Friday, December 28, 2012

Fragmentation or Variation

Fragmentation or Variation

Now and then I wander around the web, looking at online sites devoted to syllabic verse.  I do this unsystematically.  One of the sites I sometimes give some time to is found at the Haiku Foundation.  The site has interesting and articulate articles, and some videos as well, on various aspects of Haiku.  When I go there I usually learn something valuable about current Haiku views and news.

There is a Forum at the Haiku Foundation.  I stumbled on a thread that deals with a subject that really interests me.  The thread is now four pages long; the last entry is November 25, this year.  It is a thread about the current situation of Haiku and what intrigued me is how some of the participants in the thread find English Language Haiku to have lost a sense of focus and clarity as to what Haiku means, or what its basic parameters are. 

You can access the thread here:

If my link does not work, you can go to:

That takes you to the ‘home’ page.  Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on ‘Forums’.

When you get to the Forums click on the “New to Haiku” section.  The specific thread is titled “And this is a haiku because . . . ?”  That will get you to the discussion I am referencing.

The discussion was initiated by a Haiku of Elizabeth Searle Lamb, a well-known and much admired Haijin.  The specific Haiku is:

the blind child reading my poem with her fingertips

There then follows a discussion about if this is a Haiku, which leads to a more general discussion about the state of English Language Haiku in general.  There are a range of opinions.  What I found valuable about the thread is how articulate the participants are and how they manage to express their differences without rancor; a truly admirable accomplishment.  It is a worthwhile discussion and if you are interested in views about modern English Language Haiku I recommend paying the thread a visit.

I am sympathetic to the sense of bafflement by some of the participants (I am thinking of Don Baird as a good example); the feeling that people can write anything they want, as long as it is short, and call it a Haiku.  And that there seems to be no agreed upon central core of meaning when referring to English Language Haiku.  As some on the thread put it, English Language Haiku is losing its identity and the problem is increasing.

It is my own feeling that what has happened is that the word “Haiku” now actually covers several different forms of poetry.  That is my personal resolution to the difficulties addressed in the thread.  The reason we don’t recognize this is because the differentiation happened slowly.  The different forms all have a common ancestor in Japanese Haiku, but over the years they have become more and more differentiated, more and more distant from each other.

In other words, my own feeling is that the world of English Language Haiku is not so much fragmented as that it has given birth to a number of different forms that have now gone their separate ways.  The situation resembles children growing up and leaving home.  It takes a while for the parents to really comprehend that the kids are gone and that they are now on their own.

For me, the big division is between what I call ‘Syllabic Haiku’ and ‘Free Verse Haiku’; though I suspect others would make different divisions, nevertheless this is where I see the strongest separation.  I have mentioned this frequently at this blog, but the thread at The Haiku Foundation has given me an excuse to summarize my views about this.  And since the year is coming to a close, I thought I would take the time to review how I see this separation of forms and why I consider them to be two different forms of poetry.  What follows is a series of contrasts that illuminate the differences between Free Verse Haiku and Syllabic Haiku as I understand them.

1.         Method of construction:  Syllabic Haiku begins by counting syllables; it is grounded in counting 5-7-5.  In contrast, Free Verse Haiku uses an uncounted line.  So right from the beginning the tools used to construct a Haiku are different and the Syllabic Haiku Poet and Free Verse Haiku poet will have a different mindset as they begin.

2.         Minimalism: Syllabic Haiku has not absorbed a minimalist esthetic and is not inclined to express itself in a language that reflects the canons of minimalism.  In contrast, Free Verse Haiku has adopted a minimalist view.  The result is that from the perspective of Free Verse Haiku, Syllabic Haiku look ‘overstuffed’, or ‘too wordy’, or ‘too long’.  On the other hand, from the perspective of Syllabic Haiku, Free Verse Haiku appear truncated, stunted, and at times anorexic.  The difference is that the two traditions have adopted different esthetic foundations and those foundations are reflected in their respective Haiku offerings.

3.         Padding and Trimming:  Syllabic Haiku is as likely to add words to, that is to pad, a Haiku during the process of revision as to trim, to remove words.  There are examples I know of where Syllabic Haiku poets have added words in the process of revision; some of these are publicly known as the first, shorter, version was published, and then later versions of the same Haiku were later published with added words.  Syllabic Haiku poets will add words to fill out the count, to make a smoother rhythm, to clarify an image, to elicit a specific poetic effect such as alliteration, assonance, rhyme, etc.

In contrast, Free Verse Haiku revision process consists almost entirely of trimming.  The overriding principle, in accordance with the minimalism previously mentioned, is that ‘less is more’, the fewer words the better.  At one online forum I now and then attend I have never seen anyone suggest adding additional words to a Haiku offered for comment; only trimming is suggested.  This makes sense when one’s view of Haiku is shaped by both free verse and minimalism.

4.         Metaphor:  Syllabic Haiku poets have no reluctance in using metaphor in all of its types and variations.  In contrast, Free Verse Haiku poets are reluctant to use metaphor, though exactly why is not clear to me.  My suspicion is that using metaphor looks to Free Verse Haiku poets like a kind of padding; too many words.  But I’m not sure about that.  Whatever the reason, metaphor is explicitly rejected by a number of Free Verse Haiku poets in their manuals for Haiku composition.  This isn’t universal among Free Verse Haijin (Jane Reichhold is an exception), but it is widespread enough to warrant mention here.

5.         Personification:  The same applies to personification.  Among Syllabic Haiku Poets there is no reluctance regarding personification.  Among Free Verse Haiku poets personification is often considered a flaw and should be avoided.

6.         Other Poetic Effects: As previously mentioned, Syllabic Haiku poets will craft their Haiku in accordance with the traditions of English Language Poetry and that includes assonance, alliteration, rhyme, and meter.  I have observed how some Syllabic Haijin will, at times, take a metrical approach to their composition; this is particularly true if they routinely write metrical poetry in other forms.  In other words, Syllabic Haiku views itself as embedded in the long tradition of English Language Poetry as much as, perhaps more than, the tradition of Japanese poetry.  A good example of this is that Japanese poetry does not use rhyme as a defining element of form.  While Syllabic Haijin have not defined their Haiku via a rhyme scheme, they have at times incorporated rhyme in ways that resemble the usage of rhyme in traditional English language poetry.

In contrast, Free Verse Haiku eschews the usage of most poetic effects.  My sense is that the conscious use of poetic effects is considered a distraction by many Free Verse Haijin.  In addition, the conscious use of poetic effects will, usually, result in, from the perspective of their tradition, padding.  Padding runs counter to their minimalist commitments.  Free Verse Haiku, it seems to me, is rooted in English Language Free Verse markers more than it is rooted in Japanese poetry.  My sense is that the absence of rhyme in Free Verse Haiku has more to do with the rejection of rhyme by the free verse tradition than it does with the absence of rhyme as a constructive element in Japanese poetry; it just happens that the two coincide.

7.         Relationship to the English Language:  Syllabic Haiku accept the English language as it is and shape the English language in accordance with its central syllabic focus: into phrases of 5-7-5 syllables.  In contrast, Free Verse Haiku proposes an altered English that is in accordance with their minimalist commitments.  At times this results in the construction of an actual alternative grammar of Free Verse Haiku.  Again, this is not universal among Free Verse Haijin; but it is mentioned often enough to comment on.

8.         Pedagogy:     What finally convinced me that Free Verse Haiku and Syllabic Haiku are two different forms is that I could imagine teaching them in a class on modern forms as completely different, even contrasting, forms of poetry.  Just as I could in a class teach the Sestina and the Villanelle, so also I could teach Syllabic Haiku and Free Verse Haiku.  If I were to teach Syllabic Haiku I would start with counting syllables.  Then I would talk about phrasing, grammar, juxtaposition and contrast, seasonal reference, trimming and padding, etc.  If I were to teach Free Verse Haiku I would start with the minimalist view, follow with examples of free verse haiku, talk about how to trim a line, seasonal reference, etc.  Notice how the starting points differ and that the tools for crafting also differ.  There is some overlap: for example the seasonal reference is an important aspect of both traditions.  This is because Free Verse and Syllabic Haiku have a common ancestor and they still share a few traits: just as siblings will share a few traits from their parents but also differ from each other in important ways.

Like many of the people on the thread over at The Haiku Foundation, I went for years becoming more and more confused, baffled, and sometimes irritated, at the lack of any central core of meaning for the word ‘Haiku’ and the ‘anything goes’ feeling.  It’s not that I am opposed to experimentation.  It has more to do with why I should accept that many of these experiments are Haiku.  As Don Baird wrote on the thread, “When asking folks what a concerto is . . . , to this day, they can quickly outline its basic characteristics.”  But the situation with English Language Haiku is so varied and so confusing that one is hard put to site even a single characteristic that is agreed on.  Perhaps ‘shortness’ might be accepted by everyone; but the problem with ‘shortness’ is that there are countless short poems that are written in other forms, such as Lanterne, Crapsey Cinquain, single verse Quatrains, etc., and I think we can agree that they are not Haiku, though they may contain some Haiku-like qualities.  So even shortness is not a distinctive marker for the Haiku form.

As I mentioned above, the resolution of this confused situation was to simply accept that we are, in fact, dealing with a number of distinct forms.  I have focused on just two of them (Syllabic and Free Verse) because my main interest is in syllabics.  But it is possible to differentiate other forms as well.  For example, the monostitch, sometimes called a monoku, is a snappy one line form that is derived from Free Verse Haiku.  I would suggest that the monoku is a distinct form in itself.  Since it is not syllabically shaped, I won’t spend time on it here.

The personal effect for me of accepting that we are dealing with different forms of poetry was a grateful relaxation.  Tension in the English Language Haiku community often revolves around attempting to get others to write in the parameters of the form one has chosen.  If you can imagine a Sestina poet trying to get someone to stop writing Villanelles and to come over to the Sestina side, then you can imagine how frustrating that would be.  The two factions, the Sestina faction and the Villanelle faction, would for the most part talk right past each other.  The solution is to let the Sestina be a Sestina and let the Villanelle be a Villanelle; to recognize the legitimacy of both forms.

Similarly, I suspect that Syllabic and Free Verse Haiku have reached a point in their development where they simply need to acknowledge that they are more different from each other than what they have in common; to bid each other well, and to go on and live their own lives.  Both traditions have produced excellent poetry.  But they have done so using different methods and esthetic criteria.

I admit that my view is eccentric in the sense that it is not shared by very many other Haijin, Free Verse or Syllabic.  That’s OK; I can live with that.  I offer it here thinking that perhaps others will find it helpful.  Perhaps elements of this view will be illuminating, perhaps not.  But for me it has offered a way of getting past the frustration many English Language Haijin express: it isn’t that there is no core to our Haiku.  Rather it is that Japanese Haiku is a plant that has sprouted many seeds and some of those seeds have taken root in the English speaking world.  The result is a variegated garden, a garden of numerous forms.  As this year comes to a close, I wish all the forms good growth in the New Year.


Dan Gurney said...

Thank you, Jim, for this discussion. I agree with you—I think it is helpful to see the syllabic and free verse forms as separate progeny of a common parent. For some reason the image of an amoeba splitting into two individuals comes to mind... or a cell dividing into two. In any event, it seems to be a way of seeing what's going on with haiku that produces equanimity and some relief.

Jim714 said...

Thanks, Dan, for your comments. I like the amoeba image; it's biological and gives a sense of livingness to the process.