First published in Frogpond 14:2, Summer 1991, pages 43–44. As a personal aside, in 2021 I started coediting a haiku journal called First Frost.
First Frost by Zhu Hao, 1990, 96 haiku in Chinese and English, 44 pages, 5¼ by 8½ inches. $5.00 postpaid from AHA Books, P.O. Box 767, Gualala, California 95445.
One would have to be fluent in both Chinese and English to benefit most from this new and original collection of bilingual haiku. Zhu Hao, a 21-year-old student at the Shanghai Drama Institute, has written what the publisher claims is the first book of English-language haiku written by a Chinese person. All 96 poems appear in both languages, sprinkled about the book at the frequency of two to eight poems per page (counting pairs of Chinese and English poems together).
Because I do not know Chinese, I must limit my comments to the English versions of Zhu Hao’s haiku. This trail-blazing haiku book is unique for the simple reason that it is a first: it contains poems in a unique combination of languages. Nevertheless, First Frost is more of a curiosity than a genuine must-have item for one’s haiku library. The written Chinese may have its inherent visual beauty, but if one does not know Chinese, one can approach the book only through the English verses. Given that approach, many of these poems are unsatisfying. Fully more than a third of them suffer from what Paul O. Williams has called “Tontoism”—the deliberate removal of articles to satisfy a rigid syllable count. Consider the following amputee examples:
out of the sea-mist in center of moon
a pale wing of dying bird reflected by still river:
is frozen on beach fish rising to bait
These are not bad haiku, but the lack of choice articles is unforgivably distracting. These poems do not seem effortless (as haiku should); they suffer from being forced into a rigid pattern. At least thirty additional poems suffer from the same weakness to varying degrees. Half a dozen poems all fall victim to padding—the deliberate adding of words to satisfy the same artificial syllable count:
in the snowy night after morning tea
thousands of cranes return south the winter’s sunlight resting
all in my bright dream on grandma’s thimble
In the first of these poems, it would be adequate to say “snowy night— / thousands of cranes return south / in my dream.” The other words are superfluous. In the second example, the definite article in the second line is also unnecessary.
In all cases of padding and tontoism, I can’t help but think that unnecessary concessions were made to the “traditional” 5-7-5 syllable pattern. This makes many of the poems too wordy. They cease to be effortless and “wordless” (to borrow Eric Amann’s term), and they bog down in questions of form. It is hard to appreciate the content when the form alone distracts and blocks further approach. For example, the “snowy night” poem above presents an exquisite image that is unfortunately clouded by the intrusions of rigorous syllable counting. Not all of the poems adhere to the 5-7-5 pattern, however. The following award-winner, for instance, has only eleven syllables, and succeeds admirably:
silent fish . . .
till the petal
As much as I want to enjoy this collection, I continue to find ways to improve it. It is a long first book; perhaps the first way to improve it might have been to winnow out the weaker material. The book could have benefitted from rigorous editing to pare it down to essentials. Also, I keep finding ways to mend individual poems. Consider the following:
sound of a bowstring quivers
in the freezing wind
This is a keenly focused poem, where the tautness of the bowstring compares with the coldness of the wind. But I am disturbed by the lack of agreement between subject and verb: the sound of the bowstring does not quiver! Quivering is a motion, not a sound. If this twist of language is meant to carry our minds into an unexplored nuance of meaning, through synesthesia, then it becomes ambiguous, flirts with mere wordplay, and cuts off its own potential as a good haiku. This may be a subjective reaction, but knowing that English is not the author’s first language, one cannot be confident that the ambiguity is intended. I might revise the poem thus: “archery practice: / a bowstring quivers / in the freezing wind.” An alternative would be to say “quivering” instead of “quivers” in the original poem. Then the image would simply “be” and readers would not have to resort to mental gymnastics to resolve the subject with its verb. Here again, perhaps “sound of” was added to the second line to satisfy the 5-7-5 syllable count.
A few of the 5-7-5 poems do succeed, but for the most part, I find them too wordy and sometimes ungrammatical. Even the author’s short biography (at the end of the book) is not always grammatical. Furthermore, a question mark is missing from the English version of one poem (it’s in the Chinese version). These and a few other problems combine with tontoism and padding to handicap the value of this curious book.
Nevertheless, some will find First Frost to be more than just a curiosity. The book’s value lies in its being the first of its kind. One can only begin to imagine the difficulties involved in learning and writing haiku in English as a non-native speaker. The young author should be congratulated for his efforts. His cross-cultural contribution to haiku should not be underestimated. If you favour haiku with a more “traditional” bent, this is a book for you. But whatever your stance, this book may remind you that we are all young in haiku.
I no longer think that the “silent fish” poem succeeds, let alone admirably. However, perhaps I felt that way because the poem stood out as so much better than the other poems in the book. It is also interesting to see books like this from young haiku writers, and then to consider whether the author has continued to contribute to haiku literature. There seems to be little evidence, both online and in my printed library, of any further persistence with haiku by the author. Zhu Hao has, however, distinguished himself as a fine-art photographer. Given the affinities between haiku and photography, haiku may well have served a good purpose in Zhu Hao’s career.
—19 December 2009