Knowing the Poet

Published in Haiku Canada Review 11:1, February 2017, pages 40–44. Originally written in May of 2016, with revisions thereafter. See the postscript at the end, and see also “On a First-Name Basis: Deepening Haiku with its ‘Fourth Line’” and “In Praise of Japanese Love Poems.” 

“It is truer in Japanese poetry than in any other, that for the understanding of it we need to understand the poet.”

—R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1, Section 4

                Hey, Blue Sky—

                haiku is a sheet of music

                man is a musical instrument

What do you think or feel when you read these words? Do you think of them as a poem? Is it perhaps a haiku? If you’re like most well-established haiku poets writing in English, you might immediately brand this poem as pseudo-haiku at best—the work of a beginner. Perhaps “blue sky” is a seasonal reference, but William J. Higginson’s Haiku World assigns this phrase to an “all year” category rather than any one season. So there’s no real season word. And why is “Blue Sky” capitalized? Meanwhile, despite the dash after the first line and nowhere else, which suggests that the poem has one cut and thus two parts, the poem actually has three parts, since the last two lines are grammatically independent. But the poem’s worst sin, so it would seem—if it is a poem rather than some sort of aphorism—is the excessive judgment of the last two lines, proclaiming haiku to be sheet music and man to be a musical instrument. That’s pure intellectualization, something that many haiku purists would run from, screaming.

        You will notice that I haven’t mentioned who wrote this poem. That’s because I think it makes a difference how we apprehend the work when we see the poet’s name after the poem, which I believe is the case with this poem—as we’ll see. Far from haiku being some idealized form of poetic purity where it somehow doesn’t matter who wrote a poem, because the poem supposedly needs to “stand on its own,” I believe nearly all haiku are informed by the poem’s “fourth line,” or the name under the poem. Of course, not all haiku are in three lines, but however long they are, the name under the poem has an effect upon it. The name usually gives us brand expectations (providing information about what kind of poem that poet usually or often writes), plus other information such as gender, biography, geography, and other associative meanings and overtones—even racial contexts. The name enriches the poem, in nearly every case, at least for those who know the poet. Of course, this occurs only if the reader happens to know the poet personally, or has built up a body of knowledge about the poet through author bios, interviews, and a preponderance of the poet’s work. This is why we interpret Shiki’s poems very differently when we know he wrote for several years on his deathbed before dying young of tuberculosis, or how a sense of gravitas suffuses Bashō’s poems written while travelling on foot in Japan’s dangerous interior.

        To bolster my point, I’ll tell you that this poem is by Masayuki Inui. If you know nothing of his work, the name will at least tell you that the poet is Japanese—and thus, presumably, that he must know something about haiku (although there are plenty of Japanese people who know less about haiku than some Westerners). If you do know this poet, you’ll know that he’s been called the enfant terrible of Japanese haiku. He was a cofounder of a large haiku association, and has won many prizes for his haiku in Japan, where he casts a long and prominent shadow. He is not without his detractors, but those detractors typically don’t care for the kind of haiku he writes—an avant-garde sort of “gendai” or “modern” haiku. Yet they cannot say that this poet hasn’t been widely influential, and that he hasn’t worked tirelessly to promote haiku (or at least his preferences for haiku) at haiku conferences and other poetry events around the world. Indeed, this poet deliberately tries to be intellectualized and abstract with most of his haiku—as any one of literally thousands of widely translated example poems could demonstrate. You know this poet more than you probably realize.

        Now let me tell you one more detail. Masayuki Inui is indeed the poet’s real name, but not the name this poet uses to publish his haiku. Rather, you would know this poet’s work by his pen name, but before I tell you that name, take a few moments to think about the poem in association just with the poet’s real name that I’ve already told you. If you don’t recognize the poet’s real name (and I would venture that most people in the English-language haiku community would not know it at all), you have only what I’ve just told you about him to give you any context for the poem—which, at the very least, underscores that this poem surely isn’t a pseudo-haiku by some beginning haiku dabbler from Peapack, New Jersey. However, you may still have little or no context for the poem other than the fact that the name is Japanese, and thus the name may be nearly meaningless. But you’re about to experience the impact of haiku’s fourth line, when I tell you the poet’s pen name.

        It’s Ban’ya Natsuishi. Most haiku writers in the West have heard of him, even if they don’t know that his real name is Masayuki Inui. Now that you know who wrote the poem, how do you reassess it? Did something click into place for you? If you don’t know Ban’ya Natsuishi’s haiku, then I can’t have proved anything. But if you do, how does your assessment of the poem change? Does it give you a context for the poem, a brand expectation that makes the poem fall into place? And by “fall into place,” I don’t mean that the poem will suddenly be excellent for you, or even good. Rather, I mean that you may well understand the “place” it falls into on the spectrum of international haiku. The name fulfills an expectation, or nearly always, at least for those who read haiku widely.

        Perhaps this expectation, and the fulfillment thereof, can work against a poet sometimes, in that readers see yet another poem written in the poet’s usual way of writing, and remain unsurprised and unchallenged. We might say, oh, it’s another one of those poems—and unwittingly dismiss it. If we don’t like the kind of poetry we know the poet to usually write, we may brush it off without giving it a serious and careful read. Or if we are predisposed to like the poet’s usual work, we may still read the poem cavalierly, without careful interaction, and not let it enter into us because we have already put it in a box—even if it’s a box of haiku we like. The expectations at play with haiku in relation to the name under the poem can be used and abused. Indeed, a seasoned haiku poet might use the effect of the name under the poem to his or her advantage and deliberately write opposite to his or her “type,” trying something very different as a way to be fresh. Remember the song, “Beth,” by glam-rock band Kiss? It stood out, and became a hit, partly because it played against expectations—instead of being an over-sexed hard-rock song, it was a tender and sweet ballad. In haiku terms, an urban writer might surprise us with a pure-nature poem, or an objective realist might whip out a nugget of utter subjectivity or abstraction, or perhaps entertain a hybrid mix of styles. But then, of course, such poems risk mere novelty.

        But wait, there’s more. What if I told you that this poem isn’t by Ban’ya Natsuishi at all, and that I made it up myself? Would you then think differently about the poem? Or about me and my haiku? Would you think I am just yanking your chain with this haiku (if we even still consider it to be haiku), and that you now feel manipulated by contrivance? But then wouldn’t such assessments of manipulation by contrivance also apply to Ban’ya Natsuishi if the poem were by him? Does this discussion, this uncertainty, affect your sense of what haiku itself should be, as an honest report from a trustworthy source? Fiction has the concept of the unreliable narrator—the teller of a story whose credibility cannot be trusted, thus the facts or observations presented by that narrator may not be accurate within the story (think of Huck Finn, Alex in Clockwork Orange, or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye). Can haiku have unreliable narrators? What would a haiku by an unreliable narrator look like? Is the author of this poem (me?) perhaps deliberately trying to be unreliable? Or is it just a bad poem? And what makes a haiku good or bad anyway?

        Well, here’s the conclusion I’d like to make. Our sense of whether a poem is good or bad, or at least acceptable as haiku, may well rest on our knowing the poet. We are more apt to trust an experiment, I think, if we know that the poet knows what he or she is doing with most of his or her work. That’s one strength of the poem’s fourth line. If we know the poet, we assess the poem differently—or at least that potential exists. If we know the poet is a beginner, we might offer suggestions for revision (as with the poem presented here) that we would probably never offer to an experienced poet, even when the poem is exactly the same. We cannot know all poets in all the myriad haiku journals and anthologies, of course, even in a single country, because there are far too many to keep up with. However, we can still rely on the poem itself to have something to say to us. But that’s just a starting point, and it would be a lost opportunity to not take advantage of other information that informs the poem. And that’s exactly what the poem’s “fourth line” can do for us. If we do know a haiku’s author, in subtle or detailed ways, I believe that the effect of his or her haiku poems—and our appreciation of them—can be greatly deepened. This observation would suggest that it’s worthwhile to attend haiku conferences or other gatherings, to write to a poet whose poem you’ve admired, to compose renku or rengay together, to make a connection that goes beyond merely noticing the poet’s name in a journal. You and the other poet will both be richer for it.

        Now I’ll tell you the truth. The poem is from the book Turquoise Milk (Red Moon Press, 2011), and is indeed by Ban’ya Natsuishi. Really. And I believe that fact makes a difference in how conscientious readers will apprehend his poem, although my larger point is not about this particular poem but how we can apprehend any poem based on context. Indeed, knowing the poet—or not—cannot help but affect how we appreciate or understand every single haiku we ever read. For a deeper experience when reading haiku poems, however you can manage it, it pays to know the poet.


My valuation of haiku’s “fourth line” in assessing and appreciating haiku is at odds, of course, with New Criticism, a formalist literary movement of the mid 20th century. New Criticism valued the text for the text’s sake, choosing to ignore or minimize biographical, historical, and other contextual influences. My reaction, though, is to question how that stance is even possible. A reader cannot help but bring context to the poem, and surely always benefits from learning contexts that he or she might not know already. And why not both? We can look at the poem on its own terms, and evaluate and interpret it as we will, based purely on the poem (we can imagine that the name under the poem is absent, as it will be, for example, when one is judging an anonymous haiku contest). Then we can look at the poem again while embracing the full influence of the name after the poem, plus other contextual influences. Why deny one or the other? The marriage of both approaches in a linguistic whole can surely offer benefits to any reader, even while we seek to understand the pitfalls of each approach if isolated to itself. Indeed, it may be impossible to suppress what we know of the poet. In introducing the 1993 edition of The Best American Poetry, for which she served as guest editor, Louise Glück wrote of her process that “I tried to read with perfect detachment and could not. . . . the work of those poets whose oeuvres we know thoroughly . . . cannot help but inform the reading of any single poem.” This, I assert, is an opportunity—a blessing, not a curse.

—1 April 2018, 19 August 2022