A Sampling of Cultural Haiku by Michael Dylan Welch
A Sampling of Cultural Haiku by Michael Dylan Welch
Haiku in English are sometimes criticised for lacking the geographical, cultural, literary, or personal references that frequently enrich haiku in Japanese. However, a sampling of just one issue of a journal1 calls this criticism into question. Indeed, the following sample poems all provide allusions and references that make for a richer reader experience.
a water strider
crosses the pond
This poem by Kay Grimnes presents a successful example of a geographical reference that carries extra meaning for many American readers. It's an example, in English-language haiku, of a reference to a famous place (meisho in Japanese).
As many North Americans, and others, know, US Senator Edward Kennedy was driving on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts on July 18, 1969, with his companion Mary Jo Kopechne. That night, while drunk, he crashed his car off a bridge, and the car sank into murky water. Kennedy was able to escape, but Kopechne drowned. Despite his apparent negligence, and (as some people claimed) because of his political position or celebrity, Kennedy was not charged with manslaughter, but was found guilty merely of leaving the scene of an accident.
The Chappaquiddick story has reached such mythical proportions that in 1992 Joyce Carol Oates retold the story in her novella Black Water and, like the word "Watergate," "Chappaquiddick" is now commonly used as shorthand to refer to scandals that befall politicians - especially scandals out of which they are able to weasel.
What makes the place name resonate even more deeply within this poem, of course, is the reference to the water strider that is able to cross the pond without sinking. Water striders are sometimes called "Jesus bugs", and the story of Jesus walking on water is an additional historical reference in this poem. The water strider could symbolically represent Kennedy himself, satirising him as if he were similarly "divine" and untouchable, in obvious contrast to the sad story of Mary Jo Kopechne's drowning.
a dad and two lads plant
a plant in a planter
- Mark Brooks
Here, instead of a reference to a place name, we have a successful cultural and literary reference to children's book author Dr Seuss, whom most English-speaking people know well.
The second and third lines, while managing to retain the trait of literal objective description that works so well in haiku, also adopt Dr Seuss's distinctive writing style by using rhyme and repetition. Though about a birth rather than a death, this poem follows in the Japanese tradition of the "master's day" (okina no ki) season word, which venerates Bashō's day - the day of the writer's death. In English, haiku might similarly venerate the birth dates or death dates of William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana, or many other literary, historical, and contemporary celebrities.
William J. Higginson collected poems that commemorate leading haiku writers and their birth or death days, and in Haiku World2, included a poem by Vincent Tripi written to commemorate the death day of prominent American haiku poet Nick Virgilio:
Nick remembered -
deepening the lily
in a woodcut
This haiku is also a reference to Virgilio's famous lily haiku, so it has allusive cultural relevance to the English-language haiku community on that level as well.
an inch worm arches across
- Alice Frampton
The year 1984 is not randomly chosen, and carries with it the obvious associations with George Orwell's famous dystopian novel of 1949. While the Big Brother paranoia of Orwell's book has waned in public consciousness, especially since the fall of communism in Russia, any reference to the year 1984 still carries with it the overtones of dark totalitarianism. Even the inchworm in this poem seems to prefer arching over the doom-crying tree ring that represents 1984, as if to reach a brighter year.
faint stars . . .
I wonder what Yu Chang
is doing tonight
- Joann Klontz
This empathetic and intuitive poem may have resonance limited to the English-language or perhaps even the North American haiku community, yet it serves as a superlative example, though rare, of a reference to a specific contemporary person in English-language haiku.
Many haiku writers know Yu Chang, who lives in New York state, as a demure yet sensitive and accomplished haiku poet. Joann Klontz enjoys her stargazing in the context of wondering what Yu Chang might be doing at the same time, and she may even share the moment of looking up at the faintest of stars with him, despite the distance between them.
The naming of any other poet in the poem would seem not to work nearly so well because of the effective associations with Yu Chang's name and his work by those who know him, and how they resonate with the deep appreciation even of stars that are momentarily faint. The naming of a different poet would clearly change the meaning and overtones of the poem, and perhaps render the juxtaposition with "faint stars" ineffective.
The reference to Yu Chang is deliberate for another reason, however, and it adds another significant layer to Joann Klontz's playful and groundbreaking haiku. It's not just a personal reference, but a literary and slightly historical reference as well, because Yu Chang won one of his two first prizes in the 1997 Shiki International Haiku Contest with:
faint stars -
the flapping of canvas
on the grape truck
(He won first place again in 1998). Thus Klontz's poem offers a homage to Chang's poem as well as to Chang himself, for on seeing faint stars, she thinks of him because of his prize-winning poem. Perhaps not all readers will know or remember Chang's winning poem, but for those who do, Klontz's poem takes on a deeper resonance.
Sometimes translations of haiku from Japanese into English are criticised for not being able to capture various deep allusions or multiple meanings, and this is frequently true. Indeed, as Hiroaki Sato wrote in One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English3, "among [Japanese] haikai poets . . . allusion in general was a permanent tool".
However, it can be just as difficult to translate English-language haiku into other languages for the same reasons. Indeed, we have no dearth of opportunity in English to produce effective allusions and multiple meanings, as Klontz's poem demonstrates. The difficulty of translating these allusions and multiple meanings from one language to another should not be confused with the potential for poems to make use of effective allusions and multiple meanings in the language that the poem was written in. In comparison with Japanese, English has no deficiencies in this regard.
Other Western cultural references used in the same issue of The Heron's Nest include "Father's Day", "a ringer" (a reference to horseshoes, played mostly in North America), "daylight saving", and "southern drawl". These poems with cultural sonorities succeed to varying degrees, but a significant part of how they do succeed lies in their use of effective cultural references.
Those few critics who have said that English-language haiku do not make sufficient use of geographical, cultural, literary, or personal references may still be right - we could all give greater attention to this opportunity. However, just considering the single issue of The Heron's Nest from which all of these examples are quoted, the evidence shows that haiku poets seem to be responding to this claim as if to prove it wrong.
Haruo Shirane is one critic who has observed the past insufficiency of cultural references in North American haiku. In his gadfly essay, "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashō, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths"4, he observed that the horizontal axis of haiku - that is, a focus on the present, contemporary world - is more than abundant in North American examples, but that the vertical axis, which is a movement across time, including geographical, historical, and literary references, is largely missing.
It seems, though, that poets are listening, and have actively sought to deepen the possibilities for cultural reference in their haiku. Certainly, the editors of The Heron's Nest have sought to promote such poetry through their sensitive selections. The evidence appears not just in The Heron's Nest, but in an increasing number of haiku in other journals as well.
One difficulty with publishing cultural references in haiku is a matter of audience. The poems I discuss in the preceding essay were published in the United States, and largely meant for a North American audience, as I try to make clear. One question I don't try to address is whether these same poems work as well beyond the United States or North America. On The Haiku Foundation's Young Leaves blog one of my poems was recently discussed:
Fourth of July -
ants in a line
along the parade route
A fair amount of the discussion revolved around the effect or meaning of "Fourth of July" to people around the world. It's just another day for many people, and if they really don't know of the date's association with US independence, which is now celebrated with parades and fireworks and other community events, the poem loses some of its resonance.
That there is a parade route (a given fact in the poem) should hopefully provide some context, but something is lost or diminished if one isn't aware of the cultural reference, and even more if one has not experienced Fourth of July festivities personally (or at least festivities like it in other countries). Likewise, poets around the world who publish haiku with cultural references that are unknown or barely known beyond their cultural borders run the risk of being misunderstood or merely creating puzzlement.
But I believe none of us should be shy about such a risk. One reason is that there will be no risk to the poem in reaching its primary audience - readers within that cultural boundary. Another reason is that people beyond that boundary will thereby have something to challenge them, something to learn, even if there isn't a footnote to the poem to help them understand. We are used to explanations with translations of some of the Japanese haiku we read, and yet of course the original poems did not come with those explanations.
Consequently, I believe we should be bold with our cultural references, and not worry excessively if certain readers might not get the references or their overtones in referring to particular places, events, people, literature, or idioms without an explanation. If certain readers do not get a particular poem because of its cultural references, well, that particular poem isn't for them.
But for those who do get the references, the same poem will shine.
Note: For a more in-depth discussion of the vertical and horizontal axes in haiku, read Haruo Shirane's Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō (Stanford University Press, 1998).
1: Unless stated, all poems from the June 2004 issue of The Heron's Nest (VI:5)
2: Haiku World by William J Higginson (Kodansha) 1996.
3: One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English by Hiroaki Sato (New York: Weatherhill) 1983.
4: Essay published in Modern Haiku XXX:1, Winter-Spring 2000.
Editor's note: This article was first published in Hermitage 3:1-2 (2006, Romania) and may be found on the author's website, Graceguts, appearing here with his kind permission and with a postscript update written for publication in Jaiku NewZ.
Michael Dylan Welch is a well-known writer and editor who lives in Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He has been writing haiku since 1976 and teaching it since 1990. He is founder of the American Tanka Society and co-founder of the Haiku North America conference and has many books - as editor, author and contributor - to his credit. For a full biography, go here.