February 11 (Its Depth)

first snow
I no longer have a child
to measure its depth


World Haiku Review, January 2011



I enjoyed a lot of things about World Haiku Review this time around but I can’t say I enjoyed the essay “Haiku as a World Phenomenon” by editor Susumu Takiguchi. My appreciation for it went way, way deeper than enjoyment. If I were feeling more flippant about it I’d say it rocked my world but really, that’s entirely the wrong tone for this essay. I learned so much from it and can’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those essays — there have been so many since last May [hey, remind me to create a list of links to them in my sidebar] — that both gives voice to some things I had been incoherently thinking about and also gives me entirely new and exciting ideas and information to work with. I feel like a different poet after reading it. Probably I’m not really a different poet but I’m trying to be. That counts, right?

I know you’re busy and you don’t really feel like reading the whole thing. So let me tell you about it. First of all, it’s not a new essay, it was written in 2000. That doesn’t matter, it could have been written last week. And Susumu starts out by referencing what is now a twenty-five-year-old question but also seems last-weekish: “… After about twenty-five years of English language haiku do we know what haiku is?” (Cor van den Heuvel, from the preface to the Second Edition, The Haiku Anthology, Haiku and Senryu in English, Simon & Schuster, 1986)

Lamenting the endless quarrels over the definition of haiku, Susumu refers to the “dialectic poetics” of Basho as a way of beginning to settle the matter. He outlines some of the fundamental principles of Basho’s haiku aesthetic, none of which, in my profound ignorance, I had ever heard of, but all of which make so much sense. Here’s the outline:

  1. Fueki ryuko“: “Fueki … can represent unchanging tradition while ryuko can represent changing fashion. Since the two are contradictory there should be a kind of creative tension generated between them … [which] should keep haiku fresh, creative and interesting. If people cling to tradition and neglect newness (or atarashimi) inherent in fashion, then haiku could become stale, imitative and boring. If, on the other hand, people indulge in newness without tradition, haiku could become gimmicky, incomprehensible and nonsensical.”
  2. Kogo kizoku”: ” ‘[O]btaining high enlightenment but coming back to the populace.’ There has been a tendency to polarise these two essential factors … Some people have become ‘elitists,’ armed with their own creed and are negligent of kizoku, or addressing plebeian needs. Others have gone the opposite way and vulgarised haiku by neglecting kogo. Again, we need both of these factors interacting and forming creative tension.”
  3. “The third answer may be found in the teaching of Basho, ‘Don’t follow ancient masters, seek what they tried to seek.’ We see people blindly following not only ancient masters but also modern masters without knowing what they tried to seek.”

(This last point is fascinating to me. I try to read and write haiku now asking myself these questions: “What was this poet trying to seek? Is it something I’m seeking too, or want to seek? What am I trying to seek?”)

Susumu isn’t outlining these principles as a way of creating a new, narrow definition of haiku that will further factionalize haiku poets; he sees them as very broad principles which can usefully describe a wide range of styles of haiku. He makes a very interesting analogy with schools of art:

“Avant-garde haiku poets cannot possibly be speaking the same language as fundamentalists of the traditional haiku school. In paintings, we accept the co-existence of the Old Masters, religious paintings, landscapes, still lifes, seascapes, figurative, abstract, surrealism, conceptual art, pop art, minimalist, Japanese paintings, African art, or whatever. There is no point in denying somebody else’s haiku as being not haiku, when we have such varieties of haiku poems in [so many] different languages.”

But in the end Susumu leaves behind all of these principles and details and tells it like it is: “Ultimately, we are after truths. … [T]he essence of poetry must be truths, and universal truths at that.”

Back to Basho:

“When Basho talks about fuga no makoto, this is normally interpreted as poetic sincerity. However, makoto also means truths, or true words, or true things. … In terms of poets, makoto is that which springs from their magokoro (true heart, or soul). Haiku is certainly capable of (local, particular) truths. Sometimes it is capable of universal truths and that is when great haiku poems are born.

“Poetic truths, then, must be a criterion against which inferior and dubious haiku poems can be weeded out. Haiku is part of the haiku poet’s way of life. Haiku is partly what he or she is. If he or she is not truthful his or her haiku cannot be good poetry. In today’s climate where haiku values are confused, it is important for us to go back to such stringent criterion as poetic truths.” [italics mine]

Telling the truth. I’m working on it really hard now. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s not, of course, about the facts. Sometimes the facts interfere with it, actually. (There’s nothing factual about the haiku that starts this post, but I’m hoping it’s at least a little bit true.)

So you kind of have to stumble around, trying to figure out what the truth is, exactly. But I think it’s worth it, in the end.


16 thoughts on “February 11 (Its Depth)

  1. I’ve just posted this on Facebook, as both your response to Susumu’s article, and your own essay, are vital reading.

    After just having experienced a nasty time over someone owning the only view on certain aspects of haiku territory, it’s encouraging and refreshing to see a balanced response.

    It’s absolutely right that Basho would not have wanted us to copy him or anyone else, Japanese or otherwise, but to learn along with these poets while forging our own path.

    Keep posting your thoughts, essays and articles please, you have a growing number of people who find them vital and refreshing, as haiku (and hokku) was always intended to be.


    • Thanks much, Alan. Yeah, it’s hard for me to understand the need of some people to rigidly define haiku and scornfully exclude those who don’t meet their arbitrary definitions and superficial criteria. It seems so clear to me that there is such a wide variety of poetry today that may look outwardly different but is all in the original (and developing) spirit of haiku and that we all have so much to learn from each other … and that there is a lot more similarity between two poets with different styles but similar degrees of insight into the world than between two poets whose haiku look superficially similar but who are not both giving the same level of attention to reality. (Yeah, see, that’s what Susumu said, except I said it, you know, badly. 🙂 )

    • Very wise as usual, Peter. 🙂 Yeah … I agree you can’t just barge your way into the truth, it’s something you come upon in stages in the course of the various wanderings you make throughout your life. But I do think sometimes people miss the truth that’s staring them right in the face because they’re not consciously looking for it. I want to do more conscious looking.

      (oh and by the way? “Independence Day” in Modern Haiku? SO true. 🙂 )

  2. Your response to Alan clinches how vital this post is for me and should be for many more of us. Thank you, Melissa, for never failing to share, hence echo, our endless wondering about what good haiku is in whose eyes.

    I suppose we can never reach the kind of being-conscious we’d want to be in when writing haiku. If it’s truth that haiku is all about, then it would always come as a mist. It would have to find form in our being, which is why, I guess, our search will never cease. How can we really know our being? It takes ‘the other’ to let us know most often. And besides, we reflect who we are from what pulsates around us. Which is why haiku of all poetry, I believe, haiku will stay as vibrant as life, which renews itself every moment. Imagine how many haiku poets write not just one haiku a day…how many truths have just been found and written down right this moment. Surely one of them is yours, right?

    • I hope so! Thanks for reading and appreciating, Alegria. (I know my responses have not been very long lately … I wish I could write more but I am just so busy with school and work … the end of the semester cannot come too soon for me!)

  3. Thanks for this Melissa. I have to admit I’m happily stunned that the sentiment in the community I’ve been exposed to thus far is more open-minded than it first appeared. I’m afraid I’ve let an individual – perhaps the very one Alan mentions – dissuade me to the point it’s an incredible struggle to write as freely as I once did. That you have posted such a thing has convinced me also that you are not the person I thought you to be from other conversations. The value in this essay to me is and will be as a mantra to replace the script from self-appointed “masters” that, for months, has been playing over and over in my head and has cost me valuable time. It used to be I believed in the value of experimentation, i.e., the “seek what they sought” piece of the puzzle. I lost that and maybe this will help me get it back. Thank you.

    • I didn’t see your name, but I’m shocked and disappointed someone has put you off so much.

      Yes, haiku is a difficult craft and cannot be really mastered, but that is why I love this genre so much. 😉

      I strongly advise you to have a go at posting haiku at NaHaiWriMo which is a fun and inclusive place created by Michael Dylan Welch, and where all kinds of writers post, including Melissa and myself. 😉

      If you are on Facebook you can easily get involved:

      If you are not on Facebook, I can recommend The Haiku Foundation where I am a co-moderator for the New to Haiku section. Our chief moderator is Laura Sherman a very recent convert to haiku, and she will be very supportive, as will myself and Don Baird.

      I’m glad Melissa’s essay has struck a cord! 😉


      • Thanks for the kind words Alan. I was surprised too to be so affected by this person but it happened. I’ve only recently opened up to the haiku community in various places – Facebook, Twitter and my own blog – and expected it to be populated by gentle charitable souls who love writing and reading haiku and the other forms. I didn’t expect the rather draconian attitudes of some, especially of this one individual. Being fairly agoraphobic in the real world, it really put me off of community and on the defensive for a time.

        As it happens, Michael Dylan Welch sent me an invite to NaHaiWriMo back in December or January when the idea was still rolling around and I at first thought it a splendid idea. In the end, I became rather spooked and too overexposed doing that so decided to stay with publishing only on my own wall where there are no competitive pressures.

        All in all, Melissa’s essay confirms what I learned a long time ago from the teachings of Basho – “seek what they sought”. I focus far less on the “rules” and much more on the intent and have a deep belief in experimentation. The practice frequently takes me outside the boundaries many of the more strict writers and readers are uncomfortable violating and I wind up with quite a few uncharitable criticisms. I took to calling what I write “Naumaddku” for the simple reason that, if I call what I do by a different name, there’s less reason to object to it. It hasn’t quite worked out that way which keeps me rather nervous about participation.

        I will try what I can. Thanks again for the support and thanks again to Melissa for turning out to be more gentle and charitable than I supposed and for posting this. It is my thinking exactly.

    • Oh, Ricky … sorry to hear that your initial experience with the haiku community was so negative! That is sad. Mine has been so overwhelmingly positive … not that I haven’t encountered the odd discordant note (I think I know who you’re talking about and he is pretty seriously discordant, but fortunately I didn’t encounter him until I’d been around the community for many months and knew he was the exception and not the rule, so it was easy for me to just laugh at him and ignore him even when he said a couple of nasty things about me).

      Overall, though? The people in this world are so kind and supportive and open-minded that it has gone a long way toward alleviating my natural severe cynicism. They may not necessarily understand or appreciate your experimentation, but most will not deny your right to experiment or condemn you for doing so. If anyone does do so, really the best thing to do is turn around and walk away, figuratively speaking. They may shout after you for a while, but just hum a happy song to yourself and know that they are in far, far worse shape than you are.

      And I am so, so sorry I overreacted the way I did to your comment on my link and gave you the impression that I was one of those intolerant people. Really, I am generally a very live-and-let-live kind of person. That topic we were discussing is just a pet peeve of mine and the reason it really bothers me is not so much that I think people who put in two spaces are Wrong and Bad but just that, like so many other beliefs and traditions in our society, it is one born of complete ignorance and misinformation passed on by people who don’t know or care anything about history — it doesn’t have anything to do with people having thought it through and decided they like two spaces better, if it did I would just say, oh well, that’s the way they like it. Basically, I just felt like I was sharing fascinating and accurate historical information and it seemed like you were criticizing me for doing so, and it just kind of flipped some switch of rage in me. Anyway. Probably too much information. But I do apologize.

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