Tag Archives: Tom Tico

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.