Education stew. Parody of true expression; no more poetry

The adjunct pay bit is coming along nicely, but I found myself engaged quite ferociously in a digression which I felt was best posted separately, as it made the tone of the whole thing more bitter and incoherent than it needed to be, and it lacks the analytical depth which I was aiming for. Fundamentally, the subtext of intellectually snobbish rage in the following piece sums up my dissatisfaction with the modern teaching of humanities; while I have picked on a particular point of irritation because it looms disproportionately large in the world of things which drive me to anger, consider it to stand as metonym for much of what passes for a liberal arts education these days. Anyway, with my theme:


Does anyone out there know what a haiku is?

Why yes, yes, we learned it in school. It’s a Japanese poetic form consisting of seventeen syllables, divided into three lines of five, seven and five syllables.

Wrong, fool, it’s a Japanese poetic form consisting of seventeen Japanese syllables, etc, etc, etc. What you learned about in school was a completely pointless exercise in attempting to transfer a verse form which makes sense in its native language into a language in which it doesn’t make sense. Japanese doesn’t have word stresses in the way in which English does, and all the words in in vowels, so the concepts of rhythmic metre and rhyme are pretty alien. Conversely, Japanese syllables are well-defined and unalterable, while English ones are often ambiguous and elided. Furthermore, I read on the internet that classical Japanese haiku actually have (rather like the Welsh englyn) many other restrictions on their form, so it is actually quite difficult to compose one which sticks rigidly to the rules. In English, the answer to the question “can you compose a haiku?” is basically the answer to the question “can you count?”. ( Proof.)

And yet there are still people in the world who believe themselves to be showing off their intelligence and even, ye Gods, sensitivity, by attempting to “compose” haiku extempore. I’ve seen it happen in real life as well as on the internet (obviously)and in Simpsons episodes about precocious kids. It’s horrendous. The fact is that, unless you have decided to adopt some restriction of English metre or rhyme, the haiku is free verse, end of story. The intellectual effort needed to fit the seventeen syllables is equivalent to solving crossword puzzles in one dimension. It’s much less intellectually challenging a form than the limerick, for example; damn few people can write a good one of those.

How the hell did the haiku get so popular? I can only blame English teachers. Nobody, apart from a few freaks, Orientalists and other statistical anomalies, would have bothered with trying to import this form into English otherwise. Obviously, as with so many abstruse and foreign forms, Ezra Pound has to cop some of the blame for introducing the English speaking world to the bloody thing in the first place, but I find it rather difficult to believe that a single one of these 456 people has ever heard of him (yup).

The point is that the haiku has the considerable advantage as a form of verse that it can be written badly with next to no mental effort. It is therefore an ideal verse form to teach to people who are too thick to be worth teaching and who don’t want to learn; for example, computer science students on compulsory liberal arts courses. Furthermore, it’s easier to mark than free verse; it’s just a matter of counting to seventeen and checking that the line breaks are in roughly the right place, optional caesura, optional seasonal image, ten out of ten for you little Clyde and no messy embarrassment at having to tell someone that their precious piece of self-expression is no bloody good. The haiku cult allows you to sit down and perform a quick, straightforward quantitative check to see whether what you are reading is poetry or not, and how many of us could do with one of those? And so, a hundred thousand kids every year get an embossed certificate notarised by the government to tell the world that they’re not devoid of an inner life. Talk about grade inflation.

If you’re thinking of writing a haiku, don’t do it. Or at the very least, don’t share it with anyone. If you can’t avoid that, at least try to keep it secret from me. This isn’t pure intellectual elitism. I’m in general rather in favour of people trying to write poetry and one day if I get drunk, I might inflict some of my own on you lot. Bu what I’m against is people kidding themselves that they’re writing poetry when they’re just solving not very difficult puzzle-games. As noted above, I blame modern society for being set up in such a way as to systematically reward the business of distracting people from what they might be capable of into formulaic and uninteresting, but socially acceptable commodified forms. I note with a degree of sardonic humour that if I am right about the reasons why haiku are popular with English teachers, the root cause of the haiku epidemic in the English speaking world is exactly the dulling of artistic sensibility identified in Uncle Ezra’s own “With Usura” …

Update: It appears that not everybody agrees with me. Very well then, I fight dirty. Try reading through your slim volumes of Basho after I inform you that if a haiku has the right number of syllables, it can be sung to the tune of the first three lines of “Agadoo” by Black Lace.

Agadoo, doo doo
Push pineapple shake the tree
Agadoo, doo doo.


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