WHR March 2008

World Haiku Review

Volume 6 Issue 1 - March 2008



Reflections on Haikai

Perhaps we made a false start. If that be the case, then the subsequent developments cannot all be really right.

We started with HAIKU. We should have started with HAIKAI, instead.

Little wonder that so many grievous mistakes have been made and still remain uncorrected in our understanding of haiku.

While I was discussing various haiku issues with my fellow poets during my recent visit to India, this particular point which had been nagging me for many years suddenly became crystal clear. The revelation was one of the many wonderful things which happened to me in that country.

HAIKAI is a common sense in Japan. It is not so outside

Japan. Looking back, that has been the real problem.

Even those non-Japanese who understand HAIKAI may do so rather vaguely.

So, what is the difference between the two? What is HAIKAI at all?

In a word and in the nutshell, HAIKAI means comic, or comedy, or a sense of humour. And this is more or less the most essential and even the only necessary understanding of HAIKAI, after all is said and done.

To put it in another way, if one does thus understand HAIKAI then one would not and could not go very wrong not only in one’s perception of anything connected with HAIKAI , be it haibun or haiga, but also in the essential and fundamental comprehension of HAIKU itself, and, to the chagrin of many, vice versa.

HAIKAI is not really a Japanese word. It was borrowed from the Chinese language as there was no suitable alternative in Japanese.

In one of the classic Japanese waka anthologies, Kokin-Waka-Shu (compiled in the 10th century), there is a section called HAIKAI-KA (or waka poems of haikai, i.e. comic, style). This is a collection of poems with a sense of humour, as opposed to other sections which deal with serious and refined poems.

Such was the historical background that when later HAIKAI-NO-RENGA was born, exactly the same concept was applied to it. Namely, HAIKAI-NO-RENGA was introduced as a comic alternative to RENGA.

More precisely, RENGA itself as an established literary genre (the origin of RENGA can be traced to much earlier times) was first brought into being in the Heian Period (794-1192) as some kind of a pastime whose characteristics were wit and sense of humour. As time went by, RENGA became progressively more serious and refined until what is called Ushin-Renga (i.e. renga with heart or soul, meaning more like waka itself) was established in the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Even so, the initial nature of wit and humour ran as the undercurrent of RENGA.

When things get too serious humans need a bit of break or relaxation, at least the Japanese have been like that all along. Thus a sense of humour was once again called upon. This is how HAIKAI-NO-RENGA was brought to life. It was the comic version of RENGA.

HAIKAI-NO-RENGA is today’s renku and it is well-known that haiku was initially derived from the hokku, or the first stanza of HAIKAI-NO-RENGA when Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902) undertook his famous haiku reform. Incidentally, the term haiku was not coined or invented by Shiki as is popularly believed. The earliest known entry of the term was in ‘Obae-shu’ written by Hattori Sadakiyo in Kambun 3, which was 1663, two hundred years before Shiki. It was used to mean any ku (stanza), whether it was hokku (opening stanza) or other tsukeku (capping stanza) in renku. And quite significantly for our discourse in this Editorial haiku was an abbreviation of a more formal word HAIKAI-NO-KU, namely, comic stanza (or more to the point, comic poem).

Thus it is that HAIKAI was the beginning of everything. That is precisely why we should have started with it. To start with HAIKU is like starting with the university education and tracing back, through high school, middle school to primary school or kinder garden, or studying modern history without knowing how it all began, or even going into modern painting without studying Rembrandt, Masaccio or cave paintings.

Sokan Yamazaki (his birth and death dates not known) is widely held to be the father of HAIKAI-NO-RENGA. True to the definition his HAIKAI-NO-RENGA was full of sense of humour, allowed freer rendering compared with much stricter RENGA and easy to follow. So much so that it often deteriorated into cheap laughs and became even obscene. However, precisely for that reason Sokan’s HAIKAI-NO-RENGA became very popular and attracted many followers.

There was another poet who was younger but also regarded as a founding father of HAIKAI-NO-RENGA. His name is Moritake Arakida (1473-1549). Moritake insisted that though a sense of humour was necessary HAIKAI-NO-RENGA should be elevated to a more elegant and less vulgar genre. However, it was Teitoku Matsunaga (1571-1653) who pursued Moritake’s belief more radically and tried to make HAIKAI-NO-RENGA closer to RENGA. This helped to deprive the genre of its freedom of expression and freshness. His school is called the ‘Teimon-ha’.

The reaction to Teimon-ha was led by Soin Nishiyama (1605-82) who was a fine RENGA poet. It can be said that Soin hit the right balance between the grace of RENGA and the sense of humour of HAIKAI-NO-RENGA. His school, the Danrin-ha, flourished. However, like anything else it eventually corrupted itself into a low-grade entertainment.

Then came Basho Matsuo (1644-94). Basho also followed initially the trend of the Teimon-ha school and then moved on to change into the style of the Danrin-ha school. What was different with Basho is that he was not a mere follower of fashion of the day. Though he retained the essential characteristic of HAIKAI-NO-RENGA such as the sense of humour and haigon (haikai-like everyday, ordinary language and commoner’s words), he also elevated the genre to a high level of literature, comparable to waka and RENGA. With the rise of the position of HAIKAI-NO-RENGA came also the elevation of its hokku, which in turn prepared the way towards modern haiku.

What is most important is that all through the history of HAIKAI-NO-RENGA developed by the people named above and by many other poets under different schools of thought, never once were forgotten the main characteristics of HAIKAI-NO-RENGA, especially and most crucially its sense of humour. So, it is quite beyond one’s comprehension that the American-led haiku trend, which has been the dominant or even only force in the world haiku community outside Japan, largely omitted the sense of humour from haiku until very recently when some revision has begun to be detected. Even more puzzling is the fact that the sense of humour has been removed even from senryu whereas it is the very essence of it. No cogent explanation has been given about these very peculiar phenomena. This is because there isn’t one.

It must now be apparent to anybody that one of the biggest reasons for such a grave mistake is that we started with HAIKU and not with HAIKAI, a fatal false start.

Initial exploration of HAIKU by non-Japanese was like gunmo taizo wo naderu (a lot of blind men feeling a great elephant) whereby one says that the elephant is a tree trunk and another says that it is a giant fan, and so on. The loud voices saying that HAIKU was Zen, or HAIKU was not poetry, or HAIKUwas Here and Now, or HAIKU was the product of the HAIKU moment, or HAIKU was nature poetry, or HAIKU was a verse in present tense, or HAIKU was devoid of ego, or HAIKU was an extremely serious and sacred business, or HAIKU reached some mysterious and profound truths captured in a few words, or HAIKU was not anthropomorphism, or such ridiculous assertion that HAIKU is not poetry, and all other hundreds of things rang out across the world and muffled any other voices saying things quite to the contrary.

The blind were leading the blind. It is little wonder that all kinds of misconceptions, misinterpretations or sheer mistakes have been accumulated over many years, unchecked and unchallenged. It has transpired that it was in fact very tricky and even dangerous indeed that they should start with HAIKU in the modern form without first studying HAIKAI. It is like an artist plunging into an attempt at creating sophisticated paintings without first learning how to draw..

What can be done about it? Is it possible at all to do anything about it? Is it too late?

The answer is that it is certainly not too late to try to do something, anything, about it. After all, it is a matter of mere fifty years or so, if we think that haiku began to spread in earnest only after WWII. As we have glimpsed at, even in Japan HAIKAI and HAIKU have gone through ups and downs all the time.

This can be achieved in a number of different ways. First and foremost, the greatest hope will come from a country like India with ancient and versatile cultural, religious and regional dynamics and diversities where not only poets have relatively been spared the influence of dominant haiku trend but also have their own strong poetic sensibilities and love of their indigenous local languages. They have the perfect capability to grasp the essence of HAIKU from the primary source, i.e. Japan so long as they remain uninfluenced by the dominant haiku force in a negative way. They also have a lot to offer by creating their own haiku from their very soil.

The second hope comes from some individuals who have begun to have some doubts about how haiku has been treated outside Japan since the end of WWII and embarked upon a solitary journey (the only viable journey) to start again with a clean slate. They will somehow study Japanese haiku properly and listen to the right voices (not those trying to flatter non-Japanese haiku poets) and know they are right when they hear them. Potentially, these individuals are the most hopeful bunch.

Then, there will be converts, as there are converts everywhere, religious or otherwise. There is nothing wrong with converts so long as they are not converting into something worse. There are already signs that these converts are being born.

I have come across those people who study meticulously many cookery books and become shocking cooks. Those with good taste buds and love of food will not need any such books. Exactly the same is true with haiku poets. However, start with HAIKAI and not HAIKU.