Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
David Burleigh, Japan
In and Out of Japan: The Contours of Haiku
The following was first presented at the Haiku North America Conference, Ottawa, August 2009.
Professor Shirane remarked, at Haiku North America in 1999, that haiku in English seldom echo or allude to any other poems, or works of the imagination, from the past, while pointing out that this is an ancient and well-sanctioned part of haiku practice in Japanese, and one which enhances and gives depth to a continuing tradition. While the haiku in English is still a new form, relatively speaking, it naturally cannot expect to have the range and history of its predecessor, to which it nonetheless alludes occasionally. But I would like to look at this a bit more closely, on the evidence of texts, meaning anthologies of haiku, some of which I hope will be familiar to readers. I will begin my investigation with A Hidden Pond (1997), the anthology of modern Japanese haiku that I worked on with Kôko Katô, and proceed more or less chronologically.
In the talk that I gave to Kôko Katô's group in 1989, I noted a Japanese haiku, later included in the book, that made reference to the Bible, and seemed to invoke its content or meaning by way of "references to sin" (211). Going through the anthology more methodically (it contains about two hundred and forty haiku), I find another verse, by Nakamura Kusatao, that actually quotes from the Gospel of St Matthew (13), though there are only a small number of Christian references as compared to many more Buddhist ones. One poem makes a play on the name of the novelist Natsume Sôseki (67), while another invokes a character in a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Little Princess (213). The anniversary of the death of the medieval poet Saigyô, who greatly influenced Bashô, gets a mention (49), but so does the anniversary of James Dean (175). The eighteenth-century poet Ryôkan is named once (99), while Mozart and Monet come in too (27; 17), as does, indirectly, the Virgin Mary (82, in a reference to "Holy May"). What I am trying to say is that the bric-à-brac of contemporary culture can include, for the Japanese, things beyond their own traditional world, even in an anthology as conservative as this. There are two book-titles in the poems, both of books in Japanese (66; 242), and in both cases the content of the book is actively invoked, and in the second instance, the poem with which the volume closes, the title actually ends the poem. This would seem to be different, in technique and intention, from the English haiku that I have already mentioned.
Turning to a book that most readers probably possess, and often look at, the third edition of The Haiku Anthology (1999), I find a slightly different pattern of representation. There are a good many more poems, perhaps twice as many, and these contain several references to Christmas (3, 41, 178-9, 239, 269, 273 & 315), naturally, as well as one or two to other traditional observances, like Ash Wednesday (263) or Hallowe'en (89), as against one tiny one to a "clay Buddha" (100), which I suppose might count as Buddhist indirectly. There are no references at all, as far as I could see, to the Bible which, whatever one thinks of it, is nevertheless a major literary work and one of the main foundations of our culture, whose language rattles through much of what we say and think and write regardless of belief. There is one mention of Beethoven (161), but I found only three allusions to literary works in English, two of them to Thoreau (by name, 167, and indirectly through "Walden Pond", 207), appropriately enough in this context, and one to a Western poet, to which I shall come soon. But first I would like to take the references to Japanese haiku poets.
There are five references to Japanese poets, two of them to Bashô, and both to his most famous poem ("frog pond", 36, and "old pond", 134), while two more mention Issa by name (163), and both of these come from Raymond Roseliep, the same person who was listening to Beethoven. The other reference is indirect, a play on a poem in Japanese, by Issa too, in this well-known piece, by Alan Pizzarelli (144):
the gas station man
points the way
with a gas nozzle
This of course makes play with an original in which a farmer points the way with a giant radish (daikon), and has been done again by the English poet David Cobb, where it becomes a mobile phone, and by David Lanoue in another form. This is exactly the kind of thing that Professor Shirane meant when he spoke about allusive variation, called honkadori in Japanese, except that in the case of Japanese haiku the poets are alluding to something in their own language, or in Chinese, at least until modern times.
Returning, however, to the particular motif that I was examining before, I find there is a "butterfly book" in one poem in The Haiku Anthology (226), and a "forgotten book" in another one (184), but these are both unnamed. There is one more unnamed volume in a verse that I rather like myself, by Rod Willmott, though in this case we know what kind of book it is (284):
on the cluttered desk
a pool of clear wood
The same writer gives us the only haiku in the whole collection that mentions a Western poet by name, or even not by name (281):
A page of Shelley
brightens and dims
with passing clouds
This too is a lovely poem, though my first reaction to it is to feel again that the text has been silenced, that Shelley's poetry is not actively invoked, but somehow pushed aside, though I may be wrong. I note that Patricia Donegan includes it in her recent book of haiku commentary, Haiku Mind (2008), where the Shelley poem she refers to is the "Ode to the West Wind" (111), perhaps to explain the scudding clouds, though I would be more inclined to think that it was Shelley's long imaginative composition "The Cloud" that the author of the haiku had been reading. But since the poem on the page is unnamed, I suppose we are free to take it as we will. I think I am right in concluding, though, that English haiku prefer in general not to allude to literary works in English or, even more broadly, to refer to Western culture much at all, which I find perplexing.
In the bilingual Japanese/English anthology, Gendai Haiku 2001 / Japanese Haiku 2001, published by the Modern Haiku Association in Japan, there are even more poems than in The Haiku Anthology. Already alerted to my theme, I noted as I read this references not only to colour and other things, but also specifically to Western culture ("Picasso blue", 175; "Dante's death", 241). Again I found some references to the Bible, though only three, one invoking the name "Luke" (101, 119, 125), besides one to Christmas (281). There are references to movies in that book as well, a technological import though the Japanese have their own cinema tradition (137, 278). One poem mentions Nora, the main character in A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen (61), another has "King Lear's toad" from the Shakespeare play (225), another "Alain's book" (227), while one apparently alludes to "The Sick Rose" by William Blake (281). Not many bookish allusions certainly in such a comprehensive anthology, but they are not excluded all the same. By contrast, Emiko Miyashita's bilingual anthology, The New Pond (2002), introducing mainly American haiku to Japanese readers, has one reference to Christmas (36), another to Good Friday (74), and one poem that plays on a verse by Bashô (50), which is about as much as one might expect in a relatively small selection.
The haiku whose contours I am outlining, then, are an English one in which almost no reference is made to any poetic tradition in its own language, and a Japanese one which is well able to refer back to its own poets in that form, and does so, but also very occasionally invokes words, phrases, characters, from Western literary works, and is certainly not averse to this. The same picture emerges from the new bilingual anthology issued by the Modern Haiku Association in Japan in 2008. It is rather extravagantly called 21-seiki Haiku no Jikû / The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century, and contains about 500 poems. I myself had some hand in reworking the English versions of the poems, but I would stress that, as with Kôko Katô's anthology, I had no part at all in the selection, so I feel that I can examine the contents objectively. The impression it conveys is much the same, of a small number of Christian or Biblical references, such as to the Bible itself (27, 73), to the Psalms (121) in the Old Testament, or the Cross (49, 56), the Virgin Mary, or Judas (92) in the New, as well as, naturally, Christmas (147, 184). Chopin gets a look in (51), as does Chekhov (198), though the latter reference seems to be to the Russian writer's biography rather than his work, and is rather puzzling. Books (75, 153, 157), or reading (115, 156) appear in a few of the haiku, and one certainly evokes the content of the unnamed volume (71). There is a specific quotation from William Blake, which I restored when I checked the English version, having been alerted to it by one of my colleagues. Rather aptly, it is one from a group of lines that are often invoked with regard to haiku, and come from "Auguries of Innocence":
To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour …
It is the third line that the haiku quotes in Japanese, matching it with a garden of quince (Chinese quince), presumably in bloom. It is a lovely thing and was one of twenty-five verses from the anthology that I offered to a journal in Ireland, and which came out before the book was actually published.
The journal that published this selection is called The Yellow Nib, and is put out once a year, by the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry attached to Queen's University in Belfast , and edited by another poet, Ciaran Carson. The name of the journal comes from a ninth-century Irish poem, probably written by a monk, about a blackbird. It is alluded to in the third verse of Paul Muldoon's first long haiku sequence, "Hopewell Haiku", and has been taken up by nearly all the northern poets, and more than once compared, in its imagistic brevity, to haiku. Indeed it has been used so much in recent years that it has almost become the signature tune of the Ulster poet, and is now nearly as well-known as Bashô's frog in that narrow context. I mention this in passing as an example of what can be done sometimes with literary allusion. Indeed I prepared a handout for a symposium a few years ago in Tokyo on "The Short Poem in Ireland", and called it "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird", for there are easily that number of different versions, though I should point out that the European blackbird is a renowned songbird, and a slightly different creature from its North American cousin. Nevertheless, this poem shows what can sometimes be done with allusions to the past. Some similar allusions to native American seasonal names for the moon, for instance, have been fruitfully gathered by William J. Higginson in Haiku World. But I would like to take a brief look before I finish at the mixed reception accorded Paul Muldoon's ventures into haiku, in North America and elsewhere.
It has to be said that Muldoon is a difficult poet, but he is also a considerable one, probably a genius, whose work startled his first readers in the 1970s, and has continued to dazzle them ever since. I am one, and so I was intensely interested to see that he had ventured into haiku. I had previously observed haiku being taken up by Ciaran Carson, who deployed them as epigraphs for longer compositions, or as lines inserted in them. But Muldoon's long sequences, with their complicated rhyme schemes and multiple literary allusions, are something else. I was bewildered by the response to his work in haiku journals, in reviews that ranged from saying that what he was writing wasn't "haiku", to others that tried to find some traditional elements within the poems, while ignoring entirely the intertextual allusions. I thought myself, when I first read the poems, that the form, rhyming and syllabic, was somewhat old-fashioned, as indeed it seems within the context of haiku in North America. And yet what Muldoon is doing, in echoing and playing off other writers, like Robert Frost and Herman Melville and the Irish poet Yeats, is exactly what Professor Shirane describes as honkadori, or allusive variation, entering into dialogue with the poets of the past, so why should this be unacceptable in the haiku milieu? That is the question that I would like to pose. It is not exactly that one need do quite what the probably inimitable Muldoon is doing, but that allusion of some kind should be thought acceptable at least, and might be found enriching
One of the reasons this whole matter interests me is because it begs a wider question about the relation of haiku to literature in general, and especially to poetry in other forms. I myself am always interested to see what poets do with haiku, how they represent them beside other poems, and there can be no doubt that the haiku has become a poetic form, part of the store that anyone who aspires to write poetry may draw upon. It is also true, as I have noticed in literary journals, that 5-7-5 has become a verse-form, independently of haiku, just like that. The haiku produced by poets like Seamus Heaney, get some attention, and raise the profile of the form, but this does not always lead to the alignment of haiku poets with others. In 2007, for instance, an anthology of poetry was brought out in Ireland to celebrate fifty years of diplomatic relations with Japan , and included over eighty poets, from Heaney down, who had written work somehow connected with Japan. There was a good deal of haiku in it, but there were no contributions from haiku poets in Dublin, apart from Gabriel Rosenstock, even though there are groups of haiku writers there, some certainly worthy of inclusion. I note recently, in North America, that efforts are being made to get a wider recognition for haiku writers alongside other poets. I feel this would be helped by a greater willingness to recognize or acknowledge, if not participate in, other forms of writing, which could be done in many ways, such as literary allusion.
Burleigh, David, "The Rainbow and the Frog: Modern Japanese Haiku". The Yellow Nib. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2007, pp. 11-22.
De Angelis, Irene, & Joseph Woods, eds., Our Shared Japan: Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry. Dublin: Dedalus, 2007.
Higginson, William J., ed., Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1996.
Katô, Kôko, ed., A Hidden Pond: Anthology of Modern Haiku. Trans. by Kôko Katô & David Burleigh. Revised edition. Tokyo: Kadokawa, 2003.
Miyashita, Emiko, ed. & trans., The New Pond: An English-Language Haiku Anthology. Tokyo: Hokumeisha, 2002.
[Modern Haiku Association] Gendai Haiku 2001 / Japanese Haiku 2001. Tokyo: Gendai Haiku Kyôkai, 2001.
[---------------------------------] 21-seiki Haiku no Jikû / The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo: Gendai Haiku Kyôkai, 2008.
Muldoon, Paul, Hay. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.
Shirane, Haruo, "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashô, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths". Illinois: Modern Haiku 31:1, Winter-Spring 2000.
van den Heuvel, Cor, ed., The Haiku Anthology. Third edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Republished from Haiku Canada Review 5:1, February 2011, by the author's permission.