Finding a Place for Formal Haiku: Part 3
In no particular order, I’m going to close this series with a few random observations that came to me while interacting with Watkins' 2007 article.
1. My basic view is that syllabic haiku and free verse haiku have become two separate forms of poetry. This happened gradually. Both free verse and syllabic haiku have the same origin – Japanese haiku. But they have responded to different aspects of the form. At first this didn’t seem to be a significant difference. Over time, however, the differences have become clearer and the separation between them has become sharper.
2. I don’t think there is anything to be gained on the part of syllabic haijin in trying to gain access to official haiku organizations. Official haiku is committed to the free verse approach and that’s fine. They do a good job advocating for free verse haiku, publishing it, holding workshops on how to go about writing it, etc. Official haiku is what it is and is doing a good job advocating for its view.
3. What I suggest is that syllabic haijin go their own way and not worry about official haiku. In a sense this has already happened. A syllabic haijin like Priscilla Lignori has set up her own haiku group that teaches a syllabic approach. And there is at least one journal which is explicitly devoted to syllabic haiku, ‘The Haiku Journal’. At this time it seems that organizations advocating for syllabic haiku are just emerging. I’m not sure what form they will take. Syllabic haijin might begin parallel organizations and journals: there might be something like The Syllabic Haiku Society of America. But I’m not sure. I mean I’m not sure that syllabic haijin need the same kinds of organizations that free verse haijin have. There is no American Villanelle Society, but that does not stop poets from composing excellent villanelles. In the same way there does not exist any syllabic haiku society, but that has not interfered with people composing excellent syllabic haiku.
4. Yet the hostility of official haiku towards syllabic haiku is something that needs to be dealt with. The critiques of syllabic haiku on the part official haiku are entirely without merit. The linguistic arguments are vacuous, the poetic critiques of syllabic haiku are uninformed. This hostility does need to be countered in an informed way. The response needs to be without hostility itself. The point is to take an apologetic position rather than an antagonistic one.
5. On the other hand, these critiques of syllabic haiku should not be given a free pass. For example, I think that Watkins is too accommodating in his essay when, in several places, he acquiesces to the idea that the English form of 5-7-5 may have been an erroneous application of the Japanese onji (sic) to an English language context. This kind of argument is widespread in official haiku. But it is all smoke and mirrors. In other words, I think syllabic haijin have been too generous towards official haiku and official haiku’s arguments in support of free verse haiku. Syllabic haijin need to take back some of this territory; not to argue that composing free verse haiku is wrong, but to affirm that the counting procedure for syllabic haiku is legitimate and that it is not based on a misunderstanding of the Japanese language. On the contrary, such an approach sees the Japanese language as one language among many rather than something weird and bizarre.
6. The esthetic differences between syllabic and free verse haiku, I think, need to be highlighted. Think of the word ‘haiku’ as resembling the word ‘dog’. ‘Dog’ is a general concept; there are many different breeds of dog. For example, there are springer spaniels and corgis. We use different standards for these two breeds; we evaluate them differently.
In a similar way, syllabic haiku and free verse haiku are two different breeds and they use different standards when writing their poetry. On the rare occasion when free verse haijin evaluate syllabic haiku, they do so using the standards of free verse haiku. It is not surprising, therefore, that their evaluation will be negative. If I use the standards of a corgi to evaluate a springer spaniel my conclusion will also be negative. And irrelevant. In a similar way, official haiku critiques of syllabic haiku are, almost always, simply irrelevant to what syllabic haijin are doing.
7. I have found it helpful to remember that the overt hostility towards syllabic haiku on the part of free verse haiku is not representative of all, or even most, free verse haijin. I suspect that most free verse haijin are simply writing haiku and are not really concerned with these issues. I know free verse haijin who are completely comfortable with those who choose to write syllabically. I refer to free verse haijin who are publicly hostile to syllabic haiku as ‘evangelical’. They go around the world wide web looking for places to express their dislike of, which at times becomes indignation towards, syllabic haiku. Their efforts leave an impression of a kind of poetic pugilism. I am thinking of facebook entries which graphically express their distaste of syllabic haiku, or those who write online screeds denouncing a syllabic approach. I don’t want to be misunderstood: critique is good. Discussion of these different approaches is good. I am referring to a tone wherein the advocate for free verse haiku considers their cause to be a settled issue; they aren’t really interested in having a discussion. And we need to be honest here; this hostility can, at times, be extreme, which is weird, but there it is.
8. My feeling is that syllabic haijin need to build a more secure foundation for their approach. First, I think syllabic haijin would benefit by developing a semi-official canon of syllabic haiku poets. These would be syllabic haiku poets that would be considered as good to excellent representatives of a syllabic approach. This would include Richard Wright, Edith Shiffert, James Hackett, and others. The function of such an informal canon would be to serve as a resource for teaching others about a syllabic approach and as a kind of well to refresh one’s own efforts. Such an informal canon is found in other fixed forms such as the sonnet (Shakespeare, Wyatt, Browning, etc.). An informal canon like this is found in Japanese haiku; it is why Basho, Buson, and Issa are so frequently mentioned. The purpose of an informal canon like this is to assist in stabilizing the form and to act as a kind of entryway into the artistic realm of that particular form.
Second, I think it would be good to generate an anthology devoted exclusively to syllabic haiku. Such an anthology might include about 100 poets with representative samples of their work. I would include in such an anthology examples from popular haiku such as Haikus for Jews or Redneck Haiku as they are part of this heritage. In other words I would not confine such an anthology to only ‘literary haiku’.
Third, perhaps a saijiki of syllabic haiku could be created. This would be a big project and would need the participation of more than one person. I don’t know if there is enough interest in such a project at this time, but it is something to think about. With devices like skype it would be possible for distant editors to regularly consult with each other on such a project. It would be time consuming and perhaps it is somewhat premature at this time; but I think it is worth putting out the idea.
Finally, I would like to see syllabic haijin put some effort into reprinting some of the earlier works of syllabic haiku that have gone out of print. An early anthology like Borrowed Water has some really good syllabic haiku in it. And the haiku of specific authors needs to be brought back into the present. With the development of print-on-demand services this is much easier to do than it was even a few years ago.
9. The creation of alternative spaces for syllabic haiku will encourage others to follow this kind of approach. Because I have a concern with syllabic forms in general, I also think that such alternative spaces could assist in introducing English language poets to how syllabics works in the English language. Syllabic haiku is the most successful syllabic form in English. It has already developed a large literature of high quality. Syllabic haiku is a demonstration of the efficacy of a syllabic approach to English language poetry. I think that is quite an accomplishment.
10. Again, I think syllabic haijin need to cut the cord with official haiku. Not out of anger or resentment. Rather it is a recognition that what official haiku is doing isn’t going to change; it is not going to alter its course in order to accommodate syllabic haiku. And that is not a bad thing.
Instead of trying to convince official haiku organizations that they should modify their program or approach, I suggest that syllabic haijin go further down the path they have already started on. When we do so I think we will find many friends walking on the same road.