from Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns
I first discovered haiku when I was in high school. The tiny genre came to me as part of my larger enchantment with Beat literature and Beat goings-on. On the Road was published when I was sixteen. Perfect timing. To a captive of a Catholic boys' high school in the suburbs of New York, Kerouac's novel offered a glimpse into a world of adventure involving sex, drugs, reckless driving, and bongo-playing that existed far beyond the confines of my parish. Along with Beat thinking came Zen, imported into Western culture at the time by prominent explainers such as D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts and embraced as a daring new sensibility in Beat fiction and poetry. And along with all that came haiku. Thanks to many scholars and critics of Japanese culture, the form became widely available to English-speaking readers. One of them, Reginald Horace Blyth, who assembled a table-thumping four-volume set of traditional haiku (1949-52), thought that haiku could not be written in any language other than Japanese, but without his work as a collector and translator, haiku might not have been popularized just in time for the Beats to adopt it and give it a special American twist. Kerouac himself was a practitioner, often producing irreverent three-liners (one featuring young girls running up library steps with shorts on), though the influence of Gary Snyder brought more reflective results: Kerouac makes the memorable discovery in his medicine cabinet of a "winter fly" who has died "of old age." Kerouac also believed in "found haiku" that could be discovered embedded in other kinds of writing, claiming that there were "a million haikus in the Great Emily Dickinson." Allen Ginsberg considered Kerouac's The Dharma Bums a novel "of a thousand haiku." One contemporary blogger has even tried to locate and catalogue all of that book's hidden "haikus." It seems that unintentional haiku can be found anywhere if you bother to look and listen. I myself have overheard accidental haiku in such unlikely places as a school hallway and a supermarket aisle.
Fascinated by the Beats and full of what little I understood of Buddhism, I began to commit my own acts of haiku, managing to contribute some unwitting travesties to the ancient and honorable tradition. Of course, at the time I was too taken with the notion that my three-liners gave me something in common with the Village hipsters and the enlightened monks in the temples of Japan to recognize my poems were failures. I had not yet heard that even some Zen masters consider one bull's-eye out of thirty haiku attempts a decent average. It might well have been such a comment that brought my haiku-writing to a halt. But decades later, I took it up again in earnest shortly after I decided to get another dog.
The dog was a mixed-breed female I found at an animal rescue center. Her lineage—if that's not too elevated a word—was anyone's guess, but she looked a lot like an Australian shepherd, and sometimes she would try to herd me around the house by the ankles. I named her Jeannine after a jazz-played tune by Cannonball Adderley. She was such a pretty dog.
Soon after she was trained to be off-leash, I got in the habit of walking with her every morning along the shore of a nearby reservoir, and almost every morning I would try to compose a haiku before we got back home, the "season word" changing with the seasons. Humans might value a walk as exercise, but for dogs a walk is an opportunity to gather information. While the dog sniffed the ground, I counted syllables on my fingers. While she read the recent canine news, I tried to fit some little insight into a seventeen-syllable box. Somewhat like the anonymous Irish monk who wrote a poem about his cat Pangur Ban and their mutually diligent pursuits—the monk pursuing learning, the cat pursuing mice—I was looking for one thing on our walk and the dog for another. I once tried to shuffle together our parallel enterprises:
The dog stops to sniff
the poems of others
before she recites her own.
Along with the outbreak of haiku in America in the 1950s came the Great Seventeen-Syllable Debate, which continues to simmer in the haiku community to this day. Many poets, myself included, stick to the basic form of seventeen syllables, typically arranged in three lines in a 5-7-5 order. This light harness is put on like any formal constraint in poetry so the poet can feel the comfort of its embrace while being pushed by those same limits into unexpected discoveries. Asked where he got his inspiration, Yeats answered, "in looking for the next rhyme word." To follow such rules, whether received as is the case with the sonnet or concocted on the spot, is to feel the form pushing back against one's self-expressive impulses. For the poet, this palpable resistance can be a vital part of the compositional experience. I count syllables not out of any allegiance to tradition but because I want the indifference and inflexibility of a seventeen-syllable limit to balance my self-expressive yearnings. With the form in place, the act of composition becomes a negotiation between one's subjective urges and the rules of order, which in this case could not be simpler or firmer. My hope is that such fixity will keep the pulsations of the ego in check by encouraging a degree of humility in the face of the form.
These days, many haiku poets—in fact, the large majority—ignore the syllable count. They stand by the linguistic fact that a "syllable" does not have the same meaning or weight in Japanese as it does in English. Writing in the early days of the American Haiku, Kerouac pointed out this difference: "The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don't think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again ... bursting to pop. Above all, a haiku must be very simple and free of poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella." Whether they are the counting or the non-counting type, poets are likely to agree that at the heart of the haiku lies something beyond counting, that is, its revelatory effect on the reader, that eye-opening moment of insight that occurs whenever a haiku succeeds in drawing us through the keyhole of its details into the infinite, or to put it more ineffably, into the "Void of the Whole." No one would argue that any tercet that mentions a cloud or a frog qualifies as a real haiku; it would be like calling an eleven-line poem about courtly love a sonnet. A true haiku contains a special uncountable feature, and every serious devotee of the form aims to achieve that with every attempt.
As we now turn to the collection in hand, Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, I'd like to stress this "pop" quality of haiku, that epiphanic jolt, the "Aha!" moment.
Haiku is both easy and impossible to define. One can merely use dictionary language to say that a haiku is a short poem, usually in three lines, that uses natural imagery to evoke a feeling or mood. But such flat definitions fall well short of accounting for haiku's mysterious power to cause in the reader's consciousness a sudden shift, literally a new way of seeing. Part of this ability lies in the form's brevity, which leaves no time to explain an experience; instead, the haiku conveys an experience directly without commentary and with an immediacy not possible in longer poems. Wordworth's famous daffodil poem for all its charm is a good example of a non-haiku. True, the speaker enjoys an elevated experience in nature, which he conveys with excitement ("A host of golden daffodils ... "), but in the end he looks back on the experience and tells us what it meant, how it moved him from loneliness to "the bliss of solitude." Central to the poem is a moment of haiku-like attention ("I gazed—and gazed—but little thought ... "), a gazing that is perception raised to the second power; but the length of the daffodil poem, its use of simile (comparing the flowers to the stars in the "milky way"), and its meditative conclusion are in stark contrast to the bare, stripped-down simplicity of haiku.
Like the practitioners of any verse form, haiku poets have a number of techniques at their disposal. One way single moments are endowed with surprising significance is through juxtaposition. While traditional Western poetry uses simile and metaphor to make comparisons, haiku wants to present the world just as it is. When we compare things, we are saying that this is like that, but in haiku, nothing is like anything else. Things are simply what they are; the blossom, the river, the cup are simply themselves—self-sufficient, unadorned, free of literary embellishment. The moon is not like a wafer; the moon is the moon. To say it's a wafer is to distract from the "moonness" of the moon. Instead of using comparisons, the haiku simply positions things next to each other. The startling effects that can result are based not on analogies but on immediate connections. "A page of Shelley / brightens and dims / with passing clouds"), "jackknifed rig / a trooper waves us / into wildflowers." The contrast is often between the natural and the man-made, for example "in the stream / a shopping cart / fills with leaves." The natural world sometimes lies next to the world of human activities as in "I lay down / all the heavy packages— / autumn moon." That same "looking up" can create a shift so abrupt as to suggest a printer's error: "looking up / rules of punctuation— / green hills." Whether you call this maneuver a "cut" (kire), a pivot (kake kotoba), or an imaginative leap, the effect is surprise followed by eye-widening awareness: "after the garden party / the garden."
In some juxtapositions the small is set beside the large, the lowly next to the grand: "Moonlit sleet / In the holes of my / Harmonica," "Through the slats / of the outhouse door / Everest!" "The morning paper— / I set down my coffee cup / in Buenos Aires." The effect is a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland dislocation of our size-logic that causes the relative meanings of Big and Tiny to fall away. The sun touches your refrigerator; midwinter visits a dollhouse; stars reach from your house to your barn. Each connection implies that the micro and the macro are both part of the great sensorium, the world of sense impressions that envelops our every waking hour.
A haiku moment may result from a misperception, a wrong-seeing. What seems to be a fallen leaf returning miraculously to a branch turns out to be a rising butterfly. Clever optical illusions may occur: "The fleeing sandpipers / turn about suddenly / and chase back the sea!" As well as visual surprises: "passport check / my shadow waits / across the border." And strange animations: "Winter burial: / a stone angel points his hand / at the empty sky" and "wood pile / on the sagging porch / unstacking itself."
A haiku feeling may arise from emptiness, absence, and silence. Just as the spaces in music are as important as the notes, so what is not there is as potent as what is: "an empty elevator / opens / closes," "before we enter / after we leave / the meditation room." What is missing can even be palpable: "all day long / I feel its weight / the unworn necklace." A surfboard in the waves without a rider, an empty swing still moving in a playground-these empty spaces suggest our own possible absence; being alone (sabi) can make us wonder where everyone went. The haiku can take us from lightness into nothingness and make us aware of the little voids around us and the great voids that precede and follow time itself.
As Shakespeare broke the hold that courtly love had on the sonnet by introducing new subject matter, many haiku poets today are testing the elasticity of the form by using non-traditional subjects having nothing to do with the natural world: "bearing down / on a borrowed pen / do not resuscitate." The form also seems to welcome parody and ironic deflation. Well-known is Richard Brautigan's "Haiku Ambulance": in which a piece of green pepper falls out of a salad bowl. The poet's reaction is "So what?" More subtle is "out of the haze / the dog brings back / the wrong stick." Here's my own contribution: "Flying with a twig / a bird disappears into / the town's noon siren." And here's a seventeen-syllable gem by Paul Violi that you should not share with your bank teller: "Don't look at my face. / No change, just large bills. / One wrong move will be your last."
Many people don't get haiku. They typically ask what the big deal is about a frog leaping into a pond or a piece of green pepper falling off a salad bowl. So what indeed? Maybe the best answer is a slap on the face, a common "answer" to a baffling koan. But a more reasonable explanation of the "big deal" is the irreducible fact that the poet was there to witness the event. A cherry tree in blossom and a dog barking in the distance may not seem to add up to much, but what such a haiku declares is that someone was present—actually there, living and breathing—at that particular intersection of sight and sound. In that sense, haiku not only convey the beauty of individually experienced moments, they are also powerful little assertions of the poet's very existence. Not to be present to witness the cherry tree and the barking dog means being absent, perhaps non-existent. Every haiku makes a common claim: I was there! Like Kilroy with his nose over the fence.
The best haiku contain a moment in time caught in the amber of the poet's attention and the poem's words. It is the only genre fully devoted to setting down a simple observation in the here-and-now so as to produce in the reader a little gasp. In honoring small events by italicizing moments in time, haiku should remind us of the multitude of forgotten moments, past and present, that surround each perfectly arrested one. The stop-time instant at the heart of haiku might be said to offer resistance to the remorseless powers of forgetfulness.
It may not be very "haiku" of me to compare haiku to anything else, but I want to end by stretching an analogy between haiku and physics. Just as matter is composed of atoms, which give off a great energy when accelerated to the point of collision, so time is made up of moments; and when a single moment is perfectly isolated, another kind of cosmic energy is released. I like to think of the haiku as a moment-smashing device out of which arise powerful moments of dazzling awareness. But I also like to think of it as a something to do while walking the dog.
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About the Author
Billy Collins's Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems is forthcoming from Random House. A distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, he was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and Poet Laureate of New York State from 2004 to 2006.
Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years
W.W. Norton & Company