Ron Silliman on Haiku 21, Jim Kacian & john martone


Ron Silliman wrote a post on English-language haiku and minimalist poetry yesterday (May 14, 2012), focusing on Haiku 21 (edited by Lee Gurga & myself), Jim Kacian’s long after, & john martone’s ksana collection.

Comments? Reactions? Thoughts?


Castor & Pollux by Chris Gordon (mixed media, 2010)

6 thoughts on “Ron Silliman on Haiku 21, Jim Kacian & john martone

  1. Interesting article with a lot of points of view to discuss.

    I picked out two aspects worth expanding on in particular:

    [1] one is on the creative side of writing haiku, and the issue of titles

    [2] the business side of haiku, and legacy.

    [1] TITLES:

    Ron Silliman had this to say on the creative side of haiku, in particular, on titles, using the example of the Haiku 21 anthology:

    “But, and this may be the oddest feature of the collection, what none of the 600+ poems here seem to have is a title.

    …it seems inconceivable to me that none of the 212 poets here can’t be doing something of interest with that big blank space above the body of the text.”

    n.b. Full quote is given at the end.

    If we can really think outside the haiku box, why is it that we so determinedly eschew titles, or even headnotes in haiku? As a haiku writer myself, I’m aware of the history and culture of haiku both in Japan and from outside that country, but Silliman has raised a good point worth debating.

    As non-Japanese practitioners of haiku move away from preconceived ideas of form, and away from the sketching from nature/haiku moment/kigo/fragment and phrase constructs that have either informed or dogged the genre, why not indeed take another step and incorporate a title for each poem?

    After all there as are two-line and four-line English-language haiku, so why not a three line haiku with a fourth line as title; or a two line haiku with a title, with space between title and haiku, and not in lower case?


    “… one of the challenges in haiku – how to build something as substantial as a book from such a short form…

    …one of haiku’s most interesting features – that its relation to the form of the book is inherently uneasy.

    Books are inherently objects of commerce. This accounts in part for why so many of those late lamented independent bookstores were abject failures at marketing and selling poetry. And it reminds me of Charles Bernstein’s observation that a blank piece of paper loses value when a poem is printed on it.”

    n.b. Full quote given at the end.

    For me, I’m afraid these come hand in hand, otherwise how is a legacy created and sustained, if kept low profile, almost to the extent of being seen as secret?

    There are those within a large body of haiku enthusiasts whose wish is not to be commercial in any shape or form. This is fine for some people, but what of the professional poet, and access to the wider poetry reading public?

    Regarding books, many haiku enthusiasts prefer just one haiku to each page, which I can understand, but I can also appreciate that many poetry readers may be left scratching their heads both for their own aesthetic appreciation, but also possibly on an environmental level, and I hate to add, on a value for money issue.

    There appears to be a dislike, disapproval, or even a worse attitude, to any individual or organisation wishing to shift and sell books, make them available to both the discerning poetry reading public, and the general public, in order to sell enough copies to recuperate their costs. At one time it was normal behaviour for a general public to read far more poetry than what happens now, and yes, haiku writers and publishers have to compete against both knowledgeable corporate publishers, and the more savvy specialist who publishes a mix of short fiction and poetry titles. Also the general public have seen a sophisticated multi-generation publicity machine that sells music; computer games; transmedia poetry and novels; strong non-quaint targeted niche genres from fiction to poetry. Literary haiku has literally been niched out or out-niched [sic] not outsourced (or offshored) in the market for a variety of reasons.

    There is often a quite naïve presumptuous attitude to books, whether creating or marketing that’s sometimes quite precious and at kilter with the wider poetry publishing industry. Haiku publishers are in danger of being seen as so quaint as not worth investing into.

    I often come against silence, or worse, when I mention to fellow haiku or tanka writers that Machi Tawara sold around 2.5 million copies of her first tanka collection. What is so wrong with a poet being appreciated by a wider, and often, discerning public? We can’t be both invisible and visible at the same time.

    Coming back to Silliman’s comments about haiku and its relationships to books, but in relation to legacy this time, where are the next haiku equivalents of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, or the Michael Schmidts of haikai literature bringing out The Great Modern Haiku Poets: An anthology of the best poets and poetry since 1900?

    It’s a fine ambition to bring out books about possible definitive or developing 21st Century haiku, but where is the successor to the ground-breaking The Haiku Anthology (also a Norton book) last brought out, I believe, in 2000, as a third edition, from selections up to 1996, possibly 1997?

    Where is a big tome which can encompass the best English-language translation versions of Classic, Modern and Contemporary Japanese haiku; the development of English-language haiku (at least) from early 20th century into the first decade of the 21st century, including a section given over to gendai and other styles?

    And most importantly, in tandem, a book that has a distribution deal to get it out to chain stores and supermarket chains, as well as independent booksellers and other non-bookshops which give over a section to books, so what many of us consider good examples of haiku, and not pseudo haiku are commonplace on bookshelves, both virtual and physical?

    If we don’t look to a legacy, which benefits all of us who have put so much time and effort, pieces of our soul and craft, will many of us forever be forever seen and condemned as exotic and quaint haiku enthusiasts and hobbyists?

    Are serious haiku writers not of the same cut of the cloth as those recognised at; Poetry Society of America; Poetry Society (U.K.); PN Review; Poetry Review; and American equivalents?

    I visit bookshops, both virtually and physically, on a regular basis, studying what is on the bookshelves for the two main genres I’m interested in, which are haikai literature (and tanka); and children’s fiction. J K Rowling really shook up the children’s fiction market, but we’ve seen nothing like that since The Haiku Anthology first came out. Look at any well stocked poetry section and see how many haiku books are of literary merit; and now many big name publishers include accurate and not outdated misguided definitions and examples of haiku.

    I hope that there is a publication project already in hand to address these concerns, and that many of us don’t need to have these concerns for much longer. Haiku outside Japan has come a long way from the various decades throughout the 20th century, and this could be the time, in the next ten years, for a consolidation of what has gone before: Perhaps with an awe-inspiring volume (or two volumes, or more) that we haven’t seen since R.H. Blyth.

    Full Quotes:

    But, and this may be the oddest feature of the collection, what none of the 600+ poems here seem to have is a title. If haiku as a genre is going through a period of opening up (not unlike how the sonnet opened up after Ted Berrigan got his hands on the form), that one rule should become so dominant makes my brow furrow. It’s true, no doubt, that a title functions as an extra – and often decisive – move. Consider “Station at the Metro” without that title. Yet it seems inconceivable to me that none of the 212 poets here can’t be doing something of interest with that big blank space above the body of the text.
    Some of the poems here, such as Marlene Mountain’s
    out of nowhere isn’t
    are as good as anything I’ve read this century, regardless of genre. But, as is somewhat often the case in this collection, that poem becomes smaller & less interesting the longer you consider it, the instant you realize that it’s not the fragment it first promises.

    … one of the challenges in haiku – how to build something as substantial as a book from such a short form – by running the translations first in Italian (by Alessandra Gallo, Antonella Filippi & Pietro Tartamella, all of Cascina Macondo), then in German (by Dietmar Tauchner, Ruth Franke & Peter Meister) on each page (also three versions of the author’s note, Gilbert’s introduction and an acknowledgements page). Thus a volume that could have been printed monolingually at 60 pages comes in just under 180. It’s a creative resolution to a problem that reveals one of haiku’s most interesting features – that its relation to the form of the book is inherently uneasy. The practice of the poem – and I can’t think of a haiku author for whom this isn’t true – comes very much out of the individual’s daily living in the world. Books are inherently objects of commerce. This accounts in part for why so many of those late lamented independent bookstores were abject failures at marketing and selling poetry. And it reminds me of Charles Bernstein’s observation that a blank piece of paper loses value when a poem is printed on it.

    Alan Summers

  2. I think you’ll find some of the answers to your questions online by searching under the Post-Modern Condition by Jean-Francois Lyotard (who coined the term post-modernism and worked with Jacques Derrida). It is a matter of the exteriorization and computerization of knowledge.
    Since, perhaps the 19th C., when didactic poetry was no longer valued, value as such exchange-value was no longer inherently a part of poetry. Poetry took on an otherworldly character-the individual genius of the Romantic Era.
    Also, I think Silliman’s point about the vast number of poets represented in the Penguin series by Rita Dove and the number in Haiku 21 completely misunderstands the relationship and defining characteristic of our age- dessemination and retention of information. Earlier ages did not have the technology to keep so many poets (that, of course, is one reason). In a thousand years, how many will be read of any century?

  3. As an aside, some of the discussions of the Language Poets, in which they refer to the words in poems as signifieds without signifiers is absolutely absurd and bating the French philosphical/philological tradition. There are no signifieds without signifiers-words are not bound ideas, things, that Language Poetry tries to make of them.
    And, they write unmemorable poems. Perhaps mnemonics is unimportant to their print bound consciousness; their poems have no connection whatever to the aural/oral tradition of poetry.
    Commercialism has taken over publication and bookstores-large multi-national corps now own publishing houses, thus diminishing what would be published and in turn destroying the small bookstore-they’re all gone in NYC where before there were thousands along 2nd Ave.

  4. Personally, in the past 5 or 6 months I have written 8 or 9 interviews and/or critical analyses of haiku books. They offer no disadvantage as books because of brevity.
    If anything, I think they should be shorter, because there is a good deal of repetition in the outlook of each; so many variations on a theme.
    What I think is needed is shorter and more books by authors.
    As they change insights and styles, a new book is in order. Not putting everything they’ve written over years in one book. It becomes tedious because they have not changed, not given themselves time to change.
    Just think of the artist of the 20th Century; re=creation of oneself was the goal: Picasso was the champion.

  5. For now I’ll confine my remarks to the first part of Silliman’s blogpost regarding Haiku 21.
    Of course it’s somewhat refreshing to read the views of a poet who is not, strictly speaking, part of the “haiku community”, though who has certainly been in touch with the work of minimalists and maximilists alike. He includes haiku, at least inferentially, in the broader field of minimalist poetry, at least insofar as he regards all such poetry as requiring the poet’s (and reader’s) complete attention. Though it may seem obvious, it is an important observation. Though he is not specific about it, he seems to be saying that this attention needs to focus on sound as well as on semantics. To me, this locates haiku more squarely in the field, not only of minimalist poetry, but of poetry in general, than its practitioners often credit.

    Several of his points or observations leave me wishing for a more detailed or in-depth look at what’s been happening in haiku over the last decade or more. We need someone of Silliman’s stature, someone outside the “haiku community”, to write such a piece for *Poetry*, perhaps using *Haiku 21* as a starting point. When he says: “As more haiku poets become aware of other, sympatico modes of writing, the range of what’s possible has extended. This is Haiku 21’s core message . . .” I quite agree, but I want to hear more about what those sympatico modes are and how they have expanded the range– especially from an “outside” perspective.

    Similarly, when he says that Marlene Mountain’s

    out of nowhere isn’t

    is “as good as anything I’ve read this century . . .” I want to know more. I should add, though, that it baffles me that after making such a statement he also says the “poem becomes smaller & less interesting the longer you consider it, the instant you realize that it’s not the fragment it first promises”. So the one statement seems to negate the other, but beyond that, I’m very curious to know what a “fragment” promises, what would be an example of a fragment that does fulfill its promise, and so on. Its not that I can’t imagine into such things, I just don’t know quite what Silliman means, and I would like to know.

    That said, I realize that what he has written is a blogpost and not a major review. I think it’s just that having been giving a juicy bite, for which I’m grateful, I want the whole fruit. Or at least 2 or 3 more bites.


    Ron Silliman’s response to Haiku 21, Long After, and Ksana isn’t really about these texts themselves, or even about the situation of contemporary haiku, it’s about Silliman himself and his apparent insecurities about his own place in some arbitrary legitimate canon of poetry. So much for a guy who advocates for the Disappearance of the Author.

    Titles? Talk about missing the point. Next time I write a review about a collection of sonnets I’ll question why none of them are 30 lines long. When I have a chance to remark upon a book of prose poems I’ll lament that none of them are written in Doric Trimeter. Language Poems? Where’s the story? Oh, that’s right, the story’s about the author’s unique ideosemantic response to their ontological situation. The more I know about the poet, the more I’ll understand their unique creation. See you in two hundred years.

    The fragment is portable, mixable, accessible, inconspicuous, durable, vague.

    In his introduction, which encompasses a good part of his review, Silliman talks a lot about poets who have nothing to do with haiku. In fact these are poets, who coincidentally like Silliman, write “Long Poems,” magni opi, poems that go on for pages and pages and justify, apparently, the creation of substantial books, which are eminently more marketable than small, sparse texts, such as John Martone disburses on a regular basis, their constant flow unassumingly seeding the world of their fortunate recipients. Silliman himself considers his entire oeuvre a single text, something he calls Ketjak. His text, by the way, is bigger than yours.

    Silliman wishes Haiku 21 was focused on individual authors, but in relation to this particular text, only provides examples of haiku by four of the poets involved, and only two of the poets he identifies as “major practitioners.” Jim Kacian and John Martone, to be fair, get their due in time.

    My name is Chris Gordon and I’m an addict. I’ve been making things every day for the last 30 years. It’s 10 minutes since I had my last text, seconds since I had my last image. I do this because I have to. I tell myself it’s not a choice. I can’t live without it. It’s necessary. That’s for my sponsor to comment on. I don’t have a book. I don’t have an ISBN. I don’t even have a bank account. What I do have is the interest and respect of a few other people with similar afflictions. My peers. This is all I need. It’s my most precious resource.

    Jim’s collection is valid only because it’s translated into two other languages. This makes for a substantial book. John’s collection is valid only because it doesn’t seem like “haiku,” even though that’s what he thinks it is.

    Let’s stop worrying about what people who don’t care about or understand what we’re doing think about what we’re doing. Me, I’m going to start writing “Fisherman Poetry.” First, though, I’m going to have to learn how to fish.

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