The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 23, 2001

More about haiku
Review by N.K. Singh

I RECENTLY came across the review of my book "Haikus and Sketches" by Vikramdeep Johal. While I appreciate the homework of the reviewer in the classical tradition of Haiku, I wish he had extended his efforts in studying Haiku in its total perspective. He writes more about haikus as he understands it rather than my book under review. He says, "The writer deserves a pat on the back for trying his hand at a genre all but neglected by the contemporary poets." Then goes on to say, "They pale miserably in comparison with the all time great creations." He also acknowledges that the writer has no claim to such mastery as a great poet. One fails to understand how the first efforts are compared to the best in the world and then condemned.

Again he says, "Haikus which do leave an impact appear to stem from the writer’s intuitive response to the world around him. A couple of his Bangkok ones are memorable." What else a Haiku writer does but to delve deep into experience and intuition? His criticism mainly emanates from my experimenting with subjects which are not conventionally the themes of the old masters. I would like to draw his attention to the fact that haiku world has changed and even corporate haikus are being written. I quote from Warriner: "In poetry as in management theory, rules are for breaking. Even the classical poets messed around with the five-seven-five formula. The 19th century Japanese poet Shiki okayed a range of haiku from 15 to 25 syllables."


I have explained even his departure from 5-7-5 syllables as free haiku. If poets were so convention-bound, how could world read blank verse and various new forms?. Let me correct some of the impressions of the reviewer. First, even Basho’s "old pond" haiku is considered very controversial and some of the critics have assailed it as "darkly mysterious to understand" (H.G. Henderson). Again, the reviewer levels a charge of anthropomorphism which he considers alien to haikus. This too stems from his entire focus on Basho, Issa and their followers. Haikus have gone even to attribute feeling to mountains and not only animals.

Consider the following from Higginson’s "Haiku World" (1996): Hills smile, a traditional figure of speech for hills in springtime, from an old saying: "Spring hills faintly melting seem to smile; summer hills of pale green seem to trickle; autumn hills bright and clean seem all dressed up; winter hills faintly sad seem to sleep."

Also translated: Mountains laugh./ Never say Hiroshima’s mountains/ are laughing.

Yasuhiko Shigemoto

The reviewer’s credentials about art are not identifiable from the text and, therefore, do not need any comments. But after writing 10,000 words and evaluating it against the world’s best masters, how the reviewer has nothing to write home about? The conclusion does not flow from the text. There is certainly need of more homework. Against this, I will like to remind him that poetry has many emotional and subjective elements. It is a private experience but its value consists in evoking feelings of the reader. These feelings of the reader need not be completely identical to the poet’s vision.

There is nothing like a final word on a poem. The Poetry Society of India’s journal carries the following comments about the same book by Sankaranarayanan: "But it is one’s imagination that gives it more and more meaning. These haikus by Professor N.K. Singh and Petra Golob are not strictly haikus if one goes by the number of syllables (‘free haikus’ is how the author describes it). Nonetheless, in its essential meaning these haikus are successful. Published in a handy size with an evocative cover, this book is a treat for anyone who likes to ponder over life in a leisurely manner."

The origin of haiku may be spontaneous but its craft depends on a lot of structural and exacting norms. This process, which is the essence of the haiku art, has no spontaneity. It is like a jeweller’s craft after "the feeling" has been caught. In fact haikus represent a delicate balance between spontaneous feeling like what Zen called "Satori" and subsequent craft. These, however, are continuously changing within a broad framework of methodology. One who argues for spontaneity should not get enmeshed in traditional marshes. As Dr Yasuda in his book "Japanese Haiku" puts it, "All haiku worthy of the name are records insight." This is the only rule of haiku without exception.