I have been reading a recently published collection of haiku by Robert Hobkirk, Haiku Avenue: 333 haiku poems. I became interested because it has garnered more comments on amazon than most new haiku books and because Hobkirk takes a syllabic approach to composing haiku. In the ‘Introduction’ he writes, “All of the poems are in the classical Japanese style of seventeen syllables, three lines of 5-7-5 syllables.” Since I have an ongoing interest in syllabic haiku and its growing impact and practice, I thought I would give it a read.
Most of the haiku are seasonal and embedded in Hobkirk’s locality. They are like snapshots of Hobkirk’s world. And like most photoalbums, some of the snapshots captured my interest, and some of them didn’t speak to me. That is to be expected.
What I noticed in Haiku Avenue, and what stood out for me, is a tendency to write in a kind of stilted English. Here is an example:
Lightning hits old bridge
reflection flashes water
barge passes under.
Notice the absence of articles where you normally expect them. Instead of ‘lightning hits old bridge’, standard English would have ‘lightning hits the old bridge’. This kind of reworking of syntax is highlighted in the next haiku:
Floating down river
log passes by iron bridge
out into the bay
Standard English for line 1 would be ‘floating down the river’. And for line 2 something like ‘a log passes by an (or ‘the’) iron bridge’. The absence of articles in lines 1 and 2 is highlighted because of the use of an article in line 3, ‘out into the bay’ instead of ‘out into bay’.
I get the feeling that Hobkirk drops articles if that will help with the 5-7-5 line count, or he adds them for the same purpose. This creates an overall clunky feeling in the collection. At least it does for me.
And then I began wondering why I was responding this way. Poetry in general reconstructs language. For example, word order is often changed. Or words are used in unusual ways; a noun might be used as a verb or vice versa. Some poets, like Shakespeare, invent new words to create a particular effect or highlight a particular meaning.
In the world of free verse haiku, syntax is often reworked. In fact, among free verse haijin, the reworking of syntax is a major topic in manuals for haiku composition. Free verse haijin often advocate for the dropping of articles, minimizing verb usage, confining verbs to the present tense, minimizing the use of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs); the list goes on. At its extreme this program of language reconstruction creates what I refer to as ‘Haiku Hybrid English’ (HHE), which I think of as a dialect that is shared among a specific sub-group of English speakers.
To my mind, a lot of haiku written in HHE have the same kind of clunky feeling that I noted in some of Hobkirk’s haiku. This is the main reason I began doubting the free verse English language haiku project; because the results so often are lacking in a sense of lyricism and musicality. I am speaking in generalities; there are significant exceptions. Meaning there are those who write in free verse haiku who compose haiku of great beauty. Yet, to my mind, free verse haiku is dominated by what feels to me this kind of clunky, anti-lyrical approach. At its furthest extreme, this kind of reworking of English syntax leads to a cultivated obscurantism where language is no longer used to communicate.
In contrast, syllabic haijin tend to accept the English language as it is. There is no program among syllabic haijin to reform the English language, to force it, or contort it, into an odd dialect. At its best, say in the haiku of Edith Shiffert or Richard Wright, one finds an easy, flowing, natural English used in the service of poetic expression. All the articles and prepositions are there. And there is an overall feeling of rhythmic flow as one moves from one haiku to the next. It’s a flow that resembles the natural flow of conversation, the kind of conversation one has with a trusted friend; the language is not a barrier but a means for communication, sharing, and deepening relationship. Partly this flow is facilitated by the shared syllabic shape; a rhythmic pattern is set up. It is a pattern with variations, but the 5-7-5 pattern underlies all of the haiku and this creates a dance like feeling, or a rhythmic current, a kind of expectation is placed in the reader which is pleasingly met as one progresses through the haiku collection. This feeling resembles listening to music where a rhythmic pulse, like 3-4 time in a waltz, is presented and retained from measure to measure. Sometimes the composer will vary the rhythm using syncopation or other devices, and then return to the regular pulse of the piece. In a similar way, in a collection of syllabic haiku, the 5-7-5 rhythm is sometimes slightly altered (5-6-5, 6-8-6, 4-6-4, etc.) and then there is a return to the central rhythmic pattern. This doesn’t feel disruptive in either case.
Though it may seem odd to those who think of a syllabic approach to haiku as rigid, I would have preferred Hobkirk alter the line count to include the articles of standard English in his haiku. For example, I would have preferred:
Floating down the river
a log passes by an iron bridge
out into the bay.
This would create a long count haiku of 6-9-5, a haiku of 20 syllables. Yet, from my perspective, I think it would be more effective; more effective because the flow of the line is smoother, more natural, more memorable.
On this point, Hobkirk’s book of haiku has helped me to understand why syllabic haijin have a tendency to compose long count haiku. I have noticed that when syllabic haijin deviate from the 5-7-5 count, they are just as likely to compose a haiku a few syllables over the standard count of 17, as they are to compose a haiku a few syllables under the standard 17. The range seems to be something like plus or minus 3 syllables, or 14 to 20 syllables. Though the norm is still 5-7-5, when needed, syllabic haijin feel comfortable altering the count. One can observe this in the haiku of James Hackett which contain both short and long count haiku.
My feeling is that there is an unstated principle operating here. That principle is that the demands of normal English syntax should override a commitment to a particular count. I think this is what Hackett means when he writes in his “Suggestions for Writing Haiku in English”:
“Write in three lines which total approximately 17 syllables. Many haiku experiences can be well expressed in the Japanese line arrangement of 5, 7, 5 syllables – but not all.”
This is the 11th suggestion in his outline of how to approach haiku composition in English. And it is reflected in Hackett’s output. My feeling is that what is in play here is how we understand the concept of ‘rule.’ If the 5-7-5 structure is, for syllabic haiku, like a rule of a game, then one cannot deviate from it. Rules for a game are unyielding. If I move a chess piece incorrectly I am either trying to cheat or I am ignorant of how the rules of chess work. If I see 5-7-5 as a rule like a rule for chess, then I won’t want to deviate from that syllabic structure. From this perspective, I would prefer to mar normal English syntax to retain the syllabic rule.
If, in contrast, I see the syllabic count as an ingredient in a recipe, then it is OK to change the exact count. Both Wright and Hackett, to pick two influential examples, seem to view the 5-7-5 count as an ingredient in a haiku recipe rather than as a rule in a haiku game. From the perspective of a haiku recipe the demands of English syntax, of rhythm, and flow, could supersede the demand for instantiating a specific count. Just as when cooking a cake you might want to change the amount of sugar, depending on who the cake is for. If you know the cake is for someone who is on a strict diet, then you might want to reduce the amount of sweetener. On the other hand, if the cake is for a good friend’s sixtieth, some special birthday, you might want to make the cake extra appealing by increasing the amount of sweetener in the recipe. The demands of the occasion will supersede the specifics of the recipe. In a similar way, the demands of standard English syntax in syllabic haiku can, at times, displace the 5-7-5 syllabic count.
It appears to me that Japanese haijin, such as Basho, had a recipe view of haiku, as opposed to a rule of a game view. Though long count haiku in Basho are rare, they do exist. And they do not seem to have generated any anxiety in Basho or his immediate followers. I think this is a significant precedent to keep in mind for those of us writing syllabic haiku in English, a precedent syllabic haijin should, in my opinion, follow.
In closing I want to say that there are many fine haiku in Haiku Avenue and that the above thoughts are not a review of the book. Rather they are thoughts about haiku composition that were stimulated by reading this collection of haiku. A more focused review of Haiku Avenue will follow in another post.
Update: I was reading from Richard Wright’s haiku collection and came across a sequence which illustrates my observation about how syllabic haijin are as likely to compose haiku slightly over the 17 count as under the 17 count. Here it is:
The chill autumn dusk
Grows colder as yellow lights
Come on in skyscrapers.
Streaks of fire-flies
Freezing the magnolias
As white as ice.
This September rain
Is much colder than the wind
That sweeps it along.
277 has an 18 count, with line 3 having 6 counts: 5-7-6. 278 has a 15 count: 4-7-4 (some dialects might count ‘fire’ as 2 syllables, which would make the haiku a 16 count with 5-7-4). And 270 returns to the standard 17 count of 5-7-5. The previous haiku 276 is also in 5-7-5. So the series of four haiku use the following counts: 5-7-5, 5-7-6, 4-7-4, and then a return to 5-7-5.
This is a good illustration of how Wright understands the 5-7-5 count as part of a recipe which Wright will vary with the needs of expression and syntax allowing for variations.