XXII:2 June, 2007


                  A Journal for Linking Poets 



THE PLAYFUL MIND -What Makes American Haiku Different
by Ditmar Tauchner

In Defense of the Seventeen-Syllable Haiku by
R. W. Watkins





THE PLAYFUL MIND -What Makes American Haiku Different
Ditmar Tauchner

I hope you will find my little speech of interest, because I honestly didn't undertake special research about the given topic, and having a new flame is also a very good reason for not finding enough time.

Anyway, since I used to write and read haiku in English as well as in German, I might be able to compare the German language haiku scene with the North American scene, at least to some degree. Though it is impossible to explain all the differences between both in such a short time, I will try to present a few personal thoughts about what makes American haiku distinctive.

Once I asked an English haiku poet about the differences between the American haiku and the English? He answered: Well, you don't find any worse poems in Frogpond or Modern Haiku, but all are quite similar, or follow the same pattern of making; but though you'll find some quite poor poems in the English magazines, they also have a broader individual range and taste."

This may be true or not, but in fact, in recent times we are given too many narrow definitions of what a haiku is. We should be careful with any definitions. A haiku is what we make of it. It will always be a reflection of our state of mind. If we only follow an established definition of how to create a haiku, we will be in danger of losing that aspect of "newness", a very important requirement for writing haiku. To say it metaphorically with Gary Snyder's words: "The path is what ever passes." I mention this, because sometimes I have the feeling that some people are seeking a final formula of what a haiku is or has to be. Of course, this has nothing to do with the American haiku movement particularly.

But what has this to do in particular with the American haiku? What are its main features? I would like to quote from Bruce Ross' Haiku Moment: "The fourth generation of American haiku: consistent lack of seasonal references, surrealist techniques and figurative expression are introduced, regular prosody is eliminated, and human, rather than nature, subjects are more emphasized, eroticism, psychological expression, and political and social commentary."

I think this quite significant for the American haiku, although you find all these in European haiku too, but not to the same great extent, and only recently. Especially the invention of the so-called "urban haiku," which has become more common in Germany only recently, with its, roughly said, modern subjects of sex and psychological, political and social expressions, which seem to be an offspring of the American haiku movement.

I noticed generally, as I began to learn about American haiku, that there was a willingness to try new forms as well as content and a strong ability to adapt the idea of Japanese short poetry, and to develop it further. Poets like Marlene Mountain have found a way to combine American literary style with the Japanese forms. As you know, Marlene pointed out that in her way of thinking, there is no "Japanese haiku." It needs a reference to an era, a date, or a poet's name, and so on. Also the well established techniques used for writing haiku are nothing more than techniques. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: "My sentences are only a ladder to climb up; if you reached the point of meaning, you have to throw it away." The same is true for writing haiku.

I'm saying this to introduce a very important personal perception that I had when I came in touch with North American haiku for the first time - I found something, which I would like to call "the playful mind"; a mind related to the meaning of haiku, which, literally translated, means: "playful verse". German poets, for instance, are more used to following fixed patterns, they don't trust experiments of any kind very much. This is very general, I know, but I consider it an interesting observation, anyway.

I suppose that American writers - I'm thinking here especially of the so-called "Beat-poets," - had and still have, the ability to adapt the genre because, historically, they are probably open to new ideas and short expression, (comics have not found their way into life in the USA, by mere chance) and because they are less bound by a long traditional list of what poetry has to be.

It is almost impossible to speak about the European haiku. Every country has its own history and language, and we only very recently started to introduce each country's haiku scene during the First European Haiku Congress in Germany. But one can say that in Europe it is still very uncommon to write, for instance, a one-liner, or a poem that is not related to the traditional subject of nature linked to human nature. Though I have to say that this is changing rapidly. For a long time, the German idiom haiku tended either to strictly imitate the few given available translations of the ancient Japanese masters, or tended to be written with almost no relation to the origins of the genre. In those countries, where German is spoken, it was impossible for a long time to find acceptance for a haiku not composed in the 5/7/5 pattern, and that is still the case in Austria, where I come from. This was the situation when I started to write haiku, only five years ago. So the aspect of "atarashimi" (newness) was absolutely ignored for several years. By the way, this was one reason why I began to write and publish haiku in English. Now I feel that a period of change approaches, because more and more poets are glancing at the international haiku scene as well as that of America, and feel attracted by new subjects and new forms.

To say it with the words of Ruth Franke, a haiku poet from Germany: "The new generation of European haiku poets becomes aware of the chance of this literary genre: grounded in the cultural background of each nation, it is capable of connecting people all over the world by sharing something like an universal human truth."

Finally, I would like to say that it is still very important to study the Japanese origins, but also to experiment with the form and subject; to integrate our own historical background in form and content, and also to glance regularly at the international haiku movement. Nothing has to be avoided and nothing especially has to be revealed. I think it is most important to be open for everything in our daily lives, to allow the open and playful mind. I want to encourage you all to keep a playful mind because: "The path is whatever passes."

I'm sure that you didn't understand one word of my speech because of my "Alpine English" - anyway, I thank you all for your attention.


Presented at the Haiku North America Conference in Port Townsend, Washington, USA, September 22, 2005. Many Thanks to Kilmeny Niland and Prof. Horst Ludwig for their great support.



In Defense of the Seventeen-Syllable Haiku
R. W. Watkins

Like it or lump it, we might as well face the truth: composers of haiku, tanka, and other Japanese forms of verse are no longer considered poets by the literary mainstream—if they ever truly were in the first place. Sadly, Japanese verse—like various classic European closed forms, epigrams, rhyming light verse—is no longer regarded as poetry by the editors and publishers from said mainstream. (More recently adopted Asian forms like Korean sijo and Middle Eastern ghazal were delivered stillborn, being considered as nothing more than non-poetic novelties or Oriental curios from the outset.) The term ‘poetry’ in the North American, British and Irish contexts now refers exclusively to free verse. Other forms of verse are now seen as separate literary forms—or even separate artistic entities—at best; at worst, they are now seen as pointless undertakings more reminiscent of parlor tricks to be performed by clever children. The form which is the focus of this essay, haiku, seems to be now interpreted as something more on par with Zen koans or esoteric incantations than anything resembling poetry. Ironically, this comes at a time when English-language haiku subject matter suddenly seems limited only by the human imagination.

True, the position of us Western haijins as poets has always been somewhat vicarious, to say the least. We have long been seen as extreme and eccentric inhabitants (even for poets) on the social, cultural and geographic fringes of Western society: elderly Buddhists and flaky New Agers who operate health food stores; ‘the last of the beatniks’—aging former lovers of Snyder, di Prima, Ginsberg and Kerouac; wacky wiccan women who dance naked through the woods with their 13-year old daughters in celebration of the latter's first menstrual cycle; middle aged male divorcees who wander the windswept back streets, measuring out their lives with elm growth and weather statistics; lonely young college boys and girls who have never had a lover, and teeter on the brink of suicide, committal or convent life; etc. Yet in spite of our reputation for being anything but pretentious, Atwood-imitating academics or politically correct, latte-slurping down towners (What's the point of a smoke-free coffee shop or jazz joint anyway?), there was always one thing we could count on: people knew the attributes of our craft. For the past 40 years or so, students as young as at the junior high level have known that haiku poets write a Japanese-derived verse form that captures a moment of higher human awareness and is written in 3 lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables and 5 syllables respectively. Whether or not the original Japanese ‘syllable’ count and configuration was actually the equivalent of the 5-7-5 pattern is irrelevant. What is important is the fact that for approximately 40 years, 5-7-5 was our pattern, even if for the past 25 years or thereabouts it has been so only in the minds of students and the general public.

I say "for the past 25 years or thereabouts" because it was in 1980 that George Swede and Eric Amann published ‘Toward a Definition of the Modern English Haiku’ (Cicada: Vol. 4, No. 4; pp. 3-12), which, quite frankly, probably did for haiku what the brush did for curling and the helmet did for ice hockey: made life less arduous for the producer, but more confusing and alienating for the consumer. In their essay—which has since been republished with revisions and credited solely to Swede—the authors laid the blueprint for the contemporary Western haiku by (seemingly) accommodating virtually every deviation from the 5-7-5 format that had materialized over the previous 3 decades. The modern English-language haiku, they thus concluded, can be read aloud in a single breath, evokes a moment of deep emotion or insight in which some aspect of Man is related to Nature, relies mainly on simple images, and is always in the present tense. Such a prescriptive summation probably illustrates why grassroots-up democracy is only as dependable as the people being polled.

To make matters worse, whenever someone has attempted to apply a little ‘top-down ’structural order to this very open-ended set of guidelines, it has often only contributed to the confusion and intimidation. Cor van den Heuvel, for example, has emphasized the fact that 12 syllables in English is actually more analogous with the 17 onji of the original Japanese version. He adds fuel to the fire in his forward to the third edition of The Haiku Anthology (Norton, 1999), insisting that: Though a few poets still write in the 5-7-5 syllable form, this form is now mostly written by schoolchildren as an exercise to learn how to count syllables, by beginners who know little about the true essence of haiku, or by those who just like to have a strict form with which to practice. (p. xxviii)

Now, as far as I'm concerned, this is merely an exercise in sheer snobbery bordering on historical revisionism. If it didn't also reek of self-fulfilling prophecy, I would have to dub it painfully laughable. (I have often wondered how many bards have stuck up their nose or middle finger at closed forms not because of any aesthetic disdain for syllabic, linear and metrical structure, but merely out of their own lack of talent and other shortcomings. I have a very strong feeling that the average free verse poet today would not be capable of composing a proper sonnet or ghazal in a month of amphetamine-fueled Sundays.)

Such conflicting, imprecise and structurally lacking definitions may have been fine and dandy in an era when the term ‘poetry’ was still inclusive, but in an era like the one we currently exist in—where poetry is synonymous with free verse—such a blueprint merely invites the composition of verse that holds a position in the haiku sphere analogous to the position free verse once held in the then-inclusive world of poetry. In fact, ironically, the general public's continued belief that the notion of haiku automatically entails the 5-7-5 pattern may be the only thing that prevents the modern English-language version from being defined as ‘the shortest form of free verse’. (George Swede may not realize how correct he is, when observing in a recent online column from Simply Haiku: "The data suggest that in the English speaking countries of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, the haiku is no longer seen as an indulgence of Japanophiles or poet-tasters, but as a legitimate short poetic form..." and "the evidence strongly indicates that the haiku now occupies a secure niche in the great edifice of English poetry".)

So this is the basic reason why I believe the 5-7-5 syllabic form to be so very vital: If we are going to exist in a Western environment where the term ‘poetry’ denotes free verse exclusively, and resulting haiku—like other (traditionally/supposedly) closed forms—is now in a literary or artistic category all its own, then we might as well make the best of a bad situation, and devote a considerable portion of our talents to composing haiku according to the tenets of the original English-language form—albeit a faulty or outright erroneously derived one. This would enable haiku to transcend being ambiguously perceived as "just another way to write free verse" (as Larry Gross once described the possible state of the sijo if allowed to mutate too far from its original Korean blueprint)—a separate literary category that no longer produces examples of itself and now strives to be accepted back(?) into the world of poetry/free verse. Simultaneously, it would help us to avoid confusing and/or alienating the general public (i.e., potential readers) who have grown up accustomed to the 5-7-5 form of their secondary and post-secondary textbooks; a person might require some reference point if he or she were encountering a haiku outside the usual context of a haiku periodical or solo volume—the 5-7-5 format would probably provide that.

I should also stress the usefulness of the 5-7-5 structure as an unifying factor in the context of the haiku's ever-expanding subject range. As I have already noted, haiku is no longer merely the verse of cicadas, frogs, sunsets and cherry blossoms. The form's natural landscape now flows almost seamlessly from the mountains into the subways, from the frogponds into the workings of the human brain and genitalia. (I can't help but be reminded of those lines from Sonic Youth's ‘Making the Nature Scene’: "The city is a natural scape / Order in the details".) In fact, there is no true distinction any longer between the traditionally nature-oriented haiku and the human-centered senryu along the lines of subject matter—the whimsical senryu's ability to be interpreted as light or satirical verse is its only true qualifier amongst most contemporary English-language haijins. Where there is no limit on subject matter, the haiku's propensity for (d)evolving into ‘the shortest form of free verse’ is only exacerbated by the lack of a standard closed form. The presence of a closed form would serve as an uniform filter, playing the Apollonian to the limitless subjects' Dionysian, in other words. And the best closed form to provide this Apollonian element would have to be the one with which the most people are already familiar, the one which has been officially instilled into the minds of the general public for at least the past 4 decades: the 5-7-5 syllabic structure. Erroneous as it may have been in its conception, at least it is indefatigably ours.

Mind you, I'm not suggesting for a second that all of us should ‘revert’ to the 5-7-5 pattern exclusively or otherwise face literary ostracism. What I am suggesting is that the editors, publishers and reviewers be more open to the traditional, and less arrogant in their approach to those who prefer to compose their haiku (and senryu) in this original English-language adaptation of the Japanese classic. As I've pointed out, in a Western climate where poetry is now synonymous with free verse, and haiku must stand as its own literary form awash in an endless sea of subject matter, any reference points and defensive uniformity that such haijins can provide should be welcomed, not mocked.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that I started out over a decade ago writing haiku, and from the beginning, I composed them in the traditional 5-7-5 form (or as close to it as I could get). Over the years, my output has (d)evolved into numerous mutations and variations, ranging from the two-liners found in ‘Hitchcock Presents...’ to the various ‘eyeku’ that will be collected in small flowers crack concrete; from the full-blown binary abstraction of ‘2001: A Space Haiku’ to the 18 to 22-syllable experiments found in the ‘Outlaw Haiku’ section of my most recent chapbook, In The Grip of Sirens (co-written with Robin Tilley). Still, I much prefer the work I've done in the 5-7-5 pattern, and these days I'm utilizing it almost exclusively again. It's not for everybody, true; but as I've hopefully made

clear, it has its benefits in this day and age. I guess it's as someone once noted: I tend to stress traditional form over traditional subject matter. Then again, maybe I'm still just a schoolchild and unknowing beginner; but I don't think so.

(This essay is one of two edited excerpts from a longer paper entitled Dial 575—57577 For Classicism.)


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Check out the previous issues of:

LYNX XXII:1,February, 2007
LYNX XXI:3,October, 2006

LYNX XXI:2, June, 2006

XXI-1,February, 2006

LYNX XX:3 October, 2005

LYNX XX:2 June, 2005

XX:1 February, 2005

XIX:3 October, 2004

LYNX XIX:2 June, 2004

XIX:1 February, 2004

XVIII:3 October, 2003

 LYNX XVIII:2 June, 2003

XVIII:1 February, 2003

LYNX XVII:3 October, 2002

LYNX XVII:2 June, 2002

XVII:1 February, 2002
LYNX XVI:3 October, 2001
LYNX XVI:2 June, 2001
LYNX XVI:1 February, 2001
XV:3 October, 2000
LYNX XV:2 June, 2000