Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Allan Burns, Editor,
Where The River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English-Language Haiku.
Snapshot Press: Ormskirk, UK, 2013.



Word games played by the gentry in the Heian Court of 10th Century Japan, haiku reached the general population in the 17th Century as renga, or linked verses. It was Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) who first practiced it as an art, his major works individual poems (hokku) entered into travel journals, brilliantly linking a larger story, his own. Although he participated in renga parties in the homes of wealthy patrons, the master lived sparely. In 1978, visiting Bashō's house at Iga Ueno, Leslie Downer reported, "It was the smallest house I had ever seen:

one little room, a few dusty straw mats, a tiny table in the middle of the floor with a box on it and a sign—'Basho's writing equipment'—and, hanging on the wall, a round hat and a strange matted tattered garment like an ancient pelt or the disgarded feathers of some enormous bird."(1)

Two centuries after Bashō, Masoka Shiki (1867-1902) broadened the scope of hokku into modern haiku.(2)

In his engaging 60-page introduction to Where the River Goes, Allan Burns writes that in 2004 the Haiku Society of America (HSA) “officially” defined haiku as “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.”(3) I suspect Bashō would have been so repelled by the limitations of this definition, he would have fell into his famous poem: "Old pond / a frog jumps into / the water’s sound."(4)

Bashō had trained in Zen Buddhism and its meditation on impermanency, the impossibility of grasping any condition in our ever-flowing minds, which, along with Chinese Taoism and Confucianism, played a central role in the maturation of haiku. How different are the arts monotheism's ascendant God has inspired from haiku's intimate relationship with this earth! We would have to go back to the Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers, who "saw moveover that the whole physical world was in motion, with nothing coming true from its continuous transformation, and they decided that nothing at all could be truthfully said about something that was always and everywhere changing,"(5) to recover haiku's perception of reality in Western metaphysics.

Where The River Goes is in the tradition that stems from the English Romantic poets to American Transcendentalism, and later to the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s. Burns quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of nature: “Nature, in the common sense, reflects essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf.” (p.15) However, Burns goes on to recognize that there is no longer any place on this planet free of human intervention. "Undeniably," he writes, with reference to anthologies, "haiku in recent years has witnessed a kind of anthropocentric creep that mirrors an accelerating alienation of humans from the natural world."(p.12)

In Japanese there is the term, zōka. "Zōka is not nature as landscape but that which fashions such scenes and their transformations, and it is characterized by artistic creativity."(6) In this light, what Burns calls Type One, “nature-oriented haiku with no reference to human or human artifacts,” of which he says this book mainly consists, is impossible, as the very act of writing conjures the writer as its subject. Behind Bashō’s most seemingly selfless poems is still Bashō the man. Art is the practice of enthusiastically leaping from one failure to the next..(7)


It could be said that Western haiku began with an Englishman named Reginald Horace Blyth (1898-1964). After wandering around the world a bit, in the mid-1920s R.H. Blyth settled in Korea, where he taught English. He moved to Japan in 1940, studied Japanese language and culture, practiced Zen meditation, and married a Japanese woman. Interned as an enemy alien during World War II, in midst of the war he published his first important book on haiku.(8)

Robert Aiken, who would become one of the early American Zen Masters, was also an alien internee in Kobe. He remembers when

one evening a guard came into my room, quite drunk, waving a book in the air and saying in English, 'This book, my English teacher . . .' He had been a student of R.H. Blyth at Kanazawa, and the book was Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, then just published. I was in bed but jumped up to look at the book and was immediately fascinated. I persuaded the guard to lend it to me, and weeks later he bought another copy for me so that he could have his own copy back. (9)

"It was my 'first book,'" Aiken continues, "the way Walden was the 'first book' for some of my friends," In 1969, during a gloomy winter in San Francisco, bedridden with a nasty flu, I read Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. I had known Blyth's numerous translations of haiku, had even bought one on senryu (humorous haiku) in Tokyo the year before. But, like Aiken, this book, which created a link between English poetry and Japanese haiku, began a life-long interest in these brief, sometimes potent, poems.

Before discussing some of the poems of this collection, there are a few technical points that, very briefly, should be mentioned. The first is haiku's tradition of a 5-7-5 syllable count. This constriction is different in Japanese, and to my mind makes no sense in English. Even in Japan, few contemporary haiku poets feel bound to this ancient constriction. The second is that Japanese haiku is usually written on a single line. The convention of parsing the translated line into three probably began with syllable counts in mind. It's a convention that usually serves well, even with English-originated haiku. However, other possibilites are also being explored.

Lastly, there is the practice of orienting the poem with "seasonal words" (kigo), "which became a powerful shorthand that greatly enhanced the meaningfulness of such short poems and invested them with layers of nuance they would not have otherwise possessed." (p.48) Burns also addresses "the flip side (which is) that seasonal references, and traditional Japanese kigo in particular, have not infrequently been seen as somewhat constraining when applied to haiku outside of Japan."(ibid) Even inside Japan, as Burns points out, "some modern Japanese poets have rebelled against them...producing what are known as muki ('seasonless') haiku, which illustrate aspects of the evolution of haiku since it was differentiated from hokku." (ibid) Flipping this over again, Thomas Lamarre reminds us that Japanese was written with a brush, an entirely different sensation than writing with a pen, typewriter, or computer.

The delight expressed in seasonal poems for showers of leaves or pedals or snowflakes recalls the dance of the brush: a falling motion that hovers, oscillates, whirls and turns around a center....The brush, in this sense, does not simply fall down or sweep across the page: it hovers in the way that petals trace the currents of air, it flows in the way that waters trace the contours of the land, shot through with potential and kinetic energies.(10)

It seems to me that one way haiku poets can justify the expression of seasons in contemporary aesthetics is to use them to amplify the ravages of climate change, as the length and strength of seasons modulate and fluctuate around the world.


There is an obvious problem in critiquing a book that consists of forty poets. (11) Burns supplies a useful introduction to each of them, including himself. As the practice of haiku in the West doesn't have a long history, he begins with one of the genre's pioneers, James W. Hackett, born in 1929. Hackett's first poem in this book is exemplary:

Searching on the wind,
     the hawk's cry
         is the shape of its beak.

Sound is morphology that carries the shape of its origination. The poem made me think of Dizzy Gillespie and the shape of his signature trumpet.

'Somebody fell accidentally on Gillespie’s trumpet as it was standing up on a trumpet stand, and as a result, the bell was bent,' says (John Edward) Hasse. 'Gillespie picked it up, played it, and discovered he liked the sound, and that it projected better over the heads of the audience of people in the back of the nightclub.' 'Ever since that time,' Hasse continues, 'When he got a new trumpet, he had it specially made for him, with the bell bent at 45 degrees.'(12)

Like the curve of a hawk's beak, innovations as mutations are telling accidents whose effects arrive "on the wind."

Born 18 years before Hackett, O Mabson Southard "represents the very best of what might be termed American Haiku style..." (p.80)

Here behind a dune
   the wind begins to lay bare
        a human jawbone

Like Bashō's famous, "Summer grasses / all that remains / of warrior's dreams,"(13) which echoes through the senseless wars that continue to this day, Southard's haiku reveals the hubris of ephemeral human ambition.

Born in 1931, Anita Virgil was already schooled in Western haiku when she took up the art herself, helping to "steer English-language haiku toward a more concise and free form." (p.129) Her poems, Burns continues, "provide models of uncluttered precision." (p.130) In 1972, Virgil, who is also a visual artist, had a show of eighty mushroom paintings at the New York Horticultural Society—

knifing deep
into earth seeking
the whole mushroom  

It is only in the earth's chthronic depths, where "the underworld spirits are plural,"(14) that we can recover the wholeness our egocentric minds have forgotten. And what better image than the mushroom, with its history of nourishing earth, body, and mind?(15)

There is an issue with Western haiku that needs to be discussed. From Saigyō in the 12th Century, to Bashō in the 17th, to Santōka in the 20th, there was a tradition of journalized wayfaring, which includes "famous places" (utamakura) where the poems were written. Although John Elder writes that " Bashō's poems offer moments in nature, not landscapes in the conventional Westrern sense,"(16) they are linked moments of the journeys that were his creative life. This, it seems to me, is the spirit of haiku.

On the other hand, Western haiku appear like snapshots of wherever the poet happens to be, with no continuity, no history or mythology of place, no reason for the poem's being except sudden inspiration. Indeed, probably the invention of the lightweight camera has influenced not just haiku, but how most Western nature poets frame the world. All that seems to hold their work together is the covers of their books. Now I'll go to a poet who takes the seasons seriously.

John Barlow is a British poet, born in 1970, who has an abiding interest in birds. Here is a luminous example:

a heron's silhouette
lifts from the reeds

He also addresses a different species:

into the deer's ribs the winter rain

The first poem has a sense of telluric mystery that calls forth the chill of late autumn or early winter. Of the second, is the deer dead of alive? Perhaps it doesn't matter. What does matter is how the poem's first word generates the energy of a sprinter leaving the blocks, demonstrating the power of single-line haiku.

Ron C. Moss lives in Tasmania, an island 150 mles south of Australia of which about 45% is protected "wilderness." Like Barlow, Moss has a single line poem that I find very effective:

deep into the mountains the road I'm lost on

Interestingly, Moss also, uses the word "into;" but unlike in Barlow's poem, it wouldn't do well as a first word. Yet, what an evocative declarative this is! He doesn't say how he got there, only that he's lost. To be lost is the first step toward wisdom.

Finally, the Welsh poet Caroline Gourlay—

harvest finished—
the empty field fills
with moonlight

This timely poem evokes a sublime kernel of haiku writing, along with two core metaphors of Zen spirituality, recalling all that can be said without regret.(17)


References and Notes:

1- Downer, L. (1989) On the Narrow Road: A Journey into a Lost Japan. New York. The "enormous bird" is Bashō's rain-cape.
2- Of course the history of haiku is complex. For a scholarly colection of essays: Matsuo Bashō's Poetic Spaces. E. Kerkham, Editor. New York, 2006.
3- In 1973, the HSA redefined haiku as a "poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature." (p.50.) Oddly, the earlier definition leaves more room for creative experiments that would attract poets to the genre.
4- Editor's translation. Usually translated: Old pond / frog leaps in / sound of water, it was only when reading Burns' translation, in which, by changing "in" to "into," he makes an intuitive leap that joins cause and effect, that I finally understood why this is Bashō's most admired poem. (In a pun, frogs represent the season of spring.)
5- Bringhurst, R. (1985) From, "Parmenides." In, The Beauty of the Weapons. Port Townsend, WA.
6- Barnhill, D.L. (2006) "Zōka: The Creative in Bashō's View of Nature and Art." In, E. Kerkham, Editor, Matsuo Bashō's Poetic Spaces. New York.
7- "Shiki declared that of Bashō's thousand or so hokku, only a few hundred were even worthy of examination; the rest were failures." H. Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural History and the Poetry of Bashō. Stanford, CA, 1998.
8- Blyth, R.H. (1942) Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Tokyo.
9- Aiken, R. (1998) "Remembering R.H. Blyth." Tricycle (Spring).
10- Lamarre, T. (2000) Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaeology of Sensation and Inscription. Durham, NC.
11- I've already written a Poetica piece on the work of vincent tripi, who, "as a part of his insistence on self-effacement...always writes his name in all lower-case letters." (p.221); http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/Poetica/blog-2.htm
12- http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/dizzy-gillespie-and-his-bent-trumpet-114626062/?no-ist
13- In, The Narrow Road to the Interior. (Oku no Hosomichi) There are many fine translations of this book, which is the journal of
Bashō last journey, and his masterpiece.
14- Hillman, J. (1979) The Dream and the Underworld. New York.
15- See, for example, G. R. Wasson, et al., Persphone's Quest. New Haven, 1986; and T. McKenna, Food of the Gods. New York, 1993. The brain itself is mushroom-shaped.
16- Elder, J. (1993) Following the Brush. Boston.
17- Emptiness is a central tenent of Buddhism; and the moon is a metaphor for enlightenment.