Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Transmission and Differentiation

One of the more surprising aspects of discussions in the west regarding how best to adapt Japanese forms into the English language is that disagreements on how to do this are traceable to differences in how they view the Japanese language.  It is surprising that these kinds of arcane linguistic arguments could carry such weight and even more surprising how they lead to differing conclusions as to how to compose Japanese forms in English.

Roughly there are two approaches.  The first approach, the one that is sponsored by most official Haiku organizations, the one that most editors of Haiku and Tanka Journals (both online and hard copy) use is that the Japanese language is somehow so different from English that there is, in fact, a huge gap or chasm between how the two languages work.  The conclusion from this analysis is that it is insufficient for English language poets to simply adapt the normative Japanese procedures for poetry composition onto the English language because such a procedure fails to recognize the central differences between the two languages.  This is why official Haiku and Tanka organizations do not advocate counting syllables, even though Japanese poets themselves count; in fact they count on their fingers.  The basic idea is that the Japanese syllable and the English syllable are so different that one cannot really compare the two.  The first result of this kind of analysis is a free verse, meaning uncounted, line when composing Japanese forms in English.  The second result is that a short count, shorter than the Japanese count, becomes normative.  This is put forth as actually adhering more closely to the Japanese form, even though a central mechanism for composing Japanese poetry, the mechanism of counting, is abandoned.  

The second approach, the one used by the majority of Haiku poets in English, the one used by what I refer to as ‘Popular Haiku’, the one put to good use by such poets as Richard Wright, James Hackett, Susan August, Hayden Carruth, Mary Jo Salter, and others, is that Japanese procedures for composing Haiku and Tanka can be mapped onto the English language without difficulty or much modification.  In other words, since the Japanese count syllables to shape their poetic forms, the same counting procedure should be used in English.  That is why those following this second approach count 5-7-5 for Haiku and 5-7-5-7-7 for Tanka; because that is the counting done by Japanese poets.  The result of this kind of analysis is the establishment of an English syllabic form, similar to such English syllabic forms as the Crapsey Cinquain and more recent creations such as the Tetractys or the Rictameter. 

I have gone back and forth regarding these two perspectives.  At times I have ardently defended one or the other.  My perspective at this time is that it is doubtful that one can prove one view over the other.  It depends on how you look at the two languages, what features of the two languages you decide to make central.

Official Haiku is impressed by the brevity of Japanese syllables and the fact that there are sounds which Japanese count as syllables which English does not count.  For example, the sound ‘n’, when it is not initial, is counted as a syllable.  So the Japanese word ‘nan’ receives two counts: Na-n.  There are other examples of sounds in Japanese that are counted but which elude the English speaker.  For example, a concluding ‘u’ sound is so short that it almost becomes a glottal stop.  When English speakers hear the Japanese word ‘desu’, what they hear is ‘des’, but what Japanese hear is ‘des-u’; again an example of a two-count word that English speakers would hear as one count.

For the Syllabic Haiku poet all of this makes little difference.  While it is true that Japanese syllables are shorter than English syllables, and that Japanese sounds are sometimes counted that would elude an English speaker as strong enough to deserve counting, the Syllabic Haijin is not concerned with this and does not consider it significant. 

The difference is this: for the Free Verse Haiku poet the implication drawn from observing the Japanese language is that English Haiku poets should proceed so as to mimic the overall duration of the Japanese Haiku; it is a matter of matching the actual durational length of the Japanese.  Arguments along this line will reference studies done of the difference in the syllable durations of the two languages.  The implication of this is that this feature, the actual duration in seconds, should be mimicked by English language poets.  In order to accomplish this, counting English syllables must be put aside because English syllables are ‘too long’ to achieve this kind of mimicking.

In contrast, for the Syllabic Haiku poet it is not a matter of matching the actual duration of the Japanese language Haiku.  Rather it is a matter of the relative duration within each linguistic community.  Since Japanese syllables are overall shorter than English language syllables, relatively speaking, 17 Japanese syllables are to the Japanese language as 17 syllables are to the English language.  Or, to look at it from the English language direction, since English language syllables are overall longer than Japanese syllables, in an English language context the longer duration of the 17 English syllables is proportionally the same as the 17 Japanese syllables are in a Japanese linguistic context.  Schematically:

17 syllables are to the Japanese language as
17 syllables are to the English language.

This is why the Syllabic Haiku poet is simply not concerned about the fact that their Haiku are longer, longer in duration, than Japanese Haiku; because the Syllabic Haiku poet isn’t focused on mimicking the actual duration of the Japanese Haiku.  Rather the Syllabic Haiku poet mimics the counting procedure itself and maps it onto the English language based on this kind of proportional understanding.

Each approach fixes on an aspect of Japanese Haiku (or Tanka) and proceeds from there.  Free Verse Haiku fixes on the actual duration of the Japanese Haiku.  Syllabic Haiku fixes on the counting procedure used in Japanese poetry and maps it onto the English language.  And because each approach focuses on a different aspect, the results differ.

Is one approach demonstrably superior to the other?  I doubt it.  But there is a lot of confusion about this.  At times the Free Verse Haiku followers seem to have an almost ‘evangelical’ zeal in advocating for their view of how to proceed with composing Haiku in English.  I use the word ‘evangelical’ deliberately because of its religious connotations.  In online discussion forums I have read several people remarking on this quasi-religious aspect of Haiku in English, so there are others, beside myself, who have noticed this as well.

What I mean by ‘evangelical’ here is a sense emanating from Free Verse Haiku followers that they need to convert Syllabic Haiku poets to the Free Verse fold.  I have observed several sad cases in online forums where a Haiku newbie posted a 5-7-5 Haiku and was immediately informed that this is a na├»ve, ‘beginners’ approach; an approach left behind by those who have come to a more sophisticated understanding.  In two instances I observed the Haiku newbie abandoned Haiku altogether in the face of this kind of online intimidation.

To give the reader an idea of what this is like, imagine if someone posted a Petrarchan Sonnet at an online forum and was immediately told that real sonneteers write Shakespearean sonnets, that they really need to learn more about the Shakespearean rhyme scheme, etc.  The two approaches to the sonnet are perfectly valid and I doubt that such a critic would be able to post such advice without being challenged.

But with Syllabic Haiku, because of the newness of the form in English, people are kind of defenseless against the assertions of the Free Verse Haiku advocates.  If the person interested in Haiku is aware of Richard Wright, that will form a good line of defense (‘If it was good enough for Wright it’s good enough for me.’ -- Indeed).   And I have seen this operate as a successful deterrent.  On the other hand, I have, as mentioned above, observed sad cases where someone becomes interested in Haiku and then is driven completely away from that interest by the tone of the critique from the Free Verse Haiku advocates.

What I hope for is a broader recognition that the two approaches to Haiku in English have evolved now to the point where they are two different forms of poetry.  They have common roots.  They share a common ancestor in Japanese Haiku.  But they have now grown up and gone their separate ways. 

What does this mean practically?  First, it means that the standards for Haiku composition by one group shouldn’t be used to evaluate the Haiku of the other group.  It’s apples and oranges.  Here’s an analogy: suppose a sonneteer criticized a villanelle for having repeated lines.  After all, sonnets don’t require repeated lines, so why should the villanelle?  This kind of criticism would be perplexing at best, laughable in some contexts.  If the criticism was offered seriously, it would show that the critic just doesn’t ‘get’ the villanelle and is unwilling to accept the villanelle on its own terms.

I want to suggest something similar for Free Verse Haiku and Syllabic Haiku.  Both of these approaches mimic aspects of the Japanese original, but they mimic different aspects.  And because they mimic different aspects they have evolved into distinct forms of poetry that are as unlike each other as the sonnet and the villanelle.  What this means is that the Free Verse Haiku poet or critic will have to view Syllabic Haiku on its own terms; those terms being that the 5-7-5 syllable count is the starting point upon which everything else hangs.  In turn the Syllabic Haiku poet will need to allow Free Verse Haiku to have its play, its range, and its own approach.

A second way to recognize that Syllabic Haiku and Free Verse Haiku are different forms is to grant them distinct space.  In online forums, for example, I have noticed that if someone posts a Syllabic Haiku on a ‘Haiku Forum’, the Free Verse Haijin immediately move in with their irrelevant critiques, based on the standards of Free Verse Haiku, but which they misapply to Syllabic Haiku.  My suggestion is that in online forums Syllabic Haiku be given a separate space for people to post on.  This separation would acknowledge that we are, in fact, dealing with two distinct forms of poetry.  The same kind of separation would be useful for Haiku magazines, electronic or paper.  The mixing of the two genres creates confusion and editors of most Haiku journals tend to be advocates of Free Verse Haiku.  By separating the two forms editors would have an easier job of accepting Syllabic Haiku on its own terms.

I think the two forms have become so distinct, so distant from each other, that a poet could easily write in both forms; just as a poet could compose sonnets and villanelles.  The starting points are different, the esthetic ideals are different, and the results are different.  Perhaps it would be easier to do this if the two forms had different names.  Maybe that will come in the future.  But for now, they share the name of their ancestor, which is not a bad thing as long as we keep in mind that they are now adults and have their own lives to live.


Brian said...

A very interesting, even important essay, Jim.

One of the problems involving the preferential advocacy for free verse haiku & tanka has to do with contemporary Japanese poets themselves. Often one hears the complaint from Japan that our English haiku and tanka are "too long". Indeed, tanka journals such as the one produced by the Tanka Poets Society of Japan translate all of their English poems in the free verse style. The journal "Gusts" out of Canada, edited by Japanese Kozue Uzawa, stipulates that acceptable tanka no more than approximately 21 English syllables are likely to be accepted.

One must often learn to read English free verse haiku & tanka before "getting" them. Until one does, those accustomed to reading traditional English poetry will often be left scratching their heads wondering if there is any their there. I think learning this new linguistic skill alone goes some way towards giving greater weight to free verse poems.

Another issue is the difficulty poets encounter when attempting to switch from one form to another. The syllabic and free verse poems sound very different and require different skill sets and a different "ear" to write. I personally find it very difficult to write a syllabic tanka or haiku without it coming across as forced, employing words only to fulfill the syllabic count. I suspect the remedy is reading broadly in the form and writing through one's failures.

Crapsey was not alone in recognizing a need for syllabic short-form poems, the Japanese waka her template when creating the cinquain. Even Allen Ginsberg with his one line of 17 syllables "American Sentences" spoke to this need in English prosody.

I like the idea of distinguishing between the free verse and syllabic schools of haiku & tanka. I also think the ascendant free verse school will take some convincing and many more poets opting for the syllabic approach before the form is acknowledged as legitimate rather than a unacceptably "retro".

In any case, as with all poetry and schools of poetry, the final proof remains with the poem itself. A good poem will always win-out. If not now, then later.

Jim714 said...

Good observations. Uzawa is one of the most militant of the free verse advocates, but is not alone. I have in mind another article about the Japanese language and why I think the differences between Japanese and English have been hugely (at times even comically) exaggerated. My view is that the Japanese language is completely ordinary, nothing special, and that we do not need any additional concepts (such as 'onji' or 'moira') to understand Japanese poetics. 'Syllable' works just fine. More later,


Brian said...

Looking forward to the "More later". I find myself in great sympathy with your perspective.