“If Western poetic originated in the Greek encounter with drama, giving us a crucial interest in mimesis or representation, Japanese poetic derives from encounters with lyric poetry. . .assumed from lyricism that literature is distinguished from other human activity by human response to something that moves one.” —Ezra Pound
Chain of Fools
Haiku, like jazz, is an indigenous form that has worldwide appeal and popularity. Just as there are musicians from Finland to New Zealand who come together to play jazz, an African American music, there are poets who hail from Austin to Zagreb whose sole focus is haiku, a hybrid and distinctly Japanese poetry. Artists the world over have claimed jazz or haiku as a universal source for their creativity. Few of them are Bud Powell or Charlie Parker, Basho or Buson, but they all contribute to the resonance of their adopted form. To participate in playing jazz requires an assured virtuosity with a musical instrument. Haiku requires nothing more than felicity with one’s own language and a sense of place or grounding. A musical note is the same the world over. Not so with language or culture. Imagine if anyone who wrote haiku had to write it in the language of its origin. There would undoubtedly be more people learning Japanese, but proportionally fewer people writing haiku.
What is haiku’s appeal, particularly among Western literary cultures? Is it a certain transcendence that requires no greater conceit or rhetoric than the actualization of the moment? Could it be a mysteriousness that hints at the profound while remaining impenetrable and ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations like a Magic 8 Ball? Maybe it offers a metaphysical key to unlock the mysteries of the self and the possibility of epiphany. The embrace of haiku by foreigners or “gaijin” might very well be a rejection of the stale, conventional, irrelevant, and overbearing baggage that is Western literature.
Haiku, however, is merely the tip of the iceberg. That iceberg is Japanese literature at whose synthesis Westerners will always be amateurs. Perhaps to mark the distinction, non-Japanese haiku should be called “gaiku.” So many Western writers of haiku have no clue of haiku’s origins and literary backstory yet come on like aphoristic factories spewing pretentious platitudes in the guise of cosmic synchronicity.
The Real Dirt On Haiku
Haiku has taken on a life of its own in the West, hybridized with lineation, free from the strictures of syllabic count while the practitioners insisting on arcane rules to establish rites of passage in an effort to maintain a borrowed esthetic purity. The constraints imposed are just as tiresome as any found in Western prosody. Westerners want their poems regimented in stanzas. The concept of stanza in Japanese poetry may not have existed before its translation and appropriation. Traditionally, the haiku is a one line poem. Hiroaki Sato, in the translator’s note to Hosai Ozaki’s Right under the big sky, I don’t wear a hat, cites the critic Sugaya Kiuo, “The haiku is a poetic form based on the contradiction that, while making a bisectional structure an inherent part of it, it never externalizes that structure as a two line poem.”
Lineation in haiku overlooks the rhythm of syllables in a five-seven-five pattern while emphasizing the syllabic count for each line. Nor are syllables in English equivalent to vowel rich Japanese phonetics. The five-seven-five rhythm is analogous to meter in Western prosody in that it serves the native flow of utterance. The dominant natural rhythm in English is apparently something close to iambic pentameter. If succinctness of utterance in accepting discourse with the moment can be transformed into poetic significance, the gulf may be crossed between Japanese and Western haiku. Utterance is framed by what came ahead of it and what will follow even if it is only a pause or silence in a colloquy of utterances (speech flow).
Japanese culture is highly attuned to sentiment. Traditional poetry is pure sentiment, sentiment of the instant tinged by the past, and expressed as an affirmation. And it works at a very elemental level. Sentimentality has a universality similar to music. Gaijin attempting the same ultimately fail. Why then does the same expression of sentiment seem so clichéd and weighted with affectation, and, with few exceptions, sound a false note in the West? The formality of sentiment in Western poetry cushions it, and that formality, fraught with allusion, interposes itself between the sentiment and the utterance. In Japanese poetry there is no such separation between the two to lessen the impact and attest to the genuineness of the sentiment. It is an unflinching grasp of mortality that those schooled in the afterlife will never get—their sentiment equivocates.
Because of its perceived simplicity and succinctness with a strong sentimental signature, haiku in the West has become a literary confection, a poetry snack. Yet at one time haiku (or properly, hokku) played a primary role as the opening stanza of a collaborative group poetry activity known as haikai no renga.
Basho, Buson were not haiku poets. Each was recognized as a haikai master and for their opening verse, the hokku, in haikai sessions. Hokku functions as the opening utterance to haikai no renga’s poetic colloquy that can number anywhere from twelve stanzas, known as a sishan, thirty-six stanzas, kasen, and one hundred stanzas, huyuken. It is composed collaboratively by two to five poets or practitioners of “dog” or commoner renga in a verbal volleyball contest with rules as complex as those of chess or Go. It should be understood that when designating the linked parts of the haikai as stanzas, that this is a label applied to a literature whose development is totally outside the purview of the Western canon. In vowel rich Japanese, the five-seven-five syllabic units are a rhythmic construct whose roots go back to call and response harvest songs, as are their responses, the seven-seven syllabic cap,. The poems were not, at the height of haikai popularity, arranged into three line or two line stanzas—that is entirely a western adaptation, some might say aberration. Early translators of Japanese poetry into European languages would not or could not accept poems consisting of a single line and converted hokku then haiku by breaking them at their syllabic joints which essentially maimed in concept and execution what is unique about Japanese poetry. Ironically, in the minimalist phase of Americano poetry in the 70’s, one line, even one word poems were not unheard of and effectively render the original objection moot.
In Basho’s time, late 17th Century Japan, haikai was at the height of its vogue. So popular was haikai no renga that schools sprang up like mushrooms or martial arts studios and spread like crabgrass. Collections of seasonally appropriate hokku were guaranteed best sellers. The compilers, like anthologists, privileged examples of opening stanzas from among their own cadre. Schools were very competitive and successful haikai teachers such as Basho and Buson had many adherents among a largely marginalized professional and mercantile class. The aristocracy and upper echelon samurai practiced renga, the older traditional form of linking poetry.
Haikai’s popularity was such that how-to-guides consisting of seasonal word cribs, charts to indicate when a seasonal word could be used, gridded pages with cues to composition, and notes to myriad salient points of process were published and in huge demand. Eventually, over the course of a few centuries, the form became tired and banal to such an extent that writing haikai resembled paint-by-numbers. Shiki, a late 19th Century Meiji era poet, was haikai’s severest critic and helped popularize the hokku as a poem of its own unique value designated as haiku. The ensuing popularity of haiku was a cultural shift away from the collaborative poetics of renga, haikai in particular, and reflects the influence of Western individualism.
You Really Don’t Know Haiku
Haikai is at the source of haiku, and if you don’t know haikai, you really don’t know haiku. At the core of Japanese poetry is a meaningful call and response custom in the linking of verse, a folk tradition appropriated by the pre-millennial aristocracy of the Emperor’s Court and made into intimate and stylized exchanges between courtiers which lent itself to the rhythmic utterance of waka (poem) as a personal deeply felt awareness of being in the world connected to a respondent by intelligent sophisticated sentiment. In the introduction to The Thousand Marvels of Every Moment (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019), Pat Nolan writes, “The courtly love culture of medieval Japan adapted the folk tradition as the exchange of verse between courtiers requiring a cap or response to bring the poem to a subtle esoteric often erotic resolution. Eventually the practice transformed into a unified singular verse, the waka, a poem of two minds as the literary affectation of one mind.” Tanka is the modern name of this thirty-one syllable poem. At the heart of renga and haikai is waka, the poem of two minds returned to its original colloquy of call and response but now as an exchange of erudition, wit, empathy, sympathy as well as scatological humor and thinly veiled eroticism. The resonance of one utterance of a seventeen syllable five-seven-five rhythm is attenuated by the modulation of the responding utterance’s seven-seven rhythm.
As Earl Miner examples (Japanese Linked Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1970; The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat, Princeton University Press, 1981) in his rendering of haikai no renga by the leading haikai poets of their time, waka is always present. In linking, the call and response, response and call form a chain of individual poems whose syllabic count are waka’s thirty-one, and contribute to the exacting depth of composition. Poets linking to previous verses must also be conscious of the waka that will be brought into existence as part of the process of linking and how that link might affect the composition of the following poet’s contribution. Additionally, two sequential verses may address continuity but the subsequent verse should not. The rules of haikai discourage the thread, the piling on of like circumstances to infer and continue a narrative. The result is an unfolding of unpredictable yet purposeful discontinuity. As well certain turns in the composition are pre-designated moon or flower (blossom) verses to return focus on the literary occasion. The intended purpose in the composition of haikai no renga was to memorialize the seasonal moons and cherry blossom viewings as well as test the participants’ wit and sensitivity in a unique cultural challenge. Collections of successful haikai sessions were in popular demand and their model defined the esthetic of communal composition as well providing kaleidoscopic narratives whose finesse was in the lyric sentiment evoked. Sato in his One Hundred Frogs (Weatherhill, 1983) points out that haikai written in any other way than in the immediate presence of the other poets has the tendency to produce too many sparklers (show-offy links) which disrupt the subtle flow of complementarity with untoward displays of ego.
There is no denying haiku’s appeal. For Ezra Pound it represents “an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time.” The compression of meaning unpacks as a stop action flower blossoming out into an intuitive comprehension of the moment. Haikai, on the other hand, is the art of utterance engaged in lyric conversation, of spontaneous speech. Each expression is its own solar point and shines its light on the semantic system in its orbit. Subsequent utterances, no less integral, signify with their own light until a galaxy of many meaning systems emerges. And it may be that all Japanese poetry is part of a dialogic, a discourse, from court poetry, poetic diaries, to renga and haikai. Haiku and to an extent tanka suffer from Western individualism when practiced outside the discourse, though in effect they are satellites to the discourse and not necessarily excluded.
Why Isn’t Everyone Doing The Renku?
So why aren’t more poets, particularly those who specialize in haiku, engaging in haikai activity? Not that the activity is absolutely unknown in Western practice. The long shuttered Simply Haiku magazine hosted a column by David Darlington featuring various examples of haikai no renga now referred to as renku by contemporary practitioners. William Higginson’s online encyclopedia of Japanese arts related to haiku has multiple examples and articles on contemporary renku. There are even examples of renku practice as a peripheral activity among poets whose primary focus is more in line with modernist Americano canons. Included in the anthology of collaborative poetry, Saints of Hysteria (Soft Skull, 2007), are linked verse by a number of better known American poets including Maureen Owen, Elaine Equi, Amy Gestler, and Keith Kumasen Abbott. Poetry For Sale (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2016) is such a selection of haikai no renga composed by a diverse group of poets not identified with haiku coteries. Just as the practice of tanka and haibun has gained in popularity similar to haiku, haikai may be the ultimate poetry interaction of that particular tradition. Ideally haikai requires the engagement of more than one person, the potential for delightful ambiguity exponentially expanded with each participant. The biggest sticking point might be overcoming the convention that writing poetry is a solo activity. Haiku related poetry is unique in its complexity as well as ability to touch all the requisite resonances that strike the chord of a common humanity.
And composing renku can be compared to playing jazz in that it allows each poet in the session to contribute to the whole in a collaborative effort that is shapely and skillful and arrives at its final form as something unthought, unplanned, but still in possession of all the right cultural tropes. As well, participation in a haikai session can be a highly entertaining and rewarding endeavor. The close almost telepathic work of a jazz combo on a small stage is analogous to a trio or a quartet of poets in close quartered haikai improvisation. Yet renku, as a modern hybrid, can be pulled together outside the constraints of the in-person assembly. The poets featured in Poetry For Sale wrote their renku through the US mail over a span of thirty years, often taking months to complete a thirty-six verse kasen. There were many sparklers but also much commentary and discussion among the poets in a learning process based on informed inquiry and practice. Later examples were completed via email which sped things up considerably, and the communication was such that it was conceivable that poets could renku in a way similar to an in-person session through email exchanges to a chain of participants. It has undoubtedly been done and is old news now. The potential for distance haikai sessions was given a boost with Twitter and the advent of what is known as twitterture.
The complaints are legion as to what social media is doing to the literate experience, degrading it, downgrading it. To be sure, that is happening to a certain extent. But the lesson learned in this increasingly complex technoverse is how to manage expectations. Things are no longer black or white but viewed as a spectrum. Technology is faulted by saying “Digital devices discretely hijack our attention.” In some sense they are like the orgasm ball in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. They give instant feedback, whether pleasurable or anxiety producing. They also support, like a cast of the dice, the implication that the next instant might be surprisingly different given the seemingly infinite amount of information available, and promote self-reinforcing addiction-like behavior. Twitter, in particular, is called out as epitomizing the transition from using the written word as a means to think to using language as a platform for self-promotion, exhibitionism, and other permutations of the post literate spectacle. There are those who might argue that in some respects it is a throwback to oral culture, as befitting a cognitively superficial activity. Yet what it really feels like is a forward pass. Toward the colloquy of the lyric and away from the isolation of the page.
What Twitter (and similar media) highlights is the underlying fragmentation of language strings as a normal process of building or weaving those loose strands into a larger context of meaning and communication. There is an underlying genius natural to language as wit or epiphanies or lightning insight that takes two thousands of a second to find the appropriate words and string them out as mots justes. Twitter exposes and expresses the elements of language by the word limit constraints related to the syllabic count of haikai and haiku. The trend toward succinctness reveals the communal nature of language. To organize the large swaths of fragments as a cohesive whole would require a certain amount of skill and education, say that of a poet or poets.
In Twitter is found a new medium for poetry, renku in particular, as it allows for individual, reflexive, wry, self-deprecating perceptions and whimsical social commentary as utterance and that as a chain of utterance, puts itself ahead of the narrative. Social media such as Twitter would seem ideal for the practice of linking verse in the renku manner. (This has no doubt also been done.) Threads outline the designated poets’ links with each other until the requisite number of stanzas is reached. Once complete, the session and the various stanzas are opened to commentary. A moderator of course, usually a ranking poet, as even haiku poets can get unruly with the passion of their righteousness. Renku then becomes a play of incredibly literate complexity. Which poses the next question: should twitter situated poetry collaboration still be called renku? Might it not be better known as twitterku, or maybe just twiku? But caveat lector! Just when you were getting comfortable writing with your thumbs along comes Zoom. The prospect of Zoom renku sessions looms. The interaction are more visceral, the subtleties of expression more evident, offering a greater complexity and depth to the post literate literary experience. Could Zoom-ku (zo-ku?) conceivably be in the future of literature, a way to engage in collectedness rather than separatedness?
North American English (Americano) has a noticeable range of culture and regional expression but its general tendency is for taciturn, terse, understated, often ironic, sometimes exaggerated utterance. Writing Americano poetry utilizing a Japanese form seems like an ideal match of linguistic inclination. The only shortcoming is that in competitive Western culture there is a propensity for one-upmanship. Haikai no renga can be thought of as a poetry of consensus within a formal field. Perhaps it would be better practiced by women or with women whose presence might lessen occasions of chest thumping and encourage a constructive mindfulness. On the other hand, cutting wit is in no short supply if examples of twitterture by women are any indication. Wit and unpredictability are as prized as sensitivity and compassion in haikai linking. It is a quality often on display in the twitter feeds of woke (or semi-groggy) individuals even if the usual fare is fodder for the snark tank. The rules of renku and the tech of social media would seem like just the tools to fashion a genre beyond haiku. Someone should give it a try.
Submitted to the membership by
the Parole Officer