Sunday, February 17, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Plagiarism or Honkadori (allusive variation)

                     poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress
                     -- Percy Bysshe Shelley
                    cited in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry by Harold Bloom

[About two and a half years ago,] I had long discussions with some haiku poets over the issue regarding "déjà-ku," a term invented by Michael Dylan Welch for “haiku that bear some relationship to other poems." 1 As Welch describes in his Simply Haiku article, these relationships can be good when showing a skillful use of allusion and homage, and not good in the cases of plagiarism and “cryptomnesia (remembering someone else's poem without realizing that one is remembering rather than creating it)" 2 Throughout our discussions, the recurring words or phrases were “not the first,” “similar/same,” “not original or fresh,” “has been done.” Some poets even lamented that poets who wrote déjà-ku had great difficulty in submitting them for publication. At some point, the discussions revolved around one key issue: “how similar is too similar?” [déjà-ku is not an academically recognized term but a name for a theory developed by Dylan Welch] In terms of language, structure, style, and theme, the following two haiku are the most problematic of all that we discussed for they are almost identical.

Yosa Buson’s haiku:

Japanese original:

tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochoo kana

English translation:

On the temple bell
has settled, and is fast asleep,
a butterfly.

Masaoka Shiki’s haiku:

Japanese original:

tsurigane ni tomarite hikaru hotaru kana
English translation:

On the temple bell
has settled, and is glittering,
a firefly. 3

Read in the context of Western literary criticism, 4 Shiki’s poem either reaches the limits of allusion, 5 or is simply condemned as derivative. However, read in the context of the Japanese poetic tradition, the cultural significance of kigo, and especially of honkadori, 6 a concept that is close to a loosely-defined Western equivalent of allusion, Shiki’s poem re-contextualizes Buson’s so as to create new meanings and perspectives.

The different evaluations of Shiki’s poem, one that was written in a later time and understood as reworking of an old image, result from the different understandings of the relationship of one’s creativity to originality/newness. In Edo culture, the ability to create the new through the old was a more preferred form of newness than the ability to be unique and individual. 7 This Japanese view of “newness” still pervades and is in sharp contrast with that of the West.

Veteran haiku poet and editor Cor van den Heuvel gives an incisive explanation about these perspective differences: “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 seeming derivative if they see a way of reworking an ‘old’ image.” 8 (note: Jessica Millen's contextualized analysis of "Romantic Creativity and the Ideal of Originality" can be accessed at

In his haiku, Shiki used the same techniques that Buson did, but employed a related, yet dynamically, different image of a glittering firefly (a summer kigo), which stirs the tranquility of Buson’s deeply sleeping butterfly (a spring kigo). This slightly different emphasis conveyed a different feeling, and would be recognized by the informed reader at once and “appreciated as much if not more than a completely new idea. The virtuoso approach to literature, and to art as well, where the artist attempts to do essentially the same thing as his predecessors but in a slightly different way, is characteristic of Japan.” 9

Shiki’s use of honkadori brought to the reader’s mind an immediate identification with an earlier poem by Buson, for it conversed with and showed respect to the master and his work. Buson’s poem provided the horizon of poetic-cultural expectations/readings: “between the bell and the butterfly there are many layers of contrast -- size, color, solidity, mobility, lifespan -- which deepen the poem's meaning; there is also suspense -- the bell may start ringing at any minute, startling the butterfly.” 10 Against these expectations/readings, Shiki’s poem established its “newness” or implied difference. In doing so, poetry, as viewed by the Japanese, is communally written and shared. The concept of plagiarism is a modern one. “The brevity of the [haiku] is in fact possible because each poem is implicitly part of a massive, communally shared poem.” 11

For those who are well versed in Japanese haiku and Chinese Daoist (Wade-Giles: Taoist) literature, especially in the Zhuangzi (Wade-Giles: Chuang Tzu), 12 the butterfly imagery in Buson’s haiku is “not original or fresh,” rather it belongs to a massive, communally shared Japanese butterfly haiku based on Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream, a famous story recorded in the Zhuangzi:

“Once [Zhuangzi] dreamt he was a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was [Zhuangzi.] Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable [Zhuangzi]. But he didn't know if he was [Zhuangzi] who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was [Zhuangzi.] Between [Zhuangzi] and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.” 13

In the first haiku lexicon, Yama no I (Mountain Spring published in 1647), there is an explanatory passage under the entry titled Butterfly: “Butterfly. The scene of a butterfly alighting on rape blossoms, napping among flowers with no worries. Its appearance as it flutters its feathery wings, dancing like whirling snowflakes. Also the image is associated with [Zhuangzi’s] dream, suggesting that one hundred years pass as a gleam in a butterfly’s dream.” 14 To demonstrate how to use this butterfly imagery, the compiler Kigin gives the following example:

Scattering blossoms:
the dream of a butterfly –
one hundred years in a gleam 15

Since then, the penetration of Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream into themes and images has clearly been seen in Japanese haiku.

-- An excerpt from Waking from "Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream -- Plagiarism or Honkadori"
first published in Simply Haiku, 8:2, Autumn 2010

hazy day moon...
waking with the weight
of memory
(for Zhuangzi)



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

For more information regarding my detailed analysis of Katoh Shuuson's haiku , see  To the Lighthouse: An Essay on Deja-Ku, Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally

1 comment:

  1. For more information regarding Japanese butterfly haiku, especially Basho's, see "To the Lighthouse: Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream, "