Haiku an Art of Discovery

David G. Lanoue talks with Angelika Wienert


Angelika Wienert: Haiku-writers, haiku-readers all over the world know the haiku novels written by David G. Lanoue (Haiku Guy; Laughing Buddha; Dewdrop World; Issa Cup-of-Tea-Poems; Pure Land Haiku …), your impressive Issa-archive. After all these years of literary work about Issa what would you say about the importance of Issa’s poetry for the haiku-poets today?

David G. Lanoue: Issa is a shining example to poets today both in how he lived and how he wrote. Haiku, for Issa was a full-time job. He remained alert and receptive – day after day, night after night – to the present moment and its myriad revelations. Leaving behind him over 20,000 haiku, Issa should inspire even the laziest of poets to take out pen and paper … and write.

He is also a good example in that he doesn’t self-censor, he finds poetry (and humor) in moments that others would look past.

uguisu ya hako made kami ni tsutsumaruru

nightingale –
even his shit
gets wrapped in paper

Some might not think that the disposal of a caged nightingale’s droppings is appropriate for poetry, but not Issa. His vision of haiku is broad and all-embracing, going way beyond „acceptable“ topics such as cherry blossoms and the moon.

Angelika Wienert: Haiku-poetry is deep connected with Zen for many Western poets. The influence of Shin-Buddhism (Pure Land Buddhism) is widely unknown. How deep is in your opinion the connection betweeen Issa`s religious believe (Pure Land Buddhism) and his poems?

David G. Lanoue: Very deep! Deep enough, that I wrote a book about it (“Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa”). In it, I show that many aspects of Issa’s Pure Land faith had an impact on his haiku. For now, I’ll just mention one: trust. In Pure Land Buddhism, the believer must trust utterly in the „Other Power“ of Amida Buddha to bring about his or her salvation: rebirth in the Western Paradise or Pure Land. Even dying blossoms must learn to trust:

tada tanome hana wa hara-hara ano tôri

simply trust!
cherry blossoms trickling

Enlightenment is a gift from a power that lies beyond calculation and self-effort. To understand Issa’s art, substitute the word „haiku“ for „enlightenment“ in the previous sentence.

Angelika Wienert: Most Western haiku-poets have no Buddhist background, they are rooted in Christian traditions, Western philosophies. Is this fact for you more a handicap or an opportunity for a special Western haiku-way?

David G. Lanoue: I believe that the way of haiku – not the Eastern way, not the Western way, but simply the way of haiku, the global way … – invites us to overcome (if we have it) the handicap of Western, linear thinking; whether that thinking is religious (Genesis to Apocalypse) or scientific (cause to effect). Haiku isn’t about linear logic. It’s about discovering and accepting connections that exist beyond the grasp of reason.

hamaguri no gomi wo hakasuru tsukiyo kana

the clam vomits
mud …
a moonlit night

There’s no logical cause-and-effect connection between the mud-spitting clam and the shining moon, but that connection, in this haiku, is profound: felt in the heart more than understood by the brain. Issa opens himself to the moment, trusts in the moment … and the haiku is born.

Angelika Wienert: Some traditionalists say that topics as war, terrorism, sex etc. are taboos in the haiku-world. What do you think about this opinion?

David G. Lanoue: Again, my answer is guided by the example of Issa. With his trusting openness to whatever the moment has in store, there can be no self-censorship, no taboos.

rusu ni suru zo koi shite asobe io no hae

while I’m away
enjoy the lovemaking
hut’s flies

Like Issa, I view haiku as an art of discovery. I don’t set about to write a haiku with a crystal-clear idea of what it will say. Instead, I discover what the haiku will say in the process of writing it. I surprise myself, by trusting (as Issa recommends) in the universe, without and within, including an „Other Power“ that dwells beyond conscious control. My conscious mind collaborates with this creative, revelatory power. Therefore, as long as I am finding out something new about war, terrorism, or sex; an interesting haiku might emerge. But if I’m not discovering, but only preaching my pre-existing political or sexual ideas, then my haiku will be empty, didactic, and, worst of all, boring.

Angelika Wienert: For some traditionalists humor has no place in haiku at all, they distinguish strictly between haiku and senryu. In the net I found your poem:

sculpture garden
Hercules’ penis

Would you place this poem into the haiku or the senryu-corner or do you agree with the English haiku-poet David Cobb that haiku and senryu are very much in touch today?

David G. Lanoue: My understanding of senryu is that it was, originally, a satirical verse form that poked fun at specific targets. If this is true, senryu is a conscious attack, a showing off of one’s wit and verbal prowess, not a poetry of discovery. In this way, it’s very different from haiku. I once had a poem published in one of the Red Moon Press anthologies under the heading, „Senryu“:

the old priest dines
his wine
just wine

I would label this a haiku, because when I began writing it, I had no clear idea of what I would discover. Also, I wasn’t making fun of the priest; I had no preconceived satirical purpose. I was simply absorbing the scene, spying on the priest from my own table in an Italian restaurant, and writing what emerged from the collaboration of my brain (conscious control, craft) and my heart (the „Other Power“, deep feeling). The reader might chuckle at the image of a priest washing down his spaghetti with ordinary wine rather than the blood of Christ he might have drunk that morning at Mass, but the feeling of the poem, I think, runs deeper. It evokes Bashô’s  sabi: the loneliness of life in the world.

I love humor in haiku. Maybe that’s why I became a translator of Issa. He writes:

uma no he ni fuki-tobasareshi hotaru kana

blown away
by the horse’s fart

This is a haiku, not a senryu. Issa isn’t writing a witty satire; he’s not making fun of the poor firefly. Instead, he’s opening himself to the moment and capturing its surprise. Haiku is a poetry of feeling. Sometimes that feeling is sad, sometimes happy … sometimes hilarious.

Angelika Wienert: Shiki’s shasei had and has a strong influence on Western haiku. Is truthfulness only possible when a poet describes reality? What do you think about fiction in haiku?

David G. Lanoue: If by „fiction in haiku“ you mean something that the poet has not actually experienced, something imagined, I think this is OK, as long as the haiku reveals truth in a way that feels like immediate experience. Issa wrote this haiku in his home province of Shinano in 1822:

daibutsu no hana kara detaru tsubame kana

from the great bronze
Buddha’s nose …
a swallow!

He was hundreds of kilometers from the Great Buddha statues at Kamakura and Nara, so he must have either remembered the scene, or, what I believe is more likely, invented it. Either way, the haiku is a great one, because it reveals the truth of the universe. And, it’s written in a way that makes us feel that we are „right there,“ seeing the action unfold: the great, ponderous statue sneezing out a bird. It doesn’t matter whether this „really“ happened or not. It’s real.

If by „fiction“ you mean unreal topics, such as, for example, vampires, I can imagine that a good vampire haiku is possible, but only if the poet discovers something about the truth of life while writing it. But if one’s vampire haiku  is merely a conscious contrivance – not an encounter with the real universe revealing part of its truth in the moment – it won’t be a haiku at all, in my opinion.

Angelika Wienert: Haiku is traditionally a genre with a strong seasonal reference. How do you qualify haiku without kigo? Do you agree with Kacian and others that kigo and / or keywords work in haiku?

David G. Lanoue: When I’m writing haiku in a traditional mode, I include a seasonal reference. When I’m not writing in a traditional mode, I don’t include a season word. I see no reason to muddy the waters with a new category: the so-called „keywords“ that poets like Ban’ya Natsuishi are putting forth. Instead of inventing a new, Byzantine system of keywords, and thus inviting the inevitable, endless argument over which words to include and which to leave out; why don’t we just keep it simple and say: (1) traditional haiku has a season word; (2) non-traditional haiku has no season word? My definition of haiku embraces both its traditional and non-traditional forms, so long as the haiku (as I’ve said already, sorry for repeating myself!) is a quest of discovery into the truth of the universe where the conscious mind collaborates with an „Other Power“ of imagination and deep feeling.

Angelika Wienert: There are various haiku-contests, weekly, monthly or quarterly selections in haiku-magazines, and in the net. Some poets think that this causes an inflation of haiku. Do you think that all these contests, selections reduce the quality of the genre haiku?

David G. Lanoue: Looking at the world as a whole, there aren’t enough haiku. Just today, I was at the post office, mailing copies of my new book, “Haiku Wars”. The postal worker mentioned that she had majored in literature in college, so I asked her: „Do you know what a haiku is?“ She had no idea. The proliferation of haiku magazines and contests is a good thing in that they improve the chances that my postal worker might one day encounter haiku and discover its beauty. However, it’s up to editors and contest judges to see to it that a broad spectrum of haiku gets published. Don’t keep publishing the same haiku, over and over! Artists need to take chances; so must editors and judges.

Thanks for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers.


Link to the Issa-Archiv


Ersteinstellung: 08.02.2006