Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

Interview ~ Richard Gilbert
by Robert Wilson

RW: Recently you said, "Contemporary Japanese principles and techniques of haiku have yet to be properly integrated and valued in English haiku composition and thought. It may also be said that the era when the English haiku itself might provide an effective, autonomous aesthetic basis for critical judgment has yet to arrive.” How different is Occidental haiku from Japanese haiku?

RG: The question you ask could well become a book in itself—there are many facets and perspectives one could start from. I’ll direct my comparison to the modern Japanese haiku sphere. Specifically, the phrase “contemporary Japanese principles and techniques” is meant to contrast with the classical Japanese tradition, which has been the main focus of western haiku thought and practice. Contemporary or gendai haiku (“modern Japanese haiku”), while retaining classical principles at heart has undergone a series of radical evolutions much as the western arts have, say from post-impressionism (roughly contemporary to Shiki) to our artistic and cultural present. I have come to value, theoretically and compositionally, the magnitude and diversity of change in Japanese haiku over the last century. Many of the issues raised by modern western artists were likewise raised by modern Japanese artists, though of course in a different historico-cultural context. There are points of commonality in confronting “the modern.”

I wonder whether the English haiku world, through a classicist/traditionalist focus on one variety of haiku, has so far avoided not only modern Japanese literary history but also our own modern-art corpus. By setting out a narrow set of classicist-inspired rules and definitions, the English-language genre seems to have largely sidestepped western art theories and perspectives concerning poetry, modernity and reality. There may be some irony in that gendai haiku represent a century of modern challenges to haiku form; consequently, there is an observable integration and validation of gendai haiku within contemporary Japanese literature. In fact, postwar gendai evolution was contemporaneous with the developing “traditionalist” English haiku!

Educating ourselves as readers involves the incorporation of modern Japanese and western perspectives alike, including cubism, surrealism, dada, magical realism, postmodernism and such, as these relate to haiku. I'm reminded of the gendai poet Hoshinaga Fumio, who recently commented that “realism . . . was a brief, temporary movement.” We might fruitfully discuss the problem of realism in western haiku; it seems the valuation of realism is a sticking point. In Japan, such discussions were on the table decades ago. And, aren’t classical haiku really a form of modern poetry to us, in English? In a curious twist, when I began reading Bashō, thirty years ago, I found his works to be postmodern—before that formal literary category existed! There’s something about the haiku aesthetic and style, classical or otherwise, that is very fresh, postmodern, futurist. All haiku are modern to us, aren't they?

Modern poetry often uses language freely (slang, dialect, idiolect) and irruptively (Stein, cummings, Cage, language poetry, etc.). Japanese gendai haiku continues to undergo development. Imagine meeting a person who felt that the evolution of painting ended with post-impressionism—you might consider such an attitude provincial. Broadly speaking then, gendai Japanese haiku exhibit many of the principles, theories and techniques found in modern poetry or modern arts generally. Specific techniques would need more space for discussion. A number of haiku critics have rightly upheld the unique stylism of haiku, but overstated or reduced the intention, and thereby misread the modern. To give an example, George Swede declared that Ezra Pound’s 1913 In a Station of the Metro “is often described as a haiku by persons with only a tenuous knowledge of the form.” Notwithstanding his remark, Pound’s poem has also been described as an excellent haiku by those well-familiar with haiku. It's worth quoting Swede’s reasoning: "Successful as a short poem, it fails as a haiku because only the first line deals with an immediate experience while the second line involves the memory of an image that the poet uses overtly as a metaphor. A haiku is a haiku because all the images it conveys occur simultaneously in a person's present preceptions (sic) of the world (Haiku in English in North America"

I don’t think such a statement can be accepted, in terms of what Swede is saying about memory. In fact, the memory he’s speaking of is occurring “in a person’s [the reader’s] present perceptions of the world” along with the rest of the poem, isn’t it. I feel that Swede overstates and reduces the genre in his sine qua non, elegant as it is. I’m reminded of this haiku by Jim Kacian (found in his Presents of Mind):

swallow flight
looking out the window
long after

which plays with the ‘moment’ of time and memory as a central feature of its haiku action. Which moment is immanent? I like this haiku precisely because immanence is distributed, so to speak. Swede uses this phrase: “haiku is a haiku because” in his critique. I think the truth of what haiku are, considering the range of haiku, is rather more difficult to nail down than a “because” and a definitive answer-in-a-phrase, as regards moments, memory, metaphor. This is one of the new departures that is now occurring in the genre: an expansion of technique and validation.

By examining gendai haiku, we may be aided in finding linkages, means and modes in which haiku fundaments can be fused or blended with elements of modern poetry. In other words, rapprochement. I wonder to what extent the western haiku genre has rejected other modern poetic genres in its quest for exclusive definition? Have we thrown out too much of the baby with the bathwater? The two questions, what is haiku? and, what can haiku be? are as relevant now as they were in 1950. Regarding gendai haiku principles and techniques, there are challenging issues of cultural context and translation to consider, as we’re talking about twelve decades of modern art. Where have our haiku pundits been, in these recent decades? One answer is, developing a tradition, laying down the bedrock; certainly valid work. But along the way, western haiku writers who have had modern ideas, and wished to experiment (often in ways similar to Japanese gendai haiku poets) have became discouraged, and even been castigated for their efforts.

Since we already have “modern haiku” in English, it’s not easy to choose a term which would imply contemporary—in an expansive sense. Gendai principles and techniques do exist uniquely in English; something presented in The Disjunctive Dragonfly – certain disjunctive types may be more effective in English than Japanese—imagistic fusion, for instance, and certain forms of rhythmic usage. I find modern haiku to be tremendously exciting, profound and fresh, and wish we’d been able to forge a bond with our Japanese gendai brethren of the 60s and 70s. That would have been interesting, as many of those poems were allied in topic or perspective to modern western poetry in those eras.

Any excellent haiku is uniquely creative, existing in a national, regional context and language. While gendai haiku are an inspiration in English, techniques that are fitting in a Japanese context (concerns that crop up in a 400-year-old genre), may not be relevant. So a gendai development in English isn’t necessarily a matter of “capturing” a tradition—emulation takes you only so far. In this sense, one of the biggest differences between Japanese and occidental haiku is that of validity. Japanese haiku is central to the identity of Japanese literature, while English haiku has not yet produced a well-known poet writing in the genre as a means of recognition; we’re still working towards that day.

Some want their haiku cooked and spiced in certain ways, elucidated from specific perspectives. Others have a broader or more flexible palette. The same is also true in Japan; not everyone who writes haiku writes in gendai style. One can join haiku circles of every stripe. When it comes to judging important competitions, there’s generally a broad representation of judges. Tohta Kaneko (a gendai haijin and literary luminary) for instance, often appears as a critic or judge in a variety of haiku-society formats. So I would like to avoid altogether the issue of which haiku style is better, more pure, preferred—it’s mostly a matter of taste and perception. It comes down to “what is haiku”: not as definition, as some would have it; any “hard” definition that would cover every style becomes basically insensible when carefully analyzed. Gendai haiku have great breadth and have had a remarkable evolution. Perhaps wisely, there is no exact definition of haiku given in Japanese dictionaries. What does gendai haiku, east or west, have to offer? The ways modern reality can be uniquely spoken in haiku.

RW: While attending the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, you said you hung out with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and other Beat poets who have had a major impact on American poetry. They, of course, are a lot older than you. Ginsberg has since passed away. (I too met and corresponded with him, by the way.) How did they, as elder statesmen, influence your concept of haiku and poetic expression?

RG: Naropa Institute, now Naropa University, was a fantastic place for an alienated poet. My association with Naropa, as undergrad, grad student and later, event coordinator, grant writer, general factotum and uninvited guest, lasted a decade (1980-1990). During that time the school changed from an unaccredited hole-in-the-wall walkup on the Pearl Street Mall into a substantial, accredited, endowed institution. In December 1980 I arrived in Boulder from Danbury, Connecticut, sleeping in my ‘69 Dodge panel van, all worldly possessions within; mostly a tiny dresser and typewriter. Slept in the IHOP parking lot. In the previous two years I’d been rebuilding engines, and managing a steam-generation component-assembly division, in order to save for the school tuition. With a friend, had started “The Plant,” an alternative community to the isolated social hell of Danbury. Our group created a café society, producing several local arts festivals in 1979-80.

Just prior to settling in, I’d wondered if there would be attempted cult brainwashings, but to my surprise in the ensuing months I could hardly get anyone on the Naropa staff to talk about Buddhism, much less the odd-looking Tibetan gentleman glimpsed smiling or glowering from small desktop photographs. Instead, I was quickly caught up in a marvelous, spontaneous cultural experiment, not particularly florid in terms of drugs and booze (though Boulder was no desert), blooming with arts collaboration. There were plenty more dancers than poets in our student body of approximately 120 (including part-timers), so I got involved in dance, music performance and production. I’d come to Naropa to learn from those who had become successful poets, rather than studying with teachers who just talked about poetry—analyzed—and my expectations were not just exceeded—events went far beyond anything I could have imagined.

Everything that happened related to Naropa has affected my “concept of haiku and poetic expression,” which is, basically, life. One of the great gifts of Naropa was the lack of social barriers between teachers and students. Many of us were older students; I arrived, still BA-less at age 26. There was an emphasis on perception, direct examination and emanation of mind and the moment; teachers taught whatever they wished in whatever way they wanted. To mention a few examples, Larry Fagin read from his work journals, Anselm Hollo taught the Objectivists, Patricia Donegan taught East Asian poetry (and notably, haiku), Alan taught Blake. Gary Snyder avoided Naropa for some years, but began visiting summers to read and teach Beat history, the environment, and relations between poetry and Zen. A multitude of soirees, performances, parties, political actions—all sorts of events. Summers were filled with symposia: international students and teachers arrived from all corners. I was lucky enough to explore many new forms of therapy which involved energy, somatic focus and the arts—Lomiwork being a high point (with gratitude to Melissa Soalt, Christine Caldwell and Paul Ortel). A high point was the 1985 Jack Kerouac conference, in which most of the still-living Beats met together, many for the last time. Tim Leary was present, Burroughs, Paul Krasner, McClure and a number of others, along with the Naropa crew. I may be guilty of waxing romantic, but there’s a lot of unknown history and achievement connected with Naropa worth acknowledging. For those interested in research, the Naropa library has a unique and sizable archive of audio and video from the 70s on.

You have to be a bit loony to enter “The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics,” [] the moniker Alan gave to our Department. It’s difficult to describe the influence of a disembodied poetics, but it was Kerouac’s spirit that had created the context for the teachers and students and classes existing together, allowing space for the essential paradox of a 1200 year-old Tibetan Buddhist religious tradition intersecting with a bunch of autonomous and irascible American artists. The Beat spirit was perhaps vapor, but the Beats themselves were largely present in embodied form. As such, influence was direct, personal and idiosyncratic. I learned for instance how Greg Corso approached and taught poetry, and how he read (brilliantly); drank together and such. Did an internship with Alan, transcribing sections of his journals, so I got to know him. In exchange, he read and commented on my poems. Professional poets and artists are busy enough without teaching, and Naropa didn’t pay much, so we were all busy, crossing paths and hanging out in various contexts over the years. It wasn’t exactly chummy, yet we were in a small community in this trendy hick town, so there was a tight container and plenty of intensity.

The confluence of the Beat tradition and American poetic tradition on the whole never quite settled out of a somewhat confused stew for me during my time at Naropa—maybe the question wasn’t uppermost in teacher’s minds. I would have wished for stronger academics (which now exist I'm told). Sitting six students in a circle: Peter Orlovsky’s class. We start breaking down the word “white” into phonemic sounds, chanting, whispering “wh-“ “wh-“ “wh-“ “wh-“ “wh-“ “wh-“, until it’s no longer a word-part, just strange freaky energy, a few go on to the “”i-” “i-”, we get louder, softer. The energy locked into words. What is language? I recently performed this word/sound experiment with a college class here in Japan, as part of a “Nature Writing in American Literature” class. Bill Douglas teaching “Bebop Etudes” (musical poems) exploring polyrhythmic syncopation, left hand beating 3 against 4 with the right. I got into meditation and became a Buddhist. So, many personal encounters and phenomenal experiences, leaving me quite changed. I’m not sure that my concept of poetry altered greatly from studying with Naropa poets but it expanded into real living beings who offered unique discoveries—I particularly want to mention Pat Donegan’s love of haiku, patient critical comment on student haiku, personal mentorship and friendship, and her own publication of "Hot Haiku," now a treasured text. Discovery wasn’t just of knowledge per se, but the passion, life and interest of those presenting it. Sixteen of us entered the Poetics BA in January 1981, resulting in two graduates, myself and Gary Allen, now a poet and teacher. I've often wondered what happened to the 14 classmates who flew on. At the time the school existed in a state of great social flux, and something of the living Beat tradition was passed on in this context. How not?

RW: Your life has been a "wild toad ride." You've studied Asian poetry with an emphasis on haiku, psychology, Buddhism, music, diving . . . worked as a psychologist, built guitars, played in a band, produced and directed television programs, and currently work as a professor at the Faculty of Letters at Kumamoto University in Japan. And somehow you manage to mediate and write haiku and haiku related research papers. How does this zeal for life shape your haiku and haiku spirit?

RG: Maybe haiku and haiku spirit have shaped my life, rather than the other way round. I’d like to answer your question by discussing haiku and sacred space, since both define my supposed career. What is poetry, why do we need it, what does poetry do—to us, for us? In The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde affirms a sense that the poem, indeed all art, is fundamentally created as an offering. Our culture commodifies artworks, a rather aberrant activity, apparently, when viewed from the broad perspective of global art history. Hyde reminds the reader of a truth concerning artwork—the desire to offer a gift, not only to humanity but to the cosmos, the sky, sun, moon, animals, plants, universe, to the moment, to history, one’s ancestors, to the invisible. To offer in a sacred way. Mircea Eliade discusses another aspect of offering in The Myth of the Eternal Return, the means for constructing sacred space, and of enacting life within that space (and timeless time) of the sacred. Experientially investigating the absence and presence of the sacred has been a high value in my life, and also a “saunter”: a sense of being sans terre, without Earth, which has involved a meandering desire for holiness (cf. Thoreau’s essay “Walking”), a goal echoed in the last stanza of Goethe’s “The Holy Longing”:

And so long as you haven’t experienced
This: to die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.

A portion of my research has concerned oblivion: the figure of Lethe (personification of Oblivion), mother of the Graces. Why might Forgetting give rise to Splendor, Delight and Blossoming, the three Graces? Heidegger writes,

The oldest of the old follows behind
us in our thinking and yet it
comes to meet us.

That is why thinking holds to the
coming of what has been, and
is remembrance.

("The Thinker As Poet," Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper & Row, 1971, p. 10)

To remember that thinking is remembrance . . . It seems the sacred is easily forgotten, and entering again, in the encounter is a sense of remembrance, a return of “the oldest of the old.” I’ve been interested in why not only the sense of poetry but the experience of poetic dwelling becomes lost. The danger inherent in a world, in any society, which loses poetic dimension and thereby becomes overtly literalistic is a danger perhaps greater than that of terrorism, perhaps a contributing cause. To know or feel the sense of poetry in life is to know “the coming of what has been,” to desire remembrance: to re-member the world, cosmos, oneself, a leaf, a tree. It may be that a necessary means of entering the zone of the sacred is the experience of oblivion.

Haiku are not always instantly irruptive, do not always enact a sudden shift, yet they seem to draw us into a new resonance, creating a sense of the sacred. Hoshinaga Fumio's haiku,

nigemizu e sengo no chichi wo oitsumeru

toward the mirage of water
the postwar fathers
chasing after . . .

            (Kumaso-Ha, Honami Shoten, 2003)

is a haiku which seems to have layers (allusive adumbrations) of mirage: of image, time and space – Escherlike heads curling round tails. It's a haiku I work into, never quite out of. There’s an unfolding, sensed as lament which echoes back through millennia, through a myriad of cultures. I recall this haiku by Dimitar Anakiev.

spring evening -
the wheel of a troop carrier
crushes a lizard

            (Knots: The Anthology of Southeastern European Haiku Poetry, Red Moon Press, 1999)

Its main image is violent, shocking. But this haiku is not merely violent. There is also a sense of sacredness. The context or field of reality is only partly given by the poem; the haiku requires rapprochement on the reader’s part. That is, the genre itself indicates the boundary lines of the sacred, and it is within the landscapes of the sacred, oriented by the genre as a whole, in which image and action occur.

Concision, disjunction and image elements largely contribute to a haiku’s effect, but these elements alone aren’t enough. If one reads the above poems quickly without a pause they lose much of their drama and vividness. So, what happens when we slow down, allow this unique poetic form to come to life? I would argue that in some measure we experience oblivion(s), if for instants, and through such psychological moments, remembrance. Mnemosyne, anamnesis, Lethe’s sister, is mother to the Muses. Such may be said for any art one becomes absorbed in and passionate toward; nonetheless, haiku are quite uncompromising in the way they cut into reality. There is extreme and concise rupture.

To my knowledge, the phenomenology of poetic process has not been explained by science. In fact, qualitative conscious experience itself has not yet been demonstrably elucidated—there is so much we experience and feel which remains immeasurable. Without being able to precisely measure or define, it is nevertheless apparent that haiku becomes a genre due to demonstrably unique modes of poetic encounter and dwelling. I should say that what is truly unique isn’t the experience itself, but its prevalence and intensity, when compared with other poetic and artistic forms.

We may tend to devalue the significance and importance of poetic movements which open us to the sacred, to remembrance, because of their immateriality; contrastive with the predominant materialist cultural ethos. I know I have, and it’s one reason for my returning to the wellspring of haiku. The haiku genre (which includes a reader) constructs an environment within which its language (i.e. symbolic representation) uniquely occurs. It may be a zest for life that draws me to haiku, but likewise a zest for oblivion and erasure. Not necessarily erasure in itself so much as what happens through it.

Some years ago, Barbara Dilley (Merce Cunningham dancer, Naropa Dance Program Director and former President) introduced me to “square work,” in which a length of bright red yarn is made into a large square on the dance floor, tacked down with a few bits of masking tape. What is within the square is defined as sacred space. Dancers (people) relate to the fact of the square, and to entering and exiting that space. It’s quite difficult to remain conscious as one steps across the boundary. A gap in consciousness occurs right at the apotheosis of transition. This is one of the consciousness research-questions we explored in an embodied manner as dance. There’s nothing much to taking some twine and making a square on a patch of bare ground. The square has only as much meaning and significance as is intended by the participants, and what grows from experiences of many crossings and movements (object and human arrangements) within and without. After the dancers have gone, seeing that red twine on a darkened stage, would an aura exist? Is there a magical quality to that bare ground, so carefully demarcated? I would say, yes, to a sensitive reader there is, because there is an intentional architecture, much like a temple or church, just much more minimalist. Haiku likewise possess an intentional architecture; hence natively embody natural and nuministic aspects of being.

These days I watch Sumo on television; the dohyo, or fighting square, is a sacred space. Rikishi (wrestlers) climb the steps and enter the outer-square area throwing salt, an act of purification, as they step across the sacred rope boundary embedded within the clay ground, into the inner ring. Above, a temple roof hangs suspended, emblemizing the divine. Such an arrangement of objects in space is an example of an archetypal sacred architecture, explored in Eliade’s works. The sense of sacred space existing or inhabiting cultural constructions is no doubt a deeply archaic if not intrinsic aspect of the human spirit. Haiku as poems are a bit like that length of red twine, though the boundaries and evidences of sacrality may appear more subtly. An objectively intentional aspect exists, not necessarily in the poem itself, but in the fact that sacred space inhabits the poem, the genre, out of which the poem presents new ideas of reality. Isn’t this what is implied by the term “poetic tradition.” The oldest of the old follows behind us in our thinking and yet it comes to meet us.

mirai yori taki o fukiwaru kaze kitaru

From the future
a wind arrives
that blows the waterfall apart

            (Ban’ya Natsuishi, A Future Waterfall, Red Moon Press, 2nd ed., 2004)

In that art is an offering to the cosmos, the reader is returned by that offering to a cosmic sense or scene. Returned to the world purified and renewed by the “first” moment, the moment before creation.

Rising from the sea shedding the tank it’s surprising to be distant from fish, feeling weightless in the strangeness of air. What was that dreamlike place, filled with unblinking creatures, turtles with flippers, sharks large enough to blot out a far-off sun? The twine like sunlight is imaginal, extending along an invisible line between land and sea. Returning, vivid instants of memory quickly fade as a drop of ocean coheres within, adamantine. It is for that one drop so pure and crystalline that haiku seem to speak.

RW: You stated in your paper, The Disjunctive Butterfly, "In virtually every aspect of haiku (form, metrics, content, kireji, kigo, etc.) the Japanese genre from Bashō onward reveals complexity and creative experiment, marked by a diversity of schools and sensibilities. One school or style cannot definitively be said to be more "proper" than another." Care to elucidate?

RG: Bashō articulated the concept of fueki ryūkō:

“eternal truth – trend, vogue”
不易流行 (ふえきりゅうこう)

which has been translated as ‘immutable mutability.’ This paradoxical concept indicates that while there may be eternal verities, one moment is not the same as another, and one time or era is not the same as another; there is progression. So in order to properly articulate truth, one necessarily inhabits the zeitgeist. If “fashion” were not significant, we could simply curl up with Bashō forever and never need compose another poem. That sort of idea seems decidedly contrary to his radical spirit. In each era there are new developments or unique articulations, and these also serve to inform later generations of poets.

RW: In a book review you wrote about Ban’ya Natsuishi's book A Future Waterfall: 100 Haiku from the Japanese, you state: "Throughout the past century, Japanese haiku culture has undergone a kind of reverse-mirror process to that in the West: a national, classical poetic form has been reformed, abandoned, rediscovered, and extended numerous times, as poets brought together their classical tradition with modernity." Why is this so?

RG: Yes, this is what I was discussing above, how gendai haiku in Japan have encountered and met numerous challenges of modern art and historical movements over the last 12 decades.

RW: You say "Haiku comes from the Earth." Please explain.

RG: This is a topic I hope to pursue at length in the future. Here are some speculations and two poetic excerpts, as partial explanation. Do you often contemplate the questions “what is poetry,” and, “what is haiku”? What is it about haiku that create their distinct taste? And, what do we mean by the Earth? As you approach the question, what do you think of first—and last? I just thought of sneakers, dreams and the smell of a skunk at night, visualizing its longitudinal white stripe running down a black back. What I’m reporting to you is subjective and phenomenological—I’m relating personal experience. We participate in the shared images I just offered, through language. A smell, a dream, an object—to what extent are these symbols—that sneaker (a bit dirty, untied, white and just inside a front door) has been somewhere, is representative of feet, persons on the move—childhood, perhaps, a sport. Every sneaker tells a story. But it’s also just what it is—an image. Its existence is psychological in the original meaning of the term: a logos of psyche, an aspect of the soul’s knowing, or depth. When we slow down and contemplate any image we begin to unfold and the world deepens—the world comes to us. This is a rather poetic statement, but if you’ll permit me, the sneaker you image and mine are different, with the qualitative differences impossible to sort out. My moon is not your moon and our moons are shared. Like the image, the poem is never singular. The image is diverse—as diverse as our communal human experiences of that image, and perhaps more. Any image in a poem has valence, varying with each reader. In pausing, contemplating, images take on “life” as we give them time, space, and attention; we attend to them, attend to their life, how they live, experience the nature of that life. By ‘image’ I don’t mean merely something visual: I’m largely following James Hillman’s view of images here (cf. Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account).

Jung once said that it is not psyche which exists within man, but man who exists within psyche. It’s still a radical idea, that the world is soul. This idea is expressed in the ancient idea of Anima Mundi, the world soul. Poetry may have an enormous number of features, “mean” and act upon us in diverse ways, but for me its primary function is ensouling. I am nurtured, nourished and revivified by poetry. From this fact, I can acknowledge a phenomenological loss of soul, and a desire for learning—a desire to learn what soul has to teach: the way images bring life and depth, and through these, shared community. Also as good poetry is an adventure, curiosity cannot be discounted. Haiku encounter and create “image complexes in time,” to paraphrase Pound, in unique ways; they speak the world uniquely. While it may finally be impossible to define this uniqueness, it seems worth trying, if only for the journey. Haiku travel, they have velocity. Haiku instigate journeys—which continue, opening out—haiku are celebratory! There are many features to haiku: lightness, fragmentariness, concision, brevity, humor, disjunction, paradox, etc. Yet the relation between haiku and Earth seems particularly relevant. The two Walllace Stevens texts below (Opus Posthumous, pp. 88 and 115) point to approaches to haiku in relation to the Earth—realities:


It is true that you live on this rock
And in it. It is wholly you.

It is true that there are thoughts
That move in the air as large as air,

That are almost not our own, but thoughts
To which we are related,

In an association like yours
With the rock and mine with you.


In a secrecy of words
Opened out within a secrecy of place,

Not having to do with love.
A land would hold her in its arms that day

Or something like a land.
The circle would no longer be broken but closed.

The miles of its distance away
From everything would end. It would all meet.

RW: What one event or individual has had the greatest influence on you as a poet?

RG: Thank you, Abigail. Why did you leave, why did you never call?

RW: Haiku: To kigo or not to kigo?

RG: Do kigo exist in English? Or do you mean “season words,” “seasonal reference,” “seasonal theme”? Looking at what kigo are in Japanese haiku, it seems unfortunate that we use the Japanese word for something which is actually a different kettle of fish in our own literature. That being said, there seem to be two underlying issues. The first has to do with the traditional sense of Japanese haiku, which have kigo, developed from the hokku, and going back to renga, waka, and Chinese antecedents. The second issue has to do with nature. I would like to refer you to Hoshinaga Fumio’s comments [] regarding kigo. He addresses certain language and cultural issues between Japan/non-Japanese haiku. Hoshinaga comes to kigo after discussing his means of composing haiku as “touch[ing] upon human heart and feeling by creating human mental images.” And earlier in the interview he states, "I do not believe the truth that the sea is blue. That I believe it is blue: an encompassing state of affairs that limits as blue, via the comprehension of my eyes: I believe only that."

I’m in sympathy with Hoshinaga’s perspective, which impinges on the use of kigo and seasonal reference, in that the sense of nature is irrupted out of realism. Hoshinaga concurs with the idea that, “You feel kigo through your heart (inner sense), not through seeing, touching, and so on.” His is a perspective that avoids the psychic poverty and bad poetry involved in literalism.

For me, the pith arrives in Hoshinaga’s statement that, "The Japanese sense of nature is in harmony, or the harmony of — person (human being) and nature [— no separation —] in its widest sense. Without the sense of harmony with nature, Japanese literature would become very weak. So to write about nature—from that position— embodies traditional haiku, and my position is the same."

Harmony as ‘no separation,’ in its widest sense, between man and nature. So, I would say that kigo or seasonal reference can create a sense of environment in haiku, which has been part of the traditional context, and is part of the modern as well. Yet it remains an open question as to what ‘environment’ pertains to. The question “what is nature” is likewise a poetic challenge. Hoshinaga also states, “sometimes you have to write naked.”

Kigo generally have a literary and evocative power in Japanese that does not exist in English—and can be highly idiosyncratic. Who would have thought that “athlete’s foot” (mizumushi) is found in kigo compendiums, or that the word “obscure” (oboro) would be a spring kigo (as it implies dreamlike, foggy), mist being a kigo phenomenon of spring.

There are now several projects afoot to create official kigo bestiaries for English haiku. As such projects move forward it seems important that modern Japanese literary history concerning the reasons why kigo have been resisted, subverted and rejected is accounted for in our own kigo programs. I’m not sure if we would want a haiku genre in which athlete’s foot must equal summer, and a rule for haiku in which “athlete’s foot” and “mist” cannot co-exist in the same haiku. After all, it’s a formal rule of kigo that there can be only one in a haiku.

In English we are used to a sense of freedom in terms of what can be allowed into haiku by topic and association—what sorts of relationships can occur. Using kigo as they have been applied in Japan, many types of objects and phenomena cannot co-exist. You’d have a lot of trouble getting a magnolia into an autumn haiku. It happens that this year in Kumamoto we’ve had unseasonably warm weather following two typhoons; consequently an ancient cherry tree in Haksui Village has bloomed in October. But you can’t mention this astounding occurrence in a haiku, unless it’s a gendai haiku—you’d be breaking kigo rules. Kigo can create social bureaucratizations of reality. In a haiku circle I belong to, I just received the message that we are to write on two kigo for our next meeting: ‘snow in a blue sky,’ and, ‘winter chill.’ Well, it barely snows in Kumamoto city in a given year, and it’s also been unseasonably warm. How could it have come to this, I wonder. It is difficult for us to entirely grasp the reasons why Hoshinaga and many other modern haiku writers have come to subvert kigo. I think we need to temper our kigo zeal, and not make the destructive critical choices that have occurred in some Japanese literary societies. I hope that consideration is given to the consequences of ordering and dissecting phenomenal reality into vapid sugar-plum visions of seasonal appropriateness. Our haiku thinking seems too often to be both restrictive and parochial as it is; why step backwards into artifice? At the same time, there is plenty of middle ground. I like Hoshinaga’s phrase “sense of environment.” I think it’s a useful idea, though more definitive in the Japanese context. As you know, I quoted Haruo Shirane’s expansive definition of haiku in Disjunctive Dragonfly (in the unabridged version here:

Echoing the spirit of Bashō's own poetry . . . haiku in English is a short poem, usually written in one to three lines, that seeks out new and revealing perspectives on the human and physical condition, focusing on the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature, and on the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history. . . . this definition is intended both to encourage an existing trend and to affirm new space that goes beyond existing definitions of haiku (“Beyond the haiku moment: Bashō, Buson, and modern haiku myths.” Modern Haiku, 31:1, 48-63. p. 60).

It’s a general definition, written in the modern spirit which allows for a later discussion of technique and specific formal properties. One can see that haiku are not being defined by any particular technique or restriction on language use—kigo is not mentioned, nor is seasonal reference. Rather haiku “is a short poem . . . that seeks out,” and has a primary focus on, “the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature” (rather than a definitional focus on season specifically), and by conjunction extends to “the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history.” It’s a definition befitting the validation of haiku as a serious literary genre.

Reading Shirane’s definition over and comparing it with the new Haiku Society of America (HSA) definitions of haiku and related forms just published, I think a great opportunity has been lost. Discussing the HSA definitions will require another forum, but the quoted material below is relevant to Shirane’s definition by way of contrast: "Metaphors and similes [in haiku] in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently. A discussion of what might be called “deep metaphor” or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of this definition (HSA Newsletter, vol. XIX, 4, November 2004)."

This rather obtuse if not tortured language seems problematic. I’d like to offer the following 10 inquiries to the above two sentences.
1) There are haiku existing which are “beyond the range” of the definition of haiku being given. What kind of definition is that? Wouldn’t this really be a definition of “certain varieties of haiku” rather than “haiku”?

2) What does “deep metaphor” mean? It’s not a known literary term, so
3) what is it doing in a definition, without explanation?

4) What exactly is the “simple sense” of a metaphor or simile in poetry or literature? Since this is not illustrated,
5) why is it assumed that we would all agree with whatever that would be for haiku (imagine how the reader unfamiliar with haiku might be confused by the use of these terms)?

6) The idea that symbolism “is beyond the range of this definition” as much implies that haiku are mainly non-symbolic—though it’s known that a number of exemplary haiku, classical and modern, utilize varieties of symbolism—is quantity to be valued over quality? In any case,
7) haiku utilizing symbolism (whatever that might be—it remains unclear) are “outside the range” (reach) of a definition. How hard is it, really,
8) to include symbolism in haiku within the range of a definition? The upshot is that,
9) haiku which utilize any ‘out of range’ techniques are marginalized; by definition.

10) It seems that the HSA definition isn’t defining haiku at all, it’s defining a restricted variety of haiku and leaving ‘out of range,’ and hence out of visibility, varieties, features and qualities of exemplary haiku which it hints at, or dismisses (with the term “beyond”).

The definition put forth seems mainly that of what can be called a traditionalist haiku in English. I am amazed that the various ideas put forward in the last few years regarding haiku and the modern spirit both in America and Japan have been almost completely ignored here—with the nods to “deep metaphor” and “beyond the range” acting to mystify.

RW: The love for haiku and writing haiku has become a global affair, thanks in part to the internet and other electronic media. Yet there is a diversity of styles and teaching as to what haiku is and isn't. This has been confusing at times. One school of thought teaches this, another school of thought teaches that. Is there a common thread between these schools of thought?

RG: I think this question is difficult to answer without looking at specifics. Briefly though, I would say that haiku is a global genre that exists as a multitude of separate, autonomous literatures—I like your word, “affair.” We can discuss the global genre, but the idea of a “global literature” seems problematic, not least because of language issues—which leads to your next question.

RW: A follow up question. As the world becomes a closer-knit community via electronic access, will there be a symbiosis of synergy and focus regarding the understanding and composition of haiku?

RG: I think an energetic symbiosis has been occurring, to everyone’s benefit. There are some political questions, for instance the problem (and promise) inherent in the prevalence of English (or any one language) as an international means of communication; and associated issues of cultural ignorance and insensitivity. These issues or tensions wouldn’t exist, however, without the ongoing act of sharing, publication and interactive worldwide communication. Also, in that the haiku world is one of small publications, it is exciting to find online sites such as your own developing where haiku resources persist and are easily and instantly available and searchable. As I mentioned above though, if we consider that global haiku is not literature but “literatures,” we can expect diversity, idiosyncrasy, hybridization rather than lowest-common-denominator similitude, because haiku exist most strongly in their particulars and uniqueness, rather than purely in their universals. Tolmin, Slovenia is not yet L.A., thank god, and Kumamoto is definitely not Tokyo.

RW: One final question. What is the biggest fallacy propagated today in regards to the writing and understanding of haiku?

RG: Well, I’m very much a student of haiku and particularly living in Japan, ever the neophyte, I hope that my own fallacies will be amended over time, and don’t want to put myself in the position of the expert haiku knower. My writing for this interview has been speculative and extemporaneous—you’ve given me a platform and context I don’t normally have, and I thank you for the opportunity.

In terms of fallacies, there are various levels of fallacy. I am saddened by the new HSA definitions, as you’ve gathered. I feel they promote and maintain limited views of haiku which have plagued the critical theory in English for decades. Probably though, the most tragic fallacy is one which hasn’t been promoted by the main haiku community for some years, that English haiku are composed of 5-7-5 English syllables.

In general, strict haiku definitions seem problematic for the reason that such definitions lead to fallacies of restrictive validation, with the result that the genre can’t be taken seriously, in terms of how it critically defines itself. I mean, the great poems contradict the definitions! In both cases the fallacy is one of an imagined purity (of form, style, etc.) that ends up being reductive and short-sighted in terms of how it treats both the genre and poets. I think this sort of fallacy is about done, because many are interested in moving beyond an imagined “pure” traditionalism. In saying this, I hope my appreciation for Bashō, for instance, is evident. I contemplate his work on a daily basis. However, in many ways, modern works are tremendously exciting and inspiring—fresh and alive. The biggest fallacy we have may be that the best haiku arrive from the past. Likely, haiku come to meet us from the future, as remembrance.

Richard Gilbert rebuilt his first car and motorcycle (a Honda 750) at age 17 listening to Frank Zappa, Bert Jansch, Morton Subotnick, Ravel, delta blues, 50s-60s jazz, and WPKN (Bridgeport, CT). Majored in math/computer science and music at a nameless Connecticut university, worked in the electronics industry and as an engine rebuilder for some time, transferred to Naropa University (Boulder), where he studied and hung out with beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, etc.; composed sonic ur-scapes, became a Tibetan Buddhist meditator. Performed in and produced conceptual art multi-disciplinary presentations as poet, videographer, electric guitarist; undergraduate thesis on Japanese classical haiku, received a BA in Poetics and Expressive Arts. Went to a Buddhist seminary in 1984, and returned to Naropa for an MA in Contemplative Psychology. Into the early 90s, he was a clinical adult outpatient psychotherapist, at Boulder Community Mental Health Center. In 1988 he entered The Union Institute doctoral program, received a Ph.D. in Poetics and Depth Psychology in 1990, took an important trip to Chaco Canyon resulting in the performance poem Big Bird & the Great North Road, set to music by composer/session-guitarist John March, which received airplay around Los Angeles and Denver; became a divemaster in 1991 and nearly moved to the islands; instead, a garage in LA: rebuilt a wrecked 1981 BMW R100RS, playing mostly acoustic guitar and listening to KCRW and KPFK, while working in post-production audio, sleepless in tiny, dark soundproofed rooms strewn with old pizza. After some month-long meditation retreats, returned to Denver and worked in Community Television as a director/producer. Five years later, nearly became a Buddhist monk, but moved to Japan in 1997, pursuing a passion for Japanese haiku, research, translation, home and for living above the poverty line. Built a computer hard disk recording studio, which powers music projects and ESL software development; has published around 30 academic papers and some poetry. He can be seen riding around Kumamoto on a 2003 Suzuki SV1000S (a 1000cc twin), when not in his office at the Faculty of Letters, Kumamoto University. Hopes to ride Yakushima and the Okinawan out-islands later this year.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku