A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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page 5    

Where the River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English-Language Haiku,
edited by Allan Burns

reviewed by Hamish Ironside

book cover

Where the River Goes -
Ed. by Allan Burns
Snapshot Press,
Hardback, 479pp, 2013
$45 / 30 Euros / £20 in UK
from Snapshot Press
ISBN 978-1-903543-36-8

Where the River Goes appears five years after Wing Beats, Snapshot Press’s anthology of haiku featuring British bird species, and the new book is packaged similarly to the earlier volume, as though a kind of companion. The first thing that should be said about both Where the River Goes and Wing Beats is that they are uncommonly attractive books. If it is true of typography that you generally notice it only when it’s done badly, the same could also be said about other aspects of book production: the choice of paper, the quality of binding, the navigational apparatus, the jacket design, and so on. In all these respects both Where the River Goes and Wing Beats are exemplary, to the extent that for those considerations alone I would I heartily recommend both to anyone who simply loves beautiful books, regardless of their interest in haiku, nature or British birds.

The new anthology, in the words of its subtitle, aims to track ‘the nature tradition in English-language haiku’. This may seem too broad a theme for an anthology, given that haiku are traditionally closely associated with nature anyway, and certainly it should not be expected that such an anthology could aspire to being definitive. Indeed, one of the features of Where the River Goes is the care editor Allan Burns has taken to refine his criteria as to what kind of nature haiku should be included in the volume; his criteria are not quite what mine would have been, as we shall see below, and yet I recognize that by adopting a consistent approach Burns has achieved a particular flavour, and by no means an unpleasant one.

Rather than simply trawling through the literature for what he regards as the best nature haiku per se, Burns’s project is to establish a canon of what he regards as the forty most important writers of English-language nature haiku. I will examine his criteria for inclusion further below, but it is apparent that the tradition being tracked in the volume is not so much that of nature writing as that of English-language haiku publishing.The haiku are mainly drawn from those writers who have published in specialist haiku journals from 1963 onwards, and hence there is no room for those working outside this ‘tradition’. Beyond that, though, I will leave other reviewers to quibble about who is or isn’t included in the forty that made the cut. I also, incidentally, want to avoid quoting from the haiku in the anthology, and particularly to avoid the usual reviewer’s practice of printing in their entirety what are considered to be the best five or six haiku in the book, as this seems to me liable to make the reader feel that, having read the best the book has to offer, there is less interest in buying it to read the not-so-good ones. Suffice it to say, then, that there is a consistently high standard across the selections of haiku for all forty writers, and each of them earns his or her place.

The writers are arranged ‘in order to document the tradition’s evolution’, as the editor notes (pp. 67–8):

… the anthology’s organization is chronological. The haiku by each poet are presented in the order of initial publication, as best as that order could be established. This way, on the ‘micro’ level readers can observe and indeed participate in the development of each poet’s voice. … At the ‘macro’ level the poets themselves are presented in chronological order, which allows readers to witness the stylistic and thematic development of the nature tradition across fifty years, all the haiku included in the anthology having been published previously between 1963 and 2012.

Each writer’s selection is preceded by an unusually long (typically around 750 words), well-researched and sensitive introduction, and these mini-essays are, for me, the strongest feature of the book. Setting aside the purist’s insistence on assessing the text on its own merits,1 knowing that vincent tripi lived for some years in a cabin in New Hampshire without electricity or running water adds greatly to one’s reading of his haiku. Each essay begins with this sort of biographical detail, moving on to more critical remarks on the haiku themselves. These brief critiques by Burns show him to be a highly sensitive reader of haiku, attentive to both the sound-content and the meaning-content of the form. A bibliography is given for each writer, and the careful annotation throughout is further evidence of Burns’s dedication.

Indeed, before we even arrive at the haiku, there is a sixty-page general introduction. This too is a very well-structured and intelligent piece of writing, although it also offers a few things to disagree with.

Burns begins his introduction by invoking ‘three content categories’ posited by George Swede in 1992 (p. 10):

nature-oriented haiku with no reference to humans or human artifacts, haiku that explicitly reference both humans or human artifacts and the natural world, and human-oriented haiku with no reference to the natural world.

These are referred to as type one, type two and type three haiku, respectively. While it seems too simplistic to assume all phenomena fit into any of these categories,2 the broad point is that Burns is seeking to collect mainly type one haiku in Where the River Goes.

The introduction goes on to ask ‘What is nature?’, drawing on Emerson to arrive at the following definition (p. 16):

‘Nature’ is principally the large subset of materiality that has been relatively unmodified by human activity, and so we can distinguish between ‘natural environments’ such as mountains, forests and oceans and ‘built environments’ such as cities and suburbs. Pastoral environments, including agricultural regions and parks, intermix elements of both.

These are common-sense definitions, and they are fine as far as they go, but how they apply to haiku is problematic, and is left unexamined. There seems to be an unstated assumption that there is a ‘natural’ way to experience nature—so that the likes of animals seen in the zoo, or the loveable antics of companion animals, are things to be disdained; at least, there is no evidence of them in the book. Yet if I write a haiku about a toucan in a zoo, it might be indistinguishable from a haiku about a toucan seen in the wild; or indeed one seen on television, or on YouTube, or in a dream. In each case the haiku is based on some kind of experience. It seems implicit in Burns’s choices throughout the rest of the book that the haiku might only have validity if based on the toucan seen in its natural habitat, but I would have liked to see these sort of considerations directly addressed and decisions justified, as I think it is a fairly subtle matter as to exactly where the border lies between what is ‘valid’ and what is not.

Burns rightly notes how greatly the natural world has changed between the period in which Japanese haiku had their origin and that of English-language haiku, almost entirely due to human activity (p. 16):

Many species are being extirpated and driven to extinction while invasive species are being introduced to regions where they do not naturally occur. Habitats and entire ecosystems have been fragmented and destroyed.

Burns states (p. 17) that ‘Most of these alarming problems relate to one central one: overpopulation, which more than any single factor has changed the context in which haiku are written’, and he quotes the biologist Edward O. Wilson: ‘The pattern of human population growth in the twentieth century was more bacterial than primate.’ It would be generous to call this hyperbole. The world human population at the start of the twentieth century was around 1.7 billion, and by its end it was just over 6 billion—less than a fourfold increase in a hundred years. A typical bacterial population would achieve the same growth rate in well under an hour. Moreover, the global trend obviously masks greatly different regional growth rates; while human populations continue to increase at an unsustainable rate in some parts of the world, within the so-called developed countries—which include all of the English-speaking haiku-writing nations—population growth is slowing, and the trend is for actual population sizes to decline, as is happening in Japan.3

This is not to say that overpopulation is not a problem, only that it is not the chief problem. Indeed, the planet could arguably bear a human population of the size at which it is to be hoped it will stabilize, if our use of the world’s natural resources were drastically reduced to sustainable levels. Here again the global trend breaks down into greatly different regional situations; for example, the per capita carbon footprint of the typical English-speaking haiku-writing nation is around a hundred times that of the typical African nation.4 Nor are carbon emissions the only environmental problem, contrary to the impression one might get from the relatively little coverage ‘green’ issues receive in the mass media. Depletion of mineral resources, ocean acidification, deforestation and nuclear accidents are just a few other issues; and Burns does not neglect these, albeit regarding them as secondary to overpopulation.

So much for the problem; what is its relevance for English-language nature haiku? At very least, Burns seems to regard it as almost a duty to be aware of these issues, and to assume that the reader will impose such an awareness in his or her reading of such haiku. I admire this concern, and I share in it, although I also note a kind of disconnect between the intellectual basis of such a concern and the immediately sensory experience that is held to be the essential component of a haiku of any sort. Even if one does notice a change in biodiversity, it tends to be noticeable not in a moment but across years or decades there may be a propensity towards straining to take the lack of a particular bird’s song one morning, for example, as a sign of its imminent extinction. Moreover, given that we can assume most writers of English-language haiku to drive cars, use mobile phones and board aeroplanes from time to time, one can be open to a charge of hypocrisy; this too is part of the context for such writers.

Burns’s section on ‘classical’ (i.e. Japanese) haiku (pp. 21–33) is excellent. The following sections examine ‘The idea of nature in the West’, ‘Nature and English-language haiku’ and ‘The nature tradition in English-language haiku’. In these pages the American flavour of the book becomes more noticeable. Thoreau is the dominant non-haiku figure, but also mentioned are John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Robinson Jeffers, with only Darwin getting a look-in from further afield. This Americanism is consistent with the fact that 33 of the 40 haikuists selected for inclusion are North American. The American predominance in the anthology only reflects the state in English-language haiku publishing generally, to some extent, but it does sometimes seem as though Burns is writing for a specifically American readership. For example, in the introduction to the haiku of Janice M. Bostok, Burns feels the need to explain what a kookaburra is—surely a bird familiar to almost anyone as an emblem of Australia—while the more obscure birds of America evidently require no such gloss.

Towards the end of the introduction, Burns describes his criteria in judging which haikuists are deemed fit for inclusion in the anthology. The main requirement is stated at the opening of the section (p. 65):

As Tom D’Evelyn has noted, writing high-quality nature haiku requires ‘a long apprenticeship “in the field”’. That means both an apprenticeship in the field of natural history and one in writing haiku—which helps explain why poets rarely begin to achieve mature work in this mode before the ages of thirty-five to fifty. Where the River Goes anthologizes the work of poets who have undertaken such apprenticeships, who, so to speak, know their dippers and pickleweed and aren’t afraid to say so[.]

It is this sentiment I disagree with more than any other aspect of Where the River Goes. There is more than a hint of elitism about it, but that is not what I object to; trying to avoid elitism entails something of a race to the bottom. For me the problem is that this ‘long apprenticeship “in the field”’ clashes with the ‘beginner’s mind’ attitude that is commonly (and correctly, in my view) held to be essential to a clear perception of any kind of experience. In saying that they clash I don’t mean that they are entirely mutually exclusive; only that the former interferes with the latter, so that it sometimes seems that the ‘competent naturalist’ can’t see the wood for the Fagus grandifolia. Thus, while I don’t object to the ability to identify muscadines and mergansers, it can seem that they are dragged into a haiku just because they chime nicely with other words (which is not an entirely bad reason) and/or merely to mark that they have been spotted (which is). For me, a haiku must have more than that; short though it is, there must be some compelling narrative within it, just as there must be in a photograph or painting, however representational they may be, and regardless of whether their subjects are identifiable to species level.

My objections to Burns’s criteria do not imply that I think those criteria fail to select good haiku—as I noted earlier, the quality throughout the anthology is consistently high—but they are liable to exclude a lot of equally good nature haiku of a somewhat different kind. And this is the other aspect of the above-mentioned feature of the anthology having a particular flavour: in any anthology (or edited journal, for that matter) there is a trade-off between achieving such a particular flavour and suffering from too great a degree of uniformity. The act of formulating criteria tends towards shaping a paradigm—in this case, the paradigmatic nature haiku—and all haiku are then judged according to how nearly they conform to that paradigm. The problem is that even if the reader is in complete agreement with the editor about the criteria that constitute the paradigm, there is a limit to how many minor variations on the same theme one will want to read—and the more stringent the criteria, the lower that limit will be.

Burns is aware of the problem of uniformity—or homogeneity, as he refers to it in his introduction (p. 62):

Two issues that have affected the composition of all types of haiku in recent years are structural homogeneity and reactions to that homogeneity. Influenced by many factors, a conservative, self-conscious, rule-bound synthesis emerged that made haiku in the nineties tend to be less diverse in its form than haiku was in, for instance, the seventies.

Through this awareness, Burns seems careful in his selection to avoid too much structural homogeneity (although inevitably the majority of haiku are drawn from the fairly familiar three-line set-ups). In other respects, though, the homogeneity is noticeable, and not least as a result of the abovementioned focus on naming organisms to species level (which, for all Burns’s talk of ‘self-effacement’, does sometimes draw attention to itself like a particularly florid tie). Yet there also seems to me too much homogeneity in aspects of haiku that seem to receive too little consideration from both writers and editors of haiku, such as register or voice; read too much of this anthology in one sitting and that detached, neutral register can sometimes seem almost a drone, running across the haikuists, across the years, giving the impression of being so entrenched as to be completely unavoidable. Is it a necessary consequence of being self-effacing and minimizing the human orientation that the very language should adopt the manner of a BBC newsreader?

Of course, Burns is selecting from what he reads in the ‘top-rank journals’ and ‘notable anthologies’ that are the main source of the book, which have already been through the filter of other editors, each with his or her own criteria; and then those editors can only select from what is submitted to them in the first place. Yet this is another reason for regretting the fact that Burns’s ‘tradition’ had to be restricted to those journals and those anthologies.

Ultimately, though, every anthology is subject to the same trade-off, and it is perhaps unavoidable that an editor with very strong, sure views will shape an anthology that seems very much his or her own work, and only secondarily a collection of other voices. Indeed, in this case, I think that strong editorial presence is the decisive factor in making this as striking and thought-provoking an anthology of haiku as I have read. If this review has engaged with Burns’s views in a mainly combative manner, I hope that will be understood to be in the spirit of two enthusiasts contriving to find room for argument despite being fundamentally in agreement—arguing rather for the pleasure of it.


1 See for more thoughts on this vexed subject.

2The sight of an enormous wind turbine’s blades slowly rotating, for example, does not seem to be either human or natural—and yet it is one of the finest spectacles the physical world has to offer.

3Population data from wikipedia . The trend in Japan is interesting in that it is mainly a result of lifestyle choice; a significant proportion of the Japanese population has decided life is more enjoyable without having children. Given that Japan is arguably the most overdeveloped nation on the planet—a country where the majority of households enjoy a ‘smart toilet’, for example—it is tempting to posit a correlation between development and population decline. Whatever this correlation may indicate about the likely course of human population growth in the coming decades, one thing it is not is natural.

4 E.g. see

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