Open Arms

UncertainA recent example of deja-ku has come to my attention, one that raises the issues of excess similarity and independent creation. In the September 2014 issue of Cattails, Arvinder Kaur published the following poem, later published in her book, Dandelion Seeds, in 2015:

homecoming—
a scarecrow’s open arms
in the fields

In October of 2015, Shrikaanth K. Murthy won second place in the kigo category of the Shiki online kukai with the following poem, later published in Sailing into the Moon, the 2016 Haiku Canada members’ anthology, published in May 2016 (page 26):

returning home—
only the scarecrow
with open arms

Because of the similarity between these poems, it’s natural to compare them. For me, Arvinder’s poem is slightly flawed by saying “fields” rather than just “field,” because there’s only one scarecrow and it cannot be in more than one field at any given time. It’s reasonable, however, for us to take “fields” to be more generic and idiomatic rather than a literal plural. However, the poem still ends on a weak beat, in that scarecrows being “in the field(s)” is obvious. Where else would a scarecrow be? For those two reasons, Shrikaanth’s poem seems stronger, in terms of rhythm, crafting, and content. On the other hand, the term “homecoming” is richer in Arvinder’s poem because it implies seeing many other people, rather than simply returning home, which does not necessarily imply seeing other people—or not as strongly. Yet Shrikaanth’s poem emphasizes sadness (it is “only” the scarecrow that has open arms, despite the fact that he is returning home—normally a happy event). The sad tone in Shrikaanth’s haiku seems more fitting for the autumn season. While the upbeat tone of Arvinder’s poem may well be appealing to some readers—it’s a homecoming and even the scarecrow has open arms to welcome the poet home—Shrikaanth’s poem feels more resonant for its development of sadness to better fit the autumn season, and in creating a more complex and contrasting emotion in pairing the scarecrow image with the coming-home context. Whether readers prefer one poem more than the other is largely a matter of personal taste, though, and not relevant to the issue of whether this case of deja-ku is problematic.

That brings us to the second issue, of course, which is to ask whether the poems are excessively similar, and whether one poem might have influenced the other. Shrikaanth has told me that he emailed his entry to the Shiki kukai on 7 October 2015. He also said that Arvinder approached him to review her book after that date and that he received her book on 1 November 2015. He had not seen Arvinder’s poem before that date and had written his poem independently. It seems completely reasonable to expect these poems to have been written independently, especially since so many of us are familiar with scarecrows and how they typically “welcome” us with open arms. It would be easy to pair this image with a homecoming event and easy to arrive at the upbeat image in Arvinder’s poem, or the sadder one is Shrikaanth’s.

So I think we can take this situation to be a case of independent creation, even if the images and image order are more or less the same. The tonal difference is enough, I think, to say that these poems are not excessively similar—if independently created. These images belong to everyone, and many more scarecrow haiku will be written in the future, just as many thousands have already been written. However, if it could be proven that Shrikaanth had seen Arvinder’s poem before writing his, then we might speculate that this could be a case of cryptomnesia, or forgetting the source of something one remembers—in this case it would be a haiku that one thinks one is writing when really one is remembering it (whether wholly or partially). Since we don’t know that the earlier poem definitely influenced the other, and because there is no reason to not take Shrikaanth’s word for it that he created his poem independently, there’s no cause for alarm here, as the similarity is neither excessive nor provable or probable as cryptomnesia.

Still, it would be natural for readers familiar with both poems to wonder about the relationship, perhaps even to feel that the resemblance is excessive (Arvinder herself might be particularly likely to feel this way). But it would be inappropriate for anyone to “accuse” the writer of the later poem of writing a deja-ku, as if the term is a black mark on his or her poetry. No, it isn’t. Deja-ku is a neutral term, and includes both positive and negative aspects. And in fact, most of them are positive. A deja-ku is simply a haiku that brings to mind another haiku (or another poem or work of art). If the similarity is excessive or clearly plagiarism (which includes cryptomnesia), then yes, those would be negative. But the great majority of deja-ku are positive and worth celebrating for their use of shared subjects (this happens with season words, or kigo, all the time), allusion, similar syntax, or other commonalities. The term “deja-ku” should not be used as a pejorative. Indeed, we should welcome most cases of deja-ku with open arms.

Postscript (13 December 2016, 17 January 2017)

Issues with the preceding two poems may not have stopped there. The results of the 18th annual Haiku International Association haiku contest were announced in Tokyo on 4 December 2016, and posted to the HIA website on 7 December 2016, including the following honourable mention by Kwaku Feni Adow of Ghana:

arriving on the farm—
the open arms
of the scarecrow

And this from Anatoly Kudryavitsky, from his book  Horizon (Red Moon Press, 2016, 39), and no doubt published in a journal before that:

unscheduled stop
a scarecrow welcomes us
with open arms

What are we to make of these new similarities? Are they independently written, or was any poem influenced by any of the other poems? Is there plagiarism afoot here, even if accidentally, or independent creation? I am happy to assume independent creation, as I have no reason to believe otherwise, but is the similarity still excessive? Perhaps it is to some readers.

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