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The Playful Mind

What Makes American Haiku Different

I hope you will find my little speech of interest, because I honestly didn't undertake special research about the given topic, and having a new flame is also a very good reason for not finding enough time.
Anyway, since I used to write and read haiku in English as well as in German, I might be able to compare the German language haiku scene with the North American scene, at least to some degree. Though it is impossible to explain all the differences between both in such a short time, I will try to present a few personal thoughts about what makes American haiku distinctive.

Once I asked an English haiku poet Martin Lucas about the differences between the American haiku and the English? He answered: Well, you don't find any worse poems in Frogpond or Modern Haiku, but all are quite similar, or follow the same pattern of making; but though you'll find some quite poor poems in the English magazines, they also have a broader individual range and taste."

This may be true or not, but in fact, in recent times we are given too many narrow definitions of what a haiku is.
We should be careful with any definitions. A haiku is what we make of it. It will always be a reflection of our state of mind. If we only follow an established definition of how to create a haiku, we will be in danger of losing that aspect of "newness", a very important requirement for writing haiku. To say it metaphorically with Gary Snyder's words: "The path is what ever passes."  I mention this, because sometimes I have the feeling that some people are seeking a final formula of what a haiku is or has to be. Of course, this has nothing to do with the American haiku movement particularly.

But what has this to do in particular with the American haiku? What are its main features? I would like to quote from Bruce Ross' Haiku Moment: "The fourth generation of american haiku: consistent lack of seasonal references, surrealist techniques and figurative expression are introduced, regular prosody is eliminated, and human, rather than nature, subjects are more emphasized, eroticism, psychological expression, and political and social commentary."

I think this quite significant for the American haiku, although you find all these in European haiku too, but not to the same great extent, and only recently. Especially the invention of the so-called "urban haiku", which has become more common in Germany only recently, with its, roughly said, modern subjects of sex and psychological, political and social expressions, which seem to be an offspring of the American haiku movement.

I noticed generally, as I began to learn about American haiku, that there was a willingness to try new forms as well as content and a strong ability to adapt the idea of Japanese short poetry, and to develop it further. Poets like Marlene Mountain have found a way to combine American literary style with the Japanese forms. As you know, Marlene pointed out that in her way of thinking, there is no "Japanese haiku". It needs a reference to an era, a date, or a poet's name, and so on. Also the well established techniques used for writing haiku are nothing more than techniques. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: "My sentences are only a ladder to climp up; if you reached the point of meaning, you have to throw it away." The same is true for writing haiku.

I'm saying this to introduce a very important personal perception that I had when I came in touch with North American haiku for the first time - I found something, which I would like to call "the playful mind"; a mind related to the meaning of haiku, which, literally translated, means: "playful verse". German poets, for instance, are more used to following fixed patterns, they don't trust experiments of any kind very much. This is very general, I know, but I consider it an interesting observation, anyway.

I suppose that American writers - I'm thinking here especially of the so-called "Beat-poets", - had and still have, the ability to adapt the genre because, historically, they are probably open to new ideas and short expression, (comics have not found their way into life in the USA, by mere chance) and because they are less bound by a long traditional list of what poetry has to be.

It is almost impossible to speak about the European haiku. Every country has its own history and language, and we only very recently started to introduce each country's haiku scene during the First European Haiku Congress in Germany. But one can say that in Europe it is still very uncommon to write, for instance, a one-liner, or a poem that is not related to the traditional subject of nature linked to human nature. Though I have to say that this is changing rapidly.  For a long time, the German idiom haiku tended either to strictly imitate the few given available translations of the ancient Japanese masters, or tended to be written with almost no relation to the origins of the genre. In those countries, where German is spoken, it was impossible for a long time to find acceptance for a haiku not composed in the 5/7/5 pattern, and that is still the case in Austria, where I come from.  This was the situation when I started to write haiku, only five years ago. So the aspect of "atarashimi" (newness) was absolutely ignored for several years. By the way, this was one reason why I began to write and publish haiku in English. Now I feel that a period of change approaches, because more and more poets are glancing at the international haiku scene as well as that of America, and feel attracted by new subjects and new forms.
To say it with the words of Ruth Franke, a haiku poet from Germany: "The new generation of European haiku poets becomes aware of the chance of this literary genre: grounded in the cultural background of each nation, it is capable of connecting people all over the world by sharing something like an universal human truth."
Finally, I would like to say that it is still very important to study the Japanese origins, but also to experiment with the form and subject; to integrate our own historical background in form and content, and also to glance regularly at the international haiku movement. Nothing has to be avoided and nothing especially has to be revealed. I think it is most important to be open for everything in our daily lives, to allow the open and playful mind. I want to encourage you all to keep a playful mind because: "The path is whatever passes."

I'm sure that you didn't understand one word of my speech because of my "Alpine English" - anyway, I thank you all for your attention.


Presented at the Haiku North America Conference in Port Townsend, Washington, USA, September 22,  2005

Many Thanks to Kilmeny Niland and Prof. Horst Ludwig for their great support.