The Closed Door: A Correspondence on Haiku

First published in Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem #2, September 2001, to introduce correspondence about haiku from 1973 and 1974 between Robert Bly and Cor van den Heuvel (omitted here), followed by my postscript from the same issue.


“Each of us has a sensibility range beyond which nothing exists.”
—Wallace Stevens, “Materia Poetica”


Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology was first published by Doubleday in April of 1974. This landmark collection was the inevitable outgrowth of a haiku underground thriving in the middle part of the twentieth century. This anthology and two subsequent editions have served as barometers of English-language haiku in North America. A second edition appeared from Simon & Schuster in 1986, and in 1999, twenty-five years after the first book appeared, W. W. Norton published the third edition, the first of the series to appear in hardback from a major publisher of poetry.

        Despite the continuing success of van den Heuvel’s anthologies and other indicators of haiku’s growth and refinement in North America, the so-called haiku movement is from some perspectives still an infant. Others, however, have said that haiku in North America came of age long ago, perhaps as early as the publication of the first or second editions of van den Heuvel’s anthology. Whether haiku has come of age or not, some Americans have now been excelling at haiku for as many as forty and fifty years.

        Observers continue to disagree, however, on the efficacy of haiku in the English language. For example, Sam Hamill has said haiku in English is merely “light verse.” Hamill might mean this in terms of W. H. Auden’s definition that light verse has “for its subject matter the everyday social life of its period or the experiences of the poet as an ordinary human being” (“Introduction,” The Oxford Book of Light Verse, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938, page ix). It seems that this definition could easily include poems that are not “light,” and certainly encompasses even excellent haiku, but Hamill’s use of the term seems pejorative—and unfairly so. Furthermore, though Hamill has translated Bashō and other Japanese masters, his own understanding of the potentials and practices of haiku in English seems limited, as shown by his recent book of original poetry, Gratitude (BOA Editions), which contains poems with 5-7-5-syllable stanzas that have no resemblance to haiku except this form. In addition, a recent issue of the haiku journal South by Southeast featured a number of Hamill’s original haiku that exhibit weaknesses typically made by beginners.

        Hamill’s assessment of haiku as “light verse” is reminiscent of a notorious dismissal by Takeo Kuwabara who in 1946 described haiku in Japan as a “second-class art.” Haiku master Kyoshi Takahama responded to Kuwabara’s judgment (in translator Donald Keene’s words) “with the ironic remark that he was pleased that haiku had at last been promoted to being second class.” The issue that remains for haiku in English, however, is not whether it is “heavy” or “light”—or second-class. Nor does a challenge persist in successfully adapting haiku from its native language into English (most haiku writers would say that this has already been done). Rather, the remaining issue lies in removing the barriers that naturally inhibit the understanding of a genre of poetry received from another language, and in communicating the possibilities and openness of haiku in English.

        It has been observed that the best poets are sometimes ahead of their critics. The three editions of van den Heuvel’s anthology represent an unfolding of haiku in North America, and when critics react to it at all some still apparently operate from a “Hallmark” perspective of haiku that has much to do, it would seem, with the pretty packaging of Japanese haiku translations that persisted in the 1960s and ’70s (primarily in pop-culture gift books published by Peter Pauper Press and Hallmark, complete with air-brushed photographs of cherry blossoms and moon bridges). Such is the marketable lure of the exotic. The ubiquity of these books did make haiku more widely known, and many poets first discovered haiku through these books (Jane Hirshfield has said that, at the age of nine, a Peter Pauper Press haiku book was the first book of poetry she ever bought for herself). The haiku thus discovered, however, were largely prettified and sanitized. No horses were allowed to piss by Bashō’s pillow. It was not that the translations of these poems were necessarily poor, but that the choices of poems were polarized and the packaging was overly sentimental and geared to a low common poetic denominator, relegating haiku to greeting-card status. To some degree, haiku continues to contend with an inclination toward cloying sticky-sweetness. In spite of this tendency, haiku in English is slowly gaining acceptance by a greater variety of magazines, anthologists, publishers, academics, and serious poets (although genuine haiku has yet to appear in The Best American Poetry series). This trend is no doubt thanks to the defining division between garden haiku and garden-party haiku—and those who recognize the difference. There is indeed a notable contrast between the living and the artificial, between real haiku and pseudo-haiku, but some people do not see it.

        Haiku first reached North America in the form of translations, the most influential of which have probably been those of R. H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson. Beat poets Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder and Zen commentators such as Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki took up a haiku torch in the 1950s and, along with translators, did much to popularize haiku on these shores. American servicemen stationed in Japan after World War II also came back to the United States with an appreciation for Japanese culture and haiku poetry. With these and other influences, it wasn’t long before men and women with a poetic impulse shifted from merely reading haiku in translation to writing haiku of their own. Thus the English-language haiku underground was born.

        Haiku in English has now accumulated more than forty years of its own tradition and, according to Bruce Ross, writing in Haiku Moment (Tuttle, 1993), American haiku is well into its fourth generation. The first English-language haiku magazine, American Haiku, began in 1963, and in 1968 the Haiku Society of America formed in New York City. Other haiku organizations such as Haiku Canada and the British Haiku Society have also added their considerable influence to haiku in English. In addition, Robert Spiess’s stalwart journal Modern Haiku has now been published continuously for more than thirty years, having begun in 1969. Thus it was natural for an anthology such as van den Heuvel’s to appear in 1974, for by that time a number of poets of the first generation had already written their best work. The poems therein showed a great range, including syllabic and nonsyllabic approaches to form (although primarily free-form), and a stunning variety of tone and subject matter. This was not just greeting-card poetry any more. And the second and third editions took haiku to new levels, drawing from a haiku well that was both broader and deeper. These were poems with plenty of shadows and shades.

        The following correspondence between Cor van den Heuvel and Robert Bly dates from late 1973 and 1974, starting just before Doubleday published the first edition of The Haiku Anthology. It follows a couple of years after Bly’s editing, in 1971, of The Sea and the Honeycomb: A Book of Tiny Poems (Boston: Beacon Press), which contains a number of his haiku translations from the Japanese among a variety of other short poems. In introducing his anthology, Bly writes that “In the brief poem . . . the poet takes the reader to the edge of a cliff, as a mother eagle takes its nestling, and then drops him. Readers with a strong imagination enjoy it, and discover they can fly. The others fall down to the rocks where they are killed instantly.” Bly later says that “The poet who succeeds in writing a short poem is like a man who has found his way through a stone wall into a valley miles long, where he lives. He walks back up the valley, and opens a door in the wall for an instant to show you where the entrance is. The more imaginative readers are able to slip through in the twenty or thirty seconds it takes to read his poem. Those who expect the poet to give them ideas see only a vague movement on the side of the mountain. Before they have turned all the way around to face the poem, the door is closed.” Despite these comments, might it seem from the following letters of a quarter century ago that Bly did not see English-language haiku as capable of producing the exhilaration of flight, or of being an open doorway into a long and fertile valley?

        In the years since these letters were written, haiku in English has gone from being primarily a cultural artifact used by school teachers in teaching about syllables and a foreign culture (often areas of continuing misinformation, however) to being what some people maintain is a serious genre of poetry still indebted to but increasingly independent from its Japanese heritage. The following exchange of letters may illustrate, however, that not everyone is “wired” to appreciate haiku—or, as Bly suggests, that differences in opinion come down in the end “to differences in actual apprehension of what is ‘poetic’ and what is not.” In words similar to Bly’s in The Sea and the Honeycomb, Carl Sandburg once observed that “Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what was seen during a moment.” With haiku, perhaps the moment’s quickness is why, for some people, the door of haiku looks closed. But there is more to the haiku aesthetic, it seems to me, than a quickly opened door. As R. H. Blyth once wrote, and as the following correspondence emphasizes, haiku is, in fact, “an open door that looks shut.” In a separate letter van den Heuvel has said “I have a feeling that certain [people’s] sensibilities are just not attuned to haiku—even though they may be to other kinds of poetry. For them, as Blyth says, the door will always look closed.”

        One aspect of this dilemma is that a number of mainstream contemporary poets have attempted haiku over the years, yet their published results stumble so badly, as haiku, that it is clear that they and their editors have insufficient knowledge of the genre to know when the poems have failed or succeeded—as haiku. In some cases, the poets have intentionally co-opted haiku for their own needs, presumably as a sort of “genre allusion,” imploring readers to experience the poem as they would a haiku. But mostly they have done so without sufficient regard to the genre’s poetic heritage, much in the manner (though they would probably not realize it) of such pseudo-poetry as Spam haiku or sci-fi haiku. These attempts, though no doubt sincere and well-intended, seldom rise above the most elementary mistakes and misunderstandings made by beginners (with only a few serendipitous exceptions). At least one solution to the problem may lie in improved haiku education, not only for schoolchildren, but also for poets, critics, editors, and publishers.

        Haiku need not interest every poet, just as sonnets or sijo will not. While it may remain a mystery why even the best English-language haiku are sometimes vehemently dismissed by some poets or critics—presumably because their door to haiku continues to look closed—perhaps the following correspondence sheds some light, even after twenty-five years, onto the reasons why. Perhaps it also clarifies why, for others, the door looks vibrantly open.


        ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Correspondence between Cor van den Heuvel and Robert Bly (available in Tundra #2).


        ~ ~ ~ ~ ~



In reviewing this correspondence for Tundra, Lee Gurga responded to Bly’s emphasis that, in seeming contrast to English-language haiku, Bashō’s poems have “a powerful thought, linked to some terrific anxiety, or tension inside the poet’s life.” Perhaps this is true of Japanese haiku in hindsight, where we know the poet’s anxieties. The same is not so much the case for writers of haiku in English. Indeed, most Americans live in a world of much reduced or at least changed tensions. Here is Gurga’s response: “Even allowing for some overstatement here, I think the observation is something that needs to be considered in North American haiku: Can people living nearly dangerless lives in the most affluent society that the world has ever known write poetry with the kind of depth that a Bashō with an empty rice gourd or a Shiki with a chest full of phlegm wrote? After all, if the choice is not between life and death but between skiing or going to the beach, will this not make a qualitative difference in the poem?”

        Writing in A Little Book on the Human Shadow (HarperCollins, 1988), Robert Bly writes that “American haiku poets don’t grasp the idea that the shadow has to have risen up and invaded the haiku poem, otherwise it is not a haiku. The least important thing about it is its seventeen syllables or the nature scene.” Physical shadows are a greatly strained and tired subject in American haiku, but this, of course, is not the shadow Bly means. His advice to convey our dark side in haiku, or at least to let that shadow invade the poem, is well taken. However, I would say that the shadows are frequently there, although not all haiku need them. The implication, the hinting, the layers of human psychology—all these shadows are there in the finest Western haiku, including the dark side of human existence, the grit and vinegar, behind the open door that looks shut.

        For his part, Bly has commented on recently seeing this correspondence by saying that “My remarks still represent my views on the American haiku attempts. Of course there are exceptions and some good haiku have been written in English, but I still think the imitation of Japanese syntax—made with such confidence—misplaced confidence—is a disaster. The haikus [sic] are still too pretty. You may have noticed some remarks that I made about haiku recently in the introduction to Best American Poetry 1999 [Scribner, 1999]. I said among other things:


R. H. Blyth said that to experience a true haiku is akin to putting your hand in boiling water.


“I was talking about the difficulty in any sort of poetry writing today to avoid various ‘mental chambers’ and to let the soul feel the shock of snow or wind.” [Bly continues to quote his introduction:]


The haiku is limited in length, of course, because no one wants to keep his or her hand in boiling water very long. It’s perhaps foolish to present a haiku in translation, but we get a little feeling of a Bashō haiku from his description of the winds around the old walking station on Mount Asama:


Storm on Mount Asama!

Wind blowing

out of the stones.


        Such are Bly’s current thoughts. When he says that “some good haiku have been written in English,” one wonders what poems he counts among those “exceptions.” Many people believe that, at its best, haiku can have the boiling intensity ascribed to it by Bly—no matter what the subject, whether plain or stunning, shadowed or light. The best English-language haiku need to be compared to the best Japanese haiku to assess their qualities. It seems unfortunate in this case, however, that the poem Bly chose to illustrate his point has been mistranslated. The verb in the original, fuki tobasu, means to blow something away, not to blow out of. Compare Bly’s version to Makoto Ueda’s translation from Bashō and His Interpreters (Stanford University Press, 1991):


blowing the gravel

off the ground on Mount Asama,

an autumn gale


It appears that this water has been boiled, not by Bashō, but by Bly.

        Michael McClintock commented that this correspondence between Bly and van den Heuvel raises “important issues, which we must argue through persuasively while advancing a view of poetry that challenges many of the underlying assumptions of received tradition in English and American literature, but a view that is not at all alien to English poetic tradition. I like to think that if the poetry is good and sustained and continues to build an audience, the critical appreciation will follow, perhaps not in our own lifetimes, but eventually. The fact is, we have done a very daring thing with our haiku, for the past thirty years and more, and I am confident that the body of work we have produced, and continue to build on, will be of sufficient breadth and depth and accomplishment to be of permanent value in our literature—and if not, will continue to thrive outside the mainstream of our literature, because the secret is out and cannot ever be put back into the box: haiku is real, and though it may never be fashionable, or may come and go in fashion, it is always going to be there; it won’t really matter who stands outside, beyond the seemingly closed door.”