Politics and the English-Language Haiku: Learning from George Orwell

First published in Schuylkill Valley Journal online, April 2016. Also published in the print edition of Schuylkill Valley Journal, Volume 43, Fall 2016, pages 190–196. Also republished in Dust Devils: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 2016 (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2017), selected as one of the best essays about haiku published in 2016. Originally written in July of 2015, and revised in February 2016. Please also read the Orwell essay referred to in this essay.       +       +

“There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”

—George Orwell, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”

In 1946 George Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language,” an essay that writing teachers still quote today. Without too much effort, we can also apply what it has to say to haiku, both the writing of these little gems and to criticism about them as well.

        I’ve just referred to haiku as little gems. This is a deliberate ploy. Such a phrase is an example of what Orwell decries. We say these poems are “precious” because we have received that language from others. But it has become stale. Marlene Mountain says that “haiku is not a port in a storm.” Haiku is not a cute and precious gem, and as long as we view it that way, we are stuck not just in stale language but stale thought, and the haiku we write will not rise into literature. Orwell wants us to find fresh thoughts about what we are saying and, if necessary, fresh metaphors. That doesn’t mean we have to make everything new, but to think freshly—or, as Jane Hirshfield has put it, to “make it yours.”

         Orwell begins his essay by presenting five convoluted passages of text where thought has been suffocated by needlessly complex and obscure language. He explores how the imagery is stale and how grasping at complexity leads to a lack of precision. He unpacks the tricks their authors use to dodge responsible writing, which amount to using dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words, all of which he explains. I won’t quote the passages here, or Orwell’s commentary on them, not just because you can read the essay for yourself, but because my point lies beyond their reefs. Along the way, Orwell says something I’ve said in haiku workshops for years, that “Bad writers . . . are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones,” and explains how certain words in art and literary criticism have become meaningless. By this and other means, our little gems are simply dull.

        I will, however, quote a passage from Ecclesiastes that Orwell translates to illustrate the obfuscation that can too easily occur in writing—and I would say in haiku and other poetry criticism:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here is Orwell’s partial translation:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

He says that “Every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.” Here’s what else he has to say on these passages—observations that students of haiku will be able to apply to their poetry:

The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English.

Orwell points out, with the second passage, how easily language can become pretentious and meaningless because we too easily repeat what we have heard before (“objective considerations” and the like). This is possible not just in commentary about haiku but in haiku themselves, where we too often write what everyone else has written (part of what I call “déjà-ku”). But in criticism, the larger danger is pretentiousness and meaninglessness, and academic posturing that leads to alienation. He says that “it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style” and that, “By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.” Orwell sums himself up:

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier—even quicker, once you have the habit—to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.

Orwell offers these solutions, and they apply to haiku poetry as much as to haiku criticism:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in.

        Let me swim into the lagoon, and talk more about haiku rather than haiku criticism. Perhaps the most quoted single phrase of Orwell’s essay is that “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” We can get to good haiku by being sincere. It’s really that simple, and it helps if we balance that with knowledge of the literature and its techniques while guarding against repeating the old and tiresome phrasings of others. For me, too, haiku arise out of empathy, of putting ourselves where the other person or other thing is—to learn of the pine from the pine, as Bashō told us. We have to pay attention. As American psychologist and Buddhist meditation expert Tara Brach has said, “Attention is the most basic form of love.” And haiku arise out of vulnerability, too, where our poems make us vulnerable by saying “this matters to me.” They also pull on the vulnerability of others, if our poem makes a connection when a reader agrees that “this matters to me too.” Sparrows with huddled necks, an elevator opening and closing. It all boils down to sincerity, and we can get there through empathy, attention, and vulnerability. Do we mean what we say, or are we just repeating what others have said?

        Here is a rundown of other advice Orwell provides, which haiku poets can apply to their work:

“In prose,” Orwell adds (and with poetry too), “the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.” Could that be any more strongly applicable to haiku? Haiku begin with images, and our personal experiences of everything we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. We have feelings as a result, and by trusting the image we can impart those same feelings to the reader (Eliot’s “objective correlative” comes into play with haiku). It all starts with an image that is concrete—and wordless. I believe it was R. H. Blyth who first referred to haiku as a “wordless” poem, a notion picked up by D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, and then explored in detail by Eric Amann in his 1969 book The Wordless Poem. In Volume 1 of Haiku, from 1949, Blyth has a section on wordlessness, which he describes as one of thirteen “characteristics of the state of mind which the creation and appreciation of haiku demand” (154). He says that haiku is “essentially a wordless state, in which words are used, not to express anything, but rather to clear away something that seems to stand between us and the real things which . . . are then perceived by self-knowledge” (176). Orwell also reminds us of that wordless origin of what we are trying to say, and asks us to use the simplest words to present that wordlessness, and the intuitions we have as a result. As he puts it, “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.”

        I like how Orwell asserts the act of choosing rather than merely accepting the words needed to convey our meaning—to describe that falling maple leaf or the cracking of an heirloom bowl. We need to be conscientious and involved. It can be lazy to assume that the first thought is always the best thought. Ginsberg revised the hell out of things. More importantly, I also like how Orwell ends with a nod to the audience, since the aim of haiku is to communicate with readers (the purpose of haiku, as William J. Higginson has told us, is to share them). “One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase,” Orwell says, “and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.” He then offers the following six rules that apply to haiku just as much as they do to any other kind of writing:

Orwell concludes that “These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.” He was talking of the 1940s, but styles of writing fashionable today are equally problematic. To return to the Bible, in Matthew and Mark it says that the poor will always be with us, and so it seems to be with haiku. But by coming back to the advice that Orwell offers, perhaps there is a stay against poorness of language that can enrich all our haiku—and polish some of our precious little gems into diamonds.