by Robert D. Wilson
I have watched Don Baird evolve as a haiku poet. Don is not one to follow the leader. He studies, practices, studies, practices just as he does with martial arts and playing the clarinet. Mediocrity is not his forte. He knows the value of paying one's dues as the late Miles Davis calls the time, sweat, and hard work it takes to hone one's craft. Don sees haiku as an activity-biased poetic genre and knows the importance of connecting with and understanding zoka (nature's unpredictable, always evolving creative force) in the writing of haiku. His haiku is memorable and open-ended, a far cry from the identity challenged haiku-like poetry penned by so many today as evidenced via perusal online of English-language haiku journals, magazines, and blogs. Read one of these publications, you read them all. Co-owner, Saša Važić, and I have taken heat because we turn down most of the haiku submitted, even from the good old boys and girls who are well known in the small exclusive world that claims to speak for the English-language haiku world. We look for the best, as a responsible academic journal should. The "best" are few and far between. To find a poet whose haiku is good enough to merit the showcasing of five selected poems is not an easy task. To find a poet whose works are exemplary and worthy of a featured poet showcase is even harder.
Let's look at a selection of haiku by Don Baird. You be the judge. See if they go beyond the mundaneness that has become the norm in this post Meiji construction era of forgettable haiku.
whispering . . .
the butterfly’s unusual
Notice that Baird doesn't use nature as an illustrative modifier to enhance a senryu masquerading as a haiku. Instead, he's recorded an act of nature, an act that's always changing, never static, his focus, the zoka, nature's creative force that's beyond the measure and comprehension of humanity.
As Joel Achenbach wrote recently in the Washington Post, a major American newspaper, on May 18 of this year:
"Human beings should not be too chauvinistic about what constitutes, or characterizes, a living thing. There are a lot more nuances to nature that scientists realized just a few decades ago."
"whispering": what is whispering? The butterfly's unusual path? Something unseen? A dangling metaphor? Baird is using yugen (depth and mystery) to unearth the unsaid in his poem. A poem without the unsaid is not a haiku. Everywhere in nature is the unsaid, the unfathomable, that something eluding definition. A haiku, limited to an economy of words, is designed to unearth and coagulate the unseen and unsaid, that "something" the Anglo-West has so much difficulty coming to terms with.
Perhaps this explains why much of the haiku penned today in and outside of Japan fall short of the excellence embodied in the hokku of Basho and those influenced by him. After the Anglo-West colonized Japan via the German-based university system that defines Japanese and Anglo-Western thought today, the need to explain all in concrete absolutes became dominate, watering down the styles (aesthetics tools) that define and give depth to haiku.
Baird evolved into the understanding he has of haiku today, an ongoing metamorphosis, in a continuum of constant change. He hasn't arrived, he never will, and he knows that if he thinks he has arrived, that he'll stagnate as a poet, his output relegated to the safe, posting only those poems that have won awards, like some do today, taking no chances, in essence, becoming the mush melons Basho told his disciples not to become.
"the butterfly's unusual path": how is the butterfly's path unusual? What thoughts come to your mind when you read these words? A haiku is not a window into the composer's mind. It is a catalyst for thought in the reader's mind. Your job as the reader is not to understand the composer's conceptualization of his or her poem. This is why object-biased haiku-like poems fall flat. The object (mono) is not important. It is the process of becoming, a process that never ends (koto), that gives a haiku its breath. The path, not the road. The direction, not the asphalt below one's feet.
What do you think of when you read the last two lines upon juxtaposition with the first line? It is the reader who finishes a haiku utilizing subjectivity. Subjectivity, therefore, has no place in a true haiku. You finish the haiku.
Read Don Baird’s haiku once again, pausing after the first line, allowing time to dream, to think, to form your own illusions. The ma (time and space, what Denis Garrison calls "dreamtime") is vital to haiku. The Japanese use cutting words to indicate pauses, having no punctuation or capitalization. English-language poets must utilize punctuation to do the same. To ignore this dictum is to negate the need for ma. To ignore the need for ma is to think one is ready to change the genre, which is folly. Before one can change or redefine a genre, they must first master and understand it. No one alive today, in or outside of Japan, can claim this distinction. Poets today still grapple with the haiku genre's definition, having a need to re-configure it to reflect Anglo-Western German-university based thinking, whose roots are anything but Eastern.
whispering . . .
the butterfly’s unusual
Read the following samples of Don Baird's haiku. Pause and dream, interpret, visualize, and draw upon your own experiences and cultural memories. Read between the lines. Listen to the unsaid, visualize the unseen, sit at the feet of zoka, not Baird, learning from nature. Kigo is not a seasonal reference as defined by Anglo-Western and Japanese (German-university based) thinking. It is much more. It is the heartbeat and creator of our universe.
tea cup moon . . .
on this hazy night,
a white owl
red moon . . .
in the stillness
settling . . .
the cloud-cover lost
empty swings . . .
the rolling shadows
deepening . . .
the shadow there long
before the leaf
fading . . .
a winter's memories
drop by drop
waning moon —
the scent of autumn
in a tea cup
the pine borrows
a crow's caw
Pick up your pen and write your own activity-biased haiku. Forget the mushmelon-ness
permeating haiku circles today. If they can't define haiku, that can't teach how to compose haiku. Let zoka be your teacher.