Monday, February 25, 2013

Finding Form

Finding Form

Imagine that you grew up in another culture, a culture whose musical heritage did not include any music in triple time or anything resembling a symphony orchestra.  By some means (perhaps travel, perhaps through a friendship, it doesn’t really matter) you become acquainted with western symphonic music.

The third movement of most symphonies is a dance movement, the minuet (the predecessor to the waltz) in 3-4, triple, time.  The movement is written in three parts: A – B – A.  You are so attracted to it that you decide to learn how to compose this kind of music.

You write your first dance movement, your first minuet.  It has a perfect three part structure: A – B – A.  And it is written in 4-4 time.  When you play the minuet to a friend from the west, the friend points out that a ‘real’ minuet is in 3-4 time.  You respond that a ‘real’ minuet is in three parts, A – B – A, and that is what makes it a minuet.  So what’s the problem?

Then you discover that someone else in your culture has also found the dance movement inspiring.  You contact the person.  You get together.  This other person plays his dance movement, his minuet, and it is in 3-4 time, but it is not in three parts; instead it is a single movement of one theme and one part.  You object, “Where’s the middle part, the ‘B’ section?”  The person responds that the ‘essence’ of the dance movement is 3-4 time, not the three part structure which is merely incidental.  You respond by saying that the 3-4 time is what is incidental and the three part structure is essential.  The debate becomes acrimonious.

I believe that something similar has happened to Haiku in its transmission to the west from Japan.  (I am speaking specifically of English Language Haiku, or ELH, as I am not familiar with what is happening elsewhere.)  Different approaches to Haiku have emerged convinced that they have extracted the true ‘essence’ of Japanese Haiku, but what they have taken from Japan differs.

Here is an example:  In Lee Gurga’s review of Wright’s Haiku, found in “The Other World of Richard Wright”, edited by Jianqing Zheng, (Pages 169 to 180) Gurga evaluates Wright’s Haiku through the use of certain standards which Gurga asserts define Haiku.  There are four standards Gurga uses explicitly (page 170) and a fifth one having to do with poetic techniques such as metaphor, is added shortly thereafter.  I am going to focus only on the first standard: ‘form’.  Here is Gurga’s view of Haiku form, “First is form.  Taking the understanding that Japanese haiku is composed of seventeen syllables, some people somehow get the idea that anything written in seventeen syllables in English constitutes a haiku . . . [H]aiku now published in English does not follow a set syllabic form, but pay[s] greater attention to another aspect of haiku form, its internal structure.  Haiku are generally composed of two parts with a caesura or pause between them.” (Page 170).

For a certain kind of Haiku poet, writing in English, the syllabic shape, the 5-7-5 syllabics, is not central to the meaning of ‘Haiku’.  Instead, the two-part structure, and the caesura, become central to what Haiku means, or, as Gurga says, what a Haiku ‘is’.

This makes sense.  One can do this.  It is legitimate to extract this two-part structure and to use it as the basis for an approach to ELH.  I would argue, though, that it is also legitimate to use the syllabic structure, the 5-7-5 shape, as a basis for an approach to ELH.  Both approaches are mimicking the Japanese; but they are mimicking different factors of the Japanese Haiku. 

I refer to this kind of selection of factors as a process of ‘transmission and differentiation’.  In Japan the syllabic shape and the two-part structure are part of an overall esthetic whole (along with other factors such as the season-word).  But in the process of transmission to another cultural context, particular factors have become the basis for the transmission, while other factors have been marginalized.

There’s nothing regrettable about this: that’s how transmission from one culture to another happens.  For example, when the Sonnet first worked its way from Italy to England, certain aspects of the Italian Sonnet were picked up while others not so much.  For example, the Italian Sonnet uses an eleven-syllable line (in Italy it is a syllabic form).  In keeping with English metrics, that was changed to a five-foot line of iambic pentameter; usually ten-syllables, one syllable shorter than the Italian original.  And new rhyme schemes were introduced.  But the fourteen line length remained the same.

In a similar way, ELH has selected certain factors from the Japanese original and built on them.  In contrast with the history of the Sonnet, however, different factors of the Japanese original have been adopted by different groups.  The result is the appearance of different forms of poetry all rooted in Japanese Haiku.

I think there is developing an at least tacit recognition of this.  For example, at The Haiku Foundation,, they are conducting a Haiku contest.  Anyone can submit.  But notice how the Foundation has divided the contest into three sections: Traditional Haiku, Contemporary Haiku, and Innovative Haiku.  And the Foundation offers as guidelines for submission the different standards of these three approaches.

This makes great sense to me.  Each grouping has found certain formal elements in Japanese Haiku that they have used to build on and create viable English language poetry.  But because they have found form in different factors of the original, the result has been a multiplicity of types.  If you find the two-part structure to be the most significant, then other factors will fall away; free verse lineation, for example, will be welcome.  If you find the 5-7-5 syllabic shape to be the most significant, then other factors will fall away; the two-part structure will not be central, it will only be viewed as an option and single sentence Haiku will naturally come to the fore.

What Gurga has done is to focus on certain factors of Haiku, dismissed others, and then used those factors that he finds attractive to evaluate Haiku in general (including traditional Japanese Haiku).  He gets to do that.  But it is also possible for someone else to focus on other, equally prominent, factors (such as syllabic shape) and then use those factors to evaluate Haiku in general.  And such procedure would come up with different results.  Gurga has found his sense of form in certain factors, while syllabic Haiku poets have found their sense of form in other factors.  Both groupings have found form; but they have found a basis for form in different places.

I opened with an analogy, about the transmission of a dance form to another culture.  Such a transmission could give rise to a multitude of different musical expressions.  I believe that is what has happened to ELH; there are now a multitude of different expressions.  And I suspect that as time passes they will have an increased sense of their own place, their own history, and generate their own standards.

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