Editor's Note: This is the first of a three part series entitled Haiku in English. The second part
deals with Jack Kerouac and The Beat Generation, and the final part deals with the haiku
of the young Michael McClintock, who is the recently retired Tanka Editor of Simply Haiku.
For the convenience of readers, we have retained the page numbers for this essay.
Haiku in English
by Barbara Louise Ungar
Stanford Humanities Honors Essay XXI
"Is there any good in saying everything?" -Matsuo Basho1
The haiku has fascinated the Western mind since its introduction from Japan in the late 19th century. This essay deals with haiku written in English by three 20th-century American poets: Amy Lowell, of the Imagist school; Jack Kerouac, of the "Beat generation"; and Michael McClintock, a young contemporary haiku poet. Through comparison of original haiku by these three poets and their theory with regard to haiku, I shall try to show how understanding of the form has developed over the years. In doing so I hope to reach a definition of what haiku in English might be—in both its relation to the original Japanese form, and its possibilities as an English form. Finally, as has often been said, the best definition of a poem is the poem itself: I shall close with some of my own English haiku, trying to demonstrate what has been postulated in discussion.
This essay is concerned mainly with haiku in English, yet as the form, needless to say, was adapted from the Japanese haiku, about which there are many misconceptions, I find it necessary to begin with an introduction that deals with Japanese haiku. I have neither time nor sufficient scholarship to cover the subject in any way thoroughly, and I make no claims to do so: I shall try merely to summarize those central points necessary to understand the discussion of English haiku which follows. Undoubtedly I shall oversimplify some issues, but I beg the reader's forbearance, and apologize for any misrepresentation I may unwittingly make.
The haiku, which depends so much upon silence, upon what is left unsaid, upon the empty space around it, is perhaps the most difficult form of literature to discuss. At its core is something inexplicable, mysterious and irrational: it lives and breathes in a place where ordinary language cannot travel. Yet as all art aspires to that realm, it is perhaps inevitable that we discuss and dissect in order to understand, although realizing from the start the shortcomings of such analysis.
Whenever I speak
My lips are
chilled— Autumn wind.
samushi aki no
Several basic characteristics of haiku differentiate it from any Western poetry. First, its brevity: a Western reader may be tempted at first to dismiss haiku as insignificant and trivial. Second, its de-emphasis of language: for this reason it is sometimes called "the wordless poem." Third, its de-emphasis of the poet's voice: its lack of comment, or "objectivity." Fourth, its demand that the reader participate in creating the poem: although all poetry to some extent invites completion by the reader, none depends so completely upon this response as haiku.
These characteristics are, of course, inextricably tied; they work together to give haiku a unique ability to transcend the limitations of language and of logic, and so to express an understanding of an extraordinary nature. Haiku is the expression of a visionary moment in which the poet sees, in a flash of heightened awareness, a fundamental truth about the nature of things-in-themselves. The haiku poet attempts to bring the reader to the same realization, not by telling her about it, but by objectively presenting the few essential objects or experiences which made this moment, and so bringing the reader to recreate the process in her own mind. By withholding all judgment or comment on the material presented, the poet invites the reader to enter into the poem, experience it, and come to her own conclusion. And so what is left unsaid becomes more important than what is said: the haiku poet provides only the barest brushstrokes necessary to arouse the reader's imagination to complete the whole picture.
The man next door, what
does he do for a living?
tonari wa nani o
suru hito zo
The conventional haiku consists of seventeen syllables in three lines of five, seven and five each. These are not syllables exactly, for Japanese has none as such, but rather ji-on, or symbol-sounds. Each ji-on is regular in length and shorter than the average English syllable, being comprised of either a vowel alone, or a consonant and vowel combination. One should also keep in mind that there is neither rhyme nor accent in Japanese. Because of its extreme brevity, haiku depends heavily on suggestion and association of ideas.
The second convention of haiku remaining from classical times, kigo, or season-word, is one kind of technique for association of ideas.
This is a requirement that there be a word or expression in each haiku indicating the time of year, and so setting the mood of the poem. Notice how the ki-go ("autumn") in the haiku by Basho quoted above helps to create the lonely feeling of the whole. Remembering that Japan is a small island country with four distinct seasons, whose changes are felt more or less consistently across the country, we may understand how a seasonal reference through naming a season, or a tree, bird, flower, animal or weather condition belonging to one of the four seasons, would be recognized by everyone and would create a wealth of associations. Although disregarded by many modem haiku poets, and even in classical times not used without exception, the ki-go is a convenient device for packing few words with great meaning, a sort of poetic shorthand.
Haiku makes extensive use of other kinds of association of ideas, many of them of course tied to Japanese history, geography, culture and religion, and consequently difficult for a foreigner to understand without a gloss. This is a problem in translating many haiku; given necessary explanations, however, the poems should not be obscure. We may illustrate this convention with parallels to Western poetry containing references to the Bible, Homer, or a particular region with a particular character, etc.
One common technique which also depends upon association of ideas is known as internal comparison. The following haiku by Basho is often cited as an illustration of this principle:
On a bare branch
a crow settles—
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure
Here the three elements, the branch, the crow, and autumn evening, are juxtaposed to enhance and reflect each other. They are not placed in relation to each other as a simile or metaphor: the differences between them are as important as the likenesses. It is not that "nightfall settles like a crow on a bare branch," nor is it, "the crow is tiny, sharp, black and raucous, while autumn nightfall is vast, formless, colorless and silent," but something of both of these feelings, and more, is contained in the haiku. The two elements enhance each other, both creating a mood and a sharp visual image from which the imagination may take off on an endless number of trails. This technique of internal comparison gives the haiku depth and reverberation, and gives great power of expansion to a briefly described image.
Similar to internal comparison is the principle of "fragrance" of which Basho made great use. This technique consists of yoking together, through some ineffable shared quality, or fragrance, things not usually associated. The poet perceives a similar atmosphere in two or more
dissimiliar things, and so links them to create an image and a mood.
A pile of leeks
newly washed white—
how cold it is!
In this haiku by Basho, something of the white translucence of the leeks and the cold weather strikes a chord, and by linking them fragrance is created. The leeks and the cold are both reflections of some deeper cold—perhaps the nature of an impersonal universe which stops for neither leeks nor human beings. This practice may often lead to synesthesia, a technique adopted by the French symbolist poets. Because all sense perceptions are merely partial reflections of the inner nature of a thing, when one grasps this inner nature, all the senses merge and become one.
The sea darkens—
a wild duck's call
kamo no koe
This haiku by Basho illustrates the use of synesthesia. We are given a picture of the poet at the edge of the sea toward dusk. He feels himself alone with the sea and the universe: as color and sound and feeling all converge, til far-off cry of a duck seems somehow white to him.
While haiku gains its power from suggestion and from leaving as much as possible unstated, it should never be hazy or difficult to understand. The poet must provide just enough, but not too much. Basho said, "The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent we never tire of."2
Since I have been quoting extensively from Basho (as is inevitable when discussing the Japanese haiku in general), a few words about his life and influence are in order. Matsuo Basho is the best known of all haiku poets: his place may be compared to that of Shakespeare among Western dramatists. He lived in the latter half of the seventeenth century, and was responsible for elevating the haiku to its place among serious literary kinds, for using colloquial language to describe humble, everyday subjects, and for investing the form with a profound mystical religious meaning. He is also largely responsible for developing many of the techniques of haiku, such as internal comparison and fragrance.
The poems of his maturity, for which he is best known, were written after Basho became a devotee of Zen Buddhism. He spent much of his later life traveling about Japan, teaching haiku wherever he went. He wrote several travel journals in a combination of prose
passages and haiku poems. These journals are properly termed haikai, that is, anything written in the manner of haiku, including haiku poems, travel journals, and haibun.
"Haibun can be said to be haiku prose, or prose written in the spirit of haiku," Makoto Ueda writes in his book on Basho.3 Haibun are short prose passages which usually end with one or more haiku, although this is not necessarily so. It is important that the haiku within haibun be good enough to stand alone as independent poems. It is equally important that the prose share haiku qualities of brevity, suggestivity, use of imagery, and objectivity. The poems should not simply repeat or sum up what the prose has said, but should extend further. There should be a leap between prose passage and poem similar to the leap between elements within one haiku. The two parts should enhance and reflect each other, as the elements of a haiku do, and be linked by fragrance or some other subtle connection. Basho wrote some 60-70 haibun, from 100 to 1500 words in length, on subjects such as a place he visited, a person he met, or an event which struck him.
His travel journals, five in all, differ from his haibun only in length and complexity: they might be considered collections of haibun linked in an artistic way to create an organic whole. Earl Miner, in his book Japanese Poetic Diaries, writes that "each of the diaries . . . can be as well understood as a poetic whole joined by prose as a prose work interspersed with poems. The prose of the diary is not merely an excuse for the poem: but the poems are not also a mere decoration."4 This is certainly true of Basho's masterpiece, Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Roads to the Deep North. This semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional work uses the familiar metaphor of the journey of life and is always concerned with the passage of time. To illustrate the beauty of the prose, I quote Miner's translation of the opening lines of this journal:
The months and days are the wayfarers of the centuries, and as yet another year comes round, it, too, turns traveler. Sailors whose lives float away as they labor on boats, horsemen who encounter old age as they draw the horse around once more by the bit, they also spend their days in travel and make their home in wayfaring. Over the centuries many famous men have met death on the way; and I, too, though I do not know what year it began, have long yielded to the wind like a loosened cloud and, unable to give up my wandering desires, have taken my way along the coast. . . .
While Basho did not compile any critical writings or body of theory, his disciples recorded various remarks he made and so a scattered group of his comments is left to us. They tend not to be consistent,
for he was a teacher and his remarks generally take the form of advice tailored to suit the needs of the individual addressed. Certain basic ideas, however, remain constant:
Composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy. It is also like cutting a ripe watermelon with a sharp knife or like taking a large bite at a pear.5
Basho here is referring to that sudden insight into the hidden nature of things which he called "inspiration." While he certainly revised his own poems and those of his students, his meaning here may be taken to be that if the poem does not contain inspiration at the beginning, does not capture the true impact of a moment, then it will fail. Later revision may perfect the expression, but only by composing spontaneously can one learn to grasp the flash of inspiration as it happens.
The influence of Zen is obvious in this remark, and so perhaps a few words on the relation of Zen and haiku are in order here. Zen infuses much of Basho's later, most famous work, and it is hard to separate out its influence. Certain key elements which Zen shares with haiku are (1) mistrust of words which, as they are based on logic, cannot express the illogical nature of this world; (2) mystical experiences or satori, which are flashes of enlightenment attained through loss of the personal ego and logical mind, and so becoming one with nature; and (3) a return to the earthy, humble, daily aspects of this world, and discovery of the unnamable (perhaps "divine") principle working within them.
It is clear that haiku is ideally suited to express such moments of vision, as do Basho's greatest poems. It is probable that Zen had great influence on the development of the form of haiku itself, as Zen has influenced so much of Japanese culture. What is not clear, however, is whether or not one must understand Zen per se to write haiku. Certainly other Japanese religions, Shintoism and Taoism, have contributed to haiku also, and not all haiku contain the profound religious meaning which Basho perceived.
Mention must be made here of the three other great haiku masters, as different from one another as they are from Basho. These are Taniguchi Buson (1715-1783), Issa (1762-1826), and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). Buson is regarded in Japan as second only to Basho. He is almost equally well-known as a painter, and his haiku tend to be brilliant, many-sided, highly visual, and refined. Harold G. Henderson in An Introduction to Haiku says, "A foreign simile would be to liken Basho to a pearl and Buson to a diamond."6 The difference between them can be readily seen by comparing a few haiku by Buson to those by Basho quoted above.
II. IMAGISM, AMY LOWELL AND THE HAIKU
The attempt on the part of certain literary creators to transpose a given form of literature from one language into another has frequently been responsible for new literary awakenings in lands remote from the birth of the original form.
—John Gould Fletcher7
The effect of haiku on Imagism is a much-discussed topic which I will not deal with here: I am concerned, rather, with the effect of Imagism on haiku. I agree with Cor van den Heuvel's pronouncement, in his introduction to The Haiku Anthology, that
The Imagists, and those who followed them, had no real understanding of haiku. Because they had no adequate translations or critical analyses available, they failed to see the spiritual depth haiku embodies, or the unity of man and nature it reveals.
English language haiku owes practically nothing to their experiments except in the sense that all modern poetry owes them a debt for their call for concision and clarity in language.8
Although a harsh judgment, I think this is basically a fair one. It may still be valuable to examine the attempts at haiku in English and the haiku-inspired poems of one Imagist, Amy Lowell; by noting the failings of her work as well as the successes, we may come to understand better what makes a haiku, in any language.
Amy Lowell's fascination with Japan began early, when her much admired elder brother, Percival, travelled to Japan as a diplomat. When she was nine, he returned to the family estate with a seventeen-year-old Japanese secretary, who lived with the Lowells for a time and captured Amy's imagination with folk tales and stories. Percival returned to Japan in 1893 for another ten years and wrote four books which contributed to the spreading interest in the Orient at the turn of the century. During that time, a "constant stream of pictures, prints and kakemonos flowed in upon her,"9 wrote Amy later, and it is easy
to see how these colorful gifts would delight an imaginative young woman, much as they delighted all of Europe. There was, however, little scholarly writing on Japanese literature available for several decades: to see how these colorful gifts would delight an imaginative young woman, much as they delighted all of Europe. There was, however, little scholarly writing on Japanese literature available for several decades:
In 1913 Amy Lowell travelled to London and spent several years studying poetry with the Imagists. This group began in 1908 as the Poet's Club, "a shifting group of writers, painters, sculptors, architects, and philosophers" centering upon the philosopher and poet T. E. Hulme.10 Hulme knew something about Zen and was familiar with the Japanese haiku by 1907. Their influence may be seen in the following selections from his random notes.
The statements, "Philosophical syntheses and ethical systems are only possible in armchair moments. They are seen to be meaningless as soon as we get into a bus with a dirty baby and a crowd," and "Philosophy is about people in clothes, not about the soul of man," express Hulme's belief in the a-logicality of reality, and the consequent failure of language to describe it. His remark that, "life is composed of exquisite moments and the rest is shadows of them," reveals a mind that perceives reality in flashes of heightened awareness, a mode of perception well suited to haiku. Hulme also, perhaps with haiku in mind, said, "It is essential to prove that beauty may be in small, dry things," and prophesied that "a period of hard, dry classical verse is coming."11
Ezra Pound, who joined the Poet's Club late in 1909, first introduced the term "Imagist" in print, when he defined the term "Image" and set out rules for Imagists in Poetry magazine, 1913. The definition is interesting and bears quoting here in that it is an excellent description of what haiku does, although it contains no prescription for form or content. According to Pounri v-i image is
an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. ... It is the presentation of such an image which gives that sense of sudden liberation, that sense of freedom from time and space limits, that sense of sudden growth, which one experiences in the presence of the greatest works of art.12
Pound's importance was in publicizing, recruiting, organizing and editing during the few years that he was enchanted with haiku and with Imagism. But he soon passed on to other passions, such as Chinese poetry and Vorticism, so that by 1914 Lowell inherited his position as the central organizing force in the Imagist movement.
Lowell was largely responsible for the publication of the three Imagist anthologies called Some Imagist Poets, which appeared in 1915-17, the poets being D. H. Lawrence, H.D., John Gould Fletcher, F. S. Flint, Richard Aldington, and herself. She wrote the introductions to these anthologies explaining the means and ends of the Imagists. In a later work, Tendencies in Modem American Poetry, she reiterates the six main rules that the Imagists in general agree upon. These are as follows:
1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.
This first tenet of lmagism is directly derived from Hulme, who advocated a new poetry of which "the great aim is accurate, precise, and definite description."13 Pound restated it: "Get your red down to rust, rose, cherry, if you want to know what you are talking about."14 Nowhere is this technique of brevity and precision as central as in haiku. The directness and startling quality of haiku thus achieved were a model for the Imagists.
2. To create new rhythms.
The Imagists rejected the traditional rules of English poetry, which freed them to appreciate and experiment with non-metrical verse forms such as haiku. There are still those who argue that English poetry must be metered, and therefore see haiku in English as nothing more than fragments of prose, or epigrams at best.
3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject.
This is a further declaration of the Imagists' freedom from convention Not only the sublime is fit subject matter for poetry, but also the small, humble matters of everyday existence, such as haiku describes.
4. To present an image (hence the name: "Imagist"). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalizations, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
Of the six rules for Imagists, this is the most interesting, and the most problematic. Within it is contained the conflict that has been a subject of
literary controversy since Plato and Aristotle; namely, the universal and general in art versus the individual and particular. As part of an anti-Romantic reaction, the Imagists valued the detailed, the precise, the particular. Hulme states the issue squarely:
Even in the most imaginative flights there is always a holding back, a reservation. The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man. He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth. He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas. You might say if you wished that the whole of the romantic attitude seems to crystallize round metaphors of flight. Hugo is always flying, flying over abysses, flying up into the eternal gases. The word infinite is in every other line.15
Haiku seems, on first glance, to belong to the classical rather than the romantic mode, and for this reason, among others, the Imagists embraced it. I believe, however, that haiku belongs to neither pole. It lies outside the Western literary tradition completely, and application of these kinds of categories is misleading. Haiku deals with particulars on the surface, but beneath it deals with profound universals. It depends on the perfect balance of the two, on their merging and becoming one. This merging makes sense if we accept the generalization that while Western thought tends to work in pairs of opposites in dialectic fashion, haiku is the product of a culture which merges and unites opposites. Since the Imagists did not share the understanding of the world implicit in haiku, their attempts tend to head off-balance toward one end of the scale or the other. We shall return to this point when looking at Lowell's poems themselves.
5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite.
This is mainly a reiteration of the first rule, again paraphrasing Hulme.
6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.16
Lowell adds to this that suggestion is another essential characteristic of poetry. The influence of haiku seems unmistakable here. One can see by these six basic rules that, whether she practiced it or not, much of what Lowell preached had some stylistic and technical similarities to haiku. Such superficial resemblances prompt Glen Ruihley in his book on Lowell to make the following claim:
The Imagist poems of ... Amy Lowell, a novel development in the writings of the rationalistic West, would have been unthinkable without the stimulus of art forms imported from a civilization very different from the practical busyness of the Occident... To begin with, a wide range of Oriental art forms had won favor in the West by the year 1910, and they carried with them the impact of a special vision of life. Eagerly scanning the new designs in painting, poetry, and the plastic arts, the Westerner was imbued, half-consciously, with their philosophy. In the case of the art forms that have had the greatest effect on twentieth-century verse, the philosophy was Zen Buddhist, and it is this vision of life which contributed the most distinctive elements to Imagism. None of the Imagists adopted the Buddhist religion, some of them may have lacked direct knowledge of its teachings, but the archetypal Imagist poem, based on the Japanese haiku, is the product of a mode of consciousness which has been elaborated in Zen and which is now exerting a far-reaching influence in the West.17
Although there is undoubtedly some truth to this claim, there are several points with which I would take issue. Ruihley seems to divide the world into East and West, and oversimplistically assigns them each a mode of thought: all Westerners lumped into the category "rational," and all Easterners, "Zen Buddhist." Zen had little or nothing to do with the art forms which first were imported to the West and which inspired Lowell. The very popular ukiyo-e, or so-called "pictures of the floating world" of the Edo period, after which Lowell names one other early book of poetry, are at the opposite end of the Japanese esthetic spectrum from Zen. They are popular art, usually portraying the equivalent of pop stars of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan: that is, favorite actors, kabuki roles or courtesans. There is certainly a distinctly Japanese feeling to these woodblock prints, but to equate the feeling with Zen and then further say that one can subconsciously pick up Zen through appreciating this kind of art is mistaken. None of the Imagists had knowledge, direct or indirect, of Buddhism, beyond perhaps what filtered through Hulme's understanding of Zen.
On the contrary, it was the Imagists' ignorance of any deeper philosophical implications of haiku, Zen or not Zen, which kept them from understanding the form. As we look at some of Lowell's poetry, it will become more clear that it lacks a certain special quality of haiku. That quality cannot easily be put into words, but the reader should notice the lack of it, especially in comparison with the translations of the Japanese haiku masters.
The most obvious shortcomings of Lowell's attempts at haikii-inspired poems are these: a tendency to be overly visual, leading to
exoticism; a tendency toward simple simile and other obvious statements; and a lack of understanding of haiku as nature poem. Lowell's tendency to be overly visual is the most immediately striking, for "that Miss Lowell had a special gift for this kind of word-painting can hardly be doubted. It was her trademark from the time of the appearance of her first Imagist verses and is the chief distinguishing feature of her work."18 For example, this "hokku-like verse" from Pictures of the Floating World:
Under red umbrellas with cream-white centres,
A procession of Geisha passes
In front of the silk-shop of Matsuzaka-ya.
This is probably taken after a woodblock print, but it does little more than convey a snapshot of the original picture: the image does not expand at all. The best that can be said of this sort of thing is that its "effectiveness depends on the selection of a few significant details rendered in the brilliant colors and sharp cut edges of the Japanese print."19 At worst it becomes exoticism: the use of Japanese-style props to create an effect makes many of her poems stilted and unnatural to the point of absurdity.
When I stand under the willow-tree
Above the river,
In my straw-coloured silken garment
Embroidered with purple mums,
It is not at the bright water
That I am gazing
But at your portrait,
Which I have caused to be painted
On my fan.
The picture which this poem evokes in me of the three-hundred pound New England spinster in a kimono gazing into a painted fan is almost pathetic. It is this sort of writing which elicits criticism such as Horace Gregory's in his biography of Lowell: "Reread today, Amy Lowell's experiments reflect more of the child who received gifts sent by her brother Percival from Japan than they display any new techniques in the writing of poetry."20 Another poem from Pictures of the Floating World that exhibits Lowell's self-indulgence carried to an extreme is the following:
Walking beside the tree peonies,
I saw a beetle
Whose wings were of black lacquer
spotted with milk. I would have
caught it, But it ran from me swiftly
And hid under the stone lotus
Which supports the statue of Buddha.
Gregory excuses such embarrassing attempts by explaining that, "like her brother Percival, who during his stay in Japan, delighted in buying coloured paper fishes, kites, flags, and bright boxes, she loved to recall to mind many small, familiar or curious objects—and then describe them . .. that was her pleasure."21 I have quoted this poem to illustrate the difference between being delighted by small objects and describing them, as Lowell does, and entering into an object, understanding it, and then describing it, as a haiku poet does. In her attempts at haiku, Lowell's descriptions remain on the surface, a simple recounting of colorful detail, as in these longer poems above.
Earl Minerr in his essay Pound, Haiku and the Image gives the following explanation for this over-visual tendency on the part of many Imagists:
Europe was excited about Japanese prints, lacquerware, and pottery long before it knew anything about the poetry. Almost always the poet came to know the prints before the poetry, and this priority meant that his ideas about the nature of Japanese poetry were shaped, probably unconsciously, by his previous impressions of the wood block print.22
The danger in a purely visual image is that it becomes superficial, even facile. To see haiku in this way leads to considering it childishly simple, severely constricting in scope, and trivial: many Imagists came to think of it thus, although valuing some techniques which they recognized as adapatable to their own work. When F.S. Flint writes about the Imagists discovering haiku in London, recalling that "we all wrote dozens of the latter, an amusement,"23 he reveals both their respect for, and misunderstanding of, the form. They respected haiku enough to practice writing them; misunderstood them to the extent that they thought they could toss off dozens like limericks.
The tendency toward simple simile also keeps some of Lowell's poems from achieving the depth of haiku. In the following poem, she describes an object vividly, then draws a generalization from it which she sets down beside
the description. In haiku, the two should be one.
The paper carp
At the end of its long bamboo pole
Takes the wind into its mouth
And emits it at its tail.
So is man,
Forever swallowing the wind.
If a haiku poet were to write this poem, he might take the three middle lines—
The Paper Carp
At the end of its bamboo pole
Takes the wind into its mouth
And emits it at its tail-letting the reader, with this, draw her own inferences. It might comment generally on the vanity of all earthly pursuits, on the end of effort; a parallel to the human condition might be implied. But the capping couplet so neatly ties off Lowell's poem that it kills any imaginative train of thought, leaving the reader with merely a clever comparison.
A less heavy, but still too obvious attempt, is
The chirping of crickets in the night
Like the twinkling of stars.
This short poem, written in three lines of 9, 5, and 7 syllables respectively, more consciously emulates haiku. It describes natural objects simply, without adjectives, and even involves a bit of synesthesia: the sound of crickets is likened to the way the stars look. But this is simple simile again. To state that one thing is like another is not haiku. It is a chance observation about a surface resemblance, telling us nothing about the real nature of either stars or crickets. Compare Nuit Blanche to this haiku by Basho:
Song of the cuckoo:
In the grove of the great bamboo
moonlight seeping through.
This does not say that the fluid quality of moonlight is like a cuckoo's cry, nor does it say that they both seep into the bamboo. It simply places them together, without comment, to enhance and reflect each other. There is fragrance created among the elements of this haiku, internal comparison and synesthesia as well. The net effect is subtle, and invites the reader's imagination to wander freely. By saying less, Basho, in effect, says more.
Another of Lowell's short poems, although it manages to avoid simile, still makes too direct and simple a comparison among elements:
In the sky there is a moon and stars,
And in my garden there are yellow moths
Fluttering about a white azalea bush.
Again Lowell's observation is a surface one: it is too intellectual and analytical. It has nothing to do with the deep inner nature of these objects. We might call this external (as opposed to internal) comparison, to differentiate it from the kind of perception embodied in true haiku. In Twenty-Four Hokku on a Modern Theme Lowell demonstrates clearly her lack of any real understanding of haiku, but also how well she has adapted many of its techniques, such as brevity, precision, suggestion, and, to an extent, internal comparison. The "modem theme" she speaks of is one of unrequited love, oddly enough. Surely this is as ancient as they come: perhaps she means to signify her awareness that haiku are traditionally nature poems. The poem is comprised of twenty-four numbered stanzas of three lines each, with a syllable count close to 5, 7 and 5. They are linked subtly. Several of them are haiku, but most have captured little of the quality of the form. Fifteen of them contain a mention of flower, tree or bird—some reference to nature. But they are not used in haiku fashion: they make direct statements about the poet's feelings. For example. Stanza XI reads,
The poem makes no claim to objectivity: there is an obtrusive narrator throughout, and a very obtrusive receiver of the verses.
Two of the most successful, most haiku-like verses seem to use intern comparison:
Take it, this white rose,
Stems of roses do not bleed;
Your fingers are safe.
Two of the most successful, most haiku-like verses seem to use
Last night it rained.
Now, in the desolate dawn,
Crying of blue jays.
Turning from the page,
Blind with a night of labor, I hear
The two are similar in that they contrast the moment of morning with a long night; in both the cry of birds is used to signify morning. Both jays and crows are unpleasant birds with raucous cries, helping to make the ironic twist that the morning, usually a joyful moment, is in these cases "desolate," still entangled in the pain of the night before. To appreciate the verses fully, perhaps it is necessary to know that Lowell's health and eyesight failed her later in life, yet she kept working relentlessly. She often suffered all through the night using very high-powered reading lamps to complete the intense work schedule she set herself. Another attractive morning verse from this series is Stanza VI:
This then is morning.
Have you no comfort for me
Once again she reverses a convention regarding a natural phenomenon, in this case flowers, which we usually think of as bright-colored and gay. Here, because of her condition, the flowers are imbued with her hopelessness and become "cold-coloured." She seems to understand that the comfort she expects from the flowers, like their cold color, is given to them by herself, and so they cannot help her.
These examples are remarkably free of adjectives for Lowell: they are simple and therefore startling. Here she seems to have chanced upon good haiku: the fact that she did not understand the form is evidenced by her inclusion of such poems with other verses which are definitely not haiku under the title Twenty-Four Hokku on a Modern Theme. If my criticism of her poetry seems harsh, I hope that the reader will remember that I am not criticizing her poems for not being haiku, but simply trying to show why they are not. I do not mean to judge apples by oranges, but rather to distinguish between oranges and tangerines.
In her introduction to Pictures from the Floating World Lowell states her intention to capture the brevity, suggestion and natural
setting of the "hokku"* without attempting any syllabic count patterned after the Japanese. A few of the poems in this collection do seem to achieve this effect.
Even the iris bends
When a butterfly lights upon it.
This poem is simple and delicate. It does not have great depth or reverberation, but it is not marred by overstatement or comment. Another short poem seems to have been inspired by a Japanese haiku, perhaps the one by Buson about a butterfly perched on a temple bell.
Perched upon the muzzle of a cannon
A yellow butterfly is slowly opening and shutting its wings.
Her title "Peace" and placing of the butterfly on a cannon seem a bit heavy-handed, but at least she makes no further comment, letting the image speak for itself. In poems such as these, where the image is clear and simple, where there is no narratorial intrusion, and where natural objects are used suggestively, Lowell comes closest to haiku.
To sum up, Lowell successfully adapted some technical elements of haiku, as set forth in the Imagist manifesto, but missed the deeper philosophical underpinnings of the form. It is not necessarily a question of Zen, but even the poems which most closely resemble haiku lack the direct, wordless leap to the inner nature of things. There is no inspiration, in Basho's sense of the word. This misunderstanding of haiku led to its eventual dismissal by the Imagists as a non-serious form. John Gould Fletcher wrote, after his infatuation with haiku had passed, that "the relation of Chinese Classical poets to the Japanese tanka and hokku poets is, psychologically speaking, like the relation of full-grown and mature human figures to a group of rather small and temporarily attractive children."24 This kind of attitude became more widespread and, with the advent of World War II, interest in haiku was lost completely, while the experiments of the Imagists were largely forgotten.
*Note: The Imagists used the term "hokku," which properly refers to the starting verse in a linked poem, in referring to haiku, an independent poem.
1. Makoto Ueda, Matsu Basho (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970), p. 162.
2. Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku (Rutland, Vermont, & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957), p. 6.
3. Matsuo Basho, p. 112.
4. Earl Miner, Japanese Poetic Diaries (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,1969), p. l9.
5. Makoto Ueda, Zeami, Basho, Yeats, Pound (The Hague: Mouton & Co., l965), p. 52.
6. Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1958), p. 90.
7. John Gould Fletcher, "The Orient and Contemporary Poetry," in The Asian Legacy and American Life, ed. Arthur E. Christy (New York: The John Day Co., 1945), pp. 145-174.
8. Cor van den Heuvel, ed., The Haiku Anthology (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974), p. xxvii.
9. Harley Farnsworth MacNair, ed., Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell: Correspondence of a Friendship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945), p. 20.
10. Glenn Hughes, Imagism and the Imagists (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1931), p. 10.
11. Ibid., p. 17.
12. Earl Miner, "Pound, Haiku and the Image," The Hudson Review, IX (Winter, 1.956-1957), 570-584.
13. Hughes, Imagism and the Imagists, p. 15.
14. Miner, loc. cit.
15. Hughes, Imagism and the Imagists, p. 19.
16. Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1917), pp. 239-247.
17. Glenn R. Ruihiey, The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975) p. 85
18. Ibid., p. 104.
19. Loc. cit.
20. Horace Gregory, Amy Lowell (Edinburgh; New York: T. Nelson, ^958V p. 156.
21. Ibid., p. 141.
22. Miner, "Pound, Haiku and the Image," p. 575.
23. Fletcher, "The Orient and Contemporary Poetry," p. 148.
24. Loc. cit.
Barbara Louise Ungar won the 2006 Gival Press Poetry Award for her collection entitled The Origin of the Milky Way, forthcoming in fall 2007. She is the author of Thrift (WordTech Editions, 2005), which was a finalist for the May Swenson Poetry Award and the Tupelo Prize, among many others, and a chapbook Sequel (Finishing Line Press, 2004), which won honorable mention in chapbook competitions at the Center for Book Arts, ByLine Press, and Finishing Line Press, which published it in 2004 as part of the New Women's Voices series. Her poems have appeared in Salmagundi, The Minnesota Review, The Cream City Review, The Literary Review, and many other publications. She is also the author of a chapbook, Neoclassical Barbra (Angel Fish Press, 1998) and Haiku In English (Stanford Humanities Honors Essay XXI).
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she has traveled around the world, and earned degrees from Stanford University, City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. An associate professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, she lives in Saratoga Springs with her young son Izaak.