Finding a Place for Formal Haiku
Watkins: I say “for the past 25 years or thereabouts” because it was in 1980 that George Swede and Eric Amann published ‘Toward a Definition of the Modern English Haiku’ (Cicada; Vol. 4, No. 4; pp. 3-12), which, quite frankly, probably did for haiku what the brush did for curling and the helmet did for ice hockey: made life less arduous for the produce, but more confusing and alienating for the consumer. In their essay . . . the authors laid the blueprint for the contemporary Western haiku by (seemingly) accommodating virtually every deviation from the 5-7-5 format that had materialized over the previous 3 decades. The modern English-language haiku, they thus concluded, can be read aloud in a single breath, evokes a moment of deep emotion or insight in which some aspect of Man is related to Nature, relies mainly in simple images, and is always in the present tense. Such a prescriptive summation probably illustrates why grassroots-up democracy is only as dependable as the people being polled.
Jim: Official haiku is forever seeking to impose some kind of definition on ELH. One of the funniest analyses I have read regarding this tendency is found in Jane Reichhold’s Writing and Enjoying Haiku, pages 75 – 79. There Reichhold lists 65 regulations which have been proposed by various haijin here and there in an effort to impose their own preferences on the form. It is a really strange list. I say strange because anyone familiar with ELH can easily come up with exceptions to each and every proposed rule.
Official haiku is all about controlling ELH through definition. In a way, the contest between syllabic and free verse haiku, between popular haiku and official haiku, is about who has the power to define the word ‘haiku’ in an English language context. The elites want to impose their definition from the top down. That is why they get so irritated when someone ignores their definition; because it undermines their sense of power. My own view is that meaning follows usage. Most ordinary people consider haiku to be a syllabic form of 5-7-5 syllables and for that reason it should be the primary definition. The real purpose of the proposed definitions found in official haiku is twofold: first, to justify free verse haiku even though Japanese haiku is formal, and second, to marginalize syllabic haiku. The problem is, no one outside of their organizations care about their definition and ordinary people continue to simply compose haiku in 5-7-5 in spite of what the elites say.
Watkins: To make matters worse, whenever someone has attempted to apply a little ‘top-down’ structural order to this very open-ended set of guidelines, it has often only contributed to the confusion and intimidation. Cor van den Heuvel, for example, has emphasized the fact that 12 syllables in English is actually more analogous with the 17 onji of the original Japanese version. He adds fuel to the fire in his forward to the third edition of The Haiku Anthology (Norton, 1999), insisting that: Though a few poets still write in the 5-7-5 syllable form, this form is now mostly written by schoolchildren as an exercise to learn how to count syllables, by beginners who know little about the true essence of haiku, or by those who just like to have a strict form with which to practice. (p. xxviii)
Jim: I have already commented extensively on this blog on my view that the 17 count in Japanese is comparable to the 17 syllable count in English and that both Japanese and English count syllables; so I won’t repeat that here. (Those interested please see the Unexceptional series of posts which can be accessed from the list of categories on the right side of this blog.) I will just say that this is an example of how a nihonjinron based view of the Japanese language has been used to critique a syllabic approach and that I think van den Heuvel is just plain wrong.
Here I want to point out strategies of marginalization embodied in van den Heuvel’s remarks. The first is to infantilize syllabics by suggesting that it is childish and serves only a didactic purpose. The implication is that free verse haiku is adult, grown up, and serious. This would surprise Haydn Carruth, Richard Wilbur, Edith Shiffert, and countless other poets who have taken a syllabic approach to haiku. This idea of syllabics as infantile is rooted in the progressive ideology of free verse as a movement. The view of free versers is that free verse is to replace traditional verse and that we have now progressed into the modern, free verse, era where the unwarranted restrictions of traditional verse, such as counting, have been put aside. With this kind of chronocentric analysis, a syllabic approach could only be seen as immature and, possibly, reactionary. This analysis has the advantage of alleviating its adherents of any responsibility to actually look at the syllabic haiku being published since they know in advance that it is infantile and childish as a matter of ideological analysis.
The second strategy of marginalization is to argue that the 5-7-5 approach is only engaged in by a few people who misunderstand the deeper aspects of haiku. The truth is the opposite: the majority of haiku written in English is syllabic. So why can’t someone like van den Heuvel see this? Because they remain firmly locked in the gated community of official haiku and simply can’t bring themselves to look over the fence. Every year there are numerous haiku books published, and countless haiku published at online poetry communities, in the 5-7-5 format. In contrast, official, free verse, haiku remains the concern of a closed, inbred, elitist community.
Watkins: Now, as far as I’m concerned, this is merely an exercise in sheer snobbery bordering on historical revisionism. If it didn’t also reek of self-fulfilling prophecy, I would have to dub it painfully laughable. (I have often wondered how many bards have stuck up their nose or middle finger at closed forms not because of any aesthetic disdain for syllabic, linear and metrical structure, but merely out of their own lack of talent and other shortcomings. I have a very strong feeling that the average free verse poet today would not be capable of composing a proper sonnet or ghazal in a month of amphetamine-fueled Sundays.)
Jim: I made this same point about a general lack of a grasp of basics among modern free verse poets in my review of Stephen King’s book On Writing. In my own personal journey to syllabic verse I did not have a background in traditional poetics. I had to learn all of it on my own. I had some assistance, but my experience was that free verse poets were just blank about the English language poetic heritage, its structure, its history, etc. I’m not complaining. Being self-taught has its advantages. But I think it is the case today that if someone is interested in closed forms and how they work for the most part they will have to find their way on their own.
Watkins: Such conflicting, imprecise and structurally lacking definitions may have been fine and dandy in an era when the term ‘poetry’ was still inclusive, but in an era like the one we currently exist in – where poetry is synonymous with free verse –
Jim: That’s true only for the elites; for the average person poetry still means rhymed metrical verse, like what they hear in popular song.
Watkins: such a blueprint merely invites the composition of verse that holds a position the haiku sphere analogous to the position free verse once held in the then-inclusive world of poetry. In fact, ironically, the general public’s continued belief that the notion of haiku automatically entails the 5-7-5 pattern may be the only thing that prevents the modern English-language version from being defined as ‘the shortest form of free verse’. . .
Jim: I think what Watkins is getting at is this: how do we distinguish haiku from standard free verse if there are no formal criteria one can use to make the distinction? Free verse ELH has dropped the syllabics and has opted for a free verse line. The result is a type of poetry which is indistinguishable from the free verse one encounters in non-haiku poetic contexts. And modern ELH has not stopped with dropping syllabics; it has dropped the seasonal requirement as well. There is a push in free verse ELH to focus on a two-part division of the poem as definitive; but lots of non-haiku poems are in two parts, so that does not seem to be a defining characteristic. Juxtaposition is not haiku specific.
Watkins: So this is the basic reason why I believe the 5-7-5 syllabic form to be so very vital: If we are going to exist in a Western environment where the term ‘poetry’ denotes free verse exclusively, and resulting haiku – like other (traditionally/supposedly) closed forms – is now in a literary or artistic category all its own, then we might as well make the best of a bad situation, and devote a considerable portion of our talents to composing haiku according to the tenets of the original English-language form – albeit a faulty or outright erroneously derived one.
Jim: I don’t think the syllabic form is faulty or erroneously derived. Here I think Watkins is giving the nihonjinron sourced discourse regarding Japanese and English too much credit. My view is that the English and Japanese syllable are comparable and not qualitatively different from each other.
Watkins: This would enable haiku to transcend being ambiguously perceived as “just another way to write free verse” (as Larry Gross once described the possible state of the sijo if allowed to mutate too far from its original Korean blueprint) – a separate literary category that no longer produces examples of itself and now strives to be accepted back (?) into the world of poetry/free verse. Simultaneously, it would help us to avoid confusing and/or alienating the general public (i.e., potential readers) who have grown up accustomed to the 5-7-5 form of their secondary and post-secondary textbooks: a persona might require some reference point if he or she were encountering a haiku outside the usual context of a haiku periodical or solo volume – the 5-7-5 format would probably provide that.
Jim: With 5-7-5 at the center and understood as normative, the deviations from that form become variations. But if free verse haiku is taken as normative it simply melts into the surrounding bog of free verse poetry in general with nothing to point to that is distinctive.
Watkins: I should also stress the usefulness of the 5-7-5 structure as an unifying factor in the context of the haiku’s ever-expanding subject range. As I have already noted, haiku is no longer merely the verse of cicadas, frogs, sunsets and cherry blossoms. The form’s natural landscape now flows almost seamlessly from the mountains into the subways, from the frogponds into the workings of the human brain and genitalia. (I can’t help but be reminded of those lines from Sonic Youth’s ‘Making the Nature Scene’: “The city is a natural scape/Order in the details”.) In fact, there is no true distinction any longer between the traditionally nature-oriented haiku and the human-centered senryu along the lines of subject matter – the whimsical senryu’s ability to be interpreted as light or satirical verse is its only true qualifier amongst most contemporary English-language haijins. Where there is no limit on subject matter, the haiku’s propensity for (d)evolving into ‘the shortest form of free verse’ is only exacerbated by the lack of a standard closed form. The presence of a closed form would serve as an uniform filter, playing the Apollonian to the limitless subjects’ Dionysian, in other words. And the best closed form to provide this Apollonian element would have to be the one with which the most people are already familiar, the one which has been officially instilled into the minds of the general public for at least the past 4 decades: the 5-7-5 syllabic structure.
Jim: The question is, how do you know that a poem is a haiku? The formal response to this question would be that if the poem is in 5-7-5 it is a haiku. Simple question, simple answer. It is the same approach used to define a sonnet: a poem is a sonnet if it has 14 lines and 10 syllables, or 5 beats, per line. Of course there are additional things one can say about haiku and sonnet. But these formal characteristics are foundational and are never left behind. Without this formal parameter that defines haiku as a tercet in 5-7-5 syllables haiku becomes a kind of nebulous muddle of words.
Watkins: Erroneous as it may have been in its conception, at least it is indefatigably ours.
Jim: I don’t think the 5-7-5 structure is erroneous. It is my view that the Japanese and English syllables are completely comparable and to argue otherwise is to uncritically accept the culturally chauvinistic discourse of nihonjinron. On this point I think Watkins gives the critics of syllabic haiku too much credit. The Japanese language is an ordinary language and I do not think there is any compelling reason to treat the Japanese language as something unique or estranged from other languages.
Watkins: Mind you, I’m not suggesting for a second that all of us should ‘revert’ to the 5-7-5 pattern exclusively or otherwise face literary ostracism. What I am suggesting is that the editors, publishers and reviewers be more open to the traditional, and less arrogant in their approach to those who prefer to compose their haiku (and senryu) in this original English-language adaptation of the Japanese classic.
Jim: Not going to happen. If anything, elitist haiku organizations and publications have become more hostile, not less, to syllabic haiku in the eight years since Watkins published this essay. For the most part they don’t anthologize their work and don’t review their books and do their best to pretend that syllabic haiku just doesn’t exist.
But that’s OK. Syllabic haijin have discovered that they do not need these organizations or publications. Syllabic haijin publish their syllabic haiku online at general poetry sites and their collections via print-on-demand. Some have even started their own journals for syllabic haiku. So it’s all good: syllabic haijin are going their own way and enjoying the journey.
Watkins: As I’ve pointed out, in a Western climate where poetry is now synonymous with free verse, and haiku must stand as its own literary form awash in an endless sea of subject matter, any reference points and defensive uniformity that such haijins can provide should be welcomed, not mocked.
Jim: The reason syllabic haiku is mocked is because the official haiku organizations identify with free verse. The reason they identify with free verse is because they have internalized the chronocentric views of progressive ideology. That isn’t going to change. It is, I think, a hopeless task to ask for some space for a syllabic approach from official haiku. Let them have their view. I think it is time for syllabic haijin to raise their own standard and create their own spaces.
Watkins: In conclusion, I would just like to say that I started out over a decade ago writing haiku, and from the beginning, I composed them in traditional 5-7-5 form (or as close to it as I could get). Over the years, my output has (d)evolved into numerous mutations and variations, ranging from the two-liners found in ‘Hitchcock Presents . . .’ to the various ‘eyeku’ that will be collected in small flowers crack concrete; from the full-blown binary abstraction of ‘2001: A Space Haiku’ to the 18 to 22 syllable experiments found in the ‘Outlaw Haiku’ section of my most recent chapbook, In the Grip of Sirens (co-written with Robin Tilley). Still, I much prefer the work I’ve done in the 5-7-5 pattern, and these days I’m utilizing it almost exclusively again. It’s not for everybody, true; but as I’ve hopefully made clear, it has its benefits in this day and age.
Jim: Interesting journey. I’ve already spoken of my journey from free verse to syllabic haiku. What both of us have found is that there is something profoundly satisfying in composing in 5-7-5. I believe that it has to do with connecting with the tradition. As Clark Strand noted, when you count syllables, 5-7-5, on your fingers you are one with the mind of Basho and all the other haijin of the tradition. Just as Basho counted syllables on his fingers, so also today’s syllabic haijin count syllables on their fingers. There is an embodied unity that is shared across time and cultures. Remarkable and nourishing.
Watkins: I guess it’s as someone once noted: I tend to stress traditional form over traditional subject matter. Then again, maybe I’m still just a schoolchild and unknowing beginner; but I don’t think so.
Jim: I see Watkins as connecting with the beauty of form itself. This is the key to comprehending the function of closed forms in poetry. Free verse haijin are form deaf. The thing is, though, that form itself is an aspect of both the meaning and beauty of haiku. That is what 5-7-5 is about and that is why it remains appealing.