Thursday, August 9, 2012

The 'Introduction' to 'Borrowed Water'

The ‘Introduction’ to ‘Borrowed Water’

Yesterday I posted a review of the 60’s Haiku anthology ‘Borrowed Water’.  Today I’d like to post about its ‘Introduction’.  I am posting separately on the ‘Introduction’ because I think theoretical and/or esthetic issues are separable from the poetic content.  I mean by this that the content of an anthology shouldn’t be judged by the content of the ‘Introduction’.

But I found the ‘Introduction’, written by Helen Chenoweth, illuminating on its own.  The ‘Introduction’ details the formation of the ‘Writers Roundtable of Los Altos’, beginning in 1956 under the auspices of Chenoweth.  The Roundtable evolved and in the 60’s a group within the Roundtable decided to focus specifically on Haiku.

What I find interesting about this is how the 5-7-5 structure was taken for granted by the Roundtable, as the basis and starting point for Haiku composition.  For example, Chenoweth writes, “The creating of three rhymeless lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, a total of 17, was the first step toward writing poetry.”  That is to say the Roundtable started out writing in this Haiku form, and then went on to other forms, such as the Crapsey Cinquain.

When those involved with the Roundtable who were attracted to Haiku began their more focused explorations they contacted others involved with English language Haiku.  At that time there was a magazine called ‘American Haiku’ edited by Clement Hoyt.  Hoyt wrote to the Roundtable as follows, “There is no authority on the haiku in English unless you accept, as I do, the haiku to be a definite form (and to be followed in a like manner) as the sonnet . . . Its seventeen syllables, 5, 7, and 5 in three lines, with its restrictions on content, its seasonal implication, its dependence on ‘effect’ rather than intellectual ‘point’ is nowhere near as difficult as sonnet’s structural and internal restrictions and look how long the sonnet has been part of our literary heritage!”

The overall tone of the ‘Introduction’ is optimistic and excited about this new form (i.e. new for the English speaking world).  I was particularly struck by the analogy made to the sonnet.  It’s an analogy I often think of because the sonnet is the most successful transplant of a foreign form into English.  And it was accomplished by following, that is to say mimicking, the formal parameters of the Italian Sonnet, with some slight changes.  For this reason there is a strong sense of continuity between the Italian and English sonnet traditions.  Even among modern practitioners of the English sonnet one can see the relationship to the Italian original.

The Haiku published in ‘Borrowed Water’ have a similar connection to the Japanese tradition.  That is to say, a reader can see how English language Haiku found in the anthology mimics the original Japanese form.  And even today, those haijin who write syllabic Haiku can be seen to have a strong connection to its original.

This connection, to my mind, is severed in the free verse approach to Haiku.  When I read collections of free verse Haiku, the historical background is more likely, it seems to me, to be American free verse; more likely to be a poet like Gary Snyder or Charles Bukowski rather than Buson.  The degree to which free verse haijin have internalized standard free verse conventions is almost total: the lack of capitals, run-ons that undercut grammatical significance, a kind of staccato syntax, the deliberate eschewing of standard poetic craft effects such as rhyme, etc.  This is why I feel that free verse Haiku is more akin to free verse than it is to haiku.  Those writing in this style of free verse Haiku are very much in the mainstream of contemporary American free verse.  More accurately, free verse Haiku can be thought of as a sub-group of contemporary free verse that specializes in short lined poems.  In contrast, a lot of contemporary free verse is long-lined; think Ginsberg or Whalen.  But aside from this focus on having a short line, free verse Haiku is, to my mind, closer in style and content, in its overall ethos, to modern American free verse than it is to Japanese Haiku.  At times I it feels to me that free verse Haiku has lost all connection to the Japanese form.

In contrast, syllabic Haiku maintains a strong connection to the Japanese original simply by its commitment to having formal parameters.  Japanese poetry (Tanka, Renga, Haiku) is formal verse.  By ‘formal’ I mean ‘counted’.  That is to say the original Haiku is shaped by counting.  English Syllabic Haiku shares that characteristic, that central means of shaping, with the original.  And that is why a reader can see the connection.

This is not to say that it is wrong to compose free verse Haiku.  In the hands of a good poet it works, and I have my personal favorites writing in that style.  But it seems to me that what free verse Haiku has become is simply free verse with a tiny bit of Japanese influence.  It’s kind of like adding tamari to your hamburger as a topping or garnish.  It works, but it doesn’t make the hamburger a Japanese dish, if you see what I mean.

I think this is one of the reasons why a syllabic approach to Haiku has maintained such a strong presence.  Even knowing that official Haiku organizations argue against a syllabic approach to Haiku, this has not deterred the steady presence and continued output of syllabic Haiku.  From my perspective it appears that a clear majority of Haiku published today are written using a syllabic approach.  And, in addition, poets who have achieved success in the poetry world at large, when they turn to Haiku, write syllabic Haiku even when most of their other poetry is free verse: I am thinking here of Hayden Carruth, Mary Jo Salter, and Edith Shiffert, among others.  This indicates a shared cultural understanding that Haiku is a type of formal verse.  Where would this idea come from?  It comes from the Japanese original, which is formal verse, just as the formal nature of the sonnet comes from the Italian original.

It is this sense of a connection to a long-standing tradition which gives the syllabic haijin a sense of confidence, even when arcane and obscure arguments are offered to undermine a syllabic approach.  In a sense, syllabic haijin don’t need an organization advocating for their approach because they can simply lean on the abundance of syllabic Haiku from both Japan and in the English speaking world. 

This early anthology, ‘Borrowed Water’, is an example of early Haiku poets in America  who were, at that time, clear in their understanding of Haiku as formal verse.  To my mind this is perfectly reasonable and is as valid today as it was when ‘Borrowed Water’ was first published.

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