Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Formal Advantage

A Formal Advantage

One of the ongoing topics of discussion on internet sites devoted to Haiku and Tanka is simply what are they? These kinds of discussions also appear regularly in journals devoted to these two forms as well as blogs focused on these forms. The discussions can become somewhat rancorous as people take different sides and come to different conclusions.

Maybe half a year ago I posted a notice to one of these forums that the European Union President had just published a book of Haiku. I also posted the notice here at Shaping Words because he writes syllabic Haiku and I thought people attracted to Shaping Words might, therefore, be interested. One of the responses to the post I placed at the online forum was to raise the question as to whether or not these Haiku qualified as genuine Haiku. I responded that I thought they did qualify because they followed the traditional formal syllabics of Haiku, contained seasonal references, and that therefore they are Haiku. Whether or not they are good Haiku, now that’s another question, but that they are Haiku seems to me self-evident.

But many Haiku and Tanka poets in the U.S. today do not consider the traditional formal parameters of Haiku, such as the 5-7-5 syllabics, to be significant and ignore them. Heavily influenced by free verse norms, lineation in these approaches to Haiku remains unregulated. Haiku organizations, with the significant exception of Yukki Teikki, are heavily invested in advocating for a free verse approach to Haiku and Tanka lineation in English.

The result of this is that there is no standard whereby one can objectively decide whether or not a poem is, in fact, a Haiku (or Tanka). To comprehend how this has affected English language Haiku compare a Haiku journal to a journal devoted to some other specific form. For example, if you look at the Fib Review all of the poems are recognizably Fibonacci; all one has to know is the syllabics of the Fibonacci and one can easily perceive that what is contained in the Fib Review are examples of that form. The same observation applies to a magazine like Amaze, devoted to the Cinquain, or 14 X 14 which is devoted to the Sonnet. In contrast, when one reads a Haiku Journal there is no focus, no recognizable pattern of lineation. The journals read simply as standard journals of free verse; nothing wrong with that, but then why not simply call it what it is?

Along with the abandonment of a regulated, that is to say counted, line the seasonal reference has also been abandoned by these organizations. What is left?

What is left is a focus on technique. By technique I mean a focus on things like pivot, conciseness, and a heavy emphasis on minimalism as if minimalism were a virtue in itself. The difficulty with this is that technique is not definitive of form. Take a technique like the pivot line or word. This kind of technique can be used in any form of poetry; it is not form specific. Conciseness is also something that can be applied within any formal scheme; even a sonnet can be concise or verbose. Attempting to define a form by technique resembles attempting to define a cup or plate by its glaze. Think of a potter trying to define a cup as that kind of pottery which uses a red glaze, or a blue glaze. That would mean that a plate with a red glaze would be a cup, which, I suspect you will agree, doesn’t make sense. Similarly, defining Haiku or Tanka by certain techniques doesn’t make sense.

One of the reasons, I have discovered, that poets resist a formal definition for a type of poetry, such as using the syllabics of a form, is that poets want to distinguish between what is ‘real poetry’ from ‘mere verse’. There is a long history of attempting to do this. It goes all the way back to Aristotle who argued that Empedocles, who wrote in rhymed hexameters, was not a true poet but was instead a mere versifier. In contrast, Homer was a true poet, even though both Empedocles and Homer used similar poetic craft.

Ever since Aristotle made this distinction poets have been trying to figure out what makes a poet real art in contrast to mere verse which isn’t art, or isn’t high art, or something. I remember having a conversation with a friend, who has a deep love of poetry, about Robert Service, one of the most successful poets of the twentieth century. When I expressed admiration for a few of Service’s efforts, my friend was surprised and responded dismissively that Service was not a ‘real poet’, that Service wrote ‘mere verse’, doggerel, hardly any better than an advertising slogan. I in turn responded that I don’t make that kind of distinction, that to me advertising slogans can be poetry, as are popular song lyrics, country western lyrics, etc.

Behind these kinds of disagreements lie differing visions of the role of the poet. My view is that poetry is a craft; I think of poetry as resembling other crafts like pottery, gardening, baking, and basket making. From a craft point of view a cup is a cup; that is to say a badly made, off center, first effort by a pottery newbie is still a cup if it can hold liquid and serve the purpose of a cup. Similarly, a clich├ęd Haiku, a first effort by a Haiku newbie, is still a Haiku. Over time the potter becomes more familiar with clay, how the wheel works, glazes, etc., and their efforts produce better results. Similarly, over time the Haiku poet learns more about counting, seasonal reference, caesura, etc., and their efforts produce better results.

In contrast, many poets view poetry as ‘high art’, something superior to a craft. This was Aristotle’s view and it has had a huge impact on western poetics down to the present day. ‘High art’ is, in some sense, superior to craft, is in some sense more meaningful. At least that is the view that the ‘high arts’ have of themselves. I don’t share this view. In my view poetry and music, to take two examples, are at the same level as baking and gardening and pottery; they are all crafts.

But to return to Haiku (and Tanka) – the advantage of using a formal definition is that it is less esthetically aggressive, less esthetically imposing. For example, if I am teaching Haiku and I take a formal approach to Haiku, as a teacher I can leave the specifics of esthetic technique more open and free by concentrating on the formal characteristics of Haiku. This allows each person in the class the freedom to explore their own esthetic impulses within the formal parameters of Haiku. It probably sounds paradoxical, but when the formal parameters of Haiku are abandoned the result is a reduced range of individual expression because the focus shifts to specific techniques and/or specific esthetic criteria. This is not to say that we abandon our esthetic preferences. For example, I prefer Haydn to any other music; he’s my favorite. But I also easily recognize the symphonic beauties of many other composers. Similarly, I have a great admiration for Richard Wright’s Haiku, but this admiration does not interfere with my admiration for other Haiku poets.

If one comprehends poetry as craft this isn’t really difficult to understand. If I am teaching pottery, I can teach my students how to make a cup without demanding that they follow my esthetic preferences in glazes. I might take the time to introduce students to my preferences; or maybe not. But the point is that I can teach students how to make a cup without such imposition. Similarly, when Haiku, and Tanka, are formally defined, I do not need to force upon students my personal esthetic criteria and the form remains open for the students to explore.

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