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Haiku Education: An Oxymoron
Haiku: Poetry’s Stepchild Orphan
Jane Reichhold

            As the popularity of haiku and the other Japanese poetry genres continues to grow at ever increasing speeds with more and more people interested in exploring this newest way of expressing poetry, the hit or miss method of teaching these forms shows how inadequate our education of them truly is. For far too long the educational systems have ignored their obligation to research and teach the teachers who are, more than ever, the missing links.
            It is now about one hundred years since the Japanese poetry was translated, first in French and later into English, but haiku education is still in the class of DIY –‘do it yourself.’
            The new haiku writer is dependent upon articles in journals, which by necessity are often only able to spotlight one small of area explaining haiku. Editors of these journals usually have one idea of what a haiku should be and publish mostly works by persons who agree with them.
            The Internet offers an amazing array of articles of how to write haiku but they point in all directions at once so the reader, who must spend hours in front of a lighted screen, ends up going in circles. Books, which cost $15 - $25, give more concise and directed instructions, but even the best of these only begins to scratch the surface of all there is to learn and to know about Japanese poetry genres.
            This slipshod method of teaching needs to make major changes and it needs to it now.

Certainly there are universities where Japanese Literature is taught and people are graduating with degrees and high honors. But are they then experts on haiku and do they know how to teach the form to us – the non-Japanese? As for American schools, from my experience, present day educators know very little about haiku except that it is Japanese and has 17 syllables. This is what they have been taught and what they teach and, far too many, believe. Also they are unwilling to accept or believe any information coming from someone who has no degree or is not an accredited expert.
            This opens the can of worms that asks, who will determine who is an expert? The Japanese do not understand our efforts made with their poetry form, and because our methods are not theirs, there is no way they can declare who is worthy of teaching and who is an impostor.

            An additional problem is the fact that there are people who can teach, who study and ponder on the whys and wherefores of haiku and there are people who write excellent haiku. Rarely can one person wear both shoes without tripping over their feet. Very often the best poets are not very good at writing articles or able to look at the work of their competitors with a critical, but fair, eye.
            Poets teach best by showing us how they use a form filled with their ideas. As one reads and learns to love certain poems, or even poem bits, these become the examples that will be followed when the student is ready to attempt to write a poem. This is why before one understands how to write haiku one must first learn how to read and then appreciate haiku poetry – a process that requires education and instruction; it does not come naturally. This brings up the problem of which kind of haiku to study.
            If one believes that studying the Japanese old masters would be the best method to follow one is confronted with the fact that all of their poems, for us, must be translated. Another barrier for the poetry is the fact that early translators are that – translators, and not poets. The really valuable translations of the sonnet in Italian only came when poets were able to be both translator and seeker of a new kind of poetry. The same is true for haiku. For that reason alone a reading of translations is usually not a solid basis for modeling the best in contemporary English-language haiku.
            Who are the best haiku writers – the ones others should be imitating? The winners of contests? Rarely do experienced writers enter contests. They already know what they want their haiku to be and are secure in their own talents. Most entrants in contests are basically asking the judges, “Is this a haiku? Is this a good haiku?” The answer will depend up on the judge and the judge alone. Also judging the ‘worth’ of a haiku writer based on one poem is as futile as it is discouraging. A judge cannot truly present a clear picture or exact example of his or her highest goals for the form because of the limitation of working with the level of the work entered into the contest. A better poem cannot be shown than the quality of the work entered into the contest.
            As the popularity of haiku grows, so the range of possible good or excellent poems/poets is wider and can be more bewildering. Who is going to show us who our most excellent writers are and who is able to explain why.
            That job is fulfilled by the teachers who deconstruct the poetry to show, illuminate, or discover how the poet achieved certain results. They come to the poetry at the opposite end from the poet and have a very different task. They rise up though a system of education that gives terms and meanings to shades of meaning, techniques, and rules. These we call the academic community.
            Haiku on the other hand grew out of the use of the genre largely by poets and non-poets – not academics in Japan. There was, due to the political unrest of the times, and the weakness of the imperial court, no state-based educational system for heretical haiku. The form was taught, from time to time, by wandering teachers, ala Basho, and artists, as was Buson. The students themselves supported their teachers directly without any institutional backing. That is very much like the situation today! Except our haiku teachers are not even supported by donations of rice or the building of our houses. We are lucky when our books sell.


            Many academic professionals of Japanese Literature harbor a secret belief that the non-Japanese student should not even think of trying to write haiku, or tanka or renga. They believe that these poetry forms can only be used by the race of their creators. Therefore it would be ‘wrong’ to give the students the idea that they too, could write in ways that are not our own.
            If this was so, then one could extrapolate that the ghazal should only be written by Persians, the sonnet only by Italians, and parallel poetry by the Chinese.
            A poetry form learned by imitation is different from one learned by study. The Japanese clearly accepted the idea of the kireji (cutting words) but were unable to articulate the idea that a haiku should have two parts to it. They also never needed to understand the many ways a haiku worked – using techniques – because  they had acquired these though example and imitation.
            The idea and use of techniques was explored for the tanka form because at the time (10th and 11th centuries) the education for the genre was in the hands of professionals – the court appointed teachers. These teachers, and poets, were then given the honor and prestige of compiling the court backed and endowed anthologies. A complicated and complete system of education and rewards was in place for over a millennium for tanka. It never even got a start for renga and haiku.

            At least two things happen when a poetry form is shared between cultures. One, a wider audience is created to appreciate the poetic form. Not only is there the excitement of something new, but another society will receive the poetry in a very different way.
            In a poem form’s native land, it grows out of the lives and daily living of a people. They shape it and grind it down to fit their needs and their emotional answers to life’s questions.
            By the time a new poetry form is admired enough to exported to and by strangers, it has been around long enough to be considered ‘mature.’ Gone are the experimentations, much of what could be expressed using the genre’s techniques has already been said. The native land will have already picked its heroes and masters – the works that for them have stood the test of time and forgetfulness.
            When the poetry genre is adopted by a different society there is at first, naturally, an acceptance of everything surrounding the previous life of the genre. Old masters must be translated and are therefore revered and celebrated with fervor no longer evident in the native land. This is good!
            Then comes the second step. The works of these masters are then questioned. Were their poems really that good? Only outsiders will have courage to ask questions native poets would not even consider. If you are an outsider this is interesting; if not, it can be very irritating.
            Along with this questioning of the old masters’ works, comes the questioning of the native rules. Suddenly in a new language, and on the tongues of other speakers, some of the time-honored rules will have to undergo revisions. This is a painful process for both sides. The originators of the genre will feel that any changes in the form or how the poem is written removes it from ‘their’ kind of poetry. For those adopting a new form, the process is equally difficult because they must first give up the great admiration and almost worshipful attitude long enough to see clearly the differences and have the courage to talk about them.
            This process is demonstrated by the decade-long conflict of whether a haiku in another language must have 17 syllables or sound units as it does in Japanese. It continues today and is outside of this discussion; but does not mean that it is completed.
            It will be hard to accept the poems written by the target society (that group of people to whom the arrow of your poetry has flown) as ‘valid’ poetry. The Japanese have for a long time, made a distinction between haiku written by one of them and those written by non-Japanese. This discrimination goes so far that even if a foreigner can write the in Japanese, it is still considered as a non-Japanese poem. This racial barrier is even more evident among tanka poets. To date almost none of the tanka written in English has been translated into Japanese. Only Aya Yuhki, editor of The Tanka Journal, in Tokyo has given us a book, actually two books, of her work with Anna Holley in which Aya translates Anna’s English tanka. Personally I have been unable to find any Japanese person I know who is willing to translate English tanka. Some will say, “it can’t be done,” others will claim they do not understand tanka enough to even attempt the job, and tanka poets have claimed that only they would be capable of “producing a Japanese tanka from an English poem” but they refuse to make the attempt except for one or two ‘examples.’ 
            While I was collaborating with Hatsue Kawamura on the translations of the tanka of Fumi Saito and Akiko Baba, we worked out each poem to the best of our ability but one day, as we were doing a final proof, Hatsue-san wrote to me with great sadness saying that our translations were not ‘really’ tanka. She actually questioned her involvement in our work because the result, which in English we called tanka, were not the real thing. She seemed to be expressing a fear that she was complacent in doing some harm to tanka literature by creating non-tanka tanka in English.
            First of all let us explore the different stages in writing a poem. You will notice that a conscious application of rules plays no observable role in the genesis of a given poem.

1. Inspiration - here are the many ways we seek to get our juices flowing and to invite whatever entity it takes to bring the poem material to us. Under this would go an understanding of the 'haiku moment,' our reading of the poems by others, or a walk along a country road. At this point rules and techniques, and education are in another far country.

2. Putting the ideas into words. By the time a person picks up a pen or pencil he or she has probably recognized in which genre the inspiration wants to manifest. If the student has never explored a double sestina, it is fairly unlikely the inspiration will come into that form. So the inspired mind can only sort through and pick a genre or form that is known. Here one's education, formal or though reading, floats up to carry the load. For the haiku writer this means the person has already made several important decisions about how the poem will look, less from reading anyone’s rules, but in imitation of haiku that have been admired.

3. Revision. This process finalizes the installation of Frost's net – and sets it in concrete. The words are moved around to fit some kind of form in the best possible way. It would be a rare person who would think about the techniques of haiku writing at this stage.

            Poetry is largely learned by imitation of an audible experience. We hear a poem and its rhythms and combinations of sound and not-sound seep into our consciousness. When inspiration hits, the body already has paths made to the storage of these patterns within the brain. It seems as if the poem writes itself. But what actually happens is the brain refills old poems with the new and different words connected to the present inspiration.
            However, when a poem form crosses cultural barriers several changes occur. The new devotees (usually) must learn to appreciate the poetry through the process of translation. As any translator will admit, or anyone who knows two languages, it is damned difficult to take the poetry in one language and remain true to it while transposing it into the poetry of the target language.
            While it has been said (by Robert Frost) that it is the poetry that gets lost in translation, I think the greater truth is that what is lost in translation is the beauty along the path to poetry. For me, poetry is what happens within the reader/listener. When he or she is confronted with certain words, images and their corresponding emotions light up in the brain pan. When a new way of thinking about these images /emotions is suggested, and the recipient follows the thought, new ideas and ways of thinking about the world will be lighted. That is when the poetry occurs – when neurons light up in a living brain.

            Here is where the techniques and all those marvelous designations of sabi, wabi, yugen, etc, and the rules come to have a use for us – so teachers can more easily talk, teach, and categorize the poetry. These are all methods of explaining what the poet did and reasons the teacher has for admiring (or not) the work. At this point it is a post mortem and usually not any prettier.
            The rules, techniques, almost anything one as a teacher says about poetry relates to the captured and nearly dead poem. Fairly grime stuff. The only thing that gives the poem new life is to feed it our brains (in a Stephen King sort of way). We can read a poem and it can remain dead. However if we let it, and if the poem incites our brains to light up with energy in the form of images, often clothed in memory which adds emotional energy, it will come alive for us. This process is the poetry.
            Education happens when energy from one brain/heart is given on the wings of thought to the words of another so that the old poem lives again. The educator needs a completely different tool bag than the poet and it can only be acquired from other educators who have invented the tools.

            There are so many problems emanating from this ‘hit or miss’ way haiku is taught that even they need to be recognized and named before we can talk about them. As far as I know, and I am happy to be corrected, there is no college or university where haiku, as written in English, is taught as a valid poetic form for a degree.
            In this age of ‘do-it-yourselfers’ haiku research and haiku exploration is conducted by isolated non-accredited devotees. Their ideas, spread in small press journals and now the Internet, remain below the radar of universities. The universities are still teaching Japanese literature; not how we can take these foreign genres and make them our own. There is even a need for haiku history – the story of how small groups and minorities, who are not even deemed as poets, have carried the torches for haiku. This must be done by institutions larger than the small groups, or societies devoted to a poetry form, that have as their main goal the promotion of their members.

[This article was written and accepted for the magazine, Juxtaposition, which folded before the article was published.]







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