A Look to the Future of Haiku in English
This essay was first published as the afterword to A Haiku Path: The Haiku Society of America 1968–1988 (New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994), a retrospective book about the first twenty years of the society’s activities and accomplishments, for which I served as a chief editor. My mention of the Oriental scroll is a reference to Elizabeth Searle Lamb’s introduction to the book, in which she says that the history of haiku is like a slowly unrolling Oriental scroll painting. Although this essay first appeared in 1994, it still seems applicable today. Since then, of course, the society has gained a website, Facebook, and Twitter presence, and further expanded its membership. The Internet and email, too, have overhauled how we connect and communicate with each other, and this has brought both challenges and opportunities to the society. Nevertheless, although other organizations and publications have come and gone, the Haiku Society of America remains strong and central to English-language haiku. But technology continues to challenge and possibly erode this vitality. Also included here is an extensive new postscript that addresses the future of haiku sixteen years after the original essay appeared in A Haiku Path.
The history of haiku continues to unroll like an Oriental scroll painting. Haiku would not be where it is today as a respected, Westernized mode of image-centered, naturalistic poetry were it not for the passion and assiduous dedication of many hundreds of leading poets and critics. Along with translators, scholars, and editors such as Harold G. Henderson, R. H. Blyth, Kenneth Yasuda, Donald Keene, Alan Watts, and Makoto Ueda—and more recently Cor van den Heuvel, Hiroaki Sato, and William J. Higginson—the founding members and early enthusiasts of the Haiku Society of America have laid a solid foundation for the continued growth and expansion of haiku in English. This burgeoning is also brightly mirrored by increasing worldwide interest in this unassuming and deceptively simple poetry. The Haiku Society of America can take pride in its central role in the history of haiku in English. As the Society eagerly anticipates the future of English haiku, it can recall the many accomplishments of its first twenty years. These successes include the ongoing dissemination of news, poetry, articles, and book reviews through its publications, the HSA Newsletter and Frogpond, the establishment of viable and practical definitions of haiku and related terms, the incorporation of the Society as a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, the sponsoring of the Henderson and Brady haiku and senryu contests and Merit Book Awards, its steadily increasing membership numbers, and its continued communication with poets and scholars in Japan and around the world who share an interest in haiku.
Above all, however, the greatest success of the Society is its promotion of interaction among its members. The American haiku community would surely be amorphous and unfocused without the unifying presence of the Haiku Society of America. Through its meetings, presentations, contests, and poetry readings, and through the sharing and discussion of haiku by its members, the Society has provided a dynamic literary forum central to the growth, study, and appreciation of this poetry. No doubt many haiku poets from Maine to California and beyond would have never met (even if only by correspondence) without the shared resource of Society membership lists and its members’ mailing addresses. It is in the details of this common interaction between haiku poets where the art and craft of haiku evolves. These details are vital brush strokes in the unrolling scroll of English-language haiku.
While the Haiku Society of America plays a pivotal role in the history of haiku in English, it does so alongside other thriving North American haiku organizations. The most notable of these are Haiku Canada, the Boston, Yuki Teikei, and Western World Haiku Societies, and the Haiku Poets of Northern California. Also, major periodicals include Robert Spiess’s stalwart Modern Haiku, Francine Porad’s Brussels Sprout, and HPNC’s Woodnotes. Other haiku publications and organizations are making their mark, some have come and gone, and some are just beginning. Together they form a web that supports haiku, and, indeed, the Haiku Society of America.
From this foundation, the Society now looks to the future, to the urgency and experimentation of new writers, to the guidance and wisdom of established voices, to the growth of national and regional groups, to new journals, books, conferences, and scholarly research, and always to new poems and their moments of heightened awareness and keen perception. Spirited debate will certainly persist on a variety of topics, as indeed it should for the health and refinement of the poetry, but our common love of haiku and nature will assuredly sustain us. In the end it is the poetry—as well as the insights, epiphanies, and deep emotions that inspire it—that forms the core of any haiku group or publication, especially the Haiku Society of America.
We are charged now with a question. Harold G. Henderson, who cofounded the Society with Leroy Kanterman, has said that haiku in English will become what the poets make it. This book is a painting of our haiku path, a record of what American haiku has become today. And yes, nearly six decades after Henderson first predicted the independent development of English-language haiku, here we are—haiku in English has irrefutably come of age. Yet we must not rest. As the Haiku Society of America looks ahead to its next twenty years, we must now ask ourselves, where will the poets take haiku next?
This essay’s question, from 1994, begs an answer in 2010. Before the Internet, the Haiku Society of America was the chief conduit for connecting with other haiku poets in the United States—and beyond. In late 1988, I moved from Southern California (where I lived when I first joined the HSA) to Northern California. I well remember writing to HSA secretary Doris Heitmeyer all the way east in New York City to ask if there was a haiku group in San Francisco. That was the spring of 1989. Her reply changed my life. She connected me with the Haiku Poets of Northern California group that formed in February of 1989, introducing me that year to lifelong haiku friends such as Garry Gay and Paul O. Williams, among many others. But today, of course, no one would write such a letter. They’d just jump online, search the Internet, and be aware—and maybe even connected—in seconds.
But rather than use search engines to connect with local haiku groups, for many people the Internet itself is all they need to build their own haiku community—with all of its many haiku discussion groups, countless haiku-related websites, and social-media pages, plus e-commerce access to more haiku books than you could ever shake a kigo at. The Haiku Society of America simply isn’t as relevant, or even as necessary, as it used to be. It needs to change what it does and what it offers, or its membership numbers will stagnate or fall. A recent reduction in members might be attributable to the economy, but perhaps not. The HSA needs to offer new content or services of significant value that people cannot get online easily or for free.
I love the fact that Amazon.com and other similar sites have made thousands of haiku books readily available to me. Before the Internet, it used to take hours of scouring the shelves of obscure used bookstores to find the occasional gem of a book (ah, Powell’s in Portland, and the old Oriental Bookstore in Pasadena). Many publications are still not available, of course, and many pseudo-haiku publications would be better off if they never saw the light of day (publication has become so much easier with computers and on-demand publishing), but these days the availability of haiku publications easily exceeds the budgets of most haiku poets. Similarly, there are now many dozens of viable haiku journals online, as well as more in print than ever before. Again, with so much content available online for free, the HSA is no longer nearly as necessary as it used to be in connecting poets and providing haiku-related news and opportunities. For that reason, the HSA has needed to reinvent itself for quite some time. It is trying to make changes, such as by having a Facebook page, sending out electronic bulletins, and in other ways, but finds itself, to some degree, still behind the curve, both technologically and socially.
The future of haiku in English has also been engaged recently with a movement towards avant-garde trends in gendai haiku. Gendai simply means “modern,” and in Japan, while it might be foolish to attempt a definition, gendai haiku tend to be more subjective, abstract, and even surreal in comparison to more traditional haiku, even while retaining the form and other characteristics of the genre. This development is a positive sign for haiku in English in two ways. First, haiku poets writing in English are clearly paying attention to contemporary haiku in Japanese, rather than just the old masters, and perhaps for the first time American haiku poets are not decades (or centuries) behind developments in Japanese haiku. Second, such fractioning indicates further growth and maturity in the English-language haiku art, as we are increasingly developing different types of haiku in English. In the magazine industry, because of the difficulties of publishing and distribution, decades ago there used to be mostly just generalist magazines (Reader’s Digest is one of the few such magazines remaining). But over the last fifty years, magazines have become increasingly specialized. This trend does not necessarily indicate a specialization in people’s interests (those were surely present before, even if underdeveloped), but they do at least indicate how changes in technology, especially the printing industry, have facilitated an emphasis on specialization. Computer technology has affected haiku in similar ways, of course, but what’s different is that specializations in types of haiku are somewhat new. For some time in the past, the 5-7-5 vs. not-5-7-5 debate went on among leading haiku poets (it keeps rearing its ugly head today, but mainly among those who are new to haiku or new to the established literary haiku community). Objectivity may well have been a chief focus in the 1980s, and season words gained more attention in the 1990s. More recently, subjectivity and abstraction, thanks to gendai haiku, is gaining more attention. But the gendai development is really the first shift towards a new type of haiku that finally mirrors what has been happening in Japan for several decades. This development is a positive one for English-language haiku because it facilitates greater range, even if some attempts veer into no longer being haiku but just short poems. These changes will hopefully not dilute haiku, but may well enable poets to be attracted to the type, or types, of haiku that most appeal to them. As more types of haiku gain literary credibility, the potential is greater, too, for increasing the size and vibrancy of the haiku community and those who appreciate this poetry.
Other future opportunities for haiku in English include an increasing number of e-books, more and more online interaction, and even video meetings. How about an HSA YouTube channel, with readings, lectures, and instructional videos? An HSA-sponsored list on Amazon.com of recommended haiku books for beginners, or other HSA-branded recommendation lists for books of translation? Or more of an HSA presence on Twitter? HSA anthologies in Kindle, Nook, and iPad versions? Or how about smartphone haiku apps that present winners of past HSA haiku and senryu contests, or smartphone apps that teach haiku to beginners? Technology has so many opportunities that the HSA hasn’t even looked at.
The haiku community, including the Haiku Society of America, could also do a much better job of integrating itself into mainstream poetry through increased publicity and interaction. Why do we not have a greater involvement with Poets House in New York City, or the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, or with such writing centers as The Loft in Minneapolis or the Richard Hugo House in Seattle? Why, for example, has the HSA never had a presence at the West Chester Poetry Conference on formal poetry (where, alas, they have for years been promoting pseudo-haiku, thinking haiku to be merely syllable-counting)? And there are many other events where we should proudly share our knowledge and rich heritage. Haiku poets need to get out of the ghetto they’ve made for themselves. They can do this by being involved in national poetry or literary events such as the AWP conference, MLA and ALA conferences, the Dodge and Skagit River poetry festivals, and many other similar opportunities in addition to West Chester. This has already started to happen, but the potential for growth is still well ahead of us. It will take effort not just from the Haiku Society of America as a whole, but dedicated energy from leading individual members.
But the greatest opportunity, I think, is improved haiku education. This is not just the greatest opportunity, but also the greatest need. The Haiku Society of America and other haiku poets who are concerned about the proper teaching of haiku in English as well as its Japanese antecedents would seem well advised to more intensely harness the Internet to improve the quality of haiku education across the country. Teaching guides, lesson plans, commentary in established literary journals, and other interaction, if focused and intense enough, could go a long way to changing the direction of the haiku ship, steering it towards something more informed than just 5-7-5. Participation at various poetry conferences would help in this regard, but educational needs for haiku lie beyond these conferences as well. Haiku continues to be widely mistaught in schools (in grade school through graduate school) as merely a 5-7-5-syllable poem, which is superficial at best, and at worst disguises or hides the real challenges of haiku, including the use of season words, a juxtapositional structure, allusion, and primarily objective sensory imagery. The urban myth of haiku merely as a 5-7-5 poem is in dire need of correction, and while it might take generations to correct, the Haiku Society of America, if it can muster the focus and resources, is chiefly poised to help facilitate such a change—along with sister organizations such as the Haiku Foundation, Haiku Canada, the British Haiku Society, and the Haiku International Association, among others.
Indeed, most textbooks and curriculum guides continue to be outdated, or focus just on centuries-old Japanese haiku without any awareness of contemporary haiku in English. I’m weary of seeing haiku being referred to with a capital letter, as if it’s a proper noun, or as “haikus”—both marks of the uninformed or the neophyte—yet these errors are useful indications for where more work needs to be done, or at least with whom. It seems that every small-town newspaper or other organization in the United States sooner or later has a contest for “haiku,” nearly all of which are woefully misinformed or superficial, often just jokey. “Popular” pseudo-haiku proliferates North American culture, and hardly anyone with a conscientious literary bent would confuse it with literature, but the general populace continues to believe that these poems are somehow still haiku. If popular misconceptions of haiku can be corrected, better information will provide increasingly fertile ground for the nurturing of strong haiku talent among people of all ages.
The point, of course, is not simply to make haiku into big business, to finance haiku careers, or for those who write haiku to become bigger fish in the poetry pond. Certainly, motives for these changes may include financial, publication, or teaching opportunities for some people, or simply the correction of misinformation among others. But the real motive is that haiku, with a literary aesthetic, provides a unique and effective means of connecting people. It is worth remembering the opening words from the late William J. Higginson’s landmark book A Haiku Handbook (Kodansha, 1989):
The primary purpose of reading and writing haiku is sharing moments of our lives that have moved us, pieces of experience and perception that we offer or receive as gifts. At the deepest level, this is the one great purpose of all art, and especially of literature. The writer invites the reader to share in the experience written about, and in the experience of the shared language itself.
Later in his book, Higginson adds the following:
Being small, haiku lend themselves especially to sharing small, intimate things. By recognizing the intimate things that touch us we come to know and appreciate ourselves and our world more. By sharing these things with others we let them into our lives in a very special, personal way.
I’ve written elsewhere about the value of vulnerability in haiku. The vulnerability that results when sharing haiku is vital to its success. In the act of sharing our haiku, which shows what we notice or what matters to us, we make ourselves vulnerable, and by doing so, we open the door for connection with other people—and not just other poets. By taking the small risk of being vulnerable in our haiku, we make room for other people in our lives, through both reading and writing. Whatever the future holds for haiku, and the Haiku Society of America, if it fails to grasp the central value of sharing and connecting to other human beings through this poetry, then whatever growth and change occurs will have little point.
—2, 8, 10 December 2010, with a few edits on 10 February 2015 and 13 September 2018