Sax Riffs and the Art of Tensaku

First published in Haiku Canada Review (13:1, February 2019), pages 6 to 8. Originally written in March of 2015. For more than two years (2008 to 2010), with Emiko Miyashita, I edited a tensaku-oriented haiku column in Japan’s Asahi Weekly, which gave me some context for this essay. See also “Desert Heat: A Haiku Revision.” In the video at the end of this essay, the brief sax break starts at the 3:03 mark (in the album version of the song, not the single).

        “A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.” ―Friedrich Nietzsche

As I was driving to work recently, a Rolling Stones song came on the radio. It was “Miss You,” their last #1 song, from 1978. That was the disco era, and even the Rolling Stones weren’t immune. A saxophone riff, played by Mel Collins, punctuates the middle of the song, and when the sax break started, I thought of haiku. Specifically, I thought of the notion of tensaku, and how some Westerners are inclined to resist changes or additions to their poems unless they feel like they wrote them themselves. Tensaku, in the Japanese tradition, is when a master routinely revises a poem before it’s published, if any changes are warranted (添削; ten = additions; saku = subtractions). In this situation, it’s said that even if the master retains as little as the word “of” from the original poem, it’s still your poem. Revisions are made nearly always without permission from the author. Or rather, the act of submitting a poem to a Japanese journal or a master is tacit approval for any edits that might be made. In the West, many poets consider it a violation of authorship if any such changes are made without author approval, but in Japan it’s considered an honour to have one’s poem revised by a master.

        But more than this, I also thought of any other revisions that might be provided, not by masters or editors, but by our friends or peers. Even if we approve of these revisions, whether in workshops, discussion groups, or on Facebook pages, are Western haiku poets comfortable in accepting these revisions? Not every writer feels like all such changes are theirs, and that’s one reason they resist these changes, when perhaps it’s better to be more open to them for the sake of improving the poem—while still considering the poem to be their own.

        So what do the Rolling Stones have to do with tensaku, or any revisions our friends or editors might suggest for our haiku? Think of it this way. As one can readily discover online, Mick Jagger wrote “Miss You” while jamming with keyboardist Billy Preston, although songwriting is credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (which was how all of their songs are credited, whether written together or apart). But it’s the addition of the sax break that’s relevant to haiku revision. We can easily imagine the rehearsals or recording sessions for this song, and that Mel Collins was brought in to perform the sax break. Perhaps he was given a chart to follow, and thus didn’t “write” that sax part himself, but I rather suspect he did, jamming off the rest of the song. Yet Mel Collins is not credited as the song’s cowriter.

        It’s the same way with haiku, I think. If you write “ancient pond,” and someone comes along and says “old pond” might be better, that change is still yours, as the original writer, because the revision riffs off what you originally wrote. When we ask a friend for feedback on a haiku, we’re asking if we hit any wrong notes, so when they suggest that we hit this note instead of that note, we need not feel that our “authorship” of the poem is threatened. In business terms, we could also say that such suggestions are a “work for hire,” the way any creative ideas you have for your employer belong to your company, not you (even if you aren’t being paid), because you were applying your creativity to work at the time of sharing or creating your idea. In musical terms, the session musician may indeed come up with various musical ideas—in effect, “writing” that part of the song—but because it’s part of the whole, the creation is still credited to the “writer” (in this case Jagger and Richards—and in this case even Richards didn’t originally write the song). With haiku, of course, we don’t usually pull in session musicians to write all our verbs for us, or our prepositions, but there’s still some similarity to how friends or editors might contribute to our work. Whether our friends add a sax riff to our poem, or a change of tense, or provide a new first line, it’s still our music. Hardly anyone writes in isolation.

        Something else we might learn from popular music is that although songwriting might be credited to particular composers, that same song often still identifies the musical contribution of people who played on the song, the way Mel Collins is cited for the sax break in the song “Miss You.” It would be impractical and overbearing to credit every influence for individual haiku, but perhaps there are times to acknowledge such influences, such as when publishing a book of one’s haiku, or perhaps in an essay. I recall Randy Brooks writing about the “blessing” that is given each published haiku by an editor when accepting a poem for publication, or by friends who take the time to say how a poem touched them. Such blessings extend to those who offer suggestions for revision, too, it seems to me, because the suggestion is often an endorsement for the poem, implying that it is an experience worth sharing. Even if we’re not able to acknowledge every blessing our poems receive, we can write in the knowledge that our haiku are part of a community, with many influences. While those influences might not be as overt as the Japanese tradition of tensaku, or credited the way a sax break is in a pop song, they are still present and worth remembering. Such influences are always a part of every poem, even if subtle, yet the poem is still ours if we write with authentic attention.