Haiku: an Animated Critique

Posted: November 14, 2012 in Misc
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The clip below comes from a stand-alone, day-in-the-life story of Sokka – a living, breathing, wise-cracking comic relief device within the animated world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. What it accomplishes so masterfully is a very tongue-in-cheek commentary on how contemporary American audiences appreciate haiku. The premise: Sokka, a member of the Water Tribe, finds himself in an Earth Kingdom town, where he accidentally disrupts a reading of haiku by several girls and their teacher. Watch (total running time for both videos is ~2 minutes):

How this is amazing:
After Sokka inadvertently issues a 17-syllable apology for his intrusion, note the girls’ giggles and applause. At its most vicious, this is academia passive aggressively humoring the clown, but given the young girls’ seemingly earnest reactions, it seems more appropriate to say that they represent contemporary culture lowering the bar for poetic excellence by living in the yuks of the moment – relishing the respite from tradition and all its oppressive rules. Sokka’s utterance is not intended to be a poem and, indeed, disregards all haiku rules (save the syllable count).

Obviously displeased with her pupils’ delighted reactions concerning Sokka’s coincidental phrasing, the teacher stands and counters with a blunt 17-syllable phrase that outlines the syllable requirements of haiku in 12 syllables and finishes with a blatant, 5-syllable insult that also serves to recognize Sokka’s accidental but proper senryu. She sinks down to his level by using plain language, expressing academia’s contempt for those who break form for no reason but accept laurels for what are accidental achievements. Not quite comprehending the rebuke (or encouraged/challenged by it), Sokka, a little more confident, counters with a prideful, 17-syllable introduction and refutation, this time purposefully ending on the seventeenth syllable to show his prowess. More giggling ensues; contemporary culture LOVES the challenge to history. Unfazed by the impression Sokka is making on her students, the teacher strikes back with all the power haiku is capable of pushing with:

chittering monkey
in the spring he climbs tree tops
and thinks himself tall

Here, the teacher attacks Sokka with the perfect haiku: the juxtaposition of two nature-based images, a seasonal word (kigo), a “cutting word” (or kireji, a word the indicated the emphasis of the poem), and yes…a 17-syllable format. While staring directly at Sokka, the teacher’s oral delivery of “Monkey,” not so coincidentally emphasized by “chittering,” is the kireji that identifies Sokka and his behavior regarding his performance (chittering like a monkey, meaning unimportant babble – insult #1). The rest of the poem describes Sokka’s pride in creating false haiku (thinking himself tall despite only having climbed a tree – insult #2).

In the next volley of 17-syllable plain language phrases, an un-disparaged Sokka ignorantly taunts the teacher’s formality by calling haiku easy, while the teacher, still trying to edify while warding off this disturbance, hints at the need for a seasonal word as well as the dedication of time which goes into the craft. Sokka fires back with a bit of crass inference that raises the teacher’s ire and makes her issue an all-out poetic threat:

there’s nuts and there’s fruit
in fall the clinging plum drops
always to be squashed

Again, an epic haiku: all show, no tell, and an emphatic foot stomp which results in a squashed plum (why and how she keeps plums up her sleeve…I really don’t want to know). As if to raise the ante in this epic battle, Sokka retaliates by bringing in his boomerang as both punchline and prop to his playful poem. It’s very important to notice that the word “slang” is invoked and used to express contempt for the teacher’s carefully crafted language by equating it to popular language that has yet to prove its stance against time. The teacher backs down, but not from show of force (Sokka’s raised boomerang). She’s had it playing with this fool and knows he, like all brash fools, will be his own undoing. After all, she has faith in what she’s taught her pupils and how they’ve learned (as evidenced by the first poem read in this story), and Sokka has not taken the time needed to master the poetry that will win their minds. Of course, the teacher is proven right; proud Sokka’s victory poem turns out one syllable too long, and the deviation from the form, unsupported by any other poetic elements, results in a cricket-backed silence and a hard boot out the door.

But think back to the beginning; Sokka is shown to be an appreciator of poetry. He’s melting over the windowsill. His disruption is not intentional. His continued disruption, however, is. Sokka’s ham-it-up nature gets the best of him, and the dreaded argument then rears its ugly head: is the laughter Sokka reaps from bastardizing the elements of haiku any less valuable than the emotions garnered from haiku that follow all the rules? Is reaching “the people” any less important than creating a poem that only epitomizes itself? How is expression worth anything if its essence is beyond most listeners’/readers’/viewers’ sense of patience? Is it still the same mode of expression if the rules are ignored? Concerning the latter, given the culture from which haiku comes and the history of the form, in which the same 5-7-5 structure has changed its name depending on how it has been used, I’d say the answer is no.

If all the requirements are not obliged, haiku is not haiku. It is very technically something else, which is why I fully support nomenclature deviations such as beer-ku (haiku format poems about beer), mean-ku (insult-based poems in haiku format), etc., which infer an aberration while hinting at/honoring the form from whence it was derived. Still, exceptions make the rule; even in classic Japanese literature you find haiku that crack if not break some borders. The difference? They are exceptions. So while it’s fun to ham it up and fool around with a poetic form most malleable, to expect a sustained welcome from the establishment when under-studied or lazy in practice is to test the patience and invoke the wrath of those who’ve toiled so in the name of love for the form which allowed you to get your quick laugh.

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  1. […] Haiku: an Animated Critique […]

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