Monday, October 24, 2011

Popular Haiku

One way of understanding how well a new poetic form is taking root in a culture is to look at its popularity. That is to say, is the poetic form part of the consciousness of ordinary people. For example, when the Sonnet was first transmitted to England it landed at court and for a while was the exclusive preserve of court, or court-connected, poets. After a generation or two, though, the Sonnet spread and became part of the fabric of English poetry so that one found Sonnets being composed by all classes of people.

From this perspective I think it is instructive to look at how popular culture in the U.S. has accepted Haiku. The most popular books of Haiku, the ones that sell a lot and are republished, the ones that are sometimes published by major publishers, are found at the level of popular culture. I distinguish two types of popular Haiku. The first type is Haiku Humor and consists of books that deliberately make fun of their subject. The second type I think of as Topical Haiku and consists of books on a specific topic, such as gardening, or old age, or cats, horses, dogs, children, etc. There is a lot of overlap between the two groups, but some of the Topical Haiku do not have a humorous intent.

Collectively these collections share certain characteristics. First, overwhelmingly Popular Haiku takes a syllabic approach to Haiku. The best-selling books of Popular Haiku, such as ‘Haiku for Jews’ or ‘Redneck Haiku: Double-Wide Edition’, are all syllabic in construction. That is to say they take the 5-7-5 syllable count as their starting point in composing their Haiku. This contrasts with the Haiku written by official Haiku Societies in the U.S. which take a free verse approach to Haiku. This contrast is striking and demonstrates to me that at the popular level Haiku is understood by most Americans to be a syllabic form of poetry that resembles other syllabic forms such as the Crapsey Cinquain or the Fibonacci. For Popular Haiku, syllabic count is central and the offerings of Popular Haiku are far from the free verse norms that pervade academic poetry in general and official Haiku Societies specifically.

I think this aspect of Popular Haiku is underappreciated. One sometimes hears that five syllable and seven syllable lines are ‘unnatural’ for the English language. This is often put forth as one justification for modifying the Japanese syllable count in English language Haiku. Popular Haiku, simply by its commitment to a traditional syllabic approach, undermines this kind of assertion. It would be difficult to maintain that five and seven syllable lines are not an intimate part of the English language after a few volumes of Popular Haiku.

The second characteristic I find in many of these works is what I would call an ‘in-your-face’ attitude. Sometimes crass (see ‘FU Haiku’), at times even gross (see ‘Zombie Haiku’), Popular Haiku often focuses on the aspects of our lives that are overlooked by the more consciously poetic. The tone of most of these volumes that I have read is not subtle; there is no attempt, for example, for the author to disappear. In fact, the opposite is often the case with the author stepping right in and making comments, judgments, and remarks about the chosen topic. And there is a kind of ‘so there!’ tone to much of it. I don’t mean that I, or the general reader, will take offense. It’s more that the authors of these books don’t really care to not be present and are completely comfortable letting you know what they think. This contrasts with the esthetic of authorial objectivity which is often held to be an ideal of traditional Haiku.

The third characteristic is simply that these volumes seek to appeal to a broad audience. This is obvious by my descriptive use of ‘Popular Haiku’, but it is still worth noting. Years ago when ‘Haiku for Jews’ was first published I was working in a small independent bookstore. The owner ordered this from the publisher and it arrived complete with a little display case so that you could place the book on the counter right next to the cash register. ‘Redneck Haiku’ has taken the same approach as have others in the field of what I call Popular Haiku. In other words, the target audience of Popular Haiku is not primarily poets, not even Haiku poets. I get the impression that the publishers of Popular Haiku would actually prefer that their works not be placed in the poetry section of a bookstore. Rather, they are targeting the impulse buyer primarily, and secondarily those who enjoy good humor and a quick read. Many of these works would be better placed in the humor section, or perhaps the religion section (e.g. ‘Haiku for Jews’ or ‘Episcopal Haiku’), or the movie section (e.g. ‘Vampire Haiku’), than they would in the poetry section of a bookstore.

A fourth characteristic is the vernacular use of English. I have observed that for the most part Popular Haiku is written in vernacular English, complete with articles and typical parts of speech. The feeling I get when reading Popular Haiku is that of overhearing a conversation, of actual English speech. This contrasts with the style of English used in Official Haiku which cultivates a kind of English that lacks articles, prepositions, modifiers: I sometimes refer to this kind of English as Haiku Hybrid English or HHE for short. It is a very strange type of English, but in the right hands is effective. Popular Haiku ignores HHE and writes in what is clearly an ordinary, colloquial, easily understandable English. Depending on the topic, the English used in Popular Haiku often reflects the sub-culture that is the focus. ‘Haikus for Jews’ and ‘Redneck Haiku’ both use the relevant syntax of the group they are focusing on. And there are many other examples.

The fifth aspect of Popular Haiku is another contrast with Official Haiku: That is that Popular Haiku is not minimalist. This is a function of its vernacular usage. Ordinary English, ordinary language, is filled with repetitions, redundancies, and what I call ‘start-overs’. In contrast, Official Haiku has a commitment to a minimalist presentation which seeks to do away with repetitions and redundancies. The governing ideal in Official Haiku is ‘less is more’ and the fewer syllables used the better. That is not an esthetic one finds in Popular Haiku.

A sixth characteristic is that the authors of Popular Haiku, for the most part, seem unconcerned about traditional aspects of Haiku composition other than the syllabic count. The seasonal component, for example, is often not present. I have noticed, however, that some authors of Popular Haiku do manage to incorporate the seasonal element, though it is not always clear if this was a conscious decision based on traditional Haiku, or simply a reflection of Popular Culture itself. For example, if a Haiku in a work of Popular Haiku mentions Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, those are both seasonal references, but they are also a pervasive part of American Popular Culture. My gut feeling is that these seasonal references arise more from the field of popular culture rather than from an attempt to incorporate traditional Haiku elements. But I’d be happy to be wrong about that.

Another aspect of the unconcern about many traditional aspects of Haiku is that in Japan many of these works would be thought of as Senryu rather than Haiku. But for Popular Haiku authors the distinction between the two has vanished. For Popular Haiku authors Haiku has become, in an American cultural context, a syllabic form consisting of three lines of seventeen syllables distributed as 5-7-5. For Popular Haiku, if a poem has this form then it is a Haiku.

I think there is much to be said for this point of view. For one thing, it defines the form in objective terms. A lot of Haiku discussions I have read, and participated in, revolve around ethereal esthetic issues; that is to say whether or not the Haiku is ‘indirect’ enough, or ‘objective’ enough, etc. These kinds of issues are then used to determine whether or not something is a Haiku. But I think that is a mistaken approach and often leads down blind alleys. If a Haiku is defined formally, through syllable count and lineation, then one can accept what is written as part of the form.

There is one aspect of traditional Haiku which Popular Haiku in America has latched onto: the Aha Moment. The turn, or juxtaposition, the insight brought about by the coalescing of disparate elements so beloved by Haiku Poets is surprisingly close to what happens in humor. So I can see why Haiku has attracted humorists. The difference is that for the traditional Haiku poet the juxtaposition of elements has a more contemplative function. In Popular Haiku the juxtaposition of elements is meant to surprise and delight the reader resulting in a humorous response, what we commonly call the ‘punch line’.

The quality of Popular Haiku, as one would expect, varies. If I were forced to pick a single work as the best representative of Popular Haiku I would choose ‘Redneck Haiku: Double Wide Edition’ by Mary K. Witte. First, it is very funny. Second, because of the excellent humor you can re-read it. Third, it focuses on an aspect of American culture that is significant, but doesn’t get much coverage. The characters, who thread their way through the Haiku, are what are often called ‘trailer trash’ and the concerns, inclinations, habits and hopes of this part of America. There is an intimate familiarity on the part of the author with these people. I found myself growing fond of Wanda and Bubba as I read through the collection. The author has an eye for the ordinary:

Fried chicken, biscuits,
mashed potatoes with gravy.
Perfect summer meal.

But she also has a good grasp of the emotions of the people she’s describing:

RV at Wal-Mart:
Shopping while just passing through
or putting down roots?

This is a good description of the rootlessness and wandering that trailer culture in America often embodies.
And, of course, there is excellent humor:

Moonshine, shotgun shells,
Wild Turkey and motor oil.
Christmas shopping done.

The emergence of popular Haiku signals that Haiku has entered the mainstream of American poetry and has become an indigenous form. That is to say that syllabic Haiku have become a part of American poetry. I think it is all to the good and shows Haiku taking on a life of its own, demonstrating that the transplant has indeed taken root on foreign soil.

In closing, here are a few examples of Popular Haiku I recommend:

Redneck Haiku: Double-Wide Edition
Mary K. Witte

Haikus for Jews
David M. Bader

Episcopal Haiku
Sarah Goodyear and Ed Weissman

Vampire Haiku
Ryan Mecum
Note: Mecum has also written ‘Werewolf Haiku’ (my personal choice) and ‘Zombie Haiku’. Warning, Mecum is true to his chosen topic of horror movies and some people I’ve shown these to have found some of them gross. Personally, I thought they were funny; but maybe that shows what a sick sense of humor I have.

Haikus for Punsters
(Note the English plural!)
Paul Treatman
Note: Side splittingly funny. Treatman has published five (yes, Five!) volumes of puns in Haiku form. But be warned: he published only a single Haiku on each page. If he had tripled up, all five volumes could be sold as one. Still, at the bookstore I work at I’ve sold quite a few complete sets and customers have come back saying they were satisfied.

Office Haiku
James Rogauskas

John Chu

Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys
Bob Raczka
Note: More traditional than most Popular Haiku books, this one covers all the seasons but shares the Popular Haiku use of colloquial English and more down to earth themes. It is written as an Introduction to Haiku for young boys.

There are Haiku for Dogs (and even for specific breeds), Cats, Horses, for butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. If you go to Amazon just put in ‘Haiku’ and see what pops up. It’s a great exploration and you will be pleasantly surprised at the wide range of topics that American poets have put into Haiku form.

No comments: