Tag Archives: Stephen Adams

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?