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American haiku now holds its own

by Hiroaki Sato

THE HAIKU ANTHOLOGY, by Cor van den Heuvel. W. W. Norton, pp. 363, $27.50.

Cor van den Heuvel is the most important anthologist of haiku composed in English in North America. He has published three collections, all simply called “The Haiku Anthology” and all through prominent commercial houses: Doubleday, Simon & Schuster and, now, W. W. Norton. It is a feat no one else has pulled off.

The expanding territory of haiku in English is evident in the growing number of haiku selected. The first edition, published in 1974, had fewer than 300; the second, published in 1986, 700; and the third, 850.

The growth, along with the anthologist’s confidence, is also clear in the prefaces. In introducing the first collection, van den Heuvel said: “Until now, the poets represented in this anthology have been largely ‘invisible,’ ” adding “Haiku in English is still in the process of finding its ‘way.’ “

He began the preface to the second edition: “Someone, probably thinking of Basho’s famous haiku about the sound of a frog jumping into an old pond, likened the English-language haiku movement to a small puddle far from the mainstream of poetry. If so, the puddle is doing very well on its own.”

In contrast, van den Heuvel, now with unmistakable contentment, devotes the preface to the latest edition to saluting haiku luminaries, old and new.

This is understandable. In North America, haiku are composed by the thousands every day (in Japan, you might say, by the millions). They are routinely recited at gatherings of cowboys and baseball fans. At least one highly competitive annual national contest exists where winning haiku are picked by the large, rowdy audience.

The venerable New York Times not long ago gave a sizable spread to a selection of haiku describing urban life. Men and women on Wall Street are known to exchange haiku among themselves lamenting their lucrative but lugubrious lives. And, of course, haiku whiz through the Internet.

So the question may be asked: What is Cor van den Heuvel’s standard as a haiku anthologist? The answer is simple: He adheres to the definition prepared by the Haiku Society of America and says the haiku is a “poem in which Nature is linked to human nature.”

In this view, people who turn out “little epigrams in (three lines of 5-7-5 syllables), or jokes about Spam, or cute descriptions of birds and flowers, and think they are writing haiku” are utterly misguided.

Let us look at some of the haiku poets van den Heuvel cites with special admiration.

Nicholas Virgilio, who was stricken with a heart attack in 1989 while preparing for the national TV program the Charlie Rose Show, van den Heuvel notes, created a classic — comparable to Basho’s pond-frog perhaps — when he wrote: “lily: / out of the water . . . / out of itself.”

John Wills, called the greatest nature poet in American haikudom, created another classic when he came up with a one-line composition: “dusk [space] from rock to rock a waterthrush.”

Wills, originally a college teacher of T.S. Eliot and such, wrote many one-line haiku, but recast most one-liners in three lines for his last collection, “Reed Shadows,” though not the one just cited. Another haiku he left in one line shows how concise a haiku can be: “the sun lights up a distant ridge [space] another.”

As it happens, 600 years ago the tanka poet Kyogoku Tamekane (1256-1332) had written:

“Shizumihatsuru irihi no kiwa ni arawarenu kasumeru yama no nao oku no mine” (Close to the setting sun about to sink appears a hazy mountain then a peak beyond.)

Clement Hoyt studied Zen with Nyogen Senzaki (1876-1958), the first person to set up a Zen center in the United States, in 1928, and wrote in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. An example:

“In this lightning flash — / through the night rain — I saw it / . . . whatever it was.”

This brings to mind Basho’s hokku: “Inazuma ni satoranu hito no totosa yo” (Someone not enlightened by lightning deserves respect!)

O. Mabson Southard, who said his “poetic voice” was indebted to “aboriginal America,” also wrote in the format of 3 lines, 5-7-5. Surely one of the most beautiful haiku he composed is:

“Across the still lake / through upcurls of morning mist — / the cry of a loon.”

This piece, as I once noted in a talk, reminds us of the arbitrary way “kigo” (seasonal words) are selected in Japanese haiku; the loon, called “abi,” is not among them. When there are nearly 15,000 kigo, why exclude this particular bird?

Coming closer to the present generation, Anita Virgil, who sat on the HSA committee to work out definitions, has written such pieces as:

“following me / deeper into my quilt / the wren’s song”; “spring breeze . . . / her breasts sway / over the porcelain tub”;

and

“holding you / in me still . . . / sparrow songs.”

This last brings us to the distinctively feminine voice that is Alexis Rotella’s — and to the amorphous category of senryu:

“Undressed — / today’s role dangles / from a metal hanger”; “Late August / I bring him the garden / in my skirt”; “Leading him in . . . / my bracelet / jangling” and “starrynightIenteryourmirror”

I said “amorphous” because, even though van den Heuvel may disagree, the distinction between haiku and senryu is quickly fading in English haiku, as it is in Japan. Since I happen to have recently reviewed a compendium of 10,000 haiku by Japanese women called “Joryu Haiku Shusei,” I might cite a few examples to show what I mean.

Kiyoko Fujiki, who became prominent in the Shiko Haiku (Newly Rising) movement in the latter part of the 1930s and disappeared without a trace, wrote:

“Furu-fusuma akuma ni kurokami tsukamarenu” (In an old bed a devil grabbed me by my black hair.)

(The Shinko Haiku movement collapsed in 1940, when its leaders were arrested for advocating rejection of kigo — an act deemed subversive of the national polity!)

Minako Kato (born 1925), one of many women who run their own magazines, has written: “Rafuzo wa kurashi gaito muragarite” (The nude sculpture’s dark with overcoats swarming). And Sumiko Ikeda (born 1936), a recipient of a Modern Haiku Association prize, has written:

“Haiku-shi ni hakkin I kenkyo “naku mimizu” (In haiku history, sale bans,/ arrests,/ earthworms that chirp).

All three are presented as haiku.

Aside from the distinction between haiku and senryu, Ikeda’s piece, in particular, makes me note one more point: In political and other ways, views of haiku may be diverging between Japan and the English-speaking world. It isn’t that there are no “nontraditional” haiku writers in North America; there are.

Among them, Marlene Mountain of Tennessee has written such pieces as “heat wave ‘women’s issues are the issues of the world’ ” and “intermittent showers intermittent peace” (both in one line).

Van den Heuvel, however, says he doesn’t regard what Mountain calls “pissed-off poems” as haiku, explaining that her pieces registering “her outrage at what we have done and are doing to harm the environment and to limit the freedom of women” are “something other than haiku or senryu.”

In fact, he hasn’t included in his anthology the two pieces I’ve cited, though he represents the feminist painter-poet very well from her early, apolitical period.

The two exceptions he makes are: “acid rain less and less i am at one with nature” and “old pond a frog rises belly up” (both in one line).

This is by no means to suggest that the divergence I discern is good or bad. More than a dozen years ago, the Canadian poet Rod Willmot, who advocated “broken-narrative” or psychological haiku, declared that English haiku had cut its umbilical cord to Japan, and that’s the way it should be.

Still, the HSA definition of Japanese haiku — that haiku is a poem recording “a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature” — was, from the start, oddly at variance with Japanese views of haiku, and van den Heuvel’s stress on it seems to unnecessarily narrow the scope.

For, if he rejects Mountain’s politicized haiku, he also rejects Allen Ginsberg’s one-line, 17-syllable “American Haiku” assembled in his posthumous book, “Death & Fame.” Here are two examples: “Mice ate at the big red heart in her breast, she was distracted in love” and “Jeannie Duval’s cheek tickled by a Paris fly, 1852.”

I wish to conclude this review by citing another classic — this one by Alan Pizzarelli, whom van den Heuvel calls “one of this book’s biggest attractions”:

“the gas station man / points the way / with a gas nozzle.”

It is in homage to Issa’s haiku: “Daikohiki daiko de michi o oshiekeri” (The daikon puller points the way with a daikon.)