Frogpond Haiku Journal, 31:3
Haiku Society of America
Winter 2008, pp. 67-70.
Richard Gilbert's Poems of Consciousness represents the first voice in Anglo-American haiku criticism to bring to an international readership democracy instead of authority. This anti-dogmatic book tears down the prejudices which have been built up and culminated over decades of English-language haiku theory. In this work the genre is rescued from overly complex ideologies and refreshed by concepts inspired by simple and common poetic truths.
In what way has this been possible? Gilbert's point of departure for this book is not that of cultural differences — which for many decades has made of international haiku a Procrustean bed — but rather the work is rooted in a common poetic ground which liberates and demystifies Japanese haiku. The author, a poet himself living in Kumamoto for over a decade, in seeking the truth of Japanese haiku has avoided the tutorship of known ideological concepts, through discussions with and translations of contemporary poets. A number of crucial elements concerning poetry, genre, poetic names, artistic secrets, terminology and the life of haiku poets in Japan are revealed.
The answers discovered, among them the most important principles in Japanese haiku, are shown to be surprisingly well-known and common to poets and poetry from all parts of the world: the power of poetic language (kotodama), the importance of rhythm and mythology, the associated meanings of words (the 'true' intention of words), ellipsis in expression (katokoto), licentia poetica in the interpretation of genre, and nearly all topics pertaining to haiku poetics in Japan are some of the most important key-points in these exciting conversations. Gilbert is capable of putting the reader into the very heart of haiku and offers a spiritual understanding of its core, which enables the reader to feel immediately familiar — it becomes possible to comprehend the heart of haiku from ancient times to the present. The multi-focal documentary method is convincing and intimate to the reader.
Along with the revolutionary approach of letting Japanese poets speak for themselves about their poetry, in what is in my opinion the most important aspect of the book, Gilbert successfully adds his own unique critical contributions and corpus of translated haiku poems.
Poems of Consciousness has found its inspiration in authentic documentary material (a DVD with subtitled video interviews, included with the book, makes it possible for each reader to hear the living voices of Japanese poets!), scientific work, quotations from major critical works, and informal conversations — these are important subjects for haiku. The book is pioneering in many ways, including its multi-dimensional concept and postmodern atmosphere.
The first goal of the book has been overcoming the provincialism in understanding Japanese haiku, and haiku in general. It has been in this direction that the author has put most of his efforts. Due to this overarching goal, perhaps certain significant aspects of the work are not readily apparent at first glance, for instance the excellent translation work — a result of a cross-cultural, collaborative team-effort. As an example, I would like to focus on a poem of Hoshinaga Fumio which has impressed me, both for its poetic qualities and its expert translation:
ika hakka aka-deka hôka kinsenka
Surprisingly simple, this poem opens a complex field for the interpretation and analysis of rhythm, mythology, style and philosphical context. The most interesting detail is a technical phrase used by the poet: “red-detective.” It seems to be a “deconstructed” (in the manner of Jacques Derrida) term of “rebel” coined by the poet as a means of visually signifying and covering a "gap" in the narrative logic. Such deconstructed terms in the poetry of Hoshinaga Fumio open new levels for interpretation and, along with strong dispersion of the poem created by numerous caesuras (“uncovered gaps,” disjunctions), creates a very specific poetic language. Such subtleties are to be found in the translations of Gilbert & team, presented in the book.
Among the many interesting haiku topics discussed by Japanese poets — bringing new light to many of the persistant dogmas Western haiku — this book offers a new conceptual and terminological footing to the Western reader with a spiritual insight, given by Gilbert and his collaborators. The work also brings a new understanding to the broadly discussed haiku technique of kire (caesura) miraculously opening its exotic curtain, thereby allowing this profound concept to be seen anew as a universal tool inherent in any language.
As a part of a broader re-coding of culturally specific terminology into common meanings, this is perhaps the most important scientific contribution to a cross-cultural knowledge in poetry from the birth of such studies. As a poet, Gilbert, in Poems of Consciousness is able to separate poetic and cultural elements and treat haiku from a universal point of view.
Addressing another of the most significant issues in haiku, the kigo (seasonal reference) is discussed, moving it from the realm of the poetic field into the arena of culture, Gilbert has here performed a final step in understanding haiku as a poetry existing beyond cultural differences. Via paradox, the role of haiku is broadened, keeping alive twinned possibilities: practicing haiku as a pure form of poetry and practicing Japanese culture through the poetry.
Along with the author's authentic scientific interest and his poetic needs there is no doubt that Poems of Consciousness is also the result of a collective frustration, broadly speaking, in the practice of international haiku, which only in the last decade has faced numerous obstacles, as it has been rooted mainly in an established cultural politics which treats haiku as a kind of conceptual hostage. I am positive that haiku, liberated from such tutorship, as with any poetry, can only provide an aid to cultural exchange and cultural richness. Perceiving haiku as a cornucopia of poetic and cultural democracy, Gilbert's voice, established in Poems of Consciousness, speaks in the name of these efforts — this work is a founding stone of the genre of International haiku, a genre located beyond conceptual and cultural differences. This is why the great achievements of the book are not the last word in understanding haiku but rather a new and exciting begining of a coming haiku era.
Let me also stress here: International haiku is not a name for a new concept in haiku but the result of democratic practice, which began its official life as a form of organization in the Tolmin Haiku Conference 2000, and has now found its theoretical footing in Gilbert's work, and its real home in the democratic haiku practice of the Kumamoto poetic circle. It is my great hope that the democratic practice of International haiku will become more influental, at both the national and international level.
It is my great hope that the democratic practice of International haiku will become more influental, at both the national and international level. As with most great works, Poems of Consciousness, a book which operates at a large scale of meaning, is at the same time familiar and intimate to the reader, speaking as modestly as haiku poetry itself: from the hearts of authors and poets. This achievment makes the mission of the book a mission of poetry: a gift of freedom.