What I think about when I think about haiku

As issue number 57 of Presence hits the doormats of its subscribers in the UK and overseas, I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with haiku and how it’s changed in the last three years, for reasons which will become clear.

My first published haiku appeared, in the fledgling British Haiku Society’s pre-Blithe Spirit quarterly, way back in 1990, when I was still living in Portrush. It was three or four years later, after I’d moved back to London, that I ventured to some of the Society’s events, at Daiwa House, and met, among others, Annie Bachini, David Cobb, Katherine Gallagher, Tony Marcoff, Alan Summers and Diana Webb – all of whom were kind and helpful to me – and others. Thereafter, I attended most of the Society’s conferences – sometimes with barely a dozen of others – in some lovely places. In those years, I also became good friends with a number of haiku poets of my generation, particularly John Barlow, Martin Lucas and Matt Morden. From 2003 or so until 2008, I was part of the Society’s Committee, when Martin was President (a ridiculous title, which ought to have been abolished in favour of something less pretentious). Unfortunately, despite Martin’s valiant efforts to improve the way the Society operated, there were two individuals, one in particular, who were hell-bent on opposing virtually any suggestion, even the offer, from a member who was a professional web designer, to overhaul the Society’s then pitifully outmoded website for free. Sadly, Martin and I, and others, left both the Committee and the Society because of that thoughtless duo’s actions.

In the mid-Noughties or so, Martin roped me in as Reviews Editor for Presence, which he and David Steele had started in 1996. That involved me writing and commissioning  most of the reviews, though Martin himself usually contributed a few per issue too. For a good long while, I enjoyed writing reviews. I tried, and still try, to offer constructive criticism and to give the journal’s readers my views, without any of the sugar-coating that has traditionally passed for reviewing in other haiku journals. If only it were that easy. To be blunt, it’s a tiring role, because the overall standard of English-language haiku, tanka and haibun books in the UK and elsewhere has always been, and remains, disappointingly low. Haiku and tanka poets – though perhaps less so for haibuneers – seldom seem to take the trouble to learn their craft properly before touting a flimsy collection of not-very-good poems to a vanity publisher who is more than happy to publish it for the right money. And let’s be clear: the overwhelming majority of publishers who will publish single-author haiku, tanka and haibun collections are pay-to-publish merchants who, unless I’m seriously mistaken, take barely the slightest interest, if any, in editing the books which they put out. (I sometimes wonder if Snapshot, which will be the subject of a future post of mine, is the only exception, although I’m pretty sure it isn’t.) I don’t blame the authors for wanting to get into print, but the publishers ought to tell them, as necessary, to wait a while and come back when they’ve honed their poems into a cohesive and higher-quality whole.

It’s completely understandable that such a situation has arisen, since the English-language haiku pond is small, that of tanka is smaller and that of haibun smaller still, thus commercial publishers specialising in these forms will never be commonplace. It’s fair to say, too, that unlike in the larger poetry world where there are so many highly gifted poets who have grafted at their craft over many years, the haiku, tanka and haibun ponds aren’t exactly crammed with poets whose output is regularly of a quality to be celebrated and therefore likely to bring about high sales figures. That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent poets lurking in those ponds, so to speak; it’s the consistency that varies so much. Being such short forms, haiku and tanka lend themselves to being put ‘out there’ too soon, without the benefit of the writer’s reflection – I’ve been guilty of that myself many times – and the accessibility of social media has inevitably made matters worse. It doesn’t help either that the quality of criticism in the specialist journals is too often woefully lacking in well-reasoned argument and forensic detail, and frequently consists solely of bafflingly unjustified gushing which does nothing more than mislead the easily misled.

Of course, journal editors also play their part: the fact is that it’s much, much, much too easy for a new/ish writer to get their haiku or tanka accepted by most journal editors. Part of the reason for that may be that most editors are easy-going folk who want to encourage novice poets, rather than deter them, especially if, as is invariably the case,  they’re subscribers; moreover, with a bit of determination the basic skills of haiku and tanka aren’t exactly difficult to acquire. I should probably temper that last statement with a wise one of Martin’s: “Haiku isn’t as easy as just looking; and it isn’t as easy as it looks” (I can’t remember where he wrote that).

The ubiquity of social media hasn’t helped either, in that new and more experienced  haiku and tanka poets often receive undue, unqualified praise on Facebook, Twitter, etc., which, however well-intentioned such encouragement may be, serves to reinforce an entirely inappropriate sense of exalted ability on the poets’ part if it isn’t offset by a grounding dose of realism.

I suspect my problem is that the more I’ve become part of the ‘mainstream’ – as if haiku is somehow deviant! – poetry world, the more I’ve subconsciously distanced myself from haiku. For starters, the editorial standards are, on the whole, much higher in longer-form poetry journals than in haiku ones and the former mostly accept poems only when they are good enough, and because they have something interesting and/or different about them. By contrast, an awful lot of published haiku, as Martin so eloquently pointed out,  follow the same old wearying formula, which means that comparatively few truly sparkle. Naturally the possibility of being dazzlingly original within three lines or fewer (or four in Stephen Gill’s case) is de facto much less than in longer-form poetry; nevertheless, if you suspect your haiku isn’t saying something refreshing, please do us all a favour and don’t let it loose upon the world until you’ve polished it into something worthwhile. Think very carefully about your verb choices, the use of articles, adjectives and poetic devices like alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme and much else. Now and then, a really fine haiku may drop out of nowhere fully formed, but in nearly all instances you will have to treat your first draft as just the starting-point. Anyone who thinks that Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” dictum guarantees greatness every single time is deluded.

But enough of ranting. Why do I bother to continue my involvement with haiku, I hear you ask. Well, my engagement with Presence is first and foremost an emotional one. It’s three years now since Martin disappeared. and regulars readers of the journal, many of whom were also deeply affected by the news of Martin’s death, will be aware of how much he’s missed, not only as a friend and highly talented, intelligent and funny man, but because of how Presence was moulded in his brilliantly creative image. At Martin’s funeral, Ian Storr and I decided, with the blessing of Martin’s family, to keep Presence going and I like to think we, plus Stuart Quine and now Alison Williams, have brought to our eight co-edited issues the same spirit of community that Martin had engendered over the years. Despite my current haiku ennui, and even though Martin himself talked several times about ceasing Presence, I can’t bring myself to stop being a member of the team. Just before Martin died, he and I had floated the idea of holding an event to celebrate the then upcoming fiftieth issue – I felt very strongly that getting to that landmark was a major achievement, considering the journal’s lack of subsidy and that most small poetry magazines fold after a few issues. So somehow, given that Martin didn’t live to see #50 published, I feel like I shouldn’t relinquish my part in making Presence tick, or the reviewing role at least, even if it makes me sound like a cracked record. So unless anything radical happens anytime soon, I’ll carry on carrying on in my own stubborn way, however painful that is for all concerned!

Having had two of my own collections published, almost 10 years apart, and with a third ‘in the can’, I like to think I’ve written a fair selection of haiku which will endure. Right now, though, I’m happily stuck in longer-form poetry ‘mind’, which I find is more cerebrally creative and less instinctive than ‘haiku mind’, so I’ve written only a couple of haiku so far this year. That doesn’t mean I’ve gone off haiku forever; it just means that I’m giving it a little bit of distance – I may not love it in the way I once did, but I’m still close friends with it! As soon as submissions for Presence 58 start arriving in a fortnight’s time, I daresay I’ll be back to my normal self.

3 thoughts on “What I think about when I think about haiku

  1. What a bracing read.

    I just came from finishing reading Presence #57, and smiling at your keen-edged reviews, and your urging in one to put the brakes on and slow down in the rush to be published. I thought I’d look you up online to find you’ve moved here, to this zingy yellow space! Where I read more of your good sense, and your thoughts of Martin. And I think of how my first submissions to him were rejected, but then how much more the acceptance meant when it came.

    I hear what you’re saying about your frustrations with haiku, but I’m relieved you’re not abandoning it altogether, you are far too valuable for that. I’m glad in the meantime that I still have your reviews and this blog to read!

    Best wishes,
    (Joanne E. Miller)

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