Haiku in English: Divesting Ourselves of Our Ancestry Could Be a Good Thing Pt1

There are almost as many opinions about the nature of haiku as there are people who are writing them. This has led to the development of warring factions. This article may not improve the situation but I am simply speaking my mind. This is not an edict from on high. If you disagree with me, it is entire possible that you position is valid. That being said, I will state my case. I truly believe haiku in English is a separate form. This is not an opinion that many agree with but I think treating it as distinct entity would stop a lot of arguments that are causing considerable friction in the haiku community.

I believe haiku in English is emerging as its own form, completely distinct and different than Japanese haiku. It is at the end of a long period of creolisation that began as soon as Blyth introduced haiku to Westerners. Creolisation is a linguistic idea discussing the behaviour of language at the points of contact between two cultures. The process ‘pertains to the way a subaltern culture mixes and re-contextualises the pre-existing codes belonging to the dominant culture with which it is in contact’(“Playing Identities”. The Project, n.d).  The ideas can also be applied to food, social rules etc. The arts are one of the places that tend to strongly display creolised traits even very early in the relationship between cultures.  In the case of haiku in English, because we are adopting the art form of the Japanese culture, we are the subaltern. There is no fixed way the mix in creolisation will evolve but there will be an exchange of ideas, usually most strongly from the dominant culture to the other.

This is clearly the case with haiku. Excluding Gendai—which I think might also be becoming something separate —the influence of the Japanese aesthetic is still strong in our poems. Where English Haiku is moving away from Japanese most clearly is in subject matter; it is becoming more urban, less interested in the classical definitions of nature and is becoming more human centred. This simply reflects the interests of Westerners who come from individualistic cultures and the increasingly urban environment. Writing is a creative process in which we include some of ourselves. You cannot include a Japanese sense of self if you are not Japanese. Yes, I know self should not be included in haiku but it is the self that selects what images to construct the poem from, so it sneaks in there whether we like it or not.

None of these things I have mentioned are essentially detrimental to the form if English Haiku is considered something separate. Those how cling to Japanese Haiku as a template for which all haiku should aspire may view these changes as a corruption. I would argue it is adaption not destruction and things that do not continually change will ossify and eventually die. I think the attempt to write Japanese haiku when you are not Japanese is at best unproductive and at worst,  possibly an attempt at colonialist annexation of another culture’s art form for which you have no entitlement. Frankly, I believe we should take it further and introduce some techniques from traditional English poetry but that would make me a heretic wouldn’t it?

“Playing Identities”. The Project, n.d, viewed March 10 2012 at http://www.playingidentities.eu/node/142

http://www.geantreepress.com/

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5 thoughts on “Haiku in English: Divesting Ourselves of Our Ancestry Could Be a Good Thing Pt1

  1. “You cannot include a Japanese sense of self if you are not Japanese.” & ” I think the attempt to write Japanese haiku when you are not Japanese is at best unproductive and at worst …” YES!!!

    You haven’t scared me away 🙂

    Good points, Violette.

  2. “I think the attempt to write Japanese haiku when you are not Japanese is at best unproductive and at worst, possibly an attempt at colonialist annexation of another culture’s art form for which you have no entitlement. ” I was just about to write “Yes, agree!” when I realized that I try to write English haiku, but I am not English :))))
    Just kidding, I do agree that every culture should follow its traditions even when adopting something new from another culture. In grafting, it’s essential to have a host plant with strong roots, otherwise the new branch would be weak too.

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