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Charles Trumbull, USA
Between Basho and Ban’ya (Bypassing Barthes):
A New Brand of Haiku?
In recent years I have noticed a creeping profusion of haiku of a kind that departs rather sharply from an objective, observational approach and abandons, at least in part, the concrete imagery that I had always looked for in the best haiku.These haiku have one solid, concrete image but include one emotion, or thought, or feeling—very nebulous indeed. I have in mind this kind of poem written by Cynthia Cechota,
I’ll never become
Cynthia Cechota, Modern Haiku 43:2 (summer 2012)
or this one by Jayne Miller:
it’s not the big things
Jayne Miller, Mayfly 51 (summer 2011)
I maintain that these are essentially different from classically-grounded English language haiku, such as Jerome Cushman’s:
cold March moon
appears ... disappears
the long drive home
Jerome Cushman, Michael Dylan Welch
and Grant Savage, eds., Into Our Words
(Haiku North America Anthology 2009)
with its two clear subject-images: “March moon” and “the long drive.” Or Charlotte Digregorio’s plain and effective juxtaposition of two strong natural subjects (from her new book Haiku and Senryu: A Simple Guide for All):
old growth …
Charlotte Digregorio, Modern Haiku 39:2 (summer 2008)
or Lidia Rozmus’s beautiful:
from breath to breath
Wnoszącświatłoksięzyca / Carrying Moonlight
(International Haiku Conference, Kraków, Poland, 2003)
The new kind of haiku I’m talking about are not senryu, which I take to be haiku-like verses that focus on human behavior and so need not be especially concrete or objective. For comparison, here are two poems I’d call senryu by Cynthia and Jayne and two more by others:
prickly pear in moonlight —
liking him better
Cynthia Cechota, Modern Haiku 41:1 (winter–spring 2010)
Jayne Miller, Modern Haiku 42:3 (autumn 2011)
NRA rally — shooting my mouth off
Bill Pauly, Modern Haiku 44:2 (summer 2013)
the retired conductor
checks his watch
Gayle Bull, Modern Haiku 44:2 (summer 2013)
Such haiku as the first set by Cynthia and Jayne began to gnaw at me, as they did not square with my idea of a haiku presenting two seemingly unrelated concrete images for comparison. Marsh Muirhead’s senryu-like verse has a third line with an adverb and a negative, both keys to the kind of abstraction I’m talking about:
under my fingernails
still no wife
Marsh Muirhead, Modern Haiku 38:3 (autumn 2007)
Lidia Rozmus takes us into dreamland or even a surreal landscape with her haiku:
in a dream
I’m sewing on a button
with one hole
Lidia Rozmus, Modern Haiku 44:2 (summer 2013)
Now, I’m a great devotee of definitions. This quirk dates back decades, when my fellow graduate students and I so earnestly sought relief for the world’s woes in all-night bull sessions. These rough-and-tumble matches always seemed to devolve, sooner or later, into definitions: “Yeah, but how do you define ‘justice’?” “So what exactly do you mean by ‘nature’? Does that include ‘human nature’?”
I drag these mental shackles to my work in haiku. Probably more than most aficionados, I obsess over a definition of haiku. If I am aiming to write something called “haiku”, I need to know exactly what it is that I am targeting.
The definition that I arrived at after many years of wandering in the wilderness begins like this, which you may recognize from the Modern Haiku Submission Guidelines:
Haiku is a brief verse that epitomizes a single moment. It uses the juxtaposition of two concrete images, often a universal condition of nature and a particular aspect of human experience, in a way that prompts the reader to make an insightful connection between the two.
The key for my presentation today is the phrase: “the juxtaposition of two concrete images.” I’m not sure, but I may have arrived at the notion of “two concrete images” on my own, and, looking back, it was my own extension of the more canonical definitions of haiku. I always considered the definition by Japanese scholar Shigehisa Kuriyamain from the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan as the bellwether for English-language haiku. But on this point he only talks about the technique of “cutting” and doesn’t go into detail about what is being cut. I assumed he meant two images that after cutting were to be juxtaposed and subjected to “internal comparison,” to use Bob Spiess’s term.
My notion that a haiku must be concrete and objective seems to have derived from Harold Henderson and the Haiku Society of America. The first HSA definition said that haiku record “the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature.”
In 2000, Robert Spiess challenged 11 leading haiku thinkers from four countries [Bruce Ross, George Swede, Dhugal Lindsay, William J. Higginson, David Cobb, ai li, Cor van den Heuvel, A.C. Missias, Randy M. Brooks, Lee Gurga, and Robert Spiess] to submit definitions of haiku in 25 words or fewer. He published them together in Modern Haiku (31:3 [fall 2000, 74–75]). These definitions were later analyzed in depth by Missias, who had this to say about the concept of the haiku needing a basis in reality, or concrete imagery:
the ideas of “reality”, “sensory description”, or “not from the imagination” were referred to six and a half times, while the notion that “images” or “things” should be included was mentioned six times—together, these ideas of the concrete basis for haiku received some coverage in eight and a half of the definitions.
So about half the experts also felt that concreteness was important.
The revised HSA definition from 2005 introduced the idea of images, but did not mention concreteness or objectivity: “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.”
Now, in the past decade or so we have become aware of something quite new and different called, at least in Japan, gendai haiku. These verses abandon all expectations derived from classical definitions of haiku, plunge into the surreal, personal, and psychological, and transport us into new dimensions of time and space. On my haiku typological continuum gendai haiku occupy a position diametrically opposite to the classics.
Many of us have taken to calling a certain breed of avant-garde English-language haiku “gendai” too, probably because they are being written in imitation of, or at least heavily influenced by, contemporary avant-garde haiku of prominent Japanese poets such as Kaneko Tōta and Natsuishi Ban’ya and their coteries. Who can forget haiku like these:
The clerks in the bank
fluorescent from the early morning
like so many squid
Kaneko Tōta, trans. David Burleigh,
Modern Haiku 40:2 (summer 2009)
A god of hyperhidrosis
makes a round
of a dinosaur exhibition
Natsuishi Ban’ya, trans. Ban’ya and Jim Kacian,
Ban’ya, Waves of Joy (1992)
Richard Gilbert, one of the first and probably the most enthusiastic American advocate of gendai haiku, has written:
Over the last several years, some haiku critics have begun using “gendai haiku” to refer to “new” or “outré ”ELH works, with an implicit (at times explicit) line being drawn in the sand separating these new works, often by rejection or dismissal, from the so-called “traditionalist haiku.” He goes on at some length to challenge the application of the term “gendai” to English-language haiku.
With reference to the haiku in Lee Gurga and Scott Metz’s groundbreaking anthology Haiku 21, Gilbert proposes:
These are haiku styles and approaches which challenge reader-coherence, and often explore possibilities of genre-capacity and range. With reference to the Haiku 21 anthology, for ease of use I have coined the term “H21 haiku.”
Whether we want to call these English-language gendai haiku or H21 haiku or something else, a number of very prominent haikuists—including some in this very room—have been infected by the exhilarating nature of this style. I would call attention to Lee Gurga’s recent work, such as
new bill o’reillys are formed at angles of 137.5°
Lee Gurga, Modern Haiku 44:1 (winter–spring 2013)
As is often the case with gendai haiku, a great deal is called for from the reader. Here, one must know that Bill O’Reilly is a right-wing, highly opinionated, and maddeningly popular American TV news commentator and that 137.5° is the Golden Angle—corresponding to the Golden Mean—or, as Wikipedia tells us, “the smaller of the two angles created by sectioning the circumference of a circle according to the golden section; that is, into two arcs such that the ratio of the length of the larger arc to the length of the smaller arc is the same as the ratio of the full circumference to the length of the larger arc.” Also, Wikipedia again says, “the golden angle is the angle separating the florets on a sunflower.” Armed with that knowledge, the reader is prepared to crawl into Lee’s mind and political orientation, I suppose!
only one of us
Melissa Allen, Frogpond 37:1 (winter 2014)
might be considered faux classical or semi-gendai in that it begins with a strong classical season marker, “autumn sky,” then veers sharply into the surreal, leaving the reader to ponder who “us” is and how (presumably) people can be deciduous. Likewise, Brent Goodman’s
breaching the surface
the sky inside us
makes use of the uncanny in the third line. Similarly defying my pigeon holing is Dan Schwerin’s
not as green as the grass has been saying
Dan Schwerin, Frogpond 37:1 (winter 2014)
where he serves us up a nice concrete image, “green grass,” but that gets personified when it says something to the poet and abstracted by the negative “not.” I would classify both these as gendai rather than the hybrid style of haiku I am trying to define.
Such American gendai or H21 experiments are not the kind of haiku I am struggling to focus on in this presentation. I want to concentrate on the body of haiku in English that is lodged between classical and gendai, haiku such as Francine Banwarth’s
all of the green fading
so long since
I’ve written a word
Francine Banwarth, Acorn 31 (fall 2013)
or Michael Nickels-Wisdom’s
raspberry paczki —
from one day to the next
this sinner’s heart
Michael Nickels-Wisdom, Per Diem Archive
(The Haiku Foundation website), March 2013, “Judeo-Christian Traditions”
or Aubrie Cox’s
all the places
I’ve yet to go
Aubrie Cox, A New Resonance 8 (2013)
or Scott Glander’s
picket fence what i thought i knew
Scott Glander, Modern Haiku 44:2 (summer 2013)
These are not especially challenging either to Gilbert’s “reader-coherence” nor “genre-capacity and range,” whatever he might mean. What they do do is contain one concrete image (fading green color, paczki [Polish pastries], a violet, and a picket fence, respectively), then add mentation, feelings, or emotions—can we call them images? including: “so long since I have written a word,” “this sinner’s heart,” “all the places I’ve yet to go,” and “what i thought i knew.” In each case notice how the concrete image is used as a springboard for the musing of the poet.
Bruce Ross looked at some of these kind of haiku in his investigation of what he called “absolute metaphor” in his essay “The Essence of Haiku” in Modern Haiku 38:3 (summer 2007). He applied the term “objective correlative” to haiku:
Here is a contemporary haiku by AlenkaZorman of Slovenia that manifests the absolute metaphor:
In the warm windmy scarf
touches a stranger.
An existential quality is evident in the poem, which resonates with liberation, humanity, and joy. The holiday name demarcates a historical event of freedom that many countries celebrate. The wind is appropriately comfortable. This wind provides a natural example of what the American poet T.S. Eliot termed an objective correlative, a poetic image drawn from the real world that represents, or metaphorically connects with, internal emotion. In haiku the connection is usually less imaginatively constructed.
“Objective correlative” is getting close, but is not quite it.
In the online journal A Hundred Gourds (2:4, September 2013), Expositions Editor Matthew Paul reviewed Carolyn Hall’s The Doors All Unlocked. After examining Hall’s mastery of layout, synesthesia, the haiku–senryu spectrum, and other traditional aspects of haiku, Paul—perhaps the most perceptive and hard-hitting reviewer in the business—makes this statement:
Hall also has a tendency to write some haiku that are tanka-like, wherein a statement of mind or emotion, or an abstract noun or thought, is juxtaposed with (usually) an observation of nature.… Here are four such examples:
I let him
remember it his way—
I don’t know
a soul at this picnic—
at the sky
how to sate this hunger winter sky
I read this passage, then reread it. “Aha!” I shouted mentally, waking two drowsy cats in the process. “I believe he’s got it.”
“Tanka-like”—that’s it. Now, you probably know that I’m hardly a fan of tanka, one main reason being that tanka is supposed to include an emotional state or reaction to a more-or-less concrete image, which I generally dislike in any sort of poetry. To compose a tanka, in principle, one starts with a shasei-like sketch from nature as Marjorie Buettner has done:
these window plants
strain after more certain light
this snowfilled morning
then adds two more lines of interpretation that propels the essence of the tanka into the abstract:
while somewhere your soul hovers
still—as if in second thought
Marjorie Buettner, Simply Haiku 2:4 (July/August 2004)
Looking back over my examples of the new haiku, I think you’ll see that this is exactly what is happening: these haiku are really compressed tanka.
In the middle of Matthew Paul’s quote, the one just cited, he confesses his dislike of this kind of haiku:
In the English-language haiku ‘world’, it’s an increasingly widespread, and rather aggravating tendency, I find, since too often the different elements seem like they’ve been thrown together randomly to see what happens when the dust falls.
I’m not sure I totally agree with him here; I rather like most of these haiku and usually have no trouble accepting the substitution of an abstract image for a second concrete image, as long as I can work out the connection between them.
This style of haiku is not new, and in fact it has been around from the very beginning. Witness:
never think of yourself
as someone who did not count —
festival of the souls
Bashō, trans. Makoto Ueda
Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
Issa, trans. Robert Hass
drifting into the room,
the milkweed seed distracts me
as when i was young
Bob Spiess, American Haiku 2:1 (1964)
to finger light
Raymond Roseliep, Frogpond 4:3 (1981)
longing for love —
I place a single strawberry
in my mouth
Suzuki Masajo, Love Haiku, trans. Lee Gurga and
Emiko Miyashita (2000)
Not only is this kind of haiku not new, it’s certainly not restricted to English- or Japanese-language haiku either. Haiku in Continental Europe too has always been more lyrical and “poetic” than that in America, where haikuists first adhered as closely as they could to classic Japanese models. It is very easy to find examples among the European poets, especially those in the Balkans—such as Alenka Zorman’s haiku that we read before.
This popular kind of haiku that I am struggling to define represents, in many ways, transition, hybridization, or fusion. It assumes that certain abstractions can be considered as images. For example, in Mike Rehling’s haiku
all my regrets
pulled out to sea
Mike Rehling, A Hundred Gourds 2:4 (September 2013)
“regrets” could be considered an image, though certainly not a concrete one.
Terri French shows how a question, like a negative, can change what might have been a solid, if not concrete, image into an abstraction. Whom is the poet addressing?
in a Mason jar—
when will you change?
Terri L. French, DailyHaiku, Nov. 24, 2010
Likewise, Sondra Byrnes’s question poem, which was published in Terri’s senryu journal Prune Juice, is also of the ilk that I’m interested in:
eating alone—can they see my hunger
Sondra J. Byrnes, Prune Juice 11 (2013)
Our minds have to jump well beyond the words to understand who the “they” are. Like Terri has done in her haiku, Jeff Winke shows how adverbial constructions such as “when,”“how,” and “so much” are doorways to the abstract:
so much said
in the silence
Jeff Winke, Wanda Cook, Larry Kimmel, and Jeff Winke,
One Thing Leads to Another (2012)
All Souls Day
so many masks
David McKee, Modern Haiku 43:1 (winter–spring 2012)
uses such a construction too—“so many”—and makes use of double meaning for “masks,” which here are both the physical Halloween masks as well as a reference to abstraction of people hiding their true identities by psychological masks. Mike Montreuil achieves a similar effect in his haiku, giving a duality of meaning to “cloud”:
not a cloud
to hide my thoughts
Mike Montreuil, Notes from the Gean (2010)
No one will have difficulty in objectively correlating the concrete and abstract images, “muffins” and “words,” in this haiku of Randy Brooks’s:
the words I find to keep her
in bed a little longer
Randy Brooks, Frogpond 36:1 (winter 2013)
So, I would suggest we have a continuum of haiku styles, ranging from classical Japanese- and English-language haiku with two more or less concrete images; haiku that have double meanings for one of the constituent images, one concrete and one non-concrete meaning; haiku with one concrete image and one personal or emotional statement as is the practice in tanka—the focus of my attention this afternoon; and then a kind of haiku that abandons any distinction between concrete and abstract—or perhaps jettisons a clear notion of image altogether.
These days, everyone seems to want to name a new variety of haiku—Richard Gilbert with his “H21” haiku, which sounds like something that the Center for Disease Control might be trying to contain, and Jim Kacian with his “monoku,” which might be the kind of poems college students who have come down with the kissing disease might write—so I feel compelled to do so as well. My first thought was to capture the idea that these haiku are basically classical in nature but have been structurally modified in one essential way—so I was going to call them “genetically modified”—“GMO haiku.” I thought again, however, and decided that just “hybrid haiku” would do.
First published in A Hundred Gourds 4. 3. June 2015.
Republished by the author's permission.