Monday, February 24, 2014

Cool Announcement: A Free Essay, Intersecting Influences in American Haiku

"Intersecting Influences in American Haiku," Thomas Lynch's essay on American haiku in relation to both classical Zen-influenced Japanese haiku and American transcendentalism, was first published in Modernity in East-West Literary Criticism: New Readings, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001, pp.114–136). Now, this essay is made available for free and open access at DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln.  You can read its full text here


In contemporary American haiku poetry we find a convergence of the tradition of the American transcendentalists, especially Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, with the Zen-influenced Japanese tradition of haiku composition. This convergence is most obvious in a shared belief in the ability of the poet to see the world anew, and in the desire to efface the subject/object dichotomy between the poet and the natural world. In the work of many North American poets, the transcendental and Zen traditions synthesize to generate a distinctive brand of haiku. Since the mid-1950s, literally thousands of collections of haiku poetry have appeared in the United States and Canada. Hundreds of thousands of haiku have been published in scores of magazines, and the rate of publication increases steadily. Yet English language haiku has so far not been accepted as a legitimate form of American poetry worthy of inclusion in literary anthologies and consideration in critical discussions.

Key Points (excerpted from the essay)

... I also wish to approach haiku as a current manifestation of a trend in American poetics that begins in earnest in the writings of the transcendentalists in particular, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman and that has continued under various guises in the work of, among others, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos  Williams,Richard Wright, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, and in fact a sizable number of other contemporary poets. In short, I would contend that haiku is a genre that fulfills the poetic aspirations of important trends in American literature that have endured throughout the past century and a half. Assuredly such a slight genre could not otherwise have so greatly influenced such an imposing cast of poets did it notfulfill some deep-seated necessity in their poetic practice ... (p.115)

These trends link transcendentalist ideas such as the Edenic impulse and the effacement of the subject/object dichotomy with modernist ideas such as Pound's idea of the "direct presentation of theimage" and Williams's  notion of "No ideas but in things." These fundamental aspects of such important traditions in American literature and poetics closely correlate with important aspects of the philosophy underlying much of haiku-Zen Buddhism. In linking transcendentalism and Zen I don't mean to imply that they are identical, or even that they are necessarily all that similar (though such a case can be made), only that on these key issues that have been of paramount importance to poets of both traditions, they share related views that have intersected in the practice of many contemporary haiku poets. ... pp. 115-6

In sum, several relevant correlations between the poetic theory of Japanese haiku poets and the theory of the American transcendentalists can be deduced: 1) a belief in the interfusion of the self with external nature, seeking to resolve the subject/object dichotomy and to return us to an awareness of the true self that we share with all other things; 2) an understanding that in order to achieve such an interfusion we need to attain what might be termed an Edenic condition in which we efface the ego-self and reject preconceptions and received beliefs; 3) a recognition that for most of us such an interfusion occurs in fragmentary moments of perception; 4) an awareness that the present time is the only time, and the present place the only place, to achieve such a perception... p.121

Haiku Examples:

In my medicine cabinet,
the winter fly
has died of old age.


They didn't hire him
so he ate his lunch alone:
the noon whistle

Gary Snyder

hermit thrush
at twilight pebbles
in the stream

the breeze and i
making our way
through the grasses

John Wills

walking with the river
the water does my thinking

shutting my eye
one star

Bob Boldman

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