Return          Red Moon Press
Speech given at The 4th World Haiku Association Conference
September 15, 2007 (Tokyo).

Published in,
World Haiku 2007, World Haiku Association
(Saitama, Japan), pp. 76-81.

Soft Cheese

Jim Kacian

World haiku is one of the success stories of contemporary literature. In a time when much of postmodern art consists of personal rants or the blanching of meaning from media, haiku simply and proudly rises above the chatter. Poets in over 50 countries and in more than 70 languages participate in an aesthetic wave emanating from the same source. The initial impulse was discovered in Japan a millennium ago, and more or less codified there a century or four ago. Today we measure first our grasp and then our reach against the benchmark established at these times, even if we no longer look there exclusively for our own current directions.

But this success comes at a price, as all successes must. I am uplifted by World Haiku's indifference to geographical and governmental barriers, and delighted with its optimism, idealism and good will. It is human nature to be pleased when the things we take most seriously, and care most about, “arrive” in larger cultural and human terms, and we are well justified to celebrate such occasions. However, though I am convinced of the social, linguistic, political and personal achievements of World Haiku, I confess to being uncertain about its literary accomplishments. I do not wish to here lessen our enthusiasm in what has been accomplished—you all know, presumably, that I have been a spokesperson for World Haiku, and have put considerable time, effort and resources towards organizations that might foster it. So mine is not a disinterested appraisal. Yet it might prove a salutary one, if my experience can prove useful to others. Please look upon what follows as a cautionary tale, not my prediction of what must happen, but my avowal of what I think we'd be wise to avoid.

The crux of my concern for World Haiku has to do with an old matter in literature—specifically, is it a local product which must be understood in its own time and context, or is there some portion of it which can be taken onto a different stage, to be generally received, understood and accepted by people of several, or even all, cultures? Some sterling arguments can be had on both sides, and it is probably sufficient to say that I have been a believer in the latter: some art is common to us all and can be appreciated by everyone.

I don't wish to suggest that I've completely changed my opinion over the past few years—I have shifted to a degree, but still think it possible. But what I have come to consider to be of even greater importance is the question of integrity: how true to the poetry is my understanding of this art? Take, for instance, an internationally acclaimed body of work—the Eddas, say. What am I responding to when I read them? I'm sure it's possible to convey the narrative thrust, the context, the characters and their motivations. But what of the poetry? Is it possible to appreciate the poetry, or merely the agglomeration of these other elements attendant upon it?

One of the measuring sticks of the success of poetry is its irreducibility to prose. Said in another way, however a poem provides its impact and effect cannot be explained or duplicated with other words. This seems to me a very specific accomplishment, inextricably bound up with the language, culture, context and era in which the poem was written—in other words, a very local effect. How is it possible to create this same effect in another language, another culture, another time? I think it is nearly impossible.

Nearly, but not entirely. I know that energetic approximations have been accomplished that go far beyond what we usually refer to as translations. On a very few occasions, I have been pleased to discover poetic analogues in which a translator either recreates a piece wholly, or else through some sufficiently close parallel, through which the poetry—that knot of linguistic, informational and syntactic energy—is preserved, and in some cases actually improved. But these have been quite rare. In most instances, translation has been utilitarian, accurate, necessary—but not poetic.

This is not intended to disparage translators—theirs is a thankless task undertaken in vain. Yet they persevere and permit us at least to glimpse the alchemy of other languages. They deserve more thanks than we can offer. And for much of what we need—names, dates, numbers: in brief, prose—they can often prove nearly flawless. But grasping the protean magic of poetry is a very great deal to ask.

So what we get, in general, is a rendering of the idea of a poem, and a hint, perhaps, of what its magic might be, but not necessarily the magic itself. We've all had this experience—we'll pick up a journal from Serbia, or Japan, or France, and read the work therein, and wonder why this poem or that has been published. The easy answer would be to say that most people just don't understand haiku and that nearly anything can get published. And there is some truth to this argument. But it does not encompass the whole truth: there are many people who know exactly what they're doing, and who are achieving fine results in their native language, results worthy of sharing and publishing, but the poems as they come to English just don't work. This is not simply a matter of the translator failing to grasp the import of what is happening in the poem—most commonly the translator is the poet himself. It might be a lack of facility with a second language; in fact I'm sure this is a serious problem. But even granting a fluency that is rarely to be found, there is still the truculence of poetic effect to reassemble itself after being squeezed through the filter of another language and culture.

* * *

This is one very large issue that has weighed on me for some time. It need not defeat World Haiku, but it does mean that at least some of what we recognize when we recognize the poetic genius of others is the granting of good will. I trust your poem is worthy in the original, and acknowledge the rough outlines of it here in translation. Polity aside, however, this is not a very satisfying solution. Unless we are willing and able to master those seventy languages, however, it might be the best that we can hope to attain.

So what does get accepted globally as good haiku? Aside from accepting the quality of work on the basis of the reputation of the poet involved (not to be dismissed, but still not our own evaluation), there are the poems that seem to work across borders. This, I admit, has been my own hope for success for the genre: surely there will be enough experiences common to human beings that we will recognize them, identify with them, lionize them. And so it has happened. But I find myself still somewhat disenchanted with the result. Perhaps this is simply a failure of my own imagination, but what is most inculcated by such work is not that we hold poetry in common (we do, but what that means still seems to escape our demonstration), but that we hold this behavior or that circumstance in common, and so our haiku can seem, en masse, to be more sociology or psychology than poetry. Does this matter? Not at all, if the goals are those we mentioned at the beginning: social, linguistic, political, personal. And again I wish to state that these are incredibly important attainments: I cannot think of a better argument that human beings around the world can not only get along but thrive together than the World Haiku movement. But they remain accomplishments not of poetic, but rather political, or at least social, will.

I am often reminded that my country, the United States of America, is often blamed for the homogenization of culture. This is true in part, and untrue in part, and there is both good and bad to be found in the process. But I admit of my embarrassment when I think that many people around the world identify America with the McDonald's which has just moved into the space in the city square that used to house the Ministry of Culture, or such. It is dispiriting to know that sociologists now use the price of the Big Mac as a marker to determine the actual value of currency around the world. Of course even these homogenized products vary: the Maharaja Mac sold in India lacks beef or pork, the bun used in Great Britain contains a great deal more sugar than elsewhere, and so on. But the product is ubiquitous, and so local cultural response to it is useful in real, social terms. And so to my cautionary tale.

I would like to remind you of the story of Camembert. I mean the cheese, once the prized local delicacy of a very few Norman villages, now the ubiquitous symbol of French marketing success around the world. This is the story of the globalization process, and yes, I mean it to be a close analogue to the haiku product we are all in the business of creating.

Camembert was “invented” most likely some time in the eighteenth century. This does not mean that the industry hasn't created a discovery myth, a patron saint, and a history. But it is all fiction, intended to help market a product, not to reflect an actuality. More to the point, no one has anything but the faintest idea of what the original Camembert was like. There is no reliable historical evidence, and of course no samples have survived. There are records of many cheeses that emerge from the Pays d'Auge, some few of which are referred to as Camembert, but nothing which can actually be ascertained to be the original, or even the model.

There are some criteria that determine what a cheese is: milk fat content, type of injected mould, water drainage, etc. These vary, as you might expect, a great deal when a product is not fixed. And, so far as is possible to tell, Camembert was as random as any other cheese in those early days. Different from Pont l'Eveque and Neufchâtel, certainly, but different from one another as well.

When the railroad came to Normandy, everything changed for the dairy farmers. Now their product could get to Paris in hours instead of days, and in relatively good condition. Being ambitious, they began experimenting with the variables of their product, with an eye to calculating the best payoff per hectare of land. The conclusion was easily in favor of Camembert, and so that's where they threw their energies.

The cheese they produced was a good product: everybody wanted it, indeed wanted more than they could produce. So things began to change: instead of using only their own milk, Norman farmers began milk cooperatives. This made it possible to make more product, but also meant that the distinctive qualities to be gained from localized conditions were lost. And, machines were created to do the forming and salting of the curds, meaning more could be produced, but the skills of precise measuring and rolling by hand were disused. The result was a more uniform, but less distinctive, product.

Then there was research to make certain that only a white crust would form: this required pasteurization, which further diluted the unique elements which artisan dairy farmers had brought to their product, though it meant a purchaser far away could be assured they would get a uniform, though blander, cheese. Finally, the entire system was mechanized, and the need for human interaction became almost negligible. Machines now squirt, time, salt, roll and package the creamy, innocuous curds for mass markets. Norman farmers are rich, but is there a genius cheesemaker amongst them? Who knows? Who will ever know again?

Actually, let me add to that my own personal ending. When I visit my mother I pass through another small town where exists a farm that produces the best goat cheese (including a goat camembert) I have ever tasted. I stop every time I go through. My great fear is that other people like the cheese as much as I do, and that the farmers will be tempted to begin a collective, start mass-producing the cheese, and lose what it is that makes them so distinctive. They have assured me they have no such plans. But wouldn't most of the Norman farmers have said the same at one point?

* * *

As a final comment about this, it should be noted that artisan cheesemaking is making a comeback. It is now possible to find unpasteurized, small yield Camembert in these same Norman villages, as well as in Canada, Germany, Japan, and the United States. These cheeses bear little resemblance to the mass-produced item, and sell for three or four times as much per pound, despite their relative unreliability. What they have, that generic Camembert do not, is opinion. We are willing to pay a great deal for a good opinion.

When the bridge is built, and we are overrun by newbies and know-nothings, some of them will insist they know all about our island. How we meet them on our side of the bridge will largely determine how the conversation will go. If we have control of the situation, we will help people come to a larger understanding of what we do. If not, we will be the T-shirt vendors. The choice is simple.

Which returns us to our own product. World Haiku may be facing a similar circumstance, and possibly to the same ill effect. And perhaps the only real solution is what honest cheesemakers have realized: it is only possible to make truly opinionated cheese locally. I believe this is probably the case for haiku as well. After all, nobody sets out to write haiku that is universal, true for all times and places. Instead, haiku visit us in our locales, and if we nurture them, roll and salt them lovingly and with good intent, perhaps they will form properly and find a buyer in the big city.

And perhaps none of this is at issue anyway. Perhaps haiku, like cheese, are simply consumed, and once we have eaten them, we might reflect back on the truly excellent, perhaps with longing, but always with appetite restored after a time for more, along with the hope that it will be the next one we will ajudge the best ever, and so tell stories about.

     Tokyo, Japan
      15 September 2007