Ask Jane 5

" I don't understand why everything I read about haiku says that it should be about nature and never about people.  Yet several of the ones that placed and were voted on to win were about people.  It seems that the people voting don't know what a good haiku is supposed to be about.  I guess I'm just confused. How is focusing on a hungry Afghani child an aesthetic experience of nature?  How is it that "lean deeper into him"  merits votes? That is so humanistic.  I could go on and on.   First place for instance was about missing a loved one, "your long absence deepens". That is SO MUCH about humans.  Also, the nesting dolls and the old folks in their empty nest. I didn't think it qualified as Haiku unless it portrayed an aesthetic experience about nature and was not about
people.     I'm just confused. Linda

Dear Linda,
Your question touches several topics, each of which is deserving of an answer, so I’d like to separate my responses into a couple of possible replies.
1. You are right that in teaching about haiku it is said that haiku should be about nature. We in the Western world often make a separation between ourselves and nature, by viewing ourselves as either above or outside of the rest of the natural world. Yet we speak of our “human nature” and we, as bodies, are formed completely of things of nature: air, water, soil and sunshine. Seen in this way, we are a part of nature and nature is a part of us and therefore there is room for humanity in haiku.
In each of the poems, to which you referred there was a reference to a part of nature outside of humanity: “morning frost,” “heavy frost,” and “frostbitten.” In all of these cases, there was a connection between human nature and nature-nature (as it is sometimes lamely called).
Part of your confusion is caused by the way we Westerners view these two aspects and part of it comes from the Japanese. In separating out the haiku (or hokku as it was called then) from the rest of the links in renga, one of the rules was that the verse should avoid mentioning persons because it was supposed to be elegant, placing the poem within seasons or places to set a scene, and to be concerned with the world greater than that of humanity. For other links within a renga this was not necessary and those links could and would handle subjects of love (certainly needing humanity), travel, lament (another strongly human occupation), and religion (also human-centered). It was only the first stanza that avoided these subjects. As the haiku was separated off and away from the renga, this rule stuck. When haiku was first introduced this was one of the rules we got – partly because it helped to disconnect haiku from our Western poetry that was so very concerned with ideas, philosophy, and feelings. Yet it is almost impossible to keep ourselves out of our poetry, so much of what we write as haiku is about ourselves. By making a connection with the nature-world (with kigo words) we attempt to align ourselves with the greater world so our smallness is not quite so puny.
If you have done much study of haiku you probably have read that senryu are only about people and that this is the difference between haiku and senryu. It is only in Japan that the two forms are really separate and that is because the Japanese haiku writers know and use the season words and the senryu writers do not. Since most season words come from the world of nature, and senryu writers must avoid them, by writing about human affairs they can. In the kukai you mention the poem “anniversary /  my mother’s nesting dolls / tucked within themselves” if written in Japanese would probably be called a senryu. Both forms are the same and only tone or intent separates them.           

I personally dislike the term and this further segregation of poetry so the idea of “free form” to mean without kigo is a good alternative. In English, we never completely understood these differences so from the beginning we have mostly written a hybrid haiku that combines both aspects so I do not think we need to continue to use an out-dated and often pejorative term.
I will admit there is a certain cool charm to a haiku that contains only references to the world of nature-nature. By concentrating on the eternal world of nature, the poem has a deeper, richer more secure feeling than recording the more petty foibles of human experience. Yet, if one only wrote such haiku, or only read such haiku, the form would be greatly reduced and we would miss out on a lot of good inspiration and poetry. We do love ourselves and we love to talk about, and read about, us!

            The second question you raise is about how people judge a haiku. Fortunately (or maybe you see it as unfortunate) everyone has a different idea of what constitutes an admirable haiku. I know my standards even change from year to year and what I admired ten years is not what I would pick today. As difficult as this is for someone trying to learn from contests, I find it good thing – that our concepts of the form change and grow. Even among haiku “experts” there is truly no consensus as proved last year in a contest with nine judges each picking three winners and out of the 27 picked poems only in two cases was the same poem picked and never with the same rank.
When you have a kukai (or a contest judged by the contestants) you have an even wider range of factors as to what constitutes an ideal haiku because you will have people new to haiku along with a few more experienced persons. In any contest, often the poems with human factors in them do win because they more easily touch our hearts and thus, stick in the memory long enough to rise about the rest of the entries. Put in a pitiful cat or dog and your chances are even better.
The sponsor of a contest may set forth certain aspects for the contest but the judges may disregard these and choose what they like and not follow the rules the contestants were given. Also, it is not unknown in large contests for the sponsors to make final judgments, not on the quality of the work, but in order to give the prizes to certain people for the work they have done in the haiku community, to encourage persons where haiku is new, or to payback for old favors. Even contests with several judges it is too often is not about excellence but who the winner is. If Jack Kerouac and Joe Blow are in a contest, the “wise” sponsor would give the first prize to Kerouac knowing that his fame would then rub-off on the contest and gain more publicity and more entries in the following year than poor Joe’s better haiku would bring. This is a good reason for entering kukai – at least you know what is pleasing to your fellow writers. I did not say they would pick the most excellent poem – I said they would pick what is most pleasing to them. From your question I feel you understand the difference.
One more word. I truly feel we need all kinds of haiku in our world just as we have weeds and orchids. Even you as a writer can (or should?) accept all kinds of haiku that come to you. Silly ones, ego-ridden ones, nasty-letting-off-steam ones, along with the sublime. The time of discernment comes when you let the haiku out of your notebook into the rest of the world. When you publish or enter a contest you will pick the haiku that comes closest to your highest goals for the form. Not everyone will agree with you, but if you have studied the form, and asked the questions, as you have done, you can be secure in knowing that even if your poem did not win, it was the best you had.