Experiment escorts us last—
His pungent company
Will not allow an Axiom
– Emily Dickinson
Buddhists describe a simple practice: when you find yourself falling into some habitual pattern, acknowledge it, and then step out by doing something different. The idea, of course, is that anything we do by habit we do half-awake at best, and the goal is to wake up. Psychologists and neuroscientists talk about this in a different way. Not long ago it was generally believed that the brain’s neuronal “pathways” are fully developed and immutable at an early age. Studies have demonstrated that this is not true. The brain has more (maybe much more) “neuroplasticity” than once believed. It is good news, not least for the haiku community.
Many writers have decried a sense of “sameness” in much of what appears in the journals today. William Higginson, in his review of Paul Muldoon, referred to “the increasingly fixed and limited notion of haiku that currently pervades much of the English-language haiku community”. Tom Tico, in a short essay called The Spice of Life noticed how many haiku are written beginning with an adjective followed by a noun. In his essay When Haiku Was Poetry, Jim Kacian speaks of the “homogeneity” of much of what is produced. Richard Gilbert writes: “…many published haiku are formulaic, lack authorial creativity, and possess little sense of language creativity.” Michael Dylan Welch, reviewing The Unswept Path, has made similar observations, though elsewhere he has said he believes that much of the “ennui” many readers feel results from inflated expectations, from bringing a diminished sense of wonder to haiku. His call for a renewal of wonder is encouraging, but I think the problem goes deeper. As a writer matures in his or her art, there is a natural tendency, a need, to seek out the work of others who are maturing also, whose work will present a challenge, perhaps open up fresh possibilities. Very little of what one sees lately is, in this sense, challenging.
Richard Gilbert again: “One of the dynamic properties of haiku is the ability to rapidly, shockingly irrupt habitual thought”.
Readers are no doubt familiar with Shiki’s description of the foundation for writing haiku. He called it “sketches from life”. Beyond its usual definition, I understand this as referring to haiku which express a moment of connection to the world to which we are surprisingly alive in language whose aliveness surprises both writer and reader. It is a challenge to be alive, to be alert, to be awake. I think this is why many of us have chosen to be poets, haiku poets in particular. We want the challenge. We love the feeling of being alert and awake and of having written something that snaps into place.
So what’s the problem? It may be, in part, that there is a natural counter-tendency to fall asleep. The tendency may equal or even surpass the tendency to seek challenge, to try something new, to exercise, by experimentation, poetic muscles which have been allowed to atrophy or which have never been used. I think many in the haiku community now have fallen prey to this counter-tendency. It results not in “sketches from life” (let alone the more intuitive “selective realism” or “makoto”—truthfulness) but in what I call “sketches from haiku”, when haiku become less expressions of our aliveness and perceptivity and more expressions of what we believe a haiku is supposed to be, when formula and habit take over. And habits in writing, I believe, are habits in perception.
It’s been said many times: an artist needs challenge in order to grow. It is the very nature of life and of art. This means not only seeking out challenge from other writers and artists, but also challenging ourselves, questioning what we do. I believe, for this reason, in the importance of experimentation. There was a time, long or not so long ago, when writing haiku was new and different to us, was something we did not know if we could do, but we tried, we practiced, we experimented …
To experiment is to do or try something different. Etymologically it is very close to “experience”. I am convinced that experimentation need not be merely imposing arbitrary innovation onto the old for the sake of novelty or excitement, but that it may be a means to uncovering truths we have left unexposed. Surely that is the experience for many of us at the beginning … but how easy it can be for “beginner’s mind” and beginner’s heart to succumb to formula.
There are, I believe, a number of factors — habits in writing and perception — which contribute to the sense of sameness and (excuse the rhyme) tameness in haiku; which keep it covered with the dust of habit and familiarity. I’d like to explore some areas of concern, areas where experimentation, doing something different, may help to enliven not only our writing, but the way we experience the world. These are not so much my personal challenges to you as challenges which are inherent, as I see it, in the art of haiku.
In his introduction to poetry Western Wind, John Frederick Nims says: “We can think of words as having not only a mind (their meanings) but also a body—the structure of sound in which their meaning lives. Most poets, who are not Platonic in their love for language, care as much for the body of their words as for the mind. They like to feel words in the mouth …”.
Perhaps it is a harsh assessment of the haiku community, but it seems to me that many within it must be Platonic in their love for language. Owing perhaps to its brevity, to the idea that it is “one breath” long, a number of writers seem to believe that a haiku is something insubstantial, more of the spirit than of the body, a vehicle to convey them to their place of worship as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.
I would say that one factor that contributes to the sameness and tameness of haiku is that they are sent out never having been “felt in the mouth.” It may be that Alan Watts’ formulation of haiku as a “wordless poem” has been taken too literally, leading to a fear of language itself as somehow intrusive, or leading to a puritanical or Zen notion that plainness is of the essence.
And yet many have spoken about how rich in sound Japanese haiku are. Considering the extent to which our writing remains modelled on the Japanese, it is curious that so little attention is paid to sound, to body of the poem. For the poet the challenge is clear: sensitivity of perception needs to be matched by sensitivity to language.
I’m talking about something more than lubricating the mechanics of a poem with a squirt of alliteration here, dressing it up with a drop of assonance there. I think the challenge, by way of study and practice, is to internalise and assimilate the properties of sound in language to the extent that they are readily available to the poem that requires them.
Developing this kind of sensitivity will lead us to words and sounds we might not have used otherwise, words which will embody meaning and not merely convey it. Without it, our range is limited.
By study I mean reading, out loud preferably, poets such as Pound: “As cool as the pale wet leaves of lily-of –the-valley/ She lay beside me in the dawn”. And Stevens: “Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail/ Whistle about us their spontaneous cries”. And Yeats: “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds/ by the shore …” Or Keats: “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass”.
There are poets writing haiku who are wonderful with sound, and we can read them with profit. But reading outside the genre may give us the advantage of greater objectivity and allow us to hear the play of sounds more directly.
Study of prosody is a lifetime’s task, and experimentation will mean different things to different people. I suspect that most writers stay within a certain, (comfortable?) range of sound, and do so unconsciously. (This relates to Jung’s concept of the shadow, about which I’ll have more to say later).
Experimentation might include writing a haiku keyed to long A, another to long E, and so on. (Writing nonsense haiku helps: no question that this is practice). One could establish a tone only to break it, as Yeats does with this line: “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea,” or play with lines which are rich in different consonantal clusters. The possibilities are endless, and only an honest appraisal of one’s own work, tasting it, whispering it, saying it out loud, will demonstrate where one’s inevitable limitations and habits lie. But the key to experimentation here and elsewhere is play. Play is also wiggle-room, giving oneself the space for movement and therefore change. When children wiggle, they wiggle with everything they’ve got.
Many have said that writing that moves too far beyond principles explored in classic Japanese haiku risks not being haiku. As Jim Kacian puts it: “too much freedom, and quickly it will veer beyond what can be recognised as haiku”. Lee Gurga says that whatever form haiku takes it must follow “principled developments based on an understanding of the classical haiku and modelled on the aesthetic function of the prototype”.
I believe that English-language haiku will always be considered a child of (and an imitation of) the Japanese unless we locate very clearly what the central impulse of haiku is. Is “the aesthetic function in the prototype” a Japanese thing? If so, in my opinion, we’re lost, and haiku is merely a hobby to have a little fun with. But I don’t believe it is a Japanese thing, and I feel it needs to be explored and spoken about in a way that respectfully, gratefully, bows to the elders while moving in the direction of greater autonomy.
Perhaps the central impulse of haiku has something to do with what the image is, and with how nothing can exist in isolation. (A world of only green could not be perceived as green — it needs a different colour, each in an embrace giving birth to the other). At the risk of sounding esoteric, I would say that before even that, it is something like the play of perception in the fields of consciousness, which comes close, perhaps, to Blake: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time”.
It’s not necessary, of course, for haiku poets to go around with that job description, but it may be helpful in discussing what we do around a core not too tightly identified as Japanese.
I doubt if anyone reading this will disagree that haiku is not only a “Japanese thing”.
But so many of the haiku one sees in the journal indicate otherwise. It surprises me how many poems are imitations of the Japanese. The Japanese language does not use articles, we know, but English does. Omitting the article in English almost always strikes me as false. P. O. Williams referred to this as “Tontoism”, referring to the truncated language the Lone Ranger’s sidekick used. Similarly, the preference for avoiding the word “I” strikes me very often as forced, merely signalling the writer has obeyed some injunction against making an intrusive appearance in a haiku, but requiring all too often a distortion of syntax which the reader is required to untangle. I’m not saying about any of this that it shouldn’t or can’t be done — I’m saying that so much of it looks like habit, what fits the notion of what haiku is supposed to be.
So what can be done? Perhaps, in the spirit of doing something different, you can make friends with the words “the” and “a” etc., and use them wherever they would naturally occur. This may require adding a syllable or two to your poem. It may require you to have an eight-syllable second line. (The actual length of a line, especially in English, is less determined by the number syllables than by density of consonants and by the length of vowels). If this is hard to do you’ll know you’re in the neighborhood of habit and need to move.
Similarly, you can experiment with avoiding verb structures (primarily the present participle) which are designed to keep the word “I” out of the poem. As I said, sometimes leaving it out is more intrusive than including it. But what’s important in experimenting with this is finding out for oneself what it’s like to do something different. How does it feel? What does it lead to?
In his essay The Spice of Life, Tom Tico notices the “prevalence” of haiku which begin with an adjective preceded by a noun, as “clear morning” or “ Indian summer”. A quick scan of recent magazines will show that he is not overstating the case, and that his call for more “variety” is well justified. Much of what I’m saying is an elaboration of his remarks, and in his honour I want to offer a simple challenge: abstain, for a month or two (or until it begins to hurt and withdrawal symptoms set in) from using the adjective/noun first line construction. Do something different.
Paul Miller, in his essay In Defence of Craft , writes about the bias against imagination in the writing of haiku. He says, essentially, that a poem’s origin is irrelevant — “In haiku, the reader determines the authenticity of the poem, and they do so not by validating the poet’s actual experience, but by how emotionally accessible and realistic the poem is to them”. I like his statement that “The poem must stand on its own”.
We have a tendency to see “reality” and “imagination” as two separate things. Haiku, as “reality” based poems, are regarded as expressions of direct perception grounded in the present moment via the senses. Our view of reality may be limited however, especially if one considers that “reality,” the perception of a pine, for example, is itself an act of imagination, which, to over-simplify, can be said to be the ability to transform sense-data into meaning.
This makes it all sound very mental, and may reinforce for some people the notion that imagination is a thing of the head, divorced not only from the suchness of things, but from the heart, that it approaches the isolation of fantasy.
Many have cited the “objective correlative” as a way of making the methods of haiku understandable to Western sensibilities. Eliot describes it as: “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is evoked”. The language here is dry but the definition is useful insofar as it points to the role of imagination in uncovering images that will evoke emotion. And yet it still feels rather clinical and separate from the heart.
The Sufi point of view may be helpful. Kabir Helminski writes: “We live in a universe that is not only material and quantitative, but qualitative as well, … the heart is the organ of perception for this qualitative universe. Furthermore, every quality that the human being recognises in the world of outer appearances derives first of all from the inner knowing of its own heart, which contains a complete sampling of the universe of qualities. While the mirror of the world can reveal to us what the heart itself contains, the qualities themselves are latent within the heart.”
Japanese poetry has taught us something very similar: that it is possible to access and experience subtle feelings through the experience of nature, inner states through outer reality, that by writing about these things in terms of nature they are generously available to the reader. The world is the place in which the heart is revealed. I hope then it is not too great a leap to say that in the service of poetic (and spiritual) revelation images arise from “qualities latent in the heart”, brought to awareness by contact with the world. Imagination otherwise is just as we feared: sterile, conceptual, and isolating.
Maybe this brings me closer to what I was searching for earlier and calling “the central impulse of haiku”. I won’t abandon the notion of “perception at play in the fields of consciousness” but I’ll add this as another colour in the hummingbird: the central impulse of haiku is the unveiling of the heart. It is the mutual unfolding of heart and world, each revealing the other, ultimately not separate.
The challenge in this is to distinguish experiences of the heart (or heart-mind complex) from those divorced from it. Haiku famously invite the participation of the reader who will feel drawn into a landscape of the heart skilfully imagined. There is a lot of freedom in this, for both writer and reader. But if our view of reality and imagination is limited, determined, the sense of freedom soon wears thin. Limits, and I’m not referring to limits of form but to psychological and perceptual limits, always end up needing to be defended, and that, I believe, inevitably leads to habit and to Higginson’s “fixed and limited notions” about what haiku may be.
Perhaps all that is called for here is more openness and honesty about the role of imagination in our haiku, and giving ourselves permission to be “authentic” in ways that go beyond received notions of what that means. For some people maybe it means experimenting with writing purely from the “imagination” and finding out what is “real” in it. The worst that can happen is that what you write will strike you as false, though the false, as you may have discovered, is often a cover-up for what’s true and a way station toward it. Haiku is not a report of something, but may be a discovery if what you are drawn to writing about (the broken reed, the wind in the pines, the factory smoke) reveals what’s in your heart. (And that may lead to a more open and direct perception of the world …).
In A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly says: “American haiku poets don’t grasp the idea that the shadow has to have risen up and invaded the haiku poem, otherwise it is not a haiku. The least important thing about it is its 17 syllables or the nature scene”.
To determine for oneself if this statement presents (beyond having been issued by a famous poet) an important challenge, it may be helpful first to get some idea of what the shadow is. Typically, the shadow is considered to be comprised of those aspects of ourselves which we reject or are unconscious of. Often it seems to connect to instinctual energies involving the body: sexuality and self-preservation, but it can also refer things such as intimacy, compassion, or tenderness, qualities which, to one extent or another, we guard against.
The Jungian take on the shadow is that whatever is unconscious (repressed or cut off from awareness) leaves us divided and that it is only by bringing these elements into consciousness that we can move toward wholeness. You might say that to be fully alive one must allow all parts of oneself to join the party. Otherwise, a lot of energy and attention goes into the security system, to keeping the guards fed. What keeps out grief also keeps out joy.
Habit is a security system. It’s primary purpose is to keep us comfortable. Haiku, if you accept what Richard Gilbert said about it, can do something different. It can fire the guards, allowing something surprising, new, startling, irruptive or even unpleasant to “invade” the poem, tossing furniture around, maybe breaking a few windows. Shadow, you might say, is what is not under our conscious control. When we allow something to have its own life without determining, judging, or defining what that life may be, we are open to the mystery of that life, and of our own.
What’s needed is not as simple as bringing the shadow as subject matter into haiku and writing about sexuality, violence or strong emotions. I think what is important is to ask oneself where one’s orientation lies — is it primarily in the direction of the familiar, (which essentially requires casting the net of the known upon the world and pulling it into your comfort zone) and finding images to support it? Or is it primarily in the direction of experience, which can be said to be allowing what is unknown (or latent in the heart) to reveal itself, and finding images that embody, and juxtaposed, release the energy otherwise withheld?
I say primarily because few of us are likely to have one orientation exclusively, and nor should we. I believe though that if haiku is to emerge as healthy, vital and challenging, the balance has to fall toward experience. The other is the direction of formula and repetition, which, as I said earlier, is a significant reason so many of us are dissatisfied with what we read, and with what we write.
I would say that the presence of shadow in a haiku makes itself known primarily through the “body” of the poem, through the interplay of sounds, through rhythm and syntax. Earlier I said that most writers probably, in some unconscious way, keep to a certain range of sound. Experimenting with expanding one’s sonic palette can, I believe, bring more life into a poem. Image plays a role, of course, but if it is not sufficiently embodied it will remain in the head and veer toward abstraction. (I am speaking here of tendencies and likelihoods, not fixed principles).
The substance of the world, its thingness, is apprehended through the body. I don’t believe the conscious, reasoning mind can “go to the pine to learn from the pine”, or not alone anyway. The gut is in direct contact and kinship with it, the heart recognises its quality or suchness, and the mind, in contact with both, finds sufficient expression.
Another way to develop the shadow in haiku is to explore underused senses. For most of us, this means touch, taste and smell, senses which require us to get close to something. Rilke wrote about the progression of love through the senses from seeing to hearing to touching to smelling to tasting. The Sufis regard the heart as an organ of taste.
Keats had this advice for Shelley: “Load every rift with ore.” He noticed how often poems had lapses where the author resorted to filler or cliché or simply fell asleep. Keats was speaking about longer poems than haiku, of course, but if one looks at the state of haiku in general, and at the sameness of much of what appears in the journals, the “rifts” of formula and habit are plain to see. They have replaced something precious, something which, before we knew how to write haiku, we sensed, and longed for.
Editor’s note: Peter Yovu is an American writer who lives in Vermont. One of his poems 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. This article, which first appeared in Frogpond XXXI: 1 and, more recently in the Red Moon Anthology 2008, is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.