Jul 18 2023
Poetry review – BY THE WAY: Michael Paul Hogan considers a collection of haiku by Kevin Bailey
in our nakedness the seeding pomegranate was crammed with stars
Where does haiku end and imagism begin? At one end of the spectrum, you have the haiku purist who thinks that English haiku is an oxymoron and that the only true haiku is written (one might almost say painted) in Japanese characters; at the other, there are those for whom haiku is simply an imagist poem split into three seemingly random lines. Assuming we do not go to the first extreme and forbid the writing of haiku in English altogether, then the purist becomes one who insists that the haiku consists of exactly seventeen syllables – five in the first line, seven in the second, five in the third – and a kigo, a word associated with one of the four seasons (although the allusion can be extremely subtle). Even the most exacting of this latter kind of purist, however, does not – indeed cannot – insist on the second essential requirement of a haiku written in Japanese, a kireji, which has no direct equivalent in English and is used to express a pause in thought, separate two distinct thoughts, or mark an ending; the best we can do is a dash or a semi-colon. But for the majority of those writing the haiku we so frequently see in today’s literary magazines my original question would be an irrelevance; their haiku is a fruit that has fallen a very long way from the Japanese tree.
But if one were genuinely seeking an opinion vis a vis traditional haiku and modern imagism, one could do far worse than approach Kevin Bailey, for not only is his Collected Haiku the book under discussion but he is also editor of Haiku Quarterly, one of the longest running print poetry magazines in the UK, and, with Lucien Stryk, editor of The Acorn Book of Contemporary Haiku – a sort of “sequel” to Stryk’s enduring classic The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry. Furthermore, to our great good fortune, he has written a Foreword to his latest book in which my own question is more or less addressed. It is worth quoting at some length:
“It has always been my strongly held opinion that only a native Japanese poet suffused with the history, language, culture and religions of Japan can write a “true” haiku – although some non-Japanese poets have come close… The fact is that over the last sixty years or so, the haiku has become an international poetic form, adapted and hybridised by poets from many different cultures and using many different languages, but unified in diversity by a liberal faithfulness to those haiku ‘essentials.’
“Accepting that the non-Japanese haiku poet is most authentic when they use the haiku form as a means of creative expression within their own language and culture, collectively, there now exists a world-wide body of haikuesque poetry we can define as ‘International’ haiku – acknowledging its origins in Japan, but with many interesting and equally valid variants… I think Lucien Stryk gets to the heart of the matter with the idea of ‘mind-pointing.’ I don’t think one has to be a student of Zen to understand or make use of this technique. So long as one accepts the idea of the focused ‘creative moment’ one can create haiku. For the general poet that ‘creative moment’ is usually the first step in the development of a ‘conventional’ longer poem: a haiku is that creative moment – the product of creative restraint and acceptance, that consequently inspires the reader to their own act of mental creativity. This is the genius of the haiku: its unrestricted ability to engage so directly with its readership. This is the only test a haiku, and its author, needs to pass.”
By The Way contains, according to its author, “all the ‘haikuesque’ poems I have written over the last forty-five years.” Like the form itself, it is brief; eighty-six haiku composed at an average of a little under two a year, each with its own page – the better to approximate the painterly aspect of the original Japanese verse. The title, of course, is an obvious Zen-like pun, but the poems themselves, for all their metaphysical elements, are very much rooted in the contemporary everyday – I suspect that Ezra Pound’s Metro station is closer to Bailey’s imagination than mediaeval Edo.
under the umbrella’s blackness her reflection in savage puddles
It is dangerous to write a Foreword or a Preface or whatever and conclude it by setting a bar; the art of rhetoric demands that that bar will always be set rather high. Unrestricted ability to engage directly with one’s readers, he has told us, is the only test of a haiku’s validity. If scientific philosophers investigating Artificial Intelligence have the Turing Test, we reviewers investigating Haiku now have the Bailey Test – and one rather hopes that Bailey himself will be the first to pass it.
But before we go further, let us look at the form of Bailey’s poems:
the scent of bluebells – the softness of a wife’s breast all so far away
This is one for the purists: it has the syllabic pattern of 5-7-5; it has a kigo (for bluebells are indelibly associated with the spring) and the approximation of a kireji at the end of the first line. It also has two contrasting images, each of which accentuates the other – another essential aspect of classical haiku I neglected to mention earlier.
dried in the flames of this amber season – the pale face of chamomile
In all, out of the eighty-six poems in the book ten have the strict syllable count of a formal haiku and of these all but two have a word or image referring directly or obliquely to a season of the year. The Bailey Test here is irrelevant; these are haiku by definition and gain admission to a book of haiku by right. But what of the other seventy-six poems that make up By The Way?
frost – steaming off the bare-branched apple-tree: the moon its one shifting fruit
Does this inspire the reader to his or her own act of creativity? Does it engage directly with its readership – in this case, myself? What about –
feathers in sharp reeds – somewhere, dark waters shroud a death
and before we go any further, I must say that the answer is Yes. It is now a week or more since I read that last-quoted poem, but I still find myself haunted by the image evoked. Bailey never mentions the temperature of the water, but I know, as surely as I know the colour of the ink in this pen, that it is cold and that I am waiting for the bulk of the dead swan to be revealed beneath its surface – and that I am waiting with a combined sense of fascination and dread. And it is primarily because of what I bring to the poem myself that this comes about. I know, every reader knows, that a shroud is much the same colour as a swan. But I’d never made – never would’ve made – the connection unless Bailey had made it for me.
Whizz-bang, Bailey. You’ve passed your own test!
By The Way contains many such moments: moments of clarity, moments of humour, moments of empathy, moments of simplicity and charm. But if there is a theme (and all books, even those collected over forty-plus years, need a sense of thematic unity) it would be, to use a kigo, a sense of autumn; not literally but figuratively; a certain chill in the air; a fallen apple more likely than an apple on a sunlit branch; a boat moored for winter, rather than setting sail on a summer’s day. There is an elegiac quality here, and something altogether English. Many haiku writers would readily admit as influences Basho or Issa; Bailey might less readily be aware that his major influence is A. E. Housman, and this, I think, is what makes his haiku – well, if not unique exactly, then certainly very rare.
after we have loved there’s only the swaying trees and rain
Born in London, Michael Paul Hogan is a poet, journalist, literary essayist and fiction writer whose work has appeared extensively in the USA, UK, India and China. His collected poems, American Voodoo, was published by Bluechrome in the UK in 2008, and again, with Chinese translations, by Foreign Languages Press in Beijing in 2001. Venues at which he has read his poetry include The Poetry Café and The Keats House in London, and The Rondo Theatre in Bath. He was also a guest speaker at the Ahmedabad International Literature Festival in 2021. As a journalist he has been Features Writer and Columnist for Island Life in Key West, Florida, Theatre Critic for The Bristol Evening Post in the UK, and Features Writer & Features Editor for Dalian Today in North-east China, while his short stories have appeared in a number of well-respected literary journals, including Big Bridge (California), Adelaide Literary Magazine (New York), The Oddville Press (London) and The Blue Nib (Ireland). His latest book Artist Descending a Typewriter: Nine Essays on Contemporary Art will be published in October.