Let the Poetry Rule, not the Rules

by Bernard Gadd

What would we make of someone who told us that sonnets must always keep to the original Italian format? That each line of English poetry should employ alliteration since that was the norm in Old English poetry? Or that the syllables in every line and the lines in every stanza must be strictly counted? Or those caesuras were a major poetic issue? We’d take no notice. Yet when it comes to Japanese-derived genre like tanka and haiku, voices are constantly raised to lay down rules, to closely define forms, and to admonish dissidents. Indeed on-line sometimes you wonder if there’s anything else.

The eager definers and rule makers forget that haiku, tanka, and the rest are poetry and therefore cannot be confined precisely within this or that number of syllables or lines or to this or that way of placing pauses or managing line breaks. Haiku and tanka define themselves by the purposes they have. A haiku deals vividly and succinctly with memories of impressions of a very brief span of time and extent of place. If it gives a sense of using words beyond those necessary, let alone any hint of garrulousness, then it’s simply not haiku/senryu. Tanka are miniature lyrics compressing the sweep, imagery, emotion of such poems into a few lines so that there is a close focus on the situation, people and the feelings. Verbosity, mere verbal dexterity or self-important wit are avoided. Anything in which the lines lag, or there is obvious excess of information for the subject matter and intention is not a tanka.

As poetry changes and develops internationally, so do haiku, tanka and the rest. And as poetry within languages and within national or cultural boundaries moves with the shifts in language and how the spoken language sounds and its growing word stock absorbs or transmutes cultural allusion and reference, so do the once-Japanese genre.

Modern English-language haiku, tanka and other forms at their best sparkle or amuse or move, hinting at depths beyond the immediate poem. Of course. That’s what good poetry of any sort does. Wherever rule layers-down reign, the little poems can tend to be drab, conventional, word games, or even to evoke hackneyed even schmaltzy feelings, cutting off imagination rather than provoking it, and certainly seldom innovative or adventurous. And sometimes they show faltering cadence or oddities of apparent meaning because of word choice or grammatical distortions to keep within a set ration of syllables.

I suspect also that voices interested in putting Japanese and other Asian genre in cages forget how many poetic forms have come to us from other languages and cultures, sometimes so long ago or so indirectly that we might not be aware of it. The sources of sonnets, odes, pastorals, epics we may be aware of. Yet what, for example, of the Arab and Moslem influences long predating the more famous recent (and sometimes Persian) poetic influences? And the traces of ancient Mesopotamian poetry mediated through, for instance, psalms? Or Celtic songs prior to the Anglo-Saxon cultural make-over? All of these influences and sources have long been integrated to enrich English poetry.

And that’s what is happening with senryu and related forms in the contemporary poetic world. There is no need whatever to keep on reminding ourselves that once they were Japanese (just as once many of the Japanese genre were Chinese and perhaps before that part of the literatures of the little known civilizations which flowed into or were supplanted by the spread of northern Chinese culture and language).

Let’s focus on the poetry we write using these wonderfully brief yet expressive forms. Let’s keep the “rules” for what they really are: guides to and reminders of the need for succinctness, clarity, liveliness. I wonder whether the current global upwelling of tanka writing is a response to the greater freedom of that form as opposed to the rigidities demanded of haiku/senryu writers in so many contests and by so many editors of on-line sites.


Editor’s Note: This article was written especially for Haiku NewZ.

Bernard Gadd (1935-2007) was a well-known poet, short story writer and a former editor of Kokako, New Zealand’s only dedicated haiku journal. His haiku, tanka and poetry  appeared internationally. See his Showcase page, including poems.