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BooksNovember 3, 2019

Uther Dean on haiku and jokes and flouting the rules

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Uther Dean responds to the essay we published last week, in which Sandra Simpson expressed her frustration at people who misunderstood and disrespected haiku.

When I was writing haiku there were two kinds of people who liked to tell me I wasn’t writing haiku. The first were early millennial or late Gen X white men with beards, clearly taking dickish pleasure in the ability to control art by enforcing arbitrary definitions on it [1].

The second were somewhat harried boomers, mostly women, who seemed to be in genuine distress over what they saw as a mistake or misapprehension on my behalf. Which is troubling to me, obviously. I don’t want to be a source of distress for anyone.

But when it became clear to them that I understood that while writing haiku I wasn’t (according to them) writing haiku, they’d often become pointedly, aggressively dismissive. To the point of, to pick an example at absolute random, emailing The Spinoff complaining after they published some of my haiku.

But who hasn’t had a bit of a bitch about the poetry features on The Spinoff? I know I have. I just didn’t do it by email, I did it where sane people complain about harmless things: Twitter.

So, I face several problems.

Publicity shot for Uther’s show Uther Dean Reads 300 Haiku.

The first, it should go without saying, is that I disagree with Sandra Simpson.

The second is that I disagree with her enough that I accepted The Spinoff’s invite to reply to her piece (which was in turn a rejoinder to my piece which was a promo for a one-man show called Uther Dean Reads 300 Haiku (you’ll never guess what I did in it) which I was touring the country’s Fringe Festivals to perform, making this a niche piece even for proud bastion of the niche The Spinoff).

There is a part of my brain that tells me to roll over. She cares about this much more than I do. This could be one of those matters where really weight of emotion should tip the scales. It might not be the right thing to do but it would be the nice thing to do. And, in my experience of the poetry world, nice should trump right more often.

The next problem is that she is, as she goes to some lengths to express, more qualified on the specific matter of haiku than I am. Her long-term commitment to the community built up around her definition of haiku is nothing to be sniffed at. She brings people together through poetry. That is unambiguously a good thing.

As much as I, a millennial, hate being told they are doing something wrong by a boomer, I really do want to engage with Sandra and her thoughts. I learned some things from her piece (that my poems aren’t senryu either, for example, making me, I think, the first poet to not write two poems when writing a single poem) and I would hope that she would learn some things from my response.

But I get the feeling she won’t. Her default assumption that I simply don’t understand haiku seems very steadfast. Again, here my impulse is to just let her have this, to write a thousand words or so apologising and promising that I’ll not write haiku again [2]. What is the point of arguing with someone who isn’t going to change their mind and doesn’t even really think you’re qualified to be talking to them? I mean, she even implies that I don’t write with care which is, as far as I can tell, the poetry equivalent of calling a musician tone-deaf.

But then she said that haiku can’t be jokes.

“Meat-brick!!!” Images: Pinterest.

I’ll be brief: saying that the inclusion of or allusion to humour disqualifies any piece of art from any form or genre is high-art/low-art dichotomy snobbery of the highest and most boring order. To dismiss something by saying it is a joke, as Simpson does implicitly throughout, reveals much more about the person doing the dismissing than about the work under analysis.

It is very telling to me that several of her descriptions of haiku – that they “find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary”, that they are “a partnership with their readers, the poet leaving space for readers to bring their own life experiences to” [3], and that they work on juxtaposition with the “best links [being] like lightning, in a flash illuminating the detail of an otherwise dark landscape” – are actually better descriptions of jokes than they are of poems.

Jokes are, to be incredibly reductive for the sake of the length, the building and release of tension. Those are the same building blocks of narrative forms of any scale. And while a poem’s narrative may be entirely abstract, I would very strongly argue that poetry remains a narrative form [4] – which is to say a form composed of collections of events or observations in some premeditated sequence.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that everything should have jokes in it. You won’t find me saying that what A Short Film About Killing or Crime and Punishment are lacking is pratfalls [5]. I don’t care how qualified you are, how far back you can trace your incredibly specific and notably suffocating rules about how no one writes write haiku except for you, or how many haiku-based websites you’ve written for: if your definition of something explicitly and totally excludes jokes, then what you are asking is for people to be wilfully boring.

And, uh, you shouldn’t do that.

I love the form of haiku. I sincerely, really do. I agree with a lot of the minutiae of Sandra’s description of what makes up the form with our main disagreement usually seeming to be that she thinks I don’t do it and I, typically, do.

For one: her point about nature sitting at the heart of the form, I couldn’t fault. We just seem to have different working definitions of what “nature” is. For another: I absolutely follow the logic around the translation ideas that lead to the no capital letters, no grammar rules. I just choose not to follow them because I don’t want my poetry to look like a LiveJournal post.

And I don’t think that disqualifies my haiku. My favourite thing about haiku in English is that they are a bastard form. Some of the core tenets of haiku in Japanese simply don’t have equivalents in English. The history of the form is essentially people taking different tilts at kludging together an equivalent within our language’s comically odd rules and failing in different ways.

My favourite example of this is how haiku definitely have 17 syllables. I 100% understand how that started as a misunderstanding of the Japanese concept of on. (See Sandra, I do have a grounding in haiku!)

Picture and Poem by Matsuo Basho: ほろほろと山吹ちるかたきのおと Basho Tosei: horohoroto yamabuki taki no oto (IB-371-2, 1688) Translation: Quietly, quietly,/ yellow mountain roses fall –/sound of the rapids. (Makoto Ueda) Wikimedia commons.

Simpson points out that the two things everyone knows about haiku is that they are Japanese and 17 syllables long and then goes on to say that people are wrong. Which is a weird thing to say. We’re not talking about climate change, we’re talking about poetry. We’re not even talking about a widely mis-held misapprehension of taste, like Dickens being boring or ballet being good, we’re talking about a fact of form.

But “misunderstandings becoming rules” is as near as you’ll get to a tweetable history of the development of art. Haiku have 17 syllables not because they “should” but because, well, they just do.

We’re taught in schools that haiku have 17 syllables. Almost every haiku you are likely to meet is 17 syllables. And the ones that aren’t are written by people who like to angrily email complaints to the literary section of The Spinoff.

I don’t want to imply that Simpson doesn’t write haiku because the work she supports doesn’t conform to that rule. I’m saying that when I wrote haiku they were haiku and they had 17 syllables and when Simpson and her cohort write haiku, they are haiku and have as many syllables as they want. We’re both right and neither of us is right.

There can’t be a right way to write haiku in English. It’s just not possible with our alphabet. Which is to say that haiku have 17 syllables and arguing against it is not so much shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted as it is getting angry that humans ride horses at all.

We’re pulling in different directions, Simpson and I. I want to see how wide we can stretch haiku. How far can you push it? What do we reveal about poetry when we bend or break the rules? What do we reveal about ourselves? What rules are worth keeping and what rules aren’t? Where Simpson, at least to me, seems to want haiku frozen. Circling round that pond/frog poem (and its ilk) forever, trying to trace every nuance of it, trying to precisely replicate the alchemy that lead to its beauty.

Neither of those motivations is wrong, and neither is bad. And, in my opinion, we could both happily crack on without telling each other that we’re wrong.

Unless you come for my jokes.

But, also, what is the point of this? Why make my points at such length? I’m talking to a woman whose second sentence of rebuttal to my poetry was an unironic “The quote marks are intentional”. She’s not going to listen. She doesn’t care as long as she feels right. So, fuck it.

Sandra, I’m sorry. You’re absolutely right. When I wrote those haiku, had them published in multiple literary organs under the title “haiku”, performed them publicly in a show with “haiku” in the title, I wasn’t writing haiku. I take it all back. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.


[1] I say this with much love for these men, as I am one, just not about poetry. For instance, ask me to explain how Star Trek (the series) isn’t Star Trek (the cultural idea), if you have a few hours spare.

[2] Trick’s on her, I’ve already moved on from haiku – not for any good reason, I needed a narrative beat for the end of my haiku show.

[3] I mean, she is just describing any good art here, right?

[4] …he wrote knowing that the intended audience (Simpson) will use it to dismiss the whole point out of hand.

[5] To prove my point: I spent ages on this sentence struggling to think of something good that doesn’t already have jokes in it.

Keep going!