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Through the years at Haigaonline we have been choosing our issue themes largely from the saijiki and haiku topic lists. ’ve been immensely pleased at the breadth and depth of thought that has gone into the submissions. Beginning with the Autumn 2019 issue, however, we changed the approach slightly and have been working with broader themes based on educator Ernest Boyer's “human commonalities”: shared experiences that define what it means to be human on this planet. We began our series with the Autumn 2019 issue, devoted to the first commonality, "Life Cycles. " For the current, Spring 2020 issue, we're taking on the "Sense of time and space: We each have a capacity recall the past and look to the future."
Wait a minute! you say. Past and Future? We're always told to keep our haiku in the present and avoid past tense? What about the thing called "haiku moment"?
Good question! As novices we're always told to keep haiku in the present, and as seasoned writers we've internalized haiku as a poetry of the "here and now. " This immediacy of the present is often called a "haiku moment" or an "Aha moment." The concept was introduced to haiku theory by Kenneth Yasuda (Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature and Theory (1957 rpt. 2001), who drew analogies to the way we decode and process images in visual art. Yasuda's translations of Japanese haiku in A Pepper-Pod: A Haiku Sampler (1947), followed shortly by R. H. Blythe's four-volume Haiku (1949–52) and the interest in Zen Buddhism by the Beat poets resulted in the haiku moment becoming a core tenet of English language haiku. In 1973/76, the Haiku Society of America formulated its definition of haiku (though the term has been quietly dropped in HSA's revised, current definition):
Twenty or so years ago when I began writing haiku, the "rules" of what was or wasn't haiku were more stringent than they are today. Haiku moment no longer has to be what Ross has termed " Zennian spiritual awakening", but it's still a topic in the literature (viz. Cor van den Heuvel's prefaces to The Haiku Anthology, 1973, 1986, and 1998; the introduction by Billy Collins to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, ed. Kacian et al. 2013; Bruce Ross's Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku, 1993 . . .)
A sensible resource that I depended upon in my early writing days was Jane Reichhold's Aha! Poetry website. In a lesson on how to read haiku, she wrote of a "holy moment of insight" in which "the boundaries disappear between separate things" ("Bare Bones School of Haiku" 2001). although in an earlier essay she had expressed a strong opinion that "true haiku moment" was not in itself enough to make for an excellent poem; rather, that writing good haiku is a skill to be learned ("Fragment and Phrase Theory", 1993).
Another resource that I found early on in my haiku journey was Haruo Shirane's "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths” (Modern Haiku 2000), which pointed out that haiku moment was largely a North American phenomenon, driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of Japanese haiku by the Beats:
As a member of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, I'm always interested in learning more about traditional Japanese haiku, so what Shirane calls the "vertical axis"— the poem's connection to past, history and literary tradition—interests me. As I'm sure you'll have guessed, it's why we use old master haiku and historic ukiyo-e as part of our issues' themes.
The website I would recommend for gaining a good, working understanding of haiku moment as part of our craft would be Michael Dylan Welch's Graceguts. In his section of reprinted essays three have his thoughts on the subject: “A Moment in the Sun: When Is a Haiku?” (2007, rev. 2011), “Taking a Bite: The Haiku McMoment” (2016), and "Aha Moments and the Miracle of Haiku” (2017). He too sees "a tool, not a sacred and inviolable grail," and actually distinguishes three kinds of haiku moment: the original motivation that inspired the writer, the moment as depicted in the poem, and the realization pf the moment as experienced by the reader. He analyzes how haiku incorporates time— not just through the mechanics of verb conjugation but also the nature of the action: static and dynamic, with a "now" of variable length that can include action in the past.
Fascinating stuff—I'm hooked and want to read more about how our brains construct time. For now, though, let's stick to our theme: past and present as it may find expression in haiku. As I've been thinking about the problem, I've read some of Jim Wilson's essays about what he calls "time shift haiku" in poems by Richard Wright and Edith Shiffert (see Wilson's "Formal Haiku" Facebook group Nov. 28, 2019 and March 11 2020). For myself, I've been looking at the old masters and have found several examples. I'll choose four, beginning with Shiki and moving backwards to Basho:
1. Masaoka Shiki
This one is widely circulated on the Internet in Janine Beichman's translation. As we'd expect from the originator of shasei haiku, the poem is spare and objectively simple in its imagery, though consider its use of past and future. Welch would classify it as static, a now moment of unaccustomed morning sunlight pouring into the poet's room. If you've ever cut down a tree, you'll have experienced how it changes what has been a familiar space. I see line 1 as more than just action completed: it's the momentary dislocation of remembering and comparing what the view out the window had been before a new normal sets in.In other translations, only the tree's overgrown branches have been pruned, making the room sunny and refreshing. It's also an early poem (1872), and we can view the room and its small window through the optimistic eyes of a teenager. But consider Welch's third haiku moment, the poem as realized by reader experience of it. Shiki's future is our known past, and I think of the haiku he wrote in another room thirty years later when he was dying of tuberculosis. Interlayering past, present and future, it's a very poignant poem.
2. Kobayashi Issa
I have no Japanese original, only Jane Hirschfield's translation. It's another of those that show the poet's empathy towards humble creatures, a simple insect in a precarious situation, yet comprehending only the now it sings as it's programmed to do in autumn. With our capacity to recall the past and look to the future, we can picture the ways this cricket might got into its predicament, and imagine what fate awaits it downstream. Drawing in two more of Boyer's commonalities, the awareness of our own life cycle and the capacity for symbolic thinking, we might see the cricket as a symbol of our human condition. This is a deeply spiritual poem with a classic haiku moment. Not Zennian—as a Pure Land Buddhist, Issa often wrote of mortality and afterlife. That, of course, is future.
3. Yosa Buson
One of my longtime favorites is this hokku. Like Shirane, whose translation I've given, I read it as ekphrasis on an imagined scroll or screen, perhaps one of Buson's own paintings. It depicts horsemen—an indeterminate number perhaps because their path is through a landscape in Chinese mountains and rivers style. The palace lies ahead, and behind the oncoming storm that is driving them. In "Beyond the Haiku Moment," Shirane explains that this was an 11th c. imperial villa that later figured in political and military intrigue. An historical poem whose now is the Heian or late medieval era, it has a narrative time frame: the horsemen are warriors bearing news of plots afoot, while the autumn storm portends events about to be set in motion.
4. Matsuo Basho
風流の / 初やおくの / 田植うた
In these examples I've been moving back through time. A bonus of this reverse order is in keeping with our issue's theme, that time itself is actively construction by our brains. A simpler reason is that it lets me to conclude with the poem I've chosen as signature for this issue is Basho's, from “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (Oku no Hosomichi). Of the multiple translations Jim Wilson has collected on his blog "Shaping Words," I'm most drawn to David Barnhill's for its finely-honed imagery. From folk song to future harvest, it depicts this village in a panorama of its present, past and future. It is, I think, an excellent example of how time as a tool can layer the poem. "Rice-planting songs" our issue shall be!
I'll confess that when I began thinking about theming the issue with Boyer's time commonality, I had little notion of where this notion would take me or even whether I'd find enough historic Japanese haiku to justify this essay or even to provide a signature haiku for the issue's theme. It's been an adventure. I've gained an awareness of how the old masters used tense to frame and deepen their poems, and I do have a renewed appreciation that haiku—at least, our English language haiku—need grounding in the present even as they glance sideways to the past and future. I like how Serge Tomé has described this enriched haiku moment as "a glimpse of . . . relations, made of causes and consequences, that make the backbone of our world representation" ("Haiku Writing Rules" Temps Libres, 1999).
Enjoy the haiga in this issue with these thoughts in mind. Many thanks to everyone who contributed art and poetry. Many, many thanks also to our resident staff who have given so much over the years. You'll find our next issue's theme and Challenge on the Submissions page. It's another Boyer commonality!
Above all, in this spring season of pandemic, keep well!