Category Archives: Essays

What Marlene Mountain Got Wrong About 5-7-5


This article by Marlene Mountain has had a big influence on my thinking about how the Japanese haiku form of 5-7-5 morae relates to the possibilities of how much we can import this form into our own language. I have long thought that she has made a very cognizant and clear cut case how a 5-7-5 syllable pattern doesn’t really work in English. Now, however, I’ve changed my mind about this.

Mountain’s argument is compelling because she gives concrete examples of how our speech pattern will always slide into fitting an extra syllable in to reach an even number of them, thus making the three line 17 syllable form an impractical one in English.

This example she gave, I think, is simply brilliant:

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

When I read this I find myself completely out of breath at the end of the second line, I lose breath so fast that it feels that I have blown out air like a tire that’s run over nail. So, I am left to conclude that a 5-7-5 pattern does have a breathing pothole in it that I only can deal with by falling into an unnatural speech pattern to get through the the whole three lines.

One of the things that free verse has taught us, and something that perhaps metrical verse never could, is that indentation and line spacing does make us read lines differently than when they are normally squared to the left of the page on top of one another. And, of course, the lines of this example are squared and on top of each other, so what happens if I indent the second line?

five five five five five
 seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

For what ever reason spacial relationships has on the way we read the printed page, the second line seems very manageable now, I can glide through the ‘sev’ at the end of line two and slide into the third line with no hesitation, probably because the indentation makes me take a natural pause at the end of the first line. How about changing which line to indent?

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev
 five five five five five
 five five five five five
seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

Even when I indent the other two lines, I am able to navigate them pretty smoothly, so I now believe that 5-7-5 pattern is acceptable if one line is indented.

Another thing about Mountain’s example is that it has no punctuation, and punctuation marks are the street signs that tell us how and when to stop, so what happens when we put in some punctuation into the mix?

five five five five five:
seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

The colon lets me line up the five of the first line with the sev of the second line, which lets me naturally break onto the last line.

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev:
five five five five five.

When it is on the second line, it makes me naturally stop without blowing up, so I can move onto the third line in a smooth manner.

I’m not going to give anymore examples using other punctuation marks because I do think that this shows that with indentation and proper punctuation 5-7-5 becomes a very viable poetic pattern. Mountain’s example only proves it is impossible to write in a three line 5-7-5 syllable form if that you ignore any protocols of poetic variation or normal standard punctuation. If you don’t choose to follow her minimalistic example, I seems that you can do something smoothly in English by adopting it.

So, all the stuff I have written on this blog about 17 syllables not fitting the English language: it’s bunk.

Why Don’t We Say ‘Bad Big Wolf’??


When my Facebook friend shared this article by Mark Forsyth, I read it with enjoyment because one of the things my long years as a teacher of English as a second language in a foreign country has taught me is that I didn’t really understand my own language until I had contact with people who were struggling to learn it. Which is to say my students have taught me a great deal about the ins and outs of speaking English. And it was nice to see Forsyth writing about how we actually use language without haven’t much detailed knowledge about the inner workings of it.

The problem I had with the article was that while Forsyth tells us about the unspoken rules we have, he never goes into why we have these rules in the first place. He does tell us what the rules about ablaut reduplication are, yet he never delves into why of them. My long years as an ESL teacher, and yes thanks to the myriad of questions I’ve gotten from students about why things are said they way they are, I naturally start asking myself what the basis of having such linguistic rules are in the first place.

To understand the why for the rules of ablaut reduplication in English you have to understand what rhyme is, which Forsyth obviously shows he doesn’t understand when he tells that this limerick ‘has no rhymes’:

There was a young man from Dundee
Got stung on the leg by a wasp
When asked does it hurt
He said, ‘Yes, it does.
‘I’m so glad it wasn’t a hornet.’

Although the above has no ‘perfect rhymes’, it does have something called ‘slant rhymes.’ A good explanation of a slant rhyme is on this website:

Slant rhymes (sometimes called imperfect, partial, near, oblique, off etc.) Rhyme in which two words share just a vowel sound (assonance – e.g. “heart” and “star”) or in which they share just a consonant sound (consonance – e.g. “milk” and “walk”).

In the limerick above ‘wasp’ and ‘does’ are slant rhymes that are playing off the linguistic similarities that ‘wASp” and and ‘dOES’ share because the ‘s’ in ‘wasp’ deadens and softens the bite we usually say when speaking a ‘p’, (the ‘p’ in the word ‘warp’, for example, isn’t soft) and the ‘does’ as a verb vocalizes the ‘oe’ towards the sound of an ‘a’ rather than the ‘o’ which we do when we are talking about female deer in the plural. So this is an assonance slant rhyme. The words ‘hurt’ and ‘hornet’ are slant rhymes because the share the same end consonant sound of ‘t’.

Forsyth writing that the ‘rhymes aren’t as important as the rhythm’ is, well, wrong. These slant rhymes still slide the reader into the rhythm of the words, just like limericks that have perfect rhymes do, because even slant rhymes anchor the end of their lines and by doing so tie them together with the other rhyme.

Now, turning to why ‘big bad wolf’ is what we say rather than ‘bad big wolf’, the reason is because of an another type of rhyme, called ‘alliteration’ or ‘head rhyme’, which matches initial consonant sounds.

‘Big bad’ sets up an alliteration because the sound of the ‘b’ in both of them match each other. However, when we turn the words around and say ‘bad big’, the head rhyme between the two is lost because the ‘b’ in ‘bad’ is no longer pronounced the same as it is in ‘big’. The way the ‘g’ in ‘big’ is pronounced allows us to smack our lips for the ‘b’ in ‘bad’ the same way we have ready done on the first ‘b’. However, when the words are reversed, the ‘d’ of ‘bad’ gets in the way of the lip smacking and we don’t pronounce the second ‘b’ quite the same as the first one now, thus breaking the head rhyme and killing the alliteration.

(Of course, if we take a breath pause after saying ‘bad’ we can reload and make ‘big’ match up the head rhyme, but it is impossible to do if we keep it in a natural speech rhythm.)

All the other examples that Forsyth gave (‘clip-clop’, ‘zig-zag’, ‘crisis-cross’ etc.) are something called pararhyme, which is the type of rhyming that occurs when all the consonants in the two words match. As above, once we turn the word order around, the pararhyme disappears. ‘Clop-clip’ no longer rhymes because we neither speak the ‘cl’ nor the ‘p’ of both words the same because the switching of the vowels has made it impossible for us to do so. The ‘o’ forces us to smack so heavily on the ‘p’ following it that we shorten the way we pronounce ‘clip’ coming after it to the point where it no longer rhymes with ‘clop’ because we have to work the sound of the ‘i’ into the mechanics of our mouth.

Forsyth’s rules start to have meaning for us when we understand that speaking is the physical act of our mouth, our lips and our tongue working in concert, and because of this there are physical limitations to how we can fit the sounds of our language together. Sure, the patterns of language changes, we certainly don’t talk like people in Chaucer’s days did, probably because in the end we always are trying to find smoother ways to fit our thoughts into language. But acquiring this smoothness takes generations of time, just as it takes time for anyone to build up any muscular part of their body.

I don’t think we have to over think why Little Richard never sang ‘Tall Long Sally’, but even this should remind us how rhyme really is a part of the English language, and it is a part of it in ways which we often aren’t very aware of. And it reveals something that we as native speakers innately understand: that the same word can be pronounced differently depending on where you place it in relation to other words. It is the heritage of speaking a stress timed language. And who knows, maybe in the future people will develop a stress pattern so ‘bad big’ will come out as a rhyme in a natural rhythm??

A Famous Buson Haiku: Is It ‘Kite’ or ‘Kites’?


One of the peculiarities of the Japanese language is that while it’s does have a plural form for nouns it almost never gets used, mainly because the context that speaker is in dictates if they mean more than one of something. This gets a little tricky when it comes to reading haiku because the reader isn’t in the same physically present context as the speaker. And this haiku by Yosano Buson is a good example of it:

Ikanobori/ kinou no sora no aridokoro

Kites Yesterday’s sky’s having place.

Kites have been in Japan since the 600s when the were imported from China and in the past they were used in many ways as symbols of good luck and talismans for good fortune. Nowadays, we tend to think of kites as something children enjoy, but in the Edo era adults enjoyed them as well. Besides flying them as omens, kite fighting was something that people pursed with enthusiasm as well. Kites became so popular that the Edo government finally banned them except during the o-shougatsu holiday (the few days before and after New Years Day).

The banning of kites caused a problem for haiku. Kites as a “kigo” (season word) were listed as something done in spring, but with what is the now metropolis of Tokyo having forced the flying of them into the New Years’ holiday, the “kigo” had to accommodate that as well. Any seasonal reference books for haiku (‘Saijiki”) are in five volumes, four for the seasons and the extra one for the New Years period which is the most important religious holiday of the Japanese calendar. The old “Saijiki” I have has a double listing for kites, one in spring and the other for the New Year. However, the practice now is to only have kites listed as something done in spring.

Understanding the history of kites in Japan is important in the context of reading plurals into this haiku because, as anyone who lives long enough in Japan learns, there is a right date and a wrong date for everything. My wedding, for example, ending up being on a Tuesday instead of the more preferable Saturday because of it being a more auspicious day, or as it got explained to me “Saturday is no good because it is a bad Buddha day.”

Having good days and bad days makes religious things a bit more communal because people will always do things on good days. So, if someone wants to fly a kite as an omen of something then they would necessarily do it on a good day and not a bad one, meaning that there will be more than one person out flying kites on the good days. Since kites could only be flown during a short period of the year in Edo, probably not longer than a week, then there will be hordes of people out flying them before the ban kicks in again,

The point I am trying to make is that it is hard to read this haiku and not think of there being more than one kite up in the sky and that Buson was actually implying the plural here. The Nihon Daisaijiki, a large full color “saijiki” published about ten years ago, discusses this haiku and states this about the number of kites:

This doesn’t have to necessarily refer to the whole of the sky. It indicates the scene of a part of the sky that has one, or more likely, several kites in it.


Above is the picture that is included in this book under the heading of kites. Because is a wood block print, you can’t say that it is of the whole sky, but it is a part of the sky that has several kites floating in it.

Even when a commentator wants to you read this as being about only one kite, they have to couch it in terms of other kites in the sky. A book titled “Haiku Daikan” published by Meiji Shoin explains it like this:

There aren’t a large number of kites flying in the sky. In the very least, there are no other kites nearby this one, to follow this instruction to its obvious conclusion, there is a solitary one afloat.

Asking the reader to follow this instruction is a dead give away that the writer automatically assumes that the reader is reading the plural for kites.

I don’t find the argument for a single, or actually separated, kite very compelling because it makes the image a very personal one, which is exactly how at the end this commentator reads the symbolism of the kites:

It seems that the loneliness of human existence is suggested with this kite, sadness and at the same time a kind of fond remembrance is to be felt in this expression.

Whenever we feel fondness and sadness at the same time it means we are becoming nostalgic about something. It’s easy to understand how Buson would get nostalgic about his childhood from a kite, but I’d argue that the experience of flying a kite rather than watching one is what would more likely trigger the flood of emotion that would bring the bittersweet memories argued for above. I think it is next to impossible to read that Buson is flying this kite because I don’t think he would be able to make the topographical description of them being in the same spot as they were yesterday if he was.

The commentator in the Daisaijiki makes this conclusion about the haiku

Everything is calm and peaceful, indeed, there is a deepness to the feeling of the mild spring. Getting that as a scene, the impression in a person’s mind too will surely be similar.

This reading has the scene influencing the feelings in the writer, it’s a lovely spring day and people are enjoying it by going out with their kites and the scene has Buson feeing relaxed and secure about life. The immediate problem with this reading is that there aren’t any emotional markers in the haiku to expresses the “feeling” that the commentator mentions. In haiku, particles of speech are how the writer attaches personal emotions onto images, but in this haiku Buson didn’t use any. If he was feeling the mild spring so deeply you’d expect that there would be a particle used somewhere to express it.

Japanese is my second language, and, so sure, there might be a nuance in this haiku that I am unable to catch because I’m not a native speaker, but for me the lack of a particle shows that Buson is being intellectual rather than emotional here. Saying that the kites are in the same spot as yesterday is not a visceral reaction to the scene, rather it is a measured logical one.

Therefore, the symbolism for me becomes a little more generic and less personal. Instead of being a privatized experience, I tend to see this as a universal one. Everyone has flown a kite or watched kites in flight sometime during their life. Besides the universality, kite flying is also a timeless enterprise. How long have people been flying them? Although the popularity of kites wane, somebody somewhere still enjoys flying them. The kite designs are timeless as well, kites patterned after those made in the Edo era still fly as true today as they did back then, and I’m sure that the even older designs will still be able take to the air.

So, with ‘timelessness’ as the optimum idea in my mind:

    in the spot
        of sky 
           they were  
               in yesterday.

The problem with this literal translation is that the Japanese language doesn’t need adjectives to fill scenes for the reader because connotations between words implies scenes that don’t need to be openly stated. Unfortunately, in English, we need adjectives to paint the scene, and since we use sound as a way to imply emotions, adjectives are also the means of achieving syntax as well.

Kites aloft....
      in the same exact 
              spot of 
                clear sky 
            they wafted in yesterday.

All I have done is put in some adjectives around the images and use a verb that adds a descriptive element rather than a nondescript one. I don’t think I have impinged in on what is in the original is by doing this.

Kobayashi Issa’s Mist: Haiku or Senryu?


Years ago (in fact the Internet tells me that it was on January 1st, 2002) I saw a TV special about Kobayashi Issa that starred the famous Japanese actor Tomoyuki Nishida playing the role of him. The show portrayed Issa as a young man in Edo who was writing senryu and I still remember how shocked my wife was at this, she just couldn’t believe that Issa had written something other than haiku and dissed senryu as being a very low brow thing. I have since asked a few other people about this and they have answered that he did write senryu, the latest being a guy I met not long ago at a coffee shop who was reading a magazine about Issa.

Because of this, whenever I run into a humorous haiku by Issa I start asking myself if this is a senryu or a haiku. I recently encountered this Issa haiku on Facebook, and I started wondering about it:

san mon ga kasumi minikeri toomegane

Three mon (old Japanese coin) /but /mist /see (in a past tense form with an exclamation). /telescope.

Translators in English always play up the humorous humanistic side of Issa’s poetic character so I went and saw how David Lanoue and Makota Ueda translated the haiku and how they read its meaning.

Lanoue gives this translation and comment:

for three pennies
nothing but mist…

Issa’s tone is wryly ironic. He (or someone) has paid three pennies (three mon) to peer through a telescope to see … only mist. On one level, he groans at the waste of money to have paid to see, magnified, nothing–the same nothing that the naked eye views for free. On another level– and there’s always another level in Issa’s best haiku– he smiles at human enterprise and its futility.

This how Makoto Ueda, in “Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa” (pg.16) saw it:

three pennies’ worth
of haze -that’s all I see
through this telescope

He paid three pennies to rent a telescope, but what he saw through it was nothing but mist.

Ueda mentioned that Issa wrote this haiku on “Yushima Hill, which overlooked the Ueno and Asakura districts of Edo”, and Lanoue mentioned this, so I was a little surprised when I opened the book of collected Issa haiku in Japanese that I have to find that this haiku had this “maegaki” (preface): “白日登湯台” (hakujitsu toutoudai) which translates as “Broad Daylight Elevated Yushima Deck”.

The one thing to understand about the Japanese language is that it is very situationally based, which is how they can get away without using pronouns, articles and plurals. You can get away with this in conversation because the speaker and the listener are sharing the same experience as they converse, but in literature the shared existence isn’t there anymore, so haiku will often have prefaces which set the situation so the reader is able to understand what subject is being written about.

Presented the situation that the language is being used in with this preface, it doesn’t take a a great leap to understand how you see mist with a telescope in broad daylight, apparently they were a thing that the Japanese were surprisingly bad at copying after they had started getting them from the west:

In the early 1700s, Japanese manufactured telescopes were becoming more common, and the general public would have seen only domestic models, but quality was inconsistent and imported telescopes were preferred, although Mitaku Yorai indicated that not all imports were so favored: ‘China has failed to supply any of outstanding quality’, continuing, ‘every now and again an inability to see much with a Japanese one is to be marked.’

Broad Daylight on Yushima Shrine’s Viewing Platform…….

Only three coins
but I did
see the
unseen mist!
The telescope.

Nowadays we see single comedians on the stage all the time and although we know that there were comedian duos or groups in the past we really don’t think of comedy in that term anymore. In Japan, however, a single comedian is the exception and duos or groups are the norm. The groups perform skits and the duos banter and joke, and a lot of the style of comedy is based on Manzai where one of the pair plays the straight man and the other plays a stupid character that misunderstands the situation which in turn gets intensified when he misinterprets everything that the straight man says to explain it to him. Abbott and Costello’s famous “Whose On First” routine is a great example of this.

The laughter in the above haiku/senryu all rides on knowing that Issa is playing the stupid character. He’s payed a very small amount of money, saw the mist and now thinks this is a great telescope because he saw something that he couldn’t see with his naked eye and is telling everyone about this, blissfully unaware that the poor quality of the lens is what made the mist.


Issa started studying haikai at the age of 26 and he was 28 when he wrote the above, which puts him in the time frame that the drama I watched a long time ago had him in, as a young man in Edo and writing senryu. The easiest way to judge the difference between a haiku and a senryu is to look at the authorial intent of the writing, if the verse is written for the sole purpose of making the reader laugh, then it is a senryu. Given the preface here, there isn’t much of an argument against that Issa is doing anything here but going for a laugh.

Leaving this broad definition aside, there are also formal considerations to the difference between a haiku and a senryu. Haiku by definition must contain both a seasonal word (kigo) and a cutting word (kireji) while senryu doesn’t have to include either. The way Issa uses “mist” here really isn’t in a seasonal way but the verb ending of “keri” is a cutting word.

Another difference between the two is the type of language they use, haiku uses a literary style while senryu uses colloquial every day language. By using “keri” Issa is using language that is never spoken and only used in literature while the way he uses “ga” as a conjunction rather than a subject marker is a an every day speech pattern.

Because of the use of a literary style, haiku rings with the reverberations of language like all poetry does, while the language of senryu is straight forward with no poetic frills. The use of both “keri” and “ga” are a commingling of the two genres.

So, is this a haiku or senryu? I’m not sure, but since the main purpose for the writing of it is to get a laugh and no more, I will give it the label of being a senryu. But, perhaps this quote from this website sums it up the best:


(Although I did intend to write a haiku, I have had other people say to me “oh, that’s a pretty good senryu.”)

Haiku: A Form Not A Style

(photo courtesy of Kayoko Sato)

There is no unequivocal doubt about the fact that many Western ideas about Japanese haiku have been completely wrong. How these wrong ideas about came into fashion is probably something that happened because haiku opened up to the West in an era when ideas about poetry were being rethought, but it is now paramount for poets in the West to come to the truth that the idea that Zen is the underlining tradition that defines the haiku genre is false and must be discarded.

Honestly, it is quite frightening to see it being still argued by people serious about poetry. It was more than unquieting to see Stephen Adams in “Poetic Designs” (pg. 99) offer this up as the definition for what the form of haiku is:

“most poets imitate not its formal pattern (or its other elaborate Japanese conventions) but it’s paradoxes and logical dislocations, the Zen spirit that underlies the tradition and that seems compatible with Western theories like imagism.”

The reason why that “Zen spirit, a.k.a haiku” is compatible with theories like imagism is because translators have mistakenly made it so. And there are no better examples of this than the two haiku that Adams used in his book.

The first is by Matsuo Basho:

On the wide seashore
a stray blossom and the shells
make one drifting sand.

To honest about it, some haiku translations are so far away from the original that it is quite hard to be sure of what haiku it is if the original isn’t quoted. Adams got these translations from a book by William Howard Cohen, “To Walk in Seasons: An Introduction to Haiku”, and in its preface Cohen states “these translations are freely made poems based on the originals” and he since he didn’t bother to include the original he was working from, one has to make an educated guess of what Basho haiku is being dealt with here. I’d think that it was this:


Nami no ma ya kogai ni majiru hagi no chiri

“Nami” is “wave”
“no” is the possessive (‘s) which translates to “of”
“ma” means “interval” or “pause”
“ya” is a interjection that is an exclamation (!)
“Kogai” is “small shells”
“ni” is “in” or “at”
“majjiru” is the verb of “mix”, “mingle” or “blend”
“hagi” is “Japanese Bush clover tree” that have pink or red blossoms “no” is the possessive (‘s) which translates to “of”
“chiri” is “dust”,”trash” or “rubbish”

To put this into a more poetic form:

The pauses between waves! 
Pink bush clover 
with the small shells. 

The first thing to say about this is that the Japanese bush clover bloom many small blossoms that fall and can scatter as much as the cherry blossoms do, although not quite as dramatically, which makes it very improbable that Basho was writing about a single blossom as Cohen gave us.

Besides this, the translator also changed quite of few of the images images around, he added in “seashore” when none was mentioned, proffered “drifting sand” instead of the “pause of the waves” devalued the “bush clover” into a nondescript “blossom”, changed “rubbish” into “stray” and ignored the size of the shells and depersonalized it by ignoring the exclamation Basho used to point out his emotional attachment to the scene.

Cohen’s rewrite simply erases all the subjective use of language that the original uses and so blurs the descriptive elements of the haiku into an objective act of writing, thus changing the haiku from a poet on the shore expressing delight at the beauty of an occurrence in nature into a tour de force image that paints an impersonal view of a wide expanse of nature.

Cohen gives you the sense that this is a completely deserted shoreline, something which is impossible in the Japanese because the language is implicit in having Basho at the shoreline describing the scene. In Japanese exclamations are only used as spoken particles by an “I” speaker, which in haiku means the poets themselves. When we see an exclamation point used at the end of a sentence we English speakers also understand that what it is attached to is something that is being spoken by someone and it is the same for Japanese speakers.

The whole idea that this haiku has “the Zen spirit” which Adams states as being “its paradoxes and logical dislocations” is immediately undermined by this because the heart of the language of haiku, especially the ones that use exclamatory interjections (of which there are plenty) immediately shows a different thought process than what Adams is paraphrasing from Cohen.

No one has to be a Zen adept to understand this, all you have to do study the Japanese language a little to understand that Basho never could write what Cohen has ascribed to him. Poets who write with exclamations are making emotional connections with what they experience in nature and are not involved in paradoxes or dislocations of thought.

The second haiku is by Kobayshi Issa and it does follow the original a bit more:

White, sifted mountain 
reverberates in the eyes 
of a dragonfly 


Touyama ga medama ni utsuru tonbo kana

“Touyama” is “distant mountain”
“ga” is a particle the makes the noun it follows the subject
“medama” is “eyeballs
“ni” is “in”
“utsuru” is verb meaning “reflect”
“tondo” is “dragonfly”
“kana” is an interjection that is exclamation

The mountains far 
are reflected 
in their 
the dragonflies! 

It’s hard to understand how Cohen got “white, sifted” when the original only says “far mountain”. It might have been used to imply that the mountains are snow covered, but the “kigo” (seasonal word) for “dragonflies” means that the haiku is set in the autumn, so it is hard to see how having them white fits in with the implied context that the seasonal word brings to this haiku.

The verb “reverberate” he used is acceptable, but it implies that the dragonflies actually have the mountains in their eyes, and the footnote that he put on this haiku in his book actually states that:

“This beautifully evoked encounter between the tenuous and the permanent recalls the Buddhist idea of the unreality of the visible world, in that the great mountain exists momentarily in the insect’s eye even as the great world exists in the mirror of the mind for the brief instant that is life.”

No one in Japan believes that the dragonflies actually have the mountains reflected it their eyes because the opening image of “far mountains” parenthetically makes it implausible to be so. What the “far mountains” at the opening of the haiku do is get the reader’s eyes up into the air which make you see the image of the dragonflies, posited at the last line and accented by the exclamation, as being airborne.

This makes you realize that Issa is punning about the dragonflies’ eyeballs reflecting the mountains because he is using it a device to imply something not mentioned in the haiku. Dragonflies are very active when it’s warm, and since they are flying about it means it is a clear blue sky autumn day, making easy to imagine that it is so clear that Issa might feel that the tiny dragonflies are able to see the mountains too.

It’s often said that the reader’s personal experience is what makes a haiku and what I’ve written above is based on my personal experiences of seeing the dragonflies fly around my house and over the rice paddies that checker board the area I live in. This doesn’t mean that you can’t read this haiku as being about one dragonfly as Cohen did (the Japanese language really doesn’t use plurals) and the dragonflies don’t have to be airborne either. However, one thing that you can’t read out of the haiku is that Issa has told you that he subjectively feels that the dragonflies have the mountains in their eyes, which is what Willard Howard Cohen’s translation did completely.

The phrase of “me in utsuru” (literally means “reflects in the eyes”) is an idiomatic expression that means “meet my eyes” or “to be able to have seen” and this echoes in the phrase of “medama ni utsuru” that Issa uses in the haiku. So, there is a bit of verbal play being employed to pull off the implied meaning in this haiku. This is, of course, quite contrary to Cohen’s belief that “deep dish imagery” was the way most haiku was written when he explained in his book that:

“we can put our fingers on one of the main devices by which the haiku achieves its characteristic effects. This consist of a simple ‘charged’ image with atmospheric, emotional of ‘mood’ effects. The ‘charged’ image is a way of conveying intense emotional content through a simple objective image.”

Cohen’s “charged image” theory is really only a paraphrasing ideas about the “deep image” style of writing which was a “stylized, resonant poetry that operated according to the Symbolist theory of correspondences, which posited a connection between the physical and spiritual realms” which is “narrative, focusing on allowing concrete images and experiences to generate poetic meaning.”

Unfortunately, to repeat the point I made above, the language that the Japanese haiku poets used immediately rules out this style of writing because they wrote with exclamations that colored subjective emotions onto the images they wrote with, which is something that the “deep image” was never about.

Exclamation becomes a kind of a trigger that alerts the reader that the poet is emotionally moved by what they are experiencing and then they go on to explore or express that emotion in the rest of the haiku. I think the two haiku being talked about here are good examples of how this works with the exclamation being set at the beginning and the end of haiku. Basho expresses wonder at the pauses in the waves and then fills in the reason why after, and Issa builds up the reflection in an eyeball and then gushes out what eyeball it is.

Having said this, it is important to note that I am not saying that there has never been any haiku written with “pure imagery”, or that Basho and Issa themselves never wrote anything but exclamatory haiku, but there is no getting around that fact that the “main way” the great haiku of the past was written is with exclamations.

The irony of Stephen Adams’ passage about haiku is that it is in a section titled ‘Stanza and Form’ because Adams explains absolutely nothing about the “form” of haiku. Indeed, he simples throws the idea of haiku as a form under the bus by writing “most poets imitate not its formal pattern (or its other elaborate Japanese conventions)”. Instead, he talks about how it “seems compatible with Western theories like imagism and “creates an implied metaphor by juxtaposing elements.”

What Adams is really telling you is that haiku isn’t a “literary form”; per se, rather it is only a poetic sensibility that is defined by a narrowed style of writing. This is something that the Japanese find quite absurd because they see the genre as a form and a form only, not a defined and regulated poetic style. It would be like arguing that a sonnet could only be written with paradox and bright imagery.

Another interesting thing is that Adams’ choice of apt examples of haiku in English is from a translator that is not known at all in the haiku world. Cohen’s translations do have a poetic heft to them that you rarely find in original English language haiku, but this isn’t question of Cohen’s ability as a writer, it is about the narrow range of possibilities that his ideas about writing give to haiku. Ideas that didn’t have a very long life cycle with our poets anyway, and ones that ignore all the possibilities that the Japanese can offer to us.

I can only unpoetically say it: it is time to flush this idea that a “poetic style” is what defines haiku as a “poetic form or stanza.” If one takes a look at what this “form” in Japanese original is, at the bare minimum it is a stanza form which calls for two breath pauses, one longer than the other with some kind of a cut between the two. If you want to count syllables, then this pretty clearly shows that it needs to be on an even number rather than the 17 that the original has. As for the poetic sensibility, that is up to the individual poet to find best what suits their talents.

And who knows, maybe there might be a day when people who write books to explain poetics will find enough original English language haiku written well enough to actually learn what one is. To be fair, Adams isn’t the real culprit here, so he can be let off the hook. It’s the people who have been writing haiku that have set it in such a deplorable state that it is neither been explained as plausible poetry in translations from the east nor written as believable original poetry in the west.


Wallace Stevens: Calm at the End of the Line

I have started reading Stephen Adams’ “Poetic Designs” and he offers this observation on page 22 of how: “Wallace Stevens’ image of flickering lights on the water dying down to shadow is hauntingly captured in this unusual rhythmic pattern”, which Adams had scanned out as this:
* * | ^   ^ | *  * | ^ ^ | *   ^
As a calm darkens among water-lights
This peaked my interest enough to go see how this line from the famous “Sunday Morning” poem was connected to the rest of the lines that are attached to it:
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
To be honest, I had a lot of trouble catching Adams’ scanning of the third line until I read it straight as an unbroken sentence with all the punctuation taken out:
She dreams a little and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
Although this answered about Adams scanning, it begged another question: what is up with seemingly unnecessary punctuation and how did this punctuation affect how I read the lines?
If you look at the first line by itself: She dreams a little, and she feels the dark What catches me about it is how the comma in the middle breaks the line into two breath pauses and that you are out of breath when you get to “dark” at the end of the line.
Which is a little strange because it is obvious that this word is attached as an adjective to the word “encroachment” that begins the following line. Looking at the this line alone:
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
The comma at the end of it forces a breath pause, which again is surprising because the “as” which starts the next line puts the verbs (“feels” and “darkens”) it is between in the same time frame. This leads into the problem of solving how to connect these two end paused lines that are grammatically together:
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
The way I bypass this is by simply sliding from “dark” onto “encroachment” and riding my breath to the end of this word where it peters out and I pick it up again on the “of” until the end of the line.
Since “dark” can be a noun as well as an adjective, and the phrasing “the dark” is usually how we often frame this word when using it as a noun, my mind takes a bit pause to gather in the fact that it really is being used as an adjective to a noun in the next line.
All of this makes me scan the last line as a straight iambic pattern, although I might also consider a different pattern at the end over “water-lights.” Now that I’ve got that worked out, there still is the question of why the punctuation in the first place?
Alex Ross in his article “The Invisible Priest” made the observation that Stevens used a lot of monosyllables and that monosyllables are something that “much classic oratory relies on.”
Although oratory might now be a lost art, especially with our political class, it does thrive in the world of televangelists who regularly are on TV and if you’ve ever taken the time to listen to some of them it’s easy to understand that forced breath pauses are very important to them because it lets them build up cadences and tensions that are used to capture and enrapture the audience.
Ross’ article does quote two famous political orations, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, and John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” and if you listen to them you’ll see how they also used forced pauses to carry off their lines.
FDR forces a pause after “belief” and then takes a pretty long pause at the end of the “is” which I thinks reads like this if it was to be put into a poetical form:
Let me assert my firm belief,
that the only thing we have to fear is,
fear itself.
And JFK makes a sharp clean cut after “not”:
And so my fellow Americans, ask not,
what your country can do for you
What I find interesting is not only how both speakers forced unnatural breath pauses into the lines, but that they both made them so deep and completely that might could argue they went beyond the “end stopping” we find in poetry and that they actually more “dead-stopped” the breaks to add weight and give rhetorical flourish to the thought. By “dead-stopping” I mean the totally ungrammatically incorrect stopping of motion of the lines for effect.
Of course, if you want to break the these two orations into lines of poetry like I did above, all you have is the punctuation to note where the speaker pauses and I think it is a pretty clear that once you take a closer look at Wallace Stevens’s poems you understand that he used phrasing and punctuation to flavor the lines very much in the vein of how FDR and JFK put oratorical flourish in their famous quotes.
As stated, I found that when I took out the commas in the Stevens’s lines above that I could sail through the lines with nary a hitch but that when I read in the commas I had trouble navigating something which syntactically shouldn’t be a problem. If you straighten these three lines and put them into one line it is easier to see that there is no problem with the breathing  and you smoothly sail through them in one breath:
She dreams a little and she feels the dark encroachment of that old catastrophe as a calm darkens among water-lights.
Seeing how smooth this is as a one liner is, the only possible reason why the commas went into final production is that Stevens wanted to rupture the internal rhythm and break it into segments as any good orator is capable of doing. And oration needs the edge of language, complete pauses, to build rhetorical cadences on and off of.
Stanza XV of “Esthétique du Mal” is an excellent example of how Stevens went to lengths to achieve pausing at the end of his lines.
The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical word, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps,
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel. The adventurer
In humanity has not conceived of a race
Completely physical in a physical world.
The green corn gleams and the metaphysicals
Lie sprawling in majors of the August heat,
The rotund emotions, paradise unknown.
The opening line is garbled to mess up the perfectly normal statement “The greatest poverty is to not live” and by doing so Stevens forces an end pause that slides into the following line that wouldn’t be there with the use of normal syntax. Since you are already slight of breath because of the sliding needed to get into line two, using “to feel” instead of “and feel” necessitates a comma that facilitates a slight pause at the of this line at “desire” which makes you slide out of line two into line three where you run out of breath as you accent “is.”
The “Perhaps” thrown in at the end of line three needs a comma to stop it from naturally moving on to the preposition below in line four, the unneeded comma after “people” in this line runs you out of breath at the word “paradise,” and the whole dance of commas in line five makes your breath thud out at “observe.” Since this has already strained your breath, the alliteration in the following line runs you completely out by the end of line six.
The period in the middle of the line seven suddenly cuts your breath, and since you have to restart it right after with something that is grammatically perplexing you take a sliding pause at the end of line seven that glides into line eight, where you are out of breath at “humanity”. The shortness of breath this causes a paused slide into line nine where you are stretched out of breath in the first “physical” and the period at this line completely shuts you down.
The nonsensical plural noun of the adjective “metaphysical” in line ten is another grammar faux pas which knocks you so completely out that you simply pick up line eleven at its start which ends at a comma so that line twelve is picked up in a fresh breath as well.
I will say that Stevens “dead stopped” lines five and six and that he “calm-stopped” the rest of them to give them the edges of pauses to work his voicing through the lines, pauses which he is able to force into the enjambed lines because he wrote to lines to have the breathing impaired at the end of them. I find that this is something that he did a lot of and it is rare when he didn’t use this technique.
If you tweak this passage into making the grammar connect in a normal way without blocking it by lines or punctuaton, it shows how much Stevens gained in syntax by throwing all the pauses in:
The greatest poverty is not to live in
A physical word, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps
After death, the non-physical people in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may by chance observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel. The adventurer in
Humanity has not conceived of a race
Completely physical in a physical world.
The green corn gleams and metaphysicals
Lie sprawling in majors of the August heat,
The rotund emotions, paradise unknown.
This re-write makes the content of the passage a bit more clearer in your mind, but it also takes out the depth of thought that you think you see in the original lines, meaning that the words themselves really don’t carry the syntax of the passage, rather the punctuation camouflages the lack of it in the original. I guess you could read the original passage as being something that the speaker is extemporaneously extrapolating aloud about, which would make it like a soliloquy in stage play, which is still is a type of speech to an audience.
Since I only used snippets of the two political speeches above, let’s try to poeticize out a longer passage from Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech:
And so even though, we face the difficulties
of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream. That one day–
this nation will rise up —
live out the true meaning of its creed,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal.”
It’s easy enough to see how MLK is breaking breath pauses into places that wouldn’t normally have them. He does the middle of the line comma caused end of line pause glide into the next line that I discussed above between the first two lines here. The natural grammatical flow in line four is broken a la Stevens and another forced pause breaks the sentence that spans lines four and five into two. King also replaced the expected “and” that you would naturally use to connect the thought expressed between the lines with a pause to add effect. And, of course, since King isn’t counting syllables like Stevens did, the structure is a much looser format.
I’m pretty sure now that Stevens thought of his poetry as something that he wrote as a oratory, but to buffer the idea a bit I will throw out some of Stevens’ lines  and ask you to try to read them with the waver of Martin Luther King’s, or any accomplished speaker’s, voice in their ear:
Who was the musician, fatly soft
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
If in the mind, he vanished, taking there
Of honest quilts, the eye of Crispin, hung
(“Jumbo”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, “Chocorua to its Neighbor”, “The Comedian as the Letter C”)
John Serio says that Stevens’ poems  have “unexpected shifts in syntax that defy logic” but it is important to understand that the reason why he was defying logic was just as linguistic as it was philosophic because it allowed him to fit his voice into a oratory pattern. I have never studied rhetoric so I am unable to go on at length about what these linguistic strategies were, but from reading though this website I will throw out the terms hyperbaton, sentential adverb, asyndeton, polysyndeton and anacoluthon with much trepidation.
Serio’s point that “if it is the poetry of the subject this is foremost, “the true subject is not constant nor its development orderly”” is actually a double edged sword. For if the poet sees poetry as an extension of oration, then the language of poetry is bound to follow the messy truth about language as a discourse: we are always fracturing it when we speak, even after it is established. Anyone could go and perform the three speeches above and change the pauses that the original speakers used. Who knows, maybe even the speakers themselves would use different pauses if they were to re-give the speech.
Oration has many forms. The ones we most encounter in our modern daily lives now are political speeches, pep-talks, story telling, lectures, jokes, debates, soliloquies in plays etc.. as well as the many forms it has as a religious function. One has to wonder how many types of written oratory discourse there are in the Bible. And within in these many forms it has many different types of occasions to step up to, so it necessarily has many kinds of voices that it speaks with. The one thing that binds the many forms of oration together is they all address other people. Even as abstract as Stevens is, it is acutely obvious that he is actually addressing someone or some inanimate object in a lot of the poems even when he hasn’t thrown a person’s name in which he often does.
Singing is also a form of oration because it address an audience, music of course is a different thing than singing because it has a form it can’t escape, whereas oration is all about escaping the normal flow of language. I think seeing Stevens as someone who wrote poetic orations gives a plausible explanation to all the wide variety cadences he was to achieve because it gave him a wide platform to do so. And to tie in the what I’ve said in the paragraphs directly above, Stevens style lets us add in our own cadences as well.
 In fact, Stevens did himself add in different pauses when reading aloud.
Michael Schmidt in “Lives of the Poets” (pg. 630) claims that Stevens “incomparably repaired” the pentameter after Pound broke it because he was able to “integrate real images into a deep amazement” in this stanza from “The Idea of Order at Key West”:
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
As somebody who wants to write pentameter, I couldn’t wholeheartedly disagree more. There is a lot more rhetoric than poetry in these lines. They open with the asking of a rhetorical question and all the imagery that follows is there as rhetorical posturing to force the question on to the person it is being asked to. An exasperation (which is pretty clear in the video) runs through these lines which finally gets vented in the line that starts the following stanza which has an exclamation point, a rarity for Stevens:
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The whole effect this adds strikes me as being a very epistolary style of writing, A lot has been made about Stevens “no god” belief, but I haven’t seen much on line about  considering that a person probably has to go through a whole lot of religious stuff to come to this position, meaning that he had gone through a long negation process within a tradition that has always used oration as a means of promoting its beliefs. For the person who wrote “my direct interest is in telling the Archbishop of Canterbury to jump off the end of a dock,” the business of being anti-religious is somewhat like a religion.
Of course, not all of Stevens’ poems were about telling the Archbishop off, but  what all of them do have is the “oratory voice” that he wrote with. Sure, poets have and always will be oratory in the sense that they talk to people and expound on things with their words in poems, but the difference is that with other poets you get the sense that there are other people in the world, something that you don’t get with Stevens, even when he calls them aloud by name. Alex Ross noted that “his world is separate and immaculate” and the reason that is is because of the oration, he alone is at the podium, or on stage, or with a pen at his writing desk and we are at a far safe distance in the audience or at the postal address that he would have mailed to. Wouldn’t this be the exact definition of living abstractly?
This is the problem with Stevens poetry, this abstraction only lets him describe the world in abstract terms. He can’t show us anything in the world without having to tell us that he is showing it to us. The line that Stephen Adams used in his book is great example of this:
As a calm darkens among water-lights
This isn’t a description, it is a recounting. He isn’t showing us that there is calm because he can’t let us enter his world, rather he has to tell us that he is seeing the calm. And that gets in the way of the image. To rewrite it:
As calm darkens among the water-lights
Which takes out the oratory heft out of the line and quiets the tone to match the idea being presented by it, and so lets us see and feel the image for ourselves, thus deepening the poet’s image for us.
I do find it quite enjoyable to read Stevens now as if I’m on stage performing him in some way, but the problem I have when doing it is that I never get intellectually engaged enough by his poetry to want to do it for a long time. Whatever knowledge that I glean from him tends to strike me as being typically shallow, probably because I always get the sense that he is just riffing about something. Which is why I don’t find the epistemology arguments about him very compelling. Rather than seeing “The Snowman” as some sort of philosophical poem, I tend to it to see it as a ‘telling off of the Archbishop’ reaction against Emily Dickinson’s “It sifts from Leaden Sieves.” The whole theme, tenor and imagery of it seems to be a homily upon the extended religious metaphor Dickinson made by not naming the snow. So, to my mind this isn’t insight, it is only a reaction.
And this question of his intellect seems one that a lot of people share, I mean, isn’t that what you are really saying when you just read Stevens for the sound?

Wither Tom Tico


The book that the Haiku Society of America published, “The Haiku Path,” to celebrate Its twentieth anniversary is a great glimpse into how early ideas about haiku were argued and came into prominence. One of its interesting sections is entitled “Friend and Mentor: A Correspondence with Harold G. Henderson,” (pg.29-36) written by Tom Tico to celebrate his eight year correspondence of forty letters until Henderson’s untimely death in 1974. Tico’s article is historically interesting because it quotes passages about haiku and haiku theory from someone who dominated the rise of English language haiku in the 1960s and 70s but is now for the most part is a lost figure in history save for an award the society gives in his name.

Tico says that he wrote Henderson with the hope that the haiku scholar would take a look at some of his haiku and comment on them. He states that one of the first haiku that he sent which Henderson liked was this:

a lonely park path...
  only my grinding footsteps
   and the birds' silence.

This was what Henderson found in the above:

“(a) It has the haunting ‘growth’ quality of haiku (at least for me!).
“(b) It has enough detail to allow the reader to put himself in the poet’s place”
“(c) It has no unnecessary words. (This is almost a corollary of (b) –i.e.: unnecessary words use up space so that usually there is no room for the needed details.)
“(d)” It has what seems to me a rhythm and line-duration proper for haiku. (That it also has a strict 5-7-5 syllable count is, to me, much less important.)

The first thing to say about the first part of Henderson’s comments are that they are philosophically pretty much a rehash of Kyoshi Takahama’s “kyakkan shasei” ideas about haiku.

The on-line article “The Quiet Joy of Peace and Harmony: Kyoshi Takahama’s Life and Literature” by Katsuya Hiromoto has many direct quotes from Kiyoshi about his haiku aesthetics. (If you want see the article just google the title and it should come up, for some reason the url for it keeps changing making it impossible to link to.) Hiromoto on page 45 lists these ideas as:

“In the chapter on subjective haiku, he invites people to examine: 1 the truthfulness of subjectivity, 2 the great effort that should be made to describe objects, 3 the importance of simplicity and impressiveness, and 4 the deep feelings beneath simplicity.”

“1 Try to approach majestic nature, shedding small subjective elements. 2 Come into direct contact with nature and make a sketch in depth. 3 Be focused on the point of what is to be written. 4 Be well aware that each person’s character and taste are revealed through the portrayal. 5 Objective description is needed before speaking one’s mind. 6 Keep in mind that one should make continuous efforts to write objective haiku even if one is a skillful poet.”

It is easy to see how Henderson’s ideas about “haunting growth,” “detail to allow the reader to put himself in the poet’s place” and “no unnecessary words” are echoes of Kyoshi’s rules about “deep feelings beneath simplicity,” “approach majestic nature, shedding small subjective elements,” “be focused on the point of what is to be written” and “the importance of simplicity and impressiveness.”

Since Kyoshi was the dominate haiku writer of the early twentieth century it’s only natural that his style of haiku, which was in vogue by the 1920s, was the convention that Henderson picked up on, but it is important to remember that Japanese haiku, like any other world literature, has a historical time line of ideas and that the revolution that Masaoka Shiki started did outdate writing styles that the famous haiku writers before him admired. To say that you want to write in Kyoshi’s style is a matter of choice, but to say that this style is the only way haiku was ever written in Japan is simply a fantastic argument that must be disregarded as very grave misunderstanding of the genre.

Janine Beichman in “Masaoka Shiki” (Kodansha International, 1982) in a section about Shiki’s development as haiku writer (pg. 49) talks about how a haiku he wrote in 1886, before having formulated any new ideas, which is about the “yaezakura” (literal translation is “8 layered cherry blossoms” which in English means a “double flowered cherry blossom”) is where “the play of the words layered/ eight layered (hito-e/ya-e) is the poem’s center, although Shiki later rejected  such verbal play with much distaste.” The haiku and Beichman’s translation are:

Hitoezutsu hitoezutsu chire yaezakura

scatter layer
by layer, eight-layered
cherry blossoms!

Beichman states that “Shiki wrote this poem only two years after writing his first haiku and when he still, by his own account, believed that beauty was a sort of pleasure that arose from the exercise of the intellect.” Just the language of this haiku itself alone makes it hard for anyone familiar with “shasei” to believe that the writer could ever be Shiki. Beichman explained earlier how “Applying (Tsubouchi) Shoyo’s idea of realism to the haiku, Shiki had already concluded that it had to be based upon the realistic observations of nature rather than the puns or fantasies often relied on by the old school.” (pg.45)

Puns and fantasies aside, it is important to realize that word play was a big thing in Matsuo Basho’s time and that these verbal machinations also led haiku writers into trying to use diction and grammar as a way to split their haiku into as many plausible readings as possible. While although this, vis-a-vis English at least, is something that is unique to the Japanese language , the use of it was a poetic convention that lasted centuries in Japan before Shiki was influenced by the new western ideas of literature that flooded into Japan with the Meiji Revolution.

Although Shiki and Takahama advocated haiku realistic observations written with simpler language, they certainly didn’t argue that poetic diction should be flattened out to accomplish it. Tom Tico also notes how Henderson also wrote:”In the same letter he comments on a poem that he felt lacked rhythm: “The sound of a haiku, of course, is not as important as the feel—but it can help to convey it.””

To say that “sound is not as important as the feel” is to miss the fact that in English the two go together because we use sound all the time as a way to convey meaning and feeling. Sound actually IS the way we accomplish putting feeling into words and to argue that sound only helps in evoking feelings is an argument that automatically DEVALUES poetic diction into prose. Modern poets, of course, have become more prosaic since they have left metered verse and gone with free verse, but no one has ever argued that this means poetry should sound like prose.

The ‘walking’ haiku above by Tico is a pretty good technical type of descriptive prose. The “grinding” of the second line plays off of the “silence” that follows in the third line which amplifies the sound of footsteps, which gives a it the “quality of growth” that the reader puts together as they move through the haiku. However, as well it may work technically, one can not say that it is poetry by any definition because it simply aims for a muted description of the experience and nothing else. As Edmund Gosse explained it in the “Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition”:

“It will be obvious this definition that the danger ahead of all purely descriptive poetry is that it will lack intensity, that it will be frigid if not dead. Description for description’s sake, especially in studied verse, is rarely a vitalized form of literature. It is threatened, from its very conception, with languor and coldness. Therefore, it must exercise an extreme art or be condemned to immediate sterility. Boileau, with his customary intelligence, was the first to see this, and he thought that the danger might be avoided by care in technical execution. His advice to the poets of his time was (translation from the French by William Soame):

Soyez riches et pompeux dans vos descriptions;
C'est là qu'il faut des vers étaler l'élégance

In your descriptions show your noblest art
There 'tis your poetry may be employed

“Sterile” is the exact word to use when talking about this haiku. It is sterile because it leads nowhere. There is no function of language in it to transport us past the description it gives us. No one can claim that it works on any meta-level of language. As soon as you start to think that it can be read as a allegory, the unwritten part about how it is the footsteps that have caused “the bird’s silence” trips you up and you are back to reading it as a pure description.

Boileau’s point about how “in descriptions show your noblest art,” i.e. the “technical execution” that Edmund Grosse called it, is how descriptive writing escapes the “languor” it casts because, since it purposely erodes the meta-ranges of words that poetic devices give language, the poet must rely on visual and verbal accuracy to recreate the scene for the reader. Achieving such accuracy means the use of the whole spectrum of one’s language to capture what is being described.

Description has always been a part of English language poetry, and even poets when writing subjective poems rely on it. William Wordsworth, for example, sketched this scene in one of his famous poems:

A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

The sound of the lines add to the experience of seeing the daffodils moving in the wind. Percy Shelley gave us this description of a sun rise on the sea which captures it perfectly by moving our sight from the red sun to the line of the horizon it climbs:

Lo! the sun upsprings behind,
Broad, red, radiant, half reclined
On the level quivering line
Of the waters crystalline;

And Walt Whitman who sketches so wonderfully through each of these lines:

With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,/
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air,/
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific,/
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there,/
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows,

These three examples above were taken from poems that are subjective in the sense that they are were written to expresses certain individual sentiments that the poet was feeling, but there are also a lot of poems that were written by poets that were written just for the sake of capturing the essence of what they saw and nature and nothing more:

Nor, shower'd from every Bush, the Damask-rose:
Infinite Numbers, Delicacies, Smells,
With Hues on Hues Expression cannot paint,
The Breath of Nature, and her endless Bloom.

James Thompson in the above has captured rose bushes with such a great delicacy that it is hard not to imagine the scent of  their blooms when you read the above. On the other hand, John Clare, using a a simpler and less adorned and colloquial vocabulary, was able to create a lot of poetry that are no more than apt descriptions of things he experienced:

The frog half fearful jumps across the path,/
And little mouse that leaves its hole at eve/
Nimbles with timid dread beneath the swath;/
My rustling steps awhile their joys deceive,/
Till past, and then the cricket sings more strong,/
And grasshoppers in merry moods still wear/
The short night weary with their fretting song.

Although Clare’s language is similar to Tico’s in syntax, there is more verbal expressiveness to it, which makes these lines much more memorable and enjoyable because they don’t suffer the “languor and coldness” that arises with lack of poetic execution in description. These are just a few quick examples of some descriptions done by western poets, there are millions more out from every century there as well.

Of course, to be fair to Tom Tico, the haiku above is one that he wrote when he was just starting to seriously write haiku, so we must take a look at what some of his other efforts are. These three were in the “The Haiku Anthology Revised Edition” (Simon and Schuster, 1986, pg. 242):

A wisp of spring cloud
 drifting apart from the rest. . . .
  slowly evaporates.
After gazing at stars . . .
 now, I adjust to the rocks
  under my sleeping bag.
The tinkle of chimes
 mingles with the steady fall
  of the autumn rain . . .

And these were in the “The Haiku Anthology 3rd edition” (Norton 2000, pg.222):

As day breaks...
 the lightness of her breath
  on my back
Sitting in the sun
 in the middle of the plants
  that I just watered
In an autumn wind
 looking through a box of books
   left on the corner

Taking these as representative of what Tico accomplished, there has been no progression from his early haiku. It is the same sterile descriptions in the unadorned language as the haiku he sent to Harold Henderson. Even the personal haiku above are given the lifeless treatment that he has given the scenes in nature. It’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t have any emotional attachments to his personal moments, but he made no effort to express them. To call this juvenile writing would be to over praise it because even young poets at the start of their writing careers show more acumen and a stronger grasp at the possibilities of language than Tico does in any of the above. Anyone with any genuine interest in poetry recognizes this and would immediately set down this kind of writing quickly aside and pay it no mind, and to be frank about, nor is there any argument to be made by anyone that they shouldn’t.

Tico’s “autumn wind” haiku is interesting because it echoes this one by Masaoka Shiki:


Harusame ya Kasa sashite miru ezōshiya

The slight soft spring rain!
Opening up an umbrella
to gaze at the
colorful picture book store.

The grammatical difference between the two is that by using “in” to make a prepositional phrase Tico localizes the “autumn wind” as part of the scenery of his haiku and thus makes the haiku an act of description while Shiki made a clean cut between “spring rain” which opens up space from what follows it so that there can be some poetic interplay between the action and the setting of because they are grammatical separate from each other.

The book “Learn The Knack of Haiku Through Famous Ones, Book 2” (名句に学ぶ俳句の骨法 (下) (角川選書、2001) is a transcription of conversations between some modern haiku writers about the language and techniques that are used in famous haiku and there is a discussion in it about Matsu Basho’s famous frog pond haiku that centers on the what if Basho had written “Furuike ni” (Into the old pond) rather than “Furuike ya” (The old pond!). (pgs 21-22). Yūko Kagiwada starts the discussion by stating:

“If you change the beginning of “Furu ike ya Kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto” to “Furu ike ni”, in comparison there is clearly is big difference between then two. If it was “Furu ike ni” then this haiku becomes a simple description of a place and now none of us would know it and it would have been forgotten and disregarded a long long time ago. It is generally considered that it spreads out into an unlimited expanse because of the use of the cutting letter “ya”.”

As to how “ya” makes this great poetry rather than forgettable description he says:

“”Ya” sets the pitch. The writer adds in an emotional response by expressing how there is an old pond and this invites the emotional response of the reader. It strengthens the image of an old pond, but here it isn’t just the general way that the use of “ya” works. Here the sound of the water that happened when the frog jumped in is wholly connected to the old pond making it into a single universe and the reason why this haiku became famous is because of “ya.””

Akira Oogushi chimes in about how “ya” opens up the haiku to be read as poetry:

“The difference between “ni” and “ya” is that with “ya” further associations can be made and the scope of the haiku extraordinarily opens up because one expects something to occur after the use of it, but the use of “ni” makes this limited. When the reader comes to “Furu ike ya” there is a huge sense of expectation about what will follow it.”

One if the first things which jumps to mind when considering the use of “ya” being described here is how it automatically indicates an emotional element that is indicated by the writer and is received by the reader, something which is totally void in Tim Tico’s haiku. The second is how the use of “ya” sets the pitch (調子} which is to say that it adds an musical element to the haiku that Basho built the rest of the haiku off of.

“Ya” is kireji (cutting word). It is a sentence ending particle. There are also five other kireji that act as end particles (kana , mogana, zo, ka, yo), there are ten kireji that are verb endings (keri, ran, tsu, nu, zu (su), ji, se, re, he, ke), and two others that are a speculative verbs and an adjectival endings (ikani and shi). These are parts of grammar taken from the classic canon of Japanese literature written by the courtiers several centuries ago in a language which is now so archaic that nobody has spoken it for many centuries.

Roman Jakobsen argued that grammar was the essential way to understand poetry because “poetry successfully combines and integrates form and function, that poetry turns the poetry of grammar into the grammar of poetry.” Looking at it from this perspective, the use of “kireji” in haiku is an actual example of Jakobsen’s theory being true, that the Japanese have integrated and combined the old grammar of the old poetry with contemporary language and thus have literally turned the “poetry of grammar into the grammar of poetry” by lifting it from the past and making an integral part of poetic composition.

The discussion above about how “ya” is the part of the Basho’s frog haiku that has made it memorable poetry shows how invaluable the use of “kireji” are to haiku. Without it Basho simply writes forgettable prose. With it Basho writes a masterpiece of the genre. The reason why it creates great poetry is because it provides the grammar which elevates language out of the mundane and into the realm of high diction. The definition of haiku always states that it must include a “kireji” and a “kigo” (season word) and recently there are some Japanese who advocate that “kigo” are too confining and that they should stop being part of the definition of haiku. But, you never hear anyone argue that “kireji” should be taken out of the definition and the reason for is that without it haiku lacks the grammatical tension that gives the high diction associated with poetry.

Now that we have a little better of an understanding of “ya” and how it effects Shiki’s ‘gazing at a bookstore’ haiku, it is obvious that Tico’s similar version is nothing but a nondescript description of something that he or somebody else is doing. Indeed, since Tico attached a preposition to the “autumn wind,” going by the discussion of how using a preposition would have made the famous frog pond haiku a forgettable one, it’s clear to see that his effort falls well short of what Japanese standards for poetry are as well as the ones in our own language. It maybe that Tico was caught on the wrong side of history because of the mistakes that were made by the early translators, but that doesn’t change the fact that way he wrote is well below the accepted standards of both cultures.

The now deceased haiku writer John Crook once commented on a mailing list something about how just because haiku in the west were written under mistaken auspices about Japanese haiku doesn’t automatically invalidate them, and that would be true except that haiku in the west has never been able to pull itself far away from these wrong ideas to enter western poetry mainstream because its keepers refuse to use the language of poetry. This dooms haiku to the silly idea that you can write lasting and worthy poetry in a poetically devalued language. What invalidates most of the 20th century English language haiku is what throws all bad poetry into the dust bin of antiquity: i.e. bad writing. And what makes this more heinous is that in haiku it was often the case of poor writing done on purpose, which was and is a sad sad waste of a lot of possibly great talent.

Apparently, somewhere along the line Tom Tico changed his haiku style, while searching on the internet I ran into these two haiku:

now my son
measures me
her letter . . .
I'd forgotten
paper can cut

He now seems to write haiku that have “a meaning,” well not a clear meaning per se, rather he follows the standard method of “show but don’t tell” that often gets argued as the “soul” of haiku which simply presents a situation to the reader that feigns an emotion so that the reader can read anything into the situation. The operative word in haiku is that this feint is “resonance” between the two parts of the haiku that leads the reader into filling in the emotional gap that the writer intentionally leaves out.

The are two obvious problems with this theory that “haiku resonance” is great poetry, the first is that the normal kind of usually poetry written with emotion and the use of diction and imagery to express the subjective feelings of writers always have “resonated” with us because we can readily relate to the emotional content that poets incorporate into words, so in expressing the said emotion then good poetry speaks to us in ways that reach into us and we retain and remember it. Memorable poetry takes on “a particular importance that appeal to us in a personal and emotional way,” which is the definition of “resonance.”

The second problem is that haiku people who spout off about “resonance” are distorting the term to camouflage the idea they are really pedaling, i.e that haiku must be a “conundrum game” of language that they enjoy unravelling. This is very clear in the article “Meaning in Haiku” on the Haiku Society of America website by Charles Trumble where he writes about how “too much meaning” kills a haiku:

“Wordiness or overuse of poetic devices. Is it possible to have too much meaning in a haiku? Perhaps the haiku with morals or messages that we just saw fall into this category. Certainly haiku that use too many words and lack concision do, as do those that overuse poetic devices. When too much meaning is provided, all the joy of discovery evaporates, as in this poem by Rengé:

scores of birds
 on a staff of wires
  ―autumn symphony

This is clever use of language―the puns on “scores” and “staff”―but in the end the poet spoon-feeds meaning to us, and thereby kills the haiku.”

The only thing killed by this haiku is “the joy of discovery” that Trumble laments as being absent in this haiku. This “joy” that he feels only occurs when the writer plays  “a game of conundrum” that obscures the meaning to the point of where the reader must engage in a mental game of “seek and discover” to garner any meaning from the haiku. This makes haiku a parlor game akin to charades where the writer throws out clues to the reader who then guesses at what the writer has mutely expressed.

Since the performance of the writer is the most important part of this game, as it is in charades, the writer then must always intellectualize their haiku so that it leads into an intellectual maze that the reader takes pleasure in escaping, and since there can be no game unless the writer keeps true to this format, then this type of haiku is always bound to a very strict formalized notion of writing. Indeed, haiku people argue all the time that unless one follows these strict rules they haven’t written “a haiku” at all, which is the implied meaning when Trumble wrote that Rengé has “killed the haiku.” However, as most other creative writers in the world know, any type of poetry that is strictly bound to certain formal rules that are incapable of being used to express human emotions is a dead form of art upon arrival.

These two later period haiku by Tico above are perfect examples of this dead style. The second haiku was actually chosen  as the “Museum of Haiku Literature Award” in 2014, which really isn’t surprising given that the meaning is so distorted that the reader must jump through a series of mental hoops before deciding on what Tico is trying to say. Everything in this haiku, even grammar, is subservient to the form of the “conundrum game” to provide the reader with tons of mental wanderings to peruse through the half information that he provides in it to reach their own conclusion about what they think it ought to mean.

This is about as dead as one can be when it comes to creative writing. When the sole purpose of writing is not expression but rather the fulfilling of a set rule that prohibits self-expression for the sake for providing the reader with a game they must engage in, then there is no possibilities at all for haiku to ever be anything but a second rate type of poetry. The bald truth about “resonance haiku” is that any personal interest in this type of writing only lasts as long as there is a game to play, which is until you work through to find an answer for the conundrum, and once you “solve” it the haiku becomes disposable and you simply toss it away like a rumpled napkin.

Playing this game with the two Tico haiku above, after you come to a conclusion about them you simply see how shallow they really are and you move on. In comparison, the haiku by Rengé, with all its “clever use of language,” stays with you longer because it uses language (or as Trumble ironically states it “word play) as the way to imprint and convey the scene and to deepen the sense so the music of the birds stay with you. That’s how poetry works. Haiku poets have been trumpeting for decades now how observantly profound their works are, but they are inexcusably blind to the fact that poets have been doing it since the dawn of language and poets are decidedly a lot better at relating observations to the reader. One doesn’t have to be profoundly wise to understand why: poets unabashedly use everything that their language has to offer when they write. Haiku writers, on the other hand, have always argued that the language they employ must be cropped or diluted in someway, as if it was the defining characteristic of the genre.

Actually, the history of haiku in Japan is the exact opposite in the terms of language usage, the development of of “haikai” through the development of “renga” (linked verses) came, as Kōji Kawamoto explains in the “The Poetics of Japanese Verse” (translated, University of Tokyo Press, 2000, pg. 62) from these ideas:

“a “haikai renga” was any “renga” sequence in which each of the verses contained a “haikai” word. These “haikai” words (known as “haigon”) referred to all terms outside the restricted body of allowable “waka” words. The varieties of “haigon” included colloquialisms, contemporary terms, Chinese loan words, Buddhist terminology, and other foreign expressions……….In one passage of “Sanzōshi” (Three Booklets, ca. 1792, in a section known as the White Booklet) we read that “Chinese poems, “waka”, “renga” and “haikai” are all forms or poetic art. However, the first three first three leave certain things aside while “haikai” embraces all. Elsewhere Kyorai wrote that “”haikai” is freedom,” and this, we can say, became the rallying cry for “haikai.””

Kyorai was “free” because he had the full range and power of his language to create poetry with. “Freedom” sure has never been the rallying cry for haiku in the West, rather it has been loaded down with a number of “do nots” which has left it as a sterile and empty as the “waka” in Japan was for centuries before it was revived out of itself in the late 19th century. And here too, on this same lonely island of “self referential literature” withers Tom Tico and a whole colony of self-minded writers who think that having a set in stone format means they are writing great haiku. Given that the development of haiku was the diametric opposite of that, one has to wonder if they actually have ever really written any “true haiku” at all. One thing for sure, they haven’t written much of anything that “resonates” in the world at large.