Haiku and Its Relation to Formalist Poetry

            Interview by CarrieAnn Thunell

 

First published in Nisqually Delta Review 1:1, Winter 2004/2005, pages 3–7. Interview by CarrieAnn Thunell with Michael Dylan Welch conducted by email in October of 2004. The question of formalist poetry is addressed only briefly; the interview title mainly reflects the nature of the journal, which focused on haiku and longer formal poetry. I’ve updated some of the links for presentation here.

 

Michael Dylan Welch was born in 1962 in Watford, England. He holds an MA in English, focusing on twentieth-century poetry. He is the first vice president of the Haiku Society of America, president and founder of the Tanka Society of America, and is editor of Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem. In 1991, he cofounded the Haiku North America conference, which will be held in Washington state in September of 2005. A selection of his haiku and photography appears online at “Open Window.” He currently lives with his wife and son in Sammamish, Washington.

 

CarrieAnn Thunell: What conception of haiku were you taught in high school?

 

In a high school English class in 1976, I was taught only that haiku was a poem with a pattern of five, seven, and then five syllables. I can’t recall if Mr. Goodburn mentioned if nature or the seasons were also important, but I suspect that he didn’t. Like most schoolteachers who I’ve encountered since then, he was presenting a supremely simplified understanding of haiku, one that has been warped by early misunderstandings of haiku. And it’s easy to demonstrate this warp. If you look up the definition of “haiku” in most dictionaries, it will say that haiku is a Japanese poem that . . . and so on. And people will miss the key word “Japanese.” They will immediately assume that whatever definition follows also applies equally to English. On the matter of form, of course, it clearly doesn’t. I say “of course” because it’s an old story to those who write literary haiku that haiku need not by 5-7-5 in English. Indeed, the vast bulk of literary haiku written in English are not 5-7-5, as is easily demonstrated by reading Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology and Bruce Ross’s Haiku Moment, and a number of other anthologies. And it’s worthwhile to note that most of the 5-7-5 poems were written many decades ago, and no longer represent the prevailing practice of literary haiku writers today. A good 5-7-5 haiku certainly is possible, to be sure, but it’s not something that I would aim for, any more than I would aim at 3-8-6 or 4-3-7. Form follows function, as the architect Louis Sullivan said. Just as much of the best architecture is organic, most of the best haiku in English takes an organic approach to form as well (Denise Levertov has written about organic form, and her thoughts are worth understanding and applying to haiku).

        So, like most people in school, I was taught that haiku are 5-7-5 poems. That’s it. I was named after Dylan Thomas (Dylan is my middle name), so I’ve always had an awareness of poetry, and have always enjoyed short poetry. So when I encountered haiku, even in this misguided fashion, I immediately gravitated towards it, and wrote many haiku in the decade that followed, among other types of poems. Shortly after the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology was published in 1986, though, I got a copy and it confronted me with my basic (mis)understanding of haiku. I had also begun to read translations from the Japanese, and very few were 5-7-5. The value of reading Cor’s excellent anthology was that it confronted my basic misunderstanding and made me ask myself a significant question: If a set syllabic form was not making these poems be haiku, then what was? The answer was a fundamental shift in my perception and appreciation of haiku that dramatically improved my own attempts at writing this poetry. It was that the content is more important than the form, and that other strategies are more important than form. In fact, haiku is best understood as a genre of poetry, of which form (and not any specific form) is just one lowly aspect.

 

How has your understanding of haiku evolved since that time?

 

Over the years, I’ve learned many little things, such as using present tense, avoiding rhyme and titles because they overpower a poem as short as haiku, and focusing, for the most part, on a single item in a haiku rather than several. Thus I would write about one swallow rather than several to sharpen the focus:

 

                landing swallow—

                the ship’s chain

                dips slightly

 

I’ve learned the value of seasonal reference to anchor the poem in time and connect the individual poem to archetypes of meaning and to other poems that use the same season word. Thus the mention of petals carries a great deal of weight in the following poem, and, for the trained reader of haiku, connects this poem to other poems that speak of spring (as a sort of allusion):

 

                scattered petals . . .

                the thud of my books

                in the book drop

 

I’ve learned the value of the two-part structure of haiku, using a caesura or pause (called a kireji in Japanese, or cutting word). A kireji cuts the poem into two parts (one of which may be spread over two lines) and it’s the relationship of these two parts that is the fundamental source of haiku’s effectiveness. The pause creates the possibility for a leap, as the reader figures out the connection between the two parts. Sometimes the leap is too small or obvious, and thus unfulfilling to the reader. Sometimes the leap is too great or obscure, and merely puzzling. But if finessed just right (this is one of the arts of writing haiku), the leap can be sublime, transporting the reader in a moment of understanding, where the poem creates an experience for the reader. This is why, in haiku workshops I lead, that I recommend not writing about your feelings, but about what caused those feelings. As a result, if you write about the images, the causes, and limit yourself to that, then the reader can have the same reaction to the causes as you did, and thus feel at least close to the same way as you did (if you write it well), without your having to spell it out. One growth for me in haiku was exactly this—figuring out how to not spell things out too much, to give the reader a leapable hint. Figuring out how to do this if far more important than following a set syllable count, and also takes far more discipline to do well.

 

                spring breeze—

                the pull of her hand

                as we near the pet store

 

This poem names the season directly, but the leap between the first line and the rest of the poem is not mere happenstance. The eagerness demonstrated in the pull of the hand is perhaps the essence of spring, of youthful exuberance. Though the poem doesn’t specify the age of the female, most readers in my workshops say they think of a child. I believe this interpretation comes from the use of “spring” in the first line, and the association of youthfulness or childhood to the kittens and puppies one finds at a pet store.

 

                an old woolen sweater

                     taken yarn by yarn

                          from the snowbank

 

Haiku poets have other ways to hint at things, too. What’s the leap in the preceding poem, the implication? This poem doesn’t have the two-part juxtapositional structure that makes so many haiku succeed, but there’s still something left unsaid amid the objective description. It’s spring (and puddlewonderful), and something (left unstated) is taking bits of an old sweater from a melting snowbank. Or perhaps one realizes that the snow must be melting when one figures out what is taking bits of yarn from the sweater, and why it is doing so. What is it? A bird, of course, building a nest. In workshops, I’ve enjoyed seeing the moment of understanding on the faces of students as they figure this out about the poem. That’s the “aha” moment that many haiku seek to create (as well as be based on).

 

                grocery shopping—

                pushing my cart faster

                through feminine protection

 

A genre related to haiku, of course, is senryu, and it’s an amusing sort of poetry that I’ve enjoyed learning more about—and how it differs from haiku in topic and tone. Senryu have more of a focus on human nature than upon nature, and they’re a way of looking at ourselves in a mirror—and often that mirror is cracked!

        I could mention many other specific techniques I’ve learned over the years. They have come from reading books, from trying things out myself (for example, I once explored the writing of haiku that began with prepositions by writing hundreds of them), and by discussing haiku with other poets I respect. My involvement with the Haiku Poets of Northern California has been a chief source of interaction with other haiku poets, and I’m grateful for this influence, along with interaction with many poets who are members of the Haiku Society of America.

 

What other forms of poetry have you studied? Do you write in other poetic genres?

 

I’ve studied pretty much all of the Western genres of poetry, and many genres from other cultures as well. These studies began in college and graduate school, and have continued in the great deal of reading I do (I have several bookcases filled with poetry books, not even counting my haiku and tanka books). I write mostly free-verse poetry, rather than specific forms, though I’ve experimented with villanelle, cinquain, limerick, sestina, tanka, haibun, concrete poetry, and other forms and genres. Here’s an old limerick of mine, written for a friend’s wedding:

 

                There once was a fellow named Ted

                Who went to Rebecca and said,

                      Please be my wife

                      For the rest of my life

                And now they are legal in bed.

 

I’ve published mostly haiku and related genres, and would like to publish more longer poetry than I have thus far. I admire the work of Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, Paul Muldoon, Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, Ted Kooser, Dana Gioia, and many others. It’s impossible to keep up with all the poetry out there, even just in haiku, let alone, say, sonnets, or other formal poetry, or open forms, or language poetry, or slam or performance poetry. But I think it’s valuable to be aware of as much of it as you can so that your own voice and style is better grounded for knowing what it’s not, for knowing its context, and for knowing what has been written before.

 

What is it about haiku that has grabbed you and made it such a major part of your life?

 

Perhaps the fact that I’ve been able to do well at it. Early on, when I was just exploring the genre (and hadn’t yet done well at it), the community of writers was a big attraction. It was a community I could be a part of, an identity. I also began to see, over several years, how I could go from receiving to giving, to being able to contribute to the society, which has been rewarding to me. I feel I have contributed not only through my haiku, many of which have won contests or appeared in anthologies, but through my essays, book reviews, workshops, and other events I’ve organized, such as the Haiku North America conferences. The rewards have also come through my work as an editor in the haiku journal Woodnotes and now Tundra, and with my press, Press Here, that specializes in books of haiku and related poetry.

        But fundamentally, it’s the poetry itself. Who knew that such a short poem could contain so much? As Blake said, one can see the universe in a grain of sand. That’s really it, actually. I think of haiku as an approach to infinity. Somehow, perhaps paradoxically, as one gets to the small, the now, the here, one also approaches the everywhere, the everywhen. Infinity. M. C. Escher created graphic work that approached infinity. Zeno’s paradox approaches infinity. Dr. Seuss wrote about the relativity of the small and large and their implications to infinity in Horton Hears a Who. In Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hoftstadter talks about infinity and paradox in music, mathematics, and art (and about the incompleteness theorem in mathematics that may be akin to the incompleteness in haiku). James P. Carse talks about playing games “forever” in Finite and Infinite Games. Erich Fromm talks about eternal love in The Art of Loving. Lewis Carroll. E. E. Cummings. John Cage. These are all influences on a way of thinking, or books that I’ve found that echo how I like to think, and haiku is just one of them. A good haiku has that transporting power, creating that sense of oneness and transformation that reveals the collective unconscious, perhaps even God himself. It’s perhaps this factor that makes haiku, for many people, a way of life, akin to religion—and certainly at least a spiritual force in their lives. It is for me.

 

Do you see haiku as a way of looking at life, or as a spiritual discipline, or as a genre of poetry?

 

Though I’ve just said that I see haiku as being spiritual, I don’t see haiku as a spiritual discipline itself. Haiku is poetry. Haiku is literature. That’s how I see haiku, at least primarily. The art of poetry is a matter of balancing process and product, but ultimately, at least at some point, I believe that product matters more, or at least needs to matter most at some point if one wishes to publish, to finish a poem, to create poetry as literature. One needn’t aim for this, as it could easily be presumptuous, and lead to poetry that is muddled by ulterior motives, but if one sees haiku, like other poetry, as literature, then it’s valuable to see how it succeeds through literary discipline. That discipline may overlap with spiritual discipline for some people, and that may be fine, but it need not be the only way to approach haiku. Haiku has been warped in English by its heavy association with Zen Buddhism (thanks to early proselytizers such as Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, and the Beat poets). My understanding is that this association with Zen is puzzling to many Japanese haiku writers. Similarly, associating haiku with spiritual awareness, a spiritual practice, or as a spiritual way of life is also similarly puzzling. I think that’s too narrow an understanding of haiku, actually, and dislike the common misbelieve that haiku is “spiritual,” even though, for me, it is. I once taught haiku workshops at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, California, and my first workshop was promoted as a “Zen art.” I quickly corrected them.

        Nevertheless, haiku has become a way of life for me, as it has for many people. Whether it’s spiritual or not is really a personal matter, and unrelated to the art and craft of writing haiku as literature. The way I like to think of it is the way I think of photography—my other art. Years ago I had my camera stolen, and for more than a year after that, when I had no camera, I fell out of the practice of thinking visually, of “framing” scenes that I could photograph. When I got a camera again, I fell back into this practice, of seeing the rectangle of what I could photograph in many things I saw. This is not spiritual. It’s merely a habit, a way of doing things. It gives one’s life focus and perhaps purpose, but it need not be spiritual.

        To me, a haiku begins with experience or memory. An experience or memory will move from wordlessness to words, perhaps starting with a phrase. This phrase, such as thinking of coat hangers that “clatter in the closet,” may flesh itself out to become a full haiku, where the image of hangers swinging and clattering in a closet can carry the eagerness of a child’s desire to play in the snow:

 

                first snow . . .

                the children’s hangers

                clatter in the closet

 

What do you see as the similarities and difference between haiku and formal poetry?

 

This topic immediately brings up the question of how one approaches haiku. If one thinks of haiku as a “form” of poetry, then its form would be 5-7-5, presumably. True in Japanese, where one counts sound symbols (not equivalent to English-language syllables) in this well-established pattern. When many people think of haiku, they immediately associate it with “formal” poetry, because they think of haiku only as a 5-7-5 poem. Yet I would say they are associating haiku with formal poetry for the wrong reasons. But it’s a mistake to presume that haiku in English should be written in a 5-7-5 syllabic form (this has been written about extensively elsewhere, such as in Keiko Imaoka’s article, “Forms in English Haiku,” originally published in Woodnotes, also online). Rather, as such documents as the Matsuyama Declaration make clear [the original online posting is no longer available, but you can still read the declaration elsewhere, as a web page or in PDF form], it is not form that matters most for English-language haiku. Rather, the chief formal characteristic of haiku, internationally, and even in Japan, is the kireji, or cutting word, which divides the poem into two parts. The kigo, or seasonal reference, is nearly as vital, too, but not a set syllable count. Some would argue that the cutting word and seasonal reference are not “formal” characteristics, yet I would suggest that they are, along with the common practice that haiku appear in three lines. And just as the three lines is a Western convention (haiku in Japanese are written in a single vertical line), so too can a free approach to form (as opposed to following a set syllable count) be permissible and defensible in English-language haiku.

        Certainly there are limits to haiku form. Paul O. Williams has an excellent essay expressly on this topic in his book The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics from my press, and Kōko Katō has written that the dohyō, or ring in which sumo wrestlers wrestle, gives form to the art because it limits it, just as tennis courts have boundaries that create challenge for the participants. There is certainly a point where something is no longer haiku, and some of the reasons for this are formal (though not necessarily syllabic or metrical). Indeed, Japanese poetry is best understood as following a traditional rhythm, not a syllable count, and commentators such as William Higginson and R. H. Blyth have proposed a 3-5-3 beat rhythm, or at least a short-long-short line structure, as a suitable alternative. Poetry is written by poets, of course, and in practice, the best haiku poetry of the last fifty years in English has varied a great deal, but this, to my mind, demonstrates the virtues of haiku, and the malleability of the genre. These variations are true to the imagistic spirit and content of haiku (still within the haiku “dohyō”), not written in ignorance or violation of it.

        I think there’s a great deal of exploration possible in the understanding of haiku by formalist poets. One can write 5-7-5 haiku if one chooses (though there are pitfalls to be wary of that are unique to this approach), but generally a poem as long as seventeen syllables in English is actually saying quite a bit more (it has more “thought content”) than a haiku in Japanese. If formalist poets can see beyond the syllable structure, and understand the differences between Japanese and English more thoroughly, I believe they will be able to understand the greater value of the formal devices of the cutting word, seasonal reference, and objective imagery that make most haiku work—devices that are primary to the “form” of haiku, not secondary to any set syllable count.

 

What makes a haiku successful?

 

Implication: The ability to find the right balance between saying too much and saying too little.

 

What advice can you offer to beginning haijin?

 

Well, first, I’d say that “beginning haijin” is an oxymoron. Though the term “haijin” means a person who writes haiku, my understanding is that the term “haijin” is honourific, and not bestowed on someone until they have reached a certain level of mastery. Thus I would offer advice to a beginning haiku writer, but not to a “beginning haijin,” though perhaps even highly experienced haiku writers might wish to retain their beginner’s mind.

        So, what advice would I offer? I would say that beginners face a significant challenge. It’s that there are many perspectives on haiku, and thus it can be difficult to figure it out what a haiku is, or what makes a good one work. Some of these perspectives are riddled with error, especially on the Internet, and some are only slightly tainted with error, but still dangerous because you can’t easily tell what’s right from what’s wrong. And some perspectives directly contradict other perspectives! So how does a beginner sort it all out? The first answer to this question is to write as much haiku as you can. If you think about what you’re writing and how you write it, you will eventually encounter some of the many problems that haiku masters writing in Japanese and English have already resolved. A painter does not become a master by painting just a few brushstrokes. The strokes must be practiced repeatedly, and tried in different ways. There’s no shortcut. If you share your work with other haiku poets whose work you respect, you can get valuable feedback on revising your poems. Seeking publication is also a good thing to try, as you will slowly build a set of your best work and build connections with the community of haiku writers writing in English.

        The second answer is to read as much as possible. If there’s any shortcut to improving your haiku, it is to read and thoroughly internalize the good advice available in such books as William J. Higginson’s Haiku Handbook and Lee Gurga’s Haiku: A Poet’s Guide. These are two of the best books available on writing haiku in English, providing information on the history, aesthetics, problems, and various techniques used to write haiku. Reading translations from the Japanese will also help you get to know the canon of haiku literature in Japanese, and anthologies such as Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology will provide classics in English for you to study and enjoy.

        Still, how do you sort out all the conflicting information about haiku? Perhaps it’s good to think of haiku in a less rigid way (yet not be too loose). Haiku is not just one target (such as the old gremlin that it’s merely a “5-7-5 poem”). Instead, it may be thought of as a genre of poetry where the poet succeeds if he or she hits a preponderance of targets. These targets include objectivity, a two-part juxtapositional structure, seasonal reference, present tense, usually three lines, and a few other strategies. But a haiku need not hit all of these targets each time, and that’s where the confusion often lies for beginners, because they may think a haiku always has to hit certain targets. Thanks to often-misguided schoolteachers who work from outdated curriculum guides, they may think haiku has to be 5-7-5 syllables (though that is clearly not the case among those who write literary haiku in English). They may think it has to avoid the personal pronoun (I, me, my, and so forth), but that too is far from true, and not to be confused with the idea that the ego is suppressed in haiku. Over the years, I’ve heard dozens of very strange “rules” for haiku, such as it being a “7-5-7-syllable poem, which is doubly wrong, or that it contain “5-7-5 words”! I’m mystified where this misinformation comes from, but careful reading of respected books such as the ones I’ve already mentioned should be a great help. Then, as you write haiku, the inspiration at hand may lead you to hit certain targets but not others, and the poem may still be successful. You can read more about the main targets in haiku in an essay of mind titled “Becoming a Haiku Poet.”

 

What haiku-related projects are you currently working on?

 

I always have numerous projects going, some public, some private. Privately, I’m always working on a variety of essays, some of which have stretched on for years as I collect examples and sift through them, such as with my ongoing study of what I call “déjà-ku,” haiku that bring to mind other haiku, ranging from plagiarism to allusion and parody and other variations (see an introductory essay on this topic online). I have an essay on the topological structural similarity of haiku and humour (applying catastrophe theory in mathematics to the structure of haiku), an essay on translation mysteries (such as the incorrect attribution of a Shiki poem to Buson in one of R. H. Blyth’s books—an error repeated by a surprising number of other “translators”), appreciations of poetry by Shugyo Takaha and other poets, and extensive study of the use of punctuation in haiku, and literally dozens more essays in the works.

        Publicly, I’m continuing as first vice president of the Haiku Society of America. Other ongoing projects include the annual “Haiku Garden” reading series I run at the Japanese Gardens in Seattle, and judging haiku contests such as the 2004 haiku contest sponsored by the Washington Poets Association, among other contests. I’m a board member of the Washington Poets Association, and am involved in planning the group’s annual Burning Word poetry festival. In addition, I’m also the director of the annual Poets in the Park conference in Redmond, Washington. There’s a haiku component to some of these projects, though not always! I’m also involved with speaking at various conferences, such as the American Literature Association conference in May 2004 in San Francisco (where I talked about E. E. Cummings—I’m a contributing editor to Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society) and the Haiku Pacific Rim conference in November 2004 in Ogaki, Japan. My press has a few haiku books in the works, and I have manuscripts of my own that are still tumbling about. I recently had an essay on haiku appear in the 2005 edition of Poet’s Market from Writer’s Digest Books, about ten ways to improve your poetry (aimed at nonhaiku poets) using haiku techniques. I’m working on proposals that expand this essay into various workshops. Haiku is endlessly rewarding to me, as it is for many other people, so I suspect there will be no end of projects.

        I’m also involved with tanka poetry. I’ve been writing tanka for about fifteen years, and in 2000, I founded the Tanka Society of America, and have been president of the group since then. It’s soon time to hand over the reins, though, and I look forward to seeing where new officers will take the group.

 

Thank you for sharing your haiku insights with us, Mr. Welch.

 

Thank you for this opportunity. Let me conclude by mentioning my latest “project”: my one-year-old son, Thomas. My wife, who is Japanese but not into haiku, thinks I should spend less time on haiku—and she’s right! But perhaps I can interest Thomas in haiku? At the very least, he has inspired some of my recent haiku, and I’ll close by sharing one of them, a poem that just won the top award in the Bashō’s 360th Anniversary Web Haiku Contest in Japan:

 

                first star—

                a seashell held

                to my baby’s ear