The Need for Experimentation: Haiku in English

25 Feb

The Need for Experimentation: Haiku in English

Denis M. Garrison

When an art form is adopted by a different culture than that which originated the form, it becomes the new culture’s own property and it is made over in the cultural context which it has entered. There are, in every case, many from the original culture who demand adherence to their tradition, but it is futile. It is always futile to attempt to control what one has given away.

It is a delicate balance that one must strike. One must not discard the past in ignorance, but one also must not be constrained by the past. One must assiduously study the rules of poetics and then ignore them. The rules of poetics are not for writing the poem; the rules are for forming the craft of the poet. Every time a poet puts pen to paper, poetry is reinvented—or should be!

There is, of course, paradox in this view, but paradox is the natural condition of humanity driven by base desires and lofty ideals. The orthodoxies about haiku: the haiku moment, haiku mind, objective correlative, purely objective imagery, etc., etc., all fall before the onslaught of paradox and ambiguity.

For what haiku poets of the older Japanese tradition were seeking to accomplish with their haiku, the traditional haiku poetics are necessary and appropriate. For modern poets in Western languages who wish to emulate the same kind of poetry towards the same ends and with the same philosophic underpinnings, those same traditional haiku poetics are, likewise, necessary and appropriate. However, for modern western poets who find in haiku the greatest value in its crystalline brevity and in the rigor of condensation to a lyrical minim, adherence to the traditional haiku poetics is both inappropriate and needless, since those poetics are intrinsically inconsistent, even incompatible, with English poetic tradition.

To the degree that each poet (or group or school) follows their own values and poetics, there is not any one group which is “correct” and others which are “incorrect.” Artists are free and cannot be constrained by scholastics. On the other hand, to the degree that some poets set themselves up as arbiters of all haiku, including haiku in English and other western languages, then artistic politics enters the arena and “right and wrong” become an issue.

Western poets are intrinsically unencumbered and unobliged by the eastern traditions. They work within their own cultures. Western poets who essay haiku nevertheless need to study the original traditions and understand them as well as they may, and must respect those older traditions even in the breach, because to do otherwise in to rebel out of ignorance, which is inherently wrong. If a western poet is to write haiku, and if that poet is going to go beyond the traditional boundaries of the art form, then she or he had better know where the boundaries are. There is no merit in freedom by virtue of ignorance.

Furthermore, for the western haiku poet, assuming that the poet has indeed studied the original tradition as suggested above and moved beyond it, there is also the ongoing utility of examining anew the craft aspects (the “tools”) of the original tradition in order to discover new and more culturally relevant (in the poet’s culture) ways to accomplish the ends of those tools. For example, while some wish to simply discard the idea of kigo (season-words), others might not. Kigo have changed substantially before. From setting the moment of composition, they have mutated to set the context of the content of the haiku. Now, in an age when many cultures are not agrarian, use of the seasons for context-setting on an exclusive (or nearly-so) basis is questionable. So, there is growing interest in new directions for kigo— including internationalization of natural kigo and consideration of keywords which are not rooted in seasonality. Continuing experimentation with such poetic tools is firmly within the English poetic tradition, certainly, and probably many others’ as well. Choice within freedom, as against doctrinaire constraints—that is the goal.

—Denis M. Garrison


Copyright © 2001 Denis M. Garrison.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit
Published in World Haiku Review (Vol. 1, No. 2, August 2001), reprinted from Ku Nouveau 2001.

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Posted by on February 25, 2016 in Articles & Essays



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