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And What of the Haiku?

By Kwame Dawes

A few years ago, I was going through the sometimes frustrating but always engaging task of putting together a collection of poems. The poems were all there, but the task was the architecture of the book—the organization of the manuscript. Then I had a brainwave that I am sure many others have had. Let me create these choric codas throughout the manuscript that would signal mood changes and serve as epigraphic accents at key points in the manuscript. The idea kept getting better and better. I had been writing haiku as something of a lark, and I really had not shown these to anyone and barely looked at them myself, but in the heat of creative thinking, I could tell already that these haiku would serve as the perfect section dividers for the manuscript. This same heat may explain why I would not admit to myself then that this was hardly an original idea, one that must have occurred to other poets in the past. So I pulled out the haiku, stuck them in and put away the manuscript with a self-satisfaction that few of us know. Some days later I came back to admire my handiwork. What a disappointment!

The haiku seemed so small, so awkward in syntax and tone, and so out of place in the manuscript of sometimes long lined verse. It seemed pretentious to have these poems in the manuscript. And then I started to think about the appropriation that marked this act of taking such an old and culturally specific tradition as the haiku and simply plunking it all down in a manuscript that had very little to do with the world or the spirit that shaped the haiku. And even as I looked at the manuscript, all my old suspicions about western poets who liked to announce how much haiku they write, begun to resurface. I had always known that the English haiku was only an approximation in form, style and spirit to the Japanese form. I knew, too, that the five/ seven/ five syllabic convention, while accurate in its replication of the Japanese form, was ridiculously clumsy because of the differences in the two languages.
But most telling was how, when set against my other poems, my haiku seemed stiff, forced, and somehow thinly conceived. I allowed myself the face-saving thought that the problem was with the haiku—that my haiku, for haiku, were quite solid, but the problem was with the haiku as a form. This was a fleeting thought. I could tell that my haiku were bad. Not horrendous, but not good enough. The language was forced. The employment of haiku devices was clumsy and self-conscious, and yes, there was much of what I was doing that amounted to a kind of cultural appropriation. I was trying to be Asian, to somehow attempt to replicate the spirit of that world. Cherry blossoms, harvest moons, and frogs on lily-pods littered these haiku.
But most striking was the alarming contrast that I noticed between the haiku and my other poems. My poems seemed bloated, noisy, and entirely replete with adjectives, similes and a preponderance of metaphor. It was as if one of the couple had not gotten the memo about the dress code for the evening’s outing. The fundamental modes of poetry were competing with each other. The haiku were satisfied with the simple moment—the poem was found in the moment, while the longer poems sought their poetic genius in language and in the cleverness of metaphor and the gaudiness of similes and adjectives. Another simile comes to mind when thinking about the comparison: The haiku were slim, efficient tidy bodies—healthy, lacking in ostentation and self-assured about themselves. My other poems were overweight, always trying to use jokes to get the attention of people and to win their affection. These were poems in free verse, and even though they had experiences similar insecurities when placed beside their cousins the sonnet, the sestina and the villanelle, they had never felt as hopelessly defeated as they did beside these haiku. And the worse part is that the haiku were actually bad haiku.
Needless to say, I nixed that idea right away. I scoured my books for quotes from poets and writers and stuck them all over the manuscript. These worked better than the haiku. But I started to think about the haiku a lot after that. I write haiku, but I am completely convinced that I will not publish these haiku. My reason is that I still feel as if I am a tourist in the haiku land. And I don’t actually think I will ever be more than a tourist. I have studied the form, I have read many books and I have enjoyed the haiku written by some of my friends who are quite remarkable haiku writers. They seem able to step into the form and the spirit of the form without a feeling of being outsiders flirting with someone else’s stuff. I admire that assurance. Yet, writing haiku has proven to be one of the most interesting experiences for me in helping me to understand better what I am doing when I write a poem. Writing haiku with other poets has been a wonderful way to really study the insides of western poetry largely because there is something about the haiku that runs counter to the typical western instinct in poetry.
Somehow, by removing even the smallest hint of audience from my writing of the haiku, I have found a liberty to make these small verses and toss them away with the persistence of an artist trying to perfect a line, a detail—sketching and discarding, sketching and discarding, with the intention of finally making one that will be just right. These exercises have helped me to be tougher on myself, especially the tricks of metaphor and simile that mark my other work. I have also started to see in some of the poets I admire, a willingness to challenge the hegemony of the metaphor and the adjective in ways that I had not noticed in the past. It is making me rethink the answer to the question: What is a poem? Even to western eyes, some of the most stunning verses by Basho strike us as poems, as poetic. Yet, these verses do not define themselves by language, by the function of obvious poetic devices, but achieve a poetic presence by the manner in which a moment is caught, observed and expressed:
Orchid breathing
incense into
butterfly wings.
Trans. Lucien Stryck
Even here, in translation, the verse seems a tad awkward in terms of language. We accept this clunky language in the translation because it is merely functional, a kind of step-by-step guide to how we must observe these picture moments: an orchid, a butterfly’s wings, and a scent. These three things, laid out crudely here, are the poem. In the Japanese, no doubt, the play with language, the pun, the juxtaposition of images and ideas can lead to quite rich poetic depths that we won’t necessarily find in translation. Still the pleasure of language and the simplicity of image can be striking in pieces composed in English. Here is an elegant verse by a good friend of mine, Rick Black whose Jerusalem Haiku have taught me so much about the possibilities in the form:
just buried soldier –
too soon for his mother to notice
the clump of crocus
Somehow, Rick’s poems help me see how the haiku can make perfect sense on the landscape of war-disturbed Jerusalem without seeming pretentious, forced or appropriated. So I have asked myself the question: can there be Jamaican haiku? Is there a place for the reggae haiku? Our seasons are markedly different, so how does that work for the kigo in the haiku? The truth is that the answer to this question, “yes” of “no” is the least important thing about the question. The most valuable thing about the question is that it forces me to ask what a reggae poem is, and what a Jamaican poem is, in the first place. By working out the differences that might exist between the haiku and a Jamaican poetic, I can begin to understand and define better what that aesthetic is about.
So I will continue to make haiku, I will continue to use the renga as a teaching tool with my students, intentionally forcing them to contend with what they think makes a poem a poem—what goes into making their poems. I will always be reaching for that perfect alignment of idea, language and form that creates the most impressive haiku. But I will always come to haiku as a stranger—as a tourist hanging out with the form and constantly aware that I must come to these forms with reverence and with the posture of one who is a guest, eating at someone else’s table. Something in Basho’s own statements about the haiku and about poetry somehow resonates with me as a poet:
In this mortal frame of mine which is made of a hundred bones and nine orfices there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however, that there were times when it sank into such dejection that it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over the others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always wavering between doubts of one kind and another.
I am sorry, Kenneth Goldsmith, but here is another of those shameful, cliche-mongering poets talking about the terror (smile). But it is a beautiful expression of the poetic journey that has some value to me. Maybe this is why I keep at the form.

Comments (4)

  • On March 25, 2007 at 12:16 am Kevin wrote:

    I hope you’ll consider writing about the tyranny of the metaphor in western poetry (and that your fellow bloggers will join the conversation). Combining that future entry with this one will get at something (or get us somewhere), an intersection perhaps, where we can imagine other kinds of poetic expression.

  • On March 25, 2007 at 12:57 am Frances-Anne wrote:

    Well, I quite like what you wrote here. And think the windswept spirit, torn and swept by doubt, is pretty well exactly what we are as artists. The rest (awards etc) is vanity.

  • On March 26, 2007 at 9:16 am jrlee wrote:

    Re Kevin’s comment: Tyranny of the metaphor? Is that like speaking of the tyranny of the sun above? Isn’t “metaphorical resonance” the backdrop of all poems, even the most plain-speaking? I’ve followed some discussion by the poet Scott Cairns who also seemed impatient with metaphor and was proposing a “sacramental poetry.” And if we look to the East (with Kwame’s ruminations on the haiku in mind) could the haiku be seen as tremendously compressed “metaphor?” For Derek Walcott, metaphor was “like religion.” I look forward to reading others’ speculations on this matter. (while I keep an eye on West Indian fortunes in the on-going cricket World Cup. Book recommendation: CLR James’ Beyond a boundary.[Sorry, it’s prose])

  • On March 28, 2007 at 2:37 am Tara Betts wrote:

    There’s definitely room for Jamaican haiku. The haiku always seems to me like it’s an observation of life cycles in everyday occurrences. I really like the book HAIKU SEASON too, so this was really engaging. Thank you.

Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, March 24th, 2007 by Kwame Dawes.