A Hundred Gourds 2:4 September 2013
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Against Pretty Lies: Veracity in Haiku

by Hamish Ironside

           mi ni shimu ya
           naki tsuma no kushi o
           neya ni fumu
Piercing chill—
stepping on my dead wife’s comb
in the bedroom [1]

This haiku by Buson has been widely reprinted and celebrated, in its English form. Taken at face value, it is a very good haiku; and there is a case to be made for only taking it at face value. However, one rarely finds it reprinted without a note attesting to the fact that Buson’s wife was alive and well when he wrote the haiku in 1777 (and went on to outlive him by 31 years). Knowing that, it’s difficult to regard the haiku in the same way. Why is this? And does knowing this make it seem more or less great?

I associate the ‘face value’ approach to a text with Roland Barthes’s ‘death of the author’ conceit: this is to say that one is to entirely disregard the provenance of a text and simply assess the text qua text. [2]

This contrasts with the ‘metatextual’ approach to a text. It is important to note that it is not necessary to commit to either the Barthesian face value reading or the metatextual reading. There is a purity to the Barthesian position that I like very much. However, it would be extremely difficult to put the principle into practice, other than as an academic exercise. What it asks of us is that we read ‘without prejudice’; but the very act of choosing a text is an act of prejudice. Bookshops are arranged by genre, and genre preferences are only the most obvious of the many kinds of prejudice involved in choosing a book. Book reviews, customer reviews, familiarity with favourite authors, publisher blurbs, jacket design and countless other factors can all come into play. The act of choosing a text can be regarded as a kind of contract, with the text bound to fulfil certain expectations of the reader, based on the reader’s prejudices.

In the case of Buson’s haiku, the fact that metatextual factors are important or relevant seems to be implicit in the very fact that discussions of the poem do so often note that his wife was alive when he wrote it. Haruo Shirane is one of those who makes note of this, before asking:

Why then the constant emphasis by North American haiku poets on direct personal experience? The answer to this is historically complex, but it should be noted that the haikai that preceded Basho was almost entirely imaginary or fictional haikai. Much of it was so imaginary that it was absurd, and as a result it was criticized by some as ‘nonsense’ haikai. [3]

Personally, I find it difficult to see much value in haiku that are nonsensical or absurd. I have more interest in imaginary or fictional haiku with some sort of narrative thread or purpose, although my interest there is still rather limited. More to the point, though, what Buson is doing in his ‘dead wife’s comb’ haiku seems to me something quite distinct from the purely imaginary or fictional.

What Buson is up to here is essentially gilding the lily. I would guess that the haiku came about through actually treading on his wife’s comb; it would seem odd for it to have occurred to him any other way. He would then have begun formulating the haiku, considering it from a first-person perspective; at some point in this process, though, he must have recognized that there would be more pathos to be wrung from the scenario if the wife were dead! He is therefore offering up a gaudier, more emotive version of the true experience – almost a Disnification of it. I refer to this kind of haiku as genetically modified (GM) haiku.

In a GM haiku there is a simple trade-off between veracity and literary merit, forfeiting a little of the former for a gain in the latter. Why do I feel uncomfortable about this trade-off? Certainly, it seems to violate my understanding of what a haiku is; for me a haiku is most comparable with a diary entry or a photograph. The comparison with a diary seems a fairly obvious one. In a diary, unless it is deliberately fictional, it would be utterly banal to distort an account of one’s experience to make it more interesting. Diaries may include inaccuracies, errors and even delusions, but none of these are distortions, as long as they are written by the diarist in good faith, according to his or her conscience.

The comparison with photographs is perhaps more interesting. It yields the analogy that GM haiku are the equivalent of retouching or Photoshopping an image. People will differ in the degree to which they object to manipulation of images, and the context has some bearing on this – manipulating news photographs is generally considered a more dubious practice than retouching fashion images (although even for the latter it is not uncommon to read media coverage affecting outrage at too crass an instance of Photoshopping).

Nature photography probably comes closer in spirit and subject matter to haiku than any other kind of photography. Imagine a photograph of a landscape featuring an owl gliding above a meadow. Now suppose the photographer decides the sky in the background is too plain, and it will look a lot better as a sunset. Depending on how skilled he is, this manipulation may or may not be discernible to the viewer. Supposing it is discernible, would that be sufficient to mar the image for you? If so, to what degree? And if it is not discernible, does this make the image as valuable as an identical image taken with no manipulation? My contention is that the manipulation matters regardless of whether it is discernible – although it is undoubtedly worse if it is. But the act of manipulation itself seems vulgar to me. It is a form of corruption, by deliberately making the natural unnatural. The photographer may object that he saw just such a sunset in the same place the previous day. Therefore the image is a ‘natural’ one in that it is plausible: the sunset on his photograph is a hypothetical one. Yet as each moment is unique in time and space, conflating two separate moments is never natural, no matter how plausible or undetectable it may seem. The very act of making a value judgement as to whether a distortion is plausible must entail an understanding that there are degrees of plausibility, but even the highest degree of plausibility falls short of fidelity to the experience itself.

In applying these principles to haiku, my contention is not that GM haiku run the risk of being absolutely vulgar or banal, as I recognize that haiku do not bear a burden of veracity in quite the same way as a diary does, or even a photograph. I still admire Buson’s haiku about his dead wife’s comb, for example; its lack of veracity mars it slightly, rather than ruining it entirely. The degree to which a GM haiku seems flawed by vulgarity of banality is also perhaps proportional to its plausibility. Furthermore, I don’t mean to castigate those writers who do unashamedly write GM haiku, as their ranks include at least one writer I admire very highly in Michael Dylan Welch. In his stimulating essay ‘A Moment in the Sun: When is a Haiku? [4] he notes:

poetic license includes shaping the ‘now’ of the poem to achieve the best literary effect, provided that the poem still remains or feels authentic for the reader. Here’s a poem of mine that many readers have resonated with over the years:

spring breeze—
the pull of her hand
as we near the pet store

I share this poem in my haiku workshops, and nearly everyone responds by saying that they picture a child. No child is mentioned in this poem, yet a child is just what I want readers to imagine. I think that happens because of specific edits to elements of the experience. What ‘really’ happened was that it was my girlfriend, in November, and she was eager to get to a coffee shop (in Palo Alto, California) because it was cold out. And so she pulled a little ahead of me, and it was the pull of her hand that arrested me … In that small motion, I felt her eagerness, her urgency, and I wanted to record that. It felt more right to me to make it spring, which seemed closer to youthful enthusiasm. And to match the exuberance of spring, I made the destination a pet store instead of a coffee shop. These revisions all came quickly and intuitively.

As with Buson’s comb haiku, I begin by admiring the haiku. But compare it with what would be its ‘real-life’ equivalent what I will call the ‘organic’ version:

November breeze—
the pull of her hand
as we near the coffee shop

On a ‘face value’ appraisal, I want to be able to say the organic haiku is as good as the GM haiku. In truth I’m not sure it is; but it seems to me a close thing. Certainly the coffee shop seems to suit November in a way that the pet shop suits spring; each haiku seems right, on its own terms. What is also certain is that almost no one could detect the GM haiku as a GM haiku. It is utterly plausible. As noted above, in a way this makes its lack of veracity less of an issue; and yet for me that somehow seems all the more troubling. It is an expert retouching job.

If the retouching is troubling to me, that is, in a sense, merely my problem. It is obviously not a crime, and I don’t mean to conflate veracity with authorial integrity; the very fact that Michael draws attention to his writing practices and openly declares that he has distorted some of them for literary effect mitigates the troublesomeness. Knowing all this actually modifies my understanding of the frame of reference when reading Michael’s haiku (a concept I shall return to below). Yet it does not altogether negate the troublesomeness; I still want to know, with each haiku, whether it is a GM haiku (what Michael calls a ‘pastiche’ [5]) or direct experience. Michael himself seems to acknowledge that this is an issue of some relevance, as he entertains the question of whether the pet shop haiku would have been a better haiku if it had actually happened. [6]

This is a question each reader will need to decide for him/herself. Of course, no one else need share my view of haiku as being like diaries or photographs. You may regard haiku as poems like any other kind of poem. And poetry in general is, in fact, something of a special case in terms of its burden of veracity: the poet is free to write pure fiction, pure autobiography (or biography, journalism, polemic, etc.), or even a mixture of the two, and need not advertise what he or she is doing from one poem to the next. Some of the best individual volumes of poetry, for me, are those that combine as great a variety as possible in terms of subject matter, register, language and rhythm, as well as exactly how they correspond to the world. Why should this not apply equally to haiku? Unlike some, I do regard haiku as a kind of poetry, rather than something separate from either poetry or prose. But if there is any single thing that distinguishes haiku from other forms of poetry it is the length, or rather the lack of it. Haiku must be very short. Beyond a certain length, even if they fulfil every other criterion that you associate with haiku, they are no longer haiku; they may be tanka, or something else entirely.

The relevance of this is that haiku do not have sufficient length to establish a frame of reference within a single poem. So-called ‘mainstream’ poetry is able to establish its own frame of reference in every poem indeed, it has to. It may go a long way towards doing so even with the title alone (while haiku lack even a title). But a poem need not establish its frame of reference with the title, nor in the opening of the poem; it may be only at the close of the poem that you understand it. However, if it fails to establish its frame of reference at any point, I would contend that it is likely to be flawed in the same way as a GM haiku is flawed.

To say it is flawed is not to say that it is failed; it may even be a very good poem, one that you like very much without understanding what it is about. A further caveat is that there is perhaps no poem of any kind that is not flawed in some way. However, failing to establish a frame of reference seems to me such a major limitation that one could only get away with it in a very few poems; to try to make a practice of it would make for dull reading.

With haiku, then, my contention is that there has to be an assumed frame of reference that will be understood by both the author and the reader, and which can be applied to any haiku. This frame of reference is simply that the text should portray as clearly as possible a picture of reality – an unPhotoshopped, honest picture. In saying this I don’t want to seem to be greatly limiting what can be done with haiku; in fact nothing bores me more than the kind of paradigmatic haiku that one sometimes feels shoehorned into writing in order to meet the criteria of the editors of haiku journals in order to be published. Hence, the use of metaphor and simile are unobjectionable to me, as are deliberate vagueness or ambiguity, linguistic creativity, observations based on mental states rather than external phenomena, or haiku based on memories of events longer ago than the immediate past; all these things are to be encouraged. What I find troublesome is specifically any kind of deliberate distortion of the reality as it was perceived. Some may find the distinction between metaphor and distortion too subtle, but for me it is a real and important distinction. An honest metaphor has veracity in a way that a distortion does not. Veracity is indeed a fine-toothed comb – and one not easily repaired, if broken underfoot.

[1]   Translated by Haruo Shirane, from Haruo Shirane (ed.), Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600–1900, Columbia University Press, 2002.

[2]  In fact I realise that Barthes’s approach has more to it than this, and is best regarded as a departure point that leads to more fertile ideas, such as the suggestion that an author has no authority in determining the meaning of a text, which I would not dispute.

[3]   Haruo Shirane, ‘Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths’, Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000),

[4]  Michael Dylan Welch, ‘A Moment in the Sun: When is a Haiku?’, Graceguts, last revised 2011,

[5]  Michael Dylan Welch, ‘How Do You Write Haiku?’, Graceguts, last revised 2008,

[6]  Personal correspondence, 2013.

bio photo Hamish Ironside lives and works in Teddington (southwest London). His poems have appeared in publications including Poetry Review, The Guardian and Curiosa Rubberlineana . In 2009 a book of his haiku, Our Sweet Little Time, was published by Iron Press. His interests include frisbees, wind turbines and Liverpool Football Club.

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