One of my most excruciating live poetry experiences was during the reading of a long haiku sequence. The poet stopped for applause after each one. Gradually, it dawned on the audience that this wasn't going to end any time soon. The poet read the next haiku and then slightly bowed his head and stepped away from the microphone. We took our cue, briefly patting our palms together as he stepped forward to read the next one. We could have stopped applauding but decorum dictated otherwise. It was a long five minutes.

The problem wasn't that that haiku were bad, on the contrary, the problem was that they were good. That is to say, they weren't just seventeen syllable poems (sometimes known as senryu). They weren't just seventeen syllable poems that used a seasonal word. Many of his haiku were faithful to the mood, philosophy and aesthetic of traditional Japanese haiku. The problem was that the poet didn't know any other way of reading them other than the standard open mic procedure of poem>applause>poem>applause>poem>applause…

One of my favourite definitions of a haiku comes from this article about haibun by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She characterises a haiku as a meaningful murmur. In the same article, haibun (a form that normally consists of a prose poem followed by a haiku) are characterised and differentiated from other observations of nature by merit of them possessing the quality of aware:

aware—the quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy.

Many haiku can seem incomplete when read to an audience. There is often an openness to the poem that is at odds with the need for immediate response characterised by the kind of poems that we hear at poetry slams. Let's look at a typical poem by Basho.

This autumn
why am I growing old?
bird disappearing among clouds

(trans Robert Hass)

Now, unlike a lot of Japanese haiku, it's hardly oblique in its meaning to western ears. Autumn is traditionally a time for pensive moods and reflections of mortality. The image that concludes this observation invites us to see the speaker, a poet who led an ascetic lifestyle, as a bird disappearing among clouds. His inevitable vanishing from the world is a casual, almost unnoticeable thing.

Now imagine the poet reading out this line, then stepping back and awaiting applause. Not so insignificant and modest now, is he?

So, if a haiku often ends with an image that may need to be bounced about the brain of the listener for a while before they can really make a judgement about it, how should a haiku be performed and how should it be received? Here is a good point to pay heed to the magnificence that is cockney hard man actor Danny Dyer reciting reflective haiku(s).

Now, while this is obviously a piss take, Dyer's recitations and his reactions to the poetry are more appropriate to the form than standing back and expecting applause. Whether taking a drag of a fag, or exclaiming “That's properly reflective innit?” or thinking to himself silently before exclaiming “Wasssat fackin'….. wassat mean?” he is at least recognising the openness and ambiguity of the form – the meaningful murmur, albeit in his usual idiosyncratic way.

When we encounter haiku from Spoken Word or Performance Poets, the poem tends to resemble a seventeen syllable aphorism, epigram or joke. In a video of a haiku slam (The Haiku Death Match, great name!), the poems seem to be judged by their immediate effect on the audience – in this case immediate laughter or recognition of how right-on or mind blowing the idea is. Rather than try to tailor the event towards the needs of the form, the form is instead tailored towards the needs of the event. An audience member interviewed for the Haiku Death Match video shares her idea of what a good haiku is:

A good haiku is like, thought provoking, where they use the seventeen syllables to really blow your mind or it's hilarious. Those are the two options. You can't really go any other direction.

Another describes a good haiku as being "...quick, to the point. I really like a twist at the end.";

There's no doubting the talent of the poets involved in the Haiku Death Match. There is an economy of language and pithiness that is less evident in the longer pieces that succeed at conventional slams. They are similarly welcome to tell me to get fucked with my restrictive definitions of what a haiku should be. I will in turn, take that critique in good grace while mumbling "...but it's still not a haiku" as I amble away.

While the syllabic count stands as the sole criteria as to whether these aphorisms are haiku, it is interesting that the syllabic count is often seen as the least important criteria when translating classic haiku from the Japanese. It is far more important for the translator to get the mood and imagery just right instead. The Penguin Classics translation of Basho's The Narrow Path to the Deep North substitutes four line quatrains for the three line originals.

One reason why the syllable count is not that important is due to the difference between spoken Japanese and spoken English. A spoken line of English poetry is often characterised by its stresses. A line of Japanese poetry is characterised by its syllables. We can tell if a line of English poetry is in iambics by simply listening to it. It is far harder to count the syllables in the same line without finger counting. Japanese language uses stresses less in speech, hence why syllables are more apparent to the ear.

Perhaps we need to examine what happens when a traditional haiku is read out to an audience within the typical poetry reading format. What do we do with that air of ambiguity that ends barely a moment after it has begun. What is the best show of appreciation or understanding for a meaningful murmur?

Our first cue should be to look at the communal aspects of the composition and readings of haiku. Sometimes haiku were traditionally written as part of haibun, as detailed above, or as part of long travel journals. They are also used in renga, linked verse, where a chain of haiku and waki (two seven syllable lines, often appended to haiku to make a tanka) would be composed by the visiting poet and their hosts. Poets, monks, novices, lords and servants would often partake in creating the renga together. The effect would be a poem that showed different minds as fractured manifestations of the same experience.

Contrast this with the format of the poetry reading and the cult of authorship. There is an anxiety at the heart of poetry in performance, the possibly antagonistic relationship between the poet and their audience. It cannot be denied that the person on stage is often endeavouring to conquer or subdue the audience. Or, in a kinder sense, they are seeking the audience's approval. It is this anxiety that is shut down or kept in check by the snappy one liner or the grand statement. In contrast, when the ambiguity and openness of the haiku is introduced to this environment, the anxiety is amplified.

I would perhaps solve this a couple of ways, The first would be, in the spirit of the haibun and travel journals, not to present haiku as main courses in the performance, but to toss them in among some banter and storytelling. Let it sit there as part of a softer, inclusive silence before getting back to the small talk.

The second would be to invite more feedback from the audience, not in requesting applause or demanding silence but to instead to throw it open, to let the audience respond with their own thoughts or even to write haiku of their own. They would be welcome to share these at certain points during the reading. Anyone caught counting their fingers will be escorted from the premises.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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