What's that, you ask? What's that? Why are we printing an editorial almost diametrically opposed to our mission statement?
Well, for starters, we here at High Coup Journal have been spoiling for this fight for a long time. But we also want to foster alternate viewpoints, and so we'd like to start off Volume 2 of the journal with a polite but well-researched explanation of everything that is wrong with our lovely journal. Mr. Boyer has proven to be a great sport about all this, and we encourage responses to this editorial, yea and nay. Do some research of your own and dish it right back, and we'll be happy to print your editorial as well!
This editorial is part one in our continuing battle over the nature of the haiku. Read part two here.
I would like to start by thanking Mike Miller for this opportunity. I’d also like to thank A. Jarrell Hayes. It was my comment on his post at Reddit that got this whole thing rolling. I clicked on the link he provided to the February issue and made the comment that what I was seeing really wasn’t haiku. I said it was more in line with senryu or zappai*. I don’t mean to lessen anyone’s enjoyment of this journal. I just need to stand up for the haiku tradition.
Haiku is one of the most amazingly powerful verse forms ever invented, but it’s in the unfortunate position of being poorly understood even though everyone thinks they are familiar with it. Part of the blame for this goes to our early education, where the overly simplistic 5-7-5 paradigm was instilled in all of us. I know I stared this way, and wrote 5-7-5 for a long time.
My interest in haiku took off when I bought a copy of The Haiku Anthology. It was a book full of interesting, vibrant poetry that I didn't have to sweat over, as with the T. S. Eliot or E. E. Cummings that I had been reading. When I started to really get into the anthology, it was a revelation. So many moments where my breath was taken away. You know that moment when you're reading a poem and something just clicks, you have an Aha! moment or maybe you get goosebumps? Haiku was able to give me that again and again. I also saw, for the first time, the breadth and depth of haiku. People wrote in 5-7-5, sure, but there was so much variety that I quickly realized the 5-7-5 structure was not really important.
Lee Gurga (an award-winning haiku poet, former president of the Haiku Society of America and former editor of Modern Haiku) writes in his Haiku: A Poet’s Guide: “A majority of people among both poets and the general public seems to believe that haiku poetry is synonymous with haiku form, and that anything written in the three-line form they remember from elementary school is automatically haiku.” He then goes on to quote the Japanese scholar Shigehisa Kuriyama, who says “The 5-7-5 pattern by itself does not make a haiku.”
Gurga also gives the Haiku Society of America definition of haiku in his guide: “A poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature. Usually a haiku in English is written in three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables.” The “moment keenly perceived” is the important thing here. A haiku is the essence of a moment, the poetry of a moment, in just a few impressionistic brush strokes. In good haiku there is always more unsaid than said:
their mother’s house
last leaves on the maple
This poem give us a picture of the end of things, just moments before the season ends, before the house is no longer really their mother’s house. But in those ends we can see a glimpse of a new beginning, perhaps. The tree that will grow new leaves, the house that may become a home for another family. This is from the most recent issue of Modern Haiku, Volume 42:2, summer 2011. A few more examples may help:
transit of Venus...
in the orb weaver’s web
It’s a very rare thing to catch a glimpse of Venus moving against the face of the sun, just as it’s a rare thing to see an orb weaver at work with its prey. Visually, we can see the two small orbs, Venus and the spider, moving against the much larger forms of the sun and whatever the spider has caught. Though nature is beautiful in its diversity, we feel the passing of time and shiver.
at the Playboy Mansion
the plastic trees
This one hardly needs an explanation. It’s a good showcase of how haiku poets use nature to talk about human nature, and how with subtlety you can say much more than with a direct statement. The poem would be much less of a poem if the poet had said something like
at the Playboy Mansion
plastic trees and silicone breasts
This version gives too much away, it makes what was implicit explicit and destroys the poetry of the original.
from the big bang to my funny bone
I don’t know if I can do this one justice, but as T. S. Eliot so rightly said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” To me, this poem, with the laugh of a Buddha becoming enlightened, takes in the entire universe through the perspective of one small bone in one small human body. Banging your funny bone (and seeing stars, no doubt) is related to the Big Bang and suddenly the universe expands through this exquisite and ludicrous pain. That’s one of the real gifts of great haiku and great poetry: the sense of expansiveness, that there are larger things we are a part of. When you finish a great poem, regardless of the length, and you’re left with a wow on your lips or your mind reeling with possibilities and implications, then poetry has done its job.
a lightning-blasted pine in my pencil the black spine
There is such powerful drama in this piece and such powerful peace. The blasted tree, a rough mirror of the pencil in the poet’s hand, which he uses to memorialize the same tree. And I think the rhyme (it’s quite rare to see rhyme work well in haiku) makes the poem sing.
panties tossed on the melon rinds wet in spots
The heat of summer, and all that implies, comes through in every syllable. You almost feel a bit breathless reading this.
High Coup has printed some poems that I think are in the tradition of haiku. Each of the following are carefully and vividly presented scenes, and each leaves you wanting more, asking what else is going on or what led up to this:
from June 2011:
A white seagull floats
above the turbulent waves
of the parking lot.
Terms of endearment in
My frostbitten ears.
However, reading High Coup I find most of the poems are along the lines of little jokes or fortune cookie type sentiments, that tend to just stop at the end of the line, with little or no resonance.
William Higginson and Penny Harter in The Haiku Handbook say that writing a haiku is saying “It is hard to tell you how I am feeling. Perhaps if I share with you the events that made me aware of these feelings, you will have similar feelings of your own.” Haiku don’t tell you how to feel, they show you a scene and hope that you will come along.
In the end, what I’m trying to say (and what I say to myself every day) is, don’t limit yourself! Don’t settle for just writing jokes and a blind adherence to 5-7-5. Haiku can be so much more.
DAVID BOYER's haiku have appeared in Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Mayfly, Acorn, bottle
rockets, Presence, Heron's Nest and other haiku journals. He was a featured poet in A New Resonance 5: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku.
* “A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way. Many so-called "haiku" in English are really senryu. Others, such as "Spam-ku" and "headline haiku", seem like recent additions to an old Japanese category, zappai, miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse (usually written in 5-7-5) with little or no literary value. Some call the products of these recent fads "pseudohaiku" to make clear that they are not haiku at all.” (From the Haiku Society of America.)