About Revelations: Unedited
For each issue, we will invite a different poet to reveal trade secrets or pet peeves or whatever else he or she wants to say. By “Unedited,” we mean eactly that—there will be no run-through in the test kitchen. The poet will have total freedom, but, of course, with that will also come total responsibility.
Haiku — Take Five Brilliant Corners
by Richard Gilbert, Japan
Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order . . . I felt I learned from him in every way, though the senses, theoretically, technically (Coltrane). Monk was one of those musicians who added something to the music vocabulary that is so distinctive it defies our tendency to describe what music is in terms of something else (Robbins).
What he’s doing now is he’s literally creating his own vocabulary . . . he’s not imitating what the modern jazz players are doing back east. He is really taking a vocabulary . . . and rewriting it afresh in this modern American idiom (Gioia). [What] Brubeck did was that he brought off what all jazz musicians want to bring off which is that he invented an individual style. That’s the hardest thing to do in any art form (Crouch).1
Music is natively universal in a way that literature is not; the compositions of Monk utterly rewrote the jazz vocabulary, while Brubeck creatively enriched it, and you don’t need to be a native-English speaker to grasp this. As composers, both applied a unique technical vocabulary to an existing genre, both combined multi-cultural influences, and both challenged musical perceptions and prejudices. As Coltrane puts it, the genius of Monk was not only the establishment of a new vocabulary but in how he used this new vocabulary to create an architecture. Brubeck combined genre styles, multi-ethnic rhythms and bop with such palpable verve he landed on the pop charts.
The haiku genre has renewed itself in the last five years, partly as a result of a new vocabulary, and the latest Roadrunner Journal 2 seems part of a nascent renaissance, as indicated by the range of haiku within. An architecture implies a container, a home, and more, a place of dwelling. It’s yet to be seen if these new haiku vocabularies — whether they be disjunctive terminology or new-to-us aesthetic concepts from Japan (e.g., kire, ma, ba, kotodama shinkô, katakoto, etc.) — will find the necessary relevance and gravitas to reinvigorate and inspire our dwelling.
Neither this new inspiration nor style of haiku existed in 2004 publications, nearly without exception. At that time, a draft copy of “The Disjunctive Dragonfly” was in trouble at the Modern Haiku journal offices. Review the last scene of Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor and you’ll get a good sense of what was going on; it’s a cold war flick. Then-editor Lee Gurga and I exchanged emails over two months in passionate debate. Despite the heat, Lee steadfastly championed the article and it’s due to his efforts that it was finally published. It’s my honor these days to call him a friend. I would have gone on writing, it’s true, however this publication was a big boost and marked a beginning.
Gertrude Stein once wrote:
It is very likely that nearly every one has been very nearly certain that something that is interesting is interesting them.3
Over the last several decades critics have expressed haiku certainties and prescriptions according to their sense of tradition, and numbers of such pronouncements now appear misinformed. We have Hasegawa (in translation) and Shirane in particular to thank for improving and enriching our understanding, in this new century. To date, very little haiku scholarship has been performed in English — especially regarding those contemporary jewels existing in publication and person, in Japan. There are an abundance of books worth translating, though many living scholars have reached retirement and won’t be with us for all that long, so whole postwar generations are slipping away. Unfortunately there is virtually no interest in such research on the part of academe, which means no grant funding, thus pragmatically, no research. Haiku translation is terribly difficult and time-consuming. As a result there has been too often sub-standard translation and very little of that. Perhaps the recently founded THF (The Haiku Foundation4), whose primary goal is educational, will seek out more promising avenues allowing for research. It’s a sad and disturbing fact that scholarship in contemporary haiku has fallen through the cracks of Asian Studies, Japanology, and Multicultural Literature, in university.5
In 2004, gendai poet Hoshinaga Fumio made a prediction concerning the future of haiku in this age:
Shinjuku Rollingstone: Haiku will be developing purely as a one-line poem (shi)?
HF: I think so. As a short-form poem or one-line poem. But the question of how you can infuse the very short form with kotodama— is the key to how much and how multi-dimensionally you can express your feeling in haiku, or short-line, or the one-line poem. I have never tried, but for example, in e-mail people might just say “send me money!” And, a short sentence (short e-mail) is sometimes enough to express your feelings in a manner equivalent to a love letter.6
This comment seems double-edged, as it predicts a poetic form of something very nearly like haiku (haiku in Japanese have always appeared in one line), yet also its extinction. Over a century ago Shiki too predicted the end of haiku (feeling the possibilities for permutation would exhaust themselves). In Japan the limits of the form have been tested, with genre distinction being conferred in some cases by the public at large rather than the poet (as with Santôka). Until about five years ago, the mainstream North American view was caught up in a puritan fantasy of haiku as an imagist-oriented poetics of objective realism. The issue of realism remains controversial, and concerns the historical approach and philosophy of haiku in English.
R. Gilbert: If someone wishes to expand their compositional ideas beyond pictorial realism in haiku — could you offer any advice?
HF: This is a very difficult question, so I’m not sure if I can answer properly or not. A short poem is limited as to words. So, you have to use your intelligence to infuse a lot of information, meaning, feeling. Well, adopting realism is okay, but it was a brief, temporary movement. Although not written, if you use the energy of kotodama, as I said before, if you use the “double sides” of words, the surface and deep world, as in kotodama shinkô, you can constellate a deep and multi-dimensional message, in a short form. The short poem will continue to exist in this century, with the power of kotodama (ibid).
The “miraculous power of words,” kotodama shinkô, like so many Japanese haiku-aesthetic terms is a multivalent concept composed of linguistic, spiritual, poetic, and cultural elements. Psychologically deep yet also pragmatic, applied poetic techniques relating to kotodama shinkô can be observed and discussed. This is true as well for additional terms newly introduced into English, originating for the most part in the works of Hasegawa Kai: kire (and its types: zengo no kire, ku chu no kire, kireji types), ma and ba. And there is also katakoto (and his emphasis on restructured and multiple persona), introduced by Tsubouchi Nenten. The introduction of these terms has created new worlds of possibility for both composing and critically describing haiku, representing an enlargement of the genre, if we can grasp the music. As well as terminology, postwar gendai poets offer radical experiments in haiku freedom, as in Mikajo’s unforgettable:
mankai no mori no inbu no era kokyû
in the forest’s genitals
respiration of gills
which reads now as prophetic, radical eco-feminist vision; and her moving,
mata no ma no ubugoe megi no yami e nobi
the birth cry stretches into
budding tree darkness
having all the deeper meaning personally, as this haiku was read to me in appreciation by her son, Kyôtarô, its newborn subject.7 It is difficult to overestimate the power and significance of the great postwar women gendaijin. In her career, Mikajo personified several milestones in the equality of Japanese women: the first female ophthalmologist in Japanese history, who founded a successful eye clinic, she was also the visionary founder of the Yosano Akiko Museum, among other activities.
Haiku poetry can be intuitively sensed through fragments. I first caught on to this at Naropa University in the early 80’s when Patricia Donegan presented our small class with various translations of Bashō and other classical poets. Each interpretation told a story, yet each lacked something of the other. Among translations were fin de siècle Victorian odes, the hip stylism of a Ginsberg “kerplop,” and uber-minimal Stryck translations. What evoked my especial interest was the literal (non-grammatical) translation — how at odds it was with all the interpretive translations. As if more was left unspoken in Japanese than had been spoken in English. Yes, what was going on in the Japanese? I may now use new vocabulary to explain that at that time I had sensed the evocation of
ma, the power of katakoto, the paradoxical disjunctive dualities of kotodama in its (dif)fusion of “the surface and deep world.” On the whole, this nuanced experience can be described as an architecture of “ma” – if by architecture we take as foreground negative capacity.
The enjoyment of ma is a way to talk about the enjoyment of haiku, whether as reader or writer. The aspect of ma in haiku cannot be precisely codified, as ma is neither a thing (object) nor a singular quality, but rather an experience of psychological “betweenness” (interval of psycho-poetic time/betweenness, space/gap, metaxy) arising out of the technique of kire:
The “cut”/”cut” of haiku: haiku is a literary form based on truncation, isn’t it? So, yes, haiku “cuts” explanation: this is haiku. Haiku “cuts”: scenes, actions, everything, and cuts time and language. So, though it is said that “cutting” is really omission, I think that “cutting” is at the same time the essential proposition of haiku. And, if asked about what haiku is, there are a variety of aspects of haiku — that is, as a seasonal verse, or as a form of poetry consisting of “five-seven-five” — but the essence of haiku is “cutting,” in my opinion (Uda Kiyoko, forthcoming).8
The main element evoking ma is the activity of kire, as Uda indicates above. Renewed contemporary interest in the poetics of kire can be dated to a book by Yamamoto Kenkichi, Greetings and Humor [Aisatsu to kokkei], in 1946.9 Hasegawa himself utilizes haiku example, historical documents and his own commentary to explicate ma — that is, he creates a narrative thread of explanation over Chapters or entire books.
“Ma”: The abyss which only instinct can overleap. It is not predictable when or in what shape ma appears. Ma hides outside of human control or operation; a condensed vacuity which cannot be converted into words.10
Following the thread of Hasegawa’s logic, for haiku lacking ma, the result is garakuta haiku, junk haiku. The thread begins:
In a nutshell, modern haiku after Masaoka Shiki has been influenced by Western realism, and as a result haiku has become an art of realism. And the outcome of haiku compositions based only upon those things you have directly seen has been – can I coin the term, “junk haiku” (garakuta haiku). Haiku that contain only objective material have created a nearly stagnant situation. So, the question is, how shall we overcome realism? 11
I feel these new terms and concepts represent a catching up with what is contemporary in haiku, in consciousness, and in approach. Though there is no precise definition for ma, examples can be found in particular poems — and each excellent work has its unique taste. The critical concern here is with a phenomenology of uniqueness, as opposed to a typological approach (typological approaches must yield to or point toward uniqueness). To give an example, faces can be sized, grouped and typed, but it’s the uniqueness of a face that makes it human, artful, poetic, capable of love. A few years ago I visited Kiev, and was interested to see my grandmother’s face many times on the street! But the grief on my grandmother’s face as she discussed her family, village and culture being wiped out in the Holocaust — this is the unforgettable gift of grief to love, within the human condition. In Zen teaching there’s a saying: “person-to-person”: that is the path of spiritual transmission. But it is much more than that.
Depth in haiku may be about war or death, as in this memorable haiku by Dimitar Anakiev, 12
spring evening —
the wheel of a troop carrier
crushes a lizard
Haiku must evoke something intimate in the reader — not just intimate, but phenomenologically unique, embodying ecos (consciousness and world) and oikos (home). For myself, the taste of this haiku is complex, but not abstract —yet the paradox of that mechanized abstraction is a universal call to the pain of those survivors who are also victims, those who must live in memory, harboring the ghosts of the unlived. This too is lineage. Dimitar, I know you doctored at the war front. There’s a monograph on depth psychology that discusses the topic of uniqueness, Egalitarian Typologies Versus the Perception of the Unique.13 It is my hope that in the next five years of haiku, new poems and poets will take up this complex multicultural music.
There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.14
1 Top quotes: John Coltrane in “Coltrane on Coltrane,” Down Beat (29 Sept 1960); Li Robbins (“The Tonic of Monk,” CBC Radio 2 Blog (9 Oct 2008); jazz critic Ted Gioia followed by Stanley Crouch, discussing Dave Brubeck for the 2001 PBS documentary, Discovering Dave Brubeck , available at: <http://snipurl.com/rdt19>.
2 Roadrunner Quarterly Online Journal 9:3, August 2009, edited by Scott Metz and Paul Pfleuger, Jr., available at: <http://www.roadrunnerjournal.net>
3 “Composition as Explanation” (1926) in A Stein Reader (1993), Ulla E. Dyd, ed., Northwestern UP, 495.
4 “The Haiku Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose aim is to preserve and archive the accomplishments of our first century of haiku in English, and to provide resources for its expansion in our next.” Excerpted from the THF Mission Statement and available at: <http://thehaikufoundation.org>.
5 I discuss some reasons for this fact in Part 2 of “A Brilliant Literature,” a recent interview with Robert Wilson, in Simply Haiku 7:1, Spring 2009, available at: <http://snipurl.com/rfdl2>. Robert has done several interviews with me, which has allowed for lengthy personal comments. He also fought for the publication of “The Distinct Brilliance of Zappai,” Simply Haiku 3.1, Spring 2005, and I wish to express my appreciation of his support.
6 Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese and English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective, Richard Gilbert, Red Moon Press (2008), p. 193. To order visit: <http://snipurl.com/rdy2v>.
7 As well as in Poems of Consciousness, Kyôtarô has written a moving tribute to Mikajo, available within: <http://gendaihaiku.com/mikajo/commentaries.html>.
8 Excerpted from “Women & Postwar Gendai Haiku: From Invisibility to Leadership,” Uda Kiyoko, Modern Haiku Association President, talks with Richard Gilbert and Itô Yûki. Transcript forthcoming in Simply Haiku 7:4 (Winter 2009); available as subtitled flash video at <http://gendaihaiku.com/uda>.
9 As discussed by Itô Yûki, New Rising Haiku: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident, Red Moon Press, 2007. Available at: <http://snipurl.com/phus8>.
10 This quote is from an unpublished summarized translation of Haiku Cosmos (Haiku no uchu, 2001), R. Gilbert & T. Kanemitsu (trans.), some 3300 words in length, which was given as a handout accompanying my invited talk to the Towpath haiku circle, at Red Moon Press, Winchester, VA, March 10, 2007. This text became a source point for an explorative interpretation of ba in Jim Kacian’s 2008 talk, “So:Ba” available at: <http://kacian.gendaihaiku.com/soba.html> [Also published in four parts in Frogpond, 31:3, 32:1, 32.2 and 32:3] Recently at “Haiku North America 2009,” Jim Kacian gave a speech with the theme of “anti-story,” an interpretive extrapolation of kire. I think such works represent a significant development — additions to the haiku vocabulary.
11 Poems of Consciousness, p. 71
12 Dimitar Anakiev in Knots: The Anthology of Southeastern European Haiku Poetry, Prijatelj Press, Tolmin Slovenia (1999).
13 James Hillman. Chunks of the approx. 60-page monograph, including its first five pages, are available through Google books <http://snipurl.com/rfe1h>, in Oneness and Variety, Adolf Portmann, Rudolf Ritsema (eds.), Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1980, pp. 222-280. North American publication: Egalitarian Typologies Versus the Perception of the Unique, Eranos Lecture Series 4, Dallas: Spring Publications, 1980, 1986.
14 H.L. Mencken, “The Divine Afflatus” in New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917); published in Prejudices: Second Series (1920).