Friends in Haiku

First published as the foreword to the Evergreen Haiku Anthology (Gifu, Japan: Rainbow Press, 2003), edited by Helen Kyle and Ikuyo Yoshimura. Originally written in the spring of 2002. The postscript at the end offers much longer additions (previously unpublished) that were omitted from the final publication, but go into greater depth in exploring the challenges faced by the internationalization of haiku poetry. See also “Problems and Challenges of International Haiku” and “The Matsuyama Declaration: An Annotated Analysis.”

Poets the world over have encountered haiku. Or, if they haven’t already, they surely soon will. The cross-cultural explosion fostered by the Internet in the last decade—the decade that parallels the existence of the Evergreen English-language haiku group—has helped to revolutionize haiku, not necessarily in changing its aesthetics but in bringing new writers and cultures to haiku, haiku to new poets and cultures, and in better connecting all people with an interest in this shortest genre of world poetry. This information revolution has moved beyond computers, too, to affect all haiku poets and organizations to increase international haiku awareness and understanding.

         This sea change in global haiku interaction has taken place in small steps, as simply as one poem at a time. The Evergreen haiku group at Asahi University in Gifu, Japan, is one group actively participating in this change, acting as part of its catalyst. Led by its energetic and visionary founder and R. H. Blyth biographer, Ikuyo Yoshimura, Evergreen celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2001. This anthology is a result of the group’s desire to commemorate the occasion by collecting some of its members’ best haiku from its inaugural decade. The poems are by Japanese poets writing in English, and by expatriate English speakers writing in a Japanese genre. A number of other poets contribute their work from afar, e-mailing their haiku from Canada, the United States, and India. Together, the work is a synthesis of international haiku styles, and the poets influence and reward each other with their varying skill, aesthetics, and friendship.

        While the group is only a small number of poets inclined towards haiku internationalization, it is a significant one, for it serves as a model worthy of emulation. Associate Professor Yoshimura, too, has been an ambassador for haiku internationally by speaking on haiku at various literature and haiku conferences in Europe, Asia, North America, and elsewhere. The seeds that she and her group have planted have, along with other seeds, made admirable contributions to the international sharing of haiku.

        This process of globalizing haiku, however, is not without its challenges. International haiku faces the dilemmas of balancing quality versus participation, the tendency towards homogenization, negative aspects of the democracy of the Internet, and the overarching problem of motive. World peace, for example, is a potential human aim, but not haiku’s aim, for haiku is poetry, not propaganda. Indeed, haiku shows things as the are, not as they might be. Or, as Paul O. Williams has written in The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics (Press Here, 2001), once haiku “becomes a slogan, or a blow struck for justice, the purpose has moved outside the poem, and the poem is made to serve it.” He also says that “haiku must be self-contained,” and that “Its purpose lies within itself.” Likewise, as the late Robert Spiess wrote in one of his “speculations,” “Haiku are no vehicle for preachment or propaganda, even of the noblest kind. They must have appropriate form, freshness of detail, integrity of tone, and especially, relevance to human experience, often involving our relation to outer nature” (Modern Haiku 33:3, Autumn 2002, 93). I believe that even friendship between haiku poets should not be a motive if one is intent on writing haiku as literature.

        So where do these dilemmas leave international haiku, including groups such as Evergreen, and larger groups such as the Haiku International Association, the World Haiku Association, or the World Haiku Club? Evergreen, due to its modest size, is able to concentrate on personal relationships, and it is through individual people that cross-cultural understandings are best facilitated. For Evergreen and for larger international haiku groups, one goal is to focus on poetry, finding the balance between quality and participation while avoiding propaganda and sloganeering. The greater challenge is indeed motive. If the group motive is peace, or something other than poetry, then I believe the poetry suffers. Even if the motive is cross-cultural understanding, the haiku may still also suffer. Only when the motive is to promote haiku itself, I believe, does haiku best benefit.

        While we may ponder these matters as we explore the haiku genre, we can also enjoy the present book, which features the work of the Evergreen haiku group—one of the small international haiku organizations that is steadily and vibrantly furthering the exploration of haiku, one poet at a time, one poem at a time. The group is achieving this aim through each monthly meeting and publication, featuring poems in English from its members in Japan as well as poems sent by distant members. It achieves this aim through its innovation known as a “necklace renku,” which begins with a single starting verse and then splits into two branches—two sides of the necklace—before concluding with a single verse that closes the loop at the end. This book includes several examples of this innovation, and you are invited to try writing them yourself with other poet-friends.

        In January of 2001, I was fortunate to be a guest of Ikuyo Yoshimura, Asahi University, and the Evergreen haiku group. I enjoyed a splendid day of sharing haiku at the university, and visiting the Bashō museum in nearby Ogaki. We also visited Ogaki Castle, and though we reached the castle just after closing time, Associate Professor Yoshimura prevailed on the ticket-seller to let us in, particularly so a curious gaijin could see the castle and enjoy the view from the top. Sharing this moment with members of the Evergreen group and later posing for pictures while mimicking the formal statues in the castle grounds is a treasured memory of my visit with my new poet-friends. It is here where haiku truly becomes international, I believe, for it is here, in sharing a common experience, that haiku poets can come together as friends, writing poetry to the best of their ability. Our kukai earlier in the day was briefly interrupted by a small earthquake, but even then, visiting from San Francisco, it was something I could share with the poets in Gifu. And this, ultimately, is what international haiku is all about—sharing experience, sharing poetry, and sharing friendship. These are benefits unto themselves, and such benefits are separate from haiku as literature, but through haiku we can also receive the personal gift of friendship and love—and the gift that the members of Evergreen offer is particularly engaging. So I invite you into the haiku that follow, because they are poems by poets who are your friends in haiku—or soon will be—and their haiku is a gift of poetry and friendship to haiku poets worldwide.


The following paragraphs from a draft of the preceding foreword were omitted from the final publication of this essay for reasons that I no longer remember, but probably to shorten the essay and perhaps to make it less polemical, political, and discursive. Nevertheless, they offer observations on the challenges of haiku internationalization that are still true today more than a decade after I wrote these paragraphs in the spring of 2002.

This process of globalizing haiku, however, is not without its challenges. International haiku faces a dilemma. It can support quality (which is selective) or participation (which is not selective). It is difficult, though perhaps not impossible, to support both harmoniously. The problem of seeking quality is that it raises the question of whose idea of quality is to be followed. One also has the challenge, in international haiku, of resolving the Eastern master–student relationship with the masterless Western notion of democracy. The problem of seeking participation is that weaknesses in quality are sometimes overlooked for the sake of encouragement and inclusion, especially at this time when some countries and cultures are still new to haiku. Some membership journals (national and international) suffer in quality while promoting participation, leaving beginning readers with insufficient guidance regarding the quality of the poems included. A chief problem facing international haiku, in addition to the challenge of crossing language and cultural barriers, lies in finding a balance between the seemingly irreconcilable goals of quality versus participation. Local and national haiku organizations face this problem, too, of course, but the implications seem to be greater in international haiku, I believe, because the potential for misunderstanding and cultural rifts is greater.

        A second problem in international haiku is one of homogenization. It is natural for poets in any part of the world to gravitate to poems that, though written elsewhere, might be written in the prevailing style of their own region. Yet too often, I think, haiku poets in Japan or Europe are puzzled by a greatly different style of haiku in, say, America or Australia—or vice versa. As a consequence of feeling puzzled, a tendency occurs to reject what is different or what we do not understand, and thus we subconsciously promote homogenization. We owe it to ourselves to take two countermeasures: to make the effort to understand rather than dismiss types of haiku that may initially puzzle us from other parts of the world—to see beneath the surface, especially the surface of translations—and to avoid the tendency towards global homogenization in order to gain acceptance or appreciation for our writing. Haiku that are too regional also have their problems, of course, but to lose the rich colours of regional and national styles and subjects would be a shame. As British Haiku Society President David Cobb has said to me, “The centripetal force in ‘world haiku’ actually runs counter to the force now felt in ‘local or regional haiku,’ which is centrifugal—an encouragement of exploration, innovation, and diversity.” Perhaps it is good for regional and international haiku to balance each other, but never to the extent that the force of one rejects the force of the other, for without balance, modern haiku might well fly apart. A related challenge is that, if we seek to write for an “international” audience (an approach that may promote homogenization), then we seem to claim to know what that audience is. Yet, returning again to comments from David Cobb, he has said to me that it is fine “if one is internationally understood, but not a good idea to aim at it.”

        A third problem facing international haiku is one of motive. If the motive for globalizing haiku is to promote world peace, for example, I believe global haiku will fail. Haiku is poetry, not diplomacy. As British poet Geoffrey Daniel wrote in an essay in The Art of Haiku 2000 (New Hope International), “We will do this precious form of writing no service by making inflated claims for it, and ourselves no good, if we become frozen into one way of seeing, and writing about, the world.” Haiku may have the power to promote world peace, but I believe it should be as a byproduct, not as a goal. As W. B. Yeats once said, “All literature created out of a conscious political aim in the long run creates weakness by creating a habit of unthinking obedience. Literature created for its own sake, for some eternal spiritual need, can be used for politics. Dante is said to have unified Italy. The more unconscious the creation, the more powerful.” David Cobb, speaking at the Global Haiku Festival at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, in April of 2000, where Ikuyo Yoshimura was also a speaker, mentioned a claim made around 1860 that polka would promote world peace, but that now nobody dances it. Claims such as promoting “universal brotherhood” or “world peace” through haiku are too polemical for haiku. Cobb has said that these “tall claims [for haiku] actually prejudice haiku’s chances.” William J. Higginson has written to me that “turning art toward non-art aims is commonplace, and not to be denied as a useful employment for art, so long as that does not become its primary justification.” Moreover, as Cobb has emphasized, “The essence of haiku is to show things as they are, not how they might be—and ‘world peace’ is a case of ‘might be.’” Emiko Miyashita, another prominent catalyst for the international cross-pollination of haiku, has told me that “people in Japan are likely to think peace can be achieved by going back to and sympathizing with nature, and are not likely to think that peace is something one has to fight for.” She says that, “What we learned from World War II was that fighting cannot bring peace on earth.” This may explain why Japanese airports have prominent signs that say “May peace prevail on earth,” whereas American or European or other airports tend not to have such signs. And with haiku, too, this genre of poetry may be seen by some as a replacement for fighting as a means to promote world peace. But as I and others have said, if this is its aim, then haiku can easily degenerate into propaganda. Too often a missionary ardour pollutes haiku globalization. Better to let people be attracted to haiku if they want to be; better to promote haiku by attraction than proselytization. So again, balance is needed—and not easily found. A better motive, I believe, is to promote improved cross-cultural understanding or simply friendship rather than world peace. This is at least more realistic. But even here, these ideals are better as a byproduct of international haiku, not goals.

       To some degree, I think, we believe nature to be peaceful, and may feel that haiku, because it is so often about nature, will therefore foster world peace. This is something Emiko Miyashita suggests about the Japanese approach to peace. The truth is that nature is sometimes ruthlessly violent, yet how often do we write about nature’s dark side? On this matter I recall a poem by Shūji Miya (1911–1986), here in Makoto Ueda’s translation from Modern Japanese Tanka (Columbia University Press, 1996):

                jojoni jojoni kokoro ni narishi omoi hitotsu shizenzai naru heiwa wa arazu

                slowly inside me

                a thought has hardened

                into a belief

                world peace will never

                be nature’s gift

        In recent years, books and anthologies of war haiku have been published in various countries, notably Croatia. In the lesser collections, notably not Croatia’s, some of the poems have veered into the polemical, as in Patrick Blanche writing “men are crazy about making war,” or Thomas Hemestege writing “tell Death about the dreams of all dying men” (both quotations here from Martin Berner’s Sommergras—Summer Grasses [Minimart-Verlag, 1999]). Better to write war haiku without dogma, as Lenard Moore writes:

                midday heat

                soldiers on both sides

                roll up their sleeves

        Likewise, the Japanese haiku masters have written about the dark side of nature and of human nature; they have not excluded topics of war, from Bashō’s “summer grasses— / all that remains / of warriors’ dreams” all the way to the present. At the close of the nineteenth century, Shiki was assigned as a war correspondent in China. In April of 1895, he wrote no polemical poems against the war (as far as I know), but instead wrote poems such as the following, in Burton Watson’s translation from Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems (Columbia University Press, 1997):


                nashi saku ya ikusa no ato no kuzure-ie

                Pears in bloom—

                a wrecked house

                left from the battle

Shiki makes no overt comment on the ills of war, but simply implies that the home’s occupants have left or perhaps have died or been killed, yet still the pears bloom. Though the family that lived there is not able to enjoy the pear blossoms, nature still flowers—and maybe, too, nature still triumphs over war. The purpose is to show this nature, in all its indomitable continuity. Even when this beauty is in contrast to war, and thus may have the reverberation of promoting peace, it is still the aim of haiku to show what is, not what might be.

        In 1995, the University of Hawai‘i Press published Heiwa: Peace Poetry in English and Japanese, a collection of haiku and tanka on the theme of peace. Poetry can certainly be written on this theme, and sometimes very well, but world peace is a potential human aim, not haiku’s aim. Haiku, again, is poetry, not propaganda. Or, as Paul O. Williams has written in The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics (Press Here, 2001), once haiku “becomes a slogan, or a blow struck for justice, the purpose has moved outside the poem, and the poem is made to serve it.” He also says that “haiku must be self-contained,” and that “Its purpose lies within itself.” Even friendship between haiku poets should not be a motive if one is intent on writing haiku as literature.

        A further problem facing international haiku—and all haiku, even without an international influence—is the democracy of the Internet. While the increasing democracy of haiku worldwide is laudable, its democracy on the Internet is less so because too many voices are uninformed yet heard on an equal plain to those that are more reliable. This is because, on the Internet, the burden of selectivity and editing shifts from editors and publishers, who are mostly professionally reliable, to readers, who may be less well equipped to assess the material in front of them, or may not even realize that they need to assess it or question its reliability. With the easy proliferation of unedited and sometimes uninformed Web sites about haiku online, the reader must take on an increased responsibility to assess the material he or she encounters. While skepticism is worthwhile in reviewing all information, skepticism is particularly necessary with Internet commentary. Since haiku internationalization is partly fueled by the Internet, haiku poets online—especially those new to haiku—must be vigilant in assessing the history, aesthetics, and opinions they encounter online regarding haiku, as well as the quality of the haiku themselves.