Tuesday, March 12, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Inventing the New through the Old: The Essence of Haikai

In the narrow sense of the word, haikai, which gave birth to haiku, originally referred to the humorous poems found in the first imperially commissioned anthology of poetry. It was later used to describe popular comic linked verse (haikai no renga), distinguishing itself from the more refined, classical linked verse (renga). Broadly speaking, it is used to "describe genres deriving from haikai or reflecting haikai spirit, such as haiku, haibun, renku, and haikai kikobun, literary travel account."1 During the second half of the 17th century, there were innovative movements within Japanese haikai circles, and they had transformed haikai from an entertaining pastime to a respected poetic form.2 Furthermore, haiku originated from hokku which was the opening verse of a haikai sequence. It has flowered for four centuries and established itself not only as an autonomous genre of Japanese short verse form, but as a globalized verse form in many languages. As the putative founder of haiku, Matsuo Basho made an enormous contribution to the refinement, success, and popularization of Japanese haiku and its related genres.3

As Koji Kawamoto emphasizes in his essay dealing with the use and disuse of tradition in Basho's haiku, "the key to [haiku's] unabated vigor lies in Basho's keen awareness of the utility of the past in undertaking an avant-garde enterprise, which he summed up in his famous adage "fueki ryuko,"4 which literally means "the unchanging and the ever-changing." This haikai poetic ideal was advocated during his trip through the northern region of Japan. He stressed that "haikai must constantly change (ryuko), find the new (atarashimi), shed its own past, even as it seeks qualities that transcend time."5 However, his 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."6 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: "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 seem derivative if they see a way of reworking an 'old' image."8

For Japanese haikai poets, these literary associations, poetic diction, classical Japanese and Chinese texts were regarded as the source of authority as well as the contested ground for re-visioning. Haikai thus emerged from the "interaction of socially and temporally disparate worlds, from the interaction of a seemingly unchanging, idealized past (that included China) with a constantly, rapidly changing present, the centripetal force of the former serving to hold in check the centrifugal force of the latter."9 In typical haikai fashion, it operates on two axes: on the horizontal axis, it captures a moment keenly perceived, a description of a scene from the contemporary world; on the vertical axis, it leads back into the poetic past, to history, to other poems.10 The skilful juxtaposition of these two disparate worlds can enrich and deepen one's haikai.

Take one of Basho's most famous haiku as an example:

    summer grasses –
    traces of dreams
    of ancient warriors

The haiku above is taken from a climatic episode in his most-read travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no Hosomichi). It operates on two axes. The fragment (line 1) is a scenic description from the present world, the site of a formal battlefield; the phrase (lines 2 and 3) "refers to the passage of time: the summer grasses are the 'aftermath' of the dreams of glory."11 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."12 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."13 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."14 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."15

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."16 Viewed as a key figure who elevated haikai from an entertaining pastime to a respected poetic form, Basho had developed a set of related poetic ideals widely utilized by his disciples, fellow poets, and successive followers since the mid-1680s.17 These new ideals were their sincere efforts to deal with the fundamental paradox of the late-seventeenth-century haikai, one "which looked to the past for inspiration and authority and yet rejected it, which parodied the classical (and Chinese) tradition even as they sought to become part of it, and which paid homage to the 'ancients' and yet stressed newness."18 The haikai Basho envisioned was marked for its newness, for "both new perspectives and new sociolinguistic frontiers in contemporary Japan as well as in reconstructed versions of the Japanese and Chinese past."19

-- An excerpt from my essay, "Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past: Basho’s Transformation of Haikai Prose," which ans first published in Simply Haiku, Vol.8. No. 1, Summer 2010, and then reprinted in Haibun Today, 6;1, March 2012

Note: The following is an excerpt from Colin Stewart Jones's article,  "Humor in Haiku," which was published in Notes from the Gean, 3:4, March 2012.

Basho’s use of humour is equally effective in the following haiku:

Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams 2

On first reading one feels the poet’s sadness and there is no denying the pathos. The poem is a rather damning indictment on the futility of war. On second reading, one is struck by the inclusion of the word ‘great’. Surely, not all soldiers are great in stature or deed. One may ask; how would Basho know if they were ‘great’ now that the grass is covering them? He didn’t. By showing us that something as simple as the grass has covered the mighty, Basho is mocking them and, by extension, their noble ideals.

1 Trans; Sam Hamill,The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa and Other Poets, (Shambala, Boston 2000) p.6 One may argue over the precision of some translations but I have chosen the versions that I believe best highlight  humour of haiku...and I don’t have many books.

2 ibid, p.34

The decontextualized review and the notes above clearly show Jones's fundamental methodological flaws and intellectual laziness.


  1. What Colin Stewart Jones needed most is to read the lines before Basho's "summer grass" haiku in The Narrow Road to the Interior.

    Below are the Japanese original and translations:

    summer grasses –
    traces of dreams
    of ancient warriors

    natsukusa ! ya | tsuwamonodomo | ga | yume | no | ato
    summer-grass | : | warriors | ' | dream | 's | trace

  2. My post title is taken from Peipei Qiu's famous essay, "Inventing the New Through the Old: The Essence of Haikai and the Zhuangzi," that presents an in-depth analysis of the influence of the Chinese Daoist classic, Zhuangzi, on haikai writing in the later half of the 17th century. Her essay was published in Early Modern Japan: An Interdisciplinary Journal, v9 n1 (Spring 2001), pp. 2-18, and it can be accessed at https://kb.osu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/1811/667/v9n1Qiu.pdf?sequence=1