Humour in Haiku

by David Cobb

I found it easy to accept Blyth’s definition of humour as one of the 13 chief characteristics of haiku, and a property of its spirit, not of its form (Haiku, Vol 1, p.312). This piece of education fitted in with a view of life which my mother had nurtured in me. Her philosophy was contained in the simple, often repeated statements, “Life is a proper lark!” and “Look on the bright side!” Her own life had been hard, but she remained positive and acceptant. We all suffer depression at times, but to have admitted to it would probably have seemed to her self-indulgent and a sin. My early attempts to adopt this approach to life earned comments in my school reports about “being capable of good solid work if he will overcome his flippancy and facetiousness”. I am probably still learning to do that.

Blyth’s evidence for humour in haiku is well-known to all who make any sort of study of the genre, but rather less well-known is the fact that he wrote two whole books with a lot to say about humour in senryu (Senryu — Japanese Satyrical Verses, in 1949, and Japanese Life and Character in Senryu, 1961).

We don’t want to get side-tracked here into a discussion of the differences between haiku and senryu, or of what ground they have in common. Suffice to say that Blyth maintained “the secret of life consists in being always and never serious”, and referred to “the Way of Senryu” as “understanding of all things by laughing or smiling at them, and this means forgiving all things, ourselves and God included”. (Preface to Japanese Life and Character in Senryu.)

Beyond that, the discussion is bedevilled, not least by the fact that if a poet generally known for haiku writes a senryu, as Basho and Issa sometimes did, it gets into their haiku collections. You want examples?

An old man
sucking — musing
over a fish bone

Basho (tr. Bill Wyatt)

the turnip puller
points the way to the road
with a turnip

Issa (tr. R H Blyth)

(I accept that Basho’s poem can be read either as a haiku or a senryu, and that the haiku reading has a superior poignancy.)

What is really interesting about Blyth’s approach to senryu, and it is the reason why I risked the diversion, is that in Japanese Life and Character in Senryu he designates 10 different types of humour that he finds in Japanese senryu. They are:

  • Grim humour
  • Tragic humour
  • Irony
  • Linguistic humour
  • Kindly humour
  • Shakespearean humour
  • Humour of exposed pretence
  • Humour of indirectness
  • Humour of stupidity
  • Parody (usually senryu parodies of well-known haiku).

I venture to say there’s a similar array of types of humour to be found in haiku, one or two of them overlapping the list for senryu. These, which I propose for consideration, may not be all there are, but they are unified by ‘uninhibited delight’.

  • Humour of contrast
  • Humour of incongruity
  • Whimsy
  • Humour of naivety
  • Kindly parody
  • Tragi-comic humour
  • Linguistic humour (but I don’t want to open the door wide to wordplay)
  • Humour of allusion
  • Compassionate irony
  • Humour of self-deprecation
  • Humour of the grotesque
  • Humour of the illogical.

I will try to give examples of each of these in a moment, but first I think I need to try to explain what I mean by humour of contrast and humour of incongruity. The dynamic effect of haiku depends very much on pitting opposites against each other:

  • Speed against slowness
  • Darkness and shade against illumination
  • Colour agaist chiaroscuro
  • The large against the small
  • Noise against stillness
  • The easily overlooked and the conspicuous
  • The peculiar reversal of ideas we call ‘paradox’.

The form of haiku itself pits a smaller number of syllables against a larger one, with a hiatus between them, and conjures balance out of asymmetry. Some contrasts are so extreme as to seem incongruous; for example, Issa’s snails — the one that was climbing Mt Fuji, for example, or the one whose face he compared to the face of Buddha.

In the quest to infuse haiku with humour I find it helpful to remember both the words of Christian evensong, familiar to me since childhood, Lighten our darkness, O Lord, and the flash that came to me at an evensong ‘after my rebaptism in haiku’:

during evensong
the inspiration to pray —
Darken our lightness . . .

So, let me now try to find examples of the various kinds of humour in my own haiku. You may not always agree with me — the kinds of humour aren’t in watertight compartments, and we may each react to a particular text differently. In the final analysis it may be enough if we can say, yes, that’s funny, and yes, that’s true to life.

I believe my first example crosses several boundaries:

even here a child
looking for four-leaf clovers —
on Culloden moor

The Mie Times, Japan

(For some of my readers I may need to explain that it was at Culloden Field in Scotland, in 1746, that the last land battle was fought in Britain. British and Hanoverian troops of King George II, employing a new bayonet tactic, brought about the defeat of irregular forces of clansmen loyal to the Stuart Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and with it inflicted irreversible changes to the Highland way of life.)

To my way of reading it, that haiku exemplifies the humour of contrast — the harmless pastime of searching for lucky clovers, against the harms and misfortunes of a battlefield. We might even be sensitive to contrasting colours — the blood-soaked field and the green leaves. Where hope and despair mingle like this, we have tragi-comedy. There is also allusion, which is instrumental to the irony — irony which is compassionate, and embraces both activities, for there is a gamble involved in looking for lucky clovers as there is in war, and some kind of valour is needed to engage in both pursuits.

Now for something completely different. Whimsy is surely the characteristic of:

it’s no use mouthing
O after O at me —
I don’t speak Goldfish!

Mounting Shadows & the BHS Haiku Kit

One can’t deny uninhibited delight, either, and there is also a smidgeon of linguistic humour, with the capital G suggesting there is a recognised language called Goldfish. I fancy many British readers might squirm at this kind of humour, possibly call it ‘silly’, but it is curiously popular abroad, In Ireland and Germany it was picked out for attention, and in Japan Yasuhiko Shigemoto actually wrote about it as one of his ‘favourite haiku’ (Blithe Spirit, Vol 5 No 2).

For kindly parody I will offer you two, the first leaning on Issa’s well-known turnip-puller poem already cited, and the other on the most famous haiku of all, Basho’s ancient pond:

lost in the country —
the roadmender points the way
with his mobile phone

previously unpublished

plastic pond
a frog jumps
past it

previously unpublished

I don’t think these are senryu parody, because I am not taking the mickey out of the original poets or their poems, but in each case out of contemporary civilisation. I am recruiting Issa and Basho as auxiliaries. If these poems have a weakness, it is to engage in social polemics. Others will think haiku in modern times need to engage like this.

A kind of linguistic humour is apparent in:

children’s fete —
the wind freeing
free balloons

New Zealand Poetry Society Anthology 1994

I would argue that the cleverness of this is mitigated by the paradox — the balloons, which are free in the sense of costing nothing, have still to be liberated by the act of eager children taking them away without paying anything.

Puns are hazardous in all kinds of communication, but I think the following is successful:

across the fields of stubble
flame stalks flame

Mounting Shadows

The reason being that the two different meanings supplied by stalks are equally valid, both of interest, and complementary.

(Anyone who has never seen the now illegal practice of stubble-burning after harvest may need the explanation that field workers set a torch to certain rows, leaving rows of stubble in between to be ‘hunted down’ by those already on fire.)

Allusion is apparent in:

‘A Nation’s Grief’ —
leaking through the headlines
fish and chips

Blithe Spirit

(The ‘grief’ on this occasion being for Princess Diana. However, this is obviously a senryu.)

The following two seem to me to have compassionate irony:

nativity play —
red face of the angel
coming on too soon

Blithe Spirit

morning of the ‘op’
changing the blade
of my safety razor

The Rialto & Haiku Canada Sheets

I’m not sure what ‘political correctness’ has to say about angels, but one might think a red-faced one would always be ‘too soon’ or out-of-place, and so there may be an interesting undercurrent of humour of contrast here, between the immediate and the eternal, and between the celestial world and the world of the 5-year-old child. In the second example, there is an obvious contrast between the safety razor used by the patient and the less predictable blade the surgeon is going to wield later on. One might call this self-compassionate irony.

Examples of humour of self-deprecation are:

mid-life crisis —
purchasing Valentines
three at a time

Spin & Jumping from Kiyomizu

as she lies dying
I tell her the crocuses
are early this year

Bare BonesJumping from Kiyomizu

The first of these is senryu, the second haiku.

As an example of humour of the grotesque I suggest:

barbecue —
hairs on the cook’s belly
sprinkled with salt

Jumping from Kiyomizu

For humour of the illogical I offer:

the misshapen apple —
ending up cutting it
into five quarters

previously unpublished

which also involves linguistic humour, as there is ambiguity about quarters. We have paroadox, and contrast between precision and rough calculation. Of this haiku Kaj Falkman has this to say: “Very intriguing — from no form to cutting the form, thereby transforming it into five forms. Excellent. Very philosophical.”

To sum up so far, I would like to quote some words from Martin Lucas (Blithe Spirit) which just about hit my nail on the head for me. He says:

“There is no substitute for uninhibited delight, and I would like to be able to read and write haiku that reflect it. Our love of nature should be as passionate as Li Po’s and only a little more careful. Our approach to our subject matter should be bold, dealing with the agonies of birth and death as well as moments of serenity and contemplative bliss in-between.”

In conclusion, I would like to add that all I have said about humour in haiku applies to haibun. In fact, it applies in spades, for the common purpose of haibun is to be readable and to entertain. But Ken Jones has drawn our attention (Blithe Spirit, Vol 10, No 3) to the humourlessness of so many currently published haiku, in which, with the minute attention writers give to recording their own mundane activities, they run the risk of sounding self-important.

Because of the linking potential of haiku in haibun, to as it were simultaneously stabilise and shift, the scope for humour of contrast can be great. I would like to use an excerpt from a short unpublished haibun of mine to illustrate this. The story so far: I have been asked by her German mother and (wicked?) step-father to help return a beautiful Eurasian teenager to her native land, Siam (yes, such things really happen in the life of a haijin!) She had left with her mother when her father, an eminent doctor, died of lung cancer. We are on board ship, which has broken down in mid-North Sea. It is our first dinner at the captain’s table, and ears at nearby tables are craning in our direction. Let the haibun take over:

**

As we wait after the waiter has removed the soup bowls, my ward smiles, opens her pretty handbag and takes out a small silver box, beautifully chased. Suitable for snuff or spice. She smiles a second time, ineffably, and opening the box over the empty space between my knife, fork and spoon, takes out a folded piece of paper. “These are my father’s,” she explains, opening the paper and spreading it before me, where the waiter is ready to place a warmed dinner plate, some fragment of charred bone.

next table silent —
a jade cigarette holder
drops a plume of ash.

**

I would like to suggest that several kinds of humour are at play here. Grotesque humour, obviously. Linguistic humour, perhaps, because beyond jade a subtle mind might detect a hint of jaded. But a strong degree of contrast, a contrast that connects, for the ‘cigarette holder’ reminds us that the doctor died of cancer, and the ‘plume of ash’ reminds us of his funeral pyre. There is tension between ‘holding’ and ‘dropping’, the one implying stability, the other instability. The haiku is dramatic and plays its part in a small act of tragi-comedy which is typical of life.

**

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Haijinx and was published in 2001. It appears here with the author’s permission.

David Cobb made a teaching research trip to Japan in 1977 and, with the encouragement of a local high school teacher, began to learn how to write haiku. In 1989 he helped establish the British Haiku Society, serving as secretary (1990-97) and president (1997-2002). He started the BHS newsletter and its magazine, Blithe Spirit. His work has received numerous international awards, the most recent being the Oi-Ocha Prize (for a single haiku) in 2010. For more information see his website.

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