by Robert D. Wilson
It's not easy to find a haiku poet today whose poetry embodies Basho's admonition: "Follow the zoka, return to the zoka." Most of what is passed off as haiku today is Imagist free verse claiming to be the new haiku in touch with the now, only the now is then, and the people writing the poetry follow teachers who rarely post their poetry on the web except when one of theirs has won an award. They say kigo isn't necessary, and therefore, not the heart of a haiku. They say it's the "haiku moment" that's the heart of a haiku. The "haiku moment" is an invent of Kenneth Yasuda and R.H. Blyth, who believed falsely that haiku is a Zen Buddhist literary genre. Nowhere in the teachings of Basho and his disciples, is this "haiku moment" mentioned; in fact, Basho wrote some of the haiku for his travel diaries before he went on treks across Japan into zoka's bosom. The "haiku moment" was very popular with the Beats and later, the flower children, who have since become deflowered, as it advocated a NOW mindset that didn't take much time or effort: go there, be there, close your eyes, follow the march hare down the rabbit hole into the White Rabbit's lair. Flow, go, and make up the rules as you go along, don't listen to the red queen, sit at the feet of the Cheshire Cat, and you'll be ten feet tall.
Enter Ted Van Zutphen, a poet born and raised in the Netherlands when it was still called Holland, then moved as an adult to the United States where he married and raised his children. Most of the good haiku poets I encounter today didn't learn their art in a university or from an online Captain This or a Commander That. They see haiku as a path instead of a hobby . . . The mystical dao of poetry Shotetsu and other Japanese master poets traveled on in the cerebral cortexes of their minds and urged others to follow as well. The old masters and those today who aren't lazy observe the zoka with empty minds free of subjectivity, not concerned with two-dimensional objects they enclosed in imaginary picture frames borrowed from the Hallmark Card Company. Haiku become multiple-dimensional when one convenes with the zoka in the writing of a haiku and makes use of aesthetic tools that unearth the unsaid, yugen (depth and mystery), and other styles that breathe breath into a poem the essence music from the Zhuangzi's pipes of heaven.
van Zutphen knows haiku is not the object-biased Imagist free verse called Modern American Haiku. Instead, he writes activity-biased haiku concerned with the process, the always changing, unpredictable zoka that creates, deconstructs, reconstructs in an endless continuum of time that's not limited to Zen Buddhist thought or the concrete two-dimensional Anglo- Western mindset that places humankind above nature. Humankind destroys, nature sculpts, transforms, and doesn't follow the latest trends.
in ancient tongues . . .
waves: not an object as it’s liquid air, each wave its own creation, part
of a symbiotic dance with the wind and tides.
speaking: an action verb AND a descriptive modifier using
personification to set the stage for an in-depth look at the zoka
sculpting waves superior to anything a human can sculpt, a
living, endless string of haiku that's ageless, continuous, and
ancient tongues: an action word used as an allegory indicating that
the sea is not dead, and sings its own song; a term used in
the New Testament Book of Acts, glossallia, called the
language of angels, spoken in prayer, when a follower of
Jesus Christ is filled with God’s Holy Spirit.
spring morning: a season indicator and the time of day; a kigo
reference when used in the right context. Too many today
think kigo are nature words instead of that which brings life
into a haiku, celebrating and emulating the creative power of
nature. The reason people in the Anglo-West think this way,
as do many Japanese, is due to a shared German-based
university system that defines aesthetics, the arts, literature,
social science, and philosophy with a language ill-equipped
to fathom and describe Eastern thought. Japan was colonized
when it adopted this university system that still prevails in
van Zutphen's haiku is a process (activity)-biased poem that leaves room for a continuum of interpretations. Re-read it a couple times.
the spring sun
in its depths
Again, van Zutphen's haiku, an activity-biased haiku (is there any other kind?) takes readers on a journey concerned with change created by the zoka.
mountain: something that cannot be picked up or studied in a
laboratory; an object only if one considers the earth
to be a single object. Is this planet living or non-living
organic matter? Is science capable of making such a
the spring sun: a season indicator. The sun is not a tangible object
nor has anyone done anything more than make scientific
theories as to what the sun is or isn’t.
Read this a few times. van Zutphen juxtaposes line one with lines two and three to form an amazing, living activity-biased haiku. As a reader it is your job to finish the poet's haiku with your own interpretation. What does this haiku say to you? Notice the focus of this poem is the creative power of nature, the zoka. A kigo only becomes a kigo in the proper context.
Read the rest of these gems with the zoka in mind. This is real haiku: relevant, activity-biased, and deep.
oh rock …
how long will it take
to wear you down?
your presence pierces
misty morning -
the dogwood blooms
willow branches reach
for their roots
the wall between us
brick by brick
the red river flows
into its past
tidal moon -
where does the sun rise
hiding moon -
still the bloodstains
on his hands
morning dew . . .
your words filling
Ted van Zutphen grew up in the Netherlands, lived and raised his family in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he observed life through the windshield of a bus for 32 years. Since his retirement last year he has been studying and writing haiku and other Japanese short form poetry. He now travels the US in his small RV, visiting family and friends, while experiencing the endless beauty, hope and despair of this country. Previously published in Notes from the Gean, haijinx and Simply Haiku.