Monday, April 25, 2016

Finding Room to Grow

Finding Room to Grow

In previous posts I have written about a slowly growing awareness among those interested in syllabic, formal, haiku that they need their own journals, their own online spaces, etc., to share their haiku.  There is a sense of a parting of the ways, that syllabic haiku needs to go its own way.

I think a useful metaphor here is ecology.  Syllabic haiku is crowded out by other types of haiku such as free verse, one-liners, and consciously avant-garde approaches.  It is sidelined and left malnourished.  The specific skills, needs, and approaches of someone wanting to take a formal approach to haiku are not nourished in a free verse context and for this reason formal haiku tends to wither in a free verse setting.

Not all plants can grow in the same garden.  And not all forms of poetry flourish in the same setting.  To show what I mean by this I would like to contrast two series of haiku.  Think of them as excerpts from hypothetical anthologies.  I have chosen to use hypothetical anthologies because there is, at this time, no anthology of formal, syllabic, haiku.  So I wanted to contrast the two anthologies on an equal footing.  First, here are some haiku from a possible free verse haiku anthology:

in my silver
wedding shoes
. . spider webs

          Carol Montgomery
          (Haiku Moment page 138)

Slow swing of willows through my own fault

          Patrick Sweeney
          (Haiku in English page 239)

The sky is all black
then light comes slowly, slowly
while the cat watches

          Edith Shiffert
          (The Light Comes Slowly, Preface)

low tide
all the people

          Anita Virgil
          (Haiku Anthology page 243)

a single shoe
in the median
rush hour

          Elizabeth Searle Lamb
          (The Unswept Path page 140)

I have gleaned these haiku from published anthologies, with the exception of the haiku from Shiffert, which is from a collection of her haiku.  My purpose was to create a sequence that does not reflect my own taste.  All of these haiku have passed editors’ criteria of what makes a good free verse haiku.

Compare the above selection with the selection that follows:

Water registered
the quarrel of clouds and moon
with sudden blackout –

          Helen Chenoweth
          (Pageant of Seasons page 85)

The boys are in school;
fall leaves – the only swimmers
in the swimming pool

          Margot Bollock
          (Borrowed Water page 81

The sky is all black
then light comes slowly, slowly
while the cat watches

          Edith Shiffert
          (The Light Comes Slowly, Preface)

Night below zero,
And the long valley’s echo
The sound of the stars.

          David Hoopes
          (Alaska in Haikupage 65)

What makes them do it –
jaywalkers in dark clothing
at night, in the rain?

          Mary Jo Salter
          (Nothing by Design page 60)

Both series share the haiku by Edith Shiffert, the third one that begins ‘The sky is all black’.  In the first series the Shiffert haiku is surrounded by free verse haiku.  In the second series the Shiffert haiku is surrounded by formal haiku.  What effect do the different surroundings have on the Shiffert haiku?

In the first series the Shiffert haiku reads like a free verse haiku.  If you do not perceive this, try to look at the series through the eyes of someone completely new to haiku in English.  Because all of the haiku in the first series have different shapes, because none of them share any common formal features, the formal nature of Shiffert’s haiku is lost.  Someone new to haiku would not be able to discern the formal foundation of Shiffert’s approach.

In the second series all of the haiku share the same formal shape.  They are all syllabic.  They all share the three line 5-7-5 syllabic contours.  If someone completely new to haiku were to read the second series they could quickly and easily discern the formal nature of the poems.  In terms of Shiffert’s haiku, the formal connection to the other haiku is revealed, and therefore the underlying commitment to a formal approach emerges.  This adds a dimension to the reading which the first series does not have.

What I want to suggest is that the ecology of the two series differs.  The first series is an ecology that is defined by free verse.  It is an ecology that validates and encourages the growth of free verse haiku.   When a formal haiku in 5-7-5 is placed in such a series the particulars of formal haiku are lost and overshadowed by the surrounding free verse poems.  That is why it is so unsatisfying to have a formal haiku placed in an anthology of predominantly free verse haiku, or placed in a haiku journal that consists predominantly of free verse.

The ecology of the second series, in contrast, is an ecology that encourages formal haiku and the methods that give rise to formal haiku.  The syllabic structure, the underlying rhythm, the foundational counting, are present as dominant, even essential, features.  There is a sharing of these features as you move from haiku to haiku in the second series that is absent from the first series.  And there is a sense of communal understanding as to the nature of the haiku form implicit in such a series.  There is no sense of shared understanding in the first series.

From a free verse haiku perspective the need for distinct regions for formal haiku doesn’t make sense.  The free verse view is that they do, in fact, publish 5-7-5 haiku, so what is the problem?  The problem is that free verse has a corrosive effect on the form; the reader, particularly the new reader, cannot see the form because of the surroundings.  In a free verse context the 5-7-5 syllabics is perceived as adventitious and arbitrary.  In the context of a series of formal haiku, the 5-7-5 syllabics as seen as the ground from which the individual formal haiku blossom.

For a long time now, formal haijin have accepted the dominance of free verse haijin in ELH organizations and journals and have routinely submitted their haiku for publication and have, sometimes with reluctance, participated in such organizations.  But the felt uneasiness with this situation has become more articulate.  Formal haiku cannot grow in the ecology that is offered to it by organizations like the HSA and publications like ‘Modern Haiku’.  Formal haiku begins with different procedures, has different esthetic criteria, and presents itself in different ways. 

Slowly some spaces are being opened where an ecology in which formal haiku can grow is being found.  This is a two-step process.  The first step is the realization that free verse haiku and formal haiku have, over time, diverged to such an extent that they have, in fact, become different forms of poetry.  The second step is to follow through on that realization and create actual places that cultivate a formal approach to haiku.  This second step is just beginning; it is tentative and a little unsure of itself.  I think of it is a sunrise, a slow dawn, where details of the landscape are still being discerned.  Over time, I think, it will become clearer as the ecology which supports syllabic haiku emerges.


Elaine Andre said...

"Formal Haiku" as describe is 5-7-5 in Japanese. The equivalent in English would be something close to 3-5-3. However, this misses the point since the natural meter of Japanese is not necessarily the natural meter of English. Maybe the shape of a haiku is short/long/ short with about 11-14 syllables (if you are counting for the sake of meter).

Jim714 said...


I have a different perspective. My view is that Japanese is just an ordinary language, nothing special, and that it is simple to compare the Japanese syllable to the English syllable.

From my perspective it is not a matter of matching the exact, and highly speculative, exact duration of the Japanese. Rather it is the relative duration within each linguistic region. 17 Japanese syllables is to Japanese as 17 syllables in English is to English, as 17 German syllables is to German, etc. Japanese is not a durational yardstick that we need to match. (BTW, the idea that Japanese syllables are extremely short is highly exaggerated; they are about the same duration as Italian or Spanish.) Looked at in this way, the 5-7-5 shape in English does, actually, match the 5-7-5 shape in Japanese.

I have written extensively on this issue here at my blog. To access what I have written you can click on the series 'Unexceptional', which is on the right, along with other categories, and all my posts on this will come up.

Thanks for taking the time to respond.

Best wishes,


Unknown said...

Thank you for another thoughtful and excellent article. You have defined the problem with great care and stunning clarity. I absolutely love the metaphors you use. Formal haiku will remain malnourished in an environment that is not suitable for it and that makes little room for it. I look forward to the emergence of more suitable environments where it can receive the proper nourishment, as well as the appreciation it deserves.

Jim714 said...

Thanks, Priscilla, for your comment. Your own Hudson Valley Haiku Kai is, I think, an early example of this need to create an environment that nourishes a syllabic approach. I sense a hesitancy for syllabic haijin to make a clean break with official haiku. I think the hope is that official haiku will, at some point, see the validity of a syllabic approach. But I've come to see that as highly unlikely. So my suggestion is that syllabic haiku just let free verse haiku go and not try to change it. Instead, we should walk further down the path we have trod. Thanks again.