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Essential reading for those who love haiku

by Kris Kosaka

Haiku Poetics in Twentieth Century Avant-garde Poetry, by Jeffrey Johnson. Lexington Books, Maryland, 2011, 226 pp., $70.00 (hardcover)

The threads of haiku run through many layers of Japanese society — from school-age recitations and the Emperor’s New Year’s greetings to Twitter or text battles — laid across eloquence and understatement in three lines. These strands of poetic thought stretch across the seas as well, as Jeffrey Johnson points out in his introduction of “Haiku Poetics in the Twentieth Century.”

Worldwide, today, haiku “extends from a refrigerator magnet pastime and a poetic formula taught to many schoolchildren to the poetic archetype for serious poetry publications.” A multicultural and multilingual exploration of poetry’s 17-syllable wonder-form, “Haiku Poetics” is essential reading for any poet or critic of 21st century poetics, East or West.

Any critical study of poetry involves an exercise of the mind; therefore, expect a rather strenuous workout with the first chapter. A good dictionary will allow you to hurdle through the meaning of specific poetic terms, causing momentary stumbles, but don’t worry: The rest of the book fascinates as it informs in crisp, clear prose. Johnson’s central points converge into gorgeous illumination as he traces the evolution of haiku, first establishing its traditions in Japan before moving to early translations and haiku within Imagism in the early 1900s. Johnson sketches out international innovations from France to Spain to Latin America, finally ending in America with the Beat poets of the 1950s.

With explicit analysis, liberally supported by examples of haiku from around the world, the reader thus gathers a multilayered fabric of poetry and prose, spread across the years in carefully researched homage to haiku.

Haiku itself defies easy definition, one reason Johnson spends a great deal of Chapter One merely clarifying the art form. Johnson first explains Japanese concepts of yugen and shikan aesthetics before pointing out that haiku’s truly distinguishing characteristic is its nonconformity: Haiku “comes into being at the moment in which the words that created the experience and the experience itself becomes one,” Johnson explains.

Thus, “modernists and particularly avantgardists in the West grasped that in this respect the Japanese artistic sensibility anticipated their own attempts to focus on the degraded modern world and, at the same time, to redirect artistic apprehension toward intuition, intuition that would initiate understanding in a flash of insight.”

Johnson links the work of poets as culturally and aesthetically diverse as Octavio Paz and Paul Eluard, Jorge Luis Borges and Ezra Pound, Guillermo de Torre and Paul-Louis Couchoud among others, concluding that haiku provided many artists with a “paradigm and predecessor for their own experiments with incantation, immediacy, spontaneity, juxtaposition, and suggestion.”

Modern poetry’s emphasis on nonlinear leaps of creativity unites all these artists under the synesthetic weave of haiku, and Johnson supports fully the ubiquitous importance of haiku in modern poetry with staggering scholarship, elucidating the world of modern poetics.

Each chapter contains lengthy annotations, and there is a14-page bibliography at the end. With his painstaking research alongside lyrical insights, Johnson reveals both a personal and academic relationship with haiku and its historical significance.