Wednesday, January 2, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally

(First published in A Hundred Gourds, 1:1, December 2011)

In less than six months, Frogpond published two articles 1 relating to "déjà-ku" 2 experiences that six prominent poets shared (see the poem texts below). 3 In his article titled "Bull Kelp," Christopher Herold emphasized that "there are myriad instances of poets tapping into the same sources of inspiration. Resulting poems may be nearly identical… [It's] simply poets attuning themselves to what's going on around them." 4 In his article titled "Two and Two," John Stevenson gave similar emphasis that "this phenomenon is all about paired experience and similar expressions… I would say that we independently hit upon a means of expressing a perception that many others must have shared." 5 Editor George Swede added a note to the article to share his own déjà-ku experience. In his reply to Swede's enquiry regarding the similarity between their haiku, Jim Kacian stressed that "[my haiku] was taken from life… given the same input and some similar ideas about form, it's not terribly surprising that we might arrive at much the same poem." 6

Although recognizing that there are differences between their haiku, both poets give little space in the articles to technical analysis of their poems. As he mentioned in the article, Stevenson at first wanted to withdraw his poem from publication. It's because "it's quite clear that [her haiku] was both written and published before mine and the natural thing to do would be to withdraw mine." 7 Later, he felt relieved when Sandra Mooney-Ellerbeck said she didn't want him to withdraw his haiku. 8 The Heron's Nest published his poem. However, we all know that it's more usual for the editor to withdraw the later poem due to lack of "originality or freshness." Most importantly, if the poet who wrote the later similar poem offers no sufficient reasons to prove that he wrote it by himself, he will run the risk of being criticized for using someone else's idea or imagery.

In her note to Herold, Connie Donleycott stated that "I had no way of knowing about the other poem, but, because the other poet's was published, I felt mine would come across as a copy." 9 Her fear of unknowingly writing similar haiku is not unusual–it's a common fear among haiku poets. Over the past year, I've had several lengthy discussions on déjà-ku with other poets. Throughout those discussions, the recurring words or phrases were "not the first," "similar or same," "not original or fresh," and "has been done." I was surprised by most of my fellow poets who considered the Western concept of originality timeless and universal, and who showed little interest in understanding the Japanese concept of originality or newness and its use of honkadori or allusion while at the same time praising the haiku, most of which are highly allusive, written by Japanese haiku masters.10

Of those similar haiku mentioned above, Stevenson's is most "problematic." His first two lines are identical to Mooney-Ellerbeck's except with "…" at the end of line two. As he stressed in the article, "the nearly exact wording of our first two lines is, indeed, striking." 11 But, the most important thing about these two haiku is the differences, tonal and thematic, marked by their distinctly juxtaposed images. Reflecting upon the same phenomenon ("more darkness/ more stars"), Stevenson added "autumn begins" as the concluding line to signify a process of the decaying of life, which is initiated by Mother Nature. What he did with his haiku is not merely to add a seasonal reference, but to show the destructive force of nature; more importantly, in the connotative contexts of the opening image and of the compositional occasion, 12 this seasonal reference could be read to prefigure a tragic loss of life. Therefore, we as readers are fortunate to have an opportunity to read this beautifully-crafted and heartfelt poem, which is thematically and tonally different from its predecessor poem. Both poets use the same opening image, but if their haiku are read slowly and repeatedly, these differences will emerge.

The only and most important problem I have with these two articles and those discussions relating to déjà-ku is the unexamined concept of originality. Historically speaking, since the post-Enlightenment, the passion for uniqueness and originality has become the main criteria for art works. Poetry viewed as an "original expression of individual creativity is a recurring definition shared by many Romantic poets." 13 Individual imagination and creativity has been theorized to represent a high value in literary criticism. This view is well-explored in Forest Pyle's influential book, The Ideology of Imagination: Subject and Society in the Discourse of Romanticism. Today, high poetic value placed upon originality remains ingrained in the Western literary culture. This fear of unknowingly writing similar haiku or the reluctance or disuse of allusion proves that Thomas Mallon's remark still holds true: the poets live under the "fearful legacy of the Romantics." 14 Could those poets or editors who are constantly worried about "not being original or fresh" imagine that a poet deliberately using a direct quote as the first two lines of his haiku can achieve a great poem?

The following haiku is written by Katoh Shuuson (or Kato Shuson; 1905-1993), haiku poet and leader of the humanist school that seeks the truths of human existence through the poetic means of haiku, and who is "known for his scholarly and poetic appreciations of the great classic haijin, notably Matsuo Basho:" 15

    Japanese Original:

    hakutai-no kakaku shingari-ni neko-no ko-mo

    English Translation:

    the days and months travelers
    through a hundred generations
    kitten tags along

    Trans. by Dhugal J. Lindsay 16

On a denotative level, this haiku speaks of two types of movement: one is temporal, and the other spatial; one is portrayed in a metaphorical language, and the other a literal one. The juxtaposition of these two parts of the poem stirs the reader's reflection on temporal awareness and consciousness, and it reminds me of one of the thematic foci described in "Book XI" of Confessions, in which St. Augustine explores the relationship between God's timelessness and his creation's experience of time. Most importantly, the image juxtaposed with the first two lines – the Existentialist statement on time as the traveler – is an innocent, uninvited, kitten, offsetting the unbearable heaviness of its preceding lines and thus creating some sort of a comic-tragic effect. It further stirs up the reader's emotions about and reflection on the absence of human beings in the poem. This haiku is brilliantly written and its suggestive power relies on the thematic gap between the two parts of the poem. It can definitely stand on its own without the reader's extra/inter-textual knowledge.

On a connotative level, the first two lines of this haiku are a direct quote from the opening line of the first haibun in Basho's travelogue, The Narrow Road to the Interior, one that is followed by "and the years that come and go are also travelers." 17 Read in the context of Basho's travelogue, the opening haibun is the most important section of the work that determines the theme, tone, movement, and goals.18 It also describes multiple departures – "the hermit-poet's philosophical departure from a particular way of life and his actual physical departure from the hermitage, a symbol of life he abandons." 19

The haibun was written in the first person perspective, and Basho stressed that "[many] in the past also died while traveling. In which year it was I do not recall, but I, too, began to be lured by the wind like a fragmentary cloud and have since been unable to resist wanderlust, roaming out to the seashores." 20 According to Hiroaki Sato, "many in the past" might refer to Japanese poets, such as Saigyo and Sogi, and Chinese poets, such as, Li Po and Tu Fu, who all died while traveling. 21 More importantly, Basho's opening lines allude to a popular piece, the preface to "Holding a Banquet in the Peach and Pear Garden on a Spring Night," written by Chinese poet Li Po. 22 They are almost a literal translation into Japanese of Li Po's lines, except that " one Chinese term, using the compound tsukihi (month and days, moon and sun, or time) [is] in place of [Li Po's] koin (day and night, light and darkness, or time)." 23 Unlike his contemporaries, such as Ihara Saikaku and Oyodo Michikaze, both of whom used a direct quote, 24 Basho changed koin to tsukihi. It's because tsukihi brings to the Japanese reader's mind "more concrete and vivid images of the moon and sun with all the connotations the two carry in the Japanese poetic tradition." 25 In the haibun, Basho established a poetic-interpersonal relationship with the ancients, one that reveals his sense of rootedness.

Shuuson, unlike his poetic forefather Basho, used a direct quote written in modern Japanese from Basho's famous haibun, and subtly showed the tonal difference between his quoted line and Basho's original. 26 And he wrote his haiku from a perspective of an objective observer. There is no human figure in the haiku. What we see is just a cute kitten unaware of the passage of time, tagging along the procession of the days and months as travelers. The psycho-philosophical impact of the inner tension and thematic gap is brought about by the sharp contrast between the two parts of the poem.

For attentive Japanese readers, Shuuson's haiku is fresh and original in terms of his skillful use of a haikai twist through honkadori that parodies the existential themes of death and of the transience of life explored in Basho's work. When they encounter his poem, they read it slowly, repeatedly and communally. Unlike modern English-language haiku, "which [are] often monologic, a single voice describing or responding to a scene or experience," 27 the haiku Shuuson wrote was mainly situated in a communal setting and dialogic responses to earlier poems by other poets. "The brevity of the [haiku] is in fact possible because each poem is implicitly part of a massive, communally shared poem." 28 More importantly, it was until the post-Enlightenment that this non-individualist/communal concept of poetry began to be less known to the poets who were brought up in the Western literary culture. 29 In his influential book, titled The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Harold Bloom particularly mentions Shelley's speculations that: "poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress." 30 Like Japanese poets, Shelley viewed poetry as a collective enterprise.

Veteran haiku poet and editor Cor van den Heuvel gives an incisive explanation about these perspective differences between Japanese poets and "Western-minded" poets who are worried about not being original or fresh: "If a haiku is a good one, it doesn't matter if the subject has been used before. The writing of variations on certain subjects in haiku, sometimes using the same or similar phrases (or even changing a few words of a previous haiku), is one of the most interesting challenges the genre offers a poet and can result in refreshingly different ways of 'seeing anew' for the reader. This is an aspect of traditional Japanese haiku which is hard for many Westerners, with their ideas of uniqueness and Romantic individualism, to accept. But some of the most original voices in haiku do not hesitate to dare to seem derivative if they see a way of reworking an 'old' image." 31

The passage quoted above is used as the concluding paragraph of Michael Dylan Welch's essay that appeared in Simply Haiku wherein he introduced his self-coined phrase, déjà-ku. However, the challenge he poses in the end of the essay has not yet been taken up. Isn't it time for us as readers and writers of Japanese haiku to broaden our poetic horizons and consider deepening our poetry through re-examining our perception of originality? In closing, consider the remark by professor Haruo Shirane about Basho's view of haiku writing:

    "[The] poet had to work along both axes: to work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting; to work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world." 32


1 Christopher Herold, "Bull Kelp," Frogpond, 33:3, (Fall 2010), pp. 71-3; John Stevenson, "Two and Two," Frogpond, 34:2, (Spring/Summer 2011), pp. 93-5.

2 Déjà-ku was self-coined by Michael Dylan Welch to describe the haiku that "bear some relationship to other poems. These relationships are good in some cases, such as parody, homage, and allusion, and not good in other cases, such as plagiarism, cryptomnesia (remembering someone else's poem without realizing that one is remembering rather than creating it), and simply being too similar or insufficiently fresh or original." See Michael Dylan Welch, "An Introduction to Déjà-ku," Simply Haiku, Vol. 2, No.4 (July/August, 2004),

3 There are two poets included in Editor's Note. The haiku in the articles are as follows;

    sickle moon
    a boy whips the sea
    with bull kelp

    ~ Christopher Herold

    wind in my hair
    a boy tames the sea
    with bull kelp

    ~ Connie Donleycott

    more darkness
    more stars
    moving on

    ~ Sandra Mooney-Ellerbeck

    more darkness
    more stars ...
    autumn begins

    ~ John Stevenson

    spring breeze
    the dog runs
    in its sleep

    ~ Jim Kacian

    warm spring breeze
    the old hound runs
    in his sleep

    ~ George Swede

4 See Herold, p. 73.

5 See Stevenson, p. 93-4.

6 Ibid., p. 95.

7 Ibid., p. 94.

8 Ibid.

9 See Herold, p. 73.

10 For further information on these issues, see Chen-ou Liu, "The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho's Frog Haiku" and "Waking from Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream – Plagiarism or Honkadori," Ripples from a Splash: A Collection of Haiku Essays with Award-Winning Haiku, Ajax, Ontario: A Room of My Own Press, April 2011, pp. 51-73.

11 See Stevenson, p. 94.

12 Ibid.

13 Jessica Millen, "Romantic Creativity and the Ideal of Originality: A Contextual Analysis," Cross-sections: The Bruce Hall Academic Journal, Vol. VI, 2010, p. 91.

14 Thomas Mallon, Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989.

15 James Kirkup, "Obituary: Shuson Kato," The Independent, 10 July 1993,

16 Kaneko Tohta, "Selected Haiku," the Haiku International Association website,

17 Hiroaki Sato, trans., Basho's Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages: Two Works by Basho Matsuo, Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 1996, p. 41

18 Eleanor Kerkham, "And Us Too Enclosed in Mori Atsushi's "Ware Mo Mata, Oku no Hosomichi" Matsuo Basho's Poetic Spaces: Exploring Haikai Intersections, Eleanor Kerkham, ed., New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 188.

19 Ibid.

20 See Sato, p. 41.

21 Ibid., p. 40.

22 Ibid.

23 See Kerkham, p. 189.

24 Ibid., p. 197.

25 Ibid., p. 189.

26 See Tohta.

27 Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 15.

28 Ibid., p. 27.

29 Forest Pyle, The Ideology of Imagination: Subject and Society in the Discourse of Romanticism, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995.

30 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 19.

31 Cor van den Heuvel, ed., The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English, New York: W.W. Norton, 1999, p. ix-x. In fact, "Michel Foucault (1977, 115) has argued that the entire concept of artist or author as an original instigator of meaning is only a privileged moment of individualization in the history of art." See Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985. p. 4.

32 Haruo Shirane, "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths", Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (Winter/Spring 2000), accessed at

1 comment:

  1. Michael's definition is too simplistic, and has baked in an assumption that poets are equally possessive of their work. For example, a poet once posted a haiga containing, word for word, a haiku of mine. There was no question she'd read my poem. But there was also no question she hadn't remembered seeing it, and truly believed she was composing, not reciting the poem when she crafted the haiga. So I simply "gave" her the poem to clear the decks. Thus, while this fits the definition of cryptomnesia, there was nothing "bad" about the experience.