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Some rules were made to be broken

by Hiroaki Sato

THE IRON BOOK OF BRITISH HAIKU, edited by David Cobb and Martin Lucas. Iron Press, 1998, 112 pp., 6.50 British pounds. A NEW RESONANCE: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, edited by Jim Kacian and Dee Evetts. Red Moon Press, 1999, 201 pp., $14.50.

Reading these anthologies of English-language haiku (some in Scotch, too), I was reminded of a recent scandal in Japan. The association of “traditional” haiku writers, Haijin Kyokai, asked publishers not to allow “nontraditional” haiku in the school textbooks they print! The world of English-language haiku may never witness such a spectacle.

The reasons are relatively simple.

In English haiku, the distinction between traditional and nontraditional is hard to delineate. The two elements that make Japanese haiku “traditional” are, as everyone knows, the so-called “yukiteikei”: the inclusion of seasonal references (“kigo”) and the preservation of the 5-7-5 or 17-syllable form.

Attempts are being made to create seasonal indicators in English, too, but they are sporadic and, in any case, there are no mechanisms, such as teacher-student relationships, by which to work out agreement among those interested. The set syllabic count has no magic for English users.

Where no departure point exists or the line is too amorphous to make sense, almost anything has to be accommodated. So “The Iron Book” includes poems that range from a stately piece by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, which has a seasonal indicator, if you will, and a set form (Dangerous pavements. / But I face the ice this year / with my father’s stick) to a breezy two-liner by George Marsh: missed it / the moment to join in the laugh.

There is, in addition, a four-stanza poem by Kevin Bailey, which the editors evidently regard as an example of what they call “haiku-influenced poetry.” It’s entitled “Hare,” and it reads:

I found the / severed head / of a hare, // staring a dry stare, // and gobbling flies / in the long grass / by the river: // the passing shiver / of charnal Nature / closing tired eyes.

(Here, “charnal” must be a variant of “charnel” or else a typo.)

There also is a selection of quatrains by Stephen Gill, who uses the pen name “Tito.”

One of them, written in Northam Burrows, Devon, on Dec. 31, 1991, reads:

Further down the cobble beach / The face of another / Sun-set-watcher / Loses its copper glow.

By some interesting editorial decision, Cobb and Lucas have included some other things: a small selection of translations by R. H. Blyth and haiku in Scotch by three writers, representing one of them, David Purves, with four of his translations of Japanese haiku — based on Makoto Ueda’s English translations!

One of the translations is Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s “farewell-to-the-world” haiku: Mizubana ya hana no saki dake kurenokoru. It becomes, in Ueda’s translation: My runny nose: / everywhere, except on that spot, / evening dusk falls.

Here is Purves’ reworking into of it into Scotch: Ma rinnie neb: / awhaur, binna on its dewdrap, / dounfaws the gloamin.

I can’t read Scotch, but my own translations having been translated into several languages I don’t know, I can’t help marveling at what a ticklish line of work translation is.

“The Iron Book” features 71 poets. “A New Resonance” has 20. Unlike the former, the latter contains a short biographical note on each poet. Thus we know that Yu Chang, a college professor who lives in Schenectady, New York, was born in Ichang, Hupei, China, in 1938. He has some (yes!) erotic haiku:

parting her pink robe / — daybreak (this is a two-liner)

bumblebee / deeper in the petunia / summer heat

still thinking of her / the sticky threads / of the lotus root

Of the three, the only one that reminds us of Chang’s Chinese origins is the last. Even now, not many Americans with no Chinese roots cook or eat lotus roots.

Chris Gordon (actually, he spells his name in lower case, a la e. e. cummings) was born in Toronto, though now he is a graduate student in Oakland, California. His haiku selected here are all in one line:

balled up in the shower her wet dress (space) the soughing darkness

dressing afterwards (space) her voice hardens

‘will this be one of the days i remember?’ and grass

Harsangeet Kaur, born in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, lives in Singapore. She is described as a “homemaker.”

monsoon — / the fresh paint / lies in puddles

calling his sister / his eyes don’t leave / the ant trail . . .

rickshaw — / one old man offers a ride / to another

A. C. Missias was born in Naha, Okinawa. Today she works as a biologist in Philadelphia.

again I choose / not to dial your number / the cat’s tight curl

lake cottage — / the wicker chair seats / giving way

new grave — / the trampled grass / already recovering

Most of the 20 poets in “A New Resonance” are Americans born in the United States. And most of the poets are good, sometimes exceptionally so, as my examples may show, thanks to the astute judgment of the two editors, Kacian and Evetts.

I only wish that instead of a portentous assessment of the poets’ work placed at the start of each section, they had given more biographical information or allowed the poets to speak their own minds.

I happen to know, for example, that the poet represented by one-liners, Chris Gordon, publishes a handmade, avant-garde magazine called ant ant ant ant ant, and that he took the title from a piece by the modernist Japanese haiku poet Tomizawa Kakio (1902-62): Hito no me no naka no (space) ari ari ari ari ari (In human eyes [space] ant ant ant ant ant).

Isn’t learning this more interesting than being told that Gordon “gives us precise feelings and an uneasy feeling of slippage, not allowing us facile responses as he moves between one clearly defined state and another”?

And speaking of avant-garde (and to go back to traditional vs. nontraditional), I venture that, regardless of the yukiteikei rules, the creation is under way of a body of recognizably haikuesque perceptions that may eventually be regarded as “traditional” in English-language haiku.

If such a category comes into being, it will do so by ignoring the distinction between haiku and “senryu” — a distinction that is “impossible to maintain in English,” as Cobb and Lucas note, and is already artificial in Japan.