“I gave up poetry myself 30 years ago when most of it began to read like coded messages passing between lonely aliens in a hostile world.” —Russell Baker
Before writing my review of Haiku 21: An Anthology of Contemporary English-language Haiku, I made numerous notes and considered a couple of other reviews. After Modern Haiku published my assessment in the summer of 2012, I also received numerous comments (more than for most other book reviews I’ve written), mostly saying I was too soft on the book, and in retrospect this observation feels accurate. I attempted to be fair and even generous, and perhaps hindsight gives me a somewhat less favourable opinion of Haiku 21 today (or perhaps more boldness to feel unfavouring today than I felt comfortable with a decade ago), even while recognizing that the book had influence. Yet I would also add that its influence has come and faded, whereas Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology remains more consistently influential, chiefly because it’s aimed more towards a general audience where Haiku 21 had a far more specialist audience. In other words, where Haiku 21 splashed into the haiku pond, The Haiku Anthology splashed into the literature and poetry pond.
The following is a loosely ordered compilation of my own notes, selected observations by others (most shared anonymously), relevant quotations, and selected links (I would be happy to add more). A few of my notes shared here predate the review’s publication, but most do not, and date mostly from around 2012 or 2013. As I write this now, more than ten years after the book appeared, I would say the distinction between “avant-garde” and “gendai” is clearer. Too many Western haiku poets assumed that gendai was avant-garde, or had to be, when that is not the case. “Gendai,” which simply means “modern,” includes work that is not “experimental” or “surreal” and even in Japan the term seems broad and difficult to define, being more a representation of haiku in its time (chiefly after World War II) rather than a representation of a particular style of haiku or manner of writing (although subject matter has broadened). And while “gendai” may mean just a certain time, that period isn’t even just post-war. As early as 1934, in A Bamboo Broom (New York: Houghton Mifflin), Harold G. Henderson had a chapter on “modern” haiku (the term “gendai” wasn’t used). Henderson called the Hekigoto and Seisensui branches of the Nihonha school “the radicals of the haiku-world,” saying that “their innovations have surpassed anything that Shiki ever dreamed of.” And that was 1934.
So, what is “gendai” haiku? Perhaps Haiku 21 has given us a sense of it (in a Western manifestation) and moved our possibilities closer to contemporary haiku in Japan, but if haiku in the West has been distorted by past evangelists, as the Haiku 21 book claims, it seems to have been distorted again by more recent proselytizers. By that I mean that the surreal and experimental in Japanese haiku is just a small slice of the gendai pie, and not the majority as too many Western haiku poets may believe. Pendulums keep swinging, and if the so-called “Haiku 21” movement was corrective, it itself seems to have received a useful corrective, or at least more balance.
More importantly, the squeaky wheel seems to have lost its squeak. The “Haiku 21” movement, if it may even be called that, represented a minority, and just because it was a vocal minority does not mean its point of view deserved as much attention as it received for a while, or is still receiving to a lesser degree. Even giving the book more attention with these notes may exceed the attention it deserves. Indeed, around 2015, Emiko Miyashita mentioned in an email to me that “gendai is a recent American haiku movement and not a big issue here [in Japan].”
Perhaps the range of possibilities with haiku in English is broader today than it was before (that’s a good thing). Some fascinating work is going on at the edges of haiku, even while some of it careens over the edge, crashing on the rocks below. It also seems helpful that the so-called objective/imagistic “New York School” of haiku has been challenged (fine to broaden it, but unnecessary to demean or discard it). So perhaps we’re in a better place. Experimentation can sometimes be helpful, but one must also assess that experimentation at appropriate turns, which may result in concluding that certain experiments succeeded while others failed. However, the endless path of experimentation as an end to itself, without assessment, feels like a “vain squandering of artistic power,” as Kandinsky put it.
A general conclusion I would now insist upon is that a significant number of the poems in Haiku 21 are just short poems, and not haiku at all. They may work well as short poems, but at some point, even in the “gendai” world of haiku in Japan (especially the surreal and avant-garde), poems may—and do—cross the line and are no longer haiku. Haiku 21 may have changed where that line is drawn, but each of us will draw our own lines. We are also free to ignore those who want to draw a line in a place that seems inaccurate or damaging to haiku as literature, even while we support some measure of continued experimentation. Obviously, any dilution and weakening of haiku does not constitute growth. Experimentation or exploration (or rediscovery of that exploration) can help with growth, but ultimately every extreme, both conservative and liberal, needs balance.
—28 May 2022, Sammamish, Washington
In The Bamboo Broom (New York: Houghton Mifflin), published in 1934 but just as relevant today, Harold G. Henderson wrote, “it is very easy to mistake haziness for profundity,” adding that “there are so-called haiku, produced by the hundred thousand, which are not profound at all, but merely foggy,” which Henderson calls “one of the dangers of the apparently easy haiku-form” (62).
Archibald MacLeish told us that a poem should not mean but be. Yet we continue to seek meaning in haiku and may find it in the intuitive realization produced by the poem’s two juxtaposed parts. But with some gendai haiku, especially the more surreal, this task becomes increasingly difficult, often impossible. Some poems feel self-involved or needlessly opaque, and we can find no meaning in them—to the point that they are, indeed, anti-meaning. It is a tendency towards abstraction, and away from the concrete. In this case, anti-meaning too often becomes anti-feeling, too, with little or no connection or reverberation for the reader to feel at all.
In The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye, Donald Revell says that “Our words can never say the mystery of our meanings.” I take this statement not as a license to be obscure or to deliberately aim at opacity and obfuscation (a kind of mystery that risks self-involvement), but as a recognition that meaning can lie beyond poetic intent, that we can both read and write intuitively, in an open state of not knowing.
In his review of Haiku 21 in Presence #47 (December 2012, 56–58), Martin Lucas wrote that “love it or loathe it, it is the radical wing that grabs attention.” After quoting a couple of what might be characterized as among the more obscure of the book’s poems, he writes, “Fascinating stuff, if you have in you sufficient capacity for fascination. Or maybe you just raise a Spock-like eyebrow. Or maybe you turn the page, hoping to encounter something more readily intelligible.” Regarding the book’s choice to avoid focusing solely on so-called “gendai” haiku, Lucas writes that “This does appear to be somewhat timid, as if the editors feared that an anthology of experimental work entirely would fail to find a sufficiently sympathetic audience. It also ducks the issue of interpreting the experimental in order to establish that sympathy: we gather that ‘opaque’ writing has the virtue of not giving up its secrets easily, but we’re not actively persuaded that it actually has any secrets, hidden behind its smokescreen of opacity.”
Perhaps the best and simplest defense of gendai haiku I’ve read is something Ban’ya Natsuishi said in an interview included with the second edition of A Future Waterfall (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2004, 67). He said, “Western poets perhaps confuse ‘reality’ with ‘fact.’ Reality might easily include the imaginative and unreal. What interests me is the totality of human reality.” The first of these sentences, even with the “perhaps,” strikes me as an overly sweeping generalization, but I heartily agree that haiku poets should recognize the difference between reality and fact. In the West, haiku poets have been heavily influenced by Shiki’s objective imagery, or sketching from life—the so-called “objective realism” school of haiku. If these sketches are limited to the “facts” that we can experience through our five senses, then are we short-changing ourselves of that “totality of human reality”? Perhaps so, and this point of view supports the exploration of subjectivity in haiku. The intellect is part of human existence, so why should poets ignore it in their haiku? One response is that it’s better to show rather than tell, but it also seems fair that some degree of subjectivity or intellectuality can have its place, so long as it doesn’t drown in opacity, obscurity, or self-involvement.
In the same interview just cited, Natsuishi also says that “My haiku master, Jūshin Takayanagi, is influenced above all by two French men of letters in the 19th century: Charles Baudelaire and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam” (67). It’s easy to applaud this sort of openness to worldwide influence, but I think there’s a key fact that’s missing when Westerners start to embrace the trend of gendai haiku. That’s because gendai haiku, or perhaps at least the avant-garde variety, may be viewed as simply handing Western poetics (especially surrealism) back to the West. Here’s how the timeline might be viewed:
Japan is a closed country for 220 years during the era of the shoguns. Essentially no Western influence.
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan opens its doors to outsiders, and is flooded with Western influence. In the late 19th and early 20th century, haiku is first translated, haltingly, into Western languages. Baseball becomes a passion for many Japanese people, including Shiki, the haiku poet.
Poets such as Shiki, under heavy influence from the West, seek to modernize haiku. Even his notion of sketching from life, shasei, came directly from a Western-influenced painter. A case can thus be made for a “pre-Shiki aesthetic” that might be a purer, non-Westernized sort of haiku (although I do think Bashō would not hesitate to write about mobile phones if he were alive today; nor do I think haiku should be allowed to stagnate in the 1600s or even 1800s as if modern technology did not exist).
In the (early/mid) 20th century, avant-garde and surreal poetry from Europe further influences and shapes gendai haiku.
Gendai haiku, though decades old in Japan, finally starts to influence English-language haiku towards the end of the 20th century. Yet, astonishingly, some Western haiku poets think this is revolutionary, and coming purely from Japan.
What this essentially amounts to is simply the Japanese dishing back to the West what the West first gave Japan (assimilation and repackaging is one of Japan’s greatest strengths—even its language’s oldest written characters, kanji, come from China). A lot of gendai haiku isn’t new at all. Western poets were seeking opacity and conjuring up other surreal tricks a hundred years ago already. Let’s see surreal gendai haiku for what most of it really is—a Western literary aesthetic boiled down to haiku form. Let’s not be fooled into thinking it is all that new.
Also to be noted is Yatsuka Ishihara’s dictum for haiku, to “tell the truth as if it were false,” widely quoted and written about after the 1995 Haiku Chicago event, a joint conference between the Haiku Society of America and the Haiku International Association, where Ishihara was the most prominent speaker. His point, put as simply as possible, was to deliberately exaggerate or overstate haiku, and to embrace the imagination. This may well have been an influence for the emergence of “gendai” haiku in North America, yet it is not mentioned in the Haiku 21 introduction.
Selected Responses by Others
Anonymized email received 15 June 2012:
“I enjoyed reading your review in MH of Haiku 21. It was a nicely balanced review yet you rightly took it to task for its shortcomings. . . . I was especially pleased to see that you noted the tendency of a lot of English-language haiku poets to combine a short reference to nature along with a description of some emotional problem between human beings. This practice has been growing for a number of years and was not originally caused by the influence of gendai haiku, though it may have been encouraged by it. I trace it back to somewhere in the 90s, before I was putting together [a project]. I remember I was considering a haiku by Adele Kenny that went (if I remember correctly): a vee of geese / once there was so much / to say. I finally did not include it, though it may be in Bruce Ross’s Haiku Moment. I believe it was the first of what has become a plague of such sentimental fabrications. At the time Adele wrote hers, it had an original tinge to it, but it has since become an easy formula for hundreds of would-be haiku poets.” [A similar early poem, from 1989, is Francine Porad’s “twilight deepens— / the wordless things / I know.” It’s similar for using the generality of “things” in a way that matches the generality of “so much.” As with Kenny’s poem, it felt original at the time, but the idea and structure have become increasingly common, tired, and ultimately, tiresome.]
Further to the previous thought, I said the following in an interview for which I wrote responses from October to December 2011:
I too have smelled that recent uptick of haiku that combine an image with a “thought” of the author. In fact, it’s already become a bit of haiku cliché. Pick your image and then add “so much / still to say” or “all the words / we never said” or a hundred variations. At the recent Seabeck Haiku Getaway, where John Stevenson was our featured guest, he and I had a conversation about this very topic. When I mentioned to John how I was a bit weary of this sort of formula in haiku, he immediately concurred and said he was glad it wasn’t just him who felt that way.
Two anonymized emails received 24 and 25 June 2012, from the same person, in response to my review:
“Considering the complexity of the issues involved in the publication of this anthology, you managed to deal with all of them in a balanced way while at the same time providing some salient insights.”
“I was shocked that your work was not included, in particular, the neon buddha poems, but others as well. The intro should have mentioned work in English written prior to 2000 that also stretched the boundaries. This would have provided a needed continuity. Once more we have editors ignoring history. Much of the included work will be forgotten quickly, either because it is prosaic or makes little sense no matter how hard the reader tries to connect disparate ideas/images. Some of the haiku will live on, however. The editors, and many of their contributors, project the aura of trailblazers, but, in reality, are actually continuing a process already begun in the prior 25 years by a number of poets, including you and me, as well as by some anthologists, especially Cor. They should have remembered what Isaac Newton said, ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’”
Part of my response to the preceding comment, dated 25 June 2012:
“Many others are inappropriately omitted—so we have to assume that the editors thought that they did not publish even one haiku that was sufficiently ‘interesting’ in the last dozen years. Such an unfortunate choice of words in the introduction.” [I recently came across this quotation from Olivia Manning: “People will say anything to appear interesting.” I will add that some omissions from the anthology might have been because a poet declined to be included, though I suspect that such an occurrence was rare. In addition, I happened to not submit to this anthology, so perhaps my own poems might have been represented, including my neon buddha poems, if I had submitted, even though I don’t consider most of the latter poems to even be haiku. However, given the book’s subject and focus, it seems the editors most likely included work by others who did not submit. In fact, Scott Metz told me at some point that the submissions were just a starting point, meaning that they also requested poems they wanted. In a blog post that considered Haiku 21, Ron Silliman wrote that “It’s a fascinating, albeit problematic, collection. What’s problematic are the implications of its scale. The book includes, in a 205-page volume, just 153 of which are devoted directly to poetry, 212 poets and their works from the first decade of the present millennium. If you stop to consider just how badly Helen Vendler got her knickers into a twist over Rita Dove jamming 175 poets, representing an entire century, into 570 pages in her Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, you can imagine what Vendler might think even if this weren’t the dreaded, debased, déclassé school of haiku.”]
Anonymous note, from around 2012:
“Gendai poems (not poets) have an arrogance to them, as if they have a stance of ‘gee, can’t you figure this out’—it’s as if they make you feel guilty for not getting them (if you don’t), or feel part of some elite club (if you think you do). Indeed, gendai can be distasteful for its tone of elitism. . . . [The Haiku 21 book is] not really a record of the best 21st-century haiku so far at all, but a polemical anthology that shows a bias towards gendai haiku [more accurately, avant-garde gendai haiku].”
Anonymized email received 26 June 2012:
“It is a rather grand claim—[that Haiku 21 is] the most important anthology of English-language haiku to be published in decades. I’m afraid it doesn’t measure up to Cor van den Heuvel’s anthologies. They are still the best anthologies for sending people to who would like to understand the haiku and experience the variety of styles and the depth individual writers bring to the form. . . . It is rather grand to think that one’s ideas are creating a new haiku for a new century. But new haiku are created every day and there is always a new century in front of one. . . . I’m not sure what is being produced by gendai haiku practitioners is healthy for the form. The opacity . . . is a problem. The haiku can’t be so dark that no light gets thru. They have to give something to the reader. Some light.”
Commentary by Carolyn Hall and Christopher Patchel, judges of the Haiku Society of America’s 2012 Merit Book Awards, in giving Haiku 21 their “Best Anthology” award for books published in 2011:
“The very title raises expectations. An anthology called Haiku 21 should exemplify the changing state of twenty-first century haiku in English, accommodate the genre’s divergent influences and approaches, and answer the editors’ own forward-leaning question, ‘What can haiku be?’ Indeed, the strength of this collection lies in the extent to which Lee Gurga and Scott Metz were able to rise to those challenges. Its weakness, on the other hand, is over-inclusiveness. A tight focus on the edgy and experimental, or on work that exhibits a traditional/modern synthesis, would have given the collection an overall coherence, whereas the broad inclusion of traditional through gendai makes for a rather uneasy alliance. Then again, perhaps even that is an intentional reflection of the reality, and/or a gutsy effort to come to terms with traditional/gendai issues. Whatever the case, Haiku 21 stretches one’s ideas and sensibilities, and is anything but boring.”
Two-star review by Skipper65 on Amazon, dated 19 November 2013:
“This is the only English-language haiku anthology I’ve purchased that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. Perhaps the editors were looking for poets who attempted to push the envelop of what a haiku could express. That would explain why they chose many works that read more like contrived language experiments than poems. Reading a good haiku is like listening to a chime: it makes you close your eyes, drop your thoughts and savor the reverberation. The haiku in this collection that did that for me were few and far between—maybe a total of about 21.”
Four-star review by C. B. Wentworth on Goodreads, dated 5 September 2015:
“Haiku 21 is an ultra-modern anthology that tracks the evolution of contemporary haiku in the English language. For the most part it includes lovely experiments in language and thought-provoking subject matters. Everything from line count to word configuration challenges traditional notions of haiku, which makes this a critical read to unravel the last fifteen years of modern haiku trends. Most included haiku were quite elegant and daring. They push the boundaries just enough without losing sight of the Zen tradition. However, a number of poems were incredibly abstract and too far removed from the core philosophy of haiku—simplicity.”
From Ryan C. K. Choi’s “Translator’s Note,” posted 13 February 2018 to “Three Demons: Haiku by Sanki” on the Harvard Review Online (regarding his translations of haiku by Sanki Saitō); I especially note the observation that contemporary haiku in Japan is more inclined to evolution, not revolution:
“Haiku in Japanese are written as a single vertical line composed of three phrases. The traditional metrical array is 5-7-5. The numbers refer to the beats (called on, pronounced ‘ohn’) per phrase. These rules of form, as well as those of content (seasonal referents, cutting words, dichotomies of ‘transience’ and ‘permanence’), arose from within the properties of Japan, with—to name a few—its sharply contrasting seasons and local and imported spiritualities, and of the Japanese language itself, which, on a character-by-character basis, is morphemically far denser than English. When a writer of English haiku, in search of comparable restraints, translates the 5-7-5 rule syllabically, the result has a somewhat tenuous, arbitrary relationship with its new linguistic surroundings. In English, since the haiku is a comparatively recent import, one sees even starker dislocations of acceptable form (haiku ranging from one to four or more lines; ‘one word’ and ‘circle’ variants) than in Japanese, where similar efforts would perhaps be seen as something else altogether, and the haiku movement as a whole seems more inclined toward evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) change. Even as rules are broken and outgrown, they persist in ensuing works as contrarian presences, tangible arbiters of form.”
Anonymized email received 24 February 2020:
“It still irks me that we have a revisionist history of English haiku [in Haiku 21] that claims experimentation started around 2000 when we have clear records of contributions to the contrary from Amann, van den Heuvel, Inkstone, Raw Nervz, Marlene [Mountain], [Raymond] Roseliep, etc. . . . The first book of English-language haiku I read was Cor’s 1974 The Haiku Anthology and the first book of Japanese haiku translations I relished was Ueda’s The Modern Japanese Haiku published in 1976.” [These were both deeply experimental, the second specifically focused on gendai haiku.]
Anonymized message dated 5 September 2020:
“One impetus for the so-called ‘haiku 21’ style of haiku, though still a possibly nebulous concept, seems to be the rejection of cliché, tired structures, and tired tropes. This is a positive impetus. But if it’s at the expense of whatever haiku truly is, then is it worth it? Whatever haiku ‘truly’ is is also nebulous, but it seems unhelpful to replace one cliché with another. If these innovations arise out of some ennui with haiku, then one question might be to ask if one is truly tired of haiku or just one’s habits with it.” +