Poetry: Stephen Gill Feature 92: HAIKU


Professor Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal has authored several books of creative writings and critical studies and his writings have appeared in a number of journals. He asks Stephen Gill the following question:

NKA: You have authored a haiku collection entitled Flashes. What are your views about this type of poetry?

Stephen Gill:  I became interested in haiku in 1988, when I began to study poets from the point of their form and style. Some of them had been haiku writers. Haiku enamoured me as I went deeper in its study, savouring its delightful simple presence though its simplicity is deceptive.

By its very nature a haiku is an unfinished poem, written in telegraphic language. A traditional haiku is of three lines, and has definite syllables of five, seven and five respectively. It also suggests a season. All that I can say is that haiku is mostly the bones of an experience or revelation.

Haiku was born in Japan and is still admired there. Several new trends, particularly in English haiku, have been introduced over the years. Haiku also strengthened the symbolist movement in France and Imagists in English literature between 1912 and 1918. Notable imagists were F.S. Flint, Pound, Amy Lowell and John Gould Fletcher.  They attacked the emotional and excessive use of the metric verse of the time.

Because of its brevity, a haiku can be jot down in short intervals. Moreover, haiku poets do not have to be tied to set rules. They can write on highly unusual as well as on ordinary aspects of life. A haiku does not have to be about special moments.  What can be more joyful than to be able to find beauty in everything around without waiting for something rare to happen. This element turns haiku into daily bread, not a feast to be enjoyed on specific occasions. For the writers of haiku, the well of imagination never goes dry. They do not have to go to a library in search of material, nor do they have to shut themselves in their rooms to explore the chambers of their minds. This is because the material is right in front of them, even when they look into the mirror. To illustrate how easy it is to catch these ideas from daily life, I will quote my two haiku: 


clutter the table


smiles from above

house is silent

The above three lines sketch an ordinary scene from ordinary life. This scene from a kitchen suggests a family get-together, when all the guests have gone, leaving the dishes on the table to be picked up for washing. It is late evening, suggested by a light, and the silence indicates that the hosts have gone to bed because they may be tired. They may do the dishes the next day. Here is another haiku of mine:

Without you                                                                                                                                                                                                                      I am

a leafless tree

 love is the sap

For haiku writers material is everywhere. They find material even in the most mundane situations.  To them style is a dress as it is for humans. A poet may say that he or she has no problem finding material; it is the choice of words or diction they have to struggle with. For haiku poets such distinctions do not exist. They use ordinary language to present their ordinary life. Many haiku poems appear primarily prosaic, like Basho's diaries.

Several English haiku writers have used rhyme successfully, but its use is not essential. Over the years, a vast body of haiku has been produced, and still is being produced, in which rhyme has been used rarely. This choice makes the job of haiku poets easier.

Haiku has been free enough to adjust itself to the needs of poets of every succeeding age under different circumstances. For instance, in Japan, Yosa Buson (1716--1783) introduced a more personal style. Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) introduced a popular note, using haiku to portray human misery and absurdity and to evoke compassion for man's weaknesses. In modern times, haiku has received fresh waters from Masaoka Shiki and Takayama Kyoshi.  In the West, haiku has influenced poets in different ways. As the Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics states, Western poets interested in it knew no Japanese, and therefore produced results which often had little to do with haiku.

Haiku entices the poets who dislike original limitations, particularly concerning the use of syllabic versification, reference to season and terse language. Temperamentally, I cannot develop a love for something that is chained.  I like to be free like nature itself.  That may be why the wind and dove in various shapes appear in my poetry. Moreover, I do not perceive much creativity in work in which a poet has to struggle to conform to the established norms. Haiku offers freedom to freedom-loving poets. For them, there are vast possibilities for adopting new techniques.

I am not among those poets who finish off several pieces in a single sitting.  Rather I am a slow but steady producer.  My first draft is a diamond in a rough shape. I polish and chisel, a practice that is against the teachings of Basho.

Bashu Matsuo, the first great master of haiku, was born in Japan in 1644 and died in 1694. He was influenced by a 4th century B.C. philosopher, Tchouang-tsen, who believed that the real value lies in useless things and the right way of life is to accept and follow the laws of nature.

Distractions do not pose serious problems for haiku poets, though all writers hate them no matter how deeply they are in love with writing. Interruptions are unable to irritate haiku poets because they only need a few minutes to jot down three lines, anywhere, any time. The novelists and poets of other genres may envy haiku writers for this very reason. Even if writers inform the other members of their families not to interrupt them at certain hours, the family may not know what this means because distraction or interruption has different connotations for different people. When a writer goes to the washroom or to the kitchen for a glass of water, the spouse and children may think that the writer is now open for conversation. This sort of problem does not bother a haiku writer.

One way for a poet to make the best possible use of any available time is to get hold of a pocket- sized tape recorder. Inspiration comes as a flash, a revelation. A poet should put it into words immediately. Otherwise, it will fade or evaporate sooner than water does in a tropical country. Such flashes happen seldom. They seem to be a result of the poet's unconscious acts. Priceless gems, which are the works of this unconscious mind, may be lost by procrastination. I have lost many gems.  In my long drives, I keep a tape recorder within reach to pick up for recording. It is small enough to fit in any coat pocket, and is easy to operate, without even looking at it. Anything recorded can be revised and polished later. What can be more fun than catching daily scenes and random thoughts in three lines. It is a different matter if a poet happens to be too lazy to pick up a note-book and a pen. If this seems to be a problem, I would advise such a poet to keep a mini tape recorder all the time in his or her pocket. If they cannot do even this, then, I would ask them to look within, to know if they are eligible suitors for the muse. Maybe, they will do better as plumbers, or at the grocery store, than as priests in the temple of haiku.

Everyone likes short cuts, no matter where he or she goes. So do writers, to save time. Fortunately, haiku poets do not need these short cuts. Haiku itself is a short cut to writing full poems of several lines. Haiku is one of the oldest forms of poetry and therefore it has had a long time to mature, going through several stages of experimentation not only in Japan, where it was born, but also in the West. Haiku has become flexible enough for new temperaments, modes of thought and expressions. A poet can adapt it to suit his or her personality and philosophy.  Haiku has become a hat which has lost its original shape because it has been worn on heads of different sizes. Yet it looks new and attractive. With a few adjustments, this hat can be worn by any poet.

To study my views about haiku further and from another angle, I would suggest reading my introduction to Flashes, a collection of my haiku.  This introduction is also on my web sites: www.stephengill.ca


StephenGill, a multiple award-winning Indo/Canadian self-exiled poet, fiction writer, and essayist, has authored more than thirty books. He is the subject of doctoral dissertations and thirteen books of critical studies have been released. The focus of his writing is live and let live. Available For: writer or poet in residence.

WEBSITES: www.stephengill.ca & stephengillcriticism.info  (stephengillgazette@gmail.com)

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