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Volume 33.3
Autumn 2002

book review

How to Haiku: A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms
by Bruce Ross


reviewed by William J. Higginson

How to Haiku: A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms, by Bruce Ross (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2002). 167 pages, 5.5" x 8", perfectbound. ISBN 0-8048-3232-3. $12.95 at bookstores.

No, You Really Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

Bruce Ross has written some good haiku, a number of which appear scattered here and there among the examples in this simply and attractively produced introductory book for those who wish to write haiku. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the contents generally as I am about the design and the selection of sample poems. Ross has clearly learned to accept a wider variety of haiku forms and content than that reflected in the selection he made for his anthology Haiku Moment. But reading the instructional prose of How to Haiku has been a painful roller-coaster ride. Consider three excerpts:

By focusing on the things around them, one at a time, in the language they know, students can learn deep and wonderful, sometimes playful, things about nature and human life [9].

This, the final sentence of Ross’s introduction, says many things that might be considered commonplaces of haiku discussion, but says them well. It succinctly summarizes some reasons why one might like to take up haiku.

The essence of traditional haiku consists of two things. First, there is an association with nature through one of the seasons either by naming the season (kigo), like winter or spring, or by suggesting the season through specific elements of that season (kidai), like a frozen pond or cherry blossoms [12].

This gives an overview of the nature aspect of traditional haiku, but contains a serious error of fact. Kidai are traditionally recognized seasonal phenomena that often provide the main subject matter of a haiku. They also place haiku in the seasonal round that forms an important context for all such poems. On the other hand, kigo are the specific words or phrases in individual poems that refer to the kidai. For example, a Japanese phrase that might best be translated "remaining snow" is an important spring kidai. Another phrase, perhaps best translated "left-over snow," often appears in haiku, and refers to this same phenomenon. A poem with the kigo "left-over snow" has "remaining snow" as its kidai. "Remaining snow" itself may also be used in a poem—in which case it is both the kidai and the kigo of that poem. In short, a kidai is a "seasonal topic"—some phenomenon one might write about—while a kigo is the word or phrase one uses to write about it—the "season word." Kigo does not mean "naming the season"; "seasonal topic(s)" is the usual translation of kidai, not the confusing "elements of the season," which might be understood as referring to the weather.

The first line in [a] traditional Japanese haiku usually carries a seasonal reference and ends with the [kireji]. . . . American haiku therefore is also written in three lines with a break after the first line [13].

This example is more subtle. How to Haiku abounds with such general statements about haiku, in some cases referring to Japanese haiku, in others to American haiku, and—as here—sometimes to both. These general statements are often too restrictive, however, and—as here—are often contradicted by examples like this:

Opening its eyes
    closing its eyes
        a cat in the sun

Arizona Zipper

This is one of several examples closely following the third excerpt above. It has no seasonal reference ("cat in the sun" might suggest "winter" to some readers, but has no traditional standing as a seasonal topic in either Japanese or English), and the grammatical break comes at the end of the second line. In fact, the seasonal reference may occur anywhere in a haiku, Japanese or English, and the kireji in Japanese or the break in English may also occur anywhere in the poem. While the arrangement Ross speaks of is found in many haiku, other arrangements are also common. The seasonal reference may appear in the last line or as part or all of the middle line. The break may occur at the end of the second line or even in the middle of it. And some haiku have no break at all, but may instead have an intensifying expression in the final phrase that serves a similar purpose, heightening the language and therefore the experience. (Also, the break need not be immediately adjacent to the seasonal reference.)

After dealing with haiku in twenty-some pages, Ross goes on to give brief instruction in senryu, haibun, tanka, haiga, and renga. Appendices fill in information on haiku form and aesthetics that should be in the main body of the text, as well as supplying directions for taking a haiku walk. An appendix entitled "Further Reading" omits some of the major works in the field and also gives no contact information for the magazines and organizations it lists.

In sum, How to Haiku contains some good examples of haiku stirred together in a mixture of misleading generalizations about haiku, error-ridden explanations of things Japanese (of which Ross seems to have little direct knowledge), and the occasional oxymoron, as in "There is no line break after the first line" [15]—a statement that stopped me dead in my tracks. (I think he meant that there is no grammatical break after the first line of the poem he was discussing.) There are more gaffs per page than one usually finds in amateur magazine articles, not to mention mistranslations of well-known and well-understood Japanese haiku, for example "cricket" for "cicada" in Bashô’s famous poem on the stillness at Yamadera [57].

The best that can be said for How to Haiku, aside from noting its well-designed cover, is that the poems are better than those presented in Clark Strand’s Seeds from a Birch Tree (1997). As a haiku veteran, Ross should be expected to bring a much higher degree of accuracy to a work like this, which is more likely to confuse than enlighten haiku beginners.

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