Monday, October 26, 2015

A Ghazal for Armstrong Woods

A Ghazal for Armstrong Woods

Walking in the cool shade at Armstrong Woods,
My anxieties fade at Armstrong Woods.

Paintings that I see at the gallery,
Landscapes that they have made at Armstrong Woods.

The sun’s rays break through, shining on the dew,
Cutting fog like a blade at Armstrong Woods.

The grove is quiet, we all should try it,
Our egos are unmade at Armstrong Woods.

Orchids scattered there, dissolving despair,
Hidden beauty’s displayed at Armstrong Woods.

As tall as one can see, the trees live centuries,
Humanity’s a vain parade at Armstrong Woods.

My name is Jim, redwoods are singing a slow hymn,
Moonlight falls, like a stream of jade, at Armstrong Woods.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Ghazal for the Light

A Ghazal for the Light

Walking in the dawn, walking in the light,
The Presence of God hiding in the light.

She is alone, there’s no one left at home,
A journal she’s rereading in the light.

A cluster of trees swaying in the breeze,
Their fresh leaves are glittering in the light.

Outside in fresh snow a long time ago,
As a kid he was playing in the light.

The neighbor is gone the whole weekend long,
His dog’s constantly barking in the light.

A song that is new reminds me of you
And the way you’d be smiling in the light.

My friends have passed away and so today
I will be recollecting in the light.

My name is Jim, by a candle that’s dim,
At night you’ll find me praying in the light.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Buson Haiku Discovered

A friend of mine sent me the link to this story about Buson:

It seems scholars have uncovered about 200 haiku of Buson which were included in an anthology.  For some reason these haiku had vanished from historical memory.  But they have now been recovered.  Great news.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Finding a Place for Formal Haiku: Part 3

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.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Finding a Place for Formal Haiku -- Part 2

Finding a Place for Formal Haiku 
Part 2

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.

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

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Ghazal for the Oak

A Ghazal for the Oak

The afternoon shadow by the oak tree,
The flight of a swallow by the oak tree.

By the old wood fence he pitches his tent
On a field that’s fallow by the oak tree.

The sound of a creek, the peace that she seeks,
At a mountain hollow by the oak tree.

Thrown from his home he is begging alone,
There’s nothing to borrow by the oak tree.

An ancient boulder doesn’t look older,
It’s the same tomorrow by the oak tree.

A brief solitude sometimes comes to you,
There’s nothing to follow by the oak tree.

My name’s Wilson, I’m basking in the sun,
There’s an end to sorrow by the oak tree.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Poetry Reading

October is my favorite month of the year.  And this year October began auspiciously with me doing a poetry reading on October 1st.  I read from Hiking the Quatrain Range; my collection of quatrains in various forms.  I read from two groupings.  The first group was based on the Chinese quatrain tradition of the seven-syllable line.  The second group I read from was Englynion based on the Welsh tradition of quatrain poetry.

It was a good audience; attentive and appreciative.  One person asked about my use of rhyme.  This was after I had read a sequence of quatrains based on the Chinese tradition where the standard rhyme scheme is A-B-C-B.  I explained that traditional Chinese poetry is rhymed syllabic verse.  I commented that most westerners are not aware of this because translations of traditional Chinese verse rarely map the formal characteristics of Chinese poetry onto their English translations.  Furthermore, until very recently, in their introductions they fail to inform readers of these formal characteristics.  It took me a long time to uncover these formal characteristics, and even more time to see their potential for English language poetry. 

There are exceptions to this general observation.  Red Pine does attempt to transmit some of the formal characteristics of traditional Chinese poetry.   Here is an example from Red Pine’s translation The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain:


Buddhist monks don’t keep their precepts
Taoist priests don’t take their pills
Count the sages who have lived
All are at the foot of hills

(Page 251)

Here Red Pine has retained the standard rhyme-scheme (pills/hills) in the English translation.  In addition, he has retained a basic line count; in this case it is 8-8-7-7.  The original consists of 5 count lines, but there is a basic similarity in the translation; when reading the translation there is a steady pulse like in the original. 

It is very difficult to translate the formal characteristics of Chinese poetry into English; I get that.  But there is a heritage of English translators who do not even try to build this formal bridge.  Because of this many westerners have the impression that traditional Chinese verse is close to modern free verse and that is a misguided impression.

Not many western poets have attempted to map the formal characteristics of traditional Chinese poetry onto the English language.  Robin Skelton is one.  I am one.  I am unaware of others, but I suspect that they exist.

For both Skelton and myself attempting to transmit a poetic form from one language to another is a rewarding challenge.  For me it feels like connecting, as best I can, with another culture.  It broadens my understanding of how different people have understood poetry and opens new possibilities for my own creative expression.

It was a rewarding evening.  And people bought lots of books; always a plus.