Life after Blyth: New Visions for Haiku's Future
Books by Richard Gilbert and Stephen Addiss
One sign that haiku continues to mature as an English-language poetry form is its deepening critical literature. These two books contribute significantly to that depth, in very different ways. Stephen Addiss's The Art of Haiku deepens the field by accretion, adding another layer to what has come before and filling neglected cracks. Richard Gilbert's Poems of Consciousness, by contrast, drills aggressively into the subject of contemporary haiku, identifying pockets of outmoded assumption as well as rich theoretical veins to fuel the direction of future practice.
Addiss's The Art of Haiku follows a pattern that will be familiar to readers of other histories of haiku. He traces haiku from its roots in Japanese linked verse and recaps the greatness of the four acknowledged masters of the form: Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. Each of them is represented by a generous selection of freshly translated poems, presented within a well-told biographical and historical narrative.
Saying that the book follows a familiar pattern isn't meant to belittle its achievement. First of all, every story periodically needs a fresh re-telling and the tale of the Japanese haiku masters is clearly one that we love. The first great teller in English, R.H. Blyth, captivated generations of readers starting in the mid-20th century with his evangelical tone and monopolistic erudition on the subject. His role in the establishment of haiku in the West can't be overstated. Today, however, his voice has started to sound dated. Addiss's new book—while more modest than Blyth's monumental 2- and 4-volume works—is a similarly comprehensive overview of haiku from its beginnings.
Addiss adds new perspectives to the telling as well. He is an art historian by trade, and The Art of Haiku prominently features color plates and discussion of the underappreciated genre of haiku-painting (haiga). As a scholar of Zen art, he provides a more nuanced analysis of the relationship between Zen and haiku than Blyth did in his zeal. And finally, although the main focus is on the four great masters, the book does present the work of a fair range of their predecessors and disciples, including some who stretch into the mid-twentieth century. The Art of Haiku will be an excellent introduction to haiku's possibilities for the next couple of generations of poets.
As a practicing haiku poet, though, I always finish historical surveys thinking, "But what about now?" The fourth great master, Shiki, died in 1902. The next most-discussed haiku poet, the iconoclastic Taneda Santoka, is a pre-war figure, dying in 1940. So while the tradition to that point provides a crucial grounding for your own haiku practice, equally crucial is exposure to the work of poets living in a time and zeitgeist more parallel with your own.
Enter Gilbert's Poems of Consciousness. He acknowledges the situation in his preface, noting that when haiku was entering Western poetic practice, a two-way cultural cross-pollination was happening:
It now seems particularly ironic that in the early 1950s, as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder were reading Blyth, whose style mainly follows that of objective realism, the postwar . . . tradition in Japan was experiencing a renaissance, utilizing complex combinations of influences synthesized from western traditions, such as cubism, dada, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and so on, along with experimental advances based on traditional elements. (11-12)
Gilbert tells the story of how the objective realist style—known as shasei—was originally identified by Shiki as the defining characteristic of Basho's greatness. Blyth in turn extolled shasei as THE virtue of haiku, and so a pure, objective realism became the obsession of western practitioners. In contrast with the shasei style, Gilbert gives us insight into the many directions taken by gendai, or contemporary haiku practice. He interviews a wide range of Japanese haiku poets to show how they are exploring questions of ecological engagement, the fragmentation and imperfection of language, and language's power to connect with the sacred, among others. At the risk of sounding unsophisticated, it's inspiring, liberating stuff for someone who has been unwittingly bumping up against the glass of the shasei fishbowl for fifteen-plus years.
Gilbert also writes persuasively about formal/technical elements of haiku that have been misunderstood during their migration to the west, and how they might be clarified. Perhaps the most valuable is his exploration of the concepts of kire (cutting) and ma (space). One haiku formula holds that a good haiku balances two disparate elements against one another, and its poetry comes from how they resonate. Gilbert elaborates on this idea to identify disjunction as a key, driving force behind haiku meaning. If "music is the space between notes" as Claude Debussy said, the poetry in haiku comes from the space between words—how the poet uses disjunction to create space between the very limited number of elements in such a small poem.
My fracking metaphor in the opening paragraph is semi-serious—this is not an easy, comfortable book. It muddies the waters of comfortable haiku thought (without poisoning them, though). At times Gilbert runs the risk of alienating the reader with blinding displays of academese. And he sometimes threatens to kill the patient with too-vigorous dissection—for example when he lays out a typology of the seventeen different kinds of disjunction. But his analysis is always illuminating. If you've ever been intrigued by haiku but have been frustrated with its limitations and constraints, this book is for you.