WHR August 2011
In this Issue :
At Leys Farm by Susumu Takiguchi
One of the most fundamental questions regarding capital punishment, or war for that matter, is, “Can the state kill a person?” A similar line of thought relates to “judgement”. Can a person judge another person? More akin to our preoccupation, can a person judge another person’s haiku?
To be most candid with you and coming right to the point, I actually hate being an editor. I hate myself as an editor. I hate the work of having to select other people’s haiku. (Mercifully, I am only an “acting-editor”.)
More precisely, I mind much less selecting good haiku and praising the best to the sky, albeit not without its own blameworthiness. I even find rare happiness in so doing. The devil is in rejecting, like the death sentence or killing in the war zone, bad ones, i.e. the results nonetheless of real human beings’ passion, sensibility, emotion, effort and life itself. It is sacrilege. Who and what do you think you are, doing such a thing, I ask myself?
The object of my hatred is the hubris, overt or latent, behind such judging and selecting. Apart from this moral dilemma, there is also a legitimate question, “Is it possible at all for a person to judge someone else’s haiku?”
These are difficult questions. However, we are where we are. Let us just assume that there is a need for a haiku to judge and to be judged (another fundamental question, which will not detain us here) just like playing the piano or performing in a figure skating competition and, in the absence of a Haiku-God, someone has to be an editor and judge. The other side of the coin is the fact that there are people who wish to show their works to others and who wish their works to be recognised. Again, because they have no Haiku-God they accept a fellow human being as an editor and offer their works to him/her to be judged and selected.
Such thoughts as I have sketched above are of a fundamental nature (i.e. in the realm of the absolute). On a more practical level of relativity, i.e. the real world, there is limited scope for such things as criticism, judgement, selection and comments for limited and defined purposes. Within this limitation, even some great things are possible. That is the consolation I give to myself and the justification I give to others.
By way of expanding this point, let me use the criteria of selection I put forward as part of the usual call for submissions for the World Haiku Review. In what follows I shall elaborate each point briefly so that you may know what it entails in the hope that it may go some way to answer the crucial question I posed in the preceding paragraphs.
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1 Hackneyed, clichés, imitative or derivative: This ought to be self-evident but we still see too many haiku falling into it in terms of theme, vocabulary, key words or style. Haiku is such a short poetry form with such a few words on such limited fields and sentiments that it is inevitable for similar haiku composed many thousands of times over. If your haiku looks like one of these you need to add something new, original or of your own contribution in order to differentiate yours from thousands of others. If you write a haiku in a certain way just because you have seen such haiku somewhere else before and assumed that it was supposed to be good, then without any hesitation throw it away. Also, there can only be one old pond haiku. He who tries to write a haiku using ‘old pond’ would be a brave man, or… However, fortunately for us, even to this rule there can of course be exceptions, human beings being as resourceful as they are. Look at, for example, the second place winner for the Neo-Classical haiku section of this issue, i.e. that by Bruce Ross (hidden pond/frog after frog echoes/the one before) which I think is an excellent haiku even without Basho’s precedence, let alone with it. Well done, Bruce! And as if to contradict me again the third place winner for the same genre, i.e. that by Felice Vinci (tuffo di rana/riecheggia il suono in mille/piccole onde = frog's plunge/the sound echoes throughout/thousand small waves) is also an excellent exception, though it does not use the word, pond. These two are the best ‘pond haiku’ I have come across so far.
2 'So what?' haiku: This refers to incomplete haiku without a punch line or contents (i.e. something to say), or to any haiku which is a statement of the obvious or banal observation. “old pond/a frog jumps in/one afternoon” would be a ‘So what?’ haiku. To see whether or not your haiku is a ‘So what?’ haiku, pretend that it is written by someone else and read it back to yourself (because it is normally very difficult for you to fault your own haiku which you love so much and cherish like a baby). If you sense that it is really not saying anything, or it leaves the reader wondering what it is all about, it is most likely to be a ‘So what?’ haiku. This also includes a haiku without contents but with a failed “toriawase” (so-called juxtaposition). All too often “toriawase” is abused and misused when irrelevant or meaningless things are juxtaposed as if magically, mysteriously and miraculously they signify something.
3 Too short to be good: This is one of the commonest trends of the main stream haiku outside Japan. Driven by the minimalist obsession and by the mistaken belief that haiku should be as short and brief as possible, one often tends to overdo it and passes the vital and delicate line with the result of making a particular haiku shorter, sometimes much shorter, than it should be. The final product is like a supposedly beautiful human body stripped to the skeleton or a graceful Georgian house reduced to wooden pillars and frames. Good minimalist haiku are few and far between, to the order of one in a thousand, or even ten thousand. If and when they hit the gold they would be glitteringly brilliant. The above haiku by Bruce Ross is one of them. Otherwise, if you happen to be one of so many minimalist fanatics you are condemning yourself (nobody is asking or forcing you to be one) to an abortive and endless journey of churning out one skeleton after another with no certain prospect of hitting the gold. My advice to you is to relax a bit and be flexible, freeing yourself from the minimalist shackle, and let each of your haiku take its own course, including its length, sometimes minimal and other times longer.
4 Made artificially vague (false 'yugen'): Non-Japanese have formed a false assumption that anything Japanese (or Oriental for that matter) must be mysterious, or more usually, inscrutable. In other words, for them nothing would be Japanese unless it is mysterious or inscrutable. Haiku is no exception. In their eyes a haiku must be written in such a way as leaving the reader with some mystery. Not to do so, i.e. leaving the reader in complete and perfect comprehension of the haiku, would incur wrath and would be liable to criticisms including one against the golden rule of “Show, not tell”. Vagueness is not the same thing as mystery. One must in fact try to make one’s haiku as clear, intelligible and concrete/specific as possible. Even then, good haiku could have extra layers of mysterious profundity (‘yugen’) or reverberating and refraining impression (‘yoin’ or ‘yojo’). There is no vagueness in Basho’s old pond haiku but it is profound, timeless and universal. To contrive right from the start to make a haiku sound and look mysterious by using vague words and expressions would therefore be putting the cart before the horse, of which examples abound.
5 Gimmicky as opposed to real skills: Nothing is more off-putting than gimmicky haiku, which is shallow, cheap and showy. Those with real skills in terms of choice of words, kireji, rhythm, flow, scene setting, line alignment, onomatopoeia, or any other prosodic or phonetic effects would be able to make the final product as natural as the flow of a river. Practice, experience, good eyes and ear and feel for words would probably be the only solution, in addition to the knowledge that gimmick will never work. By all means be courageous enough to experiment all sorts of things in haiku composition, which after all is an ingredient for progress, but know when a particular experiment has become gimmicky.
6 Bad English: Non-native speakers of English are for the most obvious reason disadvantaged in English haiku writing. Good haiku, written either straight in English or translated from their native tongue, could and would be ruined by bad English (and therefore be rejected in competitions and magazine submission), which is a great pity. The most obvious answer is for them to show the works to native speakers of English before submitting them, while at the same time brushing up their English. It is bad practice, bad manners and arrogant of them to present their haiku in bad English uncorrected or improved. Bad English is ironically often seen among the works by those who think and are proud that their English is so very good. Here, once again some humility should be exercised. I have the greatest of sympathy with them as I am not a native speaker of English myself.
7 Template-like, or ticking-box-kind factory haiku: I am sure you know what I mean by this. In my belief each haiku is different, has its own value and life and therefore is unique. Or, so it should. Each haiku should be treated with this in mind, i.e. with respect and personal care. Each should be “hand-made” rather than factory made. One sees too many haiku which should just as well be displayed on the shelves of super stores or at MacDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Haiku is not form filling. Nor is it mass-produced junk food. If one does not treat an individual haiku with respect, care and creative flair, that haiku cannot possibly be good. No less importantly, each potentially good haiku will have its own life, deciding the length, choice and number of words, atmosphere to create, message to send, whether or not to have kigo or kireji etc. It is the author’s willingness, ability or sensitive response to let the haiku develop itself in whatever way it likes that counts here. This is why haiku rules are but a mere guidance and should not be forcibly imposed or blindly obeyed like dictates from authoritarian regimes.
THOSE LIKELY TO BE ACCEPTED
In many ways the following guidelines are the antitheses to or mirror image of what has gone above.
1 New and/or original: This really goes without saying and it applies not just to haiku but to all forms of art and literature. Most strictly speaking, if there is nothing new or original in a particular haiku there is no point of creating, showing, sharing or publishing it, let alone selecting and judging it. There is no reason for its being. If all words, lines and contents in a haiku are new and original it would of course be wonderful. However, in most cases a good part of a haiku is something which has already been written, used or repeated and therefore not new or original. Nevertheless, if even a fraction of that haiku is infused with new inspiration, original observation, out-of-the-ordinary situation or anything which makes it distinct from similar ones, it can still have the power to overwhelm the old or hackneyed bits to create a splendid haiku. The difference is like a fraction of human genes which are otherwise 90% shared with a chimpanzee. Human beings can be wonderful and creative. Even on the same theme, subject or situation which has been written about so many times by so many different haiku poets that one would assume that everything that can be written has already been written and that therefore there is absolutely no room for anything new, new haiku which are not imitations keep on appearing. This is truly amazing, even if it does not happen so regularly. Have a hope and keep trying.
2 Have something to say: Even if haiku is so short it still is, or should be, a form of self-expression, i.e. artistic and literary creation, which is a privilege for us humans and is a wonderful thing to be embraced and celebrated. If a haiku does not say anything we might as well return it to a fallen leaf, cuckoo or morning dew as nature is a superb poetess. This is a very common mistake which many fall into, especially those novices or die-hards who follow the spurious rule that “self should be eliminated from haiku”, spillage of overemphasis on Zen. In their eagerness to throw away the bathwater (“self”), they throw away the baby itself (“something to say”), leaving their haiku hollow and empty or to become a ‘So what?’ haiku which we have seen above.
3 Reflecting truths, sincerity and honesty: This is the essence of Basho’s teaching, “fuga no makoto”. In spurious or cooked-up haiku there is usually something vulgar, ugly, base, mean or the feeling of it being not quite true even if it is adorned with pretence and embellishment. On the other hand, even seemingly bad haiku can have something to move others if it reflects truths, sincerity or honesty. This is a point which needs to be studies and pursued by all haiku poets as it is probably the most important thing to be borne in mind when composing haiku. Even if a particular haiku is based on imagination, such imagination must be genuine (a point difficult to explain) and not faked. The same applies to haiku based on memories.
4 Coming from your heart and soul: Haiku is, or should be, a product of heart and soul, and not of mind. That is why intellectual haiku often fail unlike some branches of English poetry which are display of tapestry of intellectual thoughts, philosophy or concepts. Furthermore, good haiku should come from your own heart and soul, not from other people’s. If you have not got literary heart or soul, stop writing haiku. If you are somehow preventing your heart and soul from functioning, then let them go free.
5 Based on your real and deep experiences: Nothing is stronger and more convincing than your own real experience. People fake or borrow experience from others when writing haiku like they do in cinemas and fictions. They often fake their own experience even! A haiku based on faked or borrowed experience has the same vulgarity, ugliness, meanness or the feeling of it being not quite true as that which is lacking truths, sincerity and honesty mentioned above. If you have felt very deeply in your experience so much better in terms of scope for good haiku, as has been shown in haiku about death, or lost love, or the beauty of a lotus flower in a serene pond. It is this depth of feeling that is likely to lead to good or even great haiku.
6 If products of your imagination, true, fine and deep at that: Human imagination is a worthy but difficult subject. Without it much of the works of art or literary masterpieces might become a cemetery - dead. Haiku has long been about specific and concrete things in nature and human affairs in specific ordinary events and concrete, daily occurrences, such as warbler’s song, flowers or an evening meal. Modern haiku, however, has introduced many new things, including products of imagination. This has given width and depth to haiku writing and altogether has made haiku much more interesting. However, imagination can easily deteriorate into faked or borrowed feelings and occurrences, thus losing the truths, sincerity and honesty which I referred to above. If that happens one’s haiku is doomed.
7 Away from rules & regulations and yet good: Haiku rules and regulations have their own merit to help haiku poets understand broadly what is desirable and what is not in haiku writing so long as the rule imposers will not go dogmatic and the imposed slavish or fanatically strict about them. In this sense the oft-quoted advice of “learn the rules and then cast them away” is misplaced and misleading. In particular, if a haiku school of thought proclaims a (strict) set of rules for that school, then they should be duly respected. However, neither the poets belonging to that school nor outsiders should assert that these same rules be applied to all haiku schools of thought or all the haiku. Once again, let each of your haiku decide which rule it does or does not follow. For instance, if a kigo is thought to enhance a haiku then it should be employed. If not, leave it out. If one ignores these rules one is running a risk of creating a poem which may be far removed from haiku or a poem which is not a good one anyway whatever it may have become. Too many examples of such would-be haiku or bad poems mean that we must treat this question of rules or not rules very carefully.
8 Good choice and order of words: Like any other forms of poetry, or any other writings for that matter, choosing good and/or right words and putting them in the right order is of paramount importance in haiku writing. Just a single word can make a haiku or kill it. Likewise, it is a common experience that a change in the word order or in the order of lines leads to a much improved haiku. The best thing is to think of as many words as possible with the same meaning by means of thesaurus or your own fecund vocabulary and choose the best one from them. It often helps if one reads the forming haiku loudly and repeatedly because that way one comes to identify which is the wrong/weak/less appropriate word or where line order is wrong.
9 Have good rhythm: Good rhythm is important in haiku as in any other forms of poetry. It installs in haiku musicality, structure and internal fabric. In Japanese haiku, 5-7-5 onji separation gives the most fundamental rhythm, to which can be added such devices as alliteration, onomatopoeia or refrain. If a haiku does not follow any pattern such as 5-7-5, then the author needs to introduce some devices to give his/her haiku a sense of rhythm. If he/she fails the haiku would become ‘flat’.
10 Pictorial and/or musical feel: Some of Basho’s haiku would make you feel as if you are listening to a piece of music. Some of Buson’s haiku make you feel as if you are looking at a painting. Haiku is music played by words. Haiku is a painting that brushes of words painted. Primitive people used to sing poems (non-separation of songs and poems) before letters came to be used for creating and enjoying poems. They also painted epics and other poems without recourse to letters. All the poems still retain the traces of such practices and they are prominent in haiku.
11 Have some sense of humour: Everybody nowadays knows the word haiku but few know what it literally means. The word can be divided into two parts: hai and ku. Ku simply means a part of a poem (like stanza) or an individual poem itself. Hai is the important part and it means comic, a sense of humour or joke. So, initially haiku, or its predecessor haikai, meant a comic verse. How come, then, that people seldom talk about a sense of humour as an attribute of haiku? It is partly because Basho made it into a serious literary genre (while retaining a sense of humour). It is partly because Takahama Kyoshi made it into an even more serious literary genre in modern time. It is also because the Western people have made into an ultra serious literary genre. One half of human beings is serious and the other half comic. So are human affairs. If one lacks either of the two one is not a complete human. Likewise, haiku lacking either is not haiku. If a haiku gives you instant sounds or pictorial images, then it is normally a good haiku. The haiku I mentioned above by Bruce Ross does both.
12 Reflecting the grasp of the essence of haiku (a sense of brevity, humour, somewhat detached view or karumi): This would ultimately test the author in terms of what he/she thinks of haiku, how and how deeply he/she understands the essence of haiku and in what way he/she tries to write haiku reflecting such grasp or understanding. This point is the most revealing of the quality and standards of the author as a haiku poet. It does not depend on the length of time haiku poets have spent (a few years or thirty, forty years) but on the quality of how they have spent it. If you don’t get it you don’t get it. I almost feel that it is probably my duty to tell those who have not got it right in this connection and who have little prospect of writing any good haiku at all. However, to do so might shatter them to such an extent that they would not be able to take up haiku ever again (which may in fact be for the best). There are lots of other things to enjoy in one’s life rather than remaining obsessed with haiku. At least I would be in a position where I should offer to explain at length what is wrong and how it can be remedied, but for each of such person this could take the whole of the rest of my life to do so and even that may not be long enough. So, I stay silent in this matter.