“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” —Charles Darwin
“Writing satire about the poetry world is like shooting similes in a barrel. Line for line, there’s no more fertile subject than the black-turtleneck crowd clutching their foundation-funded chapbooks in the student lounge.” —Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor, 20 April 2004
Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (Simon & Schuster, 2009) is a novel about poetry. Or, more precisely, a curmudgeonly novel about poetry—and, briefly, about bogus haiku. For the unenlightened, here’s the book description from Amazon:
The Anthologist is narrated by Paul Chowder—a once-in-a-while-published kind of poet who is writing the introduction to a new anthology of poetry. He’s having a hard time getting started because his career is floundering, his girlfriend Roz has recently left him, and he is thinking about the great poets throughout history who have suffered far worse and deserve to feel sorry for themselves. He has also promised to reveal many wonderful secrets and tips and tricks about poetry, and it looks like the introduction will be a little longer than he’d thought.
What unfolds is a wholly entertaining and beguiling love story about poetry: from Tennyson, Swinburne, and Yeats to the moderns (Roethke, Bogan, Merwin) to the staff of The New Yorker, what Paul reveals is astonishing and makes one realize how incredibly important poetry is to our lives. At the same time, Paul barely manages to realize all of this himself, and the result is a tenderly romantic, hilarious, and inspired novel.
The reason I call it curmudgeonly is because the narrator has an attitude. He gripes about modernism, and beats a drum against iambic pentameter, saying it’s not really pentameter because it has an implied sixth-beat pause at the end of each line (which I agree is often present in certain poems). He also says that “The four-beat line is the soul of English poetry” (10). He’s a formalist and rhymer who lives in a nonformalist, nonrhyming world. There’s more to the book, and mostly I agree with it and love it and embrace it, and for those reasons I highly recommend The Anthologist for any poet—despite a thin plot and its talk more of mechanics than poetry spirit. For those new to poetry, the book provides an intriguing, if biased, overview of 20th-century poetics and most of its leading players. And largely it seems informed, too—for example, the book correctly capitalizes the name of E. E. Cummings.
There’s one part of the book I didn’t like when I read it, however, and that’s the part about haiku. It is not merely curmudgeonly but, so it first seemed, misinformed. To explain why, I’d like to quote and comment on the book’s passages about haiku.
I used to sit there in class, breathing, wondering. What’s the teacher going to think of next? What’s she going to teach us? Anything? I don’t know. I’m just sitting here. I have no idea what’s coming next.
And one time, she said, Today we’re going to learn something new, and this thing is called “haiku.” She wrote it on the board. And I thought, Interesting word, “haiku.” Nice K.
Somebody discovered haiku way back about a hundred years ago. Obviously it existed for a very long time in Japan, but he discovered it in English. What was his name, that poet? Not Edwin Arlington Robinson. One of those guys who is known now for discovering haiku. And he called it: HOKKU. Hokku. He decided that hokku was a powerful force for order in English.
And he was wrong. (72)
Okay, let’s stop there. In this flashback from Chapter 5, the narrator is describing his youth, or young adulthood. It’s in “the sixties” when he gets his first whiff of haiku. I’ll throw him the bone of faulty memory for not recalling the person who he says had “discovered” haiku in the West. But if he meant W. G. Aston (1841–1911), or more likely Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850–1935), I’m not sure I’d think of either of them as poets. Maybe he meant Ezra Pound. But Pound came a little later, and never used three names. But whoever he means, it seems that his haiku education got off to a bad start, because I’ve never heard of anyone being described in classrooms or anywhere as the “discoverer” of haiku in the West. So where does this notion even come from, that any one particular Westerner “discovered” haiku, let alone that he was “known” for it? That entrée into haiku doesn’t match my experience, nor the experience of any of hundreds of haiku poets I know. So I start off feeling suspicious of where Baker is going here, even though it’s where a fictional character is going, and because the author cannot hide for too long behind that shield.
Then he says this mystery person called this poetry “hokku.” Well of course he didn’t. Haiku evolved out of hokku, which is the starting verse of linked collaborative forms known as renga or haikai no renga (later called renku), and Bashō, of course, was not a haiku poet at all but a renga poet who excelled at writing hokku (which were later collected as independent poems). But no, that mysterious discoverer of haiku didn’t give haiku the label of hokku at all. So with these two errors (even if ascribable to the faulty memory of one’s youth), it’s easy to cast doubt on the excerpt’s conclusion. And no, I don’t mean the “he was wrong” part. I mean the part that says “hokku was a powerful force for order in English.” Where on earth did that idea come from? And why so grandiose? Of course it was wrong. Is Nicholson Baker making up this stuff? If not, I’d like to know what he’s referring to. But for now, let’s move on.
So the teacher said: we’re going to learn something new today. A new way of writing poetry. It’s called haiku. And it’s going to allow you—to make art.
And it has a couple of different lines, three lines, and one line has some arbitrary number of syllables, and another line has another arbitrary number of syllables, et cetera. And I heard her describing this, and I knew, even then. I knew even then that it was bogus. (73)
Really? How prescient for a young whippersnapper. I think we can assume that his teacher provided the usual details of the 5-7-5 pattern of syllables. The author (or the character) doesn’t explain why he thought even then that haiku was bogus, so we just have to believe that this was his attitude at the time. But we do immediately get his flippant explanation for why he now thinks haiku in English is bogus:
This, children, is a kind of poetry that makes perfect, thrilling sense in Japanese, and makes no sense whatsoever in English. That’s what she should have told us. This form is completely out of step with the English language. And the person who foisted it on us—that person was a demon. Even at the time I knew that it wasn’t right. Seven syllables, eleven syllables, five syllables? Come on. How does English poetry actually work? It doesn’t work that way. I don’t actually know Japanese, but haiku in Japanese has all kinds of interesting salt-glaze impurities going on that are stripped away in translation. (73)
Here I have a lot to agree with. Yes, the form (if we presume he was actually taught 5-7-5) is out of step with the English language—these are not natural sound patterns in English the way they are in Japanese, and of course 17 English syllables comes out much too long, with too much information, compared with the 17 sounds used in Japanese, where they use up the prescribed number of sounds with fewer words, and thus a lot less information. And yes, it was ignorant of early translators (both Westerners and Japanese) to assume that the mora (sound units) counted in Japanese haiku were the same as syllables—for example, even the word “haiku” differs between languages—counted as two syllables in English, but three sounds in Japanese (or, to put it another way, 100 yen does not equal 100 dollars). So yes, whoever foisted 5-7-5 onto haiku in English was a demon. I assume that the character’s misremembering of the typical syllable count being “7-11-5” is a deliberate act of disrespect or indifference. The author surely has his character do this because the author knows that we know the typical syllable count for haiku taught in most schools, and thus catch on that the character dislikes haiku so much that he doesn’t even bother to remember its supposed structure correctly—or doesn’t care. So, to the extent that the author is talking about form here, I couldn’t agree more—5-7-5 is not appropriate for English-language haiku, a topic that I and others have written about at great length. So his intuition is right to reject 5-7-5 in English. That much is indeed bogus.
Where I begin to disagree, however (at least with his implication), is where he says that Japanese has salt-glaze impurities that are stripped away in translation. Actually, I agree with that—Japanese does have salt glaze that is stripped off when translated into another language, as do poems in any language when translated into English. But the suggestion made here is that English cannot have these same salt glazes that would be equally stripped off when translated into other languages, including Japanese. Surely he can’t believe that. And I cannot agree where he says that haiku “makes no sense whatsoever in English,” especially when I’ve seen and felt so many thousands of fine haiku to prove him wrong, but again, let’s move on.
And yet Bashō was good—even in translation he is still good. And I’ve read haiku poems in English that have an interesting tripartite squashedness to them. A few years ago Roz [his former girlfriend] and her best friend from college wrote emails back and forth to each other in haiku. They had a fun time doing it. So what am I fussing about? (73)
The next page begins by saying, “After we all learned how to do haiku . . .” (as if they had mastered it, naturally, and seemingly overnight or in just a few days—imagine that) and then launches into memories of writing free verse. That’s all that this book says of haiku, except for one brief mention closer to the book’s end, which I’ll get to. Here, I’m pleased to see the correct use of the macron on Bashō’s name, although that may have been the doing of the copyeditor or publisher, who knows? And I’m pleased that Bashō is recognized as being good even in translation. But what are we to make of the character (or the author) having seen haiku poems in English that have an “interesting” tripartite squashedness? This is at least positive rather than dismissive, but is a compression in three lines all he sees? Or is this all he sees that’s “interesting”? Does he not know anything about other challenging techniques and targets for haiku, such as kigo and kireji? If he does, he does not let on, even while elsewhere in the book the character (or the author) has no hesitation in showing off his knowledge of poetry and its arcane nooks and crannies.
What is really telling about the character’s (or the author’s) awareness of English-language haiku comes in his last three sentences here, in which he describes his girlfriend and her best friend (not him, of course) writing haiku to each other. That’s surely a recipe for pseudo-haiku, especially if they were merely “having fun.” The world is drowning is such drivel. Self-publishing or on-demand publishing outfits abound with “haiku” that their authors dribbled out on blogs or to friends, retelling Bible verses, reviewing movies, or summarizing the politics of the day or the profound innermost thoughts of their cats and gerbils. Surely all fun, of course, but far from literature.
So what is the character (or author) fussing about? Surely he is fussing, and sees haiku as wrong in English. To the extent that all he learned was 5-7-5, if that’s the case, then absolutely, I would agree with him. But that’s not fair to literary haiku in English, which has typically rejected the 5-7-5 notion, and instead offers other alternatives to a set syllable pattern in English, such as “one breath,” a pattern of short-long-short, and organic form—along with reasons why 5-7-5 is too long in English compared with Japanese. Even the notion of having three lines isn’t Japanese (they write haiku in one vertical line), so if three lines is considered haiku, why not have alternatives to syllable count also? These changes do not fundamentally alter the genre (a point emphasized by the Matsuyama Declaration on haiku, issued in Japan by leading haiku poets in 1999), but are necessary and useful simply as ways to adapt the genre into another language—doing so in as simple a way as spelling a word differently when translating a poem from English to French (should we complain that “le” or “la” does not have as many letters as “the” in English?). Indeed, it is better to think of haiku as a genre rather than a form, and to realize that form (which can take many forms) is only one aspect of the genre. And furthermore to realize that poems in the 5-7-5 form—the way haiku is so often mistaught in English—cannot easily be translated from English into Japanese without lopping off one of its three lines—because seventeen syllables in English is significantly longer than the seventeen sounds of a Japanese haiku. In Grit, Grace, and Gold: Haiku Celebrating the Sports of Summer, published in 2020 by Kodansha USA, Kit Pancoast Nagamura says that “Based purely on a 17-syllable counting method, a poet writing in English could easily slip in enough words for two haiku in Japanese” (xvi). And as Patricia Donegan says in Write Your Own Haiku: For Kids (Tuttle, 2017, a reprint of Haiku: Asian Arts & Crafts for Creative Kids, 2003), her book about haiku for children, “In Japanese, seventeen syllables makes about six words, but seventeen syllables in English usually makes about twelve words or more. . . . So, in English, seventeen syllables, in most cases, would be too long for haiku” (9). Kids aren’t taught correctly in most other books about haiku, but at least Donegan’s book, for children, gets it right. It’s too bad that more adults don’t know better too.
My first reaction to this coverage of haiku was that Nicholson Baker is dissing haiku. In reality, though, he’s not dissing the haiku that I love, but rejecting the haiku form as it is mistaught in English—or at least I hope so. So when Geoff Dyer, in his review of the novel in The National (27 August 2009), says that the book has “a denunciation of English language haiku as bogus,” that’s both true and not true. What Baker is really denouncing is pseudo-haiku, and the presumed form of 5-7-5, and the presumption that that’s all there is to it, which he seems to intuitively feel as being incorrect for haiku in English. And bravo to him for saying so. However, it’s a sensitive reader who would see this distinction, and I suspect that most readers would simply see his denunciation as being directed at all haiku, rather than just the misinformed sort of haiku that he and so many others seem to have been taught. Baker is not actually throwing out the baby of literary haiku with the pseudo-haiku bathwater, at least I hope not, but insensitive or superficial readers might too easily believe that he’s throwing all of it out.
I would have wished for a prominent poetry-focused novel like this to come out with guns blazing in support of haiku, and to celebrate its literary successes in English, so I was initially disappointed to see an apparent dismissal instead. But on thinking about it more closely, as I’ve just stated, I realize that he (or his protagonist) is correctly dismissing the only haiku he seems to know, which is indeed a bastardized and incorrect presentation of haiku. He is actually dismissing pseudo-haiku, which leads me to believe that he doesn’t know “real” haiku (other than his hint about a few with an “interesting tripartite squashedness”). Haiku has been mistaught or superficially taught for decades in North American and other Western schools—and not just in English. And the majority of textbooks and curriculum guides get it wrong, too, usually perpetuating outdated misinformation (although I have seen the occasional exception). So Baker is right to dismiss such misguided sludge, but I fear most readers will not understand the limits I perceive of his dismissal. Most readers, in fact, will have fallen prey to the same misunderstandings that I suspect Baker has, so it will be easy for them to agree with the dismissal and believe that he’s throwing out all of haiku. However, such a dismissal would be unfair if readers also throw out literary haiku with the pseudo-haiku—the baby with the bathwater.
The only other reference to haiku in The Anthologist appears in Chapter 10, where the narrator says the following, in the context of his talking about rhyme and his preference for it:
And I sometimes feel that maybe if I’d been born in a different time—say, 1883—and hadn’t been taught haiku and free verse but real poetry, my own rhyming self would have flowered more fully. (159)
My first thought was to consider this comment—that haiku isn’t “real poetry”—to be disparaging to haiku (not to mention free verse). But in the context of the book’s earlier discussion of haiku, I would again say it’s disparaging to a particular kind of haiku: the pseudo-haiku that he, like so many others, was haplessly taught in school. He is not really addressing, let alone dismissing, literary haiku. Haiku with a literary practice or ambition has enthusiastically embraced numerous Japanese targets for haiku, and has offered suitable alternatives to form (such as an organic form and a short/long/short structure) and alternatives to the technique of cutting words (actual words added to the poem in Japanese that have no meaning but serve to interrupt the poem, announcing a caesura—as a sort of intermission). This literary genre of haiku in English has indeed become real poetry, decades ago, so Nicholson Baker was right to dismiss what he (or his character) saw as pseudo-haiku, because that’s what it was—a counterfeit to real poetry (and here I think of Bashō who said, right after saying to learn of the pine from the pine, “However well phrased it [your haiku] may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit”). Amid that pseudo-haiku, it’s too bad that the novel’s character of Paul Chowder, who is an informed and intelligent person, hadn’t properly explored literary haiku, moving beyond the greeting-card sort of haiku-drivel and the misinformed mentality that haiku is anything that fits a 5-7-5 pattern. In that sense, though, the character reflects what is too often the truth even among informed and intelligent poets who do not know the reality of literary haiku in English—and continue to teach, for example, just for starters, that haiku should be 5-7-5 syllables. If you, dear reader, teach English-language haiku that way, then I implore you to research it more deeply. I won’t name names, but I’ve had numerous conversations with prominent poets who seem to be completely unfamiliar with the problems of 5-7-5 in English, not to mention the significant other requirements or targets for haiku that have nothing to do with syllable count, yet have been obscured by the very syllable count that is misguided for haiku in the first place. Worse yet, some of them don’t even care, even though they teach haiku.
Of course, who is speaking in the novel? Is it Paul Chowder, the narrator, who is a chowder of an opinion-bowl if ever there was one? Or is it Nicholson Baker, the narrator’s soupmaker, or puppeteer? As Geoff Dyer put it in his previously mentioned review of the novel in The National, “one completely forgets that it is Chowder who is supposed to be speaking-writing.” So if I didn’t like what The Anthologist has to say about haiku, who would my argument be with? Oh, sure, the author can hide behind his character and say, “No, that’s not my opinion, it’s just fiction.” But I wouldn’t believe that for a second. Surely every last scrap of opinion about modern and moldy poetry in The Anthologist is Nicholson Baker’s. Or it’s surely easy to believe that. And while I feel that he’s right to dismiss pseudo-haiku, I would argue that he is unfair to suggest a dismissal of all haiku—and I’m hoping he’s not.
So I do have a small quarrel with Mr. Baker. He’s no doubt read a bucketload of crappy haiku, or enough crappy haiku to make him think it’s all crappy. But I would say he’s suffering under the same delusion that most Westerners suffer under—that haiku in English is merely a 5-7-5 platitude where anything goes as long as it’s got those blessed seventeen syllables. This is, quite simply, an urban myth. But of course, 5-7-5 syllables is the wrong target for haiku in English (as any study of linguistics, especially comparative linguistics, quickly shows, not to mention the teeming examples of the translators and the best poets nearly uniformly avoiding 5-7-5 in the last thirty or forty years—make that fifty). More than that, teachers and textbooks not only give haiku this misleading veneer, but they usually omit the heartwood of kigo (season words), kireji (cutting words, or a two-part juxtapositional structure), and primarily objective sensory imagery, among other targets that have nothing to do with the superficiality of counting syllables. Honestly, can’t our teachers today take more responsibility for teaching haiku with sufficient depth and accuracy?
Given the vast majority of haiku out there in the wild that perpetuate misunderstandings of haiku, it’s no wonder Baker complains. He should. I do too. But that’s not literary haiku—not of the sort that can be found in Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Acorn, The Heron’s Nest, Presence, Blithe Spirit, Haiku Canada Review, Wales Haiku Journal, and numerous other haiku-devoted journals, in print and online. It’s not the sort of haiku that can be found in the contests and discussion forums of the Haiku Society of America, Haiku Canada, the British Haiku Society, or The Haiku Foundation, or in such books as Cor van den Heuvel’s venerable The Haiku Anthology (Norton, 1999, third edition), Lee Gurga’s Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Modern Haiku Press, 2003), Bruce Ross’s Haiku Moment (Tuttle, 1993), Jim Kacian’s Haiku in English (Norton, 2013), or William J. Higginson’s essential Haiku Handbook (Kodansha International, 2010, 25th anniversary edition), amid several other select anthologies and instructional books. The problem with the seeming dismissal of all haiku in The Anthologist is that most readers, as I’ve mentioned, are unlikely to be able to tell what kind of haiku he’s talking about, even if the author himself doesn’t realize it. Pseudo-haiku? All those honku and spamku and haikus for Jews? Then absolutely, I agree with him, except where readers will perceive him to be throwing out all haiku. Such a dismissal would be unfair because most readers would not even realize that there’s a baby they are throwing out with that bathwater.
On the other hand, if Baker really means to dismiss literary haiku in English, then I couldn’t disagree with him more strongly. I doubt Baker even knows literary haiku, or not much of it (let alone understanding it), so I suspect that dismissing literary haiku is not his intent—or the intent of his character. Not everyone’s wired for haiku. That I understand—it’s not everyone’s cup o’ tea. But it’s one thing not to be wired for it, and quite another to dismiss it based on misunderstandings of it. My point, though, is that Baker’s rejection arises from realizing the mishandling of haiku in education and the general public, so he’s right to reject at least that much of it, even if he doesn’t realize there’s another side to the haiku coin. What I’m wondering, though, is whether he could embrace a richer, deeper, and literary understanding of haiku in English. I don’t have his phone number, or I’d ask him. More importantly, though, can mainstream poetry in America—and the teachers in our schools—come to a richer, deeper, and literary understanding of haiku in English?
Indeed, Baker is not alone in seeming to dismiss haiku, and there are poets and academics (again, I could name many names) who dismiss even literary haiku in English. Here’s where I’d like to raise another issue. Even for those who dismiss literary haiku written in English, it strikes me as unfair to compare thirty or fifty years of literary Western tradition in the genre against five hundred or more years of the tradition in Japan. Bashō died in 1694, and it was at least forty years before the next great Japanese haiku master, Buson, began to thrive (he was born 1716). Buson died in 1783, so he overlaps with the third great master, Issa (born 1763). Issa died in 1827, though, so for more than forty years Issa was the only master of his caliber. And after him there was a gap of sixty years before the next great master, Shiki (born 1867), began to thrive. Were there no equal masters in those intervening years? And in all those several hundred years, were there really only four great masters? The point is that it’s dangerous and false to compare recent or current literature, where we see all the troughs and valleys, against the best literature of the past, which is chiefly represented by the peaks. Highlights of the past, too, are compressed in time, whereas the work of today is uncompressed, has yet to be sifted through and canonized, and unfolds too slowly in the present, compared with the “all at once” sense we have of many years from the past. So of course current haiku can’t measure up. That’s also true for current haiku in Japanese, or any current poetry in comparison with the best of poetry from the past. But to dismiss all haiku in English, simply because we haven’t yet perceived or produced a Bashō, is unfair to haiku’s potential in its adopted language of English, among other languages, even if its “literature” is muddied by so much pseudo-haiku.
So again, what is Baker looking at? A real comparison of English-language haiku literature to its Japanese progenitor might need another three hundred years to be fair, but I do think the best English-language haiku poets, in due course, will stand the test of time and measure up against many of the best haiku poets of Japan. No wonder R. H. Blyth included the haiku of at least one Western poet in his classic history of haiku first published in 1964. No wonder another prominent haiku translator of the same era, Harold G. Henderson, cofounded the Haiku Society of America in 1968, embracing its possibilities in English. No wonder Tokyo’s Haiku International Association formed in 1989 because of the growing importance of haiku worldwide. No wonder the Haiku North America conference began is biennial run in 1991 and continues today. No wonder the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo has an extensive collection of English-language haiku, plus haiku in other languages (I’ve stood amid the museum’s shelves, marveling just at what they have in English). No wonder the American Haiku Archives started at the California State Library in Sacramento in 1996, aiming as it does to collect haiku literature written in English and other languages, including books, papers, and other materials by leading haiku poets. No wonder Matsuyama’s Ehime Culture Foundation has awarded the prestigious Shiki prize, along with prize money that has ranged from $20,000 to $50,000 plus a first-class trip to Japan, primarily to Westerners who promote or exemplify haiku as literature. No wonder there is a rich history of haiku journals and organizations all over North America and elsewhere in the world. This happens because haiku is literary, in English, if the rest of mainstream poetry would take notice. And Baker most likely knows none of it.
Will non-Japanese haiku differ from Japanese haiku? Of course, just as Issa is strikingly different from Bashō, and Santōka differs from Chiyo-ni—or Shakespeare’s sonnets differ from Dante’s, not to mention Berrigan’s. The point is that haiku, if one is wired to it, can be—and I believe, in time, will be—close or equal to Japanese haiku in quality and depth, if it isn’t already. In the case of The Anthologist, of course, the seeming dismissal of haiku, which I take as a rightly made dismissal of a certain type of haiku, is too easy to apply as a dismissal of all haiku.
Ultimately, people are always entitled to their opinions. If all Baker has seen is the abominations of pseudo-haiku, then yes, he’s right to complain. But surely he wouldn’t confuse populist tripe with literature, so I can only conclude that he’s not aware of the literature, and thus hasn’t experienced the difference, which is a significant shame. Unfortunately, he is far from being alone. My sense is that the same is true for a great number of mainstream poets and poetry professors out there in poetryland. Once again, I’ve had more conversations than I care to remember with well-known poets who are surprisingly uninformed about literary haiku in English. This misinformation often appears also in their textbooks, and their forays into haiku, although I have sensed improvements. I appreciated it when Samuel Green, the first poet laureate for the State of Washington, once told me that he used haiku for “selfish” purposes—at least he was honest about doing with haiku what he wanted with it, similar to what Paul Muldoon and Sonia Sanchez have done, even if they might not acknowledge the selfish purposes of their approaches. But why not give the literary techniques a try, and really master the genre? Billy Collins has given it a go, at least somewhat, and Modern Haiku has published a number of his attempts, even though most of them continue to be 5-7-5 (the reasoning presumably being that his readers, rightly or wrongly, “expect” haiku to be 5-7-5—he’s offered additional comments about this subject in introducing the 2013 Norton anthology: Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years). But there are too few mainstream poets, if any, who really get haiku, and Collins isn’t quite there yet, it seems to me. The Beats came close, but didn’t get there, except maybe Kerouac, and only at times. Ron Padgett and a couple of others have also come close, but have done haiku only occasionally. Richard Wright actually got there with many of his poems, but his late-in-life obsession with haiku suffered from isolation and an excessively narrow influence only from the translations of R. H. Blyth, which he heavily imitated. Wright lacked the cross-pollination of interacting with other haiku poets and experiencing the development of its aesthetics. The same was true for Dag Hammarskjöld and his haiku in Markings. The New Yorker and the Best American Poetry anthologies have both published “haiku” that haven’t really understood the genre—in fact, I would say this is true of nearly all of the “haiku” they have published (which is separate from the matter of whether they are good poems or not). Forays into haiku by most well meaning mainstream poets have been surprisingly misinformed. The late William J. Higginson’s address, at my invitation, for the 2005 Haiku North America conference in Port Townsend, Washington, asserted that “haiku is mainstream,” and he gave many varying examples. But I would suggest that haiku—the genre in general, as well as how it has been attempted by mainstream poets—suffers from a multitude of misunderstandings, including the idea that it’s a Zen art (which is about as true in Japan as thinking that sonnets in England or Italy are somehow inherently Christian). Higginson authored the previously mentioned Haiku Handbook, and knew his literature, but I would say he was too generous in accepting some of the work he cited in his 2005 talk as haiku (presumably as “real poetry”). The argument, of course, as translator Harold Henderson once put it, is that haiku poets will make of haiku what they will. But he also said that they cannot take it too far and still call it haiku. The truth is that I’ve yet to see a prominent or well-known English-language poet really understand and excel at haiku, and I dearly wish for that situation to change.
In 2015, Tim Green’s Rattle magazine published a Japanese forms issue, with contributions from many leading literary haiku writers (mixed in with other approaches). This is a rare and even landmark foray by literary haiku poets into a mainstream poetry context, even if it was instigated by Rattle rather than the poets themselves, but we need more such activity. Indeed, the literary haiku community has somewhat kept itself in its own ghetto and needs to get out more, with more public reviews and essays on haiku aesthetics, so it deserves some of the blame for mainstream poetry not knowing what it’s up to with haiku, but that doesn’t justify a dismissal of haiku based on limited perspectives (one thinks of blind men touching an elephant). Most textbooks and poetry primers by “award-winning” poets testify to their superficial understandings of haiku, typically perpetuating the same old misguided or limited knowledge found in curriculum guides that infest our schools. So Baker is one more example of that misinformation, even while he is right to dismiss pseudo-haiku, if that is what he was dismissing. Thus Baker or his character is perhaps a victim rather than a victimizer, even if he doesn’t realize it. At the very least, haiku as Nicholson Baker portrays it in The Anthologist is not the haiku of the leading haiku poets writing in the English language. It’s right to dismiss bogus haiku, but the work of leading literary haiku writers in English is not bogus haiku. It is high time that a wider American and English-language readership of poetry made the effort to understand the aesthetics and leading practitioners of English-language haiku. But that, of course, is a topic for another day.
At the risk of The Anthologist overstaying its welcome, here are a few more quotations from the book that appealed to me, nearly all comments about poetry, and sometimes even haiku, at least tangentially. Let me start with a few dozen snippets on the shorter side.
“Poetry is prose in slow motion.” (1)
“I’ve read too many difficult poems.” (5)
“ . . . the grieving joy of true poetry.” (11)
“You can tell it’s a poem because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space.” (21)
“ . . . if you think your writing furthers life or truth in some way, then you keep writing.” (34)
“It doesn’t matter whether ‘breath’ and ‘death’ have been rhymed before, only whether the two new lines that end with ‘breath’ and ‘death’ are interesting and beautiful lines. Although sometimes it’s good to give certain rhymes a break for a century or two.” (35)
“If you’ve memorized some poems, the poems will raise a glimmering finger in your memory once in a while.” (39)
“I know of course that it’s going to end up being called a poem, but ‘poem’ is one of those bothersome technical terms.” (40)
“I own an alarming number of poetry books.” (42)
“ . . . the fructifying limitlessness of traditional forms.” (44)
“ . . . the short happiness of being alive.” (49)
“ . . . you can choose to write before or after you’ve masturbated—this is crucial—and you can choose to tell the truth or not to.” (50)
“Ezra Pound, the source of all evil.” (51)
“Anthology knowledge isn’t real knowledge. You have to read the unchosen poems to understand the chosen ones.” (54)
“Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing.” (55)
“Poets are our designated grievers.” (57)
“Auden . . . believed that you should write drunk and revise sober.” (58)
“Poetry is like math or chess or music—it requires a slightly freaky misshapen brain, and those kinds of brains don’t last.” (66)
“I don’t have anyone to sleep with now, so what I do is I sleep with my books.” (67)
“ . . . this is America, land of bad poetry.” (71)
“It was a terrible poem. But my mother liked it, and it was remarkably easy to write. And that was the beginning of my career.” (75)
“One thing I really like about books of poems is that you can open them anywhere and you’re at a beginning.” (80)
“Ultra-extreme enjambment comes standard in free verse because free verse is, as we know, merely a heartfelt arrangement of plummy words requesting to be read slowly.” (91)
“My life is necessary because I sustain the idea of poetry through thick and thin. That’s my job.” (101)
“ . . . spending your life concentrating on death is like watching a whole movie and thinking only about the credits that are going to roll at the end. It’s a mistake of emphasis.” (126)
“ . . . most good poets can’t write good prose. The better the prose they write, the worse the poetry. The better the poetry, the worse the prose. Except for letters. Poets are good letter writers.” (137)
“Here’s what a poem is. See this glass of water? This glass of water is an essay. Perfectly fine thing for it to be. A literary essay—a piece of ‘creative nonfiction.’ But dip a spoon in that glass of water and scoop some of it out and hold it over a hot fry pan so that a few drops fall and sizzle and quickly disappear. That’s a poem.” (141)
“You take the moment, you do your best to describe it, it fascinates you, and then when you’ve done your best to give it to people on some printed page, then you have to let it go.” (148)
“Sometimes I’ll spend an hour writing a tiny email. I work on it until I’ve created the illusion that I’ve dashed it off in three minutes.” (179)
“Sometimes I think knowing the names of everything is overrated. It takes away the sense that each thing is itself and not part of some clique. But names help you see things, too, and remember them better.” (192)
“ . . . so often I think when I’m writing a poem that I need to start in some specific spot. Where I begin becomes so important that I never begin.” (195)
“ . . . is there anything more beautiful than sunlight on clapboards?” (196)
“I want to lie in bed and just read poems sometimes and not watch TV.” (222)
“ . . . looking at the dew on the gas cap of my car.” (223)
“ . . . love poems are the best kind of poems.” (223)
“I’m not at all sure I do like poetry.” (231)
And here are three longer quotations. The first one considers authenticity in poetry, the second speaks of image conveying meaning, and the third may well be a fool-proof recipe for writing haiku, or any kind of poetry. Might it work for you?
There’s no either-or division with poems. What’s made up and what’s not made up? What’s the varnished truth what’s the unvarnished truth? We don’t care. With prose you first want to know: Is it fiction, is it nonfiction? Everything follows from that. The books go in different places in the bookstore. But we don’t do that with poems, or with song lyrics. Books of poems go straight to the poetry section. There’s no nonfictional poetry and fictional poetry. The categories don’t exist.
For instance, I could write a poem right now about buying a big wheel of Parmesan cheese and putting it in the closet as an investment. It’s not true, I haven’t done that. I can’t afford it. I’d love to own a wheel of really good Parmesan because the salt crystals are so delicious, but I don’t. Even so, I could write that poem. And I wouldn’t have to label it as a fictional poem or a nonfictional poem. It would just be a poem.
Coleridge says that Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man. Did it really do that? John Fogerty says that the old man is down the road. Is he? Longfellow says he shot an arrow into the air. Did he, or is he just saying he did? Poe said that there was a raven tapping at his chamber door. Was there?
We don’t care. Why don’t we care? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you today on that important question. (52–53)
True poet’s depression is a rigor mortis of agony. It’s a full-body inability to function. You don’t want to leave your room. Louise Bogan summed it up in two quick lines. This was back in I don’t know when—nineteen-thirty-something. It was in a poem in The New Yorker called “Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell.” And the lines went: “At midnight tears / Run in your ears.” She’s lying there on her back, crying. Her eyes are overflowing, and the tears are cresting and coming around, and down, and they’re flowing into her ears. There’s something direct and physical and interesting about that. Because it’s as if the crying leads directly to the hearing. Her grief leads to something audible—a poem. That’s what it does for all these really good poets. The crying and the singing are connected. (54–55)
I ask myself: “What was the very best moment of your day?” The wonder of it was, I told them [his students], that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something that I hadn’t known was important will leap up and hover there in front of me, saying I am—I am the best moment of the day. . . . One time it was when I was driving past a certain house that was screaming with sunlitness on its white clapboards, and then I plunged through tree shadows that splashed and splayed over the windshield. I thought, Ah, of course—I’d forgotten. You, windshield shadows, you are the best moment of the day. (237)
—9 September 2020