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Standing Together – Haiku in Association

John Carley

Go on, admit it: sometimes, just sometimes, don't you find that the poor haiku gets to look a bit lonely sitting there all on its own in the middle of the page. We can dress it up as much as we like with theories about essential insufficiency and suchlike; we can speculate 'til the cows come home about the precise nature of that openness to which the reader must provide closure, even throw in a vertical axis or two. But sometimes, just sometimes, doesn't it feel as though that tiny little poem is in some way (whisper it) rather forlorn?

No? No you don't. That's fine. And yes, I am notoriously fond of renku and doubtless have an oddly shaped axe to grind. Haiku, you say, is by definition a stand-alone poem, so stand-alone it must. But is that a must? Or is it a shall, or a will? Is it a can? After all, what exactly happens to haiku when we ask them to stand together?

Well, that begs the question: stand together with what? The idea of haiku paired with music seems to be on the up at the moment; as an erstwhile musician it's easy to see why. And just recently I came across a mention of haiku plus dance – a concept Shokan Tadashi Kondo explored more than a decade ago. Haiku and architectonics seems to be of growing interest too, the text being incorporated into the built environment. For all that this seems to smack of high-brow landscaping the British poet Paul Conneally can demonstrate otherwise.

Cynicism aside, in the case of music, dance or physical installation the independence of the poem isn't really under any threat. The expressive nature of the companion art is so different that such interplay as there may be is strictly deep level. The poem can lay claim to being the sole overt signifier. To all intents and purposes our haiku stands alone.

Visual art is a different story. At least it is when it is representational. The representational image speaks in a vocabulary we process almost as directly as text. The image and the poem are readily assimilated, almost simultaneously in fact. When the potential of this co-processing is happily realised the moment of both image and haiku can fuse. By contrast, if the meshing fails the integrity of both is lost.

Of course we've all groaned at the prospect of yet another awed-at-nature verse photo-shopped onto a digital snap of the allegedly relevant landscape, the whole sorry assemblage trying to dignify itself as haiga. Worse still is the gouache daub of a sacred pet complete with tender paean (in my opinion cats are for eating). But even a really good haiku falls down when paired with the wrong image. The haiku is not amplified, it is diminished. Even if the accompanying image is a pen and ink sketch of the highest quality the whole may be less than the sum of its parts. Why?

In searching for an explanation we could do worse than look to another combination of art forms which appeared around the same time, always remembering that there is no such thing as a coincidence. We are talking of course about early modern Japan and the emergence of haibun – the combination of poetry and prose.

Surely now we are into dangerous territory for the autonomy of our haiku. There's little doubt that prose is processed faster than poetry, so the resonant space of the poem risks being overwhelmed by a torrent of noise due to the sheer weight of the accompanying text, a classic case of too much information. And as for the nature of that information: the obvious risk is that so much background emerges that there is nothing further to discover in the poem itself. If a haiku can't really cope with a title, which inevitably reads as an extra line, how on earth can it survive when preceded by a paragraph or two? The answer is that in successful haibun, as with a successful haiga, the poem and the prose, or the poem and the image, are not actually about the same thing. Or better: they do not seek to communicate the same thing. They complement each other. One does not simply illustrate the other. Or explain the other. Or function purely as a set-up for the other. Still less does one seek to compensate for the inadequacies of the other. Both are works of art in their own right which bear scrutiny in the absence of the other.

The experienced haijin who wishes to write haibun must first learn how to write prose to the highest standard. The gifted photographer who wishes to combine images with haiku must first learn how to write haiku. Really good ones. No patchouli scented Buddhism, or cats. Scented or otherwise.

That being said, if done well enough it seems our haiku may readily tolerate the presence of an art work from another genre, even be enhanced by it. But what happens when we ask our little poem to stand together with another such – one it hasn't even met before? Let's try a thought experiment. You are editor of the internationally renowned magazine Haiku Immanence – what criteria do you use for your page construction? How many haiku to a page; how are they grouped?

Haiku Immanence never ask for themed submissions so in terms of the authors' intention at time of writing these questions should be irrelevant. But the truth is that as soon as the human mind sees two things placed together it starts to look for patterns and build associations. It is no accident that Japanese aesthetics has a word for this phenomenon: awase. You will probably have encountered this in haiku theory as toriawase – the term that most translators give as 'juxtaposition', some as 'combination', and which might more literally be given as 'to effect a match'. Now according to phrase and fragment theory this toriawase should be happening inside the poem, not between different poems on a page. So it would seem that just about the only guaranteed work-around is to put only one poem to a page. With the consequent quadrupling of the subscription price.

The fact that you have just been sacked aside, what we are dealing with here is a collection of poems. Be they by the same author – as in A Slim Volume – or by various poets – as in Haiku Immanence #37, be they effectively random – as in The Indispensable Carley 1982-83 – or themed – as in On the Eating of Cats – the essential characteristic of a collection of haiku is that the order in which the poems appear may be altered without a defining quality of the whole being lost. For all that they appear between the same covers, and may deal with different aspects of the same topic, there can be little serious doubt that these are still stand-alone poems.

Particularly where they are by a single author there is a tendency to call a themed collection of haiku a series, as in: Latverian haijin Aurora Borealis presents a scintillating series of cat haiku. For reasons that I hope will become clear I would suggest that this word might be better reserved for those cases where there is a tangible progression of some sort.

By this definition a series of verses could not be reordered without, at the least, introducing substantial incongruity. Crucially though, in such a series the source of the progression, the ordering principle, lies outside the compass of the text itself. It might for example treat wine production from the vine to the table; the life cycle of a bird; the four stages of man; the discovery of religious belief.

Even in the case of the latter this is a pretty tight focus. The question is: under such constraints can the constituent poems still have sufficient wriggle room to function as haiku? Do they remain stand-alone?

I think the answer is still yes. There is a theme or topic, and there is an order in which the poems must appear. But the ordering principle is provided by an extant and external process which both author and reader can reference. The text is not required to establish the rationale of the progression. Consequently there is still scope for our poem to find sufficient space in which to operate, in which to generate the requisite uniqueness of moment.

A sequence, by contrast, is a different animal. At least it is if you believe the distinction I'm about to draw.

If a series becomes incongruous when reordered, in a sequence the verses may not be swapped around without the integrity of the work being lost altogether. In a sequence the ordering principle lies purely within the text. There is no external process to be relied upon for reference. It is the movement from verse to verse that is the sole motor of progression and the sole source of cohesion.

So what about now, can our little stanza be at once so tightly constrained by the exigencies of linkage and yet remain stand-alone? Is it still a haiku? According to the Basho school the answer is an unequivocal no.

In Sanzoshi (The Three Booklets) the poet Doho – generally regarded as one of Basho's most faithful disciples – discusses the most effective approach to the 5/7/5 combination poem in some detail. The skill, he observes, is to bring together two elements which are neither random nor disparate but between which the reader simultaneously perceives contradictory vectors: the centrifugal and the centripetal. These he calls 'the going' and 'the returning'. This creative tension arising from this paradox, he continues, is analogous to the relationship which exists between a pair of verses elsewhere in a Shomon haikai renga sequence (renku).

Doho is discussing the ideal properties of the hokku here, a hokku being the first verse of a renga sequence, but also, in the guise of the ji-hokku (sometimes jibokku), a poem widely critiqued and collected as a work in its own right. In fact the hokku, the direct precursor of the haiku, was, and is, widely described in Japanese poetics as tateku [立句 – たてく] which in addition to 'head verse' or 'main verse' means 'vertical verse' or 'free standing verse'.

By contrast the word hiraku [平句 – ひらく] meaning 'flat verse', 'plain verse', or 'common verse' applies to all the verses following the hokku (apart from the last verse: ageku). The crucial distinction is that these 'plain verses' find their principle resonance from their position in sequence, from their relationship one to another. This is the antithesis of being 'stand-alone'. They are in fact 'can-only-stand-together' verses. Doho's 'going and returning' – Basho's transcendent nioizuke – is the force that links them, not that exists within them.

Several things flow from all this. One is that the term 'haiku sequence' may be an oxymoron. Another is that any notion of thematic renku, in so far as this latter word means 'Basho school haikai renga', is utter nonsense.

But these are arguments for another day. What we do know is that if you have any publication which describes the verses of a renku sequence as being 'like haiku' it is best to burn it. If you have anything similar on file: smash your hard drive with a hammer. Also, if you find yourself in possession of anything resembling a cat, and find yourself drawn to the idea of writing about it, remember: there are other cat related activities which are equally rewarding. And I recommend lots of pepper.

But seriously? Seriously: haiku is poetry. And in our case it is poetry in English. But it didn't arrive fully formed in the mind of R. H. Blyth sixty years ago. Nor did Masaoka Shiki invent it in Japanese sixty years before that. The early modern period of Japanese haikai is a treasure trove of discoveries, of aesthetic theories, and artistic techniques. With them we can surely improve our practice, a part of which is to know the boundaries between standing together and standing alone.


carleyJohn Carley is a mostly decrepit Englishman from the Pennine hill country of Lancashire. Fluent in a number of European languages he has also published literary translations from Urdu, Bangla, Sylhetti and, more recently, Japanese. His essays on linked verse technique have been published variously in French, German, Spanish, Bulgarian, Russian and Japanese. He is the author of the Renku Reckoner website www.renkureckoner.co.uk.


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