WHR August 2017‎ > ‎

Book Review

August 2017

Book Review  

HOW TO WRITE A HAIKU, by David Lindley, first published 2016 by Verborum Editions, distributed by Lightning Source, pp 68, ISBN: 978-1-907100-05-5, published price: UK £8.00/USA $10.00,david.lindley@verborumeditions.com, www.verborumeditions.com


It is always desirable, and welcome too, for those of us who are entirely or mostly engaged in haiku alone (what is called haijin) to listen to the voices of, dare I say, ‘outsiders’ who are in one way or another interested in haiku. They could be novelists, astrophysicists, composers, philosophers, mathematicians, and incredibly ‘poets’ of all people. Alas, such opportunities are few and far between!

The main reason for this is that such rare occurrences could, and should, blow some fresh air (fresh, perhaps because they are rare) into the otherwise stuffy and even stultifying haiku fraternity within which very proud people copy each other, repeat after others, perpetuate excessive haiku rules and conventions, with a cliquey and incestuous mindset typical of a closed society and a firm belief that they are indeed special people.

David Lindley, the author of the book under review, seems ideally placed from the point of view mentioned briefly above. He is multi-talented and is a writer, poet and translator. His interest ranges widely from ancient Indian writings, through classical Chinese and Japanese poems to philosophical thoughts. HOW TO WRITE HAIKU is one of his most recent publications.

One would be forgiven to think from this title that it is a textbook, or a handy manual, on haiku. It indeed is, to some extent, but it is important to note that the book is much more than that. What Lindley tries to do in this slim volume (which is a good sign) seems to me to be approaching haiku in the most natural, obvious and reasonable manner for an English poet: accepting right from the start haiku as emanating from a country culturally and linguistically different; asking therefore right and obvious questions like the validity and possibility of transferring it into another culture and language; how to deal with brevity, an important essence of haiku, and achieve the right kind and length of the equivalent in English; how to arrive at the right kind of free verse if the rules of traditional Japanese haiku were to be ignored; whether haiku has something fundamentally essential in common with English poetry, or with other forms of Japanese poetry such as waka or renga, i.e. the universality of poetry which permeates haiku as well, etc. etc.

These ought to be, or ought to have been, the most obvious and pressing questions. However, curiously they have escaped, and still escape, a lot of haijin for a long time, probably because they have jumped to hasty and easy conclusions, the most typical examples being the haiku=Zen equation, and the haiku moment craze. I have cautioned against them since 1990s when I first encountered such strange phenomena.

What is good about Lindley’s approach is that he is quite clear about the purpose of the exercise which is to seek the possibility for an English poet to write haiku in the English language with all its tradition and characteristics. It may or may not, therefore, be the same with a Chinese or French poet, though the book is no doubt useful to anyone of any nationality who is interested in haiku. Another merit of his approach is that he confines himself to asking only a few essential questions instead of asking too many, and all too often infinitesimal, questions, and of making people unable to see the wood for the trees.

As Lindley thus tackles only a few most fundamental and essential issues, some mistakes are neither here nor there such as saying that the Japanese haiku is a three-line verse. To say that it is a one-line verse would equally be wrong, because fundamentally traditional Japanese poetry is not based on “lines” as its Western counterparts, where metrical lines are a fundamental feature of verses (L. versus=furrow, line, row, vertere=to turn). Figuratively speaking, the Japanese poetry is based on, say, ‘blocks’ within which phrases of 5 and 7 on (phoneme rather than syllable) are variously combined. It is a bit like the Japanese address system whereby blocks of land are numbered (e.g. 3-chome, or 7-chome) in which numbered-houses stand (e.g. 8-banch, or 235-banch). By contrast, the Western address system is based on streets along which houses are built and numbered.

So, the Japanese haiku are written in various ways: 1 line (for economy of space and convenience, e.g. haiku magazines), 1 or 2 lines for tanzaku, 3, 4, or even 5 lines for such things as stone haiku monuments, kimono, ceramic decorations, fans, or shikishi. Some avant-garde haijin have even had their haiku printed in more lines than any of these. So, the number of lines is immaterial in Japanese haiku. Even in the West, a rather well-known haijin has long insisted very doggedly that haiku should be of 4 lines, instead of 3. What truly matters is the 5, 7, 5on, which roughly and naturally divide a haiku into three components. It is for this reason that non-Japanese haiku poets have made it a non-Japanese convention to write haiku in the three-line form. This convention is a good thing for a change, rather than something to be dismissed as not genuine. (By contrast, the so-called one-line haiku in English is non-sense, or an amusing distraction at best, as it wouldn’t work in English because of the lack of 5,7,5 tradition and of its grammatical constraints.)

Thus, I admire Lindley’s attitude to try to understand what haiku is all about himself, and to seek the right ways in which an English poet may be able to write haiku of literary merit in his/her mother tongue, instead of regurgitating what has been written or spoken about it. However, there seem to be some exceptions. One is that it looks as though even he could not escape entirely the haiku moment syndrome. He is too intelligent and critical to imitate simply what he has read about this. So, he must believe in it, after close examination. The fact that he does not use the phrase haiku moment is a proof of that. Popular among non-Japanese haiku poets, the haiku momenttends to be used as that special experience which comes suddenly to you as a person with a new insight, like Zen enlightenment, and which crystallises into a haiku poem. That, they celebrate, is your haiku moment. Lindley’s understanding of it is much deeper, i.e. “…the moment, the passing moment whose passing is the essence of that moment. …the sense of the transience of the moment, passing from one image to another, one evoking the other, one reconciled in the other, so that somehow that transience is its own sufficiency.” I concede that there is a huge element of truth in this. But it is only one aspect of haiku after all, albeit an important one. To focus on it to the exclusion of other aspects is wrong.

There are many haiku which do not fall into this category and the number of examples knows no bounds. Think of Basho’s famous cicada poem. If you have actually been to that Ryushaku-ji Temple or yama-dera in Yamagata Prefecture in summer you would have been hearing cicadas’ continuous sound all the way from the foothill to the top temple. Even a strong, young man needs at least 30 minutes to climb up the rugged mountain path: hardly a moment! What about Shiki’s persimmon haiku? He took two days to go through the experience which was the basis of this famous poem. Persimmons were his favourite fruit and he was eating quite a few of them while staying at an inn in Nara when he heard Todai-ji Temple’s bell. To compose a haiku on this occurrence he preferred Horyuji-Temple as the site. So, the next day he hurried to the latter temple but it was raining. Whether he ate persimmons there or heard the bell is open to question. Some scholars even cast doubt that he actually went there. So, it is held that he resorted a little bit to poetic licence and combined the two days’ events into one haiku. But, for someone who was preaching a gospel of kyakkan-shasei, or objective sketch, implying the significance of facts, he may have felt a little bit sheepish when he put the maegaki, or an introductory note, to the haiku, “While having a rest at a tea place in Horyuji-Temple” and pretended that the whole thing was true, which is in a way not entirely untrue. However, can we call two days a moment? Eating several persimmons can take 5 minutes, 10 or 15? Munching and savouring the fruit implies passing of leisurely and languid time, and not an instant, or even a rapid passage of time. Shiki was a sick man and one can almost see how he enjoyed the rare opportunity to relax and indulge in listening to the temple bell. How long, or short, should a moment be to be called the moment?

As I have indicated already, haiku is not always about the moment. To be more precise, it is not about the moment of a phenomenon. It is about the phenomenon itself. Different phenomena take different lengths of time; an instant, two days, one’s whole life, or near eternity (Basho’s poem about the Milky Way lying over the Sado Island pretty conjures up an image of an eternal phenomenon.) Therefor, it is not the moment that is important. It is the phenomena, natural, social and the links of the two, that is important.

Lindley takes us to an important area where what looks like a uniquely Japanese sensibility of the ‘unstated’ (yugen), or the beauty of imperfection, and the like can in fact be shared with Western culture and art, represented most notably by the ‘spots of time’ of William Wordsworth.

In the section of writing your own haiku, Lindley offers a very sensible and ‘provisional’ set of methods and thoughts. They are therefore not the doctrinaire or pontificating kind, as is sometimes the case in this type of literature. Among these is a noteworthy observation of dividing ‘the raw material of experience’ as the raw material of haiku into three categories. (1) ‘direct, immediate experience’, (2) ‘the recollection of experience’, and (3) the experience of the imagination at work’. Paying attention to (1) to the exclusion of others has led to the fallacy such as the haiku moment, Aha moment, or here and now worship. No (2) is extremely important, but it is No (3) which is probably the most important as it has been neglected or rejected for too long. Covering all the creative areas of our experience for haiku is a significant contribution.

Another important point needs a mention. After recommending beginners to start with following the traditional haiku form before launching into more adventurous line lengths etc., Lindley admonishes them not to blindly follow the syllable count simply for the sake of achieving right line lengths. This is because “…the verse must sound perfectly natural and reflect the natural speech rhythms of the English language.” I have long argued this point: that different languages have different sets of natural rhythms, standard length of speech to which most native speakers have spontaneously converged, grammatical stringency or latitude etc. These key elements inherent in any language should decide the right and natural length of lines in haiku, not the imported rule of 5, 7, 5 from Japan, or arbitrary dogma often promulgated by a self-appointed haiku guru. Set each haiku poet free and let him/her read aloud the haiku in the making many times over to see (or more to the point, hear) how it sounds in terms of the line length, rhythm, choice and order of words and phrases, the clarity or otherwise of what is said and all other factors which are likely to create good haiku. I would like to go even further.

Each haiku poet now should set each haiku in the making free, in the sense that he/she gives it the freedom to develop itself, choosing its own words and phrases, putting them ‘in the best order’, getting the rhythm, flow and sound right, seeking every possibility to change itself for the better, and not least importantly making itself look well-balanced and good when the pen is put on paper (This visual beauty is best achieved in Japan when the haiku is written down in calligraphy on tanzakushikishi or a fan). This way, it is more likely that we can achieve naturalness, good style, right sound etc. which should almost automatically yield the right length of each line, thus yielding good haiku. The results should be poems of different lengths, some short, some long and others in between, which is perfectly all right and only natural.

Having said all that, there is one proviso which is most obvious but still needs to be stressed. Whatever length of lines achieved in the way mentioned above, there must be an overriding impression that the end result look, sound and feel brief. If a particular haiku thus created looks, sounds and feels verbose, repetitious, or simply too long to a native speaker it is a failure. So, it is an exercise of finding an optimum place where the poem is neither too long nor too short. Go too far in one way you fall into the realm of bad minimalist haiku. Go too far in the other way, you fall into the boring, laboured, over-explained and excessively complicated haiku. 

The most enjoyable part of the book, at least to the present reviewer, is Lindley guiding us through Wordsworth’s famous daffodil poem to show in a kind of workshop way how the journey of composing haiku can begin, proceed and end in a successful haiku. It is one of the best ways for a Western poet to understand and practice haiku. 

At the end of the book, Lindley introduces 60 haiku to show his thoughts on haiku by examples. Some are his own in different approaches and others are his translation of works by the Zen master, Ryohkan (1758-1831). 

David Lindley’s book is food for thought. As a wordsmith and excellent writer, he inspires the reader with confidence and a whole raft of optimism and joy of writing haiku in English. That is as it should be. It is a good book for this reason alone. I wish, time permitting, to return to this book in the next issue of World Haiku Review and give my comments on his own haiku.