Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Editorial: Silly Words, Serious Words

This editorial is part two in our continuing battle over the nature of the haiku.  Read part one here.



I cut my teeth as a student-translator working on short, humorous, lewd poems by Catullus, and long, bombastic, epic poetry by Virgil.  I remember adults worrying whether the stray, horndog, jibes of an ancient Roman should really count as literature, yet decades later it has far more meaning to me than the Virgil does, although I won’t insult him either.  High minded satire has always managed to sneak into the artistic canon, but there is something about low-class buffoonery, even when honed to precision, that has always been suspicious... And well, High Coup Journal could certainly be accused of low-class buffoonery...

Japan has a long tradition of poetry in the form of short terse poems or stanzas.  The renga for example dates back to the 700s, and at first glance might be mistaken for a collection of haiku.  It begins with a tight stanza with a 5-7-5 syllable structure.  But the heart of renga is to be collaborative poetry.  One poet begins with a 5-7-5 verse and then the next add a 7-7 verse, and the next adds another 5-7-5 and so on, riffing and changing as they go.  The point wasn’t maximum impact in a minimum of syllables, but kicking off a process of taking turns and exploring, of coping with change.  By the 1600s, perhaps earlier, we get hokku or “starting verses,” the initial verses of a renga, start being used alone by themselves.  Here focused impact does seem to be a large part of the point and appeal.  Or we get haibun (poetry and prose together) and haiga (poetry and painting together), where the laconic poems, typically in hokku form, comment on the more flowing prose or painting around them.

Then in the 1890s, Masaoka Shiki decides that it is time to “modernize” this poetic tradition.  He coins the term haiku (an abbreviation of haikai no ku, or verse of haikai) as a replacement for the older term hokku, partly as an admission that most of these poems are not written to be the beginning of a collaboration.  But, he also codifies how he thinks haiku ought to be.  He thinks their essence is “cutting” (kiru), a juxtaposition between 2 words ideas or images with a strong “cutting word” (kireji) both connecting and separating them.  Things like the 5-7-5 structure, or the traditional seasonality reference, were secondary for him, part of the definition, but not really key to the essence.  He worried that far too much trite and hackneyed crap poetry was being written and published, and used the phrase tsukinami (literally, “monthly”) for this terrible phenomena, a reference both to monthly feminine flows, and to monthly magazines and poetry readings he loathed.  If we let Shiki guide our understanding of haiku in English, then it would probably be fair to say that a key feature of haiku is that they not be published in monthly magazines or presented at monthly poetry readings.  Shiki himself had no patience for silly hokku or haiku, advocating instead the shasei style, which thinks of haiku as sort of nature sketches in words.

But Shiki and his contemporary allies don’t really get to define haiku in English-- even though he coined the term-- because most of what we think of as haiku today in English wasn’t haiku in his sense: it only gets called haiku retroactively.  Basho, Buson, and Issa all wrote before Shiki’s change of nomenclature, and all three would have called their works hokku and would have disagreed with Shiki about what was central to the poems.  Heck, Buddhism (of several different styles) was a key feature of each of these three masters (and much of the earlier renga-hokku-haiku tradition), but it was something that Shiki felt haiku needed to gain distance from, as not in keeping with Japan’s modernization.

So when we acculturate this notion of haiku to a new century or a new language or continent what needs to remain the same and what can change?  Must we keep Shiki’s definition even when it doesn’t fit many of the classics we look to? Do we keep the 5-7-5 structure? The centrality of cut?  The seasonality reference?  The invitation to longer collaboration?  The link between man and nature? The ideological struggles between Zen Buddhism and Pureland Buddhism? Maybe we should build in Shiki's contempt for earlier Japanese poetry in the style or his preference for shasei-style... Nawh, poetry always adapts to the needs of the time and the society, while trying also to remain rooted in its own tradition.  So what are the parts of the rengu-hokku -haibun-haiku-etc. tradition that can still meaningfully speak to Americans on the edge of the 21th century?  Is the shasei style understanding that haiku is about "recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature" something that can still speak to 21st century Americans? SURE! Lots of that kind of haiku is still written and still read and still has power and meaning, and still seems to draw from its roots in Japanese poetry.  If anything, there is enough of that for it to seem overdone, it has plenty of venues.

So the bigger question is this: does silly, flippant stuff with minimal emphasis on season or man-nature themes genuinely draw from the Japanese poetry tradition of the renga-hokku-haibun-haiku line? YES! It is the heart of the poetic style called haikai no renga (unorthodox or comic renga, often abbreviated haikai), staunchly defended by Basho as being part of the poetic spirit (fuga) in the 1600s, and had plenty of practitioners in later decades as well.  For Basho, comic playfulness was essential for holding the right balance between being involved in the world and yet also in some sense detached from it.  Portraying the life of commoners, beggars, traveler, farmers, herbalists, was part of seeing the world with eyes searching for beauty, rather than seeking beauty in formalness and abstractions.

We have classics in the tradition, like Basho

now then, let's go out 
to enjoy the snow... until
I slip and fall! [1688] 


even while chopping
the dried herbs
she’s day-dreaming 

That last one is from Yaba, one of Bassho's students in a round of renga from 1693 on Street Hawkers. It has no seasonal reference, no connection between man and nature, no Buddhism on display.  Yet it records a precise moment via terse words, it explores the emotional depth of the moment, and does so partly via its flippant humor.

or again Basho (1685)

His go strategy 
comes to him
two days later 

Good Lord, change the reference to Mario Kart and that one could easily have come straight out of the High Coup Journal!

If you want to argue that High Coup publishes "unorthodox" haiku, no one will disagree. If you want to argue that they aren't really haiku at all, properly speaking, I will point to Basho who was actually DEIFIED by the Shinto bureaucracy, and let you battle with verse and fisticuffs against his shade.

If you want to argue that comic rengu existed but that hokku or rengu are not real haiku, and haiku should not be primarily comic, then you cut off your tradition with your own sword and deserve your humorless fate.  A common version of this argument is to argue that the comic stuff focusing on human foibles is "really" "senryu" not "haiku" as the Haiku Society of America does. This is a terrible misunderstanding. "Senryu" just means "poetry in the style of Senryu Karai" a particular 18th century Japanese poet.  Just because something is in the style of Senryu does not mean it isn't ALSO haiku.  Further, humorous poetry in the Japanese tradition is certainly going strong even before Senryu, as my Basho examples show. This would be as bass-ackwards as arguing that any humorous poetry in sonnet form should be called a "Shakespeare" and not counted as a sonnet at all, and that we must make a rigorous distinction between "Shakespeares" and "Sonnets" although of course admitting that Shakespeare himself wrote in both styles. Tommyrot! This is the spirit of overweening academia seeking to choke out what is living and vibrant in the traditions we have been handed by the multi-faceted humans that wrote before us.  In Japan, as in Rome or England, the great poets have worked with both silliness and seriousness.

If you argue, that the English notion of haiku refers to the orthodox haiku only, rather than drawing from the broader Japanese tradition, then you are simply misunderstanding the situation on the ground in American education, and who gets to decide the usage of terms in the US, as well as the body of 20th century haiku in English. We have no Academie Francaise to delineate normative meanings apart from usage, and you have already lost the battle on usage. Americans regularly use the American term haiku to refer to both serious haiku and silly haiku, and frequently admire BOTH.

Our society often disrespects humor and silliness, especially in high culture side of our society such as academia or the fine arts.  No one in showbiz doubts that comedy is as lucrative as seriousness, but real critical commentary on comedy is much rarer than for more serious artistic forms, and comedians and comedy writers rarely come to those professions through academic theatre or writing programs.  Even in philosophy, as I’ve argued elsewhere, silliness is one of the most underrated of virtues.  One reason is that silliness often subverts existing systems of authority, especially when authority is based more on hard work in the past (and thus credentials), than on ardent love of the topic (amateurism).  Thus, silliness can seem especially threatening to those who value professionalism.  So it makes sense that organizations who were fighting for respect for haiku, and for respect for themselves as professional poets, might want to distance themselves from the sillier side of the tradition, which might seem frivolous, low class or even (gasp) unprofessional.  Nonetheless, silliness is a classic strategy for creativity and coping, helping us to maintain creative tension between genuine engagement with the minutia of life, and detachment from our preconceptions about daily life.  In poetry, silliness of spirit is part of the balance between observation of life and insightful commentary that helps give our poetry depth.

Haiku in English today simply includes plenty of examples of both orthodox haiku focusing on exploring the poetic spirit through sketches of keenly perceived moments typically of human-nature interactions, and unorthodox haiku focusing on exploring the poetic spirit through wry wit typically commenting on common life and pop culture. Both of these American poetic forms are exploring the poetic spirit, and both are firmly rooted in the Japanese tradition of renga-hokku-haibun-haiga-senryu-haikai-haiku. And in English we frequently use the English term haiku as a short hand for the whole glorious multiplex tradition.

Dr. BRIAN MORTON is a homemaker and ex-philosopher, currently involved with the Terre Haute Street Poets.  His poetry has appeared in Subterranean, and a few other poetry mags long ago. His academic work on poetry has appeared in Literae: A Newsletter of Literature and Translation and the University of Idaho colloquium series.


  1. Excellent post, Brian. Coincidentally, I now want to write a Mario Kart poem.

  2. May I suggest a visit to for a discussion on the topic of 5-7-5? Also check out additional links at, summarizing various beginner issues and essential characteristics for haiku. Haiku is widely misunderstood -- and widely mistaught in Western schools. Joke haiku are a perversion of literary haiku. There's nothing wrong with these joke poems as witty short poems; the problem is thinking that they are haiku. It is an erosion of the term "haiku" to use it as an umbrella term for jokey witticism that show no understanding of haiku except for the MISunderstanding that anything in a 5-7-5 syllabic form is haiku. As famed haiku translator Harold G. Henderson wrote, haiku will be what the poets make it; but in his next breath he also said that haiku cannot divert too far and still be considered haiku. There is much variety in haiku, but also limits. Here's to writing all sorts of poetry, including short witticisms, but let's be careful with what we call haiku. Only certain poems deserve it.

    Michael Dylan Welch

    1. "Haiku is widely misunderstood -- and widely mistaught in Western schools"

      From whose point of view is it widely misunderstood? Why from those who consider themselves the guardians of the tradition like the folks who busy themselves with the Haiku Society of America.

      When I feel a haiku needs revision, and I can choose between following a particular haiku convention in order to make the poem a "better" haiku, OR, I can opt for another alternative that technically makes the verse less of a haiku but a BETTER POEM, then I will opt for the better poem alternative every time.

      The form should be in service to what the poet hopes to accomplish in his or her writing of a poem.

      The High Coup journal and a few others like it provide a welcome alternative to the dry and sterile aesthetics that pervade the so called major literary haiku journals.

      William Cullen Jr

      (Bill is a poet with nearly half a thousand haiku published in major journals around the world as well as having placed or received honorable mention in numerous prestigious contests in both English as well as Japanese ones. In addition, the writer has been included in five editions of the The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku (best of the year haiku anthologies) as well as many other anthologies. Bill was a co-judge of the 2004 Haiku Society of America's Harold G. Henderson Haiku contest.)

    2. Bill, I can at least tell you that it's my own point of view when I say that haiku is widely misunderstood and widely mistaught in Western schools. A simple point of proof that extends beyond my own point of view is the linguistic fact that they count sounds in Japanese, as you know, not syllables. The word "haiku" itself counts as two syllables in English, but three sounds in Japanese. In general, linguists have said that about 10 to 14 syllables (or 10 to 12, some say) is equivalent to the 17 sounds they count in Japanese. So the fundamental notion of 5-7-5 syllables is a myth for English-language haiku.

      Teaching in Western schools nearly always omits reference to other standard techniques, including season words (kigo) and the two-part juxtapositional structure (equivalent to a kireji), not to mention primarily *objective* sensory imagery, which is nearly completely lacking in the joke haiku seen in popular mass-market books on "haiku" (like spam haiku, road-rage haiku, Haikus for Jews, FU Haiku, and so on). This is not haiku, but a bastardization of it. And it has chiefly arisen, quite simply, from the way haiku is mistaught in Western schools. Any sort of poetry can be bastardized, of course, and the pseudo-haiku I've just referred to is the way this sort of bastardization has occurred with haiku. However, the more insidious problem is that many people believe that these pseudo-haiku ARE haiku.

      As I said before, haiku has a great range, but at some point certain poems are no longer haiku. I would wish for teachers, textbook publishers, and curriculum developers to take much greater responsibility in teaching haiku with more substance and accuracy, and not to perpetuate the urban myth and superficiality that it is simply anything in a pattern of 5-7-5 syllables.

      Michael Dylan Welch