Questioning Haiku: A Shiki Manifesto

First published in Haiku Canada Review 13:2, October 2019, pages 21–24. This essay also appeared in Wind Flower: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 2019, Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2020, pages 178–182, as one of the best essays on haiku published in 2019. In a review of Wind Flowers, posted to the Haiku Canada book review blog on 9 April 2020, Dave Read says that this essay reflects on “aspects of historical Japanese haiku and its relationship to that which is being written in contemporary English.” He adds that “Welch looks back at Shiki, and, through a series of questions, wonders whether his manifesto is currently being followed. . . . Welch provides no answers. Instead, he poses his questions as a means of investigating the extent to which we follow Shiki’s tenants, or are guilty of acting like the proletarian writers Shiki criticized in his era.” The following essay was originally written in January and February of 2019, with revisions in August 2019. See also “Shiki’s Winter.”

In 1896, chafing against the stale haiku traditions of the day, Shiki published a manifesto in Nippon, seeking to bring about a revolution in Japanese haiku practice and appreciation. Here he positions himself and those sharing his persuasion against a “they” of the proletarian Japanese writers of that era:

This translation comes from Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976; 5). Ueda also says “It is clear that Shiki was opposed above all to the mannerism of contemporary haiku” (6). Shiki was also striving to emancipate haiku from longer linked poetry, taking the hokku or starting verse out of renga—seeking “a complete independence of haiku as a poem” (7). As such, to stand on its own, haiku needed a new underpinning, a strong new aesthetics and poetics, and manifestos such as Shiki’s sought to set that new course for Japanese haiku poetry.

        I note how this manifesto begins with a call to emotion—to feeling instead of the intellect. A significant amount of current gendai or at least avant garde haiku (in Japanese and English) seems beholden to the intellect, even though the revolution Shiki began pointed directly to emotion over knowledge. As Cummings said, “feeling is first.”

        We may also wonder how a motif becomes trite, or what Shiki considered trite. Is it trite to write about homeless people or beggars—or even summer clouds or fresh snow—because that has been done so often, and risks unearned emotion through a knee-jerk or stock feeling in reaction to the stereotyped subject instead of the distinctive poem? At what point, if possible at all, do particular season words themselves become trite, such as cherry blossoms, or is it the overuse of common subjects with established season words that too easily becomes trite, repeating what is too easy and too common?

        And did the didacticism that Shiki abhorred also fall into the realm of triteness? Shiki valued Buson as a model to follow, saying, according to Ueda, that Buson’s poetry “was objective and picturesque; by presenting objects or scenes that excited emotion, it avoided describing the poet’s emotion itself” (7), thereby engaging the reader. This is how, as Ueda notes in his preface, “Any poem demands a measure of active participation on the part of the reader but this is especially true of haiku. With only slight exaggeration it might be said that the haiku poet completes only one half of his poem, leaving the other half to be supplied in the reader’s imagination” (vii). Thus, as Sensensui rightly said, haiku is an “unfinished” poem.

        And what is the difference between wordiness and rightness, and the difference between a fullness of words and the opposite problem, excess minimalism? Is there a difference between as short as possible versus as short as necessary? (For me, the difference is crucial.) Is minimalism in haiku akin to anorexia, or can the minimal also achieve rightness? How is wordiness defined, and by whom? And can a 5-7-5 haiku achieve rightness too, or will the extent of its content always smack of obesity compared with Japanese haiku?

        Next, what diction do we allow in our haiku? Are the Anglo Saxon–rooted words better than Latinate, such as “dog” and “cat” verses “canine” and “feline”? Do we cut ourselves off from the full range of poetic expression if we do not allow a greater variety of words from within English, as well as words borrowed from other languages?

        And finally, do we revere certain poets just because they’re revered? Or can we honestly assess—and if necessary, reject—weaker poems by even the best English-language haiku poets among us, and those of our recent past? Western haiku may not have schools the way they do in Japan, but factions clearly exist, such as the so-called objective realists, those who are more subjective or opaque, the yuki-teikei traditional camp, the minimalists, those who write seeking only to count 5-7-5 syllables, sometimes as a sort of joke, and those who write in a variety of other ways or for a range of purposes, such as meditation, therapy, or for school-book exercises. Are these not schools of haiku in English, even if they do not have defined leaders, hierarchies, and lineages as they do in Japan? What can we learn from each of these approaches that might loosen up our repeated habits, our narrow views? Or how can an openness to each of these “schools” broaden what has become our own trite or mannered way of writing only in particularly ways? And yet, can approaches to haiku be too broad and at some point cease to be haiku?

        Ueda’s summary of Shiki’s revolution is as follows:

The poet has complete freedom both in the way in which he sees beauty and in the way in which he expresses it in his poem. The poem, therefore, can show any one of many types of beauty, colourful or austere, simple or complex. The merit of the poem lies in its individuality, in its independence, in its degree of freedom from stereotypes. A good poem will always be new in its motif, unhackneyed in its material, uninhibited in its vocabulary, and therefore direct in its emotional appeal and fresh in its overall impression. That is the haiku, as different from the hokku of old. (8)

Ultimately, what does Shiki have to teach us today? These questions may find different answers in each haiku poet. What are your answers?