Expansion, contraction – action/reaction pts. 2 and 3/6

Expansion, contraction – action/reaction pt. 2/6

(an utterly subjective view and based on the blogger’s uneducated glances into the world of haiku)

All of us are children of history, our history. Said in another way: we all stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. They are our teachers. They in their turn set out from their own time’s pattern of repetitions, rituals and norms and learned something new, found new ways which they in turn built on what they learned from their predecessors. This is banal but worth keeping in mind.

In life as in haiku.

Obviously we have to learn the basics of haiku before we set out on our own path. We have to absorb and make those fundamentals part of our writing as well as part of our thinking. And with this I mean the “technicalities” adhering to language, cuts, fragmentation, kigo (if you want them), the juxtapostion of images and so forth. We don’t need to learn to be Japanese. That is a misunderstanding in the same way you don’t have to adopt a Russian way of life if you convert to Orthodox Christianity.

Most learning in haiku goes through reading and writing, reading and writing and it stops only at death (or if you stop caring about haiku). We have the advantage in this age that we can sit at home and read haiku from almost any age and almost any part of the world. From the classics to the first trying steps here and there on the web. And I guess many of us daily go web-about for digging up some Issa, Santoka and Buson but also to see what goes on in heads of the writers at R’r and the numerous blogs by writers all over our home planet. We need both.

But do we pay our predecessors respect by replicating their poetry? By treating their art as something frozen in time, written in stone and not to be challenged? Do we open doors to the new (or even our present) by doing what they did, by re-writing their oeuvre, by replicating what is essentially original? Or do we take up the glove (pen, keyboard) and in our own small ways try to make the spirit of haiku our own? I think the latter – if haiku is to remain a living, breathing poetry form.

I would hate to think our parents who taught us to walk would actually prefer us running behind them for as long as they lived and kept on the same paths after their death. Most parents probably want us to stagger out in the world and see things they haven’t. If they’re good parents accepting you being your own person and not first and foremost an extension of themselves, that is.

The old masters – even the ground-breaking writers from last century in the West that we now think of as having contributed to how haiku looks and reads in the 21st Century – worked within their local, historical, cultural and climatic (etc.) reality, and working from and within our own reality is the only basis we have. Even if we have to “discover” things already discovered by others. It’s necessary to get personal experience if our writing is to be honest.

Haikai (and the short Japanese forms we have adapted) is in constant flux; growth and experimentation, always searching new ways, incorporating new subjects because it’s a human activity and art form. It’s an expression of the human mind and consciousness AND being. And, as mentioned, someone wanting to keep things as they are will want to shoot these attempts at development down. That’s a fact of the haiku world.

In short: it’s alive.

… and if haiku (or writing as such) is a way for you to be (exist, act, absorb and return) in the world you have to be somewhat indifferent to this action/reaction and the noise it makes and work on finding your own way. Your own way is what counts and keeps haiku interesting.

Expansion, contraction – action/reaction pt. 3/6

(an utterly subjective view and based on the blogger’s uneducated glances into the world of haiku)

The constant – and inevitable – renewal and rethinking of haiku causes the traditionalists to react. (I’m repeating myself …). Curiously, traditionalists – or traditionalist behaviour and mindset – in haiku not only means those who adhere to the old Japanese masters’ ways but also often to those who have “become stuck” with one kind of haiku that has emerged only a few decades ago (when they themselves were emerging and developing as haiku poets) and holds that for a standard to be upheld for coming generations. These traditionalists are good at organizing groups, “schools”, forums and journals where a specific set of aesthetics (more or less intelligible) and their preferred way of writing is promoted as the “right way” of writing. That isn’t “good parenting”. As I speculated in the previous post: good parents teach their children to walk but they would probably want them to walk their own walk.

As humans we have a tendency to grow to a certain point and then continue doing the same from there. Some artists certainly do. Some call it “refining” already achieved insights … or something like that. And so their art sort of looses zest or geist or relevance and becomes an endless repetition of the same. But art (and haiku) is dependant on living humans and can’t be halted at a certain stage of development and so new writers will go forth from whatever stage haiku is in when they start working.

Open-minded and alert artists have the ability to keep up with new currents in their art. Even if they don’t adopt those they will understand them and see them as additions.

As reality changes so will haiku. And in the West where reality is at times very individual – or very individually centred – it of course will grow according to Western culture, mindset, history, linguistic conditions etc. Or it is about to … if it hasn’t already. In that respect I think we’re in a situation where some haiku has become Western and some hasn’t. Whatever circumstances people have it will rub off on haiku. Ideally. And the norms that went before may not be sufficient to deal with the reality of the present. That is why haiku grows.

So one can only wonder why so much haikai seems to be written – in rough terms –  by one person or very few persons. Why it is so uniform in the same way it can be hard to hear the differences between 16 different recording of Mozart’s 41 Symphony. These days it’s hard for this blogger not get overwhelmed by haiku-ennui when he (I) opens a printed journal, views an on-line publication or visits one of the groups on the web. The uniformity within mainstream haiku is such these days that really individual voices seem far apart. Of course, we can’t all be ground-breakers and far from all of us want to be. There is a large group of writers who seem to be satisfied with repeating what they read in the previous editions or threads or they are content with living up to one of the emperors’ guidelines (in essence mimicking his/rarely her style). And that may be alright and o.k. But merely repeating and replicating what others do seems to this blogger un-dynamic or un-eye-opening, not “original”.

But then again: should it be?

Maybe one has to look at the haiku-world as a vastly differentiated place and not as one place with an underlying consensus as the tendency has been. Maybe there’s not One (ideal, conceptual, “god-like”) Haiku but many “small” haiku just as there globally just is Water but it is in many places and go by many other names according to its temporary state as rain, sweat, ocean, river, piss etc.

There are as many reasons for writing haiku as there are practitioners and some of them are really just having a good time jotting down an innocent and cosy verse giving off good vibes. And peace be with that. But those of us who for some odd reason – maybe because of a dysfunction or because we mistake our life-blood for poetry – take haiku seriously might need to continuously work on how we, having learned, internalized and absorbed the basics, make haiku our own, an individual expression, rather than a mass-statement adhering to topics, themes, rhythms, constructions of an “approved and tried” nature.

Just as rock’n’roll once was an eye (ear, mind) opener but has regressed to be part of the furniture for some,  so has haiku and the Japanese short poetry forms. As in all other arts there are the masses, the “judges” (self appointed), the has-been forerunners now walking or standing still, the renegades, the new thinkers etc. It is how it should be. It has always been like this.

You just have to deal with the stuff you yourself find meaningful and exiting and let others deal with their thing – as long as you’re true to yourself.

Write and let write.

Johannes S. H. Bjerg

To be continued

Because this post have been moved the original comments are copied below:


02:59 PM on February 04, 2013
This was in Mainichi today, it seems to go well with what you are saying, Johannes :)sixty years ago
a frog was cloned
only it failed to make a splash
–Helen Buckingham (Bristol, UK)Selected by Isamu Hashimoto
February 04, 2013(Mainichi Japan)

I basically agree with all you are saying, but being one of those who are still learning how to walk (we do not master that art with the same speed or at the same age), I just wanted to tell you, have some patience. We’ll get there :)

Johannes S. H. Bjerg
03:13 PM on February 04, 2013
ah, thanks, Vida. I know I’m not the only one thinking like this, but somehow we’re not the ones flooding the web with our opinions. Guess it has something to do with letting others have their opinions as we have ours.I know that the learning process is hard. I am up to my neck in it daily. But a lot of “writing about haiku” seems to be meant for “beginners” and I thought I’d include the more experienced writers as well. These topics are some I have in my head more or less all the time, so I arrogantly think they also might be worth a reflection or two with those who are “old beginners”.In a sense we’re (or I am) a constant beginner. If I was to think otherwise about myself I’d come to a standstill … and that I wouldn’t like. 🙂

sara winteridge
08:34 PM on February 04, 2013

If one applies strict rules as a ‘prima facie’ basis for haiku (or anything in art) then one dictates that haiku which does not follow those rules is not eligible to be categorised as such. Marks of quality are reduced to the meeting of criteria, albeit with redoubtable (historical) artistic value attached, and the burden of proof remains with the writer. Her/ his haiku must meet these set criteria or it does not exist for purists.

I think there is a place for the purist, and that that is not a ‘bad word’, and, still room for people to create new work within that traditional paradigm – ok, maybe the frog /sound/ splash thing has had it’s day ! But how truly creative is the poet who does come up with a new frog/sound/splash thing? Are they less clever for walking in the shoes of others? They are the most easily judged poets by their own standards.

These are questions I am asking myself, as I am enjoying the whole range of good haiku out there. I do not judge haiku based on the ‘rules’ we were all taught initially, but I do judge them, and the majority of ‘haiku’ out there in the world are rubbish, in the same way that most poems written/ paintings painted/ photos photographed etc are rubbish. They bring pleasure to the individual, their parents, friends, peers and that is fine. (Some of it undoubtedly goes over my head and I am the one misjudging it. ) Now, narrow that creative field down to people who practice haiku seriously/ semi seriously and ask, if we do not use the old rules, how do we judge it? Do we need to establish rules in order to establish new quality criteria? I am working on learning about the way to judge/ value haiku and it is very hard – so much stuff to read and consider and much of that coming from one fixed perspective or another opposite one. in the end, as with everything, I do just either like something instantly, or not. I know that tendency can lead to poor judgement, but we are all like that aren’t we? We are drawn to, affiliated with our favorite colours, or a range within a spectrum..I am enjoying and experimenting with new radical forms, It does not come naturally to me to break boundaries and – hypothetically – if I just rely on those already pushing those boundaries to evaluate my work, is it any different than relying on those whose views are at the other end of the polarised line ? They will still be making a judgement based on their own criteria but be less likely to define their criteria because part of what is valuable in the progressive is undefinable until ..afterwards..I think I will exist in the middle ground, quite happily, valuing work at both ends for what they can teach me. I am new to this and will never be a true student, I forget too much! It is important though to have safe places – ‘schools’ – to help people develop, to praise and critique. I know this can lead to egoistic, master – student obsequiousness, and that this whole relationship is alien to Westerners, in some ways. I think that it is reasonable to set a kind of ‘entry level’ so individuals can work with people at a similar level, in a similar place, but how do you do that? There should of course be a place for everyone, but if haiku is Either too rigid and absolutist or too liberal – ‘do what pleases you’ / entirely individualistic ‘poet centric’ then both those poets that could keep up classical standards and those innovative modernists who could push boundaries are held back? Perhaps? Just thoughts…. Eider x

01:29 AM on February 05, 2013
Hi JohannesI am keen on reading your post. Just wondering if part 1 of this is also available on this site. Either my browser does not refresh pages well or I just am looking for it at the wrong place. I can see just two posts listed under your name. So where am I missing the part 1??Thx,



4 thoughts on “Expansion, contraction – action/reaction pts. 2 and 3/6

  1. There is nothing wrong with rules. With a rule you can draw a straight line. If one pulls it in at each of its extremities one can draw a curve. Few folk can manipulate the edge to draw a curve . . .even fewer can really work the extremes. But who cares, it is not about the curve but about getting to the curve.

    col 🙂

  2. No, nothing wrong with rules/guidelines if you’re using them for your own writing. They’re as such not something you can use to judge other’s poems – discard them as valid because “they don’t follow the rules” or adhere to your personal writing preferences. Rules in haiku are a tool you can use not something you can demand others to use in the same way you yourself do.

  3. Its just a style choice. As in mainstream poetry you can choose freeform or confine yourself to the strict limits of sonnets or a Villanelle. That is just as much fun and also a nice bit of mental exercise to stave off the Alzheimers. Writing one or the other doesn’t define who you are for ever, nor does it stop you from doing something completely different tomorrow. Or in art you can be figurative or abstract – but not everyone wants to work in only one style and some subjects lend themselves more effectively to one style than to another. Someone recently defined me as a “minimalist haiku poet”, well I know I’m not very tall but good heavens! I spent about 5 years writing 5/7/5 in my early years and very good for me it was too, it taught me a facility with words that completely offset the verbose and rambling circumnavigations I had learned from English poetry. People treat these choices as though it was some sort of club which you have to join in with (or be excommunicated) never to delve into the enemy camp again. Like the ‘gendai’ thing which is a popular buzzword for anything a bit off-the-wall and which is becoming something to join if you want to be seen as ‘progressive’ and creatively ‘hip’ in western/ EL haiku. There is not necessarily a lack of creativity in standard haiku, the simple breaking of rules does not define ‘creativity’. I’m not much of a joiner myself. I just write stuff. I might go and write a 5/7/5 just to prove that I won’t be defined into a corner by people who want to decide for their own reasons who I am and what I do. Or maybe I’ll write one about a placenta and start a feminist haiku movement. 🙂

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