Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6

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A Western Kinsman of Haiku:
an Interview with Alan Pizzarelli
by Michael McClintock

MMcC: Back in the 60’s and 70’s, you were involved with the earliest days of haiku in English, Alan. What writers and poets most turned you toward haiku? What attracted you to haiku in the first place?

AP: The first time I ever heard of haiku was when someone read through a notebook of poems I was writing and said “Oh, you write haikus!” Up until then, I had naively thought I had invented the form (laughs). As a musician in my early teens, I was more familiar with the poetic lyricism of Bob Dylan than the poems of Dylan Thomas or poetry in general for that matter, much less haiku. So, for me haiku came instinctively. Then, in ’68-’69, when I worked at the Newark Star Ledger, I was introduced to lyric poet and punster Louis Ginsberg (father of Allen Ginsberg), and we became good friends. At the time, Louis had a regular column of his original puns in the paper called “An O-Pun Mind”, with puns such as:

Poets are born not paid, but a woman’s bills are his stock and trade.


Is life worth living? That depends on the liver.

So, I started writing humorous poems with that kind of brevity as well, little observations portraying the human condition, which I later discovered were of a genre called senryu. When I first read the books by R.H. Blyth and H.G. Henderson, I was startled with the similarity between what I was writing and that of the Japanese poets.

Henderson’s Haiku in English listed a few haiku magazines and in 1970, I sent some of these poems, a number of them one-liners, to Haiku Magazine, edited by Eric Amann in Canada, and he sent me back these little pink slips of paper that said “great!, send more---[signed] Eric.” Then, around 1972, he handed down Haiku Magazine to Bill Higginson, who was then residing in Paterson, N.J. Bill liked my work and invited me to the Asia House in New York, for a meeting of the newly formed Haiku Society of America. I remember, Cid Corman was there at the first meeting I attended. I wrote a poem about it:

What I learned from Cid Corman

............................I met you Cid Corman, the Asia House Manhattan 1971.
............................We sat next to each other,
............................& talked about moxa
............................& the small spaces in Japan.
............................You said:
............................"this moment, this
............................unique occasion, as every occasion -- we meet together,;
............................we shall never meet
............................together again"
............................-- and y’know, Cid Corman
............................I never did see you again.

Next thing I knew, I was studying under the tutelage of Henderson himself in ’71-’72, at the Asia House and Japan House in New York. I also found kindred spirits there in poets such as Anita Virgil and Cor van den Heuvel who became lifelong friends and colleagues.

MMcC: What kind of art is haiku? What kind of literature?

AP: What makes haiku poetry a unique and powerful poetic genre, is that it allows for the reader’s creative participation in the poem’s experience. The poetic form is what makes that possible in conjunction with the poet’s keen perception. That is what makes a great haiku resonate. Anyone can be taught to write in the haiku form, but not everyone has a poetic perception.

MMcC: How do you go about writing your haiku? What method do you use?

AP: I always write haiku from direct observation. It is the most authentic and original source. The essence of haiku, is the actual experience of that here and now moment, as opposed to mere imaginative contrivance. The sharp vivid details perceived in reality are often clouded otherwise in imaginative consciousness. Almost all of the poets I’ve talked to about this admit that their best haiku were composed from a direct observation. Check your own poems, O readers, the results are telling.

In the tradition of J.W. Hackett and Jack Kerouac, who listed their suggestions for the writing of haiku and Spontaneous Bop Prose -- I have assembled my own list of 18 essential techniques [quoted from text supplied by AP]:

Belief & Method for Haiku poetry:
1. The essence of haiku, is the veritable here & now eternal moment in Nature.
2. The actual haiku moment, is the sand that makes the pearl of haiku.
3. Write from direct observation of moment perceived.
4. Don’t just read the road map, take the journey.
5. Avoid poetic devices such as simile, personification & metaphor.
6. Be a Thoreau of language: Simplicity renders complexity.
7. Never use any unnecessary word.
8. Each moment is a thing-in-itself and should be treated as itself. Content = Form.
9. Allow syllables & line breaks to groove with each poem‘s own organic rhythm.
10. Do not forsake the suchness of things for mere contrivance:
11. No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place.
12. Poetic suggestion & reader’s participation are the sun & rain
that blossom the haiku flower.
13. Seasonal aspects will reveal themselves through juxtaposed imagery.
14. Eat a lot of persimmons -- it worked for Shiki.
15. Be sure your words convey the moment as-it-is. Right word is best word.
16. All haiku are written spontaneously, some just take longer than others.
17. Does it resonate?
18. Remember Kerouac’s paraphrase: Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.

MMcC: How is haiku in English different from that of Japan?

AP: Well, Japanese has a radically different syntax for one thing. You must understand that I do not speak the Japanese language unless I am very, very drunk. But I am familiar enough with the language to know that it has a lot of ambiguity, which is why, in part, the Japanese poets are more reliant on a saijiki (an almanac of seasonal topics and words) than are western poets. The Japanese haiku place a strong emphasis on seasonal reference. Cor van den Heuvel and I recently had a discussion about this. As you may know, Cor and I enjoy writing baseball haiku and senryu. When I asked him why the Japanese baseball haiku are uncommon, regardless of the enormous appeal of the sport in Japan, he informed me that the Japanese saijiki only has one season word for baseball, “naita”, which means “night game”, whereas in the English language the seasonal references for baseball can include Spring, Summer or Fall. Our seasonal reference also depends on the poem or experience at hand. Sometimes the poem calls for a very subtle seasonal reference or in some cases not at all. Also, there are some Japanese poets who use poetic devices such as simile. That’s disallowed in Western haiku. What’s confusing is that the Japanese define the genre by the poet, rather than define the genre by the genre. Go figure. The fact is, the average person in Japan does not even know what a haiku is.

MMcC: Some have suggested we went wrong in calling our work “haiku”…in the belief that we were immediately making our work derivative, permanently labeling it as an imitation of something we could never know first hand…Have poets in English made it “their own”, do you think?

AP: In the 50’s, Jack Kerouac experimented with “American (non-Japanese Haikus)” which he called “Pops”, which were a departure from traditional haiku principles. Clearly, the results were not as successful as those he wrote adhering to those essential principles, which is evidently why he ultimately titled his collected haiku “Book of Haikus” rather than “Pops”. Again, in the 60’s, a poet named Robert Kelly invented a Western version of haiku called the “Lune”, which did not hold the same principles as the Japanese haiku. Here is an example:

Rock shock the
house. Everybody to the funky
Beat, yes yes.

Reading this, it is not hard to imagine why the “Lune” did not catch on. Henderson used to tell us that “English language haiku will become what the poets make it.”

MMcC: And the differences in language and culture will come forward?

AP: My own conviction is that haiku poetry is a universal poetic form. It had its origins in Japan, but in essence it can be written in languages other than Japanese. There are naturally certain adjustments that need to be made in other languages; for example: English language haiku can not be always written in one line successfully whereas in Japanese it can. Also in English we need to use more suggestive language as opposed to Japanese which is more naturally suggestive due to its ambiguity. Next our syllabic rhythms are different than the Japanese duration unit or onji, and so on. Adjustments such as these are what in part make English language haiku our own in addition to our imagery and subject matter. We have clearly achieved that, in my opinion. As the above attempts by Kerouac and Kelly teach us, the primary principles of haiku are essential to its power, appeal and definition, as a poetic form. If Kerouac could not achieve such an alternative haiku form, I don’t know who could. That said, I see nothing wrong with calling our work “haiku”…a rose by any other name… So, haiku is our own by means of the adaptations that were necessary to maintain its primary principles in English language form in addition to our focus on Western culture.

MMcC: Might English-language haiku poets be a little less in love with “things Japanese” and gain by that?

AP: All that needs to be done now is for us to lose the Japanophile attitude. I am not advocating that we should have no interest or appreciation of Eastern culture, but rather to re-focus on our own Western culture. How can we further promote English language haiku as our own when our books, magazines and other publications are illustrated with Eastern style art covers, fonts and content all pointing due East, not West?! America is an amazing continent, from the Redwood forest, to Yosemite, to the Grand Canyon and so on. Any Japanese person will tell you so.

When I attended the Haiku Canada Conference in Ottawa this year, I was flummoxed over the lack of presentations concerning the Canadian Haiku movement. Nearly everything focused on Japan. Where is your maple leaf, O Canadians?! Fortunately, I have been asked to do a presentation for the 2006 conference in Montreal, in which I will focus on the beat haiku poets and Western haiku poetry. Once Western culture is given the attention that it rightly deserves, then we will even more firmly establish that haiku poetry is very much “our own”.

MMcC: How does senryu fit into your work? Why is it senryu in English is such a swamp? Any thoughts?

AP: One of the important lessons I learned from both Henderson and Virgil was that to fully understand haiku one must also have an understanding and appreciation of its related forms, i.e. renga, tanka, haibun, senryu and so on, which are all long established poetic genres with their own poetic principles of composition. When poets do not recognize or understand these related genres, well then there’s the “swamp” they find themselves sinking into. That’s why, even as late as the mid-1980’s, poets were inadvertently writing senryu under the aegis of haiku and touting them as “innovative haiku”, when in fact, all they were writing was good old senryu. As early as 1972, when I wrote:

the fat lady
bends over the tomatoes
a full moon

Henderson pointed out that this poem was, in fact, “a senryu since its thrust and emphasis was the woman’s behind in addition to the juxtaposition of the lady’s roundness and the full moon.” As I studied the genre with Anita Virgil, I learned that it was “a product of the merchant/townsmen culture of the eighteenth century, which celebrated the self-absorption disallowed elsewhere in Japanese society. It also provided new material for the poets to explore that the haiku (with its emphasis on Nature rather than Man) excluded.” This came shortly after the quality of the haiku and haikai deteriorated after Basho. So, one distinction between haiku and senryu concerns the primary image or thrust of the poem. It’s like ikebana, where there is a primary and a secondary focus in the flower arrangement. In haiku, the primary meaning points to nature, in senryu, the primary meaning is man.

MMcC: That seems straight and simple enough. But is it only a matter of focus?

AP: There are certainly other distinctions in senryu, one being the use of poetic devices, such as simile, personification, metaphor, anthropomorphism and puns in addition to humor. Honorably, the ancient Japanese poets valued and respected the essential principles of the haiku form and did not try to change it but instead created a related form called maeku, which later adopted the name senryu, which was the pen name of its maeku-duke (originator of senryu): Karai Hachiemon.

MMcC: How did the idea of Senryu Magazine (River Willow Publications, 2001) come to you? I think it remains the best single collection of senryu in English. [see the review, “Mayhem and Lunacy” by Michael McClintock, Frogpond Vol. XXV, No. 1, March 2002.]

AP: Like a bolt of lightning. I had always wanted to edit a magazine devoted to the senryu genre, but there simply wasn’t enough good senryu out there to sustain a substantial magazine publication. So, the idea hit me, “Why not write it all myself under various pseudonyms? What better satire for such a magazine? A total Parody!” I knew it was a great idea and, at the same time, I knew that the contents had to be just as good and worthy of the concept as a whole. I wrote it all from concept to published book in exactly one year. I had a lot of fun writing it and I’m glad to see that it has been as much fun to others. As a haiku/musician poet, senryu is another poetic instrument.

The related haiku forms work in concert as a means of our poetic expression. Forms such as tanka, haibun and sometimes senryu serve as forms for our introspective expression. As Anita Virgil says, “Haiku is not a catch-all for any or all human emotion.”

MMcC: You have also written a great deal of tanka in English. What attracts you to the tanka? What do you try to achieve in your tanka?

AP: Well, tanka is another haiku related form that allows for a much different mode of expression. It’s a mood piece that is more akin to the poetics of our Western short poem, in the sense that it can include poetic devices and is introspective. It is more internal and says what I am thinking and feeling, which I found very challenging after writing haiku for so many years. So, writing tanka was quite a transition for me. As I recall, I admired the tanka you wrote in the early 70’s. I don’t think any other American poet was writing anything like them at the time. It took me years before I could write in that genre. Then, about ten years ago, I made a transition as a musician into the blues and started writing blues lyrics, which allowed me to express my moods in that introspective manner and that is how I connected with tanka. To me, tanka is a short poetic form of the blues. So, I started to write a collection of poems called Tanka Blues in the tradition of poets such as yourself and Takuboku, who was in my opinion kind of an early Japanese Beat poet. I think the English translations of his tanka, which are in two and or three lines, are a departure from the more traditional five-line form. They were more compact, which makes for an interesting distinction from haiku and senryu as defined by its introspectiveness. It’s what some used to refer to as “serious senryu” back in the 80's. Also, just as some blues songs can be humorous, there is also a humorous form of tanka called kyoka that I write as well.

MMcC: What role does Buddhism, if any, play in your work? Taoism? Shintoism? What about plain old Western naturalism?

AP: As I mentioned earlier, I was honored to have known Louis and Allen Ginsberg. Allen was Buddhist and he taught me meditation and mantra practices. His reason being “If the mind is shapely, the art (poem) will be shapely” -- and he was right about that. I would wite him poems like:

read a book on zen
learned nothing

I already possessed a keen perception and understanding of the primary sources of living, the natural human consciousness, which IS in essence plain old Western naturalism.

MMcC: Alan, tell us more about your friendship with the Ginsbergs and how they influenced you as a poet.

AP: What I did learn and find useful from both Allen and Louis, was the art of performing at poetry readings. Louis would invite me over to his place in Paterson when he and Allen were doing the Battle of the Bards poetry readings. I would ride in the family car with him, Edith (his second wife) and Allen to the readings. Watching them at the readings I learned to use the entire range of the spoken idiom, rather than simply a couple of tones and pitches. In addition, pronunciation, enunciation of spoken words, improvisation, gestures and overall poetic performance. In exchange, Allen often consulted me about haiku and related forms whenever we met or talked over the telephone, whenever he happened to be in town. He would also send me his haiku on postcards or in letters. I remember, the first time we met he compared haiku to cinquain because it was a syllabic verse.[Note: the cinquain invented by Adelaide Crapsey is a verse form using strict accented meter, which over time was adapted by some poets to syllabic measure—MMcC]. I informed him about the 5-7-5 myth in English language haiku and how it differs from the Japanese onji.

The next time we got together, he announced that he had decided to write his haiku in one line. I, of course, advocated organic form, that is each haiku should have the natural rhythmic form of the actual experience, as opposed to a set number of lines or set syllabic rhythm. I told him that one line haiku are fine as long as the line could not be broken anywhere and that, as such, they were somewhat of a rarity in English language haiku (unless one writes simply for the sake of one line). Amazingly, he later showed me a good number of his one-liners that DID work in one line! (laughs) But he also continued to write his haiku in three lines.

During one of Allen’s poetry readings that I attended, Allen had a question and answer segment, and when he was asked about haiku, he pointed me out and said, “We have a haiku poet with us today, ask him!” That’s when I started to realize he respected me as a poet.

Another time he came to visit me with a manuscript of his “Haikus”. At that time, I was sharing an apartment with Bill Higginson in Paterson, New Jersey. I was not home that day but Bill was. Imagine Bill’s surprise when he opened the door and saw Allen Ginsberg standing there asking for me. Of course, Bill invited him in and later published Allen’s book Mostly Sitting Haiku. Allen later told me, in Buddhism “sitting” means “practice”. I could see the influence in what I had taught him when he started writing ones like Teton Village in ’73:

Snow mountain fields
seen thru transparent wings
of a fly on the windowpane

MMcC: Did Ginsberg make a distinction between haiku and senryu in his own work?

AP: Like Kerouac, Allen did not initially make a distinction between haiku and senryu. Later in the ‘80’s, when I asked him for a senryu for the “Senryu Series” I was editing for the Haiku Canada Newsletter, he sent me the following:

two skin heads
talking under an umbrella
in street light rain

MMcC: Do you consider yourself as a poet in the tradition of the Beat Generation poets?

AP: Well, I don’t want to be labeled as a Beat Poet any more than they did. I’m just Alan Pizzarelli, whoever that is.

MMcC: When was the last time you spoke with Ginsberg?

AP: A few years before he died. The last time I spoke with him, I was at Cor van den Heuvel’s apartment where I phoned him after hearing he was back in town, (It is said that Allen traveled more extensively than any other living poet). I’ll never forget how heartily he laughed and said excitedly “that’s great!” when I told him the title of my selected poems: Frozen Socks. I never got a chance to see him just before he died. But following his death, I saw him in the movie The Source. And what was he doing? Taking a snapshot of my haiku:

the shoeshine boy
snaps his rag

on the Times Square theater marquee and I thought what an appropriate and wonderful way to say goodbye.

Note: For selections of Alan’s tanka from his book, Tanka Blues, see the tanka section in this issue of Simply Haiku (v2n6, 2004).