Tontoism in American Haiku

From the author’s book, The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, Foster City, California: Press Here, 2001, edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. See the Press Here page for this book. See additional essays from The Nick of Time on the Further Reading page, and see also the book’s introduction. This essay was originally published in Dragonfly III:2, April 1975, and is shared here for historical purposes. While some readers may feel that the term “Tontoism” is racist in how it depicts Native Americans (“tonto” also means “fool” in Spanish), another way to look at it is to see it as descriptive of a character who was himself depicted in a racist way. A more culturally sensitive approach might be to say that such haiku are “telegraphic”—or too much like telegrams. Just as we would not want to be racist, neither should we succumb to the problem described as “Tontoism” in our haiku.       +

by Paul O. Williams

Some time ago, a friend and I originated the term Tontoism to describe the tendency of some haiku writers to omit, from their haiku, articles or other sentence elements where they would appear in normal English usage. We were referring, of course, to the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, whom we had often heard, in the guttural tones of Jay Silverheels, uttering. “Uuuuh. That not good,” or, “We not go,” “You not take horse,” and so forth.

Unfortunately, Tontoism is becoming widespread in English-language haiku. The Japanese language, having no articles, can state a great deal in the short form. Yet, much modern haiku goes to forms shorter than conventional haiku. Reduction carried to extremes reaches absurdity. The movement toward total brevity can lead haiku to the point of incoherence. “Sun / wind / sand.” Or, “Desert”!

Omission of conventional speech patterns calls attention to itself rather than the essence of the haiku. Because of syllable count, one occasionally sees a haiku beginning with “Passing stable door” rather than the more normal “Passing the stable door.” Some haiku verge on being only a series of grunts. Even the finest observations can be marred by telegraphic brevity. “Dandelion / wind.” “Hooker / fix.” “Plumber / clog.” Ad nauseam.

The freedom the haiku poet has in using effective phrases, and the disciplined liberty the form, with its scant language, allows, would indicate that Tontoism is simply a failure on the part of the poet to effectively or adequately record the haiku experience. The appearance of “artlessness” is often the result of much more care and perception than the Tontoists are willing to give their work. One may decide not to begin a haiku with a conventional “the,” but this may mean discarding our whole language conception. An otherwise good haiku is spoiled when one hears the voice of Tonto grunting the words, “Wind in walnut tree.” The vehicle takes over the haiku and the humor becomes unavoidable.