Volume 40.1
Winter 2009

book review:

Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese
& English-Language Haiku in Cross-Cultural Perspective

by Richard Gilbert

Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English-Language Haiku in Cross-Cultural Perspective, by Richard Gilbert (Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2008). 302 pages; 5 I x 8 H. Glossy four-color card cover; perfectbound. ISBN 1-978-893959-72-9. $27.95 from the publisher at PO Box 2461, Winchester, VA 22504-1661. Includes a DVD of interviews with contemporary Japanese haiku poets and a copy of the 2008 Gendai Haiku Web site in English and German.

Reviewed by Randy M. Brooks

Richard Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness is a book that is both disturbing and endearing. It is a book I initially was disappointed with but subsequently was pleased to like. As I have lived with this book over several months, I have come to understand my initial reaction better and to appreciate just what it offers to the contemporary haiku community. Let me begin with the disappointments and end with the love story.

My disappointments are not based on what the book is but rather with what the book is not, so I’ll examine the book in this order. If you are expecting an academic book you will be disappointed. Although it has footnotes and references at the ends of chapters, in several ways it does not observe the standards expected in an academic work. It lacks a unifying perspective or thesis running through the essays and interviews. The book is divided into “theoretical concerns” and “multicultural issues,” but the author does not provide an overview of his approach to theory nor multicultural perspectives. He does not place his inquiry within ongoing threads of literary scholarship. Key theoretical concepts such as “poetic consciousness” or “ecocriticism” or “cross-cultural perspectives” or “disjunctive poetry” are discussed but not located within existing academic dialogues. In the same way, in the second half of the book we are given interviews with contemporary Japanese haiku poets, but they are not placed in any context or keyed to a continuum of Japanese haiku poets or movements.

An example of this lack of academic context and definition of key terms is evident in Gilbert’s essay “The Disjunctive Dragonfly,” in which he argues for emphasis on disjunction — rather than juxtaposition or superposition — as the source of creative tension in haiku. I am glad that Gilbert is taking up the questions of haiku creation as an act of readers’ and writers’ consciousness, but I am disappointed that he does not connect his essay and its approach to his theoretical predecessors, both within and outside the haiku community. He simply starts with disjunction as a given without explaining where the concept comes from, stating only that “The idea of disjunction can be equally applied to poetry in general” (103). It is good that he is using the concept for the discussion, but it is frustrating that he misses the opportunity to let the haiku community connect to the broader discussion of disjunction in contemporary poetry.

What is the genesis of “the disjunctive” in contemporary poetics? One of the first instances of this concept appeared in an essay by William Sylvester in which he challenged the notion of organic unity in poetry. In “The Existence of a Disjunctive Principle in Poetry: A Preliminary Essay” Sylvester states that “the assumption of organic unity needs to be extended and revised” (265) and emphasizes the agency of readers as seekers and creators of meaning in response to the disjunctive principle in poetry. He concludes: “Wherever aesthetic elements are so distinct that a significant tension is created in the mind of the beholder, we have ‘disjunctive’ art” (266). In Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe, Peter Quartermain argues that the disjunctive elements extend beyond style to socioeconomic and indeterminate consciousness. The point in both of these studies is that disjunctive art resists easy, fast consumption, offering instead significant tensions left open to the mind of the beholder.

The concept of disjunction is evident in the scholarship on Japanese literature and linked verse, such as Earl Miner’s book, Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences. Renga is described as “essentially collaborative poetry that has ‘disjunctive linking’ as the basic rule of its composition” (168). The disjunction principle is brought out as well in Makoto Ueda’s book, Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology. Ueda provides an excellent short history of modern Japanese haiku poetics in the introduction to this anthology and places each haiku poet into context within those competing views of haiku. He also writes in his introduction, “Any poem demands a measure of active participation on the part of the reader, but this is especially true of haiku. With only slight exaggeration it might be said that the haiku poet completes only one half of his poem, leaving the other half to be supplied in the reader’s imagination” (vii).

More recently, in Traces of Dreams, Haruo Shirane offers a fine discussion of the tension between the horizontal plane of imagistic perception and resonating vertical plane of associations common to all haiku and at the heart of the aesthetics of linking in renga. Clearly the idea of haiku as a poetry of unresolved tensions — disjunctions — left open to the mind of the beholder has a been a central concept of the genre in both the Japanese and English-language haiku communities for a very long time. We should acknowledge the scholars and translators and predecessors who have explored the functions and processes of consciousness available in the haiku genre. The good news here is that we are getting past debates over definitions and lists of “do’s and don’ts” and into discussions about poetics, especially questions of how haiku work as literary artistic experiences both for writers and readers. Let’s get on with the exploration of the function of haiku as a literary art.

Now for the love story — why have I come to love Gilbert’s book? This book is what it is: a gathering up of various essays and interviews, mostly about contemporary Japanese haiku writers. Gilbert is not a scholar who has spent his life studying Japanese literature, but he is fascinated with modern and contemporary Japanese haiku. He does not have access to a large library of Western haiku but is familiar with some English-language work and a few journals. He has attempted to write haiku and has published a few, but he does not write this book from the perspective of a haiku writer. So he writes his essays and this book as an exploration. He is an explorer of the consciousness that lies beneath the haiku or in spaces between and within it. He is interested in the writer’s motives and interior shifts of consciousness and the possibilities of conveying those psychological processes in the disjunctive literary art of haiku. He reads haiku as roadmaps to cognitive processes of writing and reading haiku. He is interested in what is going on in the haiku poet’s head and then in the haiku reader’s head. He invites us to join him on a journey into the current landscapes of haiku, especially with those with whom he has contact in Kusamakura, Japan. This is the strength of the book. Gilbert is someone who likes to ask questions — and we all benefit from his asking. So after I got over my fuss with academic expectations, I found this book to be a rewarding, fun journey, sometimes into the consciousness of Richard Gilbert, but more often into the minds and practices of his interviewees.

Gilbert’s focus on consciousness provides an interesting perspective for looking at haiku — a perspective that leads to his list of types of disjunction that includes: (1) perceptual disjunction, (2) misreading as meaning, (3) overturning semantic expectations, and (4) linguistic oxymoron. He goes on to describe thirteen additional cognitive shifts found in haiku including: (5) imagistic fusion, (6) metaphoric fusion, (7) symmetrical rhythmic substitution, (8) concrete disjunction, (9) rhythmic disjunction, (10) the impossibly true, (11) displaced mythic resonance, (12) misplaced anthropomorphism, (13) unsatisfactory object, (14) pointing to the missing subject, (15) semantic register shift, (16) elemental animism, and (17) irruptive collocation. These types are ripe for exploration, and I hope that Gilbert and others seek examples and discussions of haiku employing his categories in the future.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this book is that Gilbert has started to map out a typology that will ultimately help us understand the art of reading haiku. He helps us explore and celebrate the possibilities and traditions of linking and shifting of consciousness within a haiku and from one haiku to the next. To understand the art of reading haiku, one needs to recognize the range of possible devices so that bursts of consciousness usually found in the best haiku are anticipated yet one can be surprised by new, unexpected turns. This process of anticipation and surprise is what keeps the art of haiku alive, vibrant, ever-changing, and new. If a haiku is too predictable, it is just a repeat performance of our anticipation. If it is totally unpredictable, we don’t know how to read it or recognize it as a haiku. This is one of the tensions that as writers and readers of haiku we all live with.

It is interesting that misreading as meaning is one of the types of disjunctive acts mentioned by Gilbert, because misreading is both fun and yet ripe for abuse or broader misunderstandings about haiku as a genre. If one deliberately attempts to misread a haiku, any haiku, it can result in absurdity, satire, or dismissal of the haiku as a quality literary work. One of the challenges of translation is that the cultural associations and unspoken suggestions are not evident. When the poet deliberately tries to have the reader misread the text as well, it may not be evident that Japanese techniques such kigo can be used in American haiku. Or if one assumes that English language haiku are mostly realistic descriptions of experienced scenes, they can be deliberately misread as never having resonating significance other than the actual things mentioned. One might claim that most American haiku are merely shasei haiku. Nicholas Virgilio’s “lily out of the water” haiku is just an observation about the way water lilies grow and bloom. Where else other than out of the water could a water lily grow and where else other than itself could it bloom? The significance is not in the shasei, but in the wordless part of the haiku — the pauses, the silences, the unspoken associations. In other words, using Shirane’s conception, one can misread haiku by assuming that the horizontal surface of perceptions evident in the images is all that is there in the haiku, ignoring the deeper significance found in the language, expression, syntax, cultural associations, implied social contexts, spaces, gaps, and the silences before, within, and after the words. So misreading can be abused in order merely to ridicule or seek a lack of significance, just as the art of reading calls for readers to expect more than a mere snapshot.

Reading a haiku supposes an implicit contract between the writer and reader to collaborate on seeking or creating aesthetic significance. The haiku writer won’t give the reader everything, nor tell the reader what to think nor how to feel about the images or language in the haiku. The poet invites the reader into the space of the haiku — the fragments, the language, the silences, the disjunctions, the consciousness — and expects him or her to collaborate in the process of shaping meaning or perceiving feeling from these pieces. The significance (insight, feeling, realization, understanding) is discovered and created by both writer and reader in this shared act of consciousness stimulated by the pieces of the haiku. It is this sharing of unfinished, incomplete consciousness that is the most characteristic of the art of haiku. Gilbert does an excellent job pointing out the importance of kire, the break or pause in a haiku, as the space that invites writer and reader into a shared collaborative consciousness.

If the motives of the writer or the reader are not trusted, this same space becomes an invitation for ridicule and misreading for the sake of denigration, dismissal, or petty personal attacks. This is true for individual writers as well as entire groups that may be dismissed as being too metaphorical or too realistic or too anthropomorphic. It has always been my contention that the haiku community needs to get past the beginner’s mind of definitions and rules and get on with the celebration of the diversity of the genre that is rich and strong only to the extent that there is a wide range of practice, a surprising freshness of voices and perspectives. We need to embrace and celebrate haiku writers who relish dense language and the naming function of words, haiku writers who live in the woods and tap into the biodiversity of ecosystems there, haiku writers who protest injustice and go to jail, haiku writers who resist the male ego dominance of English, haiku writers who meditate and seek the quiet voice within, haiku writers who celebrate being social and the significance of being in community, haiku writers who are religious within a variety of spiritual traditions, haiku writers who are all about people, haiku writers who write senryu and don’t care about the distinction, haiku writers who are international citizens of the world using haiku to bridge cultures, haiku writers who are so local nobody but friends at the local pub understand them. This diversity of writers and approaches to haiku is the strength and rich surprise of elasticity found in this literary genre. This is why I love the interviews in Gilbert’s book and DVD.

Although we have had some excellent introductions to modern Japanese haiku through scholarly translations, articles and books by Donald Keene, Makoto Ueda, Janine Beichman, Haruo Shirane, Hiroaki Sato, and others, there are still too few books on recent Japanese haiku available in English. So it is a great joy for us to meet a variety of haiku and senryu poets in Poems of Consciousness, including Hasegawa Kai, Uda Kiyoko, Tsubouchi Nenten, Hoshinaga Fumio, Ônishi Yasuyo, and Yagi Mikajo.

Meet Hasegawa Kai, who graduated from Tokyo University with a law degree in 1976, then became a reporter for Yomiuri Shinbun. In 1993 Hasegawa founded his own haiku circle and journal, Koshi (“Old Will”) and currently is a judge of the “Asahi Shinbun Haiku Corner.” In his interview with Hasegawa, Gilbert discusses the problem of Japanese “junk haiku,” verses that have become predictable and stagnant owing to the influence of Western realism, “haiku compositions based only upon those things you have directly seen” (71). Hasegawa calls for haiku with zengo no kire, described as “the cutting which cuts a haiku from this reality within which we live—from the literal place / environment /  atmosphere (“ba”) of literal existence” (77).

fuyu fukashi hashira no naka no nami no oto

deep winter
within the pillar
the rushing of waves

Hasegawa Kai (83)

Meet Uda Kiyoko, who started writing haiku in 1954 at age 19. She first became a member of Shirin (“Lion Forest”) and in 1970 joined Soen (“Grass Park”) led by haiku poet Katsura Nobuko. From 1976 to 1985 she was an editor of Gendai Haiku Journal with Tsubouchi Nenten. In 1985 she became the editor of Soen. She was a founder of the Osaka Study Group on Haiku History and is the current president of the Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyôkai). A more traditional haiku poet than Hasegawa, Uda writes haiku embedded within her environment instead of seeking haiku that cut away from the reality and environment in which we live. As Gilbert explains, “A main focus of her poetic endeavors … concerns how we live, have lived, and will continue to live on the land” (87). In the interview she explains how a haiku poet’s culture is grounded in the environment:

the climate of Japan seems most suitable to the rice paddy, the ground or earth of rice plants; but not so much for wheat or barley. As you know, generally, cultures may be divided into those of rice, and cultures of wheat and barley.… There is a cycle, a vast cycle, and human beings exist within this overarching cycle. Therefore, for haiku, and haiku themes, I do not think that this activity is particularly “special.” There is a sense of natural activity — as natural as breathing.

For Uda the heart of haiku significance lies in the associations and resonating significance of a tension between kigo and the human relationship to nature.

mugi yo shi wa ki isshoku to omoikomu

wheat —
realizing death as one color

Uda Kiyoko (93)

Meet Tsubouchi Nenten who studied Japanese literature at Ritsumeikan University and was editor of Gendai Haiku Journal with Uda from 1976 to 1985. Nenten enjoys haiku that exhibit a playfulness with language and personae. Haiku do not have to be autobiographical. They are literary constructs. As Gilbert summarizes, “Nenten discusses kakakoto, which can be translated as fragmentary or ‘broken’ language (literally, ‘baby talk’), as a source point of haiku creativity” (151). In the interview with Nenten, Gilbert notes, “Nenten discusses the relationship between haigo and persona. Historically, haiku poets have used haigo, ‘pen-names’ to create multiple personae, each an autonomous creative entity; this psychological process is both a central aspect of Nenten’s compositional approach and is also an integral part of the haiku tradition” (149). The haigo Nenten means “hippo” and shows up in this playful example as kaba:

sakura chiru anata mo kaba ni narinasai

cherry blossoms fall —
you too must become
a hippo

Tsubouchi Nenten (157)

Meet Hoshinaga Fumio who graduated from Kumamoto University in 1956 with a degree in Japanese literature. He joined Kaneko Tôta’s Kaitei (“Distance to the Sea”) haiku group in 1967 and in 1983 founded his own haiku circle and journal Hi-Hi. Through the interview with Gilbert, we see that for Hoshinaga haiku is a spiritual discipline, an art of seeking and expressing the sacred. He discusses “kotodama shinko, the ‘miraculous or sacred power of language,’ his primary approach to haiku composition … kamuagaru (to rise to heaven / become or unite with kami [gods]), as a key critical concept” (161). Hoshinaga talks about the importance of sacred festivals and the act of seeking or becoming divine or sacred.

mizu wo kiru tombo ga sui to kami ni naru

flicking off water
a dragonfly quickly
becomes divine

Hoshinaga Fumio (163)

Meet Ônishi Yasuyo, a senryû writer who serves as the judge of the NHK Kansai Senryû Program and the Asahi Shinbun senryû column. She talks about senryû as “extraordinary literature. Truly, the vehicle of senryû is an excellent way to express human pathos and the naked and true nature of what a human being is. In order to express such things, senryu may in fact be an ideal literary form” (223).

sogekihei no futokoro fukaku sarusuberi

in the deep bosom
of a sniper —
myrtle blossom

Ônishi Yasuyo (230)

Meet Yagi Mikajo, who earned an M.D. degree from Osaka Medical College and became the first female ophthalmologist in Japan. She writes zen-ei (“avant-garde”) haiku and became the leader of a haiku group and journal, Hana (“Flower”), in 1964. Owing to Ônishi’s age and health, Gilbert’s interview is brief, but he includes commentary from Kaneko Tôta and other haiku poets. Tôta writes, “Bold, adventurous, sexual, experimental. These are some of the qualities of Mikajo’s work. Without concern for consequences, following her passion, creating haiku of the human, Mikajo is a haiku poet born in the vortex of the postwar haiku movement” (256).

mankai no mori no inbu no era kokyû

full bloom
in the forest’s genitals
respiration of gills

Yagi Mikajo (255)

Richard Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness does not finish academic arguments, but it is a wonderful exploration of the variety of contemporary Japanese haiku poets, especially the variety of types of consciousness that become the basis of their literary creations. It is the questions this book raises that are so valuable, and the continued exploration and introduction of contemporary Japanese haiku authors that makes this book an essential addition to libraries — personal and public. Buy it for your personal library and ask your local library to purchase a copy as well.


Works cited

Earl Miner. Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Peter Quartermain. Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Haruo Shirane. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

William Sylvester. “The Existence of a Disjunctive Principle in Poetry: A Preliminary Essay,” in College English, 28:4 (January 1967), 265–72.

Makoto Ueda. Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.



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