People argue. Sometimes they get at each other's throats. However, more often than not they are not even disagreeing. All they are doing is talking at cross-purposes, confusing the meanings of key points or making assertions in wrong contexts. Controversies about the so-called haiku 'rules' are no exception.
When talking about haiku it does not normally seem in Japan that a Japanese word equivalent to English 'rule' is used. Should that be the case, would it mean that there is no such thing in Japan's haiku world as is meant by this English word? What, then, is going on among the Western haijin and/or the followers of them in the rest of the world, who seem to have been much too preoccupied with haiku 'rules'? So much so that one rule after another has been manufactured to such an extent that some even lament that haiku is the most rule-ridden literary genre; or a renowned Western haiku teacher was actually half lost in a recently-published textbook in the quagmire of rules; or, even more worryingly, some such rules have turned out to be non-existent or irrelevant in Japan.
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In the distant past a typical Japanese word for 'rule' was shiki-moku. Shiki-moku meant government laws and regulations. In terms of literature, it also meant rules for renga and haikai no renga, which are still observed with some variations to this day. What are debated now as haiku 'rules' have in fact much more to do with these haikai no renga rules, or are at least reflections of them. Which is one source of inevitable confusion.
It is also why students of haiku will probably never really understand haiku truly without at the same time studying haikai no renga. If they study renga itself as well, so much the better. It is true that modern haiku has been derived from the hokku of haikai no renga (the word haiku itself has long been used and can go back in terms of haikai documents at least to the 17th century. It was given a modern sense by Shiki but was not invented by him as is often mistakenly mentioned). However, with the rules relating to hokku also came the baggage of the rest of haikai no renga as a whole.
The word shiki-moku is not used for haiku. 'Kisoku' is probably the most commonly used modern Japanese word for 'rules' but generally speaking, it is hardly used in relation to haiku. The same is true with other similar words like 'kitei'. Sometimes such words as 'shikitari' or 'kimari' may be used by some Japanese haijin but they are more loosely used and do refer more to what have conventionally been practiced not as rules but as customs. What, then, are said in Japan about haiku in this context? Before coming to that, let us establish the agenda for the situation outside Japan.
Talking about different meanings of a particular word, the English word 'rule' itself has of course more than one meaning and is used in other senses such as advice or habit. However, it is normally used in the strict sense of 'rules and regulations' to be obeyed, observed and complied with when it is applied to haiku.
'Learn the haiku rules and then throw them away' is a catchphrase very popular among many non-Japanese haijin. And yet they do have an ambivalent attitude towards such haiku rules and feel extremely uncomfortable, fearful, pedantic, fastidious, dogmatic, obsessive, neurotic or even paranoid about them. It may by now be obvious to shrewd readers that we have a problem here. Not the problem of haiku rules, however, but that of semantics, context and of talking at cross-purposes. In other words, most of the topics they argue are legitimate and commendable. It is the methods of their argumentation that seem to be erroneous. Let me explain.
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If we gather all the dos and don'ts prescribed by all different haiku poets in the world save Japan, we can fill a football field or baseball stadium and they are called haiku 'rules'. They are called haiku 'rules' in the loosest, most vague and confused, and even irresponsible or harmful way. This is because in truth they are a mixture of all sorts of different things which may or may not include what can rightly be termed as 'rules'.
For example, if a school of thought, such as the yuki-teikei school, says that in their terms of reference haiku must have kigo, then this is a proper rule par excellence but for that school alone and may not be for others. If, however, it says that all haiku must have kigo, then the problem starts.
A famous tale goes that a brave member of a certain remote haiku organisation of a far-away country was officially purged after committing the capital crime of refusing to use a kigo. If the same school, or any other schools for that matter, makes a rule to prohibit metaphor, anthropomorphism, sentence or cause and effect, then that would be unreasonable, quite possibly mistaken and it should not be called a rule but something else, such as 'recommendation' or 'advice'. If the 'fragment and phrase' concept was made a rule, it would be a misuse of this otherwise useful idea. It should be called something like an 'expert's tip' or a 'useful knack'.
So, our agenda: Given calling all dos and don'ts 'rules' is wrong in haiku, what are other ways to call those which should not be called 'rules'?
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At this point, going back to the Japanese situation would be illuminating. Rather than worrying about rule this or rule that, the emphasis in Japan seems to be heavily on talking or teaching how to write haiku and how to write them well.
It is more like the way mothers teach their daughters how to cook. The sole purpose is to enable the daughters to cook delicious foods. It is not to forbid them to use garlic or to encourage them to study recipes continuously forever. If a haiku is written, the next step is to teach how to write better haiku, and then the best haiku. Some daughters are born cooks. Others can learn quickly. The rest need a lot of help. Still others never get it and it would be a human tragedy for those who have to eat what they cook, except for themselves who cannot tell good food from bad.
There are century-old recipes for traditional cooking. There are also innovative recipes for nouvelle cuisine. There are such things as personal likes and dislikes, universally-acknowledged (objective) good food and 'kohbutsu' (subjective) food, acquired taste or 'getemono-shumi' (taste for exotic foods) for eccentrics. There are special foods for gourmets.
Some mothers are harsh, especially to daughters-in-law, and often make them cry. Others are soft to each other, creating a mutual-congratulatory society and praising each other's rubbish foods, lowering the general standards and quality of human food widely and indefinitely. I will not stretch this analogy too far but it seems useful.
Should the purpose of haiku 'rules' be to control, govern, restrict, bind, limit, scold, chide, sneer, force-feed, indoctrinate, compete or dominate? Or, should it be to help those modest and humble enough to learn to create better and best haiku, like the daughters cooking delicious meals?
Even such a lofty and noble act of creating definitions of haiku could be tricky. This is because if you define something in then you are defining all the rest out. Also, by the very nature of them, the more definitions we have the less room there is for haiku to develop.
These intrinsically helpful and useful things for learners of haiku in Japan could be variously described. They include haiku teachings/lessons (te-hodoki), how to write (good) haiku (haiku no tsukuri-kata), how to improve your haiku (johtatsu-hoh), modus operandi (gihoh), recommendations, advice, tips (kotsu), (practical or handy) hints or secret (gokui, hiketsu). The title of the celebrated haiku guide by Takahama Kyoshi is 'Haiku wa kaku kaishi, kaku ajiwau' (How to understand and appreciate haiku). 'How to...' is a very important and useful vehicle in Japan.
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Of course we must also take into account special conditions of Japan. Most of the main items of haiku such as kigo, 5-7-5 or kireji and all the literary background from which they have been derived are taught at school and are also very much the basic part of what one naturally learns if one is born into the Japanese culture. So, by the time one consciously starts writing haiku one has already long learned and is familiar with the basics of haiku.
Consequently, there is little need to present to the Japanese these basic points as ‘rules’ or anything else. All that is done is to remind them of these points and based on that to guide them into writing good haiku.
However, this vital part of the education is by definition missing in the case of non-Japanese haijin and it is one of the fundamental reasons why 'rules' are needed for them in the first place. However, it is still possible and more importantly desirable to fill this knowledge gap for the non-Japanese haiku beginners without bombarding them with numerous 'rules' right from the outset. To ram these 'rules' down their throats before providing them with such necessary, basic knowledge is to put the cart before the horse.
Little wonder, then, horses cannot be going anywhere, let alone gallop. [There are various ways available to non-Japanese to start filling the knowledge gap, but this is a separate topic for a separate chapter. Suffice it to say that they are there for those who have come to know where to look and to find out right methods to do so, and vice versa, i.e. unless one knows where to look or how to find the right way, one's prospect is not bright]
The other condition in Japan is the fact that her society still retains some remnants of its feudalistic past. They include hierarchical fabric in terms of seniority, master-disciple relationship, teaching-learning process, respect for tradition and authority, and, last but definitely not least, collectivism. Accordingly, learners tend to be more modest, humble and obedient than their cousins in the West and teachers are more helpful and kinder as well as stricter.
This makes the teaching/learning of haiku go more smoothly and in an orderly manner. In the eyes of Western haijin, the Japanese haiku learners may look too meek and spineless, lacking in their own initiatives and opinions, and teachers too disciplinarian and patronising. In the democratic West, each haiku poet is a king/queen, opinion leader, teacher, academic, theoretician, a school of thought, but is no higher than anyone else.
Here, we are witnessing a clash of civilisations. Haiku, a product of Japan's tradition, colliding head-on with the Western society based on individualism, free thinking and democracy, i.e. anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian and anti-elitist regime. [In this connection, haiku is not so bad as other Japanese arts, especially martial arts, because haiku originates in the literary genre which was released to 'zoku' (the populace or men-in-the-street), namely, haikai no renga.]
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Talking at cross-purposes, in wrong contexts and semantics has led to the confusion surrounding haiku 'rules'. We have seen that all sorts of different things have been bundled together under that name. So, let us try to unravel and undo the mess by breaking it up into more sensible items.
Firstly, there is or should be an important distinction which is seldom made, between tangibles and intangibles. The latter include such things as the all-important haiku spirit and a sense of humour. The former deal with most of the so-called haiku 'rules'.
By their own nature, the intangibles cannot be written into 'rules'. What is the use of making a rule that everybody must have haiku spirit behind every haiku poem when no one knows what it is? Equally, the elusive sense of humour escapes the Western haiku rulebook and hence gets shut out from almost all haiku poems written outside Japan.
And yet these two things are probably the most important of all considerations about haiku before and beyond the technical aspects in the shape of 'rules' can do anything about creating good haiku. In spite of this, they have been overlooked. In other words, by having not been included in haiku 'rules', the intangibles have suffered from 'negative' or 'reverse' impact of haiku 'rules'.
Namely, they have not been given enough attention in real terms which they would have if they had been included in haiku 'rules'. Thus what is probably the most important thing in haiku has ironically been ignored in what is supposed to be a vital factor of haiku-writing, i.e. haiku ‘rules’. It is as though love were excluded artificially from love-making.
Other intangibles include a sense or feeling of brevity, a sense of detachment, distinct haiku way of looking at things (tangential and with a bit of good twist), yojoh (lingering and reverberating feelings like a good aftertaste), haiku rhythm and many Japanese haiku values (wabi, sabi, shiori, hosomi, aware, yugen etc.).
The intangibles are thus excluded from the haiku 'rule' problem itself but, as we have seen, they are closely related to it and in fact far more important: what are still left when you remove all the so-called haiku 'rules' are these intangibles.
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Now, as for the haiku 'rules' themselves, shall I make an interesting suggestion, which may just do the trick and benefit us? And that is: Why don’t we temporarily abolish the word 'rules'?
If we don't have the word 'rules', then we will have to use some other words or phrases in its stead. Let us do some experiment (these may not be the very best names but they can be amended later. It is the idea behind them that is important). Examples given are for indication only and must not be taken as definitive.
CONVENTION: Formalised core traditional haiku methods or styles. Traditionalists (conventionalists) tend to abide by these while innovators (free verse advocates) tend to flout them. Still others follow a bit of both ways.
Examples: kigo, kireji, fixed form, haiku-like items (haiku-like words, themes, styles, objects etc.)
ADVICE: Various advice, some tried and tested, others tips from experts or straightforward practical guidance
(a) The tricks of the trade: those methods, traditional or new and tried and tested, which does not always need to be used but can be very effective if used well and in the right way.
Examples: toriawase (combination rather than the usual juxtaposition), zooming/focusing, concrete image, ordinary things and language
(b) Tips: those secrets or expert pieces of advice given by seasoned and good haiku poets which are derived from their own experience and research. Some may have universal appeal or application. Others may suit only a few or only occasionally.
Examples: the fragment & the phrase, sense-switching (a kind of synesthesia but rather than experiencing two different senses simultaneously, one smells, for instance, new green, hears a shooting star, gazes at silence or watch the sound of waterfall), alliteration/assonance
(c) Practical advice: self-explanatory
Examples: many don'ts (no sentence, no cause and effect, show-don't tell, avoid adjectives/adverbs etc.)
INNOVATION: New suggestions, not yet tried and tested, which explore new horizons and boundaries for haiku.
Examples: one-liner, four-liner, non-traditional subjects, experimentation with graphic design of poems
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Finally, my tentative practical proposal concerning haiku 'rules' can be summed up as follows:
The haiku Pandora's box has been opened at least twice: firstly, when Kawahigashi Hekigoto (1873-1937) parted with Kyoshi's position and started the Shinkeiko (new trend) movement which subsequently led to various vers libre haiku movements in Japan, and then secondly, when haiku started to 'swim' or 'fly' overseas and across the world, especially and most dramatically after the WWII.
With at least these two major events happening, haiku could not have remained the same again. This could also be compared to the Tower of Babel, though perhaps more in God's blessing than in his punishment. Haiku poets around the world are talking and talking simultaneously but unable to understand each others' haiku languages. As humans have subsequently defied God by learning foreign languages, so must haijin learn foreign haiku languages.
This means that we simply have no other alternative but to admit and accept that there are and have been different schools of thought with different ideas and agenda about haiku. They are led by a single individual or by a large (by haiku standards) organisation.
Now, each school can, if they want, choose any items from the above list or any other items they can think of, and promulgate them as their own rules to be applied only to themselves. In other words, they can make any rules they like but they must not impose them on others. Even in this case, the sound advice would be that they should be mindful of the kind of things which have been discussed above.
Kyoshi, for example, made kigo as the absolute rule of the Hototogisu School. However, apart from it and some other rules such as kacho-fuei and kyakkan-shasei, Kyoshi was in fact very flexible, tolerant and liberal about poets' search for new and original creativity. This is why there were born so many haijin under him with newness and originality, including those who left him in the end. Even concerning muki (non-season-word haiku), he often praised good poems, only he did not allow them to be called haiku, which, though extremely powerful coming from him, was interference that pushed his critics further away from him and made them entrenched in their quest for freer and freer haiku.
Another thought about haiku rules, which might be useful, is to understand them not as something akin to laws of a nation or government rules and regulations minus punishment but as sports rules (e.g. tennis, football or baseball) or game rules (e.g. card games, hyakunin-isshu or chess) without which no sport or game is possible. Can you play tennis or card games without rules in this sense?
Apart from players' foul (which will be penalised if found and the player not honoured), no one really objects to these rules and they are normally observed without any problem. Why, then, do haiku poets read the rulebook and then throw it away?
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To sum up this long discourse, most of the so-called haiku 'rules' in the West are in fact a jumble of all kinds of other things which should never have been called 'rules'. This is one of the major causes for confusion in haiku writing and appreciation as it leads to talking at cross-purposes, in the wrong context and with semantic looseness. The culprit seems to be the word ‘rules’.
To the non-Japanese using non-Japanese languages, even such basic features of Japanese haiku as kigo, 5-7-5 and kireji are by definition foreign ideas with little relevance to their tradition or sensibility. As such, they cannot present in a natural and ready-made way the basis on which they should develop their haiku-writing, let alone haiku 'rules'. If that is the case, one might as well abolish this word 'rules' altogether as it has caused more problems than it solved, and quite possibly has done more harm than good. One only hopes that it is not a permanent damage.
Instead, we can choose some practical and useful names. I have shown just an idea of possible names. If and when the penny drops, some of you might like to think hard and come up with better names to replace the word ‘rules’. As I have elaborated, right names are important when the substance is in confusion or lost.