Where The River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English-Language
Press: Ormskirk, UK, 2013.
played by the gentry in the Heian Court of 10th Century Japan,
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
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
after Bashō, Masoka
of hokku into
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
pond / a frog jumps into / the water’s sound."(4)
trained in Zen
Buddhism and its meditation on impermanency, the impossibility
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
moveover that the whole physical world was in motion, with nothing
true from its continuous transformation, and they decided
that nothing at all could be truthfully said about something that
always and everywhere changing,"(5)
recover haiku's perception of reality in Western metaphysics.
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
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)
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.
1940, studied Japanese language and
culture, practiced Zen meditation, and married a Japanese woman.
Interned as an enemy alien during World
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
evening a guard came into my room, quite drunk, waving
a book in the air
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
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
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
flu, I read Zen
in English Literature and Oriental Classics.
I had known Blyth's numerous translations of haiku, had even bought
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.
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
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
The second is that Japanese
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
well, even with English-originated haiku. However, other
possibilites are also being explored.
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.
delight expressed in seasonal poems for showers of leaves or pedals
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
way that petals trace the currents of air, it
flows in the way that waters trace the contours of the land,
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
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.
poem in this book is exemplary:
Searching on the
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.
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
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
bent at 45 degrees.'(12)
Like the curve
of a hawk's beak, innovations as mutations are telling accidents
whose effects arrive "on
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
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—
into earth seeking
the whole mushroom
It is only in the
earth's chthronic depths, where "the underworld spirits are
that we can recover the wholeness our egocentric minds have forgotten.
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,
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
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
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:
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?
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
Ron C. Moss lives
in Tasmania, an island 150 mles south of Australia of
which about 45% is protected "wilderness." Like Barlow,
a single line poem that I find very effective:
into the mountains the road I'm lost on
also, uses the word "into;" but unlike in Barlow's poem,
it wouldn't do well as a first word. Yet, what an evocative
this is! He doesn't say how he got there, only that he's lost.
To be lost is the first step toward wisdom.
the Welsh poet Caroline Gourlay—
the empty field fills
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)
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.
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.
Barnhill, D.L. (2006) "Zōka: The Creative
in Bashō's View of Nature and Art." In, E. Kerkham,
Editor, Matsuo Bashō's Poetic Spaces.
7- "Shiki declared that of Bashō's thousand or so hokku, only
a few hundred were even worthy of examination; the rest were
Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural History and
the Poetry of Bashō. Stanford, CA, 1998.
Blyth, R.H. (1942) Zen in English Literature and Oriental
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
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
15- See, for example, G. R. Wasson, et al., Persphone's
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.