Friday, September 02, 2011

Haiku as Poetic Spell - Martin Lucas

Martin Lucas, editor of Haiku Presence magazine and author of Stepping Stones, a way into haiku has kindly allowed me to reprint his enlightening essay. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, for the way it makes me reflect on my own haiku writing practice and question what I'm doing and why.

Haiku as Poetic Spell

Haiku as an English-language form now has fifty years or so of history. There have been many trials of new approaches along the way, and much has been learned. At the same time, it’s probably true to say that only a minority of writers stay the course. For many, it’s an enthusiasm that burns brightly for two or three years – sometimes with brilliant results – and then burns itself out, as the writer comes to feel that s/he has exhausted either the potential of haiku or his/her own potential as a haiku writer. One consequence of this turnover is that although individual writers may make great strides very rapidly, the movement as a whole evolves much more slowly, and from certain angles it now looks as if it has reached something of a plateau. This plateau is a position of conformity, complacency and mere competence. And the pressures towards conformity are acute enough to make it difficult to remain true to your own original inspirations, poetic preferences and little awkwardnesses that resist hammering into shape.

To understand the context of this discussion, we need to appreciate that haiku in English developed largely using translations as models. Translations tend to concentrate on conveying content with accuracy, sacrificing any attempt to replicate formal effects such as rhythm and alliteration. The historical consequence of this has been that poets writing original haiku in English have focused on what is said and paid relatively little attention to how it is said.

The internationally accepted formula runs something like this (expressed here in 5-7-5 for my own amusement, though 5-7-5 is now outmoded as far as the arbiters of taste are concerned):

seasonal ref'rence—
then two lines of contrasting
foreground imagery

Seen in isolation, any one of these haiku can be impressive. Taken in quantity, the effect is numbing. For my point of departure I turn to Modern Haiku, not to single it out, because suitable examples abound, scattered like the innumerable stars right across the haiku firmament. But Modern Haiku comes close to the pinnacle of general respect, and the haiku I am using was highlighted as an award-winner in 40/1. This helps to make the point that it’s not bad haiku but generally accepted good haiku that are holding back the development of the form. With my profound apologies to Lynne Steel, because I could have chosen a haiku by any one of us, here it is: