Viral 5.6

by Scott Metz on February 10, 2010

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Virals is a section in which one person choses a haiku by another person and comments on that haiku. Then the author of that haiku is invited to select a haiku by someone else and comment on that poem, and so on. For an introduction to this section, see Virals.

Viral 5.6

Beauty in Haiku

BY Michael Dylan Welch

ankō-no hone-made itete buchikiraru

                                                 the anglerfish frozen
                                                 right down to its very bones
                                                 is hacked to pieces

                                                                                 —Katō Shūson (1905–1993)
                                                                                 (translated by Dhugal J. Lindsay)

This poem may startle readers because of its bluntness and violence. Many readers and writers of haiku prefer that haiku focus on the beautiful, so much so that they may believe that haiku should be limited to the beautiful. In Japan, however, the subjects of many haiku are often merely mundane, and not specifically beautiful. Moreover, subjects also appear that are decidedly unbeautiful, as in the preceding poem. Robert Bly has asserted that American haiku could represent darker content, in the way that Shiki’s haiku, for example, reflected the tensions of dying from tuberculosis, or the way Bashō’s haiku are often directly or contextually tinged with the dangers of travel. Our haiku, too, has plenty of room for duende, as well as dark subjects. Haiku need not dwell entirely on the dark or seemly, but just as too much salt spoils a meal, so does too much sugar. As James W. Hackett has said in his guidelines for writing haiku, “Lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku.”

Translation from Rose Mallow #58 (2003), page 46,
by permission from Dhugal J. Lindsay.

Katō Shūson (1905–1993) cannot select the next poem, and so Viral 5 comes to a close.

Viral 5.1 (Metz ➾ Lyles)
Viral 5.2 (Lyles ➾ Chang)
Viral 5.3 (Chang ➾ Stevenson)
Viral 5.4 (Stevenson ➾ Yarrow)
Viral 5.5 (Yarrow ➾ Welch)


Michael Dylan Welch February 23, 2010 at 10:17 pm

In response to your comments, Allan (Burns), I agree – and already know – that English-language haiku has many examples of “dark” subjects. But I do think there could be more, and with greater range, and that certain writers could do more in such areas than they do. My point was that beauty is not the real heart of haiku, whereas, to use Hackett’s term, “lifefulness” is. This lifefulness *includes* beauty, yet goes farther than that. Also, I’m not sure I agree when Alan Summers says that “most” haiku writers will “not avoid writing something because it is not pretty or beautiful.” That claim is demonstrably true for the most accomplished haiku poets, but haiku in general tends to veer toward the beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful subjects, but less experienced poets should not assume that haiku *isn’t* about what’s not beautiful.

And I agree with Chris Patchel that yes, of course, beauty and art do go hand in hand (after all, what do we prefer to hang up on our walls?), and that writing for shock value is (in my words) often immature and superficial. I quite like your point, Chris, that subtlety is important. I believe we can still point at dark subjects with subtlety – we need not be both dark *and* blunt. Yet I also feel that we need not shy away from the violent, if that is necessary for a particular haiku. I guess the real point I’ve been trying to make is that haiku in Japan has more *range* than most haiku written in English.

Scott, you say “in its execution and expression and images indirectly alluded to, there is beauty i think. there is balance.” That “beauty” is, I would say, either the balance or the lifefulness in the poem. So sure, there’s a layer of beauty in every poem, even ones with ugly or dark subjects. And speaking of balance, the trick with haiku, and in developing the extremes of one’s range, is to find a balance between the gratuitous and the genuine. It is just as hard to write effectively about the dark as well as the light, about what is ugly as well as what is beautiful.

Merrill Ann Gonzales February 22, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Scott, That’s how I first read that poem, but the word “hacked” kept reminding me that there was more to it. Heaven only knows I’ve had to clean more fish than I care to remember….and I’ve often had to deal with something that I had just taken from the freezer and needed to cook in a hurry…but the words “hacked to pieces” would not be the kind of words I’d imagine I’d choose if I were to connote preparing food … to my sensibility they shake me awake to something much deeper… a certain cruelty.

Scott Metz February 21, 2010 at 2:57 pm

i was just rereading some of Blyth’s *A History of Haiku: Volume 2* and came across two things that reminded me of this Viral and its poem.

“Haiku need no virtue or vice, beauty or ugliness, right or wrong. ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of Sensation, and all these things shall be added unto you.’ There is nothing improper in ornamenting one’s work by means of religion or philosophy or morality or romance or superstition, provided that there is something fundamental which it ornaments, the pure sensation. Or to put the matter in another way, all the ‘thoughts that wander through eternity,’ the ‘unheard melodies,’ the ‘eternal passions, eternal pain,’ the yearning and despair, the desire for immortality, the desire for death itself are pedagogues to lead us back to the infinitely meaningful touch and smell and taste and sound and sight” (xxxi-ii).

what i return to, and find central, in regards to “the anglerfish frozen” is the huge knife (Death) required to hack the fish to pieces, since it is “frozen right down to its very bones” (conveying a life lived, a process experienced). if it is an ocean scene, then it is one where the poet is imagining the frozenness, feeling that state himself. he is using and manipulating the kigo and scenery to graft his own thoughts, imagination and feelings onto/into an image/thing. all of which conveys a kind of darkness, perhaps depression, a sense of loss; an “end.”

the sound of that big knife coming down multiple times.

if the scene is one of a kitchen, at home or in a restaurant, then i feel more of a sense of loss for freshness, as well as a longing for the ocean and its infinitude, “beauty” and constant motion—for a scene filled with a bit more airiness, freedom and openness.

and yet, there is a sense of warmth that resonates after the poem’s final cut from reality (“pieces”). what will the fish be used for? surely for sustenance, for warmth, for life. even if there is only a bit more left.

there is darkness and death, loss and longing, in this poem, but in its execution and expression and images indirectly alluded to, there is beauty i think. there is balance.

late in Blyth’s volume 2 i came across this ku, which i immediately linked to Shūson’s:

The snake is dying:
Children are talking.

—Hōsha (p201)

Blyth wrote of it: “The deep meaning of this verse lies in the absence of expressed or implied connection between the death of the snake and the conversation of the children.”

Merrill Ann Gonzales February 19, 2010 at 9:25 pm

You know, I was thinking of this haiku last night and the thought came to me that the thing that seems to give this haiku its intensity is the violence of the last line… Am I mistaken in wondering if this haiku might be a statement against gratuitous violence?

Merrill Ann Gonzales February 18, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Michael, Forgive me, I was not referring to your comments at all…I was reacting to the haiku itself. This haiku struck me as being so perfect an example of what haiku is (or seems to be to me) to be about getting to the “truth” (for want of a better word).

In no way do I believe that haiku should only be about beauty or some esthetic quality twice removed from existance.

In addition I have no opinion about the ritual at all since I have no understanding of these things. You just can’t read about ancient rites and understand the mindset. So I too was trying to understand how that fit with this haiku.

Sometimes it seems strange to me how people read what I write. Not being a word person, I have yet to understand how that happens.

My only thought about this haiku was how true it seemed to be about the poets existance. The point is that objects in this context seem to me to speak a great deal more about the poet and the fish…or at least to equate the two.

Chris Patchel February 18, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Just to play devil’s advocate I’ll note that beauty and art go hand in hand. However unpleasant the subject matter, or gritty the visuals, or discordant the notes, an artist’s rendering will have an inherent beauty which attracts even if it simultaneously repels. I think this is apparent in the many examples already given here, and any number of others we could site.

This doesn’t negate Michael’s well-stated point, of course, which is that haiku/art needn’t and shouldn’t be confined to the pretty and pleasant. Yet having said that I’m tempted to argue that it isn’t overt harshness, shock, or even passion, but rather subtlety, that has long proven to be one of haiku’s strengths. Only I haven’t thought about it long enough to decide if this argument holds up and what the reasons are, or if it’s simply a personal aesthetic that I/we have come to appreciate. I don’t think, in my case anyway, that it can be chalked up to an aversion to hard truths/realities. It’s more a matter of what haiku does and doesn’t do effectively.

Alan Summers February 18, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Fortunately most haiku writers will not avoid writing something because it is not pretty or beautiful. That viewpoint would be very limiting, and in my opinion not at all a ‘beautiful’ practice.

high noon
half a bandicoot
the flies’ hum

Alan Summers
British Haiku Society Postal Workshops Anthology 2000

scooter fall -
a boy grasps his pain
outside an art café

Alan Summers
Snapshots 9 ISSN 1461-0833 (2001)

sewer rat
breaking the water surface
its shut eye

Alan Summers
The New Haiku Snapshot Press ISBN 1-903543-03-7 (2002)
Haiku Spirit #16 Eire, (March 1999)

sultry evening
liquid from the take out bag
runs near the victim

Alan Summers
World Haiku Review Vol 2: Issue 3 (November 2002)
WHCvanguard – Hard or “Real” Haiku
Vanguard Haiku Selected by Susumu Takiguchi

street attack -
I hold the young girl
through her convulsions

Alan Summers
World Haiku Review Vol 2: Issue 3 (November 2002)
WHCvanguard – Hard or “Real” Haiku
Vanguard Haiku Selected by Susumu Takiguchi

A later version: Short Stuff a journal of ‘short form’ poetry Ninth Issue Vol. 2, Issue 1 (January 2003)

silk on skin
yellow balloons for each
boy she lost

Alan Summers
ekphrastic haiku
Writing Events Bath inspired by Phil Bebbington’s photographs
(January 2010)

Allan Burns February 17, 2010 at 7:38 pm

I appreciate the general point you’re making, Michael, and it’s certainly one worth considering. But it’s also worth pointing out that across its history, ELH can show haiku that are “dark” and that register a consciousness of violence, suffering, and death. Just consider the oeuvre of Nick Virgilio, for starters, who often wrote of death and loss.

Here’s a little “instant anthology” that shows ELH has never been *exclusively* concerned with “sweetness and light”:

the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek
increases the cold
(Nick Virgilio, Haiku West 1.1, 1967)

red flipped out
chicken lung
in a cold white sink
(Anita Virgil, A 2nd Flake, 1974)

jan. 1
the corpse of a crow whitens the snow
(Bob Boldman, Walking with the River, 1980)

overgrown pasture:
the feathered talon of a dead owl
clutching a weed stalk
(Elizabeth Searle Lamb, 39 Blossoms, 1982)

still trapped
in tangled barbed wire
antlers and bones
(Charles B. Dickson, MH 17.2, 1986)

frosty morning
the lifeless tracery
of a lacewing
(Jim Kacian, Presents of Mind, 1996)

The old grizzly
left it behind
moon in the salmon’s eye
(vincent tripi, Still 2.4, 1998)

turned earth
the splayed ribcage
of a March hare
(John Barlow, Frogpond 30.3, 2007)

wild flowers
where native blood flowed
Acoma Pueblo
(Marian Olson, Desert Hours, 2007)

white wind the eyes of the dead seal missing
(Carolyn Hall, Roadrunner, 8.1, 2008)

Just ten quickly selected examples, all of which exhibit some affinities with Shūson’s haiku. One could obviously turn up many more with systematic investigation. From the latest MH (41.1), for instance, I was struck in this connection by:

a last sun flash
off the mahogany coffin
as it sinks into earth
(Mike Dillon)

a bulimic model vomits her Halloween candy
(Burnell Lippy)

Michael Dylan Welch February 17, 2010 at 2:03 am

Thanks for the clarification on the verb use, Gabi. That suggests that the translation may have had to choose just part of the possible meaning present in the original Japanese, since it seems to have omitted or minimized how the author is feeling chilled — although that is still somewhat implied in the translation, I think.

Regardless of whether the fish is part of a ritual or not, though, my point is that the notion of hacking the fish to bits, or cutting it to pieces, is gritty, somewhat violent, and perhaps also dark. the tone of the translation certainly conveys this grittiness, and even violence. The point is that the subject is not “beautiful” — Japanese haiku is not just about cherry blossoms and bamboo.

And thus, with this example in mind, perhaps we who write haiku in English can be challenged to write with a greater variety of subjects, to write about dark and light subjects, to write of death or in the consciousness of death (duende), and to question our habits regarding subject matter — that haiku need not always be about the beautiful. One does not need to know about the ritual you refer to get this point.


Gabi Greve Japan February 17, 2010 at 12:01 am

“I used Kato Shuson’s poem as an example of something that’s deliberately not beautiful (and is even violent) ”

Well, I still can not agree with this statement, or rather, agree with it when only reading the english translation with no further knowledge about the state of the ankoo in Japanese culture.

Ankoo is not a fish like salmon or herring you buy frozen (the verb in this case would be kooru, not iteru) and cut for your dinner at home or watch our wife doing it.

The Japanese describes how the fish is cut on a cold beach (by the way, I saw this on TV just yesterday and was reminded of this discussion … talk about co-incidence). iteru … is more a feeling of coldness, as the visitor gets when standing there watching the fish hanging there in line, waiting for its fate to be cut.
The verb for the cutting does not feel as cruel as in the english version. It is just the verb used for cutting ankoo by local folks (and the TV anouncer) to describe the situation.
Please take a look at the photo in my BLOG to see the fish freezing out there.

I ventured a different translation too, to show how the author suffered with the fish during its ordeal

this angler fish
feeing chilled to the bone
is (finally) cut to pieces

“A more useful topic of discussion would seem to be what subjects are appropriate for haiku,”

Well, I said it before , any subject is apropriate for traditional Japanese haiku.



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