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 |

Now, in the past decade or so we have become aware of something quite new and different called, at least in Japan, gendai haiku. These verses abandon all expectations derived from classical definitions of haiku, plunge into the surreal, personal, and psychological, and transport us into new dimensions of time and space. On my haiku typological continuum gendai haiku occupy a position diametrically opposite to the classics.

Many of us have taken to calling a certain breed of avant-garde English-language haiku “gendai” too, probably because they are being written in imitation of, or at least heavily influenced by, contemporary avant-garde haiku of prominent Japanese poets such as Kaneko Tōta and Natsuishi Ban’ya and their coteries. Who can forget haiku like these:

The clerks in the bank
fluorescent from the early morning
like so many squid
Kaneko Tōta, trans. David Burleigh,
Modern Haiku 40:2 (summer 2009)

A god of hyperhidrosis
makes a round
of a dinosaur exhibition
Natsuishi Ban’ya, trans. Ban’ya and Jim Kacian,
Ban’ya, Waves of Joy (1992)

Richard Gilbert, one of the first and probably the most enthusiastic American advocate of gendai haiku, has written:
Over the last several years, some haiku critics have begun using “gendai haiku” to refer to “new” or “outré” ELH works, with an implicit (at times explicit) line being drawn in the sand separating these new works, often by rejection or dismissal, from the so-called “traditionalist” haiku.”
He goes on at some length to challenge the application of the term “gendai” to English-language haiku. With reference to the haiku in Lee Gurga and Scott Metz’s groundbreaking anthology Haiku 21, Gilbert proposes:
These are haiku styles and approaches which challenge reader-coherence, and often explore possibilities of genre-capacity and range. With reference to the Haiku 21 anthology, for ease of use I have coined the term “H21 haiku".
Whether we want to call these English-language "gendai haiku" or "H21 haiku" or something else, a number of very prominent haikuists—including some in this very room—have been infected by the exhilarating nature of this style. I would call attention to Lee Gurga’s recent work, such as
new bill o’reillys are formed at angles of 137.5°
Lee Gurga, Modern Haiku 44:1 (winter–spring 2013)

As is often the case with gendai haiku, a great deal is called for from the reader. Here, one must know that Bill O’Reilly is a right-wing, highly opinionated, and maddeningly popular American TV news commentator and that 137.5° is the Golden Angle—corresponding to the Golden Mean—or, as Wikipedia tells us, “the smaller of the two angles created by sectioning the circumference of a circle according to the golden section; that is, into two arcs such that the ratio of the length of the larger arc to the length of the smaller arc is the same as the ratio of the full circumference to the length of the larger arc.” Also, Wikipedia again says, “the golden angle is the angle separating the florets on a sunflower.” Armed with that knowledge, the reader is prepared to crawl into Lee’s mind and political orientation, I suppose!

Melissa Allen’s
autumn sky
only one of us
Melissa Allen, Frogpond 37:1 (winter 2014)

might be considered faux classical or semi-gendai in that it begins with a strong classical season marker, “autumn sky,” then veers sharply into the surreal, leaving the reader to ponder who “us” is and how (presumably) people can be deciduous. Likewise, Brent Goodman’s
koi mouths
breaching the surface
the sky inside us

makes use of the uncanny in the third line. Similarly defying my pigeonholing is Dan Schwerin’s
not as green as the grass has been saying
Dan Schwerin, Frogpond 37:1 (winter 2014)

where he serves us up a nice concrete image, “green grass,” but that gets personified when it says something to the poet and abstracted by the negative “not.” I would classify both these as gendai rather than the hybrid style of haiku I am trying to define.