Recognizing Influences: The Unswept Path

First published in Modern Haiku 37:1, Winter–Spring 2006.

The Unswept Path: Contemporary American Haiku, edited by John Brandi and Dennis Maloney. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press, 2005. 222 pages. 5 by 7 inches, perfectbound, ISBN 1-893996-38-7. $15.00. Preface by William J. Higginson. Contains prose and haiku by thirteen poets. Each poet offers words about haiku or their haiku mindset, sometimes in the form of haibun, followed by selections of their haiku.

At the first biennial Haiku North America conference, in 1991, George Swede made a case for the value and need of what he called “elite” haiku anthologies—collections not of a great number of fine poems, such as Cor van den Heuvel’s venerable The Haiku Anthology, but of fewer poets, showing a greater depth of work, that could be held up not only as truly exemplary poetry but as a focus on the poets rather than upon their common genre of poetry. The Unswept Path, a new anthology of “contemporary American haiku,” shows significant depth, but, despite showcasing only thirteen poets, still has a greater focus on breadth. It may be this breadth, its demonstration of the variety of approaches to “haiku,” that keeps it from being the elite sort of anthology that Swede predicted would be valuable to the still-burgeoning haiku community in North America fifteen years ago. Nevertheless, the breadth of this book remains significant, and it serves as a further indication that American haiku is past burgeoning and, as William J. Higginson puts it in his preface, “claims its place as a full-grown member of the family of American poetry.”

Perhaps this maturity comes from variety, and Higginson writes that this book “includes a greater variety of English-language haiku than any other book I can think of.” It lacks the visual/concrete approach to haiku, as well as surreal, avant-garde, political, and social-justice haiku that can be found elsewhere, but the variety here is still astonishing, though some readers may feel that it embraces some work that is less than successful.

Writing separately from the poetry that prevails in the North American haiku community are such voices as Diane di Prima and Michael McClure, both often associated with the Beat era, though still, of course, continuing to write today. Their window into haiku looks out from a different side of the teahouse (or abattoir, if you prefer). One gets a sense, too, that the poems selected for inclusion form a greater percentage of their output in the genre than it does for most other poets in the book. This seems particularly true for Sonia Sanchez, who comes across here and elsewhere as a dabbler in haiku, where many of the poems seem naïve to the full roundness of haiku aesthetics, choosing instead to strike the poet’s self-defined targets for what a haiku is—missing many others that are widely considered more important. But the point of this book, of course, is to show what targets are important to her. The book thereby demonstrates the prediction that Harold G. Henderson made several decades ago that haiku will become whatever the poets make of it. Cid Corman, too, bends the haiku genre to his own needs, not out of ignorance, to be sure, but because poetry in his own voice is a higher calling than fitting a form—believing, too, as I think he did, that forms should be dynamic rather than static to remain vibrant, gaining energy, as he says, by being “a little off track.”

These poets mentioned so far are primarily not haiku poets, whereas the majority of the book’s other writers have written a great deal of haiku, including Margaret Chula, Patricia Donegan, Penny Harter, Christopher Herold, William J. Higginson, and Elizabeth Searle Lamb. Between them sit John Brandi, Steve Sanfield, and Edith Shiffert. Brandi and Sanfield have written haiku for decades, but largely aloof to the English-language haiku community, preferring for many years, even, to call their work “hoops,” using a term other than “haiku” seemingly in deference to how their work differed from haiku in Japanese. By virtue of living in Kyoto, Shiffert would seem to have been more connected to haiku in Japan than in North America. She, like Penny Harter, also writes mostly longer poetry, but Harter’s haiku work exhibits a much closer connection to the aesthetics common to North American haiku. As Shiffert opines of haiku, “There never were any rules, just fashions and preferences,” a useful injunction that points out our own predilections as habits.

What this book is about, ultimately, is influences. Though influences are not overtly apparent from or much discussed by the book itself, informed haiku readers will be sensitive to a sort of similarity in the work of Chula, Donegan, Harter, Herold, Higginson, and Lamb; see a difference but “cousinness” in the work of Brandi and Sanfield, with Corman close behind; and notice another sort of difference in Shiffert. That leaves di Prima, McClure, and Sanchez, probably in that order, as increasingly distant from the prevailing influences upon North American haiku (they may find this distance irrelevant to their haiku, mind you, preferring instead to be closer to or farther from Japanese aesthetics as they see them, to the extent that they differ). The influences that prevail in much English-language haiku run the danger of producing a sameyness in the poems, yet the opposite danger is that receiving too few of the valuable influences that have shaped haiku in English can lead to a bastardization of the genre, a naïve coopting of the genre that does disservice to haiku’s history and aesthetics (witness the nonliterary pseudo-haiku trifles of haiku error messages, Spam-ku, honku, and their ilk). Yet, as Higginson reminds us in the preface, haiku “may have too many faces to appreciate it fully from only one point of view.”

McClure, of course, writes under the influence of Open Form, and if one closes one’s eyes to his centering of words down the page, and the “wordfull” use of capitalized words and other “eccentricities of typography,” as he himself calls them, the images are frequently striking. The poems vary greatly in length, and sometimes lack the two-part juxtapositional structure and overt seasonal reference common to the haiku aesthetic, but there is still something there for the poet that calls him to associate his work with haiku, perhaps at least the idea that he wants readers to approach these poems with a haiku mindset, whether they are “haiku” or not. The visual gimmicks function as his way of making the haiku genre his own. At the very least, these poems are honest with the self, listening closely without prejudice, speaking clearly without emotional censorship, a state of flow akin to jazz. Even more of a jazz riffiness occurs with Sonia Sanchez, who writes with a black vernacular to release moments of poetry and poetry of moments, but it seems that her work is included more for who she is and the specific otherness of the work than for the success of her work as haiku. One can read “Is there a fo rent / Sign on my butt? You got no / Territorial rights here,” and question whether it’s haiku. There are no end of beginners who write in a similar way. It is easy to imagine that she (and perhaps McClure and di Prima) has never read or deeply understood such cornerstone influences as Higginson’s Haiku Handbook and van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology. But the point of this new anthology, so it seems to me, is to make the reader think: Whether a poem is a haiku or not could be asked not just of Sanchez’s work but of any poem in this collection.

But how important should these “cornerstone” influences be? What if they never existed? What if the “Haiku Society of America” school of haiku, if there were such a thing (as has been claimed), had never existed? The haiku community is frequently blinded by an “us” and “them” mentality. If a poet is successful with haiku, the haiku community “claims” that poet proudly if he or she uses “its” aesthetics. If not, then he or she can be rejected, perhaps even scorned for being “naïve,” or not knowing the secret “Henderson” handshake. The haiku community risks ghettoizing itself as a result. While the community craves broader acceptance of haiku in the mainstream poetry world, it seems unwilling to agree to the terms of such acceptance, prompting nonhaiku poets to say, as I once saw in an online poetry discussion forum, that “haiku poets are touchy” (this was said by formalist poet Annie Finch). But perhaps it’s an inferiority complex prompting this defensiveness, and the haiku community is touchy because it believes it is misunderstood or marginalized, yet also believing it has seen the light and that all others are haiku heathen. In contrast, books such as The Unswept Path may signal a maturing out of this inferiority complex, a step towards a mutual acceptance of haiku in the mainstream—with the most necessary step coming from the haiku community itself. As such, it seems significant that this book’s lead editor, John Brandi, sits in a bridge position between the haiku community and those who may be unaware of it. Christopher Herold, for example, would surely have produced a very different anthology, and it is useful for the haiku community to have its assumptions challenged by the fresh perspective provided by this book. If English-language haiku is ghettoized, it is the haiku community itself that has put it there. The world of mainstream poetry has not rejected haiku nearly so much as haiku poets have rejected mainstream poetry, or at least mainstream understandings of haiku. Certainly there is some measure of misunderstanding of haiku by the mainstream poetry world, such as the trivialization that anything in a 5-7-5-syllable pattern is a haiku, or even that the 5-7-5 pattern is relevant in English, but there is also misunderstanding—an excess of limitation—among haiku poets as to what haiku can be, or should be, in English. Some Western haiku poets act as purists (whether they claim it or not), and there is some virtue in that, but not in being puritanical. In Japan, haiku has much more variety and fracturing than the Western haiku community believes it does or wants it to have in English, and The Unswept Path is a cracking open of the door to legitimizing or at least recognizing the variety also evident in English. This book indicates a reaction against puritanicalism, a puritanicalism that the haiku community needs to know that it has.

In the last few years, Modern Haiku has sought to bus poets between the haiku ghetto and the larger city of poetry around it, to take down the ghetto walls. My own journal, Tundra, has also sought to cross-pollinate haiku and other short poetry. Prominent poets such as Billy Collins, Ruth Stone, Gary Snyder, Ted Kooser, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Paul Muldoon, and many others have taken haiku safaris—showing, as William J. Higginson said at the 2005 Haiku North America conference in Port Townsend, Washington, not only that haiku is mainstream, but has been for some time. Whether one likes it or not, journals such as Raw Nervz, too, are saying that haiku need not be as narrowly defined in subject matter as other haiku journals often are. And now The Unswept Path contributes to the conversation by seriously acknowledging a greater variety of voices than ever before. These voices have long existed, but seldom acknowledged like this, if ever. This may, in fact, be a pivotal change.

A less positive thought about the book is its nagging feeling of chumminess. The publisher, White Pine Press, has separately published books by at least Brandi, Shiffert, Chula, and Corman. Chula’s Katsura Press has published Herold. Sanfield is a long-time friend of Brandi. With more research, perhaps other close connections could be found, and while these sorts of selection connections happen all the time in poetry anthologies, the distracting excess raises the question here of whether some people were included because they were handy, of who else could have been included, and why they weren’t. No reason for the selection of these poets is given anywhere. Also, though some of the poets live in Japan, all are American. This limitation fulfills the promise of the book’s subtitle, but are we supposed to believe that the book is representative? And representative of what? For better or worse, we are left to draw our own conclusions. Still, though the book succeeds in providing a deep taste of certain varieties of haiku, perhaps the reader could have been served better if the chumminess were lessened, or the selection process explained. Otherwise, one may wonder why American poets such as John Martone (“vertical” haiku), Chris Gordon (“horizontal” or one-line haiku), Marlene Mountain (political, feminist, and concrete haiku), or even John Dunphy (social activism) were denied the opportunity to provide even greater variety. Allen Ginsberg, if his estate weren’t charging arms and legs for even the briefest of poems, could also have been represented for his haiku variation that he called “American Sentences.” And what about Jack Kerouac’s “pops” as a further variation on haiku that preceded Ginsberg’s? Though space and cost are surely the primary limitations for these omissions, other more centrist haiku writers, too, could have been added to balance poets chosen for the sake of variety. As broad and important as the panorama is here, the picture remains incomplete.

As Lee Gurga puts it in his afterword to Sixty Instant Messages to Tom Moore, the new book of haiku by Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon (could one be more prominently mainstream?), “There is a battle raging for the soul of American haiku.” He defines the battle (or kerfuffle, as the case may be) as being between word-based haiku and image-based haiku. The Haiku Society of America has long been under the spell of image-based haiku, largely thanks to the Zen influence of R. H. Blyth and others, yet this is not the only way. Plenty of image-based haiku are written without regard to Zen, of course, but perhaps the influence of Zen “suchness” has led to this emphasis on image-based haiku in America. In contrast, “Word-based haiku,” Gurga says, “is less lofty in . . . intent,” and exhibits greater fun and creativity with words. Muldoon’s poems certainly fit this style, as do the jazzy vernacular poems of Sonia Sanchez from The Unswept Path, and perhaps also Michael McClure. Occasionally the work of Brandi, Sanfield, and Corman fits here, too. The Unswept Path may not strongly articulate this distinction, but it exemplifies it. If poets reading this book feel inclined to reject some of the word-based haiku, they are revealing their own predisposition to image-based haiku. One has to be conscious of such differences before one can consider accepting them. This book helps to make us aware of the differences. As such, The Unswept Path is an important new haiku anthology—among the most important in the last decade—not just of haiku as it may become, but haiku as it is (whether one likes it or not), embracing word- and image-based traditions by both the haiku community and by mainstream poets. Perhaps, some day soon, there will be no difference at all. The question is, should we fight for this change, or fight against it? Or is even the impulse to fight part of the problem?