Friday, February 28, 2014

Same or Different?

Same or Different?

I think a lot about how haiku in the English speaking world has blossomed into a number of forms.  Regular readers of the blog know that my view is that the word ‘haiku’, in English, now refers to at least three, possibly as many as five, different poetic forms.  I have been wondering if there is some kind of analogy, or some precedent, that would illustrate how this process has unfolded.  And a precedent that I think is helpful in this context is the guitar.

Compare the classical guitar to the electric guitar used in popular music today.  Are they the same instrument, or are they different instruments?  Similarities between the two are fairly easy to observe.  For the most part, they share the same number of strings.  Both the electric and the classical guitar are held in the same way, with the left hand on the neck, and the right hand plucking the strings. 

But the dissimilarities are striking as well.  For one thing, the sound of the two instruments is different in a way that is easily recognizable by the ordinary listener.  The classical guitar string, when plucked, has a short duration that rapidly fades.  For the classical guitar there is no way to sustain the note for very long.  This leads to a style of performance that relies on frequent plucking of the strings.  It is true that the sound box of the classical guitar provides some resonance; but compared to an instrument like the violin or organ, the duration of the pitch, once plucked, for the classical guitar is brief.

In contrast the electric guitar, relying on technological transformations, can sustain a pitch for a very long time; especially when compared to the classical guitar.  Thus it is not unusual for a performance of the electric guitar to have relatively sustained notes.

The tone color of the instruments is also different.  And the volume differs as well; the classical guitar is fairly soft; when recorded the classical guitar is often miced very close for this reason.  In contrast, the electric guitar can be literally deafening.

My tendency is to think of the electric guitar and the classical guitar as two different instruments.  They are historically related and they show a common origin in their shape and playing technique.  But the effect upon the listener is so different that I think it is useful to consider them as now simply different musical instruments.

The guitar family of instruments covers a number of variants beyond the two I just discussed.  The steel acoustic steel string guitar differs from the classical in that the strings of the steel string guitar are closer together, making it a better suited instrument for using a pick and for strumming chords.  The bass guitar often has only four, instead of six, strings and its range differs from the classical, acoustic steel string, and the electric guitar.  And there are other types which are even further removed from the classical ancestor.

When looking at these different instruments you can see, and hear, the connection.  You can understand why they are all called ‘guitar’.  But they are different instruments and they lend themselves to different types of music.

In a similar way, I think that the different approaches to haiku found today among English language haiku poets lend themselves to different types of expression.  Like the different types of guitar, you can see in the different types of haiku that they share certain features.  But they differ in their modes of expression, in the way they communicate, in their esthetic ideals, and effects they aim to impart.

This is not a judgment about one type being superior to another.  Just as excellent music is to found in the acoustic and electric guitars, so also excellent poetry is to be found in the variety of haiku approaches.  But over time they have drifted farther and farther apart, just as the music played on the classical and electric guitars has become more and more distinct.  This is not a bad thing.  It is just a process of unfolding and differentiation that happens in many areas of human life.  And I think it is helpful to simply acknowledge that ‘haiku’, in English, has blossomed into a number of distinct forms.

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