Volume 1, Number 2, August 2003

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About Simply Haiku



Susumu Takiguchi


Susumu Takiguchi - Interview By Robert Wilson

Q) When did you first start writing haiku?

A) Oh, that's quite an ancient history! My mother's uncle, Nao Kataoka, was a student of Kyoshi (1874-1959). Nao lived in Suginami, north-western Tokyo and held kukai frequently at his house with Kyoshi. As was customary in the Japan of those days for a young girl of a good family to become a lady of accomplishments through study, my mother stayed at her uncle's home to learn. As Nao studied haiku under Kyoshi, he handed down the master’s teachings to my mother. My father wrote haiku also, and together they interested me in the genre when I was a little boy in the most traditional and orthodox sense. That is how it all started, now over half a century ago.

When I was in my fifth and sixth years of primary school, I became engrossed in reading Meiji Era novels, including those by Koyo, Soseki and Ogai. Other literary genres such as tanka and haiku captivated my interest as well. Being exposed to an enormous amount of excellent haiku at this tender age probably formed the basis of my understanding and writing of haiku. This included my appreciation of the life style or view of life of these novelists. For instance, in my view, Soseki, a university professor and a top novelist by profession, was haiku itself: playing the fool in a Shakespearian manner; in spite of his keen intellect and top scholarship, he showed an excellent sense of humour; yet he was most serious and even melancholy in his spiritual search. He maintained a somewhat detached and even superior air, or transcendental pose of an artist or poet, while yet being very human with a lot of foibles. He was known to be irritable and short-tempered, while at the same time, he sought peace of mind through Zen and other avenues.

Q) Who has had the greatest influence on you in your writing and why?

A) You might expect me to say Basho, and that is, in a sense, true. After all, as an academic I conducted my research into Basho. Or, you might expect me to say Shiki, since I have done an extensive study of him, and through WHC, organised events for a two-year commemorative, which celebrates the centenary of his death. However, if I really think about
it, it has to be Kyoshi who has had the greatest influence on my writing. When I wrote an introductory book on Kyoshi in English (the first of its kind and to date, the only book on him outside Japan), I wrote to the effect that we should now be saying "the Five Greatest Haiku Masters", instead of four: Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki and Kyoshi. Six years on, I couldn't be stronger in this conviction.

You see, in the ilk of traditional haiku, Kyoshi's followers count millions. However, they are just that -- disciples. Not yet has a single figure emerged who surpasses Kyoshi. Among factions in the opposite camp to Kyoshi, namely various schools of vers libre haiku, and taking all factors into consideration, no one comes anywhere near the stature of Kyoshi. Of course, we may need another hundred years or two before history could prove Kyoshi to be one of the five greats; but in our time, haiku has been advancing, in terms of the number of poets and of various developments, many times over, compared with pre-Meiji (1868-1912). In the scheme of things, our ten years may perhaps be tantamount to a hundred years in Basho's time. Shiki was great. Kyoshi, however, is at least his equal. That Kyoshi should be one of the five greats, therefore, seems to me to be a foregone conclusion.

Quite apart from my family connection with Kyoshi, his haiku poems and teachings became part of my fabric in my early days. This was not only due to reading his works and writings, or of episodes about him, but also through such things as the famous saijiki (kigo dictionary) he compiled -- and through poets of my acquaintance who had a thorough knowledge and understanding of Kyoshi. In contrast to his rivals or detractors who were, in a way, too much infatuated with their own schools of thought (i.e. in love with themselves), the fact that he began as a novelist gave Kyoshi his detached and objective views on haiku. You see haiku is all about such mild detachment or gentle objectivity, which makes it distinct from other forms of literature, especially from tanka poetry.

Oppositions to Kyoshi's standpoint concerning haiku gave him a chance to consolidate the traditional school into a comprehensive corpus of haiku in both theory and practice. This was something new, unprecedented. Compared with this vast citadel of better-defined and coherent school of thought, past masters including Basho, Buson or Issa were in fact much freer. What this amounts to, one might say, is that traditional haiku had been in the process of being developed until Kyoshi arrived at the scene, consolidating all previous efforts, which spanned over three hundred years. Kyoshi's followers are enormous in number, belonging to numerous haiku clubs and societies, with Hototogisu and Tamamo at the apex. They call themselves "classical haiku" groups, and they are arguably more traditional, conservative and
prescriptive than perhaps Basho himself.

We, at the World Haiku Club, have created a small and special forum with limited membership to form an equivalent group outside Japan to the "classical haiku" school which Kyoshi founded. It is called "WHChaikuneoclassical", and its members are endeavouring to write those haiku poems and developing those rules/definitions/conventions which could be the "equivalent" to the Japanese cousin. It is hoped that this group will one day become a centre of excellence, where traditional haiku of the truest sense possible can be learnt, written and enjoyed outside Japan.

Q) You are the founder of the World Haiku Club and it's literary Journal, the World Haiku Review. What role are they playing in the internationalization of haiku?

A) First, please let me rephrase your question. Yes, I am the founder of the World Haiku Club itself. However, there is another person who created and developed the World Haiku Review, the Club's comprehensive, world-wide magazine, together with me. And that is Debra Woolard Bender (Debi Bender) from Orlando, Florida, USA, who is its Editor-in-Chief.

Now, would you like non-controversial diplomatic niceties for an answer to your question, or a sincere, heartfelt and passionate heart-to-heart -- or, putting it another way, "I must be cruel, only to be kind"?

R. H. Blyth first used the phrase "world haiku", which probably is a little known fact. Some six years ago, when I was convinced that the time was ripe for the phrase to have a world-wide circulation, I began preparations for the World Haiku Festival, which now has become synonymous with, and "copyright" name of, the World Haiku Club (WHC), and under which, technically, all WHC activities are held across the world. The largest of these include World Haiku Festival 2000 London & Oxford, Masaoka Shiki Centenary Celebrations in 2001 and 2002, World Haiku Festival 2002 Yuwa, Akita & Oku-no-Hosomichi, and now the World Haiku Festival in Holland, to be held 12-14 September 2003 in Leeuwarden, Provincie Friesland.

I don't suppose you would wish me to say the kind of thing you have already heard thousands of others say. Likewise, you may not like to hear sanitised and neutralised remarks either. Nowadays, few question the validity of the phrase, "world haiku," but when I first began to circulate it, I was met with an extreme form of derision, fierce opposition and even "character assassination". These same people who committed such unacceptable conduct for a long time now clamour to be recognised as champions of "world haiku", or even worse, as the
originator who coined the phrase in the first place. Although it is perhaps unnoticed by the unsuspecting, a corner of our haiku community is a rotten place where haiku undesirables lurk and do mischief in the dirtiest and most un-haiku-like manner. Much worse, some disguise themselves under the cloak of respectability when they come out of such a shady place. Through them have appeared pirated editions, imitations and copycats. All sad, destructive and unnecessary, but true.

The World Haiku Club, the World Haiku Review and all the activity done under the umbrella of these two comprehensive names in the real/ physical world and the virtual/Internet world is, in a nutshell, a haiku reform movement. In a sense, WHC can be said, not even to be an organisation as such. This is an important point to remember when understanding our aims. It is more like a constantly evolving and developing organic entity that feeds on actual activities rather than an office, red tape, bureaucracy, paper work or committee politics. One activity creates another, which leads to a third and so on. The whole dynamic and complex combination of activities form a world-wide creative network of haiku poets, like many stones which are thrown into an ocean of inspiration, imagination and creativity. Ripples expand, meet, interact, and merge, becoming waves of haiku events and meetings in different parts of the world. These creative ripples and inspirational waves are WHC's true essence, and they consist of individual haiku poets with their own originality, sensibility and
aspirations, not of committee rooms nor organisational rivalry.

Now for the real nitty-gritty. Like humans, haiku also needs regular health checks, so that it does not become too rigid, slack, tired, sick or develop cancers. Oftentimes, haiku poets tend to be liable to be cliquish, stifling, over-precious, zealous and narrow or closed-minded anyway. Unless we are very careful, haiku theories, rules and conventions always risk becoming sterile, repetitive, restrictive and dogmatic. Throw negative haiku politics into this pot, and you get a revolting, rotten haiku stew. Out of the pot come all manner of self-appointed haiku teachers, preachers and even delinquents or "terrorists" who spread their masters' rot before the dish is even fully cooked. The results are food poisoning of misguided
conventions, ill-advised rules or dogmas, or at least half-baked mediocrities or insipid platitude. Not a few rise to the status of haiku tribal chiefs, with blind or brain-washed followers who worship them. These spread questionable haiku conventions and works as gospel, lowering the general standards and quality by terrorising or duping others.

This is a result of forgetting at least two cardinal rules of practicing haiku: respect for standards and quality, and modesty or humility in one's approach to things. For certain, everybody is not like that, but in order to save haiku from such maladies and restore its vigour, growth, strength, value and health, we need to challenge essentially all established or establishing conventions to see if they are really as fine as their guardians would have us believe. Ironically, this health-check is especially critical when a particular convention is believed by many or most to be true and thus, never questioned.

Thus, we need a change of air, fresh fruit, clean water, good food and medicine. We need new talent, fresh beginners and outside influences. If, after such a critical review, a particular convention proves correct, then, it would not only be issued a clean bill of health but also vindicated its value, thus proving its genuine chance of becoming a lasting haiku canon (what Basho called "fueki"). If not, we just keep on improving, changing or discarding it. That is all. Simple. Really, no big deal. Still, once established as conventions, those with vested interests will cling to them and the blind just follow them. Haiku skirmishes and wars are often fought over them as people confuse their self-interests with what really is good for haiku.

No convention can be perfect forever, nor free from critical scrutiny. Such is the kind of reassessment and reappraisal which WHC is proposing to the world and practicing within itself. Thus, we have questioned and will continue to question various conventions such as "The Haiku Moment", definitions of senryu, excessive emphasis on Zen, lack of sense of humour in haiku, blanket dismissal of kigo and many other widely accepted rules and conventions.

However, our efforts are not to attack or disown these conventions nor their proponents, but rather to unlock the doors of prison cells, liberating haiku into free air, space and inspiration toward other possibilities. We are, in fact, on their side. Here lies the secret of the "world haiku" we discussed above. The whole point of WHC lies in this phrase since its seat of reference is "the world", its theatre is "the world", its audience is "the world", its beneficiaries are "the world". It serves "the world", rather than an individual or a group of individuals; or a province or nation; or a cultural, linguistic and ethnic group; or a particular school of thought. Other groups are serving the latter and themselves, or sometimes a single person. In this way, WHC tries to avoid becoming self-serving, or favouring particular individuals, organisations or even nations to the exclusion of others.

WHC tries to transcend national, cultural and linguistic barriers with which normal organisations are afflicted. In this way, WHC is fundamentally different from any other organisations, or at least trying to be. It would, therefore, be barking up the wrong tree if someone came to WHC's neck of the woods and complained that things were different here. If we are not different, there is in fact little point of having WHC in the first place. There are too many similar haiku societies and organisations, like identical beach huts or EU-regulated

We are doing our own things within our WHC woods for ourselves and also for anyone else in the world who wishes to benefit from what we are doing. We leave other woods alone, although we basically maintain good relations with other individuals and organisations. So, we are different, we have made it our job to be different, and our wishes are to make a difference in the world haiku community even in a small way.

In the end, the world which WHC serves is haiku in its ultimate sense: WHC serves haiku, itself. There, for WHC, the haiku world and world haiku would become one. This would not be possible if we were a regional or even a national organisation, or an organisation in the normal sense of the term (see above). Most importantly, the haiku WHC serves is not some kind of a monster such as globalised haiku or homogenised international haiku or standardised supermarket haiku or artificial haiku manufactured by the world haiku machine. Firstly, there can be no such thing, nor should there be. Secondly, no averaging or standardisation should be imposed on anyone or any school of thought.

On the contrary, the haiku WHC serves is the most original and individualistic type of work possible: the product of individual thought, sensibility and imagination, coming from personal experience, emanating from native and local soil and cultural and linguistic background. Ironically and somewhat contrary to the possible impression its name may give to a hasty observer, WHC endorses and encourages diversity, originality and differences. WHC is a meeting place for those diverse poets from different parts of the world to interact, exchange, converse, learn from each other, help each other and become friends -- binding people's hearts and minds through haiku. This is summed up in the four mission statements of the World Haiku Review:

and charting
our future

A celebration
of diversity,
and local

and new talent

... thus

WHC wishes to include all nations, cultures and languages, but we can only progress one step at a time. We encompass many nations and cultures, but language-wise, there is much more to be done as this is a technically difficult area. Our bi-lingual fora include Spanish/English, Italian/English, French/English, Russian/English and, of course, Japanese/English. In this connection, we are especially mindful of the importance of bridging the lamentable and serious gap between Japan and the rest of the world.

I, myself, am a Japanese national, but have lived half of my life in Japan and the other half in the West. I know good things and not so good things about both. Each country means a lot to me and are equally important. In order to be of some use at all to both, I have long decided to try to be two additional things, while keeping my original cultural identity: firstly, what may be termed as a "world person", and secondly, a "very individual person". Both are extremely difficult to achieve, but neither is impossible. I call upon my fellow haiku poets to join in this exercise which I can assure you is worth pursuing.

These are some of the most important aspects of the role we wish to play at WHC in the internationalisation of haiku. Whether or not it is working is for other people and history to decide.

Q) What makes a good haiku?

A) This is the hardest question to answer. Though I have created a broad church at WHC and encourage all schools of thought in haiku, including the most radical ones, I myself, was trained in Japan in strictly traditional haiku. So strong is that influence on my whole being, that
whatever views I express on haiku, I have the traditional haiku firmly as the basis of my assertion, comments or appreciation. In that sense, I am bound to mention "hai-i" (haiku idea), "hai-mi" (haiku flavour) or "haiku-no-kokoro" (the soul and heart of haiku), all of which is normally called outside Japan "haiku spirit", as by far the most important prerequisite of a good haiku. It may sound too harsh but if a poem hasn't got this, then it may not be a haiku -- or certainly not a good one.

"Haiku-no-kokoro" defies definition.This is the main reason why non-Japanese, especially Western, poets find it so difficult to understand it, let alone exercise it (there seems to be a faint commonality between the Japanese sensibility in this regard and that in Asian countries). Relating to a special frame of mind or "feeling" which makes one take a slightly different view of things (call it "haiku view"), it is a somewhat detached, slightly "tangential" or mildly "jaundiced", "twisted" or "sideway" view. It is looking at things through glasses of a sense of humour, modesty and detachment. One cannot explain it in English, either because there are no English words or expressions which have the same meaning, or one doesn't have enough vocabulary for it. It is more likely to be the case of the former (in essence, "detached", "tangential", "jaundiced", "twisted" and "sideway" are all wrong, or insufficient words).

This has been the greatest hindrance to non-Japanese, especially Western poets, in trying to write good haiku, or any manner of haiku at all. It is why so many haiku poems which get showering applauds outside Japan, sadly, just haven't got it, in my eyes. It is also the reason why some of the haiku poems which I praise go unnoticed or unappreciated. It is a huge topic, as it represents a big chunk of Japanese literature, arts and life, or perhaps, more to the point, woeful lack of it outside Japan. This topic would need a book, if not more, to be discussed fully.

Having said that, there is yet a hope, a definite hope. First and foremost, haiku poems written by children often possess this "haiku-no-kokoro". For them, it is a question of not losing it as they grow up. Secondly, beginners and the uninitiated, again, often demonstrate that they have got it. Thirdly, and somewhat understandably those non-Japanese who are born, bred, or live for a long time in Japan, or study Japan professionally as academics or delve into Japanese culture deeply and extensively (not as a superficial or frivolous exoticism) have a good chance of acquiring "haiku-no-kokoro". Finally, some lucky ones just happen to possess it somehow. These people are natural. The only thing they have to be on their guard is to lose it by reading too much do's and don'ts on haiku.

If "haiku-no-kokoro" cannot be transmitted from Japan to other cultures in the world, then we might as well leave haiku to children, beginners and the very few "naturals" to enjoy, while we, ourselves, forget about it. Otherwise, we might simply and humbly accept that the "haiku-no-kokoro" is unavailable to us and instead, set about creating a new form of poetry (whether called haiku or not) which is modelled on haiku -- but not haiku itself -- and see if this form is viable and has any literary merit. This seems to me to be what is happening in many parts of the world. In itself this is a worthy thing, and no mean feat.

And if we are neither children nor beginners, and still wish to explore "haiku-no-kokoro", then, the only effective way is to try to take the long and arduous journey of learning Japanese culture in the right way. There really is no other way. I believe this is not only possible, but desirable (Otherwise, I wouldn't have created WHC!). Desirable, because one never wastes anything by learning other cultures -- Japanese culture included. Only, if one's interest in Japanese culture is shallow and superficial, then one's haiku is likely to be so as well. If it is deep, one's haiku can be deep as well.

All this may sound obvious, but few put it into practice, and all the while it is affecting their haiku -- sometimes in an overt way and other times only in a subtle way. Someone who has actually eaten persimmons at Nara, or seen them in Kyoto or Tohoku, as some WHC members have done, his/her haiku feelings would be different next time he/she reads Shiki's persimmon haiku. Someone who has climbed those one thousand plus rock steps at Yama-dera (Ryushaku-ji) will know what Basho was talking about in his cicada poem.

One last thing to be mentioned on this topic is that there actually are good haiku-like poems around, and that if they acquire just one more vital quality, i.e. "haiku-no-kokoro", they will become really good haiku.

There are many other factors which can make good haiku. However, rather than writing a few hundred words about each, it might be more useful if I were to explain some of the points I keep in mind when judging haiku in a competition or kukai. I am currently in the early stages of compiling a new world haiku anthology, which is a collection of (only and strictly) those haiku which I think are either truly good, or which I personally like very much, or both. The following include some of the criteria I am using for this (they are similar to the guidelines in my book, KYOSHI -- A HAIKU MASTER):

(1) Has something new (new subjects; a new way of looking at old subjects; new inspiration, words or phrases, expressions etc.)

(2) Has something original (similar to "newness", but is more to do with the author's "own thing". This is where the real talent lies. Try to avoid imitating others)

(3) Has something of a surprise (again similar to "newness", but has the power to wake people up to a new way of looking at things. Who would wish to read predictable haiku or clichés?)

(4) A product of true, profound and strong feelings, either real (preferable) or in imagination (They will show. One wouldn't have these feelings 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Do not fake; do not be a copycat)

(5) Has something to say (Not thought or moral opinion, as haiku is not philosophy. Rather, a haiku should have something interesting to say in the "haiku language". Otherwise, it would become "So what?" haiku, or a statement of the most obvious)

(6) Is intelligible without a struggle on the reader's part (It is often said by masters in Japan, "few haiku are good that need to be read twice")

(7) Incorporates good words in good order(Coleridge's"the best words in the best order" should be aimed at, but "good words in good order" would do. Even an excellent phrase, alone, would help)

(8) Is not stripped of essential words and natural parts of speech simply for the sake of paring down for brevity (More often than not in doing so, the haiku loses depth, layers, clear meaning or intended effect. The minimalist's scissors do more harm than good)

(9) Has good rhythm (not necessarily that which is created by Western poetic device such as rhyme. Read the haiku aloud and adjust the words and phrasing to get the right rhythm. Haiku should create its own rhythm as opposed to a sonnet, for instance)

(10) Is composed to give a sense, or feel, of brevity (rather than imposing minimalist doctrines), which is the most important thing in terms of the length of haiku, rather than resorting to such measures as syllable counting.

(11) Incorporates elements from various other branches of art, such as musicality, pictorial feel, spatial relationship (per sculpture) or performance (dance, balance, movement); engages all our senses: smell, colour, sight, tactile sensations, taste, sound, 3D, light/darkness, contrast, depth; touches our emotions, such as disgust, joy or sadness etc.

(12) Any particular haiku (or, in process of writing, that which is to be made into a haiku) should be given the "right to decide its own future". What this means is that each haiku (to be) is different, unique and special in terms of the subject matter, time, situation, the author's mood etc. We should, therefore, treat each haiku differently each time, rather than imposing predetermined length (syllable count or whatever), or focusing on so-called rules about other considerations such as line order, punctuation, "layers", metaphor, anthropomorphosis, present or past tense, gerunds etc. Each haiku (if other conditions are right) will be able to determine its own rhythm, length, balance, choice of words and all other fundamental requirements, and to form itself into a haiku. Give it a lot of freedom -- let it become haiku by
itself (If it doesn't, let it be thrown into the dust bin). That is why it is sometimes said that good haiku are not written, but born.

(13) Haiku kept as haiku. Haiku is different from tanka or senryu, or anything else. Tanka is not haiku plus two more lines. Haiku is not tanka minus two lines. Senryu is not quite how it is defined in the West. In fact, the combined definitions of haiku and senryu in the West approximate haiku itself.

The two definitions purporting to distinguish the two genres, haiku and senryu, seem, on balance, to have done more harm than good to both of them. In other words, the West could be better off if it threw senryu away out of existence, as some assert, notably Jane Reichhold. Haiku should retain its essential characteristics, such as a sense of humour, some feeling of detachment, worldliness, humble objects, mundane events etc. Haiku has been made too serious in the West for its own good, and this seriousness alone seems to have been made the dominant feature of haiku and haiku poets, with consequences which are not always in the best interest of haiku or poets who write them.

Such observations are additional to all other things which are widely said about good haiku, but they are especially important in my case.

In this interview, I have been intentionally critical and provocative, as I believe world haiku has reached the stage where it would benefit hugely from a jolly good shaking-up for the good of haiku -- and for the good of those who are genuine in their love for the art and in their pursuit of better haiku. World haiku is in the state of flux and confusion; thus it stands in desperate need of good sorting-out and reform. I believe in the direction that WHC has chosen to take, and would welcome with open arms any like-minded poet who would share the same purpose and values. [end]

Susumu Takiguchi
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