Prairie Hybrids: Haiku and the future of poetry in the heartland

Dec 1, 2000

What is the future of poetry in the prairie state of Illinois?

It would appear to be doing well for now. There was a recent Associated Press story on Lee Gurga, complete with a photograph of the nationally noted haiku poet-dentist posed with his dog and axe against a backdrop of hilly woods on his 77-acre spread near Lincoln in the central section of the state.

Gurga has compiled an impressive bibliography in the world of haiku. He presently serves as associate editor of the journal Modern Haiku, and in both 1998 and 1999 he won the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award. This year he won a Special Assistance Grant from the Illinois Arts Council, and with his close cohort Randy Brooks (another award-wining haiku poet) he helped to stage last April's Global Haiku Festival at Millikin University in Decatur, all in all a most impressive record.

But how is this strange Japanese art form, essentially a micro-poem of 17 syllables (or less, in Gurga's poetry), thriving on the prairie? What makes it work in a land of hybrid corn? The haiku is uniquely Japanese, after all, and like any art form it doesn't easily transcend national or cultural boundaries. Adopting the haiku is not like buying a Toyota or a Sony Walkman. A good deal of cultural chemistry goes into the process, which may be likened to a marriage or even a change in religion.

Without entering the heady and contentious world of haiku aesthetics, it is safe to say that haiku, whether in the "true" form of three lines with respectively five, seven and five syllables or whether in a looser contemporary form, is less a matter of format and more a question of consciousness. Haiku boils down and distills a special moment and does it in the sparest language available, a true "no frills" poetry. But it isn't a poetic "sound bite" or a kind of linguistic candy to be swallowed while doing something else. As Gurga says in his haiku column for the Springfield weekly newspaper Illinois Times, haiku is "a three-line poem with images of the seasons linking human and non-human nature." That reference to seasons is an important clue to the understanding of Illinois haiku, as some of Gurga's own work demonstrates. A consciousness of spring and new life is beautifully evoked in these lines:

morning haze 
a turtle takes shape
on the road ahead. 

And the Illinois landscape, with its defining characteristics of sweeping sky and razor-sharp corn rows, yields this poem:

rows of corn
stretch to the horizon 
sun on the thunderhead.

Of course, other regions of the United States have corn and summer thunderstorms as well, but historically and culturally the haiku seems to have thrived most successfully in its prairie transplanting. The Chicago Renaissance was defined chiefly by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Prairie Style was based on Oriental ideas of simplicity and a reliance on natural materials. The other motive force behind the Renaissance was Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, who helped to popularize the "new poetry" like Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems and Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.

The international Imagist Movement (mainly British and American) also flourished during the years immediately before and after World War I, and this haiku-inspired style found an easy outlet in Miss Monroe's new magazine. Thus, Sandburg's haiku-like "Fog," where the gray mist approaches the city on its famous "little cat feet," became the classic example of prairie poetry with Oriental roots.

So Oriental notions of making poetry have been in the Land of Lincoln for nearly a century, and this tradition includes such recent poets as John Knoepfle (Poems from the Sangamon) and Lucien Stryk (Awakening), who is also famous as a translator of haiku, especially the work of Issa. Illinois and the Midwest in general have also provided the venue for many haiku magazines and conferences, as Lee Gurga pointed out in "The Midwest: Cradle of American Haiku," his speech to the Haiku North America Conference in Evanston a year ago last July. Local poets, then, found a ready-made artistic model to use or adapt as their muse dictated.

But there was much more going on, for the Illinois landscape and weather patterns provided a serendipitous fit with haiku aesthetics. The 360-degree horizons, the blistering winter light, the sharp outlines of barns and silos on the horizon line, and the abundance of flora in late spring and early summer provided not merely subject matter but a certain style of consciousness. Enduring winters in snowy isolation and then spending summers in a tallgrass prairie made writers savor and study every new detail. The best of Illinois writing has always displayed this mark of hard-earned perception and total awareness of the scene. That stylistic hallmark includes such prose memoirs as Eliza Farnham's mid-19th-century classic, Life in Prairie-Land, or such contemporary nonfiction as David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again or John Hallwas' The Bootlegger, as well as dozens of poets published in such anthologies as Heartland or Benchmark.

From this list of literary output, it would certainly appear that Erato, the muse of poetry, is doing well in Illinois. The Illinois Arts Council sends out squads of poets to read and conduct workshops in the schools; the Art Institute in Chicago sponsors an annual poetry series with distinguished readers from all over the country; Gwendolyn Brooks, Poet Laureate of Illinois, heroically spreads the word and encourages younger writers; and bookstores and libraries sponsor readings by local writing groups. Little magazines and small presses statewide chum out copies of new poems every month.

On the national level, these initiatives have their counterparts in the grants to poets and magazines made by the National Endowment for the Arts and by the extraordinary work of recent Poet Laureates like Rita Dove, Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky. Stanley Kunitz, the current Laureate, accepted the position at age 95. He still performs his work in public and writes every single day, as highlighted in a recent USA Today profile. Distinguished, old-line presses like Norton and Scribners continue to publish individual volumes of poetry, and every morning on National Public Radio, Garrison Keillor presents "The Writer's Almanac," which always concludes with Keillor's reading of a short poem. At the last presidential inauguration. Bill Clinton invited Maya Angelou to read a special poem written for the occasion (as Robert Frost once read for John Kennedy). There are even online poetry magazines and print-your-own poetry "presses" available on the Net. In some respects, then, the state of poetry has never been healthier. 

But this rosy picture is misleading. 

A visit to a well-known bookstore, offering two floors of books occupying nearly a whole city block of space, produced the observation that only about 3 percent of the titles were poetry. All those hip young readers sipping their cappucinos were buying mysteries, self-help books, "best-sellers" (fiction or romances) but hardly any verse. Because of complicated changes in curriculums, the typical high school student takes less and less traditional English. Few college-bound students have any real training in the genre of poetry, and many have none. The archetypal school-marm who made students memorize long passages from Longfellow or Shakespeare disappeared about the same time as the Edsel.

Admittedly, universities offer a large menu of creative writing courses, including poetry, but fewer and fewer courses in the form that often dominated the university English curriculum up until the mid-1970s - poetry. At that point, the job market for English Ph.D.s disintegrated, and remaining graduate students flocked to the new rhetoric and writing programs. Those who remained loyal to Erato found themselves crowded out by the new theories that swept through the groves of academe (Feminism, Marxism, Structuralism, Deconstruction) because these new theories by and large favored the study of prose, especially memoirs and confessional works. Fewer new teachers of poetry were being trained, so down the road students at all levels were even less likely to encounter the muse. This sad state of affairs also explains why most students have as much "poetry anxiety" as the better-known "math anxiety," which has long afflicted novices in algebra, trigonometry and calculus. Even brave efforts by the Public Broadcasting System in the form of Bill Moyers' interviews and the much-touted and beautifully produced Voices & Visions series (available on videotape at most public libraries) haven't made much of a dent. In sum, there are many writers of poetry today, perhaps more than at any other time in our national history, but decidedly fewer readers.

The upshot is that poetry simply doesn't have the visibility, credibility or viability that it once enjoyed. If a three-line haiku requires patience and linguistic aptitude for full appreciation, then how is the time-starved, "future-shocked" reader of the new millennium able to digest the richly nuanced lines of the most famous poem of the last century, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a Midwesterner from St. Louis? More important, how can a reader of e-mail and other forms of "data" decode the subtle ruminations of John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, arguably the most important book of contemporary poetry?

For as Marshall McLuhan taught in his famous dictum from Understanding Media, "the medium is the message." Watching television is, finally, about passive vegetating in front of the "cool medium" of the tube. It is not clear how e-mails and "chat rooms" will alter the collective literary frame of mind. But this much is clear. Most electronic messaging is created for the sake of speedy delivery, instantaneous in the case of some software and protocols. In McLuhan's terminology, the medium/message is speed. E-mails make us feel "in touch," and that is what the reader encodes. Hence, e-mailers produce electronic memos in a quick, reductionist style. A different "mindset" is at work, one that is not altogether "poetry friendly." That is the broad conclusion of Sven Birkerts, who shows in the opening pages of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age that students may simply no longer be able to read the novels of Henry James, or any other works of similar density and compression. Yet dense and compressed language is the mainstay of poetic expression.

So do these somber thoughts spell the doom of poetry in general, and poetry on the prairie in particular? Absolutely not. Poetry will undoubtedly survive as a "niche" market and a specialized artistic activity. How many potters and weavers are there today? How many philosophers, theologians, violinists or historiographers? All of these are necessary but specialized occupations, and that is what poetry is likely to become. Its survival here on the prairie may require some kind of hybridization. Who knows what the new poetry will bring? Perhaps even now a poet is preparing a hybrid text, part haiku, part scientific observation, part personal journal and part e-mail, some kind of poetic hypertext. Somewhere in the vast state of Illinois, with its topographical shape of an arrowhead, there must be a reader who will move a very special cursor over the old prairie sunsets and the scattering of stars until, once again, the medium becomes the message. 

Dan Guillory, chair of the English 
Department of Millikin University in
Decatur, writes regularly for the magazine.