Frogpond 35.1 • 2012

Museum of Haiku
Literature Award

Haiku & Senryu

Revelations Unedited

Essay - Paul Miller


Tan Renga


Book Review

From the Editors


Haiku's American Frontier

by Paul Miller, Bristol, Rhode Island

A few years ago, the editor of Modern Haiku, Charles Trumbull, discussing a particularly modern and abstract haiku, posed the question: how far can a haiku be stretched and still be called a haiku? This may sound like an overly theoretical question—one that academics might debate on a lonely Friday night—yet we call what we write “haiku.” Many of us belong to the Haiku Society of America, Haiku Poets of Northern California, Haiku North West, or some other “haiku” related organization, so clearly the term means something. And if it means something, then something else can clearly not be it. That dichotomy creates a frontier between what we in the United States consider a haiku and that which we don’t. This definitional distinction is important not only because haiku is different than say free verse, but because American haiku is different than Japanese haiku; which is different from British haiku, Croatian haiku, or Russian haiku—which are all reflections of how the individual countries view the genre.

Defining American haiku is a slippery slope that ranges from the traditional Yuki Teikei (5-7-5, kigo, kireji) to “anything I call a haiku is a haiku”—the last being especially problematic in that it would require us to recognize War and Peace as a haiku if Tolstoy had so insisted. Rather than spend pages debating the merits of each school of thought, I will instead rely on a normative definition of American haiku that approximates the haiku found in most American journals. When I say American journals I am primarily referring to journals such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Acorn, or The Heron’s Nest. To borrow liberally from Hiro Sato: we know an American haiku when we see it. [1]

The question I want to examine that is inside the question Trumbull asked is this: how far can a haiku be stretched that we in the United States will accept it as a haiku? This question is in response to an awareness of a new-to-us movement in Japanese haiku that challenges American traditional notions of haiku. As working poets, we should always be examining (both personally and communally) our own poetics.

American haiku sensibility was largely formed by translations of the four classical masters—Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki—as translated by Yasuda, Henderson, and Blyth. And strangely enough, to this day, we continue to see new translations of these same classical, long-dead poets, and even of the same poems. Yet this understanding ignores a contemporary Japanese haiku community that is much more diverse.

Over the last several years we’ve been made aware of a very different movement in Japanese haiku: gendai haiku, which literally means “modern” in Japanese. It is a movement that is not just modern in terms of timing, but also in style and content. An example below is by Sayu Togo [2]. Surprisingly, despite its modern-to-us tone, it is nearly eighty years old!

The face of a toad
enters the dream
of a typhoid patient

Perhaps even more surprising, especially to American readers, is that there is no doubt among Japanese poets that this poem is a haiku. Yet, because this poem is so far outside the implied American definition of haiku, I suspect if this poem were submitted to most American journals it would be rejected.

The first hint of gendai haiku to reach American shores occurred with Makoto Ueda’s underrated anthology Modern Japanese Haiku [3] published in 1976 in which he translated twenty Japanese poets beginning with and after Masaoka Shiki. However, the volume wasn’t strictly a gendai anthology, and in fact included some poets who were opposed to what would later become known as gendai—such as Shiki’s successor Kyoshi Takahama. The anthology instead was an attempt to give voice to modern poets perhaps unknown of in English. Of the twenty included poets only a handful were born after nineteen hundred. Inspired perhaps by the few poets whose work could be called gendai, several American and Canadian poets tried their hand at gendai haiku; however, these efforts were short lived.

It wasn’t until the 2001 and 2008 anthologies of the Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyokai), which contain hundreds of modern Japanese haiku—translated into English!— that Americans finally took serious notice. It is important to keep in mind that gendai haiku is not wholly representative of all contemporary haiku in Japan, yet the scope of the poems and poets in these anthologies speak to a significant movement. Perhaps equally important for discussion purposes is that the movement speaks to a level of diversity concerning what a haiku can be that is arguably lacking in our country.

More recently, we’ve seen published an important book from Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese and English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective, a significant part of which discusses gendai haiku and includes interviews with several prominent Japanese gendai poets. Additionally, through Gilbert’s work with the Kon Nichi Translation Group, we’ve received a couple of volumes that focus specifically on gendai poet Totha Kaneko [4] with a third and fourth volume in the works.

Interestingly, we are also seeing gendai’s effect on some of our own homegrown poets: Peter Yovu, Jack Galmtz, John Sandbach, and Scott Metz, who are exploring similar territory. If such haiku have a champion in America it is the online journal Roadrunner, [5] although it doesn’t call itself a journal of gendai haiku. In fact it perhaps wisely skirts the issue by calling itself a journal of haiku and “short poetry inspired by haiku.”

Still, these (and Japanese gendai poems) are very different kinds of poems than what we see in Frogpond or Modern Haiku or any of the other standard bearers of American haiku. In fact, I think few if any of these attempts would be accepted at those other publications. I’ll add that most of the poems in the Modern Haiku Association anthology wouldn’t make the cut either.

Of course this kind of poetry is not new to Japan. Gendai began as a movement in the early 1900s as an alternative to the traditional poetics of classical haiku. But it is new to Americans raised on the haiku of objective realism, on Shiki’s sketch from nature, and on Blyth and the Beats’ Zen-infused work. If anything is going to make us question the “haiku-ness” of a particular poem it will probably come from that frontier of gendai work.

Modern Japanese haiku began with Masaoka Shiki in the late 1800s. Shiki felt that haiku at the time were stale and its practice incestuous and he advocated for greater freeness. He also embraced the trend of realism recently imported from Europe. North Americans tend to think of his “objective sketch” as the end-all of his poetic theories, but as Japanese poet Totha Kaneko makes clear, Shiki was more adventurous than that. [6] However, it wasn’t until his death in 1902 that haiku really broke free, as Shiki’s disciples and then later poets took the genre through a succession of innovations. Some changes included haiku without a center of interest, without kigo or season word, without a syllabic count, in colloquial language, and more freedom concerning topics.

Of course, such changes weren’t popular with all poets and one of Shiki’s main disciples—Kyoshi Takahama—advocated a return to the basic Shiki model of objective realism. Since he was the succeeding editor of Shiki’s haiku journal Hototogisu, this revisionist thinking had a lot of sway. He also suggested that birds and flowers were the only suitable topic for a haiku. Sadly, during the war years, poems that deviated from this tradition, or were critical of the government or the war were an arrestable offense. [7] After the war, haiku continued its diverse expansion—particularly in terms of topics. As a reaction to the clamp-down by authorities in the war, socialist and other left-wing haiku began to be written, as well as poems about other social concerns. Additionally, some poets wrote avant-garde, abstract, and haiku from the unconscious.

A topic for another day is the question of why North American haiku in the main is essentially the objective realism of Shiki and Takahama. Why we haven’t followed along with the Japanese on their exciting journey? A short answer might be in how haiku was introduced to the Americas, primarily through the volumes of Blyth, with his emphasis on Zen, and his dismissal of haiku after Shiki. However, it is also worth asking if perhaps some poets in America did indeed understand what was happening in Japan, but just chose to continue on a more traditional path. As mentioned earlier, with the publication of Ueda’s Modern Japanese Haiku, some poets did write what would be considered gendai poems; yet these poems as a style never took traction.

Before a discussion of the unique characteristics of gendai haiku, the characteristics out at that frontier of “haiku-ness,” it is important to mention briefly the similarities to American haiku. Gendai and American haiku are in the main structurally similar. They usually have two parts and a cut, like traditional haiku. Haiku in Japan, with its master/pupil relationship, has always had more restrictions on what haiku is or could be, than we in master-less America ever conceived of. Much of gendai haiku is simply a reaction to tradition and rules. So when early gendai haiku ignored syllabic count or season words, or the shape of the poem on the page, that was very modern (gendai), very reactionary. In America, that isn’t the case. Despite talk of the “haiku wars” in American haiku’s early days, “wars” over 5-7-5, form, etc... poets here never struggled with these issues as the Japanese did. Americans are far too individualistic and it is thus easier for aberrance to take hold.

Most often, as we’ll see, what defines gendai haiku is subject matter. For example, this poem was probably very shocking when it was written.

In a spring field
I am polishing
machine guns

Machiko Kishimoto [8]

In particular, and I am speaking of the Haiku Persecution Incident here, writing such poems during World War II got you imprisoned and/or tortured. Yet poems of social commentary or social criticism fit easily in the American haiku tradition. Everything from war, to feminism, to poems on the economy has been fair game. And while there are obviously editorial preferences, pretty much everything is allowed. In fact the Kishimoto poem would not be out of place in any of our standard bearers.

What are worth examining are gendai poems that don’t fit into the American tradition—and by extension the American definition of haiku. How they don’t fit the tradition should be pretty obvious, but I’d like each reader to think about why they don’t fit.

When we try to understand anything, we tend to put such things into categories, which is probably not the best approach, especially with poetry. However, I think it might be the only way to begin looking at the larger characteristics of a category of poems as opposed to individual poems. Obviously, I don’t intend these categories to be all-encompassing.

Category 1: Haiku that are Direct Similes/Metaphors

Several poems in the Modern Haiku Association anthologies use outright similes that wouldn’t be acceptable in an American journal. That they are in the Modern Haiku Association anthologies validates the poems and says that such techniques are permissible. Two examples:

A hundred peonies
like boiling water

Sumio Mori [9]

A bonfire moving
in the morning
as if finding happiness

Tatsuko Hoshino [10]

It has been argued that many haiku are simply disguised similes or metaphors, which is a fair statement. Haiku often compare two things side by side. For example, Basho’s famous “on a bare branch / a crow has alighted / autumn nightfall” can be read as “on a bare branch / a crow has alighted / like the autumn nightfall.” So is the Mori poem such a bad thing? And, more importantly, why don’t we write our haiku as direct similes or metaphors?

I suspect the main reason is the idea that while a haiku is written by the writer, it is completed by the reader. A haiku has been compared to a car’s spark plug where the reader is the spark between the two parts of the poem. This forces the reader to engage more deeply with the poem, to solve it in a sense. A direct simile or metaphor takes that reader participation away. The poem becomes a statement, and all the reader can do is agree or disagree, and pass a judgment on the writer’s creativity. That in and of itself is probably not a reason not to write such poems, but they are lesser poems from a reader’s perspective. To discourage these arguably inferior poems, beginning haiku poets are often told: show, don’t tell. A few more examples:

The sound of a shot
rings out in the marsh like
a board being struck

Seiho Awano [11]

As a single drop
of moonlight
I am walking

Shoshi Fujita [12]

Like a weasel
from behind a mountain
comes the winter

Tomio Maeda [13]

Category 2: Haiku that are Fantastic Transformations

Perhaps the greatest difference between the two movements is America’s unwavering embrace of realism. In fact we like to say that haiku show the ordinary in a new or different light, and American haiku bear this out in primarily natural or urban scenes. In contrast, gendai haiku often show the extraordinary in a first light.
A classic haiku technique is the subversion of expectation. It is through this technique that gendai can be very interesting or shocking. One of the best examples is by Totha Kaneko. [14]
After a heated argument I go out to the street and become a motorcycle

This is a poem where the fantastic usurps the realistic, and I defy any reader to say that they saw the third line coming. From this poem we get a real sense of emotion. We can feel this poem: its anger and its frustration, its transformation. There is heat, noise, and direction. There is also something of the poet’s mechanical response. While the notion of becoming a motorcycle is fantastic, it is, more importantly, understandable. However, our feelings might be different if the shift was purely abstract, such as “I go out to the street and become... an algebraic Trojan Horse” or ”I go out to the street and become... a red colored blue.”

Peter Yovu, in a posting on the Haiku Foundation blog, has off-handedly ventured three categories of transformations: psychological (Kaneko’s motorcycle), mythological (Yagi’s scales; see below), and spiritual (Fujita’s walk; previous page). [15] Of the mythological, he intends physical, bodily change, not necessarily into a mythological creature. In a follow-up post on the same blog entry, Don Baird rightly pointed out that Kaneko’s motorcycle may be only psychological, or both psychological and mythological. Some other examples:

The palms of warm hands
one by one turn into
shooting stars

Minako Kaneko [16]

Veiled in mist
heavy industry
sticks out its stomach

Futoshi Anai [17]

The falling leaves—
rushing underground I notice
scales on my skin

Mikajo Yagi [18]

I am cold, mother—
an acetylene torch on the ground
cries in the wind

Fujio Akimoto [19]

Without a doubt, the last poem would be singled out by many American editors as a poor haiku. “Torches don’t cry,” the poet would be told. “You are personifying the torch.” Despite numerous personifications in the poetry of Japanese master Issa, one of the rules of American haiku is that personification is not allowed. However, it is but a short step from a transformation of the self to the personification of the other. I don’t see how only one can be allowed.

Peggy Lyles, in her essay “Haiku and Western Poetry,” [20] suggests that the reason for the ban on personification is that “haiku poets place high value on the creatures and things of this world just as they are, each unique in its essential nature and worthy of unobscured attention. Comparing one thing to another often seems to diminish both.” Yet often in haiku things are placed side by side so that they can be enlarged by the presence of the other. I’m not sure how this is different. She also quotes Christopher Herold who references the famous “jeweled finger” of such poetic devices, arguing that such devices distract us from the real subjects of the poem. That sense of distraction is I think a more persuasive argument. However, rules are made to be broken. In this particular case, the crying of the torch is necessary to hear the crying of the poet.

Category 3: Haiku that are Fantastic Metaphors

For many gendai poems, the subject matter itself is fantastic, and this is where things get interesting. As mentioned earlier, perhaps at their simplest, haiku can act as indirect metaphors. Compare Basho’s poem in which a crow landed on a branch, to this poem by Sanki Saito. [21]

Autumn sunset—
bones of a gigantic fish
drawn into the sea

The color of the sunset reflected in the water, and perhaps staining the clouds, shrinking to a singularity—juxtaposed with a hardness of bone; the bones of a giant, dead fish—is a wonderfully imaginative metaphor.

As mentioned earlier, one of gendai’s goals was to use haiku to comment on social issues. The following poem by Kineo Hayashida [22] is a good example of a poem that speaks out against war.

The color of a warship
sunk under the sea:
a nursing bottle

However, as with the direct metaphors we saw earlier, the risk this poem takes is in telling the reader too much. In this poem’s case the punctuation seems to be adding an authoritative “is” to the poem, making it more of a statement. My opinion is that this poem sits on the fence between succeeding and not—uniqueness of the images offsets some of the “telling.”

Category 4: Haiku that are Simply Fantastic

Most gendai haiku work in the same manner that most American haiku do: as juxtapositions, oppositions, complements, misreadings, etc.—all the techniques normally spoken of. An example:

I am pregnant
with the clown
of a snowy day

Hiroko Takahashi [23]

The Takahashi poem is wonderful. It doesn’t break any of the “rules” Western haiku editors share, with the exception of being naturalistic. While I can’t say with certainty what it “means” (something I can also say of many American poems), I am able to take the poem’s pieces and create my own feeling for the poem. There is the heaviness of pregnancy, the heaviness of snow; things hidden by skin and a skin of snow; things that will be given birth to. The clown reference is interesting. I read it as a tumbling, acrobatic clown like the ever-shifting child inside her. The poem relates an interesting apprehension, yet excitement not uncommon to impending mothers. It would be hard to find fault with a poem like this. The voice may be quirky, like that of a crazy aunt, but I, the reader, completed the poem—and importantly, it transferred emotion and meaning to me. Here is another:

A victim of lung disease
a firefly from the underworld
lights up his hand

Hakko Yokoyama [24]

The Yokoyama poem also has internal pieces that I can use as a reader to create meaning—my own meaning! Internal organs and an underworld; cancer and the pseudo-heat/color of a firefly. Is the light a messenger... or guide? More importantly, how do we view the firefly’s arrival? Acceptance seems to ring true. Two more:

A field of skylarks
where father’s brow was
hit and cracked

Onifusa Sato [25]

Human beings
are made up of tubes—
the daytime short

Tenko Kawasaki [26]

So why don’t we write similar poems? I don’t have a good answer, because to me, these poems satisfy my requirements for a haiku. But I wonder if it is because these are clearly what we would call “desk-ku” or made-up poems, and there is a prejudice against such work. Is this prejudice because of Blyth and others’ fixation on haiku as Zen? That somehow a haiku isn’t a poem, but rather a spiritual journey, my spiritual journey, so it must relate to my actual life?

Another possible explanation may be related to the notion that original experience is somehow superior to any intellectualized version of it. An oft-quoted teaching from Basho says that “You can learn about the pine only from the pine, or about bamboo only from bamboo. When you see an object, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself; otherwise you impose yourself on the object, and do not learn.” [27] Similarly, Robert Spiess, longtime editor of Modern Haiku, wrote in one of his “Speculations” that “A haiku’s coherence lies in its being aesthetic, not intellective,” [28] in another, “The best haiku are barefoot; next, the sandaled; and least, those with shoes,” [29] and, “a genuine haiku poet is aware that every entity has to be the way it is and could not possibly be any other way.” [30] Admittedly, Basho and Spiess saw haiku in a Zen context. Yet these are clearly directives to not tamper with the original experience, which is something gendai poets do to great effect.

Gendai poets would be hard-pressed to insist that their poems exactly represent their original “barefoot” experience. Clearly they have been poetically tampered with. But I believe they would defend their poems as decisively emulating that original experience, or in some cases of exacting or expanding it. Kaneko’s “motorcycle” poem is possibly a good example. After leaving a “heated argument” he could have merely listed his impressions (heat, noise, a rushing away, perhaps a realization that he was reacting mechanically), but instead he chose a representative object—a motorcycle. Perhaps one passed him on the street at that moment. I am of course guessing here. But more importantly, his edit both crystallized and intensified the poem. How much stronger is the reader’s reaction to the original poem when compared to a more objective rewrite such as: After an argument— / the heat and noise / of a motorcycle. The original is much more immediate and at the same time leaves more to the reader’s imaginative findings.

Patrick Gallagher, in an essay in the Yuki Teikei 2011 anthology, Wild Violets, [31] makes an interesting point in defense of gendai haiku when he suggests that “the argument may be made that gendai haiku is more representative than classical haiku of one essential element of the Japanese artistic sensibility—the use of the stylization of nature and humanity in place of an objective view. Japanese literature and art consistently represent nature in a subjective context. By incorporating the subjective elements of the imaginative and the unreal, so does gendai haiku.” [32] Japanese gardens and work by artists such as Katsushika Hokusai are good examples of this stylized revision of nature. In this context, Kaneko’s poem seems natural.

Something that should be mentioned here is a distinction between the writer’s and reader’s poetic experience. Clearly they are two separate events. In my above scenario as to how Totha Kaneko’s poem came about, I am of course assuming that this was an actual event that happened to him. While Kaneko is a poet who believes in experiential haiku, not all poets are so inclined. In fact, I suspect many gendai poems, like many Western ones, are wholly or at least partially made up for effect. That this is the case should have little bearing on the reader’s experience. After all, as far as classical or traditional haiku goes, the reader has no way of knowing if a poem is fictitious. They simply have to trust the material. And as long as an authentic idea or emotion is passed from writer to reader, we should consider a poem from that perspective successful.

This transmission of meaning, however, is less important if haiku is viewed from a writer’s perspective, as perhaps in a “Way” of life such as the Way of Tea, Way of Bushido, or, in this case, the Way of Haiku. Basho’s comment that without direct experience you “do not learn” leads in that direction. Yet who is to say that such imaginative forays don’t equally contribute to our learning? In the Wild Violets essay, Gallagher promotes the use of imagination as a creative writing exercise, and finds through the resultant gendai poems further “appreciation of the world.” [33] I am reminded of Michael Dylan Welch’s Neon Buddha series, Chris Gordon’s Chinese Astronaut series, and similar series by other American writers. Welch, in particular, has written hundreds of Neon Buddha poems! I have argued elsewhere that they are not as satisfying as a whole due to their often mysterious, intangible, and often only intelligible-to-Welch understanding of them. [34] Yet some are clearly a kind of writing exercise and have value (to Welch) as such. However, it is hard to know how effective these poems are to any reader beyond the poet who created them.

If we keep the above in mind, then most gendai haiku seem to fall into this category in which a moment is refigured imaginatively using a traditional haiku structure, and where communication between writer and reader is valued. A few more examples:

The full moon—
the sound of a waterfall
ten thousand feet underground

Nana Naruto [35]

Since I was born a human being
many years have passed—
an evening primrose

Goro Wada [36]

A mountain
gazing at another mountain—
summer vacation

Shigeharu Otsubo [37]

The rough sea—
inside the skipping rope is
completely empty

Niji Fuyuno [38]

Category 5: Haiku that Directly Tell

All poets have had an idea or thought at some point in time that they wished they could put directly into a haiku, and then tried to craft a poem around it. This one by Mutsuo Takano [39] seems to be just that:

The tree becomes bare
in order to talk
with the sun

This is an interesting idea, and I will admit to probably remembering it this coming fall when the tPaul Miller lose their leaves— which is a sign of something. However, as with the direct metaphors mentioned earlier, I am less engaged as a reader. It is simply a statement, although a fantastic one. Two others:

Inside my heart
the Judas too begins to wake
from hibernation

Akito Arima [40]

My friend, I confess
one of my arms is already
            given to the devil

Shigenobu Takayanagi [41]

Both of these poems do little but tell the reader what the poet thinks. Yes they are clever, but is that enough?

Category 6: Haiku that are Private Discourse

Haiku have their origin in renku, a party game, where one poet links to another poet’s verse. The result is a larger public poem. “Public” is a key word in regards to haiku. Haiku have always been about sharing. Additionally, there is the notion that haiku are supposed to be completed by the reader, so we would expect all the information needed to understand a poem to be available in the poem. Yet some poems resist understanding. An example from Yasumasa Soda: [42]

When the frozen butterfly
finally reaches its end:
a hundred towers

I can visualize a migrating butterfly arriving somewhere. I can even visualize a hundred towers. But how do those parts relate? I appreciate the need to express individualism, and from the pro side of the pro/con list, that can create unique images and ideas. We want poets to feel free to go in any direction they choose. We want to be exposed to fresh images and perspectives, but I think it’s fair for poets to feel restricted by certain traditions. While this is an exciting move, and really... really fPaul Miller a poet up, is that freedom at the expense of sharing?

On the con side: these are not private diary entries. These are shared poems published in a journal, or in this case an anthology. A reader has a right to expect to be able to engage them somehow, and to be given the information to do so. I am reminded of art exhibits in which placards have been placed next to the pictures to tell the viewer what they need to know to appreciate the painting: its history, perhaps what the painter was trying to say, what the painter felt, that the red triangle in the corner represents the Vatican.

Richard Gilbert, in a discussion on the blog of the Haiku Foundation, wrote that readers in Japan are expected to know something of each poet, and to bring that knowledge to the poet’s work. [43] But what can we realistically know of anyone, especially of their innermost thoughts? Toshinori Tsubouchi [44] is, I think, a good example. He is probably best known for poems such as:

Cherry blossoms fall—
you too must become
a hippo

In fact he has written a number of poems where he takes on the persona of a hippopotamus. Now let me step back and say that I think this is a fascinating approach to haiku. It allows him to view the world from an entirely new perspective. He is no longer Tsubouchi the man, or possibly even a poet, but a hippo. I am reminded of Ban’ya Natsuishi’s Flying Pope poems which serve a similar purpose. In fact, if I encountered this hippo poem with other hippo poems as part of a series or collection, it would admittedly be a different story. But what about Tsubouchi’s poem: [45]

You are now
an enormous hailstone,
so I hug you

And let’s pretend I know all about him. I know where Tsubouchi went to school and what his favorite ice cream flavor is. I know that he likes to pretend he is a hippo. Is he a hippo in this poem? Is a hippo hugging me? Or is he a field of grass, or just himself? We can’t expect the poet to stand next to the poem to explain it. To me the strength of haiku is that public sharing of a moment, or emotion, or idea. Poems this private can’t be shared, just admired for their cleverness. A question we have to ask ourselves: Is that enough? Two more:

Inclining the water
within my body, I cut
a piece of glass

Toru Sudo [46]

Inside the dream
of the napping bindweeds
there is a window

Nana Naruto [47]

Category 7: Haiku that Contain Abstract Language

While the previous poems are mysterious, I can at least imag- ine them. For Soda’s poem, I can picture a migrating butterfly reaching its destination, and even the mysterious towers. Yet some gendai poems resist imagination and it is primarily because of their language. An example I have mentioned in another paper is Hoshinaga’s: [48]

Twenty billion light-years
of perjury:
your blood type is “B”

I think a fair objection to this kind of haiku is the one mentioned earlier by Christopher Herold, when he referenced the distraction of the jeweled finger. Yes, “twenty billion light-years of perjury” is interesting and clever (if not inaccurate since a light-year is a measurement of distance); but it seems to distract from what is the poet’s very simple idea: that someone has been lying to you for a long time.

Additionally, and frustratingly, the abstraction in the first half of the poem has no relation to the second half of the poem. If we look back at previous poems, in particular Kaneko’s motorcycle, Takahashi’s clown, and Narito’s moon, those were poems where the two halves were relatable. There was heat in Kaneko’s “heated argument” as well as in the “motorcycle” through its exhaust. The shifting of Takahashi’s baby can be seen in the tumbly clown. In the Narito poem, there is fluidity as well as distance in both halves. This relational unity is missing in Hoshinaga’s poem, which compounds the abstraction’s irrelevance.

A white peach...
nihilism, which is to say

Koi Nagata [49]

Another objection to poems such as these is that such abstract language is intellectually unfinished. The reference to “humanism” in the Nagata poem is vague. What kind of human ism? To a neighbor? To refugees on another continent? As a political process? The word can mean one of any number of things, so why make the readers spin their wheels with all the other possible meanings, rather than just come out and say what the poet means. There is a lyric in a song by the band X that reads: “There are seven kinds of Coke / five hundred kinds of cigarettes. This freedom of choice in the USA / drives everybody crazy.” [50] I think what is forgotten in the composition of these kinds of poems is the reader. Of course, this presupposes that poetry, or at least haiku, is a shared activity (which is debatable). However, taking the stance of the reader, I want to read a “Totha Kaneko” poem, or a “Hiroko Takahashi” poem, or a “Lee Gurga” poem. I want something of a particular author. We are in a conversation after all.

When poets are trying to get poems across to the reader, they only have language as their tool, so why does Nagata hide meaning within abstracted language? After all he is trying to share a unique experience/idea/feeling with the reader. Why cloud that idea with vague language? The poet should be doing the opposite. Will such poems get to the point where one abstraction stands for another abstraction that stands for another, until the original moment of the poem is long lost—and all we have left are the jeweled fingers?

Another abstract poem, also by Fumio Hoshinaga: [51]

Squid peppermint
Red-detective   arson

This last example is simply a selfish poem. Each word can have numerous meanings, and when combined one after the other could mean infinitely anything. The reader could just have easily picked six random words out of the dictionary with nearly the same effect. In a post on the Haiku Foundation blog Scott Metz defends Hoshinaga, writing of the poem:

It’s like a little labyrinth laid down by James Joyce of stream of consciousness-like sounds, rhythms, colors, onomatopoeia and cultural associations unique to Japan. A little orgasm of words that act as just enough to create a cosmos for the reader to do some experiencing. [52]

Yet each reader has a different feeling for word pairs such as “Red-detective” or “Red-detective arson.” It is mathematically ludicrous that the poet’s idea of this pairing is anywhere near the reader’s. Unless of course sharing isn’t important.

At the end of the day each reader has to make up this or her own mind about where the haiku frontier is, because although a country-specific definition of haiku can be intuited from its published poems, that definition is the result of a thousand individual poets personal definitions. For me, I think it is clear that I primarily value two things in haiku: reader participation and the conveyance of an emotion or idea. For the first, this means that I reject poems that are direct similes or metaphors, or poems that directly tell a poet’s message. And I want no overly abstract language to get in the way of that message. I believe readers should discover the significance of a poem by themselves, so I don’t want obstacles in the way of my understanding.

For the second, I don’t want to struggle futilely through private poems. Leave them in the poet’s notebook or diary. Poems can’t be so personal that readers can’t enter them. This isn’t to suggest that such poetry doesn’t have value to the writer, just that readers want a shared experience; they want a transference of meaning. On this last point, I don’t mean literarily “solvable;” any transfer of meaning or emotion will do. Takahashi’s poem about the “clown of a snowy day” is a good example. While I can’t logically put the pieces together, the poem does transfer meaning and emotion to me. Additionally, I don’t want to wade through pointless abstractions.

Because I only require these two things, I’ll happily accept fantastic poems into the American canon if they are grounded in some kind of reality, or can be tangentially understood. Poems such as “becoming a motorcycle” or “clown of a snowy day” or “a field of skylarks” are good examples—also known as categories 2, 3, and 4. Frankly, I’d like to see examples of this kind of creativity in the United States. However, it is important to remember that we inhabit our own soil and need to make our own poems. In a review of Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness, Allan Burns makes an important point: that “English-language haiku is certainly richer than any reductive portrayal of it would lead one to believe.” [53] As a poet who continues to work in the American tradition, I certainly do not intend such a reductive portrayal. Yet, I wonder if the American haiku literature wouldn’t benefit from a wider diversity, where realistic and unrealistic poems can stand side by side.

The frontier gate that stands between what we comfortably call American haiku and what others might think and write should be battered from both sides. I’m thankful to the editors of the Modern Haiku Association anthologies, editors of other translated work, as well as both gendai and American poets for making us constantly rethink what we consider haiku to be—or to return to my original question: to help us think about what we will accept as a haiku here in America. From our side of the frontier, we should continue to test that frontier gate by taking chances in our own work. Who knows, perhaps the frontier isn’t as fixed as we think.


An expanded version of this paper was given at Haiku North America, Seattle, August 6, 2011.


1. “The HSA Definitions Reconsidered,” in Frogpond, 1999, XXII:3, p.73. Hiro Sato famously suggests that “Today it may be possible to describe haiku but not to define it.”

2. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2008, p. 19.

3. Makoto Ueda (ed.), Modern Japanese Haiku. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

4. Kon Nichi Translation Group (eds.), Ikimonofuei and The Future of Haiku. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, both 2011.

5. <http://www.roadrunnerjournal.net>. Accessed October 30, 2011.

6. Kon Nichi Translation Group (eds.), Ikimonofuei. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2011, p. 28.

7. Ito Yuki, Simply Haiku. Winter 2007, Volume 5, Number 4 <http://simply-haiku.com/SHv5n4/features/Ito.html>. Accessed October 30, 2011.

8. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2008, p.101.

9. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), Japanese Haiku 2001. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2001, p. 151.

10. Ibid., p. 95.

11. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2008, p 49.

12. Ibid., p. 83.

13. Ibid. p. 187.

14. Makoto Ueda (ed.), Modern Japanese Haiku. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1976, p. 261.

15.<http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/forum_sm/in-depth-haiku-free-discussion/become-(haiku-transformation)/60/>. Accessed October 30, 2011.

16. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2008, p. 79.

17. Ibid., p. 207.

18. Ibid. p. 77.

19. Ibid. p. 51.

20. New Zealand Poetry Society, “Haiku and Western Poetry,”<http://www. poetrysociety.org.nz/node/354>. Accessed October 30, 2011.

21. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2008, p. 51.

22. Ibid. p. 78.

23. Ibid., p. 120.

24. Ibid., p. 19.

25. Ibid., p. 66.

26. Ibid., p. 86.

27. Nobuyuki Yuasa (ed.), Basho: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Sketches. New York, NY: Penguin, 1966. p. 33.

28. Robert Spiess, New and Selected Speculations. Madison, WI: Modern Haiku Press, 1988. Speculation #651.

29. Ibid., #715.

30. Ibid., #727.

31. “Gendai Haiku: Why Should We Care?” in Wild Violets: Yuki Teikei Haiku Society Members’ Anthology 2011, Jerry Ball and J. Zimmerman (ed). Sunnyvale, CA: Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, 2011.

32. Ibid., p. 52.

33. Ibid., p. 55.

34. Paul Miiler, “Ground Control to the Flying Pope,” in Modern Haiku, 2010, 41:3, p. 60.

35. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), Japanese Haiku 2001. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2001, p. 241.

36. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2008, p. 76.

37. Ibid., p. 82.

38. Ibid., p. 112.

39. Ibid., p. 123.

40. Ibid., p. 92.

41. Ibid., p. 74.

42. Ibid., p. 91.

43.<http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/2009/12/08/7th-sailing/comment- page-2/#comments>. Accessed October 30, 2011.

44. Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2008, p. 157.

45. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2008, p. 116.

46. Ibid., p. 119. 47. Ibid., p. 113.

48. Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2008, p. 172.

49. Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2008, p. 50.

50. John Doe & Christene Cervenka, “See How We Are,” on the album See How We Are, Elektra, 1987.

51. Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2008, p. 177.

52. <http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/2009/12/08/7th-sailing/comment- page-6/#comments>. Accessed October 30, 2011.

53. Allan Burns’ review of Richard Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness in Presence, 20 Volume 39, p. 43.


Paul Miller is an internationally awarded and anthologized poet and essayist. He is an executive committee member of the Haiku Society of America, Haiku North America, and book review edi- tor for Modern Haiku. His latest collection, Few Days North Days Few (2011), is available from Red Moon Press.