Haiku 21 Reviewed

First published in Modern Haiku 43:2, Summer 2012. Originally written in April of 2012. I’ve made some slight changes since original publication, including the correction of a couple of factual errors. One point that this review could have explored more thoroughly is the distinction between “avant-garde” haiku and “gendai” (which just means “modern”). Much of the more experimental work in this book seems to be avant-garde, and some Western readers have assumed that gendai haiku IS avant-garde, when gendai is much broader than just the experimental or surreal. See also “Notes on Gendai Haiku,” an extensive collection of my own notes, responses by others, relevant quotations (pro and con), and selected links.

Haiku 21: An Anthology of Contemporary English-Language Haiku, edited by Lee Gurga and Scott Metz (Lincoln, Illinois: Modern Haiku Press, 2011). 206 pages; 5.5 by 8 inches. Semigloss black card covers with four-color illustration; gray endpapers; perfectbound. ISBN 0-9741894-0-5. Price: $20.00 from the publisher.


Haiku 21 may well have taken inspiration for its title from Haiku for the 21st Century, the bilingual 2008 anthology published in Japan by the Gendai Haiku Kyōkai. Just as the Japanese book represents the leading poets of the gendai (“modern”) tradition in Japan, so too Haiku 21 proports to represent the leading gendai poets writing in English—even though the book claims to focus on poems rather than poets, and not solely on gendai haiku. The subtitle of Haiku 21 says it’s “an anthology of contemporary English-language haiku,” and it doesn’t disappoint, presenting, as it does, more than just gendai haiku as it paints a robust but opinionated picture of the best contemporary haiku published in English since 2000. But perhaps the book could have been bolder if it had focused just on gendai haiku and didn’t diffuse itself with non-gendai work. If nothing else, as the introduction notes, Haiku 21 suggests that “Poets are now equipped with a new, more complete map” of English-language haiku, and that this map is “far more complex and complicated than previously thought.” Indeed, Haiku 21 shows—and this is a point worth celebrating—that contemporary haiku in English is mirroring contemporary haiku in Japan for the first time. English-language haiku is no longer decades—or even centuries—behind.

     If Cor van den Heuvel’s three seminal anthologies had their heroes, this book has its heroes too, and thus marks a sort of changing of the guard. It’s too bad that in the process Richard Gilbert would unnecessarily damn the 1999 third edition of van den Heuvel’s anthology. Gilbert’s blurb on the back cover claims that Haiku 21 is “the most important anthology of English-language haiku to be published in decades”—a point I find disingenuous, if not offensive to van den Heuvel’s anthology. I think also of the White Pine Press anthology of 2005, The Unswept Path: Contemporary American Haiku, which also showed great range, even if one wasn’t fond of it all. As I wrote in 2006 when reviewing The Unswept Path, it was back in 1993 when George Swede declared that what haiku needed was more anthologies that focused on poets rather than poems, to show greater depth in the poetry, and I still think this is true. At any rate, perhaps Gilbert should not be quoted on the back cover when he is praised so fulsomely in the introduction. Whatever the introduction’s false starts and whatever the book’s sometimes glaring omissions may be in its selections, what I find most refreshing are all the new voices, even if too many seem to come from Roadrunner, an online journal published by Scott Metz, one of the book’s two editors.

     The best way to approach this book may be to ignore the introduction and just enjoy the poems. Don’t think about who is omitted (like Cor van den Heuvel [also Christopher Herold, Anita Virgil, and many others]), or the significant influences on North American haiku that aren’t addressed in the introduction, such as the 1995 Haiku Chicago conference and the 2000 Global Haiku Festival in Decatur, Illinois; avant-garde work that James Kirkup did with one-liners in the late 70s; or publications such as Lilliput Review, Hummingbird, and my own Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem that have sought to bring together haiku and other short poetry long before Roadrunner and Noon. Instead, just let the poems please you where they will. Here you’ll find engaging haiku by poets who are featured heavily, such as Fay Aoyagi, Jim Kacian, Peggy Willis Lyles, Marlene Mountain, John Stevenson, and Peter Yovu (we see each of them in a new light), plus newer voices, also featured heavily, such as Metz, Chris Gordon, and Paul Pfleuger Jr. (and if you suspect that gendai haiku in North America is mostly male, I think you’d be right). You’ll find a mix of what the editors call the “New York School” of haiku (presumably haiku under the influence of the New York–based Haiku Society of America and New York–residing anthologist Cor van den Heuvel—although the editors never say this). So, crystal image-moments appear in sufficient number to please those who prefer that approach to haiku. In the mix too are gendai-influenced haiku, including a more “opaque” sort that the introduction—without substantiation—claims is more “interesting.” Whatever your preference, you’ll find it here, and you might enjoy something from one approach or the other even if you normally prefer just one type.

     Haiku 21 claims that Richard Gilbert’s essays, along with Haruo Shirane’s writings, are the chief influences for creating “a new haiku for a new century” in North America. I think the book overstates this influence while ignoring others of equal importance, several of which I’ve already mentioned. In reviewing Poems of Consciousness, Gilbert’s collection of essays on haiku, Allan Burns says in Presence 39 (September 2009) that “One drawback of Gilbert’s approach is that he equates contemporary haiku with avant-garde poetry, effectively ignoring traditional continuities.” Haiku 21, whose subtitle is “an anthology of contemporary English-language haiku,” views “contemporary” more broadly than just “avant-garde.” Otherwise, it too would run the risk of dismissing imagistic haiku in favor of gendai and the avant-garde. As Burns also notes in his review, it is “unfortunate that for Gilbert the project of promoting gendai haiku seems inextricably bound up with tearing down much of English-language haiku up to the present day.” So perhaps a lesson to be learned from Haiku 21 is that gendai haiku does not need to supplant imagistic haiku; they can be complementary. This symbiosis may be the most pleasing feature of Haiku 21.

     Readers, however, may be left with the question of how they feel about gendai haiku. That’s really the fly in the ointment, and although we can acknowledge the virtue of including both gendai and imagistic haiku in the book, I still think a gendai-focused anthology would have been more useful. It would not run the risk of seeming like a cop-out, the same way that labeling all the book’s poems as “ku” (which simply means “verse”) rather than “haiku” is a sort of cop-out, in case some of the poems might “go too far,” as it were (ultimately, I don’t believe it’s helpful to blur the edges of haiku). And we don’t see enough of the gendai approach, or enough discussion of it, to make a real assessment. In his recent article, “Haiku’s American Frontier” (Frogpond 35:1, Winter 2012), Paul Miller does a better job of analyzing gendai haiku and its place in the haiku continuum than we find here. Gendai haiku, too, has quickly generated its own set of clichés and formulas, and I confess that I’m weary of seeing a natural image followed by “all the words I cannot say” or any of a dozen tiresome variations. One danger of gendai haiku is that its opacity sometimes seems too self-involved, to the point of excluding readers rather than embracing them. This causes some gendai haiku (and even some of its practitioners) to come across as arrogant or holier-than-thou, even while I don’t want to believe that. Nevertheless, the opaque creates mystery, and such mystery can engage. As Paul Valéry once said, “The advantage of the incomprehensible is that it never loses its freshness.” On the other hand, Robert Henri wrote, “A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not need to adopt new and startling methods.” Are these conflicting feelings? You bet they are, and Haiku 21 shows English-language haiku to be in exactly such a state of flux.

     Ron Silliman, in a brief review on his blog of 14 March 2012, refers to Haiku 21 as a “fascinating, albeit problematic, collection.” That’s how I feel, yet I continue to come back to the poems. I find myself reading the book with a broader appreciation for the breadth of haiku in English, becoming more aware of habits I myself might have in writing or appreciating haiku in too narrow a way. Yet I cannot help but think of Harold Henderson’s injunction in Haiku in English (1967) that “What kinds of poems they [haiku in English] will eventually turn out to be will depend primarily on the poets who write them,” especially when he goes on to say, “At the same time, they cannot differ too much [from Japanese haiku] and still be haiku.” What we are confronted with in Haiku 21 is the reality that it’s not just haiku in English that’s “differing” or changing, but haiku in Japanese. This sea change may simply leave some poets at sea. It will give others a license to be lazy and think they’re writing gendai haiku. It will leave others in opposition, saying that haiku is being eroded—a distortion ultimately not made by the Japanese but by Western culture influencing Japanese haiku over the century and a half since the Meiji Restoration when Japan’s shores were opened to the West for the first time. At any rate, while the introduction to Haiku 21 raises many questions, any book that raises so many questions is worth our attention.



through the mist

apricot blossoms

     —Steve Addiss