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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

Interview ~ Anita Virgil by Robert D. Wilson, continued ~ part 2

RW: How has English-language haiku and related genres evolved since you first became involved with it? And what was the impetus for the definition work completed in 1973 under Harold G. Henderson, co-founder of The Haiku Society of America? I understand you worked with him and with William J. Higginson back then.

AV: You ask me to trace an enormous history! But I can only give you what I saw for the years in which I was introduced to and excited by this novel poetry, was most eager to understand what made it so unique, and was infinitely puzzled when I would read all the current published work in the few haiku magazines then available.

To shorten the tale, let me say candidly, I did not like hardly any of the sticky-sweet Japonesque windchimes 5-7-5 haiku poetry of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. (I brought with me my own “literary” standards based on my familiarity with great world literature and poetry long before meeting up with haiku.) But a few names stood out–even then–and they produced some exemplary work: Michael McClintock (for his poetry and critical writings), Al Pizzarelli, John Wills, Marlene [then] Wills, Gary Hotham, O. Southard, Eric Amann--as a poet and as the avant-garde editor of the Canadian magazine Haiku, Rod Willmot, Nick Virgilio, George Swede, Jack Cain, J. W. Hackett, Martin Shea, Virginia Brady Young, Cor van den Heuvel. And of course, William Higginson, whose largest contribution as far as I was concerned lay not in his poems but in his exegeses on haiku and in some of his concise translations of Japanese haiku, much influenced by Cid Corman, I think. A handful of us struck up intense correspondence in which we pored over the problems we found as we tried to achieve excellence comparable with the Japanese masters. Cooperation among us was a ‘given’, and that was a marvelously healthy environment for each of us: to learn from and bounce off of the others. By this exchange, we truly affected what was our final goal: to produce fine and enduring English-language haiku and at the same time bring something authentically new and valid to the ancient art form.

I attended my first meeting of the HSA in New York City in March or April of 1969. And have been, since about 1975, what I would call a bystander-member ever since: I do watch the goings–on, but at a comfortable distance. But to return to those early days at HSA, there was a mere handful of people [around 20-30] comprising what has burgeoned into a very large group numbering over 800 whose members come from all over the world now.

Never in my life having cared to join anything, I did succumb to this tiny brand new ‘society’ because I wanted so much to get answers to the questions that kept cropping up the more I read about haiku in reference books on Japanese literature, in Blyth and Henderson, and so on. The very idea that I would be able to speak with, listen to Harold G. Henderson [whom I first ‘met’ in his Encyclopedia Britannica article on haiku] was unbelievable! He occasionally popped in at the meetings and was a courtly, kindly, humble and dedicated soul. When he was not there, the course of these meetings consisted basically in submitting a poem (anonymously) and having it discussed by the ten or so members in attendance. Usually, their conclusions were: “Nice,” “I like it,” and such. To me this was farcical. I did NOT like most of the work submitted. I thought it weak, and without depth of feeling. And nothing to compare with the rush I was getting when I read all the Blyth translations and so many others. But, alas, this early American haiku was almost always awash in sentimental overlays.

I would ask questions. I did not usually receive answers that satisfied me. I recall one of the members at the time was Sydell Rosenberg. And when one of her poems was posted on the blackboard, which I did like, it was later identified as a senryu. And when I asked "What is a senryu?" I got rather vague stares out into space: “Uh, they are humorous poems” and beyond that no real help. I was already aware of the fact that “sometimes the haiku has underlying humor.” So what in the world were they talking about? Explanation followed: “Well, Sydell writes senryu. And so does Clement Hoyt” who preceded me on the scene. His work was in a magazine I did not ever see: American Haiku, edited by James Bull. Hmmmmmmm, I thought and soon borrowed a copy from Higginson’s stash. Not enough did I find there to clue me in as to exactly what they were doing. And so that question continued to nag me.

I tell you this because it was my widening array of questions about this art that gave rise to my volunteering within a year or so [1971 it was] to help Henderson with re-defining haiku for the dictionaries and encyclopedias. He said one evening at a meeting, that he wanted to dispel the persistent notion that haiku in English was only a 17-syllable [5-7-5] nature poem. He felt that was wrong. “Who would be interested in helping me out with this project?” he asked. Without hesitation, my hand shot up. And I was “on the committee.” Bang! (Higginson, naturally, as the other major spokesperson at most meetings – also decided he had to be part of this committee. And we were three.)

What this task would entail, I had no idea. But I stuck it out and offered suggestions from the standpoint of a novice with a real need-to-know so I could write well and I made certain that what we did would help others as it began to really help me to understand the underlying uniqueness and beauty of these poems, and the various and subtle distinctions among them. My first comment as we began was to say we had to look at what the Japanese definition was and go from there.
Henderson answered me: "There isn’t a Japanese definition because 'all Japanese know what a haiku is!'" (He was quoting from a letter he had received from a Prof. Kametaro Yagi on this subject.) Right away I knew this was going to be far more complicated than I imagined.

Soon I said to Professor Henderson (thinking selfishly): “But we cannot possibly limit our work to defining haiku without including definitions for haikai, hokku and senryu.” So there! This time I was gonna get my answers. Certainly if it helped me, it would help other novices. And that, as far as I was concerned, was the driving force behind this entire effort. As the task expanded in scope, Henderson realized it was the right way to go: One could cross-reference these terms and at a glance glean their interrelationships as one learned their historical derivations.

Well, that was the impetus then.

Since that time, however, there have been a few sporadic tries at re-writing parts of the original definition work. In one rather amusing and harmless instance of 1989 or 1990, the individual was completely unaware she was appropriating the wording of the long-accepted 1973 original haiku definition that had been used in many places throughout the years since it was written. She had made some slight alteration to it–and truly thought she had just come up with a fine new haiku definition! Since I was editing a book of hers at the time she was ready to put that into her introduction. I let her know what the exact origin was. Being honest, she immediately desisted.

In The Haiku Anthology 1986 second edition, Appendix B, Definitions, another “re-write” was done by Cor van den Heuvel. He began: “The following are newly revised definitions. They are based on definitions prepared for the Haiku Society of America in 1973 by Harold G. Henderson, William J. Higginson, and Anita Virgil, and which appeared in the first edition of this book. . . . The editor of this book [van den Heuvel] has made significant changes and additions, so the following are not necessarily the opinions of any of the above-named persons or the HSA.” Well, that’s the damn truth! and I let Cor know about it. Unfortunately, his anthology was printed by the thousands and it became quite evident in the following decade that this ‘intervention” of his caused a great deal of confusion directly traceable to his “explanation” about senryu . (More of that later when we go into a more detailed discussion of senryu.) He stated incorrectly that “All Japanese classical haiku, as well as most modern ones, contain a kigo (season-word: a word that indicates a season of the year) which ensures that nature will be in the poem; senryu do not.” [My emphasis.]

At first glance, this looks fairly innocuous, doesn’t it? But what people came away with was the notion that if nature appears in a poem it is a haiku. But that is not always true. Some of the first senryu written were parodies of haiku written post-Basho. These weak works led others to poke fun at them. And thus senryu began to evolve: and some senryu retain a seasonal reference of the haiku they parodied as in the following example:

When I think it is mine,
The snow on the umbrella
Is light.

And the parody of it:
Knocked down,
His snowy umbrella
Became light.
      –Anon. senryu (early 18th century)

This next pair I especially love for they provide the comparison between how haiku and senryu utilize the very same element of “winter moonlight” to different ends:

Winter moonlight;
The shadow of the stone pagoda,
The shadow of the pine-tree.

The winter moon;
Every shadow
Is handless.
      –Anon. senryu

A look at Shiki’s haiku will show it to be a poem permeated with coldness, isolation, transmitting to the reader by the nature of the images a stirring of absolute loneliness. Nowhere in the poem is man dominant. But in the anonymous senryu, using the identical components of winter moon and shadows, the emphasis is entirely different. Here, the shadows are of man. The fact that no hands show is the clever feature upon which the senryu writer lights to illustrate coldness. And more. Each individual, hands tucked deep into his or her clothing for warmth, tells clearly that, confronted with bitter cold, all of us–rich and poor alike–behave the same. We are concerned with our survival, and there is no time for moon-viewing. It is a stringent little study of man, a complete statement capturing human behavior with the incisive stroke of caricature. Unlike the haiku which develops out of indirection, the more typical senryu goes for the jugular.

Haiku have often been accurately likened to a pebble tossed into still water producing ever-widening rings. The senryu is like a pebble tossed which hits you smack between the eyes!

When the persimmon
Which he grafted bears,
His teeth have fallen out.
      –Anon. senryu (early 18th cent.)

So now you can understand why I was so angry at what Cor’s three dreadfully limiting and misleading little words unleashed: “All Japanese classical haiku, as well as most modern ones, contain a kigo (season-word: a word that indicates a season of the year) which ensures that nature will be in the poem; senryu do not.” Cor van den Heuvel.

Here I must interject a comment, completely unrelated to my utter frustration over this senryu problem. I would never throw out the baby with the bath water: What Cor achieved by getting out three editions of The Haiku Anthology literally put our English-language haiku and senryu out there into the mainstream of poetry. An accomplishment that has not been topped by the achievements and contributions in other areas by any other individual! I am certain I speak for all of us who write this poetry when I say we will always be indebted to him for this.

Niceties aside, that did not let him off the hook regarding senryu! The confusion about the senryu was compounded far beyond a matter of seasonal reference. And it was this 2nd edition which introduced a whole new generation of people to haiku and the unspecified senryu in that anthology. But that is another story. Again, the problems’ origins derived from a lack of study of the senryu which was disregarded and considered by many (Henderson included, as far as common usage of the word was concerned) to be the stepchild of haiku. Almost from the very beginning, I never felt that to be the case.

Now, along comes 2004 and a second attempt to create a Haiku Society of America committee to change the definitions finally worked. At this writing, from outward appearances ( a tiny vote at a business meeting in September), these definitions were approved. The only noteworthy part of each of these efforts to change the original definitions is the presence on these committees of William J. Higginson as chairman. Plus ça change plus la même chose. But I do find it odd he never came up with any suggestion even close to this new haiku “definition” when the original haiku definition was being crafted. (Of course, his task back then was to “do” the haikai definition. And that was his own choice!)

How has haiku evolved since I became involved? I think it would be fair to say there has been tremendous improvement the more people learned about it. Instead of only looking to the scanty supply of early magazines for examples of English language haiku to emulate–at best, a very unreliable source for learning–they sought better translations, they avoided the sentimental ones that appeared as fancy little pocketsize greeting card store items [Peter Beilenson editions] and the flowery, endlessly long and abstruse earliest translations by the likes of Basil Hall Chamberlain. It was realized from discussions led by Higginson on the difference in time duration to read aloud 17 syllables in English versus listening to the ever-more-brief time duration to hear a complete Japanese haiku read (there were programs on public television back then that featured such), that concision was the first thing needed. Japanese onji were short and of equal time duration, like do re mi fa so, etc.; but English single syllables differed vastly in time duration: “it” is one syllable in English. And so is “through.” Listen to the difference.

Hard as it was for many to take, and hard as it was to convince many practitioners of this simplistic adaptative ‘solution’ to writing haiku in another language (and, unfortunately, to this day in the American educational system it persists!), it meant moving away from the dictum of 17 English-language–and later foreign-language–‘syllables’! Throughout the book The Japanese Haiku by Kenneth Yasuda, the top of every page all the way across reads: 57557557557557557557. And at the back of the book where he had his own haiku in English, he wrote them in 17 English syllables. How is a beginner to ever shake this off? Talk about subliminal messages! Yes, to the Japanese it had relevance, but to some of us outlanders, it was not the whole story. It was rarely applicable when writing in English.

In critiquing the poems of that era, it was not too difficult to see where the writers in English added words SIMPLY FOR THE SAKE OF MAKING THAT 17-SYLLABLE COUNT. It was referred to as “padding.” In most every instance, these ‘extra’ words were no more than redundancies. They did not add to the poem. To the contrary, they weakened the impact by dragging it out, repeating the same idea. Since the greatest beauty of the haiku for me is their power of concision with which one can open up worlds of implication, suggestion–if one selects only the essence of the moving experience that gave rise to the poem, this verbosity was a real handicap. In the main line poetry circles of those days (and still today somewhat) American haiku was totally disdained. Ignored. Not published. Dismissed. I wrote an essay called “Transition Haiku: 1971.” (I think it was in the English magazine Haiku Byways.) In it, I spoke to that issue and said that, by and large, we deserved that appraisal.

Not any more! The following footnote appears in the 2003 Jack Kerouac Book of Haikus, ed. Regina Weinreich: “When asked what he considered to be the current state of poetry in 1993, Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz replied: “I take interest . . . in the American haiku movement. . . . For me that is a very interesting trend.” [Quoted by Thomas Lynch in “A Way of Awareness: The Emerging Delineaments of American Haiku” (unpublished essay).] Battle-scarred though I be, I am glad to say I have quite a few haiku in Milosz’s Polish anthology, Haiku. And just this once I’m also going to brag that when I happened this year to be looking at it (of course I can’t read Polish but the illustration that goes with one of my haiku–a naked lady–is hysterically funny to me!), I realized I had more poems in his anthology than anyone else. So I say, “Gee, thanks!” I guess we have done a good thing after all the endless early fights over syllable count. And who else is in that book? None other than Eric Amann, Al Pizzarelli, John Wills, Nicholas Virgilio, George Swede, Martin Shea, Michael McClintock, Marlene [Wills] Mountain, Gary Hotham, J. W. Hackett, Rod Willmot, of the earliest writers of American haiku I mentioned as those with promise! (Only Hackett writing pre-‘60s advocated 5-7-5. Southard and Virgilio used it, too. Most of the time. But Virgilio, after almost his whole writing history of strong 5-7-5s, would change to some more concise poems. Oddly, though, he had this single early and uncharacteristically brief poem:

out of the water…
out of itself.
      —Nick Virgilio [Selected Haiku, Burnt Lake Press, 1985.]

That was, for me, the single most influential American poem, as I began to write haiku.

It was the struggle to separate the idea that haiku was “a poem written in 17 syllables” that gave rise to this phrase I wrote into the prefatory letter we sent along with the finished definitions to the encyclopedias and dictionaries, to NCTE, etc. on January 3, 1973: “It is the content and not the form alone that makes a haiku.” There was an article Eric Amann wrote called “Form in Haiku” back in 1968 that I first requested of Higginson before we ever met. Already, Amann was seeing beyond the preoccupation with counting syllables and reaching deeper into the heart of this poetic genre. I later wrote a piece called “Define Form” [April 1971, Haiku Highlights, Jean Calkins, ed.] in which I made reference to what I considered of prime importance: that there is a huge difference between external form imposed from without upon the work of art and the internal demands of the work of art itself. “The form of a successful work of art is, as Coleridge said, shaped from within, not imposed from without.”

In today’s jargon, I would say my poems are organic: they are written by responding to the internal demands of the subject matter. Each poem has its own unique “form.” Or graphic format. And I heed that crazy idea! This does not mean I never write plain 3-line haiku. Most of the time I do. But it means that if I sense as I am typing them up, that there is still a better way to portray what the words say, I will toss out a standard approach. Hence, I may opt for a two-line format or create a concrete image of the letters within the body of the poem as in this from my 2004 work, Summer Thunder:

speeding along the awning’s edge

Three decades ago I wrote a poem all in one line:
twilight blue and pale green leaves everywhere scent of watermelons

That poem was done as a response to a task Henderson suggested. That we attempt to write a haiku in one line. It appeared in Haiku Magazine a while later. But as I prepared my first book, A 2nd Flake, in early 1974, I then saw the potential to kick it up one notch higher: I made it into a single word! No spaces between words because I came to realize that this experience was one of a cumulative effect where each element hooked onto the next and the next until the total suffusion of sight, scent and memory were one. That, after all, was the ‘haiku moment’ as I experienced it.

Marlene Wills [later known as Marlene Mountain] came out with the old tin roof in the mid-1970s. And it was obvious she liked the idea of one-line haiku. In the following presentation, the visual effect bears out and enhances the meaning of her words. And that, as far as I am concerned, is the whole point of doing a poem as a one-liner:

at dusk hot water from the hose.

But many other poems in later days that were presented graphically as one-liners did not organically demand such treatment! Back in December of 1990 and into January of 1991, John Wills stayed at my home. I had always had a nagging question in my mind as to why he made all the poems in his book, the long and skinny up a distant ridge into one-line poems.

I told him several of them were not enhanced in any way by being set up in a single line format. He told me Marlene had submitted them that way! So, the appeal for the novelty of the one-line poem was established. There were more fads in the making.

For a while, the mysterious pseudo-name “Tao Li” caused talk. It appeared in the magazines. This person’s “haiku” were all written in three columns. Well, before you could say “Boo!” all the haiku magazines were accepting three-column “haiku.” Who was this sage of haiku? None other than an old standby of the early years, Evelyn Tooley Hunt. And what were these “new” poems of hers? Nothing special. Put them in three lines or in three columns! Same thing. But it took quite a while for that fad to die out.

It is obvious people were looking for ways to “improve” their poetry. They tried all kinds of things: concision was a good idea, lower case presentation was effective in some instances–but not in all. There was an idea in my mind behind that use: to have/create a sense of continuum–no beginning, no end. In a few poems, that works. And there is also the self-effacing lower case “i” that some poets assume indicates their modesty, their humbleness. That is their business. Then there was Alexis Rotella’s habit in the 1980s of adopting the capital letter at the beginning of her poems, but leaving out a period at the end. I never heard any ‘defense’ of that approach that I could understand, but one could not deny much of her work was fine and deeply felt, deeply moving. But, of course, it was a mark of distinction. A few poets did it. But what it did for the specific poems I could not tell. (I note happily she got over that by the time the 1999 edition of The Haiku Anthology was published.)

But if one is taken with and depends upon outward trappings, one will be concerned about creating an effect: that the work “look” modern, up-to-date, innovative. That they give the illusion of some advance. But I felt they were mostly looking in the wrong place.

So much for a glimpse at form and content--and at external format.

RW: How is senryu different from haiku?

AV: I have written two very long essays tracing the origins of senryu and its development since the 18th century. So what I can contribute here will only touch on this complicated subject.
First let me say that almost from my earliest acquaintance with the Haiku Society, senryu puzzled me and intrigued me. And when the word was defined–Harold G. Henderson was largely responsible for the 1973 definition–his third point was especially disappointing to me.

It read:

(1) A Japanese poem structurally similar to the Japanese haiku (which see), but primarily concerned with human nature. It is usually humorous or satiric.
(2) A foreign adaptation of (1).
(3) Loosely, a poem similar to haiku which does not meet the criteria for haiku.

But as he explained to me, his description (3) reflected the attitude of the day, and dictionaries are concerned with common usage. I felt that ‘attitude of the day’ was derived from a lack of knowledge, lack of interest in and therefore the rarity of fine English-language senryu back then. But with a strong conviction that there would be a better future for senryu in English, at least I prevailed upon Professor Henderson to alter his word original word “verse” to “poem” when speaking of senryu. I felt it was a potentially worthy art. Little did I dream how bumpy a road was ahead before it came into its own! But at last it has.

NOTE: By 1990, an addendum was sent out by Haiku Societyof America which stated that “It is . . . the opinion of the remaining Committee Members, William J. Higginson and Anita Virgil, that a more accurate assessment of usage today . . . would dictate that the HAIKU (2) definition be altered to “It is usually written in three lines of fewer than 17 syllables.” The SENRYU (3) definition, though it represented the prevailing attitude at the time the definition was prepared, is no longer accurate and it should be eliminated.”

I mentioned being a “bystander member” of the Haiku Society of America once the definition work was sent out and after my year as president was over: At that time, we met ten times a year in New York City and that allowed me a chance to introduce a heavy load of study of the history of haiku. And I made sure the historical evolution of the senryu was included.

Because I believed that all members deserved to ‘participate’ and to make certain our discussions were shared with out-of -town members, I initiated using a tape recorder at the meetings. I transcribed each meeting and our secretary arduously included most everything in the Minutes. Verbatim. And we requested and got feedback from all members. (These exchanges were later to serve as the material for the vivid excerpts quoted in A Haiku Path published by The Haiku Society of America in 1994.)

In that busy year of 1973, I also initiated the Haiku Society Awards program. But it has not followed my original stated intent: that there only be awards presented when exemplary work was produced. If no book or article or essay was produced that was an advance in these arts, then no award was to be given out in that year! I suppose I was naïve to have imagined future members would adhere to my original intent. Instead, “all eyes iz on the prize.” Year in and year out. I mention this apparent digression to show one way in which the pursuit of excellence can be delayed–or derailed. There are more.

I stayed away from all goings on thereafter for I had reached my saturation point. And I also did not wish to be influenced by what others were writing. There was too much of the same old-same old out there and the patterns were established. Yes, fads of external format were catching on,    but. . .

By the mid ‘80s, after that second edition of The Haiku Anthology came out with van den Heuvel’s re-write of the senryu definition, there was evidence of some pretty free-wheeling interpretations of what constituted a haiku. Basically, it got to be Anything Goes! I’d call it the period of license–I would not for a moment describe what was going on as “freedom,” for that carries with it the burden of responsible actions based on a solid foundation of fact. In all fairness, I would have to say this mêlée was not entirely a ‘bad’ thing, for at least people were striving to broaden the scope of the haiku! But that only proved they had more to express if they were to be true to writing about the world in which they lived. And they needed a receptacle for it. (An earlier example of this reaching-out did occur in the ‘70s: there had been experimentation with sequences. That did give poets a larger canvas to work on.

But now the name of the game was the “new haiku.” Ta-dah! Experimentalists among our better poets latched on, swallowed it hook, line and sinker, and started defending this great discovery [whose moniker was coined by Rod Willmot of Canada] as though they had found the Holy Grail. It could contain any and everything they wanted to pour into it!

They took to writing–in accordance with Willmot’s invented terminology–“political-haiku, metaphysical-haiku, spiritual-haiku and psychological-haiku.” Then, of course, he tacked on “erotic haiku.” Those few of us with a working knowledge of the senryu and its origins–and with the ability to write various types of senryu, sat by for a while and watched this play out.

When it became apparent it was really getting out of hand as evidenced by a tract Willmot produced propounding this gobblydegook in heavy-duty intimidating techno-talk, a stiff dose of reality was needed. (Alas, I noticed just the other day, before I began to write this, the habit persists among some of our more “intellectual” beings. When all else fails, they call upon schematic diagrams in their attempts to clarify what haiku is and ain’t or some is but some ain’t and what they look like while being this or that. I forget. I simply can’t understand any of these nutsy notions. Not to mention the utterly dull pictures.) But, back to the fall of 1987, Alan Pizzarelli presented a paper in Canada where Willmot had been holding sway for some time. In it Pizzarelli briefly and clearly pointed out that what was being written was no more than–senryu. “Modern Senryu.” And that was the title of his paper. [Haiku Canada, September 1987 Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 1 , p.5]

To give you a notion, here is a senryu from R. H. Blyth’s Senryu [Japanese Satirical Verses (Japan, Hokuseido, 1949), p.181]:

Losing his job
He tries reading
      – Sazanka

Wow! A Willmot “political-haiku” if ever I saw one!

No need to go into endless examples. I will simply give you a response I received directly from the horse’s mouth: Rod Willmot wrote me after Cor brought him to visit me at my home in New Jersey in the ‘80s. I was beginning to wonder how much longer he would go on tossing out his fabrications and “cosmic” theories about the “new haiku.” So I offhandedly wrote him, “What about senryu?”

“You must understand,” he informed me, “that we North American poets are very serious; we don’t have much interest in senryu.” [Personal correspondence, Willmot to Virgil, June 9, 1982.]

Well, that was sure as hell evident!

And Willmot went on trotting his “new haiku” bone around until he was hauled up short by Pizzarelli’s presentation.

Obviously stung, Willmot lashed out with yet another verbose and glorious-sounding, wind-in-your-mane, erudite-seeming tract, this one a paean “In Praise of Wild Horses” (Guess who that was? Yep! All them horses!) It was printed in 1988 in Frogpond.[Vol. XI, No. 2, May 1988.] Well, that did it! It was enough to make this little St. Helens belch lava. I came out of a long ‘retirement’ with a rebuttal. My short piece was called “Horse Sense” and it stated:

“ In clear language Pizzarelli shows that, contrary to what Willmot has been saying, the new direction North American haiku poets of the 1970s and 1980s are leaning toward is the senryu . . . a more comfortable genre for the forthright expression of human emotions, behaviour and the human condition. . . . The focus on self and human foibles is the dominant thrust of the senryu. How natural then that those of the Me Generation need to express this in their poetry.” I concluded with, “As for the image of wild horses–the only thing that makes me uncomfortable is what they leave behind!” [Frogpond, Vol. XI, No. 3, August 1988.]

But more constructively, this ruckus was followed up by a regularly published new feature in Haiku Canada’s Newsletter around the end of the ‘80s: a Senryu Column edited by Pizzarelli. Visible good came of that regular roughly one-year display of top quality senryu–showing its broad scope, its various ways of dealing with human foibles, with the nature of Man via parodies, with satire, with love, sex, with the use of personification and, yes, even “nature” on occasion as in this senryu:

The tendril of the pea
Is thinking:
Where will I go next?
      –Kinjiro [from R.H. Blyth’s Japanese Life and Character in Senryu (Japan, Hokuseido,
       1949), p. 287.]

Of course, the Japanese compound the problem themselves, fueling the fuss, blurring the issues involved when they state such truths as “poetic devices are still being widely used by the Japanese in their haiku and an example would be this from the 1997 A Hidden Pond; Anthology of Modern Japanese Haiku, ed. Koko Kato:

White peonies
flushed ever so slightly
with carnal desire

To which I respond: And is it working for you any better now than it worked back in the 16th century?

Let us not lose sight of the fact that the Japanese also contend that anything a haiku poet writes is haiku! Then, thinking Japanese, you are confronted with this sort of puzzle: Kikaku, certainly recognized by the Japanese as a haiku poet, a disciple of Basho, was a bit of a ‘wild child,’ for as R. H. Blyth states, he was inclined “towards making man the main region of song, towards wit and intellectuality, bringing out the discords of life.” [R. H. Blyth, Japanese Life and Character in Senryu ( Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1960), p. 4.] Now this runs completely opposite from haiku where “all the painful problems of our life are by-passed . . . [ibid., p. 2.] Haiku avoids hyperbole, all violent scenes and emotions; senryu takes in all these, especially sex, and the relations between men and women.” [Ibid., p.29.] He is writing senryu-like poems from time to time. Can this be acknowledged if he is indeed “a haiku poet” from the standpoint of the Japanese? Hint: I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on that one!

More confusion about senryu occurring at this critical period post-2nd ed. of The Haiku Anthology. An imposing tome two inches thick with a title An Original Relation to the Universe: Emersonian Poetics of Immanence and Contemporary American Haiku, by Thomas Paul Lynch filled my mailbox. It was his June 1989 dissertation. Awesome! And worse–I’m in it. And guess what else? Lynch says “As haiku poets have expanded their subject matter to include human relationships a number of critics and poets have questioned whether such poems should not be considered senryu [you bet I did!] rather than haiku.” [p. 178]

He then launches into the flap over Willmot’s theories vs. Pizzarelli’s and mine. And Lynch is totally confused. He just doesn't “get it” because his thinking is tainted by this kind of Willmot all-knowing pronouncement:

“Even when a senryu and a haiku deal with the same topic, they are distinguishable by the fact that one has nothing but its wit while the other has all the depth of poetry.”
      –Wilmot in “Wild Horses”

More horse-droppings! If you doubt me, look at this heart-breaking senryu from JLCS:

The step-child,
All day long
With his nose running.
      –Anon. senryu [Blyth, JL and CS, p. 99.]

Lynch cites several poems all of which I believe–as did Pizzarelli in his “Modern Senryu” paper–are fine senryu (though it is true that at that time some people writing them would not have accepted they were senryu!) and then, without seeking verification from me, he concludes: “So far as I am aware, none of these poems are considered senryu by their authors.” Wrong about me–and I’d bet wrong about George Swede, who for years had been nailing some of the best senryu! Here are those poems [The Haiku Anthology, ed. Cor van den Heuvel, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1986)]:

Trying to forget him
the potatoes (Rotella) [THA]

unhappy wife
I pedal my bike,
through puddles (Swede) [THA]

he leans on the gate going staying (Mountain) [THA]

After the child’s
cake eating. (Virgil) [A 2nd Flake, Montclair, 1974]

Missing a kick
at the icebox door
it closed
anyway. (Kerouac) [THA]

The final conclusion Lynch draws really put me over the top: “And, if we consider humor to be a distinguishing characteristic of the genre, then only the last, by Kerouac, meets the definition.”

But, hang on, there is a glimme of hope. Lynch follows with this afterthought: “(It might be useful to consider irony as a feature of the genre [senryu], in which case Virgil’s poem could be seen to possess tragic irony while Kerouac’s would possess comic irony.)” Hallelujah and yes! You are getting warm . . . .

But that was one brief shining moment. Lynch stumbles on toward the blunt end making presumptions about what he thinks I think and collapses in a heap upon that last refuge of the theoreticians among us. You guessed it: One of those totally incomprehensible and non-functional schema:

“TABLE 1. Distinction between haiku and senryu based on topic and treatment.”

(Funny thing is, though I looked and looked, I never found a TABLE 2! Just lucky, I guess.)

I leave Dr. Lynch (oh, he did get his Ph.D.) fretting over his schema as to “psychological haiku” (Willmot classification) or “serious senryu” (van den Heuvel classification). As Cor knows, when we would talk by phone about the poems he was considering for his 1986 anthology, I kept telling him how many of Rotella’s wonderful poems and some of Marlene Mountain’s poems were actually senryu.

By the end of 1990, I finally decided upon a relatively easy-to-comprehend distinction as I wrote up an Introduction to my book One Potato Two Potato Etc [Peaks Press, 1991]. I said of senryu:

“Eighteenth century in origin, it arose as a reaction against the constraints of the haiku. Man is not dominant (if he is there at all) in the haiku. But in most senryu, he is central to the poem. Senryu are usually humorous or satirical, but because they deal with the range of human emotions and relationships, they can sometimes be quite serious in tone. Unlike haiku, senryu do employ poetic devices such as simile, metaphor, personification. Hence, in some senryu animals speak, darkness flinches, a pea can think out loud, a teacup can be a metaphor for a human being. Because both genres occasionally utilize similar subject matter (some senryu are parodies of haiku), one can be mistaken for the other. Then it helps to ask yourself what is the emphasis of the particular poem.

Simplistically speaking, if it is man within the world, it is haiku. If it is the world within the man, it is senryu.”

I also decided that it was time someone stood up to the plate on this issue. There was an easy way to denote senryu and I added an AUTHOR'S NOTE to my book which stated:

“The senryu in this book are in italics except when they appear in sequences which contain haiku.”

I thought that might give the editors a “way out.”

Guess what? No takers! Editors for the longest time would not commit themselves to distinguish senryu from haiku. One would get a haiku magazine and most readers would have no clue they were reading senryu mixed in with the haiku! Same with all the books that came out. Including anthologies. That sure kept the waters good and muddy.

I recall submitting a senryu to Robert Spiess of Modern Haiku. He wrote and accepted my “haiku” for publication. I wrote back and told him it was a senryu, not a haiku.

Here is my senryu:

The cracked cup
gets packed
better than the rest.
      [Anita Virgil, One Potato Two Potato Etc (Peaks Press, 1991).]

And I sent him the following senryu from Japanese Life and Character in Senryu, which I told him provided an exact parallel to my own poem:

The coral
Sits on a cushion
In the shop.
      –Anon. senryu [Blyth, JL and CS, p. 461.]

No answer was forthcoming. He published my “cracked cup”–and ever intransigent, Spiess included it among the haiku. Senryu to him, from what I could tell in his magazine, continued to be just of the dumb joke variety and little else! I never sent him any more senryu.

That is one instance of editors compounding the problem. Another is this: I did a “Retrospective” piece on Alan Pizzarelli’s work for S x SE Magazine when Jim Kacian was its editor in the 1990s. A line in it that described the unusually broad scope of Alan’s wonderful poetry ended:
“ . . . and all this on the head of a pin, as it were, all this executed within the rigorous discipline of the two smallest poetic vehicles, the haiku and the senryu.” At the end of the piece, Kacian added in bold face type:
      (Turn the page to be amazed by Alan Pizzarelli’s selected senryu.)

The minute I saw that I was most upset! It was dead wrong. I told him that two-page spread included both haiku AND senryu. I asked him to print a correction in the following issue. He did not. More confusion to the readers . . . But I say the poets are really catching on now and are consciously writing some marvelously fresh senryu.

Absolutely, there are often subtleties at issue. For instance, a poem about a cat or a human, the moon or a flower could be haiku or senryu depending upon how it is handled. Nothing is ever just black or just white. And to totally confound the nitpickers there are a relatively few of what are known as “borderline” poems that certainly touch both genres, and aren’t outside them, but just fit most snugly in the crack. Often, these are the gentler senryu like this Old Senryu from Japanese Life and Character in Senryu:

The blind horse
Opens his mouth
When the straw-coat touches him.
      –Anon. senryu [R. H. Blyth, (Japan, Hokuseido, 1949), p. 37.]

But by and large, we “get it” now. At this writing, Al Pizzarelli who has long been acclaimed for his marvelous senryu, accepted the position of Senryu Editor for Simply Haiku. His leadership promises not only top entertainment, but great examples of the scope of the senryu. That will be of tremendous benefit to all who have just not understood how various it can be. So, in spite of all the obstacles and detours along the way, senryu is emerging as a fine art in the hands of more and more haiku poets here and abroad. Here is a wee sampling of poems from the last decade.

hairdresser’s tale–
with every curler,
a new twist.
      –Anthony Pupello [Sax Man’s Case, Red Moon Press, 1998]

overscrambled eggs
we discuss
      –R. A. Stefanac [Frogpond, Dec. 1996]

visiting the shrink–
the maze of corridors
leading to her office
      –Makiko [Frogpond XXI , No.1, 1998]

class reunion
with my old girlfriend
her girlfriend
      –Lee Gurga [Raw Nervz, Spring 1994]

at the urinal
I remember
my plants
      –John Stevenson [Frogpond, XXI, No.1, 1998]

saying too much
the deaf girl
hides her hands
      –Matthew Louvière [M.L., TheMarsh and Other Haiku and Senryu, Modern Haiku Press,
        Madison, WI, 2001.]

how come
what's his name
never speaks to me
      –Dee Evetts [endgrain, Red Moon Press, 1997]

And one of my all-time favorites:

with a flourish
the waitress leaves behind
rearranged smears
      –Dee Evetts [endgrain]

There is no way anyone can tell me these wonderful haiku poets are not also wonderful senryu poets! What I hoped senryu would become back in 1971 has finally come to fruition. (I apologize if it was necessary to leave behind a few “rearranged smears” in the process.)


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