Thursday, March 7, 2013

Conversing with the Rules

Conversing with the Rules

Here is a Haiku by James Hackett:

Old shadowy snow
melting in a shallow pond . . .
the summit beyond!

(Haiku Poetry, Volume Two, James Hackett, page 62)

I happened to turn to this Haiku in a random way after re-reading Hackett’s ‘Suggestions for Writing Haiku in English’.  The ‘Suggestions’ are appended to his Haiku at the end of the volume.  There are seventeen ‘Suggestions’.  They are a model of clarity and offer the reader insight into Hackett’s views of how Haiku should be written and shaped.  Suggestion 12 is, “Avoid end rhyme in haiku.  Read each verse aloud to make sure that it sounds natural.”

I have to admit, I got a kick out of the association.  It also demonstrated to me that Hackett doesn’t feel bound by his own ‘suggestions’; meaning, I think, that the suggestions are not rules.  I mean they are not rules in the sense that the rules for chess are rules; in the sense that if you break a rule in chess it means that you are cheating.  The rules for chess are not ‘suggestions’.

This got me to thinking about the function of rules in poetry in general.  Jane Reichhold has a very funny list of rules “that have come and gone” for the diminutive haiku.  There are 65 (yikes!) such rules.  (Writing and Enjoying Haiku, Jane Reichhold, pages 75 – 79).  It is sobering to read this list; it is also very funny.

Thinking about rules lead me to thinking about the rules for Renga; because Renga is a highly rule-bound form (I think it is in the running for the most rule-bound form of poetry evah!).  There is a significant, in the sense of highly influential, manual for Renga poets translated by Steven Carter in his book “The Road to Komatsubara”.  It is Shohaku’s Renga Rulebook, with the unassuming title, ‘The New Rules of Linked Verse, with Kanera’s New Ideas on the New Rules and Additional Comments by Shohaku’.  Phew!  Let’s just call it Shohaku’s Renga Rulebook

The interesting thing about this Renga Rulebook, written in 1501, is that it is based on previous Renga Rulebooks; but it preserves what the previous authors had to say, even when Shohaku disagrees.  Carter writes,

“One might expect of Shohaku, after his many years of study and compilation, a thorough revision of the rules; but . . . a different approach to the task of emendation was taken.  Rather than an open revision, Shohaku’s work is an interlinear commentary – sometimes a critical commentary – on the rules of Yohsimoto and Kanera. [Yoshimoto and Kanera each wrote early Renga Rulebooks.]  To read the rulebook of 1501 is to read Yoshimoto, Kanera, and Shohaku, along with some anonymous voices, in a kind of running discussion or argument.  Preserving the rules in both their original and emended forms {Shohaku’s Rulebook} is thus a complex and at times confusing text . . . But the work’s greatest fault is also its greatest virtue, for it allows the reader a chance to see exactly what kind of changes had taken place during the first century and a half of the rule’s existence.” (The Road to Komatsubara, pages 36 and 37)

And sure enough, starting right off with Rule 1, we enter into this kind of conversation:

I.  Rhyme

Yoshimoto:  Verses ending with the names of things, as well as those ending with compounds such as “morn and eve,” do not clash with verses that end with inflective words.  But verses ending with the names of things should be separated from each other by more than one verse.

Shohaku:  Words such as shigure, “showers,” or yugure, “nightfall,” do not clash according to current thinking.

Yoshimoto: The final inflections tsutsu, keri, kana, ramu, shite, and all others of the same sort should be separated from each other by more than one verse.

Kanera:  In modern times, kana is allowed in the first verse of a sequence, while its variant form, the “request” gana; may also be used once. No other uses are permitted.

Shohaku:  The “request” gana, if used at all, should appear only after the end of the first sheet.

(The Road to Komatsubara, page 41)

So there you have it.  Right out in the open the varying opinions and views of three Renga Masters.  Yoshimoto would not allow for an end-rhyme of shigure and yugure but Shohaku says they ‘do not clash according to current thinking’.  (As an aside, some of Basho’s haiku use this kind of rhyme.) 

I find Shohaku’s approach highly admirable and highly entertaining.  For one thing, it humanizes the rule-givers.  For another, this kind of transparency, to my way of thinking, actually invites us to enter into the conversation. 

What if we had such transparency today in English Language Haiku?  Wouldn’t it be just the coolest thing if we had something similar for ELH?  I mean we could take Hackett’s seventeen ‘Suggestions’ and publish the kind of conversation that Shohaku used in his Renga Rulebook.  For example, here is Suggestion 8:

Hackett:  Use verbs in present tense.
Wilson:  In modern times haiku poets use the full range of English language tenses.

Or how about Suggestion 11:

Hackett: Write in three lines which total approximately 17 syllables.
Higginson: For haiku in English an overall form consisting of seven accented syllables, plus unaccented syllables up to a total of about twelve, would yield a rhythmical structure native to English . . .
Coomler: We make no attempt to adopt this 5-7-5 form.  Instead we simply keep hokku brief, with no superfluous words . . .
Gurga:  The great majority of haiku now published in English do not follow a set syllabic form.
Strand:  The place to begin is counting syllables – five-seven-five. . . 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.
Reichhold: Whether you fill the lines of your own haiku with seventeen syllables, or make your lines short, long, short, is a decision which you as writer will have to make.
Wilson:  In modern times, counting syllables, 5-7-5, has proven to be efficacious for a large number of haiku poets.

You can add your own; of course.  But the significant thing to me is to enter into the conversation, to feel free to comment, emend, adjudicate, etc.  Poetry forms change over time; they evolve.  By ‘evolve’ I do not mean ‘get better and better’.  I mean that they are transformed, that each of us that enters into the creation of a specific form, like Haiku or Renga or Cinquain or Sonnet, etc., both inherits the precedents of the past, and contributes our own understanding in the present.  And this combination is handed on as a gift to future practitioners of the form.

If you are inclined to formal syllabic verse my suggestion is to follow Shohaku’s example.  Respect the past because past practitioners have a lot to teach us.  And like Shohaku, be transparent about one’s interactions with the past; this transparency will be invaluable to anyone who follows after you.


The Road to Komatsubara, Steven D. Carter, Harvard University, 1987
Haiku Poetry, Volume Two, James Hackett, Japan Publications, 1968
Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide, Jane Reichhold, Kodansha, 2002 (see page 31)
Hokku: Writing Traditional Haiku in English, David Coomler, Octavo Press, 2001 (see page 35)
The Haiku Handbook, William J. Higginson, Kodansha, 1985 (see page 105)
The Other World of Richard Wright, edited by Jianqing Zheng, University of Mississippi Press, 2011 (the Gurga quote comes from page 170)
Seeds from a Birch Tree, Clark Strand, Hyperion, 1997 (see pages 24 and 87)


Dan Gurney said...

To some extent, I think the rules that govern forms of poetry resemble the rules of grammar. Influential people make the rules and try to convince others to follow their rules. These rule-makers enforce their rules by means of peer pressure and even more tangible forms of persuasion such as allowing or disallowing publication if the influential person happens to have that sort of power (as an editor, say).

But in the end, each of us is free to observe, ignore, or modify the "rules" of poetry or grammar as we see fit.

In some cases, we may discover that our freedom enables us to express ourselves with crisp, fresh clarity and originality that would otherwise have eluded us.

The sort of conversation you suggest in this post, I think, could produce a very fruitful dialog among the people who count themselves among the rule makers. And, as you suggest, it would be of real use to the novice poet.

Jim714 said...

Good Morning Dan:

I like the analogy to rules of grammar. At least one haiku rule-giver has used that analogy himself; that is to say he refers to the 'grammar of haiku' in the context of putting forth rules to follow.

Both rules of grammar and rules of poetry are used to facilitate communication. Both of them also generate a sense of community; those who use the same grammar feel a sense of belonging. Likewise, those who follow the same rules of poetry think of themselves as belonging to the same 'club' or 'tribe'.

And you are right on target about the function of editors as gatekeepers and adjudicators of taste. Though there are some exceptions (that is to say editors who don't impose their own preferences on their publication) many editors are adamant about that function.

Thanks for the comments,