John Ashbery’s ‘haiku’

On 5 August 2017, the online magazine Stride published a poem of mine – ‘13 Haiku for John Ashbery’ – in celebration of the poet’s 90th birthday. I wrote the piece a couple of years earlier, as a response to ‘37 Haiku‘ published in Ashbery’s collection The Wave (1984).

There is an interesting analysis of Ashbery’s poem in an essay by Dean Brink. The opening paragraph reads:

Shaped by R.H. Blyth and later Kenneth Yasuda’s seminal introductions to Japanese haiku in the mid-twentieth century, haiku in America has as a form of poetry come to reflect certain premises, expectations and inhibitions. While claiming authentic emulation of the form, American haiku poets have abandoned possibilities for disturbing the fiction of the real, the so-called haiku or Zen “moment,” and reproduce fundamentally Orientalist stereotypes that both contribute to its popularity and weaken it as a serious literary form. Below I argue that John Ashbery’s haiku transgress this status quo in American haiku. American haiku has primarily focused on a rhetorical presentation of a passively experienced objective moment, which reflects only one approach to Japanese haiku, while in Ashbery one finds not only his own poetics irrupting in the haiku form, but also his re-introduction of writing practices found in traditional Japanese poetry to satirize American haiku. As such, his haiku stand as an amusing performative critique of haiku in twentieth-century America and of haiku as received from Japanese models.

Brink points to the way in which historically Japanese verse depends on a matrix of commonly understood associations, and is both profoundly intertextual in its referencing of tradition, and impersonal. American ‘haiku’ on the other hand, as Brink says, embody ‘an expressive poetics of a Western metaphysical tradition, looking for philosophical depths if not surprise within the poem intratextually, as a defined real within the poem.’

In Japanese, haiku are written as a single line, not the three short lines popular in English. Accordingly, Ashbery writes single lines, disrupting our expectation of what a ‘haiku’ should be like. He also replicates the ambiguities of Japanese verse. Time in these ‘haiku’ is deliberately extended, there is no sense of a ‘moment’, and there are no Zen-like epiphanies. Ashbery’s haiku, as with the haibun which follow them in The Wave, are, I think, a send up of a certain kind of contemporary poetry. Brink’s essay can be found here.

My own poem is a conscious imitation of Ashbery’s take on Western ‘haiku’, and was intended as a tribute.


13 Haiku for John Ashbery

on his 90th birthday


The ornamental carp were just visible under the running commentary, and it didn’t end there.

Weren’t we blindsided by that some time back, the hunting party returning early, unconvinced by the old narratives?

The idea attached itself to a price tag, ‘peachy’ for the duration.

Is that ectoplasm on your shoe? I thought we’d seen the last of that, peering through the mists of your alibi.

Would you buy one? I’d give it a year, and even then only under suspicion.

The audience had fallen asleep, its heaviness an illusion, with all that that implied.

Too bad, another time perhaps when the bloom of youth has rubbed off on your sleeve.

Sarsaparilla came to mind, but that was a misnomer easily mistaken for a spoon.

Look it’s saucy, and instructive, like a message caked on the road.

The technique became redundant after the amnesty, though some continued to swear by it, even in their darkest moments.

The tracts they left spoke only when spoken to, placid as hard-boiled eggs.

A glazed expression had fallen on the city of their desires, hair sprouting everywhere.

It’s all up with the rancid fat in the pail, the charred entrails. The code word was ‘dog meat’ though no one remembered why.


Simon Collings

Simon Collings is a freelance writer based in Oxford, UK. He has published critical work on Geoffrey Hill (PN Review), Roy Fisher, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Alan Fisher (Journal of Poetics Research) and Susan Howe (The Long Poem Magazine). He is a contributing editor at Fortnightly Review, writing a column on film. He has also published short stories and poetry, including two chapbooks, Out West, and Stella Unframed. His blog can be found here.

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