22 July 2015

the opposite of

Haiku is the opposite of poetry. 

Or, if you prefer it watered down: 

(A strong case could be made that) Haiku is (in significant ways) the opposite of poetry. 

Happier now? 

Look, I know that we are unlikely to find a definition of haiku that doesn't start with the words, "Haiku is a short poem that…" And I know that many, if not most, haiku enthusiasts also have an interest in the wider world of poetry as writers and as readers. I don't. I may joke that I am allergic to poetry; but the fact that my love of most things haiku and my loathing of most things poetry seem to be connected intrigues me: perhaps it is not the case that haiku is, as everyone else seems to take for granted, simply a short form of poetry. 

Clatter about in the poetry toolbox that you may have had since schooldays, and you will find: 

Rhyme
Metre
Line Breaks 
Alliteration 
Simile
Metaphor
Personification
   and so on

Most of these have little or no place in haiku. This not to do with "rules" as such - rather, it is that experience has shown that, to the extent that they are noticeable, they have a disruptive and deleterious effect. So, If the features that we think of as being most prominent in (western) poetry are required to be - to all intents and purposes - absent from haiku, how does it make sense to categorise H as being simply a subset of P? At this stage in the argument it seems more as though the values of H and P are in inverse proportion to one another. Specifically, the greater the amount of P injected into H, the less effective that H is likely to be. Haiku is categorically not, therefore, "Poetry, only smaller." 

There are other aspects in which Haiku and Poetry seem to be opposites. But it is more helpful to think of these as tendencies, inclinations, or impulses, rather than fixed. Here, I like to imagine a kind of virtual graphic equaliser, where you can move the slider upwards towards Poetry, or downwards towards Haiku, it being for the writer to determine what balance "sounds" best. 

The Poetic tendency, you could say, pushes the slider upwards towards Self-expression; towards dramatisation and self-dramatisation. The Haiku tendency is in the opposite direction, towards restraint, stating things as they are, and playing down the Self: the "I" rarely taking centre stage. 

Again, the Poetic inclination might be to tell, explain, propound, to over-state. The Haiku inclination would be to under-play, to hint, to suggest; emotion, for example, rarely being stated outright. 

The Poetic impulse would be to draw attention to the words themselves, the poet garnering applause for how well they train their words, images and poetic devices to perform tricks. The Haiku impulse is the very opposite; if overt poetics intrude, the haiku is spoiled. 

The direction of Poetry might be towards elaboration, adornment, complexity, image piled upon image. And here again the direction of Haiku is the very opposite. 

It seems to me that a haiku is only a poem in the sense that it is a grouping of words that can hang, self-contained, framed in the white of a page. And we don't have any other word in the language to describe that sort of thing. In most other respects the qualities of Haiku and the qualities of Poetry seem to work against each other. i.e. Haiku really is the opposite of poetry. 


6 comments:

  1. I came to haiku from the free-verse poetry world and have spent quite a bit of time analysing the craft of haiku writing. For me haiku is poetry, and the list of things you note as absent I have noted in private research and public essays (e.g. attention to line break, metre, metaphor) as very much present, even if they are far more diluted.

    If you're interested there's a recent article on my open field blog - a poetry of absence or an absence of poetry? - and also an older one from 2012, published in Frogpond, about linebreak too. http://anopenfield.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/going-organic-line-break-in-free-form.html

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    1. Hi, Lynne,
      thanks for that, I've been a follower of your blog and a reader of your haibun for several years, and I'll definitely chase down those articles.
      If I may clarify - because, as is immediately obvious, neither thinking nor writing are particularly my strong points ...
      Once or twice on Twitter I have - somewhat mischievously - suggested that haiku is the opposite of poetry. It does express my personal view, that - for me! - haiku is a fragmentary literature more akin to concentrated prose than a sub-genre of Poetry. I thought I might try to expand on that in my clumsy way, here. I don't expect anyone else, and certainly not already self-identifying poets, to agree with me even for a minute but it doesn't hurt to question things that are taken for granted, from time to time.
      In my own ku, I certainly pay great attention to every aspect that I can think of. Precisely the right word in precisely the right place is always the aim but that should be the case for all writing, it's not a definition of poetry. Absolutely, where a line breaks is important - but that's not the same as deploying line-breaks as a poetic device. It's a matter of subtlety; as soon as the reader of a haiku notices a poetic device of any sort, it may still work well as a (micro) poem - but its "haiku-ness" is damaged.
      Similarly: I know that many haiku are, in fact, entirely metaphor. Sometimes it's obvious - sometimes less so, with the metaphor being one of several possible readings, which can be a delight to discover. Again, the more visible a poetic device is, the more it harms the haiku, is what I am saying. And that says something about the nature of haiku and the nature of poetry, and the relationship between them. -Mark

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  2. Maybe the "haiku mind" is the opposite of the "poetry mind" ... (There's good points in this article). As Westerners we live with a ghost: the suffering genius whose inner life should be that of the rest of the world. We live with an over-emphasis on the ego/individuality (especially when it comes to the arts) and the idea of "the struggling genius trying to gain understanding from a stupid world" ... and that is hard to box in. You see it with many new writers of haiku that hasn't studied what haiku has been (its history) or what aesthetics it springs from. Now, I'm certainly not saying "always look back" but some kind of study IS needed when you venture into a genre that's so unlike "Western poetry/Western poetic mind".

    I bet you come across them too, those haiku that so overly strive to be lovely, "deep", emotional that you're confronted with "scent of stars", "crow's song" and other poetic images that are very much "not-haiku". To me it's just a sign, that the "Western poetic mind" is very deeply rooted in us (and they get a lot of "likes" on Facebook by others who are writing the same kind of verse).

    ...

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    1. ' The "haiku mind" is the opposite of the "poetry mind". '

      You're right, Johannes, of course that's the better way to put it. It is very much to do with a certain cast of mind. Those new writers of haiku that you mention, especially those who already see themselves as poets (at whatever level) may find it difficult even to discern let alone appreciate the difference.

      . . . . .


      By the way, to anyone reading here, none of this is to claim that I have any special knowledge or expertise; especially at the present time when every attempt to tune in to the haiku wavelength results only in muffled phrases in a blast of static.

      Purists might well say that very little of my writing is proper haiku, anyway, and they'd be right. Probably. But these days I don't worry too much about that; I would still take the haiku aesthetic into micropoetry.

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  3. This is very Interesting to me as someone who has traveled in the opposite direction, from haiku to poetry, I found haiku first and after a while also started writing poetry, which I had previously felt no inclination to do. I have always wanted to carry the 'haikuness' over to the poetry. I was once asked about this and replied as follows.

    I've always tried to keep an essence of haiku in my writing, even in longer forms. For me the essence of haiku is not to do with syllables or formal considerations but is in the paradoxical mix of simplicity and resonance. I'm interested in alchemy and alchemical symbolism and I once expressed the opinion, in an article for the Australian journal Yellow Moon, that haiku is the prima materia of poetry: the raw, unrefined essence of it that a lot of people overlook. I find the discipline of writing haiku is good practice for writing generally.

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  4. Alison! Thank you for dropping by.

    We would no doubt agree, you and I, that there really IS something different about haiku. Having found haiku first, it's almost inevitable that we carry it into other areas. Haiku-mind can unquestionably benefit other writings. It's the traffic from the other direction that worries me :-) As I argued earlier, poetry-mind does not benefit haiku.

    We are used to seeing haiku defined as "a short poetic form", and it is this kind of autopilot statement that straight away relegates haiku to being just another one of many. Other kinds of poetry are entirely dependent on and defined by their form. Haiku isn't. Haiku can appear in many different shapes and individual styles and still be recognised as haiku. Haiku-ness, whatever it might be, exactly, does not reside in poetic form. We would not be having this kind of conversation about sonnet, villanelle or limerick.

    One last point (which, were I any kind of proper writer would have appeared in my original post, especially, sigh, as it is arguably the most important) corresponds somewhat with your 'prima materia'.

    Haiku-mind looks at the world as it is, at the things in the world as they are; it values them for themselves. Contrast that with Poetry-mind - which seems unable to look at ANYTHING without immediately seeing it in terms of something else! Simile, metaphor, personification: the tools of poetry take you away from what is right in front of you. Haiku deals with the original text. Poetry is translation.



    Anyone want to take issue with me on that last point ? ;-)

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