Monday, June 3, 2013

A Poet’s Roving Thoughts: Changing the World One Haiku at a Time

Review of Kamesan’s World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights Violation

In Memory of the Victims of Tiananmen Massacre (Beijing, June 4th, 1989)

This is our reply to violence: to make haiku more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. Changing the world one haiku at a time. 

-- Chen-ou Liu paraphrasing Leonard Bernstein

Kamesan’s World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights Violation, edited by the renowned film director and haiku poet Dimitar Anakiev, is a unique haiku anthology: 903 haiku written in 35 languages by 435 poets from 48 countries across the globe and non-English language haiku accompanied by their English translations. The original idea of publishing this kind of world haiku anthology with its sharp focus on war stemmed from Anakiev’s late 1990s experience in the war-torn Balkans. During that tumultuous period of time, he served as the co-editor of Knots: The Anthology of Southeastern European Haiku Poetry, receiving many haiku on the topic of confrontation and violence. Then, in 2009, he invited the poets from the Balkan region to submit their haiku on the topic of war. To his great surprise, he received many haiku by poets from all corners of the world. He recognized the universality of the theme of war and decided to publish a world haiku anthology on war, violence, and human rights violation (p. 5).

As Dimitar Anakiev emphasizes in the Forward, titled “Towards the ‘haiku of the third millennium,” “three elements shape this anthology. First, it was created as an expression of the real need of poets to speak about the theme of war, violence, and human rights violation through haiku…. The second element is the experience of war, violence, and human rights violation [that] seems to be more present than ever. The third element, the multicultural (and multilingual) concept of the book, is directly linked to the theme.” (p. 5) In the rest of the forward, he also clearly points out an aesthetic “need to [open] new poetic horizons for and with haiku. These horizons include an openness to different poetic methods like metaphor, personification, varied syllable counts including 5-7-5.” (p. 6) Then, he traces the linguistic root of the ancient Greek word for “anthology” that leads to “flowery meadow.” (p. 6) While editing the anthology, he adopted an editorial attitude based on the principle of this democratic image and tried to plant a meadow of world haiku with “various kinds of flowers,” not a greenhouse with only a certain type of “best flowers.” (pp. 6-7).

This anthology includes not only the haiku written by contemporary poets around the world, but also the classic ones composed by New Rising haiku poets 1 and gendai haiku poets, and most importantly, the most-famous anti-war haiku by Japanese master Basho. By way of publishing this world haiku anthology, Dimitar Anakiev also searched for an answer to the question – “what qualities would define haiku in the third millennium?” – raised 12 years ago during the founding the World Haiku Association (p. 7). Now, he can say that the “third millennium haiku will perhaps be completely freed from cultural clamps, colonialism and neocolonialism, from fundamentalisms of all kinds, and will be left to the poets of the world to use the form the best they can, in all cultures, in their own specific way.” (p. 7) And he sincerely hopes that “this anthology is the start of this new haiku, freed from cultural politics.” (p. 7)

Emotionally speaking, I couldn’t agree with Dimitar Anakiev more about the “real need of poets to speak about the theme of war, violence, and human rights violation through haiku.” I’ve been inspired by Dionne Brand’s vision of poetry: “Poetry is here, just here. Something wrestling with how we live, something dangerous, something honest 2. Living in the era of the “War on Terror,” like the poets featured in the anthology, I feel a more and more urgent need to speak about war, violence, and human rights violations on different levels, psychological, individual, communal, national, and international, through haiku. In doing so, we as individuals and a community reconfirm William Carlos Williams's belief in the purpose and potential power of poetry proclaimed in the last stanzas of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:”

I come, my sweet,
                     to sing to you!
My heart rouses
            thinking to bring you news
                       of something
that concerns you
           and concerns many men. Look at
                     what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in
            despised poems.
      It is difficult
to get the news from poems
     yet men die miserably every day
                for lack
of what is found there.

Many of the haiku in the anthology are related thematically to the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the “War on Terror,” and their aftereffects. Some others deal with the issues concerning the Kashmir and Middle East conflicts. Of this category of war-related poems, Basho’s “summer grass” haiku stands out in this anthology. It’s worth a closer look at it again.

summer grass:
all that remains
of warriors' dreams

The haiku above is taken from a climatic episode in Basho’s most-read travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no Hosomichi). It operates on two axes. L1 is a scenic description from the present world, the site of a formal battlefield; Ls 2&3 "refer to the passage of time: the summer grasses are the 'aftermath' of the dreams of glory." 3 Thematically speaking, this haiku resonates well with the opening lines from one of Tu Fu's poems: "The state is destroyed, / rivers and hills remain./ The city walls turn to spring, / grasses and trees are green." 4 Furthermore, this dual vision of a former battlefield can be found in its Chinese archetype in “The True Treasury of the Ancient Style: Essay on Mourning for the Dead at an Ancient Battlefield” by Li Hua, in which " the poet gazes down at an old battlefield, imagines the terrible carnage, listens to the voices of the dead, before returning to the present to ponder the meaning of the past." 5 In juxtaposing these disparate worlds, past and contemporary, Japanese and Chinese, the dreams in Basho's haiku are the dreams of not only Japanese warriors, but also of those who have fought their battles. More importantly, summer grasses (natsukusa), a classical seasonal word for summer, was to be associated with "eroticism and fertility." 6 Through allusion to Tu Fu's famous poem on the transience of civilization, Basho transformed this seasonal word into the one associated with the "ephemerality of human ambitions." 7

In my historically and aesthetically contextualized analysis of Basho's haiku, I'm trying to point out one important thing which has been often neglected by Western-minded haiku poets: the haiku Basho wrote was mainly situated in a communal setting and was a dialogic response to earlier poems by other poets. Basho's haiku is fresh and original in terms of his skillful use of a haikai twist that successfully transforms “summer grasses,” a classical seasonal word associated with eroticism and fertility, into the one associated with the ephemerality of human ambitions. As Haruo Shirane demonstrates in his groundbreaking book, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Basho believed that "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." 8

Based on Haruo Shirane’s categorization of Basho’s haiku, most war-themed haiku in the anthology are one-axis, which means monologic, a single voice describing or responding to a scene or experience, such as the following:

cracks in the walls
the fog

Tzetzka Ilieva

long-stemmed roses
he's back
without his leg

Melissa Allen

sun dogs
on the winter horizon ...
another body count

Francine Banwarth

winter sun
a napalm victim

Ernest Berry

A small pool of blood --
killed in the air-raid
a little girl and her doll

Vladimir Devide

suicide bomber
a head of lettuce
splattered with blood

Robert Lucky

a drizzling rain ...
washing their blood
into their blood

Michael McClintock

The haiku above are well-crafted, keenly capturing a highlighted moment through concrete imagery; especially in McClintock’s haiku, he effectively employs repetition in such a short poem to add emotional weight to the poem. However, unlike Basho’s haiku, we don’t see in these poems that “the poet gazes down at an old battlefield, imagines the terrible carnage, listens to the voices of the dead, before returning to the present to ponder the meaning of the past." This means there is no historical consciousness revealed or historical depth or weight felt in these haiku. They are just about moments of “here and now.”

In the following two-axis haiku, we can see how the poets engage readers with our collective past in order to reshape/enrich our understanding of the present.

two light beams shining
where there were once twin towers --
my son, my daughter

Jack Galmitz

This heartfelt haiku is beautifully crafted in the traditional style -- three lines, 5-7-5 syllables, with a cut after the second line emphasized by a dash. The first two lines delineate the most significant memoryscape in the first decade of the 21st century, where the present encounters the past and both reflect upon each other. In L3, the thematic focus is shifted from the socio-cultural/public to the personal-relational/private. It indicates that redeeming hope of the future begins with the generational basis of remembrance of things past. And the psycho-sociopolitical significance of number two stirs the reader to further ponder past trauma, present reflection, and future hope.

all that remains --
dreams of jungle,
sand, sky

Marilyn Hazelton

The opening allusive line successfully evokes in the reader the image of ephemerality of human ambitions described in Basho’s “summer grass” haiku; however, Hazelton makes a perceptual shift in Ls 2&3, revealing the psychological impacts of these ambitions.

Normandy beach ...
this small white rock
washed clean

Anne LB Davidson

The plain language used in the L1, which is arguably the most important WWII battle field, combined with a visual focus on a small washed-clean rock makes what’s left unsaid thematically and emotionally more significant than what’s stated. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian forces alone suffered 18,444 casualties during the Normandy fighting 9.There is no doubt in my mind that any reader who has minimal knowledge about WWII can feel the historical weight in this tiny poem.

Stop counting syllables,
start counting the dead.

Don Wentworth

The imperative L1 refers to the big fights among many haiku poets in the early years of the English language haiku movement. The combined use of syntactic parallelism and a perspectival shift makes this poem sociopolitically powerful and emotionally effective. It reminds me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s vision of poetry: poetry as insurgent art. And its thematic focus and emotional appeal form a dialectical relationship with the following two haiku:

war dead
exit out of a blue mathematics

Sumimura Seirinshi

only american deaths count the stars

Scott Metz

Technically speaking, in terms of cutting, most poets in the anthology are skillful in employing the Danrinian notion of “arasoi” (confrontation) 10: a discrimination set up within a haiku between a "this" opposed to a "that."  The meaning of the haiku emerges from the reader’s active  engagement in the struggle with these two conflicting ideas/images. The following poets provide fine examples that demonstrate this technique:

A machine gun --
in the middle of the forehead
a red flower blooms.

Saito Sanki

after the bombing
ruins of a bridge
linked by the fog

Nebojsa Simin

first day of war --
on a sunlit wall
two flies making love

Dietmar Tauchner

pink sky
another name added
to the monument

Roberta Beary

Hibiscus blossoms --
a glass case in the stupa
full of broken skulls

A field full of mines --
a child is running
after his butterflies

Dumitru D. Ifrim

A column of soldiers
enchanted by the freshness
of unripe apples

Bojan Jovanovic

news of a roadside bombing ...
cherry blossoms dip
in the wind

Scott Mason

spring night --
asleep in the shelter
a girl and her doll

Aleksandar Pavic

morning glories in bloom ...
Landmines of Kashmir
a breakfast news special

Aditya Bahl

maple blossoms
blow into my newspaper ...
more car bombs in Baghdad

Deb Baker

morning coffee --
news about the broken bridge
and a sparrow chirping

Sasa Vazic

Thematically and technically speaking, the last three haiku above remind me of one stanza of Robert Bly's famous anti-Vietnam War poem, entitled "Driving Through Minnesota During the Hanoi Bombings:"

Our own gaiety
Will end up
In Asia, and you will look down in your cup
And see
Black Starfighters.
Our own cities were the ones we wanted to bomb!

The leap suggested here is a huge and politically-charged: one from the domestic image of drinking coffee in America to the combative image of Black Starfighters dropping bombs in Asia, from the kitchens of individual Americans to the battlefields of the American fighting troops, and from the homely image of safety to the war-torn image of atrocity. The fighting image of Black Starfighters reflected in the coffee cup directly and psychologically connects the war fought outside the American soil with the mind and heart of the individual reader, hinting at an unavoidable relationship between the gaiety of Americans and their capacity for destroying their own lives and those of other people. This interrelationship between the American people and the Vietnamese people is initially implied in the title of the poem.

However, in this rich anthology, there are some poems whose qualities are diminished by the overly use of figurative or ideological language. The following are such examples:

Forgotten [echoes]
Emptiness overwhelming
The cruelty of time.

Michael Wilson

bruising the moon
shreds of Hiroshima
bleeding the silence

William M. Ramsey

the land God chose
Hamas rockets split its heaven
a dying soldier's "Shalom"

Sue Schraer

The regime of death
scoffs at United nations --
impotent cowards

Maura Stephens

Wait a while my little one:

Joze Volaric

I think Kamesan’s World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights Violation is a valuable book to read and reflect upon. It’s because the poets from all corners of the world courageously take a closer look at war and sincerely explore its true costs to our shared humanity. I am encouraged by the variety of poetic voices and the honesty and labor of their effort. May all these poets make haiku more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

Changing the world one haiku at a time.


1 New Rising Haiku poets were a group of sociopolitically conscious and aesthetically progressive poets who resisted Japanese wartime ideologies and who rejected Takahama Kyoshi's famous declaration that "haiku was essentially the art of "singing about flowers and birds ..." (Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Poetry, Drama, Criticism, P.113). For more information, see Itô Yûki, "New Rising Haiku: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident," Simply Haiku, 5:4, Winter 2007.
2 Dionne Brand, Bread Out of Stone: Recollections on Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming and Politics, Toronto: Coach House Press, 1994, p.183.
3 Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 238
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., p. 239.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths”, Modern Haiku, XXXI:1,  Winter/Spring 2000, accessed at
10 Mark Morris, "Buson and Shiki: Part One," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2, Dec., 1984, p. 410. For more information about the three formulations about the use of cutting in the classic Japanese haiku tradition, see my "To the Lighthouse" post, "Three Formulations about the Use of Cutting." 


  1. Below are my haiku included in the anthology:

    summer sweaty socks
    on my mind
    memory of Mission Accomplished

    a mother crying
    over her dead children
    fig trees at dawn

    spring dewdrops
    cling to a blade of grass –
    Iraqi children

  2. Below is my haiku for the Tank Man:

    an empty chair
    at the Nobel ceremony ...
    thoughts of Tank Man

    (note: The Tank Man is the nickname given by the international media of an young man who stood in front of a column of Chinese tanks on the morning of June 5, 1989.)

    Haiku of Merit (Vanguard Haiku), World Haiku Review January 2011

  3. My haiku below was quoted in Paul Miller's two-part essay, titled "Haiku and War:"

    spring dewdrops
    cling to a blade of grass –
    Iraqi children

    Kamesan's World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights Violation, p.206

    ... haiku by commentators are of a high standard...

    Paul Miller, "Haiku and War," Frogpond, 37:2, Spring/Summer 2014, p.101

  4. Thank zou for the review and nice words Chen/ou Liou! Dimitar