The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century, edited by Modern Haiku Association (Tokyo: Modern Haiku Association, 2008). 217 pages; 6x8. Matte beige card covers; white wrappers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-4-816107-12-2. Price: $25.00.
The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century is many things in one: a history lesson, a museum, an answer, a question, a keystone, a springboard, a landmark, a reinterpretation, a realignment, and a summons. For many, it will be a buried treasure — the dark side of the moon. Somewhere over the rainbow. Or a valentine. For others, the anthology will be like loose fiberglass filaments. After having spent a large amount of time with this anthology, one quote I am familiar with has continuously sprung up again and again, something Hunter S. Thompson used to say: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” It is an anthology that will undoubtedly inspire, challenge, bewilder, and change its readers. It stirs the soul and the imagination. It gets the juices flowing, the nerves tingling. It irrupts and ignites. And the scent lingers. It forever spikes the punchbowl. Non-drinkers beware.
The anthology, published in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyôkai), entirely bilingual (Japanese and English) and greatly updated and expanded from the 2001 version the association released in celebration of its 50th anniversary, is lovingly introduced by two pioneers of 20th century Japanese haiku, Tôta Kaneko and Kiyoko Uda, respectively:
with a single firefly
clinging to it
The other world
means transparency beyond
the cherry blossoms
This beautiful edition includes “many works from the modern and contemporary generation of poets (those born after 1945),” adding 60 poets to the previous edition’s 185. As Kaneko states, “the anthology is organized in such a way that the historical development of haiku from modern to contemporary time can be easily followed.” I concur with Uda that this book will be highly appreciated beyond the limits of the MHA and the islands of Japan. As she states, “the great world a good haiku unfolds is sure to reach to the heart of someone living in a distant country.” Worlds indeed.
The anthology does not give its readers an outright definition of what gendai haiku is but shows it through detailed history and, of course, its museum of poems. Before explicating more on the anthology and getting into its meat, marrow, and juices — its historical periods and directions, and the poems within those directions — it seems appropriate to give uninitiated readers, and a reminder for others, some insight into what gendai haiku is in some way, the term and its meaning. To quote Richard Gilbert, an expert on the subject (not in the anthology):
“Gendai haiku” means literally “modern or contemporary haiku,” and loosely refers to expansive ideas of the haiku form arising from the 1920s on, and more particularly to the direct progenitors of the gendai haiku movement.… Literally, the word [gendai] means “contemporary” but just as with “modern art,” something more is implied, in terms of movements, categories, history and personages.… Gendai haiku offer the reader the shape of who we are in the shape of things to come, in resonance with archaic myth, (and) the formal insights of previous ages.… Gendai haiku partake of a tradition and culture in which, unlike that of the historical Judeo-Christian West, nature and culture were not extensively polarized. So in gendai haiku exists an invitation to the present and a future, in congruence with the past. This congruency is also an uprooting, accomplished via expansive and often experimental avant-garde language and techniques. Yet the old is likewise held in the new, in plying the form.”
Gilbert also points out that gendai haiku are not completely separate from classical haiku but intricately intertwined, and thus a natural extension and evolution of thoughts, influences, and ideas. They are all connected in a beautiful and ever-growing web.
The first section of the anthology is twenty pages (eight sections) of detailed (though it is called “brief”) history of modern haiku by Toshio Kimura, explaining the different directions and movements haiku took in the 20th century, showcasing the roots and evolution of the gendai movement. It begins by crystalizing the first three centuries of what we now call haiku into a paragraph (to give you some perspective) and then goes into the details of the political and economic modernization of Japan through militaristic capitalism (Commodore Perry was not interested in flower arrangement), eventually leading to the modernization of haiku at the end of the 19th century through the Western influences of realism, as well as taking another look at objectivity from a century earlier in its own history.
This modernization was encouraged and brought to fruition by Masaoka Tsunenori (1867–1902), better known by his pen name, or haigo, Shiki — the name of a bird that, according to legend, coughs blood while it sings. His insistence on Japanese haiku poets bringing haikai (as it was then called) into their own modern era radically updated the form, which, as the anthology states, “had become unexciting literature, full of trite expressions and with little artistic flavor,” into a new literary art. Haikai became haiku: an independent poem all its own, completely separate from other poems/links. Objective realism, a trend from European art, and a new influence since the opening of Japan to the West, became the way in which Shiki and his compatriots felt they could bring this poetry into the modern era. This objective attitude was also a way for them to reconnect and infuse new life into haikai based on the work and objective techniques (as Shiki saw them to be) of Buson, in whose work Shiki found much worth.
The effects and resonance of this modernization can of course still be very muchfelt today, in both Japanese and English-language haiku. Shiki’s concept of expressing his feelings in a realistic sketch (shasei), “inspired, in part, by European realism … [which was] then … re-imported back to the West as something very Japanese,” became that of the mainstream, and it remains for the most part that way today, even though “the essential lifeblood of the haiku tradition has never had anything to do with realism.…” and that, in fact, interpreting and composing haiku in this way “is basically a modern view of haiku.”
Shiki, for example, contradicting himself, wrote haiku under more than a hundred different haigo/personae, often wrote ten or more haiku on a single topic, and would engage in haiku parties where a stick of incense would be lit and all the participants would write as many haiku as they could on a particular topic — the complete opposite, in many ways, of the Western concepts of haiku as having to be “a moment keenly perceived,” having to be “real” or to have actually happened or been “directly experienced.” In the case of the incense-stick exercise, what we instead have is haiku of the imagination, of memories, of both the subconscious and the unconscious — a kind of playful, meditative, trance performance, automatic writing not unlike that of the surrealist poets, where the poets dive down deep within themselves. This brings into question our definitions of reality as well as the “directly observed.” Or, perhaps we are, and for the last sixty-odd years of English haiku writing and publishing have been, misinterpreting the term “realism” altogether. As Ban’ya Natsuishi has said, “Western poets perhaps confuse ‘reality’ with ‘fact.’ Reality might easily include the imaginative and unreal … the totality of human reality.”
To put the use of realism and objectivity into some perspective, allow me to share some thoughts (not in the anthology) by haiku poet, scholar, and critic Hasegawa Kai:
[R]ealism has had an enormous influence on haiku. In that sense, modern haiku are nothing but “realism haiku.…” To put it briefly, this is the idea that haiku are written about “things” (that actually exist). It is certainly true that modern haiku has gained much from this realism. However, these “realism haiku” contain a number of pitfalls. The greatest of these is that the haiku have lost kokoro (feeling, heart, spirit, [imagination]). From the time of the Man’yoshu, Japan’s earliest poetry anthology, the Japanese literary arts have invested mono (things) with kokoro. Haiku are no exception. Even if they appear to be written only about things, there is definitely kokoro beneath the surface. However, because of the extremes of modern realism, kokoro is neglected, and only “things” have come to be written about in haiku. These are what I referred to as “junk” (garakuta) haiku. Sooner or later this tendency will have to be corrected. For one thing, it is a serious departure from the main principle of Japanese literary art. And more to the point, “junk haiku” just aren’t interesting.
Though this is a recent quote about the current state of haiku, these are precisely some of the areas and directions Japanese haiku poets of the 20th century explored in reaction to traditionalism and realism early on last century, and what this anthology prominently displays: haiku that do indeed have “kokoro beneath the surface”; haiku that are not only about things.
This area of strands in struggle with one another (realism / objectivity / traditionalism / conservatism v. experimentalism / nontraditional aesthetics) has become increasingly more problematic, controversial, and debatable though in the West, and most certainly was, as the anthology chronicles, throughout the 20th century in Japan. Some poets were even jailed for straying from the path or confronting issues perceived as controversial. We can certainly learn from their odyssey.
The work of the poets in The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century clearly shows something was not being satisfied by realism and objectivity alone — they needed to make it new, make it interesting, make it them, in the here and now. These Japanese haiku poets clearly needed other means, methods, and techniques to communicate their innermost thoughts and feelings and how those thoughts and feelings connected to the world and changes (both societal and seasonal) going on around them — and so they took chances and risks with their work. What was being put forward as haiku was not allowing them to get what they wanted from haiku. Called on by Shiki to modernize, they didn’t simply stop, freeze, or even pause, but instead felt the need to experiment, push and pull, force and shatter, in order for them and their poetry to have legitimacy, be affective, and be part of the era they were living in — and to reflect that era. Shasei, sketching, realism and objectivity, though substantial and with infinite potential and capabilities, were simply not adequate for them. Upon Shiki’s early death, Japanese poets immediately began to expand and evolve and branch out from the established roots, constructed steps, and earlier spun strands of the web.
Westerners should strongly take note of this shifting and expansion of techniques, experimentation, endless questioning, and continuous plowing. Japanese haiku has always been, understandably, a lodestar for Western haiku writers, a keystone and source of inspiration — in both good and bad ways. In regards to the poetry and ideas in this anthology, it is ultimately up to the individual whether he or she wants to view 20th and 21st century Japanese haiku as their polestar. With so much groundbreaking and inspirational work in the anthology, it seems hard not to be magnetically attracted to their creativity and bravery. I concur with Richard Gilbert when he says, “I feel we have much yet to learn from contemporary Japanese poets — not because they are Japanese, but because there are a number of brilliant haiku poets, standing on the shoulders of giants, now among us; and they happen to be Japanese.” If anything, we as Western haiku writers should, at the very least, be inspired by their passion and desire not to become complacent, revel in the status quo, become repetitive, or overly conform to what is accepted and expected.
A few more words from Hasegawa:
There are also various problems related to the current state of Western haiku. They are not, however, the same problems facing Japanese haiku. Rather, the problems are even more complicated. While the biggest problem facing Japanese haiku is that of how to reconcile haiku, a traditional form of literature indigenous to Japan, with the realism learned from the West. Haiku in the West have, in addition, the even greater problem of how to root this traditional form of literature indigenous to Japan in the cultural soil of the West. It seems to me that the current state in which “a lot of haiku written today in the English language by Western practitioners fall short of memorability and depth, and appear to be formula based” has occurred just because they have become the “victim of realism.” I think that there are deeper underlying problems even before that — for example, the problem of the fundamental understanding of what a haiku is. 
Being the “victim of realism” has not only had a stultifying effect on how haiku is composed in the West but also, perhaps more importantly, on how we read and interpret Japanese haiku that have been translated — which, of course, is intricately entwined with composition and education. Because of this strict clinging to realism and objectivity, a historically inaccurate emphasis, Westerners have come, for the most part, to interpret all haiku, from Bashô to Ban’ya, through the lenses of realism and shasei — a sense of hyper-literalism, with little regard to what came before or after it. Thus, both ancient techniques of punning, wordplay, metaphor, and historical and literary referencing and modern techniques of avant-garde language and surrealism, are distorted when viewed through hyper-literal and hyper-realist lenses, or ignored and marginalized, doing an injustice to the current state of composition as well as, more importantly, future haiku composition. Hopefully, with the publication of this anthology and the kaleidoscopic universe it presents, an entirely new set of glasses can be constructed.
As we learn in the next eighteen pages of the anthology’s history, however, Western realism was, though new and vitally important in that it forcibly and consciously brought haiku into the era of modern Japan at that time (and modern Japan into haiku), elevating it into a new literary art form, it was only a passing phase for a number of Japanese poets, or at least only one of many techniques that led to many different directions, ideas, and movements. These pages are extremely detailed in the dates of the journals, the poets involved in their creation, as well as the poets those journals “produced.” From these details we see the way different ideas in haiku composition became popular and influential, mostly affected by what was going on in society (war, politics, economics, the influences of Western art), as well as which poets supported or created these ideas and helped them evolve. Some were short-lived but important and explosive in bringing about new ideas, influencing others, and, as a whole, stirring the pot. The effects of others are still being felt today.
To offer a quick overview, Japanese haiku during the 20th century touched upon such diverse topics and concepts as: the free-form (non–5–7–5), traditional (pre-Shiki ideas, as well as shasei /objective realism), natural beauty, individualism/individuality, subjectivity, muki (non-seasonal/keyword), humanism, proletarianism, socialism, the imaginary, the human spirit, haiku without a center of interest, “the essence” of haiku, the avant-garde, French Symbolism, Surrealism, and formatting (4-line haiku).
These movements, strands, and directions were never, it seems, smooth transitions or at one with each other, or with the mainstream, but encountered constant battles, rivalries, friction, disagreements, arguments, fractioning, conflicts, withdrawals, and splits along the way. As the haiku in the anthology show, it created a fascinating diversity of work that not only has depth, continuing to resonate today, but a sense of unrelenting exploration for new possibilities of expression.
They were not distractions.
The movements that had the most impact on 20th century Japanese haiku poets, influencing, contributing, and leading to the construction of the gendai haiku movement — between waves of nostalgic longing for traditional Japanese haiku form and subject matter, as well as realism/objectivity — were the shin-keikô style, the free-form style (jiyuritsu), the Shinkô movement, and the avant-garde. Soon after the death of Shiki, one of his disciples, Hekigotô Kawahigashi, created shin-keikô — a style that promoted a kind of progressivism that “aimed to depict an inner phenomenon by subjective expression.”
A red camellia
then a white camellia
This “inner phenomenon by subjective expression” became the dominant style following Shiki’s death to the end of the Meiji Era (1868–1912), embodying “the same kind of philosophy in which Shiki believed, that haiku advances only when it departs from the traditional style.”
This quote seems to bear repeating, and warrants a spotlight:
Shiki believed … that haiku advances only when it departs from the traditional style.
“Advances” in the present tense. So the questions, it seems, for anyone reading this are what is the traditional style and what is the traditional style right now, at this moment? Now, how can we depart from it artistically, with genuineness, depth, and kokoro (heart/ imagination/feeling/spirit), bringing it into the era we are in, therefore giving it relevance and resonance? Shiki’s quote echoes something Bashô’s disciple Tohô once said: “As time moves on, the art of haikai will go through its own thousand transitions and ten thousand changes, but all transformations based on makoto (genuineness) will be part of the master’s art. The master said, ‘Never content yourself with the drivel of the ancients. Just as the four seasons change, all things become new. Everything is that way.’”
The jiyuritsu movement (1910–15) “pursued a freedom of poetical spirit in haiku and did not try to stick to any traditions of haiku, such as seasonal themes, a fixed form, or old literary expressions.” Poets involved in this movement (all of whom have had large blocks of their work translated into English) included Seisensui Ogiwara, Santôka Taneda, Hôsai Ozaki, and Ippekirô Nakatsuka.
All day long
without saying a word —
the shape of a butterfly
Starting in 1930, the shinkô haiku (“new-style haiku”) movement, also an antitraditionalist school, came into being. They sought a more subjective style, focusing on lyrical romantic expression, criticizing the more traditional schools as being trivial and not facing the reality of what was going on around them. This movement, to a large extent, was influenced by leftist politics of the day (proletarian- and socialist-themed haiku concerned with the conditions and realities of workers and the general public), wars and militarism (imaginary battlefield haiku), and Western art (individualism). They also reexaminied the necessity of season words as well as, once again, the fixed 5–7–5 form.
A war at hand,
I cheer along
a boxing match
wants oil, the night
is growing late
During wartime though, and just as shinkô haiku collections and journals were beginning to be published, the movement virtually came to a halt under pressure from the police and the right-wing, militarist government of that time. One after another, haiku poets of the shinkô school were arrested. “Thus,” the anthology states, “the haiku innovation movement, becoming powerful in the first half of the 20th century, ended almost immediately with the suppression it experienced during the war. However, this Shinkô haiku elevated haiku to a level of poetry that expressed not only kachô fûei [haiku of natural beauty] but also the human spirit, ranking with modern Western poetry. Haiku works of this movement still have a great deal of influence on present poets and readers.”
Immediately following the war and the abolishment of the Japanese military and police state, haiku poets began once again to publish and share their work. Influenced by the ideas, movements, and cornerstones explained above, as well as other smaller and influential movements and directions, the Gendai Haiku Kyôkai (Modern Haiku Association) was founded in 1947 by Sanki Saitô, Hakyô Ishida, Hideo Kanda, and others.
Autumn sunset —
bones of a gigantic fish
drawn into the sea
Since 1961, after yet another fracturing, the association “has accepted all kinds of haiku styles, including the traditional style of the remaining conservatives, nonseasonal haiku and free form.” An open-minded, worthy, and commendable attitude for any haiku association or journal.
The postwar period saw poets taking a renewed interest in politics, composing haiku and expressing themselves from the perspective of socialist and proletarian concepts.
From out of sight
of the man who was killed
we also vanished
Following that, the “Age of the Avant-garde,” “perhaps the main contribution poets have made to haiku in the postwar era,” began in 1950. It continued the search for new possibilities in haiku composition. Radical economic growth and greater anxiety (over the Vietnam War and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty) contributed to this need for poets to explore as well. During this time, “individuals could not function or exist independently from their relationship to society. Two attitudes resulted from this social dynamic: one that tried to relate to the society positively, and the reverse, which purposely tried to separate itself from the society and to keep poetical beauty in its works.”
One school of avant-garde haiku composition, zôkei-ron, was put forth by Tôta Kaneko (circa 1955), wherein he “proposed that new haiku should be constructed by starting from inside oneself, then in relationship to the society.”
Twisted and burnt
at ground zero of the Bomb —
Black collides with black
wrestling back and forth every other
black and raven hue
The color of a warship
sunk under the sea:
a nursing bottle
At journey’s end
with lung’s collapsing …
the conifer trees
The other popular avant-garde group was known as the “artistic” school, “which sought for aesthetics of expression in haiku,” employing methods of French Symbolism and Surrealism, sometimes also using the beauty of classical Japanese literary works,” expressing “the sense of crisis of the times to develop the spirit of the former Shinkô haiku movement, with their own principles of aesthetics,” mirroring, in many ways, Kaneko’s own saying that haiku poets need “to practice the modern in the grandeur of the old.”
Beat of a war drum
in autumn desolation
turns into the green star
An ancient warrior
pushing forward alone —
A white peach …
nihilism, which is to say
Both schools, for the most part, utilized the fixed form (the four-line work of Takayanagi being an exception), yet tried to write nonseasonal haiku freely as well.
The age of avant-garde haiku and modernist sensibilities was followed by that of postmodernist work. The anthology has this to say about that era (from approximately 1970 to 1980): “The subjects of art had moved to the expression of individual consciousness of inner matters. Similarly, whereas haiku in Japan had previously developed into collective movements, it became more individualistic during this time.” Influenced by the economic growth and the rise in the standard of living, “it became harder to find literary subjects for poets to consider. After the avant-garde movement and until the present day, trends toward innovation or experiments in haiku have been lost, and in the stability of conservatism, haiku has been heading for inner shape and deeper expression. Nevertheless, some poets search for more poetical quality, agreeing with modern ideas and thought, such as using phenomenal studies, composition principles, and post-composition principles.”
of Heaven’s net smells
of winter violets
The world of rice-plants —
a giant strides over it
with three steps
These major movements and directions 20th century Japanese haiku poets took seem to show abundantly that their collective consciousness and poetry have gone deeper and deeper into the sea of subjectivity — individuality, matters of inner being, inner worlds, and feelings: towards the depths, inner reaches and ocean floor of their souls and imaginations, though almost always in connection and with respect to the natural world and seasons. Oftentimes, though, the fish get strange and beautiful down there, with see-through heads and fluorescent hearts.
The translations in The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century, as shown thus far, are all solid in that the English is clear and well crafted and the line breaks are well chosen. They conform to the standard way in which haiku has come to be composed in English: three lines aligned to the left — an acknowledgment to what the West has done with the form, and its status today. It is also a way to gain Western acceptance, because nearly all these haiku were originally composed in a single line (the predominant style of Japanese haiku for centuries). All the translations are accompanied by their original Japanese and rômaji.
One major failure of the anthology is that the translations are are left naked without interpretations or the inclusion of historical or literary references, allusions, or explications on possible wordplay and other techniques of language or rhythm. That is not, however, the mission of the anthology’s haiku section, or the book overall. Its aim is not to be a Robin-D.-Gill-funhouse-exhibition of poems with their paraversing references galore, and multiple translations (exciting, informative and, more often than not, vital as they are to full understanding), but a condensed, kaleidoscopic museum of the directions, possibilities, and influences that 20th century Japanese haiku poets have made, the universe they have created for 21st century haiku poets to expand upon and grow from, presented as straightforwardly and elegantly as possible.
Still, the haiku tradition in the West has been extremely warped because of poor and skewed translations, a lack of awareness of wordplay, allusions, and metaphor, and a promotion of very specific interpretive methods. The emphasis has been on the insularity of Zen and Buddhism, ignoring the fact that these are entwined deeply with Taoism, Shintoism, ancient Chinese and Japanese literature, folktales and mythologies, and local environs and culture — what Haruo Shirane has called the “horizontal axis” (the present/contemporary world) largely absent of the “vertical axis” (”the movement across time … leading back into the past, into history, into other poems”).12 Because of that emphasis, preference for objectivity/realism and the imagistic over subjective or language-based haiku was seen as the true way of understanding the genre. Who is to know whether or not the lack of explication on 20th and 21st century work in this anthology will not have the same effect now and in the future. Translators beware. Rev your engines. Still, it is exciting and challenging to ingest the work in all its nakedness and to find connections with and inspiration from them in this form. Creative misreadings can take us to exciting places too.
The haiku section of the anthology is divided into four sections: “Pioneers,” “Promoters,” “Challengers” and “Kaleidoscope.” The birth dates of the poets range from 1882 (Santôka Taneda) to 1973 (Ken’ichi Tajima).
A wintry drizzle —
into the drizzly mountains
setting off on foot
The whale’s eyes
stung … the reason
“Pioneers” presents nine pages of haiku by thirty-six poets, four per page, one haiku per poet, with their dates. It is the shortest of the haiku sections. The work of the poets in this group broke new ground, expanding from and revolting against traditionally held beliefs and techniques, most specifically by using keywords instead of kigo as well as breaking out of and away from the 5–7–5 shackle. The section begins with Santôka (1882–1940) and ends with Ayako Hosomi (1909–1997). A couple favorites:
All through the night
with the sweat of my back
a cross is drawn
More and more quickly
my lungs are turning blue —
a trip by sea
The second section of haiku, the largest in the anthology, is entitled “Promoters” and runs sixty-one pages. It is set up differently than the first. Each page is dedicated to a single poet, with three haiku on the page. Information at the bottom of each page includes the birth date, involvement in haiku schools/journals, and titles of published haiku collections. The section begins with Sôshû Takaya (1910–1999) and ends with Toshino Tsubouchi (b. 1944). The poets in this section represent those who in some way latched onto the ideas of the first section’s poets (the Pioneers) and promoted their styles through journals, organizations, and their own work, while at the same time being more and more influenced by new ideas from the West, for example, imaginary battle haiku, Surrealism, French Symbolism and avant-garde language. A few more favorites:
The palms of warm hands
one by one turn into
Winter wind —
a horse appearing
on the sea
If I turned to a horse
a transparent horse is what
I would become
When the frozen butterfly
finally reaches its end:
a hundred towers
As a single drop
I am walking
“Challengers” runs fifty-nine pages, and is set up the same way as “Promoters.” The work of the poets in this section goes even further and deeper than that of the Promoters and therefore pushes even harder at the boundaries of haiku. Much of the work in this section seems more personal and visionary, touching upon ideas and expressions of birth, transformation and metamorphosis, revelations, the shamanistic, the fantastical, the mysterious, and the psychological consciousness of the individual as a world itself. Instead of these poets’ penetrating further into the realms of surrealism or abstractness, they attempt to touch upon deeper and more strongly universal feelings. The work remains centered on strong and oftentimes startling imagery and disjunctive language, sometimes with kigo, sometimes without.
The obscurity and abstract nature of the poems in this section, as well as the previous one, might puzzle some, perhaps even annoy or ruffle some carefully placed and smoothed feathers. Others might think the work says too much, or is too up front about emotions or comparisons, metaphor, and simile, or employs unacceptable or undesirable Western poetic devices and techniques. Most of this concern, again, is based on information that is not historically correct, or has been routinely downplayed as false or marginalized. Gendai haiku challenge the perception Westerners have of haiku, and what many have been taught and instructed that it should be; no doubt this work might have the same affect on many Japanese readers as well. In this sense gendai haiku present something vitally new to us: a fusion of the East and the West that artistically rises above that dichotomy. Like Philip Rowland, I “find myself still [happily] grappling with the mechanisms of much Western poetry.…” Don’t you?
The work of these poets is certainly challenging. It can be argued that we need more such work that extends such notions. Much can be said for “the obscure” and the “difficult” and the way they are able to challenge us and our perceptions and needs. Do we only want haiku that are easy, calm, and nice? Simple to swallow? Sugarcoated perhaps? Haiku that take the easy route, avoid the difficult, the dark underbelly? Of course there is a middle ground, but when does work become status quo or repetitive and uninspiring — a product of conformity? It seems the obscurity of the work in this section, and this anthology overall, still retains the clarity and immediacy of strong images; and in most cases still creates moments creatively connected to nature. If anything, gendai haiku expands our notions of what nature is and how we can connect to it through unusual language and juxtapositions. Some might feel that all of this is too much — the radicalness of the usual act of violence and birth involved in creating language and especially poetry (to paraphrase Octavio Paz) of this work going too far — and gets in the way of what they want and need haiku to be (or what they have been taught that it is supposed to be). Indeed, it does. Very much so. That’s the point. Gendai poets directly challenge those perceptions and methods — expanding them, fusing them. Not because they simply felt like annoying or disrupting anything, but because they had to do so. With this greater sense of individualism and subjectivity came new images, new feelings, new mythologies, new connections, new galaxies and planets, new language and new methods.
Gendai poets’ work represents a fusion and hybridization that is not unlike late 20th century music or food, for example. Think of the use of a backwards guitar, sitar, record scratching, or sampling in rock or pop songs? And how were those fusions confronted and reacted to by culture? Foie gras and truffle mayonnaise on your hot dog? Or take the bánh mì sandwich, a result of Western imperialism: the fusing of Vietnamese ingredients with French bread. Ultimately, that is what it is all about: fusion, infusion, adaption, and change. Nature. Sometimes effortlessly, other timeswith great noise, violence, and upheaval.
A few favorites from among the “Challengers”
On a night in wartime
an infant quietly
unites the stars
I am pregnant
with the clown
of a snowy day
In a postscript
I make preparations for
the sleep of a crane
Have an exchange
with a lizard’s recollections —
In a world that is becoming more and more accessible (smaller and smaller, yet larger and larger to the individual, little information or ideas being too far from our fingertips), what are the consequences of ignoring or marginalizing different (or “new”) ideas or, with new information, not to expand and enrich our definitions of what haiku is and can be? And if we are serious about our art, no path or strand of haiku composition is exhaustive or without merit; and no single strand need be emphasized or promoted as the one and only way.
Whatever the case, artistry and genuineness should always be the key, the goal, the center of our pursuits as haiku poets. What has been going on in the West for far too long comes across more and more as romanticism, hobbyism, faux-Easternism, and a clinging to traditions based on ahistory, thus creating a prevalence of “watery pebbles,” “same-o same-o,” plastic work, and ultimately garakuta (“junk”). In a throwaway society, perhaps this is to be expected. Or, perhaps all art forms are like this and take on this kind of trajectory.… There is no debating it though: haiku are creations of language, built of words. We must do something with them and be more critical of what we not only write but also accept, publish, and promote. The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century provides us with an expanded palette and the challenge and the permission, in a sense, to embrace the old (reexamined and historically revised) as well as investigate the new and the different and the possible. At the same time, of course, we cannot hurtle into the alternative without a firm grounding in the past (that grandeur Kaneko noted) or else “new” haiku (whether it be avant-garde, surreal, fragmentary, found, or whatever) will go down the same road, and suffer the same consequences, as haiku that cling solely to the past narrow points of view, and misinformation: empty work that is fake, phony, disposable, and forgettable. In this sense, gendai poets have provided us with tremendous examples of work that begs relistening.
The fourth section of haiku in the anthology, entitled “Kaleidoscope,” is precisely that. Structured like the first haiku section of the book — four poets per page, one haiku each — the poets in this section seem to move both more inward and outward at the same time. More work in this section touches upon our planet, our galaxy, our universe. The poetry expands outward towards infinity, but also towards the planet, galaxy, universe and infinity within the human mind/soul/heart/imagination: the human as a universe inside a universe, of one and the same process. A kind of new reality. The section consists of 28 pages and 115 haiku; poets’ birth dates range from 1900 (Yôichirô Minato) to 1973 (Ken’ichi Tajima). I found myself returning to this section most often and earmarked a large number of favorites. Here are just a few:
In the darkness
an automatic door opens:
Go through, it says.
Seen from somewhere
the water on the earth
is getting clearer
Dashing in high spirits
from a skyscraper:
the journey of a god
On a pilgrimage to space
force all the stars
To conclude, I’d like to return to the history section of the anthology:
[S]ince the end of the twentieth century, the spirit of innovation has become weaker and only one stable condition lasts: poets focus on themes related to the inner world of their own souls. It seems that the experiments of haiku innovation in the 20th century have completed a full cycle. We are now at a point where a positive future course is difficult to see. This may be a time similar to the “night” before the haiku innovation of one hundred years ago. In this respect, we may be at a kind of transition point today. Where is haiku heading in the 21st century? If there is not a totally new interpretation, similar to the 20th century reformation, then the significance of haiku in the new century will greatly diminish.
What is the West now to explore in English-language haiku? How can it continue to wobble effectively, “depart from the traditional,” expanding the web? Are we not also now at an important transition point? In what directions can we go? How can we continue to liberate ourselves? Do many of us even want to liberate ourselves? Has the West already exhausted Western poetic methods to such an extent that we can wipe our hands clean of it? Been there, done that? Now back to the comfort and safety of realism and objectivity, the learned and exhausted? And what of the Eastern techniques and methods we have already been using? Are they, in fact, really that “new” anymore — especially if haiku can now be considered mainstream? Is it possible to exhaust anything? Is anything truly new, truly Western or Eastern any more? Aren’t all the doors and windows now open? Isn’t it time to reboot?
So where does and can haiku go? One thing is certain: the answer is not to simply mimic Japanese haiku but, to paraphrase Bashô, “seek what they sought.”15 The poets in the anthology beg us to not pretend we are poets of 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, or even 21st century Japan. They beg us to be poets of this era, as 21st century citizens of the world with all our knowledge and understanding of the past, present, and future, and ever expanding universe, and to explore the universes we are and have inside use, all methodologies, finding new fusions, and therefore new paths, with passion and spirit. The Japanese gendai movement of the 20th century set the stage, creating a universe for us to appreciate, contemplate, critique, explore, and find inspiration from, one that ultimately insists we create a universe of our own for this century and for the next to come. An engaging foundation has already been created in the West. Let’s not stop or pause now.
“Buy the ticket, take the ride.” And report back immediately.
• • •
1 Robert D. Wilson. “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert Part I.” Simply Haiku 6:4 (winter 2008). <http://simplyhaiku.com/SHv6n4/features/Gilbert.html>; accessed June 28, 2009.
2 Haruo Shirane. “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashô, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths.” Modern Haiku 31:1 (winter-spring 2000).
3 Richard Gilbert. “Gendai Haiku” (comment). Troutswirl (The Haiku Foundation). <http://thehaikufoundation.org/2009/06/20/gendai-haiku/>; accessed June 27, 2009.
5 Richard Gilbert. Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective. Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2008. 153–55.
6 Ban’ya Natsuishi. A Future Waterfall. Winchester, Va: Red Moon Press, 2004.
7 Robert D. Wilson, “An Interview with Hasegawa Kai.” Simply Haiku 6:3 (autumn 2008). <http://simplyhaiku.com/SHv6n3/features/Kai.html>; accessed March 26, 2009.
8 Gilbert, “Gendai Haiku.”
9 Wilson. “An Interview with Hasegawa Kai.”
10 David Landis Barnhill, trans. Selections from the Poetic Treatises in the Bashô School. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004–05. June 28, 2009. <http://www.uwosh.edu/faculty_staff/barnhill/Basho/matsuo_basho.html>.
11 Tôta Kaneko. Haiku Topics (blog). <http://wkdhaikutopics.blogspot.com/2007/03/kaneko-tohta.html>; accessed June 28, 2009.
13 Philip Rowland and Cor van den Heuvel. “A Dialogue on the Experimental.” Frogpond 25:3, 2002.
14 Robert Hass, ed. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1994.