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Universalism vs. Particularism in International Haiku

Richard Gilbert

Published in Haiku Novine, 1999



On the cutting edge of the world-stage, international haiku is possibly the first actively global poetic form, to judge by the number of books, sites, conferences, and associations that are currently being promulgated. There are some interesting parallels between the international haiku movement and other globalizing forces, for  instance the GATT, NAFTA, and WTO (inciting world-protests, emblematic of large-scale concern), the  internet, and global media networks. In general, we are currently witnessing an increasing polarization of local vs. non-local paradigms. 

We need to consider carefully the effects of a globalization of haiku. The power of these effects can't be underestimated. On the one hand, how powerful is it, that the publication of a book like "Knots: The Anthology of Southeastern European Haiku Poetry" (US Dist.: Red Moon Press, 1999),  poems such as:

spring evening -
the wheel of a troop carrier
crushes a lizard

Anakiev Dimitar, Slovenia

moonlit lake
the muzzle of a deer
touches water

Banea Stefan, Romania

  a single stone
  protrudes from the grass -
  our former home

   Dadic Rade, Yugoslavia

give a human face, a sensitive, compassionate heart to the peoples of this region, at a time when billions are bombarded with wanton media images of killing and destruction. The poetry of "Knots" gives us, as well as many great haiku, a way of finding each other, across differences, politics, national and cultural boundaries, and these poems and essays become all the stronger tied together under the aegis of a singular, landmark publication.

One can immediately grasp the space of heart we all share. 

In terms of particulars, the most obvious particular is language. We need to further consider methods of presentation that allow us some contact with the poetic play of "local" languages (including international varieties of English), which we aren't privy to. We also face complex translation issues in works that take an international approach to haiku--thus the reader of "Knots" can all the more appreciate the elegant fluidity of the English translations--an instance of particulars universalizing so that these particulars can become available and grasped throughout the world. "Knots" is an example of achievement in international haiku that brings us a means, as multiple peoples sharing a planet together, of breaking through stereotypes and emotional remove, or simply ignorance, regarding communities, peoples and conditions typically witnessed only partially and at a great distance. 

There is a darker side of universalism as well, which I am relating with internationalism, or globalism. Now that haiku as an international phenomenon has left its nest of Japan and is permeating through the global sieve, what we stand to lose is the local. There is tension between the need to communicate to the widest possible global audience or reader, and the local particulars of language, culture, custom, season, flora, fauna, etc. We need to further examine the question of locality and particulars as we globalize, in terms of the presentation, and also the overall arena of international haiku. Especially, there are issues of commonality, in terms of communication seeking a lowest common denominator of accessible comprehensibility, with its implied detriments. To cite one of many themes, how many "foreign" (the term itself an evolving paradox) place names, artifacts, references, can or should we allow into international haiku presentations? Let's consider an example. Perhaps you are familiar with Marpa, a major icon of Tibetan culture. How should we present a haiku such as,

the moon fainter
over Marpa point -
dry grass whispers

It has been suggested to the poem's author, on more than one occasion, that he changes "Marpa" to a more universally familiar term of location, perhaps "North." This might be acceptable editorial advice within the purview of a purely Anglo/national haiku format. In fact, it has generally been an unofficial guideline to disallow terminology that is relatively unfamiliar or non-comprehensible to one's main audience. I would maintain however, that changing "Marpa" to "North" universalizes the haiku at the expense of its particularized core: an act of local culture and context. Given that the example haiku is acceptable without alteration, should the haiku be annotated? If so, how might this best be accomplished? While these considerations aren't exactly earth shattering, they are areas that may require conceptual expansion and reconsideration.

Further, one can beg the question of what haiku is. The non-local really means non-body, non-season, and non-space. This is one face of the Internet, Swatch Internet World-time (sic), and it is world trade, also, which seeks the lowest common denominator of price, and thereby blindly or carelessly abets the destruction of patterns of cultural life integral to local communities. In fact, it may be that an international poetic form, such as haiku, historically rooted in the genius of Japanese culture, is one of the few places where particulars of place, person, culture, and custom can be heard and felt directly. At its outset, the six volume "Cambridge History of  Japan" defines one of three foundational paradigms of Japanese culture as particularism, introducing their exegesis on a cautionary note: "...

Particularism stands poles apart from the universalism of such world religions as Buddhism and Christianity... at the core of this paradigm lies the old and lasting belief that every kami (even though invisible) resides in one sacred object located at one particular place (vol. 1:16)." R.H. Blyth in "A History of Haiku" vehemently argues against an aesthetic that seeks to distill universal truths from haiku particulars: "[Basho] is saying  that each thing is, not has, infinite value. There is no separation between the thing and its meaning, no finding the universal in particular natural objects or human beings (vol.1, p. 14)." Poetry in general utilizes a language of particulars, and especially in haiku we may want to pay attention to the question of preserving these manifold particulars, as haiku are "internationalized" through translation into English, uprooted (through the net and international publication) from their homelands, and modified, even commodified, to fit the contingencies of universal access.

These are issues that have existed in discussions of the English-language haiku for some time, but are now taking on an even greater importance. Because haiku come from the earth, from a particularized poetic ground wedded to an ecos of locality, wherever that locality may be, it seems timely to consider issues relating to preservation, the 'what' and 'how,' in terms of selection and presentation on the international stage.

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