A Hundred Gourds 4:3 June 2015

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Between Basho and Ban'ya (bypassing Barthes):
A New Brand of Haiku?

by Charles Trumbull

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 |page 4 | page 5 |

In recent years I have noticed a creeping profusion of haiku of a kind that departs rather sharply from an objective, observational approach and abandons, at least in part, the concrete imagery that I had always looked for in the best haiku. These haiku have one solid, concrete image but include one emotion, or thought, or feeling—very nebulous indeed. I have in mind this kind of poem written by Cynthia Cechota,

crayon sunset
I’ll never become
a grandmother
Cynthia Cechota, Modern Haiku 43:2 (summer 2012)

or this one by Jayne Miller:
apple pie
it’s not the big things
I miss
Jayne Miller, Mayfly 51 (summer 2011)

I maintain that these are essentially different from classically-grounded English language haiku, such as Jerome Cushman’s:
cold March moon
appears ... disappears
the long drive home
Jerome Cushman, Michael Dylan Welch
and Grant Savage, eds., Into Our Words
(Haiku North America Anthology 2009)

with its two clear subject-images: “March moon” and “the long drive.” Or Charlotte Digregorio’s plain and effective juxtaposition of two strong natural subjects (from her new book Haiku and Senryu: A Simple Guide for All):
old growth …
Charlotte Digregorio, Modern Haiku 39:2 (summer 2008)

or Lidia Rozmus’s beautiful:
from breath to breath
autumn wind
Wnosząc światło księzyca / Carrying Moonlight (International Haiku Conference, Kraków,
Poland, 2003)

The new kind of haiku I’m talking about are not senryu, which I take to be haiku-like verses that focus on human behavior and so need not be especially concrete or objective. For comparison, here are two poems I’d call senryu by Cynthia and Jayne and two more by others:

prickly pear in moonlight —
liking him better
Cynthia Cechota, Modern Haiku 41:1 (winter–spring 2010)

aging parents
tapioca pearls
turn translucent
Jayne Miller, Modern Haiku 42:3 (autumn 2011)

NRA rally — shooting my mouth off
Bill Pauly, Modern Haiku 44:2 (summer 2013)

train whistle
the retired conductor
checks his watch
Gayle Bull, Modern Haiku 44:2 (summer 2013)

Such haiku as the first set by Cynthia and Jayne began to gnaw at me, as they did not square with my idea of a haiku presenting two seemingly unrelated concrete images for comparison. Marsh Muirhead’s senryu-like verse has a third line with an adverb and a negative, both keys to the kind of abstraction I’m talking about:

black dirt
under my fingernails
still no wife
Marsh Muirhead, Modern Haiku 38:3 (autumn 2007)

Lidia Rozmus takes us into dreamland or even a surreal landscape with her haiku:
in a dream
I’m sewing on a button
with one hole
Lidia Rozmus, Modern Haiku 44:2 (summer 2013)

Now, I’m a great devotee of definitions. This quirk dates back decades, when my fellow graduate students and I so earnestly sought relief for the world’s woes in all-night bull sessions. These rough-and-tumble matches always seemed to devolve, sooner or later, into definitions: “Yeah, but how do you define ‘justice’?” “So what exactly do you mean by ‘nature’? Does that include ‘human nature’?”

I drag these mental shackles to my work in haiku. Probably more than most aficionados, I obsess over a definition of haiku. If I am aiming to write something called “haiku” I need to know exactly what it is that I am targeting.

The definition that I arrived at after many years of wandering in the wilderness begins like this, which you may recognize from the Modern Haiku Submission Guidelines:

Haiku is a brief verse that epitomizes a single moment. It uses the juxtaposition of two concrete images, often a universal condition of nature and a particular aspect of human experience, in a way that prompts the reader to make an insightful connection between the two.

The key for my presentation today is the phrase: “the juxtaposition of two concrete images.” I’m not sure, but I may have arrived at the notion of “two concrete images” on my own, and, looking back, it was my own extension of the more canonical definitions of haiku. I always considered the definition by Japanese scholar Shigehisa Kuriyama in the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan as the bellwether for English-language haiku. But on this point he only talks about the technique of “cutting” and doesn’t go into detail about what is being cut. I assumed he meant two images that after cutting were to be juxtaposed and subjected to “internal comparison,” to use Bob Spiess’s term.

My notion that a haiku must be concrete and objective seems to have derived from Harold Henderson and the Haiku Society of America. The first HSA definition said that haiku record “the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature.”

In 2000, Robert Spiess challenged 11 leading haiku thinkers from four countries [Bruce Ross, George Swede, Dhugal Lindsay, William J. Higginson, David Cobb, ai li, Cor van den Heuvel, A.C. Missias, Randy M. Brooks, Lee Gurga, and Robert Spiess] to submit definitions of haiku in 25 words or fewer. He published them together in Modern Haiku (31:3 [fall 2000, 74–75]). These definitions were later analyzed in depth by Missias, who had this to say about the concept of the haiku needing a basis in reality, or concrete imagery:

the ideas of “reality”, “sensory description”, or “not from the imagination” were referred to six and a half times, while the notion that “images” or “things” should be included was mentioned six times—together, these ideas of the concrete basis for haiku received some coverage in eight and a half of the definitions.

So about half the experts also felt that concreteness was important.

The revised HSA definition from 2005 introduced the idea of images, but did not mention concreteness or objectivity: “A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”