Disordering Haiku

By Peter Yovu

In “The Seed of Wonder: An Antidote to Haiku Inflation”, the essay that concludes Big Sky, the Red Moon anthology for 2006, Michael Dylan Welch calls for a renewal of wonder in how we approach and appreciate haiku and, inseparably, the world. He writes about an “inflation of expectation” that afflicts many readers, whose chief symptom is “haiku ennui”, perhaps characterised as “been there, read that”, and recommends slowing down to find out what we may be missing in our quest for the “superior poem”.

Welch’s thoughts helped me slow down and appreciate many of the poems in Big Sky. Here are four, selected somewhat at random. They represent much of what can be found in the anthology.1

autumn sunset …
she lowers the silk
into the dye

Francine Banwarth
winter rain …
the light
from the flower shop

Timothy Hawkes
rainy season …
a smile on everything
the child draws

Paul Pfleuger, Jr.
spring rain
a snail emerges
from the watering can

Andrew Shimield

These are gentle, likeable poems, “seeds” that, dropped into the soil of the imagination, invite feelings, unexpected associations, and reverie, a world, if one wishes to linger — with wonder — long enough. It is possible to rest in them awhile.

But of the 171 poems in Big Sky, more than 100 begin with a noun preceded by an adjective. Tom Tico, in a brief essay he wrote for Frogpond,2 noticed how frequently one finds this construction in the major haiku periodicals. He was careful to say, and I agree, that good poems are being written this way, but calls nonetheless for more variety.

The most common approach overall is the use of a first line giving context to a poem, followed by a significant detail. I think of it sometimes as a cinematic approach, whereby an establishing shot, taken from a distance, gives a sense of time and place and is followed by a closer look focusing on something tellingly specific.3

It as an enactment of the way perception works for most of us much of the time: We tend, in new situations, arriving at work, etc., to take in the general sense of things before focusing on details. We look to see what mood the boss is in, then gaze a moment at the glass paperweight. We wake and check out the weather, then notice the blackbird in the maple tree. It is mostly a habitual thing, probably based on the need to know we are safe — where we are — before we can relax and take in the interesting or pleasurable things available to the senses. Often it happens the way we want it to happen, as an easing into situations and into our life. It is this mode of perception that is mirrored most often in our haiku and senryu.

The vast majority of English-language haiku use the adjective + noun approach, giving the common characteristic of a gradual or gentle awakening with a first line — “morning frost”, “November rain”, “country town”, “autumn light” — inviting the reader to rest a moment, to bring one’s own memories and associations into play; there is no verb or other indicator to propel us immediately out of our reverie.

We know where we are — we know, because we have read and written so many poems that begin this way, that what follows will likely lead us further in and invite us to stay. In particular the adjective + noun first line construction signals that we will not be too rudely awakened, that we will not be dropped out of the poem into a space of unknowing, but will be gently held in it in a kind of maternal embrace.

These are the haiku we know how to write, the haiku we can write. We write them often. It would be foolish to say that every poem that begins with a noun preceded by an adjective or with an establishing image is going to be a poem of gentle awakening. Here is one by Gonzalo Melchor that is not (and later we will look at others):

lunch alone
I catch the shadow
of my jaw chewing

There is nothing comforting about this poem. It begins with an establishing shot, but not one to settle into easily. It has humour, yes, but it is disquieting more than funny. It is disjunctive at every turn; we understand “I catch the shadow” in its colloquial sense, underlying which is the more disturbing sense of catching something we would rather not. It feels like it could be the beginning of a film noir. The emphasis on “ch”, “sh”, and “juh” sounds and the oddness of the disembodied jaw add to the feeling of aching loneliness. This haiku by these means has allowed something painful to come into it, whose force may have surprised the writer (“No surprise in the writer,” said Robert Frost, “no surprise in the reader.”) The writer did not resist it, and that gives the poem life, which allows it to both inhabit and break out of the mould. There is a dimension present in the poem that many lack.

All too often poems that use this technique feel controlled, which means essentially that the author stopped writing before anything surprising or unexpected could enter. A mood was evoked sufficient to call it a haiku, but sometimes a haiku is merely the product of what we know how to make, as if from a kit. It is most evident in what Ken Jones, writing in Blithe Spirit,4 calls “haiku of closure, which are end-stopped for the reader”, poems in which “metaphor is closed, and all that remains for the reader is to chuckle, or admire the ingenious contrivance”.

It is difficult not to believe that in many poems the form determines the perception and not the other way around. As a means of exploration this procedure may be useful if the author is able to follow it to the point of discovering what the true impulse is and allowing that to dictate the form. If a sense of control or construction is foremost, however, there will inevitably be a sense of something missing, images coming across as having been juxtaposed arbitrarily, a marriage arranged by some parenting notion of how a haiku is supposed to behave.

Every poem is an act of the imagination; even the most spontaneously written haiku or senryu relies on the translation of the raw data of the senses into an image. Every poem is constructed, but there must be present at its core some other factor that burns through the poem’s own making to stand naked … and alive.

Here is a haiku of Ed Markowski’s that is located unpretentiously in the realm of mind and of imagination, which by the strength of its juxtaposed images remains embodied, but artfully casts off all sense of construction and control:

fog …
I’ve got to begin

This is not a poem of gentle awakening. It kicks us out of bed — or rather, its humour disarms and charms us and then it kicks us out of bed. Richard Gilbert, writing in Modern Haiku,5 says: “One of the dynamic properties of haiku is the ability to rapidly, shockingly irrupt habitual thought.” The poem has an all-at-once integrated feeling. The word “fog” was not a response to an ad in the haiku classifieds: “Lonely image seeks compatible mate to help make sense of its life.” It does more than provide context. It holds its own as equal to what follows. There is a dialogue going on, layers of juxtaposition, implicitly between thing and idea, between outer and inner reality, fog as something palpable, condensing on the skin, and existential. It is funny and scary both.

Haiku seem to need this “irruptive” dynamic in some form, and the best will unmistakably possess it, but it is rare because mostly we do not want to live in a way that will genuinely produce such work. It is too unsettling. We rely too strongly on what we know. Very few haiku have a quality of being “right” and also inexplicable. Jack Galmitz risks it:

My life
Belongs to everything?:
Beyond the Milky Way

Certainly our haiku and senryu come directly out of the way we perceive things, which is often the way we want to perceive things. Exploration ends where habits set in. Habits in writing are habits in perception, mutually reinforcing. A prevalent construction will lead, most often, to predictable results. Maybe it can’t be helped — after all, we cannot be vibrantly alive and alert all the time — but for the life and health of haiku, I believe it has to be. We need to challenge ourselves and each other. The current maternal embrace of the community, evidenced by the prevalence of a narrow range of work being produced, is not healthy. I am not advocating some kind of Rimbeaudian “disordering of all the senses”; more like a “disordering (irrupting) of all the habits”.

Another essay in Big Sky echoes my concern. In “When Haiku Was Poetry” Jim Kacian writes: “One way or another, we have been each others’ teachers, and to an inordinate degree, a very few writers and educators have shaped the discourse we have shared.”

Also: “The result of our haiku education is a diminished range of possibilities, which has consequences, some of which are not best for the future of haiku, or for our own practice.” Speaking of a few seminal handbooks and anthologies, he writes: “These books, taken as a whole, have done more to shape the community’s notion of what haiku is than all the individual collections of haiku ever printed…. The very idea of what we mean by ‘good’ is shaped by what appears in these volumes.” Surely it has not escaped Kacian’s attention that his RMA series is a considerable shaper of what is good.

Many have spoken of the fact that English-language haiku remains imitative, in diction, in subject matter, and form, of the Japanese. Gilbert writes: “A main element for constraint acting on haiku composition has emanated from Shiki’s … compositional guidelines. [His] realist dicta for the beginner-poet regarding the composition of shasei (‘sketch of life’) haiku predominate.” This is no doubt true, but while Japanese haiku remain a powerful influence, sitting on the collective shoulder of the English-language community and whispering in its ear, a louder voice seems to come from within: In light of what Kacian has written, it may be fair to say that much of what we are producing is imitative of itself, resulting in what the late William J. Higginson called “the increasingly fixed and limited notion of haiku that pervades much of the English-language haiku community”.6

Essentially this means that what many value most about the “best” haiku, a quality of being mysteriously and unmistakably alive, is being pressured to fit into pre-determined and familiar forms, into the idea of what a haiku is. What results is something less like “sketches from life” and more like “sketches from haiku”.

Others have written about their concerns for the health of the genre and would likely focus on aspects different than those the use of the cinematic approach and of adjective + noun to open a haiku. The prevalence, in the RMA series and in the major magazines of poems using these constructions, has increasingly encouraged habits that go counter to the irruptive potential of haiku. The senses are dulled, not enlivened or revived. Many poems feel more tried than true. Wonder alone cannot restore them. Something else is needed.

Welch’s essay in Big Sky quotes Owen Barfield: “Wonder is our reaction to things we are conscious of not quite understanding” bringing us closer to “strangeness”, which Barfield says, “arises from contact with a different kind of consciousness from our own”. Welch writes: “We can more deeply appreciate ‘strange’ poems not only with a renewed sense of … wonder, but with the realisation that they may be challenging us with the very strangeness of the unique consciousness out of which every haiku is written”. Here’s a haiku by Ellen Compton that addresses this explicitly.

unsplit chopsticks
the fish stares back
from the bento 

We know we have eaten things that once could see and mostly, habitually, ignore the fact. Sometimes, however, we open the box and the fact stares us in the face. The strange doesn’t mean weird necessarily, it is more that the sense that the box of familiarity — of habitual thought — has been torn open. It is the sometimes disquieting sensation that we have not truly seen this before, the wonder that something — anything — is. Paul Valéry says it directly: “Whatever is not strange is false.”

A haiku, like all art, is a balance between control and surrender. The best haiku, whose balance is in their asymmetry, lean in the direction of surrender, of bowing to what is at the risk of being bowled over by it. Another way of saying it is: They risk not being haiku.

I want not to be dazzled by the superior poem so much as to be challenged by haiku where, to quote Cid Corman,7 “each word is a matter of life and death”. Maybe to Welch’s call for a renewal of wonder could be added a call for a renewal of the sense of deeply loving something, of being in love. It is that quality that makes us want to know all about the beloved, wants to make love every possible way, even at the risk of looking foolish, or finding out what we do not want to know.


1 All poems from Big Sky (Red Moon Press, 2007).

2 Tom Tico, “The Spice of Life”, Frogpond 30:1 (winter 2007).

3 Allan Burns explores the relationship between haiku and film in depth in “Haiku and Cinematic Technique”, Frogpond 30:3 (fall 2007).

4 Ken Jones, “Finding the Heart of Haiku”, Blithe Spirit 15:1 (March 2005).

5 Richard Gilbert, “Disjunction in Contemporary English-Language Haiku”, Modern Haiku 35:2 (summer 2004).

7 Cid Corman, Little Enough (Gnomon Press, 1991).

Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from the author’s review of Big Sky: The Red Moon Anthology 2006 (Red Moon Press, 2007) and appears here with his kind permission. It first appeared in Modern Haiku, spring 2008. Read it here in its original form.

Peter Yovu is an American writer who lives in Vermont. One of his haiku appears on the Katikati Haiku Pathway. His 2005 chapbook Turn to the Earth, won the Saki Press Prize, the HSA 2006 Merit Book Award, and The Kanterman Memorial Award for best first book of haiku.