Michel Foucault 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.
-- Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody
[Basho’s] notion of the new lay not so much in the departure from or rejection of the perceived tradition as in the reworking of established practices and conventions, in creating new counterpoints to the past.
-- Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams
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
a boy whips the sea
with bull kelp
wind in my hair
a boy tames the sea
with bull kelp
more stars ...
the dog runs
in its sleep
warm spring breeze
the old hound runs
in his sleep
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 (note: Jessica Millen's contextualized analysis of "Romantic Creativity and the Ideal of Originality"can be accessed at http://goo.gl/qQUnF). 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 …
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
-- An excerpt from my A Hundred Gourds essay, entitled "Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally"