Templates, Ticking Boxes and Factories Have No Place in Haiku-writing
by Susumu Takiguchi
In my guideline for submitting haiku poems to World Haiku Review magazine, I list up ‘seven sins’ of bad haiku under the heading: “Those likely to be REJECTED”.
For those who may be completely oblivious of such a list, or may have chosen to ignore it, I set it out below to emphasise the importance of it:
1 Hackneyed, clichés, imitative or derivative
2 ‘So what?’ haiku
3 Too short to be good
4 Made artificially vague or unintelligible (false ‘yugen’)
5 Gimmicky as opposed to real skills
6 Bad English
7 Template-like, or ticking-box-kind factory haiku.
It is the seventh sin on the list that I would like to discuss in greater detail, i.e., template-like, or ticking-box-kind factory haiku. Why is it bad? Let me try to explain.
The meaning of ‘factory haiku’ should be obvious. Like manufactured goods, they are mass-produced after repetitive processes, often automated, according to pre-programmed procedures and manuals which are created by someone else. Not only they look identical between themselves, but they look very similar to what are produced at other factories.
I use the word ‘template’ intentionally simply because it is one of those contemporary fads and is therefore more likely to be easily understood by everyone. Ticking boxes is also a practice widely used in many areas of our activity today but has at last begun to be looked at disapprovingly in recent years.
What the above metaphorically means is such things as sameness, similarity, repetition, efficiency, convenience, stereotyping, standardisation, machine, facility, parts, components, rules, regulation, restrictions, blueprint, mould, volume, quantity, predictability, copying and copycat, imitation, being facile, saving time/cost/effort/energy, productivity, replaceability of the operator, etc. The list is long. They are all what capitalist factory owners want but quite the antitheses of what is required of a good poet.
To put it conversely, they imply lack of differences, individuality, originality, inventiveness, creativity, change, newness, innovation, quality, integrity, intuition, insight, instinct, inspiration, spontaneity, sensibility, naturalness, artlessness, emotion, feeling, life, humanity, freedom, etc. Again, the list is long. They are desirable and often essential not only for haiku but also for all forms of poetry. (Of course, manufacturing also needs invention, originality, etc., in order to excel or survive, and that is where the above similarities end).
Nothing is more depressing than having to witness oceans of haiku poems produced in this way. Unlike manufacturing industry where there are excellent products (e.g. Rolls Royce engines or cars) as well as millions of cheap and shoddy stuffs, haiku factories produce nearly always shoddy poems. Templates induce easy and uncritical expediency with which lazy poets fool themselves into believing they have achieved the art of haiku. Ticking boxes gives poets a false sense of security that they have cleared all the rules and conventions which are ‘imposed’ on them, and that therefore they have produced good haiku poems. Normally, they will have produced no such things, which are hardly theirs anyway as they have “ticked all somebody else’s boxes”. This is a very bad habit, indeed.
It would make the matter worse if this kind of bad practice were combined with some other conventions seemingly established firmly in today’s haiku community in the world. Let us look at some cases in point.
CASE ONE: Minimalism
What I call the minimalist haiku is that which is far too short to be good haiku. A significant proportion of the haiku poems produced today are minimalist haiku. This is partly due to the after-effects of overreacting to the initial mistake of slavishly following Japanese 5-7-5, which proved to be too long in English, or in many other non-Japanese languages. Now they are too short. Very occasionally they hit the gold (sometimes purely by chance) and some of them do glitter brilliantly. But they are few and far between and the remainder are worthless. The shorter a haiku poem is, the less capacity it has in terms of choice of words, syntax, rhythm, ‘sound effect’ (e.g., alliteration) etc., the more likely it will become a factory haiku.
CASE TWO: Juxtaposition
Most haiku poets are taught (by whom I know not) that juxtaposition is a good thing. It can be, if it is done well. If not, the opposite may be the case. If this bad case were combined with the template-tick box-factory haiku, the result would be disastrous. The usual kind of juxtaposition teaching means that the pupils are liable to be under the illusion that they are encouraged to think of something which has nothing to do with, or has no relevance to, that which is juxtaposed with, in order to achieve the effect of contrast. As a consequence, the haiku in question would become more unintelligible and unworthy, but the author tends to be oblivious to it, or even to feel proud of having produced something special.
CASE THREE: Ruiku and ruiso (similar haiku and similar idea)
The characteristics and rules of haiku such as nature and man’s relation to her, themes suitable to haiku, brevity, kigo etc., inevitably narrow its capacity in terms of subject matter, originality, newness and especially diversity.
Consequently, there has been seen a huge accumulation of similar haiku poems and similar haiku ideas in the entire world. And this, regrettably, never ceases to be augmented day in and day out. Have you not encountered haiku poems which talk about the sky or clouds reflected on a puddle, something is happening in a parking lot or on sidewalk, something jumps into a pond, the sun or moon light on all dews or icicles, shadow this and shadow that, something found within a seashell, some birds perching on a withered tree branch, the Buddha… the list goes on? Now, if this is combined with the template-tick boxes-haiku, the resulting haiku poems cannot escape becoming imitative, hackneyed, derivative, saying nothing new or original.
CASE FOUR: taigen-dome (abuse of noun ending)
Because of the minimalist fashion (excessively short haiku), people tend to use nouns rather than verbs or predicates in order to gain brevity in each line. This is called taigen-dome in Japanese grammar and can be very useful and effective in prose writing, as it makes the result punchy, to the point and succinct. The same effect can of course be obtained in English haiku as it saves syllable counts and word numbers, engendering a sense of brevity, i.e. the essence of haiku.
However, like many other devices, it can be harmful if it is abused. And the practice can easily fall into the pattern of templates and box-ticking. It can also make haiku flat, static and boring, mainly because of the lack of verbs and predicates which give haiku a sense of movement, body, substance, dynamism and rhythm. It is like looking at a still photo rather than a movie.
CASE FIVE: Artificiality
All poems ought to be the creation of natural human faculties: intelligence, feeling, sensibility, emotion, imagination and inventiveness. In the case of haiku, naturalness is especially important as the art is centred on nature and man’s relationship to her. Artificiality is a deadly enemy of haiku.
There is a subtle and sometimes difficult line to draw between the product of imagination and falsehood, or between genuine invention and unnatural gimmick. However, trained eyes can detect haiku which is not ‘quite right’, as it gives the game away by being ‘fishy’, or by giving the impression that something doesn’t add up, or even by presenting different parts of haiku which are not consistent with each other or with what we know to be true.
The artificiality of haiku has two dimensions. One is to do with falsehood and the other with actual artificial products. Makoto is the essence of haiku, or more precisely haikai. It means sincerity, honesty and truth, as well as genuine words. This is what Basho sought throughout his haikai career. It cannot be unimportant. The second dimension refers to such haiku as are contrived, made up or cooked-up, fictitious or fabricated, verging on telling a lie.
So, it must now be obvious that if this artificiality is combined with template, box-ticking factory haiku, it is like scattering suspicious chemical agent. It is a conduct unbecoming for a genuine haiku poet.
CASE SIX: What is creation after all?
After all is said and done, what we are really talking about is creation with a small c. Then, what is creation? I have found a very handy definition of this heavy word in an English dictionary. It is “…the act or process of making sth that is new, or of causing sth to exist that did not exist before” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English A S Hornby, Oxford University Press, eighth edition). This is precisely the definition of creation which I am using here.
Then, almost all template-tick boxes-factory haiku poems are categorically not the products of creation (I am allowing rare exceptions here which may or may not be created either by a genius or by accident). If what we are doing in haiku-writing is not an act of creation, what on earth is the point of it? What sort of intellectual or cultural pleasure and satisfaction do we expect to get from having our template-tick boxes-factory haiku poems published in haiku magazines and anthology books, or recited publicly? It is not too different from spreading filth. If the haiku poet next to you is doing the same, we are all scattering and disseminating the wrong kind of haiku around the world. Here, I am not exaggerating. Nor am I using foul or strong language for effect. To use euphemistic and euphonious language would be for my sincere and serious warning to be ignored and sneered at. It pains me to say it, but I thought I should, considering how far and wide this bad habit has spread already. I have tried to caution against it at least over the last twenty years. This time I dearly hope that someone would listen.
If you are still not convinced, think about this: such essential things as deep feelings, a flash of insight, powers of observation, heightened sensibility, spontaneous and free rendering, essential polish and elaboration, cultural accumulation, ‘hand tools’ rather than machine of a wordsmith and any other accomplishments such as music or art, all necessary ingredients of a good poet, cannot possibly be manufactured at a factory. If you think this article is not about you, think again.
Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in the 10th anniversary World Haiku Review (March 2018) and appears here with permission.
Susumu Takiguchi is a Japanese poet, artist, and essayist who has lived in England since 1971. He began to write haiku “seriously” while researching Basho as lecturer in Japanese Language and Civilisation at the University of Aston in Birmingham. His haigo (nom-de-plume) is Ryuseki, which means “stream and stone” (or more mysteriously, “floating stone”).
Susumu is a member of the Japan Classical Haiku Association, the Haiku Society of America, and other haiku organisations. He served as vice-president of the British Haiku Society and in 1998 founded the World Haiku Club. He is managing editor of the World Haiku Review.