You Really Cant Judge a Book by Its Cover
Ross has written some good haiku, a number of which appear
scattered here and there among the examples in this simply
and attractively produced introductory book for those who
wish to write haiku. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about
the contents generally as I am about the design and the
selection of sample poems. Ross has clearly learned to accept
a wider variety of haiku forms and content than that reflected
in the selection he made for his anthology Haiku Moment.
But reading the instructional prose of How to Haiku
has been a painful roller-coaster ride. Consider three excerpts:
focusing on the things around them, one at a time, in
the language they know, students can learn deep and wonderful,
sometimes playful, things about nature and human life
the final sentence of Rosss introduction, says many
things that might be considered commonplaces of haiku discussion,
but says them well. It succinctly summarizes some reasons
why one might like to take up haiku.
essence of traditional haiku consists of two things. First,
there is an association with nature through one of the
seasons either by naming the season (kigo), like winter
or spring, or by suggesting the season through specific
elements of that season (kidai), like a frozen pond or
cherry blossoms .
gives an overview of the nature aspect of traditional haiku,
but contains a serious error of fact. Kidai are traditionally
recognized seasonal phenomena that often provide the main
subject matter of a haiku. They also place haiku in the
seasonal round that forms an important context for all such
poems. On the other hand, kigo are the specific words or
phrases in individual poems that refer to the kidai. For
example, a Japanese phrase that might best be translated
"remaining snow" is an important spring kidai.
Another phrase, perhaps best translated "left-over
snow," often appears in haiku, and refers to this same
phenomenon. A poem with the kigo "left-over snow"
has "remaining snow" as its kidai. "Remaining
snow" itself may also be used in a poemin which
case it is both the kidai and the kigo of that poem. In
short, a kidai is a "seasonal topic"some
phenomenon one might write aboutwhile a kigo is the
word or phrase one uses to write about itthe "season
word." Kigo does not mean "naming the season";
"seasonal topic(s)" is the usual translation of
kidai, not the confusing "elements of the season,"
which might be understood as referring to the weather.
first line in [a] traditional Japanese haiku usually carries
a seasonal reference and ends with the [kireji]. . . .
American haiku therefore is also written in three lines
with a break after the first line .
example is more subtle. How to Haiku abounds with such general
statements about haiku, in some cases referring to Japanese
haiku, in others to American haiku, andas heresometimes
to both. These general statements are often too restrictive,
however, andas hereare often contradicted by
examples like this:
closing its eyes
cat in the sun
is one of several examples closely following the third excerpt
above. It has no seasonal reference ("cat in the sun"
might suggest "winter" to some readers, but has
no traditional standing as a seasonal topic in either Japanese
or English), and the grammatical break comes at the end
of the second line. In fact, the seasonal reference may
occur anywhere in a haiku, Japanese or English, and the
kireji in Japanese or the break in English may also occur
anywhere in the poem. While the arrangement Ross speaks
of is found in many haiku, other arrangements are also common.
The seasonal reference may appear in the last line or as
part or all of the middle line. The break may occur at the
end of the second line or even in the middle of it. And
some haiku have no break at all, but may instead have an
intensifying expression in the final phrase that serves
a similar purpose, heightening the language and therefore
the experience. (Also, the break need not be immediately
adjacent to the seasonal reference.)
dealing with haiku in twenty-some pages, Ross goes on to
give brief instruction in senryu, haibun, tanka, haiga,
and renga. Appendices fill in information on haiku form
and aesthetics that should be in the main body of the text,
as well as supplying directions for taking a haiku walk.
An appendix entitled "Further Reading" omits some
of the major works in the field and also gives no contact
information for the magazines and organizations it lists.
sum, How to Haiku contains some good examples of
haiku stirred together in a mixture of misleading generalizations
about haiku, error-ridden explanations of things Japanese
(of which Ross seems to have little direct knowledge), and
the occasional oxymoron, as in "There is no line break
after the first line" a statement that stopped
me dead in my tracks. (I think he meant that there is no
grammatical break after the first line of the poem he was
discussing.) There are more gaffs per page than one usually
finds in amateur magazine articles, not to mention mistranslations
of well-known and well-understood Japanese haiku, for example
"cricket" for "cicada" in Bashôs
famous poem on the stillness at Yamadera .
best that can be said for How to Haiku, aside from
noting its well-designed cover, is that the poems are better
than those presented in Clark Strands Seeds from
a Birch Tree (1997). As a haiku veteran, Ross should
be expected to bring a much higher degree of accuracy to
a work like this, which is more likely to confuse than enlighten