How To Read and Judge Haiku



Blythely Misjudging Haiku

"The reader… may actually learn more about the nature of haiku by considering the failures and near-hits rather than the successes"
 (R.H. Blyth in Preface to Vol 1, History of Haiku)

R.H. Blyth - No joke! His commentary on haiku is totally biased

This comment contains a piece of good advice for the haiku apprentice, but it also hides what I consider to be a false philosophy in approaching haiku. Because Blyth is analyzing haiku from a mindset and from the position that there have only very few successful haiku poems in the history of the art. And for him, they were all written in the distant past by the four greats - Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki. He completely dismisses "the decadence of all later writers". I find this extraordinarily arrogant and presumptuous. Haiku is an art form, and as such it manifests the emotional experience of individual writers in response to certain situations or stimuli or ideas. For Blyth, it seems, only certain types of emotional experiences were allowed to count as haiku. Because for Blyth, apparently, haiku is a religion. And a fundamentalist one at that! He laments the legacy of Basho:


"His way of Haiku can hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it. As a Way, it was in many respects better than that of Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and so on. Its desuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings."

Basho's "Old Pond" - surely there can be more to haiku than this?

I already dealt at some length in my previous post, on the "zenification" of haiku, and of Basho in particular. So I do not intend to repeat my arguments against this approach to haiku.

The Poet is Simply Sincere

But it is a reminder of why as haiku apprentices we should remain wary of writers and self-appointed experts, and learn to ignore those who would criticize poems on the basis of such a false concept of haiku. Every poet, if sincere, has insights which are valid and deserving of a fair hearing. From any poet, at any time, it is possible to discover poems that are profound, meaningful or affecting, if we are prepared to give them a sympathetic hearing.

The Poet is Not a Saint

Haiku is not a religion. There is no dogma and no canon of sacred scripture. There are no priests with a divine and infallible message concerning how haiku must be! No, not even Basho. For it is an art - and an evolving one at that! Shiki began his revolutionary re-reading and reordering of the place of Basho and Buson in the haiku pantheon at the start of the 20th century. And there have been continuing twists and turns since that time. When we read the life of Basho, we come to know something of the schools of poetry practiced in his own time - Danrin, Teimon, and of course Shofu. But since the time of Shiki, and especially with more frequent and greater contact and exchange of ideas between Japanese and Western writers, there have been further evolutions and branchings of haiku, with new schools and writers taking fresh approaches, or reinterpreting and reinvigorating the traditional form and styles. There are Japanese poets writing and publishing haiku in a conventional style - including 5-7-5 syllable structure, season word and cutting word; and there are Japanese haiku poets who consider such traditional practices completely optional. In the West, we who have embraced the "haiku" as a poetic form have no right to dogmatically assert what is or is not "haiku", let alone to consign all poets since Shiki to the category of "degenerates."

In my opinion Blyth, therefore, is completely wrong, and his analysis leaves poetry he purports to love, both blinded and lamed.   His is a poetry for the dead, not the living.

Learning to Judge Haiku

Having said all this, however, I do agree with Blyth at least on one point: that some haiku are better than others. But the process by which I make these judgments is less dogmatic, more analytical, and more personal - which I think is essential. For as said already, haiku is poetry - a literary art, and so open to literary analysis. It is also, of course, an intrinsically personal encounter, and personal preference is to be embraced, not suppressed.

What is Art?

I would define all art as an attempt by a person (sometimes, though not necessarily, called an "artist") to authentically capture a personal "immanent experience" - that is to say, a moment of re-visioning reality, of unexpected connectedness, a striking awareness of some timeless truth, or perhaps a non-physical, non-sensory "spiritual" perception of some aspect of human life - in isolation, or in relation to society, or even in the cosmos. But rather than try to explain the experience, to describe the insight, an artist is someone who tries to re-create the experience, in the mind and emotions of the reader/viewer/listener, through an artistic arrangement of words, of sounds, of shapes and movements.

Steps to Analyzing Haiku

From this, we can see that my criteria for judging a haiku, or indeed any art, will be based on whether the poem is successful in meeting any or all of these artistic ends: is it authentic? does it present an immanent encounter? does it re-create or re-present the experience for the reader?  

After considering these essential points, further judgment on the quality of a haiku can be made considering the literary and aesthetic features of the work: does it conform to an expected haiku structure? does the writer use a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and if not, why not? is there a division of thought in the poem? a tension and resolution? does the writer use sounds or rhythms in a way that enhances or detracts from the images created? does the poem refer outside itself, to other works of literature or art? 

Finally, personal reactions to the poem, and how the poem compares to other works touching similar experiences. For haiku, being deliberately brief, requires the reader to "fill in the details" with their own sensory experience, memories, and imagination. In some haiku as readers we are literally co-creators of the poetry, which gives the poem a much greater personal impact. And a poem by a "famous" poet may not affect us as much as a work by lesser known poets, or indeed, by amateurs.

It is a process of approaching and questioning a poem in this way that can allow a haiku apprentice to make an assessment and a judgment regarding the quality of a haiku poem, and even to grade it compared to other works. Of course not everyone will agree with our judgment, but that is of no concern. Our response, like the original poem itself, should be authentic.

When I first encounter a new haiku, here are some questions I try to ask myself when reading the poem, to begin this process of engaging and appreciating the work:

  • When is it happening? What season?  What time?
  • Where is it taking place?
  • Who is present?
  • Is there any precedent implied?
  • What mood is captured?
  • How is this achieved?

To illustrate, I would like to quote some poems by a non-professional writer which I consider outstanding. All are by Mark E. Brager, and published in haiku journal, Simply Haiku (AutumnWinter 2011), and so-called "senryu" journal, Prune Juice (Issue 9 : Summer 2012).

Stop Talking About...

Before I begin, though, let me make an important point: I consider all these poems "haiku". I do not believe the Japanese distinction between haiku and senryu carries into English, but believe that any English poem written with a form approximating haiku, and the intent of being a "haiku", is haiku. When I went researching to find support for my position on this matter, I found an article by Basho expert and translator Jane Reichhold, in which she gives an excellent discussion of the Japanese context of haiku compared to senryu; and I agree with her conclusion, that we should stop using that term, and refer to all haiku-like poems in English as "haiku". According to Reichhold:

Jane Reichhold - "stop talking about senryu; it's all haiku!"


"R.H. Blyth is responsible for this false splitting of haiku into two divisions. For haiku, accepted by Japanese literary history as haiku, which Blyth did not like or understand, he constantly exploits the term senryu to degrade them. Adopting Blyth's attitude, certain experts and editors have set themselves up as judges to determine what is "real haiku" and referring, as he did, to all else as senryu. I strongly believe if a writer calls his/her work haiku, it IS haiku. If someone else does not like it, or it does not fit their standards, this does not give anyone the right to call it by the deprecatory name of erotic doggerel.
In any case, the term senryu should be discontinued because that is not what we are writing. Personally I have never read anything yet in English as degrading as a real Japanese senryu are. None of us would accept or publish such work. Why should we remind ourselves of this questionable practice by the Japanese by using the term?"


Analyzing Real Poems

Part I - A Walk in the Sand

So let’s begin with a poem by Brager:

sand dollar
the curve of the shore
behind me

A Sand Dollar on a beach
Brager, like many English-haiku writers, does not restrict himself to a particular syllable count, but clearly has structured the poem in a brief 3-line form recognizable as an English haiku.

The poem is immediately sensory, taking the reader onto a beach, calling up our own visions and memories of walking and playing on the sand. The sand dollar is not a creature to be found where I live, but I know from books and TV documentaries what they are, and in my mind I can replace it by encounters with starfish or other crustaceans I have personally met at the water's edge. But the identification of such an animal places us precisely at the water's edge. Waves play around our feet, and the sand dollar is revealed perhaps by the retreating wave. Such is the immediacy of the picture, and for me the experience conjured by the first reading. Although there is no season word or phrase, the season seems implied to be summer, since that is when people mostly play at the beach, and by mentioning the "curve of the shore", one senses he is recreating a walk along the shore, rather than a time when he was actively playing in the surf. Again, for me this connects to either an afternoon or a morning activity perhaps - walking in the cool of the day.

A Sand Dollar revealed by retreating waves

Next I am struck by the juxtaposition of the two elements in these first two lines: the creature with such an unusual name: "sand dollar", and "the curve of the shore". What comes to my mind is the curving shape of a dollar sign $. A clever connection, perfected by his concluding remark: "behind me". Of course, the curving shore is behind him as he walks along the beach, but does he also mean to imply that the pursuit of dollars is behind him? Is this a holiday? Is this a retirement? Has he been reappraising his personal priorities and deciding that money is less important than health?  I consider this an excellent haiku in form and execution. When considering it in terms of literary aesthetics, it also meets my criteria of conveying an authentic experience through the re-creating of the sensations and cognitive processes of the poet; yet it also leaves me with enough mystery, enough that is left unstated to allow my own interpretation, to question, to wonder, and of course to apply to my own life. It is the sort of poem that will spring back to mind next time I walk along a beach and encounter a sea-creature.

Analyzing Real Poems Part II - Fear and Trembling

This next poem by Brager is of a religious nature, and it is also powerfully effective for me. Partly this is because I have my own experiences of the same religious practices earlier in my life, and he captures the scene, the mood, and the spiritual emotions perfectly.

deep breath –
the pressure inside
the confessional

"Confession" is a Catholic practice where believers must confess their sins - specifically - and indicate their repentance before a priest, who in the name of Jesus forgives and absolves them. Traditionally it is done in a "confessional", a small dark chamber in an alcove of a church with at least two "booths". The priest sits in one "booth" beside a small window - often curtained - and on the other side, in the privacy (but also solitude) of the second booth, the penitent kneels awaiting their turn to confess. It is intensely challenging - personally and emotionally - to speak one's sins to the priest. Preparing for confession is like preparing to own up to a mistake to a parent, or a spouse. One feels a mix of guilt and sorrow and dread - like a child feels saying sorry to its parent, admitting that fault with deep breaths bordering on sobs. In confession there is a ritual set of words to help you go through with it, indeed even just to get going, and as they tumble out of your mouth, it is with a tight sense of pressure in the chest - around the heart.

A Catholic Confessional

Brager's poem captures all this, and invokes with it a lifetime of belief and rituals - all in 3 brief lines. He does not describe it, as I have just attempted to do - he re-lives it, and in doing so, speaks straight to the heart of those of us who have also experienced the dread, the fear, but also the catharsis of the confessional.

Is there a season in this poem? Again, not specifically, but it can be inferred. Confession is required at least annually by Catholics, and before Easter is the traditional time of reconciliation. But more than a season of changing weather, it evokes for Catholics the "holy season" of solemn rituals: the dim light of a church, and the scent of generations of candles, of incense, of wooden pews and polish.

Again, this poem captures and recalls a totally authentic experience, and Brager invites the reader to share the authenticity: to examine their own conscience, and challenges them to reconcile with their god. I suspect, even though it is clearly a Catholic religious encounter, that even Blyth would have approved of this poem, because of this highly spiritual impulse. But the wonder of it is that it is spirituality manifest in physical sensations: the deep breath - the "in-spiration" - and the "pressure inside", which is physically a tightness in the chest, around the pounding heart, also manifests the pressure inside the soul, yearning for release from the burden of sin. One reads the poem, and answers it: Amen.

Analyzing Real Poems Part III - Wabi Sabi


playing catch at dusk,
I dimly remember
being the son

This poem speaks to the father in me, but at the same time, has a sweet melancholy of nostalgia from my own childhood. A suburban backyard perhaps, or a park - these are the images drawn from my own memories of playing "catch". Brager is an American writer and believe baseball is the usual type of "catch" fathers play with sons there. So this would imply baseball season - summer. In Australia, cricket is our summer ball game, but often we play catch with tennis balls, which are also used for backyard cricket matches. In summer, of course, dusk comes very late - late enough for dads to spent time with sons after work and after dinner, throwing balls to each other, rehearsing for a weekend game perhaps, but also rehearsing lines: about life, about growing up.


All this can come just from the first line. Then we read on, and a wonderful play on words follows in line 2: the fading light and the fading memory. The inference of "dim" memory is a distant past - suggesting this is not Brager himself playing ball with his own son, but perhaps observing a game of catch in a local park, watching some other man and his child. Now the conclusion, and Brager finishes with a powerful evocation - of when he was the child, playing with his own father, in that distant past. Ah! There is so much powerful and beautiful imagery tied up in this concluding line. The son that he was, and the fading sun of dusk. Twilight of a life.

Again, complete authenticity of experience is coupled with complete success in re-creating a scene and provoking a shared experience of complex emotions, while at the same time raising unanswered, unresolved questions of the reader.

Of these three excellent poems by Brager, this last one in particular evokes what Basho is praised for in Japanese - sabi. There is loneliness, a twinge of regretfulness in the scene, that catches this reader at least with sweet melancholy, and makes me reappraise my own priorities, and want to spend more time with my own fast-growing children. For me, this poem has the power to change a life.

Poetry is What Speaks to the Heart

In fact, even though as a haiku apprentice I feel a need to avow my loyalty to Basho and the other acknowledged greats of haiku, these 3 poems by Brager speak to me more powerfully than anything I have yet read from any of the Japanese poets. Brager lives in "my" world, a world of capitalism, confessionals, and suburban childhood rituals; and he captures and re-presents masterfully some of those experiences and his own immanent interpretation of them.

Shiki at the end of the 19th century scandalized the Japanese literary establishment by preferring the mostly forgotten Buson to the "saint of haiku" Basho. And he justified his preference with the language of literature, through his analyses of the poetry.

Shiki - Haiku Poet and theorist - refused to worship Basho

The Pleasure of Poetic Analysis

So too, if we are serious in acknowledging haiku as a literary art, rather than as a spiritual "Way", then of course it is natural that if we read haiku poems as emotional re-creations, as attempts to capture authentic experiences of significance for the writer, we will prefer the work of writers whose artistic experiences and explorations resonate with our own cultural and sensory imagery. When we approach haiku poems with a system like the one I outlined above - a set of questions or a poetic reading process - we will find that, far from reducing our enjoyment of the work, the process of slowing down and looking closely and deliberately at the construction of the poem, the choice of words, the subtle connotations of season and time, place and person, will result in the discovery of even richer pleasures as we uncover layers of emotional resonance.

I believe this last point accounts for the difference for Japanese readers reading Basho, and English readers reading translations. There is a lifetime of cultural resonance and subtle nuance impossible to convey in translation.

A Less Successful Poem (at least that's my opinion)

I opened this post with a quote from Blyth, in which he states we "may actually learn more about the nature of haiku by considering the failures and near-hits rather than the successes." I would therefore like to examine a poem which for me is less successful, and identifying the reason why might help me improve my own writing.

Opening their hearts
ice and water become
friends again
—TEISHITSU

(Addiss, Stephen; Yamamoto, Fumiko; Yamamoto, Akira (2011-07-05). Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems (Shambhala Library) (Kindle Locations 195-198). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.)

Teishitsu is a name not familiar to most beginning haiku readers. But the internet is very much the friend of haiku apprentices, and allows us to research and broaden our experience of any poem and any poet we encounter. So from the World KigoDatabase website (a very interesting site), I found a page devoted to  Yasuhara Teishitsu (1610-73) who evidently is a near contemporary of Basho, and was one of the "Teimon Students Group" or Teimon School. In my earlier post on Basho's poetic apprenticeship, I discussed the Teimon School, which according to translator Davis Landis Branhill was established by Matsunana Teitoku (1571-1653) and "drew on the imagery, diction, and elegant beauty of the court tradition while relying on verbal wit to amuse the reader"

There is certainly an elegant beauty in this verse, and in fact I very much like the poem. The sentiment is striking and naturally appealing - friendship, separation then reconciliation; or even the union of the dissimilar. It tells a tale - indeed it tells every tale of human interest - in just 5-7-5 syllables. A wonderful achievement and a fine poem. But nevertheless I consider it less good than the poems by Brager. And the reason is I find it lacking in certain elements that I think make a great haiku. Indeed, the comparison with the three poems by Brager can help highlight these differences, as well as heighten my own awareness and appreciation of what true haiku masters achieve and how differently they construct their poetry.

For one thing, unlike the poems discussed above, there is an absence of clear setting in this poem. One might assume the blending of ice and water is most readily encountered in a river, perhaps high in the mountains at the end of winter. Is the poet perhaps a hermit or monk, in a mountain temple? That would make sense of the religious moral sentiment of the poem, which indeed seems lofty. But then we also know that the Teimon School wrote deliberately elegant poems from classical tradition, not from experience. It is an authentic sentiment, but inauthentic in content. For it seems almost certain Teishitsu did not write the poem from life. And this would explain why there is an absence of sensory experience, sensory connectedness - a fact which is strikingly different from the haiku of Brager. The mention of the "hearts" of ice and water is a "poetic sounding" abstraction, but it lacks any natural visual reference. Indeed it lacks any sensory power to bring the poem vividly to life in our minds, as a sharing with the poet of an actual physical encounter with Nature.

Instead therefore it forces me to ponder it as a philosophical metaphor, which is not a bad thing for haiku, except in this case the interpretation of the poem is further weakened because water and ice do not become "friends" in the sense of separate individuals who share something in common. Ice and water are in fact identical - they share the same nature - but their forms are incompatible. Ice will melt in the water as it warms, and no ice will remain; alternatively, as winter deepens, the water is pressed into ice and is gone until the next spring.

Perhaps an alternative final line that would convey the sentiment, but more sensually and thus more like the haiku examined earlier, would be something like: "dance together again", so capturing the swirling movement, the playful friendliness, into a sensory image that resonates with experiences familiar to most readers.

Here then is my own attempt at a haiku with a similar theme, inspired by Teishitsu, but drawn from my own memories of a spring visit to the mountains:

High mountain sunshine
Ice and water touch hands, dance
again together
                - Strider

Thank You, and Congratulations Lisette

This entire post today was actually inspired by Lisette, a visitor to my blog, who identifies herself as a haiku beginner, and shared with me this poem:

fair Andromeda
destined to dance with
heaven's river

She self-deprecates that it may be a "poor" poem, but I actually think this is a lovely haiku. As was the case with Mark Brager, Lisette shares certain cultural experiences and visual images, which mean I can relate to her poem very readily. In this case it is a shared love of astronomy and theoretical physics, and a familiarity with Hubble telescope-images of galaxies.

Heavens River - The Milky Way

As a good haiku apprentice herself, Lisette knows that "heaven's river" is none other than our own Milky Way. Her haiku invokes the mythological princess, Andromeda, while referring to the magnificent neighbouring galaxy of the same name, and she cleverly links the image of a dancing princess with the future cosmic event predicted by astronomers (not for some 4 billion years): that these galaxies will be pulled together by their gravitational attraction in a stunning ballroom display - literally a swirling river of stars. Andromeda was a princess of destiny in Greek myth, who was tied to a rock as a sacrifice to appease a sea monster. But the wonder, the excitement even, that Lisette conveys in her haiku, suggests the collision of these galaxies will not be tragic - to be swallowed by a dragon - but a beautiful and wonderful cosmic dance of destiny - almost a bridal waltz of Andromeda and her Perseus
.
A galactic collision - looks more like a dance to me! This one is rather prosaically known as UGC 1810 and UGC 1813


When I first read this haiku, I immediately recalled the poem by Teishitsu we discussed above. Re-reading them both and analyzing them, I think hers is definitely a better poem. It is an authentic expression of an immanent experience. It also has the sensory authenticity and note of personal conviction that can only come from someone who has actually "seen" this awesome event. Hubble images of colliding galaxies and computer simulations have taken Lisette into the far distant future, and like the prophetess Cassandra, she has indeed "seen" a vision of the unfolding of the heavens.

Andromeda and Perseus, by Edward Burne-Jones. Interestingly, the dragon has a spiral shape - like a galaxy!
When I read it, I share her spiritual exultation at this grand, truly awesome cosmic event. It also triggers a sense of humility, at our smallness, though mixed with a different kind of awe: that this can actually be known by humans through their powers of science and reason.

Lisette's Andromeda is also a more "sensory" poem. Visually, of course, there are photos and computer images of Andromeda, galaxies, from which to form a clear picture of such future collisions. But the River of Heaven - the Milky Way - is a sensory experience known not only visually from our own eyes, (at least by those of us lucky enough to have dark skies, and in the Southern Hemisphere we are particularly blessed). It also evokes the physical sensations of chilly nights, lying on grass, looking up in wonder at the stars.

Teishitsu belonged to Teimon School, and strove to incorporate cultural references in his poetry, but in his poem the metaphor was strained and imperfect. Lisette by contrast has incorporated Western cultural and mythological antecedents in this work, and much more effectively. I find they convey deeply satisfying cultural resonances as well as the raising of questions and mysteries. Wonderful poetry. Congratulations Lisette.

However…

I still do not think it is quite as perfect as the Brager works. Why?

In each of Brager's haiku, the poet, and hence the reader, is personally engaged in the scene, which makes the poem more emotionally engaging. I think what could have made Lisette's poem even better would be a similar personal and human connection to the drama unfolding. Something that would speak of the poet (and the reader) as more than mere bystanders in the actions of gods, (or of galaxies). Perhaps the second line might have been crafted something like: "we are destined to dance" to convey such a personal connection.

Thank you, again, Lisette, for sharing your poem. Definitely not "poor", and I think you really do not need to worry whether or not your poetry group finds your works "acceptable."

Copyright © 2013-2014 The Haiku Apprentice

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