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Summer 2008, vol 6 no 2

Poems of Consciousness
by Richard Gilbert
A Review by Johnye Strickland


Have you ever wondered where the rebels were among 20th Century Japanese haiku poets? In an era when rebellion against the previous poetic traditions (or schools, as we used to call them) came fast and sometimes furious in the West, it seemed unlikely that haiku poets in a country so far advanced in culture as Japan would be oblivious to the literary developments in the world around them. Richard Gilbert has found them – the gendai (contemporary) haiku poets. As Jim Kacian points out in the Introduction, one of Gilbert's "specific contributions . . . [is] a new nomenclature and classification system, which has enabled us to rekindle the conversation about what haiku poets in the west are up to, without being limited to the language, sensibility and techniques employed by another culture for other purposes four centuries ago."

The book is divided into two sections: Theoretical Concerns, and Multicultural Issues. In the first section, Gilbert's nomenclature and classification appear in essays which have developed over time, improving with each revision. But the part that I found most exciting was the discussion of the famous 'old pond' poem of Bash˘, included in an interview with the gendai poet Hasegawa Kai, entitled "Haiku Cosmos I: Bash˘'s 'Old Pond,' Realism & 'Junk Haiku,'" and "Haiku Cosmos II: Cutting Through Time and Space – Kire & Ma." I felt that I could fully appreciate Bash˘'s furuike ('old pond') for the first time . . . after reading Hasegawa Kai's explanation of the "psychological ma" concept, which he says has been misunderstood in this poem for 300 years (p.81). [My Japanese-English dictionary defines ma as "interval, pause, time; space; room."]

Richard Gilbert's discussion of "disjunction" has been expanded, and clarified by careful revision, in the essay entitled "The Disjunctive Dragonfly." Not only is it more readable by the novice, but also it stimulates thought about the relation of disjunction to "the kireji-concept [cutting] as semantic kireji, helping to catalyze the reader's aesthetic perception of haiku as an artform, and disjunction also evokes a sense of depth" (p. 128). The concepts included here are exemplified with techniques, ways of looking at haiku that open up the possibilities of composition for the English-language poet.

The second section contains interviews with gendai haiku poets who explain their own views of contemporary haiku, including "The Poetic Self 1: Katakoto – Fragmentary Language in Haiku," and "The Poetic Self 2: Haig˘ – Masaoka Shiki & Haiku Persona," by Tsubouchi Nenten. In the second of these, Nenten suggests that Shiki's poems read in the context of his use of haig˘ – pen names to create different psycho-personae, "sheds new light on the significance of Shiki's creativity" (pp. 149-150). Another interesting idea - that we can learn from the gendai poets new ways of perceiving both Bash˘ and Shiki with respect to their intent and poetic techniques.

Here are a few examples of gendai haiku appearing in the book:

harukaze ni haha shinu ryűkakusan ga chiri

to the spring wind
mother dead, herbal medicine

Tsubouchi Nenten

batta tobu ajia no sora no usumidori

flying grasshopper asian sky a washed-out green

Tsubouchi Nenten

ni-ju oku k˘nen no gishy˘         omae no B-gata

twenty billion light-years of perjury: your blood type is "B"

Hoshinaga Fumio

Note: "Blood-type B is rare in Japan; Type A is happier, but Type B Carries a sense of melancholy. So, I felt my rebelliousness or revulsion could not be Type A – it must be blood-type B." Hoshinaga Fumio (p. 173).

nigemizu e sengo no chichi wo oitsumeru

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

Hoshinaga Fumio

Note: The poem above is part of a lengthy discussion of the poet's use of kigo, both traditional and non-traditional. He says the use of kigo in this poem "is more of a symbolic element," rather than having reference to a particular poem in a traditional saijiki.

And here are a few selected gendai senryű by ďnishi Yasuyo:

fukurok˘ji de korobu to umi ga miete kuru

from a blind alley
tumbling to a scene
of the sea

ushirokara mizu no oto shite fu ga kitari

from behind
comes the sound of water
comes news of death

sogekihei no futokoro fukaku sarusuberi

in the deep bosom
of a sniper –
myrtle blossom

Note (1): "sarusuberi (crape myrtle blossom) blooms in summer. The kanji are, literally: '100 days of crimson.' The pronunciation 'sarusuberi' contains a reference to the tree: saru is 'monkey,' and 'to slip' is suberu. The trunk of this tree is so slippery that even a monkey cannot climb it." (p. 230)

Note (2): In Greek history, two young men became Athenian heroes after fighting the tyrant Psistratus by hiding daggers in ceremonial myrtle. On the other hand, crepe myrtle was supposedly dear to Aphrodite and thus signified love. I have no idea what the myrtle means to this Japanese poet, but it opens possibilities of interpretation to western readers. JS

The subtitle of this book is Contemporary Japanese & English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective – something that I have been hoping to learn about since beginning my own haiku path a few years ago. Beginners should find inspiration, and scholars a broadening of knowledge about the theory and practice of haiku composition among contemporary Japanese poets in this book. The author and publisher are to be commended for making it available to the haiku community.

A list of corrections is available from the author at:

The list will be included in books ordered from the publisher.


Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English-language Haiku In Cross-cultural Perspective
By Richard Gilbert, PhD
Soft cover, perfect-bound
Cover image by Richard Gilbert, ę 2008, Yaku-sugi tree roots,
Yakushima (The J˘mon-sugi, possibly 7200 years old)
ISBN 1-978-893959-72-9
$27.95 301 pages
CD of Gendai Haiku Interviews included
Available from the Publisher:
Red Moon Press
PO Box 2461
Winchester, VA 22604-1661 USA

For more information on gendai haiku, visit the website at: