Keiji Minato: Notes on Modern Haiku (4)

22 February 2009

Haiku proves to be able to take in a wide variety of themes, tones, feelings, etc. as in the examples so far, but some feel a need for freer forms after Taneda Santôka (1882-1940; who wrote: “On a straight road so it is lonely [まっすぐな道でさみしい]”) and OZAKi Hôsai (1885-1926; who wrote: “I coughed yet alone [咳をしてもひとり].” Writers of jiyûritsu haiku (自由律俳句, meaning free-rhythm haiku) are now separated from the fixed-form haiku world and rarely receive high evaluation, while SUMITAKU Kenshin (住宅顕信; 1961-1987) gained his popularity not only among haiku enthusiasts but general readers:

Zubunurete inukoro

Soaked a mongrel

Yoru ga sabishikute dareka ga warai hajimeta

The night is lonely & someone started to laugh

kôrimakura ni sasaerarete iru shiroi tenjô

The white ceiling supported by an ice pillow

As in the case of his predecessors Taneda and Ozaki, readers read Sumitaku’s haiku with his life story, especially his illness and early death at the age of 26. Some of his works show a tendency toward self-pity (the “mongrel (犬ころ)” in the first short verse is nothing but his self-portrait), but it is overcome by his acuteness of senses and minimal wording. The second piece combines a subjective response and a simple third-person act to create a clear picture of a psyche that has become overly acute. The third has no subjective words, but its contrast between “the white ceiling” and “an ice pillow” acquires a psychological dimension through the words, “white” and “ice,” that have similarity to our senses.

Although haiku is regarded as obsolete by many in younger generations, some take it up as their only vent for expression at an early age. Recently, a few events and awards for young haiku writers attract attention and help them attain earlier recognition without being held back by long apprenticeship required in the kessha (sect) system. One of the events is the annual Haiku-Kôshi’en(俳句甲子園), named after the baseball stadium in Hyogo Prefecture where the national high school baseball tournaments are held twice a year. As the name shows it is a kind of haiku slam by high school students. Teams from schools all over Japan get together in Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture and contend with each other for haiku championship. Ehime Prefecture, where Kyoshi Takahama and his master MASAOKA Shiki, a influential haiku innovator in the end of the 19th century, were born, also hosts the Shiba Fukio Haiku Award for New Faces (芝不器男俳句新人賞). (Unfortunately, commercial magazines of haiku seem unwilling to encourage the youth to take up the genre, targeting elder babyboomers who now retire and seek for an eligible hobby.)

TOMITA Takuya (冨田拓也; b.1979) is the winner of the first Shiba Fukio Haiku Award for New Faces in 2002:

Kizetsu shite / sen’nen kôru / kujira kana

a whale sleeps
for a thousand years

Kôkotsu to / ari ni kuwarete / ie taoru

Gnawed by ants
the house falls down
in ecstasy

Manjushage / haka no sukima wo / afure izu

Cluster amaryllises
spill out from
between the tombs

His un-human images are quite apart from the current mainstream that tries to duplicate humanized nature or report daily triviality. Tomita seems to have a strong distrust of the reality and try to overcome it by constructing fictionally enacted time. The form of haiku and its penchant for nature serves well for him: The former enables him to take a necessary distance from the reality time, and the latter gives images enough to fill up the fictional space created by radical un-humanization of the often tradition-ridden form.

Haiku writers from the event Haiku-Kôshi’en seem to have a different attitude from Tomita. They seem to loyally trust the tradition of haiku, probably because they began to write in a communal atmosphere and easily have possible readers in mind. SATÔ Ayaka (佐藤文香; b.1985) published her first book of haiku in 2008 at the age of 23 (Many haiku writers do not publish their first book until their 30s or 40s or even 50s!):

Ao ni fure / murasaki ni fure / nikki kau

Touching that blue
touching this purple
I buy a diary

Tsuchi furu ya / Zousen-jo yori / inu ide ku

Yellow sand falls –
a dog comes out
from a shipyard

Namete haru / kitte tsumetaki / sei-gogatsu

A stamp feels cold
on my tongue –
the Month of Mary

In these haiku, “buy a diary(日記買ふ)” is a seasonal word of winter, “yellow sand falls(つちふるや; its explanatory translation would be: “Yellow sand brought from the Asian continent to Japan by the spring wind falls”)” is of spring, and “the Month of Mary (聖五月, literally meaning “holy May”) is also a seasonal word. The first and the third are not traditional but quite new seasonal words accepted in the last hundred or maybe fifty years. Satô almost naturally merges her daily feelings with the tradition of haiku embodied in the seasonal words, not disturbed by a possible doubt that the tradition might be illusory. Some would criticize it as a conservative attitude to disregard various attempts to radically question what the real value of haiku is. (Note: Satô’s recent works show that she is trying to change her style in a bold, radical way, incorporating the colloquial style of Ikeda Sumiko into her acute observations of real life.)

The history of modern haiku is as rich and varied as that of haiku in the era of Bashô, Buson, and Issa, so these brief notes reflect only a tiny fraction of it. I chose mostly writers who radically challenge(d) the preconception of haiku or succeed(ed) in creating their own distinguished styles. You should note that the majority of modern and contemporary haijin belong to some “kessha” (sects) and “dôjin (同人, meaning fellows)” groups and follow the lead of their master or elder members. An innumerable number of people who submit their haiku to newspapers, magazines, and TV programs are more often than not suspicious of gracious instructions from famous commentators. I do not condemn the situation: Haiku is destined to be a communal art form because of its brevity and tradition. Which means you can also write a meaningful essay by following the main lines of kessha and dojin groups. Adding to it, I missed a lot of remarkable individual writers I hoped to introduce to non-Japanese speakers if there was more time and space.

Now that people all over the world have begun to find their own haiku voices, perhaps it is not necessary to try to incorporate all the elements from Japan: maybe Bashô and some bits and pieces of the rest are enough if their implications are truly taken into their own literary and linguistic milieus. However, you cannot deny that Japanese haiku has much more tradition that has the widest variety and can provide world haiku writers with hints for possibilities their haiku and other types of poetry might take. You are absolutely free to choose a specific prescription or method to write your own haiku or lead your group; being conscious of other possible routes and keeping access to them will open up your haiku world and help facilitate international exchanges of haiku, poetry, and ideas about literary creation.

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About Keiji Minato

Keiji Minato was born in Osaka in 1973. He has published a book of poetry, 硝子 の眼/布の皮膚 (Glass Eye / Cloth Skin) (草原詩社, 2003), and as a scholar of literatures in English has written essays, mainly about Australian literature, for national Japanese magazines like すばる (Subaru) and 英 語青 年 (Eigo Seinen). He is one of the three members of the Kyoto-based experimental poetry group, the Experimental Language Factory.

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