Clark Strand on Counting Syllables
There are a lot of manuals for composing Haiku these days. The ones I have read all have good suggestions for the budding Haiku poet. Having said that, most of the Haiku manuals are written by those who are committed to a free verse type of Haiku composition and tend to either ignore formal Haiku, are hostile to such an approach, or sideline it after giving a syllabic approach a brief nod.
The one exception to this is ‘Seeds from a Birch Tree’ by Clark Strand. It was published in 1997, paperback in 1998. It is the one manual that advocates for a syllabic approach to English language Haiku. In particular, I found Strand’s observations on the meaning of counting to be insightful.
On page 24 Strand writes, “The place to begin is counting syllables – five-seven-five. At this point the mathematician and the child are about on par. If anything, the child may be better at counting naturally, and with presence of mind.” Notice how Strand is pointing to the universal accessibility of counting. There is nothing mysterious about counting; it is something anyone, even a child, can do. One of the virtues of a syllabic approach to Haiku is that it makes Haiku accessible and non-mysterious. Rather than relying on some kind of esoteric experience of the ‘now’, or some kind of minimalist ideology, the syllabic Haiku poet simply begins by counting five-seven-five.
Later in the same chapter Strand writes, “If we have no interest in using haiku as a spiritual practice, it is unnecessary to count syllables at all. We could, for instance, write a haiku in any form – one line, four, or seventeen – and include the season or not as we pleased. But I doubt we could take much long-term satisfaction from this kind of haiku. I doubt if haiku would endure beyond a few decades in America if it were practiced in this way.” (Page 26)
Here Strand links the idea of Haiku as a spiritual practice with the act of counting and suggests that the two are intimately, even necessarily, related. That is to say Haiku can be a spiritual practice because of the counting of the syllables. I think Strand is on to something significant here. My view is that when a poet engages with a pre-established form the poet, to a degree, surrenders a part of our habitual self-centeredness. By acquiescing to a form that transcends any individual poet, the Haiku poet enters into a larger community and begins to comprehend things from a larger perspective. And all this can be accomplished by the simple act of counting just as others have counted: five-seven-five.
What about Strand’s assertion that Haiku would not endure beyond a few decades in America if it abandons counting as its starting point? At first this would seem to be an overwrought prophecy. After all, there are numerous Haiku Societies which currently exist and have abandoned counting. I look at this differently. As I have previously posted, my view is that Syllabic Haiku and Free Verse (meaning uncounted) Haiku have become entirely different verse forms. They have the same historical roots, but over the decades they have become different forms. This is masked by the fact that they share the same name. But it is not difficult to see, and hear, the difference. (See my post ‘Transmission and Differentiation’.) From this perspective Strand’s view seems to be accurate. Once counting was abandoned the route taken by Free Verse Haiku has moved steadily farther and farther away from Haiku as commonly understood and practiced in Japan. It is my view that most Haiku Societies in the U.S. (with the significant exception of Yuki Teiki) are now simply Free Verse Associations with all connection to Haiku having been severed.
Strand continues, “Because haiku is so subtle, it is necessary to have some definite form. Otherwise, beginners will have no place to start, and experts will soon forget their beginner’s mind in the obsession over where to break a line.” (Page 26) It is like serving tea; you need a cup to contain the liquid, otherwise it will just spill onto the table. And pouring tea into a cup is the same for someone new to tea as for someone who has gained expertise in tea. In the same way, counting syllables, five-seven-five, is the same for the poet writing their first Haiku as for the accomplished Haiku poet with many decades of experience.
Strand concludes this chapter, “Counting is a universal practice. Its humble, straightforward vision of man and nature is at the core of all human experience. However far we may stray from it, everything comes back to this.” (Page 27) When we count syllables we unite ourselves with all human beings; the shopkeeper counting change, the carpenter measuring a board, the musician counting measures, the pregnant woman counting the days until birth, the birthday celebrant counting the years of his life . . .
Later in the book Strand returns to the theme of counting. In the Chapter ‘Haiku Mind’ Strand writes, “When you count the syllables for a haiku on your fingers and select a season word, already you have touched the Mind of Basho and all the other haiku poets of the past.” This is the point I made in my series about ‘Free Verse Mind’ where I talk about how composing formal verse means entering into a conversation with the tradition, with others who also compose verse in this way. In contrast, Free Verse Haiku severs this connection. Strand continues, “How could it be otherwise than this? People ask me what Haiku Mind is, and I offer various explanations in accordance with the place and time, but the truth is, it is only this.
“A haiku is a seventeen syllable poem on a subject drawn from nature. . . I stress its importance again, not because it is difficult to grasp, but because it expresses the proper frame of mind for composing haiku, which is the one thing everyone forgets. Somehow it tends to become overcomplicated or obscured over the course of study. Or we develop the idea that we should go beyond it – beyond what is simple and plain. Therefore, it needs to be reclarified at every stage of practice before going on. A haiku is a seventeen-syllable poem.”
I am particularly struck by Strand’s observation that people ‘develop that idea that we should go beyond it’, that is to say beyond the five-seven-five structure and seasonal reference. I have often seen this idea expressed by Free Verse Haiku Societies; their view often seems to be that a formal, syllabic, approach is something for beginners, but mature poets go ‘beyond’ this. It is one of the commonest ways of brushing aside a syllabic approach. And Strand is on to it. What really happens when we abandon five-seven-five is that we end up writing in a different form altogether, rather a different type, a non-form. We spill the tea on the table.
Strand’s book is full of insights that will assist both those new to Haiku as well as the experienced Haiku poet. Naturally, there will be sections where one, perhaps, sees things differently. That will be true of any manual of poetry. But the great virtue of this book is that it gives us access to why a formal approach to Haiku, an approach based on counting five-seven-five syllables, is so rewarding. The book is packed with useful insights and asides any Haiku poet can use and find inspiring. Over the years I have read it several times. For all those composing syllabic Haiku, ‘Seeds from a Birch Tree’ is a fine companion on the way.