Letters – Issue 14

Making Haiku

Charles Croot’s view that only a poem with 17 syllables in 5‑7‑5 form can qualify as a haiku led him to discount almost the entire content of the New Zealand Haiku Anthology in New Zealand Books Vol 4 No 1. Croot’s view is extreme and naive. Is he aware that many Japanese writing in their own language do not adhere rigidly to the traditional norm of physical form? Is he aware that Japanese haiku are traditionally written in one line, down the page, and that writers in English have only inferred a 5‑7‑5 lineation from the common occurrence of a kireji (‘cutting word’) at the fifth or twelfth onji (Japanese ‘sound symbol’).

What works in Japanese does not necessarily work in English. Not surprising, since, for example, onji do not equate exactly with English syllables. There has been much debate, over many decades and around the English speaking world, about how best to adapt the Japanese form to English. I discuss this in my introduction to the anthology (contrary to what Croot says) and indicate several publications (fully listed in the bibliography) that discuss it in more detail. If Croot looks in Modern Haiku or Frogpond (the two leading journals for haiku in English), or in Van den Heuvel’s comprehensive The Haiku Anthology, he will find haiku in English ranging in form from one to four lines, and from less than five syllables to more than 20. Typically he will find three lines and between about 10 and 18 syllables. He will even find one‑word haiku and haiku with a pictorial dimension. He might not like that flexibility but that’s the way it is.

The Haiku Society of America is currently developing a broad definition of haiku which includes reference to flexibility of physical form, but which has much more emphasis on the nature of content. Van den Heuvel in his book states that: “Ultimately haiku eludes definition … it is always evolving, burgeoning, growing… ” Most of us welcome that. After all, do not arbitrary restriction and rigidity often, maybe always, lead to mummification?

So, as editor of the New Zealand anthology, I was not self‑indulging, doing anything unusual, let alone breaking new ground, by including haiku ranging in physical form. Indeed, in this first anthology of haiku by New Zealand writers it would have been silly of me to do other than represent the best work across the spectrum.

Finally, Croot’s use of the image of the plumber self‑indulging in the toolshed is crude. I hope I can be forgiven for believing it applies, in the sense Croot uses it, more to his review than it does to those he purports to review.

C W Childs, Editor, New Zealand Haiku Anthology

A number of things concern me in Charles Croot’s review of the New Zealand Haiku Anthology in the June issue of New Zealand Books.

First, Mr Croot’s insistence that haiku in English is a form of poetry in three lines of 5‑7‑5 syllables. This is a complex and difficult question to discuss in few words. The introduction to NZHA approaches it from the point of view of what is likely to be useful to a beginning poet. If Mr Croot wishes to follow it further, let me recommend ‑ from the bibliography of NZHA ‑ chapter 8 of William J Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook (McGraw‑Hill; NY 1985 Kodansha; Tokyo, 1989). This discusses the question of form in detail and explains to even the most obdurate why the vast majority of haiku in English, from all parts of the world, are not arranged in three lines of 5‑7‑5.

Second, Mr Croot’s manipulation of the “evidence”. He refers to many of the haiku in the anthology as being “offered … as examples of a highly sophisticated verse‑form.” Where in NZHA is this stated or suggested with reference to New Zealand haiku?

Mr Croot also implies that the definition of haiku given in the anthology is, in essence, an emphasis on brevity, clarity, suggestiveness etc, and argues that this is “just a definition of modern poetry in general”. The debt to centuries of Japanese poetics evaporates. Here, too, Mr Croot chooses to ignore the common ground of almost all definition of haiku given by Dr Childs as the first sentence of his introduction: “Haiku is about what is happening now, a moment in time.” This is what leads to the brevity, suggestiveness etc, and this ‑ in its extremity ‑ is what modern poetry cannot share with haiku without becoming haiku.

Third, historical accuracy. Mr Croot styles haiku “a simple Japanese verse‑form which, thanks to Ezra Pound and others, has taken the English‑speaking world by storm”. Mr Croot, as we know, thinks haiku must be in three lines of 5‑7‑5. Odd that he should praise “Pound and others” (the imagists and their like, presumably) as Pound, Aldington, Lowell, Stevens, Williams, Reznikoff et al didn’t write in 5‑7‑5, though some of their early poems are certainly “haiku‑flavoured”. Pound referred to his famous Metro piece as “a hokku‑like sentence”. (Hokku being an older name for haiku in this context).

That impetus died back fairly quickly, especially in England. No doubt, though, from about 1910 haiku was one of the minor influences on modern poetry in English. The wave of haiku writing, however, that has “taken the English-speaking world by storm” started after World War II and is more thoroughly informed by Japanese precedents that was possible for the verse of E P and Co. The credit is mainly due to translators and commentators R H Blyth and Harold G Henderson as well as to the North American haiku poets and editors who followed them in the 1950s and 1960s. See NZHA haiku notes for details and the bibliography for international anthologies in English. Most of the work, alas Mr Croot, is not in 5‑7‑5.

Fourth, Mr Croot’s strictures on the lack of “New Zealandness” in recent New Zealand verse. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he does not mention Cyril Childs’ explicit encouragement of this in his introduction and a reasonable number of undeniably local haiku thereafter: Barry Morrall’s “Hutt River flowing / Slowly all the way back / To my childhood” for instance, or Richard von Sturmer’s “Rotorua: / by the sulphur lakes / the sparrows have yellow faces”.

T S Eliot once commented on the need for astute and informed criticism. He had a point.

John O’Connor



Iain Sharp’s comments on me are rather kind. And I thank him for that. But he makes the assumption that I want to be recognised by the “literary” establishment which I most definitely don’t. We have nothing in common. We come from different backgrounds. Our dislike of each other is mutual.

As a reviewer who is considered widely with some respect, Iain Sharp’s reputation ought to be up for scrutiny, too. Like his quoting from Once Were Warriors a passage which he described as Jake Heke’s musings when it in fact was a collective scene of gang members.

He also accuses me frequently of exaggeration. He doesn’t know half of it. The Gisborne cop, Rana Waitai, said it all when he told the Film Commission the apparent violence of my screenplay for the movie of Once Were Warriors was nothing compared to the reality. So who’s exaggerating ‑ Sharp?

I let critics criticise. It’s all they’re good at. They have to gain their dubious status from somewhere, so why not at the (often) expense of the real doers, the writers? But I do not accept for a moment Sharp’s opinion that my second novel was “largely a rehash of the McClutchey bar scenes from Warriors“. What piffle. What fool talk this is.

One Night Out Stealing, from the guy who wrote it, is a technically superior book to my first. I am very proud of the technical problems I overcame in it. Just as I am rather proud of my little book, State Ward, which Mr Sharp has slated in another publication. That’s the one at No 1 in the national bestseller list. Or it was till Warriors came surging back on the film interest and pushed it to No 2. Grim, ain’t it?

I repeat: I do not want recognition from the literary establishment. I’d regard it as a personal failure. My obligation is and always has been to my readers. Like enemies, I never under-estimate them. And I, like most of them, loathe writers who have the nerve to write a self‑indulgent, obscure outpouring and call it literature. More like shiterature.

Alan Duff [Slightly abridged: Editor]

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