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Is, Is not, Is, Is not, a Haiku. Is, Is not. Is.

The haiku was virtually unknown to English writing before the twentieth century. Some readers see haiku in William Blake, William Wordsworth and many others, but if they are haiku they are there by accident rather than design. It is today the most common form of English poem, unless you define free verse as anything without end rhymes.

Peter Porter was the first person I know to raise complaint about there being too many haiku, his words turning into the usual ker-plop of the frog into the pond of despond. Porter’s complaint was probably based on the judgement that there is too much bad haiku circulating about, and possibly that it is too easy to produce such stuff. Porter was anything but a curmudgeon, no scrooge muttering bah humbug at haiku. His expectations for poetry were always high, even with the lowliest of forms. His own poetry, for example, is a result of the Audenish belief that the forms exist to make something new, surprising, and different. Auden himself went haywire on haiku, for a time.

Like everything, to know what’s going on requires an understanding of history. Two names are crucial: the publishing house Tuttle & Co. and the self-styled beat Jack Kerouac. After the Second World War, Tuttle published translations of haiku into English that reached an American readership, in particular Americans, which proved to be momentous. One of the readers of these books was Kerouac, who took the basic idea of haiku but messed around with the structural components. As he writes in ‘Blues and Haikus’ (1959):

The American haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again . . . bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.

Thus the scene was set, the attitude adopted, the sensibility transgressed, that led to our current tsunami of little poems. How many of these poems are genuine haiku seems to depend on how closely we believe in the pure rules of the Japanese masters or, alternatively, on the freed-up form positions of crazy-as-a-daisy Kerouac. At least two rules of ancient Japan have been lost along the way in English haiku. The first is that the poem must have at least one word that connotes one of the seasons. This may even be a sound, as we hear in the effects of Basho, Issa, and others. The second is that the words describe, or are connected to, the “Void of Whole”, i.e. the Zen awareness of existence within nothingness, which has its roots in the koan. They exist and express the present continuous. Haiku in fact stem historically in time from the practice of koan, which is probably why the quintessential English translator of Asian literature Arthur Waley regarded haiku as an inferior form, a cheap trick almost, when stood beside other sacred Japanese poetry of olden times. Waley was not exactly a snob on this matter, he was simply fortunate enough to have read across the literature and craved works of greater depth. He seems to have avoided doing much translation of haiku himself, but would not have denied that haiku are part of classical Japanese literature. 

The rest is literature. We recognise haiku instantly and join in the game. Whether it is a poet of rare East-West awareness like Gary Snyder or W.S. Merwin, comic lunatics like Paul Muldoon, or anyone in between or beyond, the haiku’s apotheosis in the early twenty-first century is manifest.

Even down to this recent excuse for an excursion. My review of the recent love poems collection edited by Mark Tredinnick includes mention of singer Paul Kelly’s short poem:

Time is elastic
Together, days disappear
Apart, seconds crawl

Apparently dispute has erupted on Facebook claiming that this simple enough (some would even say, romantic) statement is not a haiku. I don’t do Facebook, so the only way I can join the conversation is if someone creates a link to this page. Evidentially, Kelly’s poem has seventeen English syllables, so it passes the Syllable test. The poem creates a sense of the present moment, thus getting at least an A for the Present Tense test. The poem does not contain a word that quickly reminds us of a particular season of the year, so on this count flunks the Season test. It does, in my judgement, pass the Kerouac test, for the same reason, or even reasons. It will never pass the Waley test. I have no firm word that Kelly practises Zen, but other information in newspapers suggests he does not live in a monastery. Who knows if these comments will cure the blemishes reported on Facebook, or only cause further viral outbursts.


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