How Close is too Close?

By Sandra Simpson

This to and fro, originally published under Haiku Happenings has been archived here because it may be of some use to those falling into traps with their haiku and related forms, including poor record-keeping.

It has recently been drawn to my attention that the Third prize won by Ernest J Berry in the 2014 Griffin Farlow Haiku Contest, run by the North Carolina Poetry Society and mentioned in the Congratulations section, had been withdrawn and Ernie’s entry disqualified. I approached Ernie to see if he would like to share what had gone wrong. The following is from him, albeit with minor modifications to change his distinctive email style into more readable English. The haiku in question are:

extended rain
the heron’s legs
get shorter

– Ernest J Berry

The crane’s legs
have gotten shorter
      in the spring rain

– Matsuo Basho, translated by Robert Hass in his book The Essential Haiku (HarperCollins, 1994)

These are Ernie’s words, including the contents of the square parentheses (so just to be clear, none of the following is mine, all Ernie’s):

A shocking, painful but not totally surprising experience which I can only explain as follows:

After 2 decades of total immersion in haiku I tend to fantasise it, dream it, think it, talk it, read and write it to the exclusion of nearly all other creative activity to the point where I frequently confuse what I’ve read or heard with what I originated. This is similar to my [and countless others’] experience with Shakespeare … almost everybody unwittingly uses the bard’s words and phrases (which constitute about 85% of our language) without acknowledgement. Thus I had not the faintest idea that I was quoting anybody – let alone the recognisable Basho when I wrote the verse in question – to do so would have [as it turned out to be] been poetic suicide.

Since you have been to my Picton home, you may recall our ‘resident’ herons – the blue, white-faced and white [kotuku] which it was my privilege to contemplate and haiku-ise in all seasons year after year in the course of which I employed every available phrase to idolise our avian icon.

Even had I been aware of maiku’s lack of originality, there are countless precedents where famous haiku or haiku by the famous are paraphrased/borrowed/pruned/improved/ or otherwise monkeyed with without comment or censure … one of a zillion examples [including some of mine, one of which came to light just today] is Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs – which has versions of Basho’s ‘old pond’ by a hundred luminaries including the likes of Blyth, Henderson, Higginson, Ginsberg, Suzuki, Yasuda, Shiki et al. There are few well-known haiku which have not been thus been treated as public property.

My poem: extended rain/ the heron’s legs/ get shorter … is a haiku! Whereas the Hass translation is but a fully punctuated sentence, ie, The crane’s legs/ have gotten shorter,/ in the spring rain. – the sort of thing a beginner would write before learning any of the basics! Moreover, the line-breaks are meaningless, there’s no rhythm, merit, resonance or aha moment … and as it stands it could never have won a contest or merited publication.

A response from Richard Krawiec

Since Ernest Berry has discussed his experiences with the North Carolina Poetry Society, as a member of that board I should clarify what position we took. I was the one who, on first reading, immediately saw that it bore close resemblance to a poem in the Hass book. After discussing this as a board, and anonymously with multiple haiku writers, and researching Mr Berry’s history, we thought it necessary to withdraw the award, as stated in the proposal below. The reference to ‘web links’ refers to columns written on plagiarism in haiku by Sandra Simpson, and another by Michael Dylan Welch. The board vote was unanimous.

“The majority decision is that most haiku poets would want to be told if they submitted as original work a poem that so closely parallels the published work of another poet. We also agree that such a close resemblance would disqualify the later poem from being published as original work under existing Copyright law. Since (Berry’s) poem so closely parallels the Haas translation of Basho in The Essential Haiku (published by Ecco Press, Penguin Books Canada, and Bloodaxe Books, Ireland) we unfortunately must withdraw the award to minimize any potential conflict with those publishers.

“This shall be the NCPS sole response, i e, no public notice via Emuse or web posting. If people should later remark on the poems’ similarity we simply provide them with this response to Mr Berry and the two web links.”

As a haiku writer and editor, I was surprised, to be honest, that Mr Berry – whose work I actually like a great deal – didn’t simply say, sorry, this was inadvertent, let me withdraw the haiku. Wouldn’t that have been the gracious thing to do? Especially since this is not the first time this problem has come up with one of his poems.

I was further surprised that he felt it necessary to attack the translation by US Poet Laureate Robert Hass. In a review, or column, that may have been a suitable topic for discussion. In this context, it was uncalled for and petty.

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