Thursday, August 1, 2013

Out of the Mist: Modern Haiku's Essay on O. Mabson Southard

I'd like to bring reader's attention to a really well-written essay on the Haiku of O. Mabson Southard published by Modern Haiku in 2012.  It can be found here:

It is written by Paul Russel Miller.  It is the kind of analysis I really enjoy reading and it is a good example of an overview of an early American Haijin who composed Haiku syllabically.

The essay raises an interesting question; how the change in formal structure among American Haijin, and in particular among American Haiku Organizations, what I often refer to as 'Official Haiku', should be understood.  The narrative that is often put forth from official haiku is that American Haiku has progressed, that early American Haiku that followed a syllabic approach was simplistic, and that we now have a more sophisticated understanding and approach which pans out into a free verse, short count, structure.

My personal view of this kind of narrative is that it arises out of a cultural understanding of 'progress'; it is a specific application of a view which comprehends history as progressing.  'Progressing' here means getting better and better.  The template for this is the onward march of science and technology.  Since science and technology have clearly made great advances, and since science and technology determine much of our world view, it is not surprising that poetry takes on this way of looking at itself.  That is to say, in chemistry we can definitely say that we know more about the elements today than we did 300 or 500 years ago.  And we continue to uncover more and more through the application of scientific investigation.

Does poetry fit into this kind of narrative?  I am skeptical that it does.  Think of a form like the sonnet.  Those who compose sonnets do not argue that their craft has progressed; it has changed, of course, but it has not become better and better.  Shakespeare's sonnets are still studied to be learned from; there is not a feeling that they should be left behind for better procedures.

I think the same applies to English language Haiku.  Tastes change and subject matter varies.  But the idea that today's Haiku are more sophisticated, more true to Haiku, than the early efforts of poets like Mabson, Hackett, Wright, is, I think, simply a story some Haijin tell themselves to make them feel advanced.  I refer to this kind of thinking as 'chronocentrism'; it is the idea that one's own time is somehow inherently better, more insightful, and in general more admirable than times past.  I think of it as a kind of cultural blindness.

There are many areas of human life where the idea of progress does not apply.  I would argue that for art in general this is the case.  I would argue that this also applies to a discipline like metaphysics (and here I am referring to the classical, Aristotelian, tradition; not the new age usage of the word 'metaphysics').  A work like Whitehead's Process and Reality (my candidate for the greatest work of 20th century philosophy) is a restatement of insights, but I do not believe that metaphysics progresses.   To the degree that metaphysics deals with eternal truths it does not progress precisely because it is embedded in the eternal.

But to return to Haiku.  What I would enjoy seeing among American Haijin is a relationship to their own past similar to the relationship that sonneteers have with their past.  That is to say a relationship which views their past as something to be admired, something to learn from, rather than something to be dismissed and surpassed.  It is the idea that the past is something to lived up to rather than trivialized.

Practically, I think this would mean making available the works of some of these early Haijin.  Wright is in a unique position because of his fame as a writer of novels and essays; for this reason his Haiku have remained in print and are available.  But I have noticed that Hackett's work has fallen out of print; except for its presence in anthologies.  I think that is unfortunate.  And many of Edith Shiffert's works seem to be available now only in used copies.  And an early anthology like 'Borrowed Water' is also only available in used copies. Sonneteers do not have this problem; early sonnets are readily available and often read, commented on, and studied.  I would like to see the same happen with English Language Haiku.  Print on demand technology makes this easier to accomplish.  Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I sense a growing interest in some of these early Haijin.  The article on Southard is, I believe, an indication of this trend.

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