Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, an anthology edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns, W.W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by Andrew Walker
In one mid-century poet’s attempt to explain his complex relationship to Buddhism, he noted that while Westerners might speak the language of Zen, they would always do so with a heavy accent. It is this sort of accent taken up as subject in this anthology, for while there is no shortage of outlets that publish, anthologize, and debate haiku, few have attempted to gather the specific experiments of the form as practiced in English. These experiments and practices have assisted in haiku, for better and for worse, coming to inhabit its own small, but substantial corner of the poetry world, a corner which has, at turns, seemed insular, idiosyncratic, and removed from the poetry mainstream. Yet the form still maintains a kind of curious hold over the popular imagination—the small, brief pops of curious comparison draws in readers as diverse as any.
These comparative poems in miniature are, as might be expected, highly privileged in the introduction by Billy Collins. For Collins, haiku begins with the beats rather than the Modernists, as he sees its import coming in a wave of mutually influenced things: beat thought, Zen, and haiku. In the introduction, we also get Collins’s brief noting of the “Great Seventeen-Syllable Debate” (he himself writes mostly seventeen-syllable haiku for its constraining effect) and, unsurprisingly for an essay penned by Collins, a story about walking the dog (After all, what does one do when walking the dog if not compose haikus?). Yet Collins notes well the strength of the form—its “revelatory effect on the reader, that eye-opening moment of insight that occurs whenever a haiku succeeds in drawing us through the keyhole of its details into the infinite.” For the skeptical reader of haiku, these brief glimpses can often seem like all-too-easy, pat answers and ultimately insignificant insights masquerading as spiritual experience, but occasionally, as with Collins own poetry, the surprising vision of an unsuspected mind does break through.
As the name of the book suggests, the origin point is haiku’s break from, at the time, an especially misunderstood form of Japanese poetry and its transformation into its English incarnation. As a way of unfolding this transformation more prosaically, the anthology includes, beyond its over eight-hundred poems, an over seventy-paged, nuanced “Overview of Haiku in English.” The essay traces haiku’s beginning as the brief opening—called a hokku—to a longer poetic sequence known as renga. From Jim Kacian, who pens the lengthy appendix, we find that it is only at the beginning of the nineteenth century that the term haiku comes into wide use, just as it makes its way into Western poets’ vocabularies. With this as their starting point, Kacian’s essay then unfolds the multivariate ways that haiku has been written, from early imagism, through the influential anthologies at mid-century, to the flourishing haiku communities today.
As a way of explaining their collection’s criteria, the editors note that this anthology is not a collection, say, of the best haiku in English, or even those poets who most notably write haiku, but rather, it is a collection that unfolds the story of the haiku’s maturation in English over the twentieth century. In their own words, “Our purpose from the outset of this project has been to tell the story of English-language haiku, to identify its most singular accomplishments in its century of existence and place them, in their context, before our readers.” Hence, the anthology unfolds not chronologically based on the life of the poet, but on the publication date of the poem—creating a kind of historical tour through the forms and shapes which haiku has taken, highlighting the poets included at their most fecund, in their most original creations.
The opening haiku, what the editors call the first fully realized haiku in English, should come as no surprise to poetry aficionados—it is Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” While a number of haikus were written in English prior to this particular entry from Pound, his bears the markings of a distinctly Western form, steeped, as it is, in a European modernist milieu. Following this early entry, the poems wind their way through the modernist poetic landscape, from Langston Hughes’s now well-known “Suicide’s Note” (The calm, / Cool face of the river / Asked me for a kiss) to E. E. Cummings’s haunting, typographically playful entry:
From these early entries, however, the poets selected quickly move from those familiar to readers of poetry to those who, more specifically, read haiku. Though the anthology contains entries from notable early practitioners—Pound, Amy Lowell, John Gould Fletcher—and from mid-century popularizers among the beat crowd, the vast majority of the anthology is composed of scores of poets whose work is chiefly composed in the form.
The strength of the anthology is its ability to include a wide variety of these more experimental haiku, especially those which seem to brush against the boundary between haiku and minimalist/concrete poetry. Thus, we find in a single anthology Cummings’s typographically composed piece (among many other, much more experimental pieces later in the book) and excerpts from Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”; the more traditional, seventeen syllable forms mixed with the “single word in a wide white field” poems such as “tundra.” But through this wide-ranging inclusivity in terms of style still peeps certain predilections among the editors for the newer pieces, the single-line haikus, the visually inventive. While we find eleven of Kacian’s own poems, we find none of H. D.’s early experiments with or departures from the form and, perhaps more surprisingly, none of W. S. Merwin’s flirtations either. Ultimately, the anthology seems to fall much as haiku does, at once seeming dull and flat as the hundreds of poems wind on, to the occasional, though brilliant blip of insight, clarity, and vision. The English accent the editors so emphasize may often be a bit clunky, but it carries its own beauty.
Jim Kacian, general editor, is the founder of the Haiku Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to archiving and promoting haiku in English, and of Red Moon Press, the largest non-Japanese publisher of haiku-related books. He lives in Winchester, Virginia.
Philip Rowland teaches literature at Tamagawa University in Tokyo, where he lives, and is founder and editor of Noon: Journal of the Short Poem.
Allan Burns is a professional editor who compiled the haiku anthology Montage: The Book. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Andrew Walker is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature at Florida State University. His past research has touched on a wide variety of poets and poetic issues, including Confessional poetics, Walt Whitman’s sense of freedom, and the role of influence in Robert Lowell’s poetry. He is currently at work on a dissertation on dramatic poetry in the 20th century.