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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

Feature ~ Janice Brown, Banana Leaves in Wild Rose Country:
Teaching Japanese Haiku in Alberta

The title of this paper points to a teaching project that has been developing gradually over the past two decades in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. My participation began in 1991 when I became assistant professor in that department, responsible for teaching courses in modern Japanese literature. Since the department is small, it is sometimes necessary for me to teach undergraduate courses in both modern and pre-modern eras, including the course in Japanese poetry. Entitled "Haiku and the Japanese Poetic Tradition," this undergraduate course is taught at the 400-level, which means that most of the students who enroll have some background in Japanese language and are likely to have also spent some time in Japan. Having said that, however, I should also point out that this is not always the case. The course is also open to interested students across the university, and often includes those from the sciences as well as from art and design, comparative literature, and so on. As a result, the course is not taught in Japanese but in English. Students who have Japanese knowledge and/or background are of course encouraged to read the texts and materials in Japanese according to their ability. The problem then becomes how to teach the course so that all students, regardless of linguistic background or ability, will benefit from and be able to contribute to the course. To this end, we have organized a number of class activities to accompany lecture materials. In this paper I will focus specifically on the teaching of the haiku form, and the various class activities that have been devised over the years as instructional aids in this particular genre. I will draw examples from several classes taught by myself during the past several years, including the following activities: visit to the Muttart Conservatory, Edmonton; composition of haikai linked verse; and class visit of a contemporary Canadian haiku poet.

A Visit to Muttart Conservatory: The Importance of the Natural World

One of the first things that strikes students about Japanese poetry is the exceedingly numerous references to plants, animals, and other elements of a natural environment far different from that of Alberta. The climate and terrain of this part of western Canada have more in common with the northernmost island of Hokkaidô than the Japanese poetry heartland of the Kansai and Kinki regions. As a result, there is a huge cultural gap between the way most Alberta students regard the natural world and the way that world is portrayed in Japanese poetry. For example, in our study of Basho school haiku, I introduce the following poem to illustrate the derivation of the poet’s pen name, and the aesthetics that were to arise from it:

A banana plant in the autumn gale -- Basho nowaki shite
I listen to the dripping of rain tarai ni ame wo
Into a basin at night Kiku yo kana

The image of the leaves of the banana plant frayed and tattered by wind and rain is a key element in appreciating Basho and his poetic art, his cultivation of loneliness as poetic ideal, and his sense of oneness with humble, ordinary living things, such as the banana plant. The fact that a particular plant is connected with a specific season is also of great importance in the appreciation of haiku. But, if one has never seen such a plant, chances are the above poem will have little impact and make only the vaguest impression. The same holds true with a great number of other haiku. In order to bring alive the relatively esoteric natural world of pre-modern Japanese haiku, our haiku course includes a field trip to the Muttart Conservatory here in Edmonton. There, in the Tropical Zone pyramid, one finds several banana plants, or Basho, growing amidst a lush profusion of other plants and flowers, including bamboo and orchids. Insects and butterflies also abound. Although not all of this tropical vegetation is to be found in Japan, those species that do grow there, such as the banana plant, serve to illustrate more clearly than any lecture or video presentation, the particularity of the natural world as it appears in Japanese poetry.

Soon after entering the Tropical Pyramid, students react immediately to the high humidity as they slowly circumnavigate the area; coats and jackets are shed, and the class stares in amazement at the banana plants. "But, they're trees!" one student cries. A lively discussion follows concerning the banana plant, its life cycle, whether it produces fruit, and the suitability of its relationship to the poet. At this point, I pass around a hand-out entitled "Haiku for Plants in the Muttart" and ask a couple of students to read out loud the haiku on the banana plant. We then move on to other displays. Our next stop is the Temperate Pyramid where we discover a number of plants and flowers native only to Japan, as well as others that are to be found in both Alberta and Japan. Usually, I allow the students to wander in this pyramid by themselves or in small groups, searching out the flowers, trees, and plants mentioned on the haiku list hand-out. When they locate the plant, I ask them to read aloud the appropriate haiku and note how it seems to fit or not fit the flower or plant referred to in the poem. Some students are full of comments and observations; some prefer to sit quietly before the natural objects, reflecting on the poem and its image. Other students manage to locate the quail that live in one section of the garden. In general, the class is no longer oriented towards the classroom and the instructor. All are engaged, in one way or another, on a shared search and discovery of the natural world from a perspective never before considered - that of traditional Japanese haiku.

Since it is March, our field trip also includes the Show Pyramid, which features flowers of the season. At this time of year, the selected flower is the jonquil, or daffodil (suisen), and there is a gorgeous feast for the eyes. Here the students collapse onto benches and lean back, seemingly overwhelmed by the dazzling array of colour and spring-like atmosphere. Outside, of course, the snow is still piled up; the Edmonton temperature, well down the minus side of the scale, will not allow spring flowers to show their faces for some weeks to come. This year as we settled ourselves in the Show Pyramid for a final reading of haiku and an appraisal of our visit, the students surprised me: they suddenly began to compose their own haiku. A beginning line by one student was soon joined by another, and before long, all were offering suggestions, counting syllables, and making their own poems. The session was thoroughly enjoyed by all. The spontaneity of such haiku composition, which seemed to have resulted primarily from the encounter with the flora and fauna of the Muttart Conservatory, brought home vividly to students and instructor alike not only the power and significance of the natural realm in the work of traditional haiku poets but also the excitement generated by a type of poetry that relies on and benefits from the participation of a group gathered together for an occasion.

Haiku in Wild Rose Country: Class Composition of Haikai no renga

Up until now in this paper, I have been referring to "haiku," and I will continue to do so. However, this word requires some clarification before I begin a discussion of another of our class activities: the composition of a linked verse sequence. The word "haiku" is actually a very recent term, coined by the modern haiku poet, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), in the Meiji period. In the time of Basho, however, this term was unknown. The type of poetry practiced by Basho, his followers, as well as other poets of the day was a form of linked verse, called haikai no renga, in which several poets participated, linking together their individual compositions to form one poetic oeuvre. Haikai no renga, literally 'unusual' or 'unconventional' linked verse, was derived from the more formal linked poetry of medieval Japan. In Basho's time, 'unconventional' meant primarily a wider range of subject matter, encompassing the mundane and the popular as well as the more elegant images of the courtly past. The manner of linking, based on alternating verses of 17 and 14 syllables, was akin to the older form. However, in Basho's unconventional renga, the first verse in a sequence came to be known as hokku, literally, first verse. It is from hokku that the word, haiku, literally ‘unconventional verse,' is derived.

By the time we come to the study of Basho in our course, the students are already familiar with the linked verse of the Middle Ages, its rules and practices, and they have already participated in a class renga composition. In embarking upon haikai no renga, the students, very much like Basho, are eager to break out of the strict renga mode and incorporate contemporary, familiar subject matter and imagery in their composition. In order to underline the break with tradition that Basho's work represented and also to emphasize the shocking newness of haikai no renga in its day, I ask that the students look not only to the poetry of the past for their inspiration but also to the time and place in which they now live: that is, contemporary Alberta. Not only may the students include such traditional images as moon, blossoms, spring haze, or the like in their verses, it is now also permissible for them to write of coffee cups, beavers, blue jays, wild roses, and kinnickinnick. The class spends some time listing seasonal imagery and contemporary objects and situations. They also decide on what rules will apply to their composition, that is, on how closely they will follow the rules laid down by Basho in the past. This sort of exercise brings out a number of issues that might otherwise have remained unremarked in a lecture course. For example, in enumerating seasonal imagery, students quickly realize that many Alberta place names as well as natural flora and fauna are the reflections of the culture and nomenclature of ancient native peoples. Looking for potential images to utilize in a linked verse sequence provides the students themselves with other kinds of links, to native cultures, to the past, and to a poetic realization of Alberta itself.

Once the ground rules are set out, the students meet to compose the linked verse sequence. Generally, the time allotted is one class session -- one hour and twenty minutes. With an average class of 10 students, all students take at least two turns. Thus, although the standard short form of haikai no renga is 36 stanzas, we aim for a sequence of 20-24 stanzas, given the time constraints. The atmosphere is not particularly serious. Tea and Japanese sweets are provided by the instructor, and all students actively participate in the construction of the sequence, even when it is not their turn to compose. For example, once a student has composed his or her verse and read it aloud to the group, there is a brief discussion of the merits of the stanza before it is written down by the student who is serving as scribe. On occasion, the verse may be altered by class consensus before the verse is recorded. Sometimes, students want to make changes even after the sequence had been completed, and often the discussion about the merits or demerits of a link will take place off and on over the remaining weeks of the course. Class composition of linked verse works very well in small classes of no more than 10-12 people. This type of exercise is particularly valuable as a means of bringing home to the students two major aspects of traditional Japanese poetry: the importance of the familiar natural world as a primary source of inspiration, and also the shared, social nature of poetry composition by a group/community of like-minded poets. (See Appendix, "Colorful Blossoms" as an example of one class haikai no renga.)

"Petals on White Ground": Class Visit by Local Haiku Poet, Gerald St. Maur

Another class activity that appeals very much to the students is a visit by the local Edmonton haiku poet, Gerald St. Maur, who reads and discusses some of his haiku. Mr. St. Maur, who has been a member of Haiku Canada for 25 years, writes haiku in both English and French; he also writes tanka in English as well as working in other poetic formats unconnected to Japanese poetry. Before Mr. St. Maur comes to class, I hand out a selection of his work for the students to read beforehand. In class, Mr. St. Maur begins his presentation by speaking in general about his fascination with haiku, what he considers to be the important aspects of this form in English, and so on. He then reads aloud from his own haiku. He is an accomplished reader and with his vocal modulations, well-chosen pauses, and varying emotional expressiveness, conveys much of the suggestiveness and appeal of this short poetic form. Mr. St. Maur also reads each haiku twice, after a pause between. He then asks each student to read aloud one of the haiku that he/she particularly liked. After reading the haiku themselves, the students often remark how different their reading and our readings in class are from Mr. St. Maur's expressive reading. Students are unanimous in declaring that reading thoughtfully and expressively aloud seems to add much more to their understanding of the poem. The 'haiku performance' of Gerald St. Maur ends with a class discussion. By this time in the course, students have been exposed to a variety of haiku, beginning with Basho and extending to modern and contemporary times, in which the tradition of 17 syllables is not strictly maintained. Mr. St. Maur, however, prefers to write using 17 syllables. Students enjoy a discussion and debate over the advantages and disadvantages of adhering to a strict syllable count in the writing of haiku. Almost always, someone will finally ask Mr. St. Maur: ""Just what is a haiku, anyway?!" At this, the poet laughs and shakes his head. "I can't tell you what it is," he says. "I can only tell you what it seems to be, for me." Mr. St. Maur explains that he regards the haiku as an expression of psychological insight, what he calls the 'haiku moment,' and he reads a few more poems to illustrate his point further. As the class ends, a few students come forward. They have written their own haiku and want to ask the poet what he thinks of their composition. The visit of the poet to the class has brought about a new understanding of haiku as a potent instrument of personal self-expression in a way that no amount of class lecturing could achieve, at least not by this instructor! Gerald St. Maur's 'hands-on' approach to the haiku medium serves to bring this ancient poetic form fully alive in a contemporary English-speaking setting.

"Peeling an orange in zero-g": Haiku in Cyberspace

The class activities described above constitute the participatory elements of the course. I do not assign marks for these activities; I ask only that students take part. Besides these activities, I do assign essays and presentations, which are marked and for which I provide topics for the students. Last year, in a discussion about final papers and paper topics, students asked me if they might use sources from the Internet, to which I replied in the affirmative. Not being familiar with haiku on the Net myself, I asked the students if they would let me know if they came up with any good sites. I imagined they would find a few. Little did I realize that circulating freely in cyberspace was a seemingly infinite domain of haiku poetry. Not only did students come up with good sites, they uncovered a vast network (some 40,000+ sites) of what our class came to call `Internet Haiku.' So intriguing were some of these sites that two students decided to write their final essays on this topic. I would like to share some of their findings with you, and to point out the exciting potential of the Internet not only as a source of information but also as a site rich in popular literary and poetic experiment, which reveals an abiding fascination with Japanese poetic forms, particularly the haiku.

One of the most popular of the Internet Haiku in our class was the "sci-fai ku," or haiku based on the themes or subject matter of science fiction. Similar to the 'rules' governing the composition of haiku, sci-fai ku possesses its own "Sci-fai ku Manifesto." Further, there are acclaimed ‘masters’ whom sci-fai ku poets attempt to emulate; there are also contests and critiques, in short, all the trappings of the traditional haiku world have been re-constructed on the Internet. The principle difference between sci-fai ku and traditional haiku seems to lie in the focus of sci-fai ku on outer space and imaginary worlds, rather than the earthly realm of everyday experience. Often, however, sci-fai ku achieves its effect by the juxtaposition of the imaginary world of outer space with images of ordinary life, as in the following:

Peeling an orange in zero-g
reminds me of
a galaxy

Concerning this haiku, one of the students wrote in interpretation: "At first glance, I didn't really understand this sci-fai ku until I thought about it for awhile. . . . (then) I could picture this poet floating at zero gravity in some space ship, and the pieces of the orange peel swirling around like stars in a spinning galaxy. . . ." The student goes on to compare this imaginary "haiku moment" with the momentary glimpse of passing phenomena captured by traditional haiku. His conclusion is that there is not much difference between the two forms.

Other sci-fai ku, however, eschew outer space for more homely situations, as in the following example:

Late night UFO movie
I leave the porchlight on
for visitors

Playing on two familiar aspects of contemporary popular culture, the scary movie and alien abduction, the poet constructs a haiku that conflates psychological moods - anticipation, solitude, fear of the unknown - with a desire for social connection and communication, whether with the familiar or with the other. Who or what the "visitors" may be is left open.

Besides sci-fai ku, the students also enjoyed discussing the so-called "editorial haiku" or "edu ku." These are haiku with overt or explicit political or editorial comment, as in the following:

They scrubbed his genes and
hung the body to drip-dry
an ethnic cleansing.

In remarking on how different these editiorial haiku were from traditional haiku, and even from sci-fai ku, students were called on to formulate yet again their own ideas about what makes a haiku, as well as what constitutes the "haiku moment."

The last type of Internet Haiku that I would like to mention is what one student named "hyper-linked haiku." This form of haiku had special significance for the student as it seemed to play upon a very old Japanese literary technique, the poetic allusion, or honkadori. In hyper-linked haiku, only one haiku appears on the screen at a time. Within the haiku text, particular words or phrases are underlined, with a message at page bottom that reads "Click link for next poem." Each link leads to a new poem; for example, if the link "butterfly" is chosen, a new poem appears that is in some way related to "butterfly." In this way, each haiku is shown to have poetic links to others. While reminiscent of honkadori, a technique used primarily in waka poetry, in which recognizable elements of well-known poems are re-incorporated into new poems and given a new meaning, hyper-linked haiku seem more 'future-oriented' than is the case with the honkadori technique, which tends to look towards the past. In the case of hyper-linked haiku, "the reader has no idea of how many poems there are in total or what subjects will be encountered. The only way to reference back is by clicking the back button on the browser, since there is no hyper-link that returns to the previous poem - unless one stumbles across it by accident in some poem further down the line."

As you can see, the cyberworld of Internet Haiku offers a multitude of opportunities that can be incorporated into the teaching of this subject to students of Japanese culture. Although I have mentioned only English haiku sites, I would like to point out that there are equally numerous sites in Japanese. As well, there are haiku sites in French, German, Russian, and many other languages. Clearly, the possibilities are inexhaustible.

Indeed, if the burgeoning of haiku sites on the Internet is any indication, then it does seem more than likely that with every passing year, extraordinary possibilities for class activities in the teaching of Japanese haiku will continue to multiply. The few examples that I have mentioned here today are those that we have continued to employ successfully in our classes at the University of Alberta - the field trip to the Muttart Conservatory, the class composition of haikai no renga, the class visit by a local haiku poet. Combining scholarly study with exposure to situations and experiences that foster a sense of the traditional Japanese attitude towards poetry and poetry composition, these activities have been indispensable to our teaching. At the same time, steered by the students themselves, the course appears more than ready to move into new and hitherto unknown areas, such as the Internet. A source of wonder and inspiration to me, as the instructor, is just how much the utilization of the new technologies finds resonance with past poetic form and practice. Skimming the quick-silver interstices of cyberspace, tens of thousands of poets still find haiku a fit medium of expression and attempt not only to communicate globally their insights, fears, desires, and aspirations through haiku but also strive to create new and meaningful haiku forms. If I may close with the words of one student:

" Who knows? Maybe in the future, people will look back at the Sci-fai ku of today and think of it as the 'classical' form."

Janice Brown is Professor of Modern Japanese Literature at the University of Alberta. Her main areas of research are in modern Japanese fiction and modern and contemporary Japanese women’s poetry.

Her publications include Hayashi Fumiko: I Saw a Pale Horse and Selected Poetry from Diary of a Vagabond, Ithaca, New York: Cornell East Asia Series, 1997 and numerous articles on Japanese women writers and poets. A new volume, Tarnished Words: The Poetry of Oba Minako, is forthcoming from EastBridge Press.



Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku