On Not Defining Haiku—a Response

I was somewhat taken with Cyril Childs’ article On Not Defining Haiku (#22) and his quotation of Hiroaki Sato which I shall repeat in part: Both in form and content, all you can say is that a haiku, be it composed in Japanese, English or any other language, is what the person who has written it presents as a haiku. Sato’s idea relates to cultural relativism, the sociological concept where another’s culture can be described but not criticised because it cannot be understood by anyone outside of that culture. In haiku terms, I cannot criticise your haiku, I can only describe it and you cannot criticise mine, you can only describe it and we all live in our separate haiku bubbles. Criticism is essential for the development of any art and to deny its possibility in haiku would be a fudge. It’s also the polar opposite of haiku as I see it: poetry is language and language is public not private. I see haiku as uniting and not separating, in the minimal way that it uses language. As much as I agree with Sato’s or Childs’ attempt to liberate haiku from the limits of a once and for all definition, it seems to me that if you name something as something then that is much the same as defining it. Just as the post-modern notion of there being no over-arching idea is an over-arching idea in itself. Following Childs’ lead, I looked up the word definition in my dictionary and the relevant part of the entry reads: the act of demarcating the extent of the boundaries of something and the quality of having clear, precise limits or form. Well, demarcating the boundaries of something isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A boundary might stop you going wide, but it doesn’t stop you going deep. It seems to me that the original HSA definition served the purpose of providing a starting point and that’s all it is, a definition is not the bottom line, but something to work with. As the Sufis say When the road comes to an end, a hidden path opens up.

Let’s revisit the definition for the sake of completeness as a couple of clarifications relating to Cyril Childs’ article are needed.

1. An unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature. It usually consists of seventeen onji.
2. A foreign adaptation of 1, usually written in three lines totalling fewer than seventeen syllables.

We’ve moved from counting syllables and technical arguments about onji so let’s consider the link between nature and human nature. I think it’stime to let this thirty-year old definition off the hook, which was intended as only a dictionary definition in any case. Haiku was perceived at that time and often still is (as a browse through any haiku magazine will show) as being a connecting or a re-connecting with nature. Few people would disagree that human beings have in many ways become disconnected from nature. At the same time, haiku have moved on from being poems solely set in Nature and the way that nature is featured has become subtler. Many haiku are now written with human affairs in the foreground, a territory previously considered as being the sole remit of senryu.

Regarding haiku as an unrhymed poem, the HSA definition refers to the Japanese poem and as far as I can tell there’sno explicit intention to exclude rhyme in English-language haiku. Yet a reading of Kenneth Yasuda’s otherwise fine book, The Japanese Haiku, Its Essential Nature and History first published in 1957, in which all the examples rhyme in strict 5/7/5 format soon reveals the sheer monotony and sentimentality of reading rhyming haiku. Just one example serves to prove the point: “A little village here / Is sleeping, lulled by crickets / Chirping sweet and clear”. I could have chosen any haiku at random from Yasuda’s book as the use of rhyme ensures that they all share the same sentimental mood. It seems highly unlikely that a haiku like that would get published these days. Rhyme is a problem in haiku, which is probably why it occurs so rarely and why I imagine most haiku writers would choose the alternative word to avoid it.

I think that what it comes down to, at least in the West, is the way each individual uses haiku. The indications are that the way in which haiku is used runs right across the spectrum from the trivial and the pastiche to those who seek to use haiku as a vehicle for a deep contact with life. Unlike the Japanese we have no long cultural tradition to guide us. Again, unlike in Japan, where most haiku writers seem to belong to hierarchical groups we are on our own with it most of the time and have no authority to turn to. The question is what do we want from it? What informs our approach to haiku? What are the core values? How relevant are the Japanese origins of haiku to the Western writers of today? Do haiku writers consider these kinds of questions or is haiku just another kind of poem that they write? Most of the people I know who are involved in haiku take it very seriously. I know I do. Consequently, I would be very interested to hear more about the various haiku philosophies that people have developed for themselves. What are the most influential books that they have read? It would be very interesting to read some descriptive definitions of haiku as well as arguments against working with a definition and know more about what people are doing with haiku, what the attraction is and how they got there? As for what a definition of haiku might be, I’m reminded of Bill Clinton’s response when being cross-questioned over whether or not he’d had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky: It depends on what your definition of is, is.

Brian Tasker, published in Presence 23

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