece of bad luck, all this happened at exactly the time that Japanese haiku was going through a remarkable revaluation, led by a young, ambitious poet: Masaoka Shiki. Shiki was very interested in the cross-cultural exchange that had come to Japan. His first love was that ancient and honorable Japanese sport—baseball. He was studying the English language as early as high school. And he had a taste for western art, particularly representational painting, which was to have a marked effect on his own opinions of what constituted good art. And, of course, he was deadly serious about haiku.

And we know the result: Shiki retooled the moribund haiku into an objectivist art, replete with a model of composition (shasei), and a revaluation of the pantheon (Buson became his exemplar, replacing the subjective and heterodox Bashô). Or, to put it in the terms of this conference: he jettisoned the ethos of 400 years of haiku for something like the philosophy of the Hudson River School. Shiki changed the foundation of haiku by changing its ba.

The consequences, of course, have been profound. The west came to haiku at the only time in its long and estimable history when it had adopted an objectivist orientation. Never mind that objectivism is philosophically untenable, that there is no way to prove through language the existence of any sort of reality "out there." Even more implausibly, the whole grounding of the traditional art of haiku, according to Shiki, was now to be based on an imported western construct. And haiku has suffered for it ever since.

This is not to say there is no value in Shiki's approach, but in seeking to revive it, he felt it necessary to throw out the very underpinnings of the art, the stuff out of which Bashô had made it an art form in the first place. And to argue his case, he reinterpreted the history of haiku in Japan in a way that the poets themselves would have rejected. Buson was no objectivist—his model, in fact, was the subjective Bashô, and he employed ba as the core of his best work in the same fashion. Consider this famous poem:

tsurigane ni tomari te nemuru kochô kana

resting upon
the temple bell —
sleeping butterfly

Shiki singles this out as exemplary of what haiku ought to be—image-based, pictorial, and immediate—a "sketch from nature," perfect  shasei. In fact, Shiki considers this poem to exemplify what he terms "positive beauty"—a western attribute, as he saw it, and as opposed to the traditional "negative beauty" which marked "Oriental" art. The translators and interpreters who followed concurred: Miyamori calls it an "artless little verse" and "a mere simple objective description." Blyth follows with "There is nothing symbolized," and continues "however objective it may be, we feel the intensity and absorption of the poet and butterfly as one thing."

Really? Is that what Buson had in mind, or are Shiki and Miyamori and Blyth simply arguing for their interpretations?

In fact, Buson's poem is a web of allusions, not least to the famous dream of Chuang Tze (in Japanese, Sôshi), who could not say if he was a man dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. I doubt any literate Japanese could read this poem without being reminded of this incident, much less a poet, and especially a poet of Buson's caliber. Beyond this, there is an allusion to a Noh play by Zeami entitled  Takasago, and an episode in the  Genji Monogatari, though both of these are based on this same classical original. And of course it plays ironically with Moritake's famous falling leaf/rising butterfly poem. But most of all, it alludes directly to Basho's

kimi ya chô ware ya sôshi ga yume gokoro

you're the butterfly
and I'm Chuang Tze's
dreaming heart

To deny the possibility of allusion and symbolism to Buson's poem is like saying that  Moby Dick must be read as a straightforward account of a fishing expedition: it's possible to do so, but why would you want to? This doesn't mean that Buson never saw a butterfly on a temple bell—we don't know if he did, and it doesn't matter. What we do know is that wherever he got his material, he knew how to turn it into poetry. To denude such haiku of its allusion is to strip it of its fetch, and to reduce it to little more than a journal entry.

And of course this is not the only such example—the entire corpus of Buson's work contains this same sort of allusive material. Simultaneously we can go through Shiki's readings of Buson's poems and find this same reductionism at work. This is too bad for Buson, but what of it? Why should this matter to us, two centuries later?

It matters because of the manner in which it has affected the very way in which you and I and all westerners have come to view haiku, narrowly limiting what haiku have traditionally been by making the least out of that which makes haiku so distinctive: its ba. In order to demonstrate this let's consider the arc of the Haiku Society of America's definition of haiku from the time of its inception in the early 1970s to the present time. The need for definitions is apparent—how else to tell the uninitiated (that is, most new members) what we are about? But definitions are famously retrograde and proscriptive. Interestingly, however, the HSA's earliest attempts at definition were broader, and grew gradually narrower. The first version, as suggested by Professor Harold G. Henderson: "A short Japanese poem recording a moment of emotion in some way connected with nature." (I will omit discussions of format and English cognate at this point for brevity's sake.) Notice that even at the outset mention is made of nature. There is the mention of "moment" here as well, which is equally loaded, but that's a discussion for another time.

A month later this became "A Japanese poem, a record of a moment of emotion, in some way linking Nature with human nature." The "moment" is retained, nature has become Nature and human nature has been removed from this Nature by being posited against it, as though it were something else. In other words, there is something out there called Nature, and we humans do not partake of it. And the clear limning of this Nature as it relates to us is the business of haiku. This is a clearly objectivist position, following Shiki.

Half a year later this has morphed into this: "A Japanese poem, a record of a moment keenly perceived which in some way links Nature with human nature." This is much the same as the previous except for the addition of the phrase "keenly perceived," which, as one of its outcomes, suggests that "the record" of any moment "keenly perceived" is a haiku. Marlene Mountain's parody definition of this was that a haiku was "a dull moment keenly perceived," and of course she makes a point: none of this is about art so much as about optical acuity.

At this point it's worth considering how Japanese dictionaries define haiku—from the  Jikai, edited by Kindaichi Kyosuke and considered the equivalent of  Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "1. abbreviation for "stanza of a haikai" etc., and 2. particularly, a name for 'hokku'; a word used and popularized by Masaoka Shiki circa the 23rd year of Meiji (1890). Five-seven-five, three-line, seventeen-sound short poem." Interesting, isn't it? No mention of nature, or Nature. No "moment". No "keen perception". Haiku in Japan is defined primarily as a poem, and all that that implies. But what we had imported was something quite different: in brief, we had taken on Shiki's program as though it were the whole of haiku, when in fact it was an extremely minor, doctrinaire, one-time aberration in the lengthy history of haiku as an art.

* * *

And we are all heirs of this understanding. The definition quest went on for some time after that, arriving finally at the following: "An unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature. It usually consists of seventeen onji." Let's not get started on the whole  onji thing. And only latterly, after a good deal of agitation by difficult parties, of which I am pleased to claim membership, has the HSA come to the following: "A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."

We still have some sort of objective nature in there, and we still have some separation of this nature from human nature, which is at the very least a debatable issue, but at least we're getting closer to what is actually being attempted in haiku. A poem, yes, and using imagistic language—as opposed to philosophical or abstract language, though these are not unheard of, in classical Japanese haiku, in contemporary Japanese haiku, in our own practices. The essence of an experience of nature—that's a mouthful, but if we consider everything nature (and how can we not?) then it means simply the insight that made us write it down in the first place.

While this is still far too prescriptive—consider again that Japanese definition—it is some distance removed from the blinkered objectivist agenda we inherited from Shiki. We, Japanese and others, still have some of the trappings of that mindset embedded in our very notion of haiku behavior: consider, for instance, the ginko. The rationale of the ginko is that the poet, brought face to face with the raw workings of Nature, will be inspired to the sublimity of art. But we also know the actual results of such things: for every worthy poem produced, thousands of workmanlike, dull, imitative poems are churned out. I have no objection to ginko, and there are some few to whom it is an actual inspiration. And equally, for some it is their only opportunity and excuse to actually get out into nature, which cannot be a bad thing. But when the French composer Claude Debussy wrote "It is more important to see the sunrise than to listen to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony," was he suggesting that he took his music paper out into the fields and composed before the source?

Certainly not. Exposure to nature, in as large a context as we can conceive nature to be, is certainly the source of most of what we do as haiku poets, but it's not enough simply to be sat down before it: Haiku is not photography, a simple exact limning of what lays before our eyes. If it is an art, then it must be the selecting and ordering of words into a cogent form that helps lead another's mind along the path that the poet's has followed, with perhaps a similar reaction to be had at the end. And this rarely takes place before the butterfly's wing, but usually in the roiling of the mind, consciously and unconsciously, whenever it can—for me that often means in the middle of the night.

And yet despite this we still retain some residual disdain for what are termed desk haiku. In truth, every haiku I've ever written has been a desk haiku. It may have had its origins in some natural spectacle, and I may even have written it on the spot. But always, some time later and in the darkness of my mind and study, I look again. It's this revisiting that is the actual work of art—even if I don't change a word. "Desk haiku" is another way of saying I'm a working poet.

So it is evident that we were very unlucky in our timing in coming to haiku, that we have had a great deal to overcome to arrive at anything approaching poetry as opposed to botany or empiricism. But the Japanese have not escaped entirely unscathed themselves.

Throughout the 20th century, Shiki and his disciples held the dominant position in Japanese haiku, so that Japanese poets and scholars had similar difficulties as non-Japanese in getting more subjective, allusion-driven work published and into circulation. The model was the shasei, the premier publication  Hototogisu, and the dominant organization the Modern Haiku Association. But in the past three decades this has begun to change (cultural things generally change slowly in Japan) through the work of poets such as Kaneko Tohta and scholars such as Hasugawa Kai. And these poets and scholars too have recognized the hegemony that the Shiki model has held for so long at the expense of a proper valuing of the rest of the haiku tradition. Bashô is making a comeback in Japan, and allusion is returning to the poems published and winning awards. Haiku is returning to ba and is the larger for it.

Nothing has been more fundamental to the historical understanding of haiku than this sense of "knowledge of the situation". Technical issues like syllable counting and kigo, and content issues such as the inclusion of non-classical topics and the distinction between haiku and senryu come and go, but this issue of the so-here-we-are, this ba-ness of haiku, goes on and on. And the proper domain for this is, of course, not a culture or a language, but our minds. Ultimately, ba is the realm of mind, a subjective realm, to be sure, but not necessarily a realm in isolation. In fact, it is the cooperation of minds that makes culture and language possible. There can be no conception of objective reality without the subjective reality that underpins it, our own consciousness. And if we can bring mind to bear on our art, then we are capable of making more of it than simply sketching from nature. In fact, we must. We are capable of understanding the ba out of which can be written:

from the future
a wind arrives
that blows the waterfall apart

Ban'ya Natsuishi,  A Future Waterfall

If we cavil, as the objectivists might, that this is not a sketch from nature, then we have missed the opportunity to dwell in that which makes us unique in nature—the imagination. And at the same time, this imagination, part of us, is part of nature as well.

Literature is capable of giving us a clue, not to what is true, but to what we think we're being true to. And while that's not everything, it's a lot, and it makes our taking pains to find ba and maintain it worth the effort.

So here we are. What are we going to make of it?

Thank you for your kind attention.


Plattsburgh, NY
30 July 2008


Speech given at the International Haiku Conference 2008,
SUNY Plattsburgh, July 30, 2008; published serially in


Republished by the author's permission.