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Harley King Talks About Haiku

The Twain Have Met:
An Interview With Harley King

By Mike Howie

To talk to Harley King about his poetry is to talk about many things. It is to enter, somewhat ephemerally, the realm of Zen Buddhism. It is to turn over in one’s mind the poetry inherent in Illinois landscapes.  It is to learn the value of a moment, with its implicit slowing of life’s pace.

King’s life is not extraordinary: he is an information systems analyst for Americana Health Care in Monticello; typical Friday evenings are spent playing volleyball; he is married; he and his wife have a daughter.

Nor is his a unique vision. He expresses appreciation for things Illinoisan, echoing in his way the voices of such as Carl Sandburg.

If the one thing he does that could be considered different alters his relation with others, it is to bring him closer.  As Sandburg did, he transcends a sense of parochialism with a universal, human quality.

King writes haiku.  And he is rather good at it. His work has been anthologized and published in several haiku magazines.  His two books, Winter Silence and Empty Playground, successfully blend Eastern conventions with Western experiences to produce poetry with a singular flavor.

Four basic principles apply to haiku. 

1) It is a three-line poem in which the lines contain five, seven, and five syllables respectively. This rule of thumb, however, is just that; the 5-7-5 is a convenient format in which to work, stemming from early efforts to translate Japanese haiku. What counts as a syllable (the Japanese “jion”) does not count equally in English. Consequently, many modern haiku poets do not feel the constraint is an absolute.

2) Haiku should contain some reference to nature.

3) It should deal with a particular, present occurrence;

4) It should contain a key phrase, called a “season word” to cue the time of year at which it was written.

There is an additional set of guidelines, the chief of which divides haiku writers into two schools: those who agree the poet should be objective, and should leave himself out of the poem; and those who feel some subjectivity is allowable.

The “rule” of objectivity finds its beginning in the fact that Zen is the traditional basis of haiku. Zen is a sect of Buddhism that seeks enlightenment through introspection and intuition rather than through scriptures.  As such, the poet — the “Self” — has no business intruding on the reader of haiku.

The following haiku were written for the King’s daughter, Johari:

cold winter rain — 
movement of windshield wipers
catches the child’s eye

she picks up gravel
and watches it fall . . .
her first birthday

The ideas are not complex. The reader may stop there, if he wishes.  Surely all parents have shared the moment when they realize their child is noticing something for the first time, the moment of innocent, all-encompassing wonder of youth.

But the reader of haiku need not stop there. Myriad mental tangents present themselves.  It does not seem a quantum leap to move from thoughts of innocence, projecting years ahead to the inevitable loss of pure wonder; to cynicism; eventually, perhaps to the passage of time itself — perhaps beyond.

King adds: “Whether it’s haiku, whether it’s Western poetry, the reader has to participate in it. You can take the reader so far.  In haiku, you can give him that initial glimpse, and if that’s all he wants he can go away satisfied.  Or he can go farther and begin to explore the texture; (the poem can) take him deeper into the feeling, deeper into his own experience and the poem serves only as a trigger for his own experience.”

That, perhaps, gives haiku its real place in literature.  It is simultaneously limited and limitless: its essential purpose is to describe, to capture a moment of human relationship with nature within a limited number of syllables. It most definitely does not strive to moralize. The possibilities for interpretation of haiku are boundless, for the simple reason the poet merely presents a situation. He becomes a medium, existing to allow the transmission of ideas, rather than to create those ideas.

King, who studied English at Goshen College in Indiana, says, “I still have to fight within myself the feeling (haiku) is inferior.  I still come across this Western philosophy or attitude that poetry should be long, and how can you contain something poetic within such a short span of words?

“But the more I read, the more I’ve come to feel that it is a valid form of poetry.

“You know, it’s funny.  I see a greater potential for developing an audience for haiku than I see for most of what passes for English-language poetry today. People just aren’t reading it.

“I was passing Empty Playground out at work and (watched) the expressions on people’s faces — people who are computer operators or programmers.  They can relate to something this short, because it takes the image of the moment and throws it right back to them.

“(Whereas) many of the poets writing today are so hung up on language and symbolism and you have to say something deep and it has to fit all the (T.S.) Eliot-type writing, that it doesn’t relate to the man on the street who has to work for a living.

“Until we get poetry back to that, it’s not going to sell; it’s not going to be of value.”

He illustrates with the reaction of a friend to the following poem:

at the flick of a switch
scurry for cover

“The lady is a computer operator, and I was watching her.  She was cracking up.  It struck her.  It related to her own experience.  She had been in a motel where you turn on a light and cockroaches just scatter.

“Okay.  That is taking the essence of a moment, seizing it, putting it there in a poetic form — and it is relating to the people.

“You’re cutting away all the symbolism. Cockroaches here could be a lot of things.  You can build symbolism into it. But then it becomes the responsibility of the reader.

“Shakespeare did not write for an elitist group,” King continues. “He wrote for those people in the pits who were cracking up at all his funny jokes. In order to make it, you’ve got to have that mass audience. That’s who you’ve got to approach.

“We put down writers like Rod McKuen. I have problems with some of his poetry, but that guy’s outselling any other poet around. He’s able to touch somebody somewhere, and that’s important.

“What’s the use of writing poetry for your peers? I don’t think I should sell my poetry to other poets. If that’s who my audience is, I’m dead, I’m not going to make any money.

“Different people like different things. If everyone expressed appreciation for a particular poem,” King says, “then I’m not writing well enough.”

King expresses optimism for a wider acceptance of haiku:  “I think one of the attractions of haiku to many people is that, in one sense, they feel they can write it themselves without a lot of difficulty.  That is true, and I would recommend that people do try to write haiku.

“But then, the more one gets involved in it, then it becomes more of an art; it’s more than merely getting the moment down.  It’s choosing the right words, and being able to convey that experience, that moment you felt to someone else.

“It’s easy to start writing it, and I think that’s why teachers have been using it in schools.  But it’s more than just kid’s play.  True haiku is a difficult to write as any of the great novels, any of Shakespeare’s plays — even though it may only be 17 syllables.

“There‘s the story of the Japanese haiku poet, who, after a life of writing haiku, destroyed everything but 3 poems — destroyed more than 3,000 poems — because he didn’t feel they had the quality.  He didn’t feel they were true haiku.

“I have a quote from Basho (1644-1694, the Japanese haiku poet generally credited with giving haiku maturity as an art form and author of the most quoted haiku) that, whenever I get uncertain about poetry, makes me come back to it.

“ ‘At one time I was weary of verse writing, and wanted to give it up.  At another time I was determined to be a poet until I could establish a proud name over others.  The alternatives battled in my mind and made my life restless.’

“Basho was not a good poet until he was 40 years old.  All his good poetry was written from the age of 40 to the time of his death.  He wrote for many years before that, but what people now consider to be his good poetry, he didn’t start writing until he was 40.  This goes against the American concept of ‘If you don’t write a good poem by the time you’re 21, you’re done.  If you are not a Rimbaud, you’re dead.’

“I think that what we’ve gotten hung up with is ‘If you can’t write quality, you shouldn’t write at all.’  I think that has turned some people off to writing, and to poetry. ... Anybody of any merit will tell you that failure is good.  You learn from your failures.”

Ultimately, adding in the traditional and modern concepts, the old and new season words, summing it all up, still there must be motivation to write.  Precisely what form can that motivation take, if the purpose of haiku is not to moralize, not to educate, but simply to be?

“It’s not because I have something to say to myself,” says King.  “I have a need to say something, to get it out; but I write for others.

“If I just wrote to get it out, there would be no need to publish it.  If somebody doesn’t read it and feel something from it, then I haven’t done anything.

“What I really want is to be recognized as a writer; that someday, my poetry — this is an interesting paradox — would be taught in English classes; for my name, along with my poetry, to exist 500 years from now.

“That’s what I write for.  We all want to leave our mark, somewhere.  If I want to leave a mark, it’s in the literary field.

“I write because I have to write; but I also write because there’s somebody out there, hopefully, who will read it.”

(This article was originally published in The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette on April 25, 1980.  Copyrighted in 1980 by the News-Gazette and reprinted with the permission of the newspaper.)