Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Finding a Place for Formal Haiku: Part 1

Finding a Place for Formal Haiku
Part 1

In 2007 the online poetry zine, Lynx, edited by Jane Reichhold, published an essay by R. W. Watkins called ‘Dial 5-7-5 for Classicism: In Defense of the Seventeen-Syllable Haiku’.  I think it is an insightful essay on the place of syllabic haiku in English and its relationship to free verse haiku.  I read it recently and it is my feeling that some things have changed in the eight years since the essay was written.  What I am going to do here is to repost the essay, with the permission of Watkins, and add some running comments to update the situation for 2015 and add my own perspective to Watkin’s observations.

But before going into the essay itself I want to note that the essay was published by Jane Reichhold who is a free verse haijin.  I have been friends with Reichhold for decades and one of the truly admirable qualities she has exhibited in her interactions with the ELH community is a sense of spaciousness.  Though Reichhold herself does not endorse the views of this essay, and, in addition, composes free verse haiku, she has no problem posting an articulate defense of syllabic haiku.  In my personal relationship with Reichhold I have always found her to be supportive of an individual poet’s leading.  In my own history I started out composing haiku in the manner of free verse, the approach advocated by official haiku organizations.  Gradually, I pulled away from this approach and adopted a syllabic, 5-7-5, approach to ELH.  During my journey Reichhold has always been completely supportive of my direction.  Reichhold’s example has kept me centered in my own ongoing, and ever changing, relationship to ELH.  When I have felt frustrated with what seems to me to be a kind of rigidity and dogmatism on the part of free verse haiku, Reichhold’s example has kept me from becoming too extreme, kept me on course.

But let’s move on now to the essay by Watkins.

In Defense of the Seventeen-Syllable Haiku
By R. W. Watkins

Watkins: Like it or lump it, we might as well face the truth: composers of haiku, tanka, and other Japanese forms of verse are no longer considered poets by the literary mainstream – if they ever truly were in the first place.  Sadly, Japanese verse – like various classic European closed forms, epigrams, rhyming light verse – is no longer regarded as poetry by the editors and publishers from said mainstream.  (More recently adopted Asian forms like Korean sijo and Middle Eastern ghazal were delivered still born, being considered as nothing more than non-poetic novelties or Oriental curios from the outset.)

Jim: Watkins sets up a contrast between the ‘literary mainstream’ and those interested in formal verse.  This is a huge topic that many have written about.  But what I want to note here is that I think for haiku this picture needs a little modification.  Norton recently published an anthology edited by Jim Kacian, Haiku In English: The First Hundred Years.  It would seem to me that this signals, at least to some extent, a kind of official recognition.  Norton preceded Kacian’s anthology by including the haiku of Richard Wright in their fifth edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (see page 1502).  The fifth edition will be used in many college courses (that is one of the purposes of Norton Anthologies), and the willingness of Norton to publish an anthology devoted entirely to ELH would seem to me to indicate a slow shift in the direction of acceptance of the form. 

But Watkins is making, I think, a more general point; and that is the marginalization of ‘closed forms’ from the mainstream by official poetry organizations.  It is worth noting that Kacian’s anthology is dominated by free verse and avant-garde haiku.  It is true that Anthology of Poetry features the syllabic haiku of Richard Wright, which is a good balance.  But I get the feeling that mainstream poetry would not have even this modest interest if the free verse haiku had not dominated official haiku organizations.

The situation today for ELH is a contrast between what I call ‘Official Haiku’ and what is going on outside of these official haiku organizations.  I haven’t thought of a label for this much larger region of ELH.  Sometimes I think of it as ‘blue collar haiku’; but that isn’t quite right.  It isn’t exactly wrong because some of the syllabic haiku are, in fact, written by ordinary blue collar types.  But some syllabic haiku is written by more dedicated poets like Haydn Carruth or Mary Jo Salter.  So I have simply settled on the term ‘syllabic haiku’, implying that the composing of syllabic haiku takes place outside of Official Haiku organizations.  ‘Official Haiku’ is free verse haiku.  Syllabic haiku is written almost entirely outside of the Official Haiku organizations.  Syllabic haiku is a grass roots movement in the sense that it is unsponsored.  Syllabic haiku has no official organization advocating for its point of view; unlike free verse haiku which has organizations pushing its agenda such as the Haiku Society of America and the journal Modern Haiku. 

The larger point that Watkins makes, that closed forms are rejected by the literary establishment, is still true today.  It is, perhaps, even stronger today.  When I go to poetry readings, for example, it is extremely rare to have a poet read from a fixed form.  And free verse poets I know who have ventured into fixed forms have tended to lose their standing in the local poetry community. 

This situation, though, mimics what I have observed about the two realms of haiku composition in the U.S.  There are still lots of poets writing sonnets and other closed forms; but by and large they are not being acknowledged by official poetry organizations, University literary departments or MFA programs, or published in literary journals.

My observation is that poets who are attracted to closed forms have found a home online.  They have bypassed the official literary organizations and structures; in fact they seem to ignore them completely.  This is a change since Watkins published his essay in 2007.  There was a lot of online poetry in 2007 (the essay was published online), but that has dramatically increased in the following eight years.  Today someone interested in closed forms has numerous online poetry communities to post their efforts.  I have observed on these sites that others admire their efforts and encourage them.  It is a very different atmosphere from that found at the University.  And I think it is a good thing.

Watkins: The term ‘poetry’ in the North American, British and Irish contexts now refers exclusively to free verse.  Other forms of verse are now seen as separate literary forms – or even separate artistic entities – at best; at worst, they are now seen as pointless undertakings more reminiscent of parlor tricks to be performed by clever children.  The form which is the focus of this essay, haiku, seems to be now interpreted as something more on par with Zen koans or esoteric incantations than anything resembling poetry.  Ironically, this comes at a time when English-language haiku [ELH] subject matter suddenly seems limited only by the human imagination.

Jim: To a significant extent Watkins is right about the place free verse holds in the anglosphere.  This is particularly true at the University level.  If a student is interested in traditional metrics, or syllabics, in many Universities and MFA programs it would be difficult for them to find a teacher to offer guidance.  I don’t want to exaggerate; there are exceptions.  Still, I would argue, along with Watkins, that free verse is the norm among University English Departments.  And since most poetry journals are sponsored by English Departments, this is reflected in the dominance of free verse in poetry journals at this time.  (A significant exception is the journal ‘Measure’, devoted to metrical poetry, sponsored by the University of Evansville in Indiana.)

I have met countless poets who have never been introduced to how to compose closed forms, to metrics, or any of the tools of the poetic trade.  And this situation seems to be only growing.

But, again, it has been my observation that to understand the situation as a whole we need to look beyond the official journals and MFA programs.  In general, what I have found, is that there is widespread interest in traditional approaches to poetry, but you won’t find it in Official Poetry Program or journals.  Think of the Cowboy Poetry movement which has developed its own organizations, journals, and published anthologies.  Almost all of Cowboy Poetry is traditional metrical verse.  Cowboy Poetry has a wide following, but you won’t find any of it in anthologies of modern verse that are almost always sponsored by Universities.  I am suggesting that we are kind of blinded when we see the culture of poetry only through the lens of official poetry.  There is much more going on.

What we are talking about is an elite poetic culture in contrast to a poetic culture that does not participate in the elite structures.  Modern free verse poetry has always been an elitist undertaking.  This was explicitly stated in its early years when free poets rejected popular and magazine poetry and set up a program that was against the popular understanding of what poetry means.  The creation of Poetry Chicago Magazine was explicitly undertaken as a rejection of popular poetry.  Modern free verse has often been welded to ideologies that understand their mission as reforming or replacing traditional culture.  For Pound the ideology was fascism; for Elliott traditional conservatism; for many contemporary free verse advocates it is progressivism and/or radical feminism.

In contrast, the non-elite do not view poetry through an ideological lens.  The non-elite do not have an ideological ax to grind.  I would say that the non-elite poets take a craft approach to their poetry.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, this view of poetry resembles being a carpenter to shape wood, or being a baker, or gardener.  The non-elite poet feels a delight in shaping words into recognizable forms (sonnet, sestina, ghazal, haiku, cinquain, etc.).  This is not an ideological approach just as baking bread is not an ideological undertaking.

Watkins: True, the position of us Western haijins as poets has always been somewhat vicarious, to say the least.  We have long been seen as extreme and eccentric inhabitants (even for poets) on the social, cultural and geographic fringes of Western society: elderly Buddhists and flaky New Agers who operate health food stores; ‘the last of the beatniks’ – aging former lovers of Snyder, di Prima, Ginsberg and Kerouac; wacky wiccan women who dance naked through the woods with their 13-year old daughters in celebration of the latter’s first menstrual cycle; middle aged male divorcees who wander the windswept back streets, measuring out their lives with elm growth and weather statistics; lonely young college boys and girls who have never had a lover, and teeter on the brink of suicide, committal or convent life; etc.

Jim: This is hilarious!  I love this kind of writing; I’m not very good at it myself, but I love this kind of caricature and editorial slash and burn.  Fun, fun, fun.

Again, though, I think it is worthwhile to look at this through the lens of the two haiku cultures operating in ELH.  There is some truth in this hyperbole when looking at official haiku.  But I don’t think it really applies to non-official haiku, popular haiku.  Popular haiku often tells us about the life of the author in brief snapshots.  Or the culture that the author comes from.  This non-elitist, popular haiku, is down to earth and unpretentious.  Popular haiku may refer to a favorite bar, the trailer park they live in, the sub-culture they occupy, or simply words of encouragement for the difficulties of life.  That is one of the reasons why I like popular haiku; it is direct and unadorned and opens a door onto another person’s life.

Watkins: Yet in spite of our reputation for being anything but pretentious, Atwood-imitating academics or politically correct, latte-slurping down
towners (What’s the point of a smoke-free coffee shop or jazz joint anyway?), there was always one thing we could count on: people knew the attributes of our craft.  For the past 40 years or so, students as young as at junior high level have known that haiku poets write a Japanese-derived verse form that captures a moment of higher human awareness and is written in 3 lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables and 5 syllables respectively.  Whether or not the original Japanese ‘syllable’ count and configuration was actually the equivalent of the 5-7-5 pattern is irrelevant.  What is important is the fact that for approximately 40 years, 5-7-5 was our pattern, even if for the past 25 years or thereabouts it has been so only in the minds of students and the general public.

Jim: What I find kind of amazing is the tenacity with which the 5-7-5 approach to haiku has retained its centrality in the mind of the general public.  This is openly acknowledged by official haiku, and even briefly mentioned in Haiku in English in Kacian’s essay on the history of haiku.  It is a source of frustration for those who affiliate with official haiku.  I think it is remarkable how widespread and strongly rooted the 5-7-5 shape is in current ELH.  Again, this is a grassroots understanding.  It is an understanding which has taken root in spite of the hectoring efforts of official haiku.  What I find surprising, and gratifying, is that ordinary people retain this commitment to 5-7-5, post their creations online, and publish their collections using print-on-demand technology without really being bothered by the fact that official haiku trivializes their efforts.  Watkins feels, in 2007, that syllabic haiku is being lost or undermined.  I understand why Watkins gets that impression.  If you read Modern Haiku, or Frog Pond, you would definitely feel that way.  But in the intervening eight years, my observation is that syllabic haiku is stronger than ever.  In some ways this resembles the displacement of traditional news media by online news sources; including specific news sites and operations like youtube.  People do not need the officially sanctioned news organizations and have simply drifted away to those online sources that bring them actual news.  Yes, I said it: the traditional news media absolutely deserves its declining following.  In a similar way, the official haiku organizations that have issued their edicts on what constitutes real haiku, are simply being bypassed. I doubt that most syllabic haijin even pay them any mind.  And why should they?

Part 2 to Follow


Unknown said...

This article was just brought to my attention, Jim. It is excellent! Thank you!

Priscilla Lignori

Author of "Beak Open, Feet Relaxed: 108 Haiku."

Jim714 said...

Thanks, Priscilla, for taking the time to post this comment. It's good to get this kind of feedback.

Is there a way to contact you directly? If not, that's fine. But I would like to engage in some conversation with you about your work, ELH, and poetry in general.

Unknown said...

Hi, Jim. I work late most days, but can correspond by e-mail. My e-mail address is

Unknown said...

Hi, Jim. I meant to ask you for your e-mail address. There are a few things I would like to share that relate to what you wrote in your article. BTW - I had not read part three when I wrote my comment. I'm not sure that I'm a haijin but I want to thank you for the compliment. With best regards, Priscilla Lignori