Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Me and Japanese Poetry -- Part 2

Me and Japanese Poetry – Part 2

In the late 60’s I moved to Alaska to go to school at the University in Fairbanks. I loved Alaska. I loved everything about it, including the long winters. Well, when you’re young and more vigorous fifty below zero feels like a wonderful challenge.

My first encounter with Haiku was in Alaska. It was in the early 70’s. A book came out titled “Alaska in Haiku” by David Hoopes and Diana Tillion, published by Tuttle in 1972. I saw it at the school bookstore and purchased a copy. I immediately took a liking to it. It made a strong, and favorable, impression on me.

Recently I looked up “Alaska in Haiku” at Amazon and found a used copy for sale. Looking over the volume today, thirty-eight years later, several things strike me. First, the authors have a commitment to a classic approach to Haiku. For example, the Haiku are arranged according to the four seasons, which is the standard manner in which Haiku are published in Japan. In traditional Haiku the seasonal element of a Haiku is a requirement of the form.

But what really struck me when I got the used copy is that the Haiku in “Alaska in Haiku” are syllabic; that is to say the authors write Haiku adhering to the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count. I had not remembered this. But looking back it makes sense; my first impression of Haiku was Haiku written in accord with the classical strictures of the form and this first impression has stayed with me. In other words, I think this first encounter with Haiku left an impression in my mind that good, even excellent, Haiku can be written, are being written, following the traditional syllabic pattern so that in later years when I would hear that English language Haiku poets should not adhere to the traditional syllabic count (something I would hear, and do hear, quite often) that first impression I had in Alaska would subconsciously remind me that perhaps this wasn’t really such a good idea and that there exist counter-examples that do adhere to the traditional syllabics.

I was unaware of the growing disagreement among English language Haiku poets regarding the efficacy of adhering to a traditional syllabic structure. The disputes that were taking place, mostly on the East Coast, I think, simply didn’t make it to the Alaskan bush. I think it was an auspicious introduction to Haiku and as in my encounter with Renga in my teen years, this encounter planted a seed in my mind which would eventually bear fruit, many years later.

Here are a few Haiku from “Alaska in Haiku”:

Beside the snowdrift,
The gray mountain rock is warm
Under the young leaves.

A waxing spring moon
Unfolds it gilded pathway
Upon flooding tides.

The snow-capped peaks
Cause my eyes to lift above
The net I’m mending.

Across the tideflats
A light from someone’s cabin –
It is not quite dark.

Upon the vast sea
A single boat leaves its wake –
For a brief moment.

Renouncing the world –
The autumn leaves are falling
In my place of birth.

Wild geese coming down
Call one unto another –
Each night’s colder now.

The winter moonlight –
Shadow of the totem pole,
Shadow of the spruce.

Night below zero,
And the long valleys echo
The sound of the stars.

Who knows, maybe some day this collection will be reprinted.


Dan Gurney said...

These are clear, evocative, and resonant Haiku.

And they are evidence that the 5-7-5 form supports the clarity and resonance. An auspicious introduction, indeed.

Jim714 said...

What I find interesting is that I did not consciously remember the traditional syllabics of "Alaska in Haiku". Only when I got the used copy did that come back to me. I find that really interesting. As I explore Haiku in the U.S. I'm becoming more and more aware of just how much Haiku has been written and published using traditional syllabics. I find that encouraging.


hokku said...

The seventh verse here is actually an old hokku by Kyoroku:

Rakugan no koe no kasanaru yosamu kana

In Blyth's translation (his "Winter" volume):

Wild geese coming down,
Their voices one upon another,
The cold of night increasing.

And number six in your "Alaska" list is an old hokku by Buson,

Shukke shite oya imasu sato no momiji kana

again in Blyth's translation:

Renouncing the world, --
The autumn leaves
In my parents' village.

I am sure you have read and are thoroughly familiar with all the too and fro about 5-7-5 syllables in English not being the equivalent of 5-7-5 phonetic units in Japanese. But no one knows better than writers what the disadvantages and advantages of the 5-7-5 form are, and there is certainly nothing to prevent anyone from still using it if they wish.

It should be pointed out, though, that using 5-7-5 syllabic form in English is a rather recent English-language tradition loosely based on the old Japanese hokku concept -- not a Japanese tradition. Today (and I am telling you nothing you do not already know) it is thought of mostly as an outmoded "elementary school" rule of thumb, but that really means nothing to writers who like it and want to use it -- nor should it. Verse should be based on effectiveness, not on snobbery.

Again as you know, I don't teach haiku (but rather the older hokku), and I do not teach use of the 5-7-5 syllabic form in English, but I only object to that measured form when another would do the job better. It is really up to the individual to try it and then to determine firsthand whether it should be used always or only occasionally.

My view, which anyone is free to share or reject, is that a strict form used only for its own sake can sometimes lead to an awkward victory of form over content.

Nonetheless, I think we can both agree that contemporary verse has lost its bearings and seems to be going wildly (and generally very ineffectively) in a multitude of directions. No doubt your preference for standards of form could do much good in the present erratic chaos of modern English-language verse.


Jim714 said...

Dear David:

Thanks for spotting the sources for some of the haiku. I have found that it is not unusual for Haiku poets of that period to weave into their haiku slight variations on haiku they have read. A number of Haiku in the Richard Wright collection are similarly sourced. In some ways I like the willingness to connect with the past and with tradition. Haiku poets these days have become such hyper-individualists, striving always for originality. Connecting with the Haiku tradition in this way, is, I think, sometimes a good way to get a feel for what the past Masters were doing and how they approached their craft. I have at times deliberately rewritten some old hokku, transferring the setting to make it more local, and I've found the exercise helpful in the sense that I begin to get a feeling for the way they wove the elements of haiku together.

We have a somewhat different take on the function of syllabics and I am comfortable with that. One of the purposes of this series on Haiku I'm writing is to provide an apology for those who do take this approach. Most Haiku organizations look down on those who take this approach, as if it is a sign of immaturity or worse. I don't think that condescension is warranted.

But I am in agreement with you that forcing 5-7-5 when it is not warranted will interfere with effective writing. Again, Richard Wright is a good example of someone who is flexible enough to modify the 5-7-5 when the occasion calls for it; a surprising number of his Haiku vary the count.

It is always good to hear from you David. Thanks for dropping by.


P.S. To readers here, David writes an excellent column on classical hokku at wordpress. Please drop by and take a look. You can find it here: