Review by Robert D. Wilson
R.H. Blyth, the man most responsible for introducing haiku to the West, as flawed as his theories were, did the Anglo-Western English-language literary world a great favor by authoring several books on haiku during an era when little was available in the English language regarding this genre given reluctantly to the world when the United States forced the Emperor and his Court to open up its borders to the Anglo-West. Accurate translations were limited, English language study of the genre was in its infancy, and what was known of it was explained via the German-based university system that understood Japanese aesthetics terms differently than Japan, whose language lacked definitions for many of the terms, including the term “aesthetics.” By adapting the German-based university system, much of what was made available to scholars and experts in the field were explained via the subjugation of the Japanese language by the West that used the same German-based university system Japan had adopted. It has been said, that the country or countries that control language control the world. The adoption of this Western educational system turned Japanese haiku upside down until today, when both English language and Japanese language haiku sound too much alike for it to be a coincidence.
The late 1880's and the early 1900's was a time of pivotal change through the known world. It was the transition between pre-industrial society and the birth of the modern age. It was a difficult change and it entailed a change in attitudes as well. Attitudes and prejudices aren't changed overnight when they are solidly infused in a people's ethnical-socio memory. Racism continued into the 1980's and is prevalent today, though more covertly. Likewise, the status of women has been elevated in modern society but still exists in regards to company positions and the rate of pay, and what is said about women in the company of males. America has yet to elect a female president. The terms: woman driver, stupid bitch, and she's on the rag, are commonly used by men of all classes of breeding.
Wrote R.H. Blyth in A History of Haiku, Volume one:
"Haiku poetesses are only fifth class."
As an Anglo-Western, Blyth was exposed to bigotry towards women at birth as were Japanese males in their culture. Such bigotry hasn't gone way, but at least in the 21st century, it is being slowly challenged and changed thanks to the writings of feminist writers and researchers.
Matsuo Basho, wrote Makoto Ueda in his book, Beyond the Field, is credited with saying:
"Never befriend a woman who writes haiku. Don't take her either as a teacher or as a student . . . in general men should associate with women only for the sake of securing an heir."
(Cited in Kawashima, Joyru haijin, 6)
If Blyth or Basho were alive today and had the opportunity to talk with and read haiku by Svetlana Marisova, who passed away this year at the young age of 21, they never would have written such drivel. Marisova is the 21st century's first English-language haiku master. Her poetry is superior to any haiku written by poets in English or Japanese today, male or female.
Japanese haiku is activity- (koto, process) biased, adhering to a metrical schemata giving rhythm to an atonal language. Use of the S/L/S meter gives haiku a definitive beat that can be sung as well as spoken, in English and Japanese.
Haiku is a short poem limited to an economy of words. To say much in a short poem limited to 17 onji in Japan and less than 15 syllables in the Anglo-English language, requires skill, imagination, and tools used to extract what isn't said, in a way that enables a reader to interpret haiku lines from a scope broader than the words written down. The poet's job is to compose the haiku and the informed reader's job is to interpret the haiku according to his or her own cultural memory, education, experience, and subjective analysis. It is for this reason that most modern haiku is not true haiku. A haiku cannot be object- (mono, subjective) biased in that it stifles the voice of the unsaid. Subjectivity in a haiku robs the readers of his own genuine interpretation.
Most important to the composition of a haiku is a solid understanding of kigo and zoka. A poem cannot be a haiku without this understanding, an understanding that has been seriously diluted by Japan's adoption of a university system whose language was used to translate the Bible. Haiku is not nature poetry nor seasonal poetry. It is based, as Basho said, on the creative spirit of nature's interaction with zoka, our sensei, whose students we are. Nature has been around before humankind existed, yet many Anglo-Western poets overlook this, believing they are superior to other life forms.
The book I am reviewing, Be Still and Know, contains the haiku of Svetlana Marisova interspersed with haiku written by her online soul-mate, Ted van Zutphen, himself an excellent haiku poet. They met on the Internet and began to share and write haiku together forming an eternal bond. This book is not an exchange of love-notes, nor a responsive stream of consciousness. It's much stronger than this.
Though close, the two never met each other in person, but to them it felt as if they had. They come from different backgrounds with different cultural memories. Ted grew up in Holland, but lives in the U.S and Svetlana, a Russian by birth, lived in New Zealand from her early teens until her death.
the night thick with
Svetlana wrote this as she feared the return of an earlier brain tumor. Cancer sometimes will take its sweet time, coming, ebbing, coming again, and in Marisova's case, it did return. She was hallucinating on a summer night as if she had taken a dose of datura, a poisonous weed used by some indigenous tribes in religious rites to induce hallucinations. If used wrong or given to the wrong person, they will die an ugly death and suffer from hallucinations that make the best horror movie look like Alice in Wonderland.
Marisova was a fighter and refused to let the cancer and pain stop her from writing what I believe to be the finest haiku written since Issa. Fortunately, she didn't have to face the task of writing her poetry alone.
Ted van Zutphen, her on-line friend, was drawn into her world, and not by chance. Ted turned out to be an excellent haiku poet, one of the best.
He encouraged Marisova as she encouraged van Zutphen. The more they wrote, the closer they became, almost thinking what the other was thinking. The body of haiku produced from this symbiotic union is second to none, and I predict the poetry in this book will be remembered for centuries to come.
a doe's breath dissolves
into the mist
It hurt van Zutphen to see his soul-mate in such pain, and still insist on composing haiku, studying haiku, coupled with many hours of prayer and the study of God's Word. His haiku took on a voice he'd never used before and the result is symbiotic and totally in tune with Svetlana.
Poetry is a language few speak well or understand. It is a language prose cannot speak, a languages spoken by the subconscious mind. Like zoka, nature's creative, unpredictable spirit, what is said can be unpredictable. The mind is complex and no two people think alike.
With haiku, a poet's subconscious mind joins together with the conscious mind and collectively enter the sacred halls of zoka. This is why a haiku cannot be object- (mono, subjective) biased. The composition of a true haiku is the combination of three distinct parts (a poetic trinity) that defies explanation and Anglo-Western logic.
Instinctively Marisova and van Zutphen tapped into this realm. Marisova said I was her mentor, but I believe God was her mentor, and I was used to guide her in a small way. Ted's role was much greater. He believed in Marisova more than he believed in himself, encouraging her to continue when it would have been easier to give up and be with her maker. In essence, they grew whole as human beings through this short union; a wholeness they may never have found without the other. They both had an impish sense of humor, chatting online, by e-mail, messaging, whenever they could connect, laughing, crying, dreaming, feeding one another ideas, musing each other, building each other's self confidence on the way and helping each other to discover their poetic voice.
winter night . . .
in the hermitage
red winds . . .
an angel's trumpet,
Ted van Zutphen
rose petals ---
of your silence
Svetlana Marisova and Ted van Zutphen are truly soul-mates. And I use the 'are' on purpose rather than the expected 'were.' Through the magic of haiku and laughter, they formed a bond that created two outstanding poets who affected the lives of many for the good, and continue to do so via their words and spirits, to set a standard for other haiku poet to aspire to without being identical halves of a mush melon.
- Robert D. Wilson (Reprinted from Simply Haiku Autumn 2011/Winter 2012)
winter night . . .