TAKE A DEEP BREATH: The Haiku Way to Inner Peace, by Sylvia Forges-Ryan & Edward Ryan. Kodansha International, 2002, 129 pp., 1,800 yen (cloth);
THE NICK OF TIME: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, by Paul O. Williams. Press Here, Foster City, California, 2001, 112 pp., $12 (paper)
Haiku seems to induce a desire to discover and explain. What is to be discovered is an essence, a reductive key to the understanding of a culture. And when it has been revealed, it must be taught.
These three new books about haiku have been written by authors with considerable experience. All have been closely associated with the Haiku Society of America, and each employs some of his or her own work for the purposes of illustration. The first two books are guides to haiku, and the third is a volume of discursive essays.
Bruce Ross’ previous publication, an anthology of North American Haiku called “The Haiku Moment” and his new guide reflect what seems to have become the prevailing orthodoxy: “haiku takes place in the present . . . So haiku is not really a tiny lyric poem.” He explains that it is “a moment of insight connected with nature,” and offers this verse of his own as one of the examples:
autumn drizzle –
the slow ticking
of the clock
He further elucidates: “In haiku, we have what might be called ‘absolute metaphor.’ The images in a haiku are not so much compared as linked.” As it happens, only the first chapter of Ross’ book actually deals with haiku, which may be why his comments are relatively basic. In the second chapter he goes on to senryu, poetry that “is similar in form to haiku but deals exclusively with human nature.” Some quite pointed and amusing verses by a variety of authors are quoted as examples, though the general advisory is just “to have a good sense of humor.”
In other chapters, Ross goes on to discuss haibun (haiku with prose), tanka (slightly longer poems), haiga (haiku with pictures), and renga (linked verse), giving accounts of how these forms have developed in America.
Haibun, now very little practiced in Japan, has been taken up with notable enthusiasm by writers of English. Ross’ examples, though, are not of even quality. An “award-winning haibun” included in the book ends with not one, but two dangling participles: “Balanced between my knees, trying not to spill water, we drive to the cemetery in silence.” Despite such examples, the point with which Ross closes — that we “must slow down . . . must stop, look, and listen,” is well enough made.
It is exactly this point that the Sylvia Forges-Ryan and Edward Ryan take up: “Stop now. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath.” The po- em “Take a Deep Breath,” is not related to the popular definition of haiku as a “one-breath poem,” but rather consists in the Ryans’ recommended use of the poetry as an aid to meditation.
Their book, which is beautifully produced, offers a set of seasonally arranged haiku. Each haiku is accompanied by a facing page of commentary. The selection begins in summer, and takes us “gently” (a favorite word of the Ryans) through the decline to autumn and into winter, and then through the new awakening of spring back to the brink of summer.
Seasonal anthologies usually begin with spring and leave us bereft and desolate in winter. So we may take it that the Ryans’ arrangement is deliberate, and intended to be reassuring. They urge us to take our time; to pay attention to the world around us. The simplest definition of meditation is perhaps to just “sit quietly,” which most of us need to do occasionally, some more than others.
To stress the importance of pauses of this kind, the Ryans invoke some memorable words from the Bible: “Consider the lilies of the field . . .” together with Eastern religious concepts. The desired state of tranquillity and acceptance is emphasized. Perhaps this is best illustrated as autumn comes to an end, and winter approaches:
the autumn hills
give up their colors
A few pages after this the authors observe that “at its best, meditation is a process of grieving, through which everything, all of what we treasured and all of what we loathed, falls away.”
Paul O. Williams, author of “The Nick of Time,” like Sylvia Forges-Ryan, served as President of HSA. In one poem he records:
the hermit thrush
fills the woods
This haiku celebrates the end of the day, rather than the year’s end, in a quietly expansive way. After the occasional vagaries of Ross’s introduction, and the soporific pieties of the Ryans, it is something of a relief to turn to Williams, who is interested in more specifically literary matters.
A limited — and not always very well understood — idea of haiku has pervaded its reception overseas since the English writer Reginald Horace Blyth (1898 – 1964) promoted it as the embodiment of Zen perception: not just a poem but a “way.” In Blyth’s highly influential reading, all literature boiled down to haiku — William Shakespeare, Homer, everything — with the result that the most ardent haiku devotees no longer saw the necessity to read other kinds of literature. Such a narrow ignorance, whereby practitioners of haiku believe themselves to be possessed of a special insight, makes them unable to look at what they do objectively.
Williams, while just as interested in the form as any reader might be, disagrees with Blyth: “I certainly have experienced . . . small bursts of haiku perception — and the best of them have come to a mind both active and at rest, serenely perturbed, meditatively taught, loafing alertly.” Invoking Walt Whitman with this last phrase, Williams embraces a wider literary tradition.
“My view” states Williams later on, “is that poetry comes in many types — odes, sonnets, hymn forms, free verse, haiku, tanka, ballads . . .” We know then that we are in the company of someone with good general knowledge and awareness, and this makes his work refreshing. He does not, like some of the more dogmatic haiku enthusiasts, want haiku to be “all poetry.”
Williams, a former professor of English and the author of several science-fiction novels, makes an illuminating comparison between the novel and the haiku, and another between the English sonnet and the more recently adopted haiku. In attempting to describe what haiku stands for, or what is different about it, he holds haiku definitions up to other kinds of literary expression.
Some of the short essays that have been collected in Williams’ work are satirical, and make their points in an elegant and entertaining way. Several give good practical advice, such as the use of articles, or the sometimes ineffective use of words. Williams’ analysis of the failure of travel haiku, which tends to produce novel images without depth, suggests that the most familiar things evoke the most profound responses. In the chapter “The Question of Metaphor in Haiku,” Williams attempts to delineate the uses of metaphor, both traditional and modern, and by haiku poets in Japan and elsewhere. His comments are tentative, but he draws on valuable work by other writers including Harold G. Henderson, Hiroaki Sato, Makoto Ueda, who write less tendentiously than Blyth.
It is exactly this kind of commentary that helps to bring haiku back into the fold of poetry and literature. Haiku poets who write in English sometimes complain about their marginal position. But there is no reason why they should feel their work is marginal when even Nobel-prize-winning writers like the Irish poet Seamus Heaney have composed and published in this form.