Honkadori, or Allusive Variation

cropped-goodA common technique used in old Japanese poetry, one that is still used in haiku and tanka today, is known as honkadori, which emerged around the 12th century. It has been described as “allusive variation,” where a poet borrows or adapts lines from an earlier poem, using them in a new way, expanding or updating a well-known image or idea. Readers were expected to know the allusion, so these poems gave no hint of plagiarism, similar to the way parody today is clearly not plagiarism. These sometimes complex allusions enabled poets to revisit common subjects and extend the conversation begun by the source or foundation poems. Honkadori also added compression and density to new poems through their allusions to key poems and poets that preceded them. Readers gained a greater sense of satisfaction in recognizing the allusions, too.

Allusive variation is a poetic technique that is part of the scope of what I call déjà-ku, or haiku that bring to mind other poems. Most varieties of déjà-ku are laudable, including the use of shared subjects and seasonal references as well as parody, allusion, and homage. The less savoury varieties include deliberate plagiarism and a sort of accidental plagiarism called cryptomnesia (remembering a text but forgetting the source). It’s useful to learn a bit about honkadori to better understand the scope of déjà-ku as a way to look for it in our reading and to employ it in our writing.

For an overview of honkadori, the following excerpts may prove helpful. The first comes from Makoto Ōoka’s The Poetry and Poetics of Ancient Japan (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Katydid Books, 1997), translated by Thomas Fitzsimmons. The book’s second chapter, titled “Ki no Tsurayuki,” is described as covering “the basic concepts of poetry anthologies compiled by Imperial Order,” and discusses the Kokin-shū, the Man’yō-shū, and other collections produced over a 500-year period through the reigns of twenty-one successive emperors. Here is Ōoka’s passage on honkadori (53–55):

It would be difficult to pretend that all these anthologies are of an exceptional poetic quality. They contain a veritable orgy of repetitions and they often revisit familiar ground. Since it is not often possible to achieve creativity and originality in the space of 31 syllables [even less so in the shorter haiku genre], there very quickly emerged various ways to add to the brief form of the waka a larger richness of content [waka are now commonly known as tanka]. One of the most impressive methods is the honkadori, literally “borrowing from a basic poem.” As the term suggests, this procedure called for an author to build his poem around a deliberately borrowed fragment from a well-known waka. The goal of this borrowing from famous waka was to bring the reader to a realization, through the juxtaposition of two works, of the fragrance, the distant resonance, of the old text, and also to increase appreciation of the new work’s richness and complexity.

It was necessary that such borrowing come from old and famous waka so that the reader could readily discern in a new poem the voluntary use of the honkadori technique, otherwise the poem in question would involve simple plagiarism. The honkadori was not plagiarism; on the contrary, by rendering homage to a chef-d’oeuvre it gave the old work new life in another form. Obviously, it was important that the source waka be clearly identifiable.

The frequent use of honkadori reminds us of a crucial fact: that a thousand years ago, eight hundred years ago, a large number of courtesans, and other cultivated men and women, were able to hold in memory the most famous of ancient waka. In certain cases a brief, 31 syllable poem might be studded with references to two or three older waka, and sometimes this new work, its worth immediately recognized, benefitted from an actual kind of publicity. Such results would not have been possible, whatever the poet’s talent, without eminent readers able to understand and appreciate the virtuosity involved. In the absence of such readers these efforts to enrich the waka would have been stillborn.

One can say that the creation, by an author and his readers, of such an elaborate literary space had the effect of prolonging the tradition of imperial anthologies. In this select circle, the author was one with the reader. And one must not forget that in the event the very brevity of the waka was an advantage; it facilitated the memorization of a great number of older poems. These then are the conditions that permitted a technique of composition like the honkadori, undoubtedly strange to the western mind, to become so largely applied; for author and reader alike, it offered a unique opportunity for competition in the arena of poetic culture.

Put another way, composing poems and knowing how to appreciate them constituted one of the most refined aspects of life in high society. It was in this same context that the uta-awase, or “poetry contests,” as well as the renga and the renku were developed—all techniques of poetic creation and appreciation unique to Japan and rooted in the principal of community.

Ōoka’s comments also apply to haiku and tanka poetry today, and to some extent to hokku, haikai, renga, and renku traditions over many centuries. Waka employed honkadori more readily than did haikai and what we know today as haiku, but the technique of allusion, including allusive variation, has been common in all these genres, and may be judiciously employed by writers of haiku in English even today. As Ōoka notes, though, the allusion requires that the borrowed text be sufficiently famous for readers to understand that the game of allusive variation is afoot, and the same guidance would apply today. Judging whether a particular source text is sufficiently famous is central to the art of allusive variation, and if a source poem is not sufficiently well known, then it is an easy task for the writer of the new poem to clarify by appending a note to his or her work, such as by saying “after Buson” or “after Ryōkan.” Whether with or without this sort of guidepost, readers are still expected to know the literature and be skilled in the art of reading haiku and related poetry just as much as they might be skilled in writing it.

As mentioned, honkadori continues today. As but one modern-day Japanese example, consider this poem Momoko Kuroda, translated by Abigail Friedman, from I Wait for the Moon: 100 Haiku of Momoko Kuroda (Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2014; 31):

ittō no moto ōna zasu hotaru no yo

under a single lamp
sits an old woman alone—
evening of fireflies

Friedman comments that the poet “uses the phrase hotaru no yo or evening of fireflies, a seasonal phrase for summer that echoes a well-known poem by one of Japan’s most highly regarded Shōwa-period poets, Katsura Nobuko (1914–2004)” (31):

yuruyaka ni kite hito to au hotaru no yo

lightly clad
I meet someone
evening of fireflies

It is not simply awareness of the older poem that the new poem intends to convey. In most instances, the newer poem also seeks to bring with it at least some of the meaning, overtones, and contexts of the earlier poem. In this case, Friedman describes the earlier poem as follows (32):

Nobuko’s husband died two years after their marriage, when she was only twenty-seven and childless. She wrote the above poem a few years after his death, while she was in her thirties. Nobuko’s haiku hold a sensual awareness, and at times longing. Momoko’s differ in that they tend to play out on a more spiritual plane. Yet Momoko very much admires Nobuko’s writing. In her two-volume work of interviews with thirteen Shōwa-period haiku poets, Momoko places Nobuko first. After Nobuko’s death, a haiku award was created in her name, and Momoko was the first winner of that award.

You can see that this example of honkadori is also an act of homage. As Antonin Artaud said, “Let the dead poets make way for others.” Yet the only way new poets can see further is if they stand on the shoulders of giants. And thus, each generation gives way to the next. In the Japanese tradition, this changing of the guard is often accomplished through veneration—not an obliteration of old ways seen as possibly inferior nor a paralysis in the face of superior work that could seemingly never be bettered. Artaud goes on to reveal a Western stance towards creativity and uniqueness that is not entirely shared by Eastern poetry. He also says, when the dead poets make way for us, “Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created . . . that petrifies us.” The anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom might have us believe, need not extend to Japanese poetic traditions, in whatever language. Indeed, the veneration of honkadori can be energizing and respectful, avoiding petrification.

In an essay titled “Modes of Quoting: Parody and Honkadori” (Simply Haiku 2:4, July–August 2004), Akiko Tsukamoto defines honkadori as “the art of quoting,” and offers the following summation:

Fujiwara-no Teika states that honkadori must not be “stealing,” but the difference between a genuine honkadori and a false one lies, in his view, in the effect on the reader (or listener, if the poem is recited). It does not mean that the reader can decide for himself if something is a honkadori or mere plagiarism. However, whether a honkadori is successful or not depends on the particular effect which appears or does not appear at the stage of appreciation. Teika’s aesthetics always assumes an objective reader possessing full knowledge and the ability to grasp well-made allusions and references. Of course, if an actual reader does not know the original poem he may fail to grasp and appreciate it, but Japanese court poetry was intended for a class of connoisseurs, which of course is the only context in which this sort of use of quotation can play the desired role.

Even if we are nothing like the class of connoisseurs of old Japan, I am confident that Western haiku poets and readers can still create and appreciate the effects of deftly handled allusion and allusive variation, even while each poem that uses these techniques takes a measured risk. Here, to close, is a poem of my own, written during our time of the coronavirus lockdown:

the stay-at-home order
extended again . . .
evening of fireflies


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Dying to Visit a Graveyard

cropped-goodWe’ve all had the experience of wandering through a graveyard, wondering about all the names we see, the stories behind each set of dates. Entire lives seem to be reduced to a pair of dates, and yet we contemplate the dash that separates those dates, the life that was lived in between. Yet as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is not the length of life, but the depth.” These speculations have often been a topic for poetry, including haiku and longer poetry, producing varied yet similar moments of reflection.

I first began thinking about this topic when I published “The Dash,” by Steve Sanfield, in my journal Tundra, #1, 1999, page 87. A note with the poem says it arose “from an interview with a convicted rapist who was once the heavyweight champion of the world.”

The Dash

        (found poem)

When you die
nothing matters but the dash.
On your tombstone it says
1933 – 2025
or something like that.
The only thing that matters
is that dash.
That dash is your life.
How you live it
and were you happy
with the way you lived it.
That’s your life.
That’s what matters—
the dash.

Another poem like this is by Linda Ellis, and it’s more famous. It has the same title as Sanfield’s poem, “The Dash,” and it appears in her book Live Your Dash (New York: Sterling Ethos, 2011). The poem even has its own website, and has appeared as a picture book (for example, see Amazon). The poem was originally written in 1996, and has been anthologized and shared widely, and as a result it appears in several slightly different versions.

The Dash

I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the beginning to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth
and now only those who love them
know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own,
the cars . . . the house . . . the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

To be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect
and more often wear a smile . . .
remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read
with your life’s actions to rehash,
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you lived your dash?

It’s easy to relate to the sentiments of this popular poem. Here are a few additional poems on the same subject, one tanka and six haiku, arranged in order of publication. They all speak of the same moment, of noticing that dash. The first is by Larry Kimmel, from Bottle Rockets #9, 5:1, August 2003, page 36:

a name and an epitaph
blurred by green moss
life in the end
little more than a dash
between two dates

Kimmel is not diminishing the life he is referring to, but observing that it may seem diminished by the dash, but presumably shouldn’t be. And yet he recognizes the ephemerality of life, that it’s all one mad dash from birth to death. Here I think of what may have been Issa’s death poem, as translated by Robert Hass:

A bath when you’re born,
a bath when you die,
how stupid.

Harold Stewart’s two-line rhyming version of the same poem is as follows:

Between the washing-bowls at birth and death,
All that I uttered: what a waste of breath!

And yet, all is not futility for those who wish to be positive, making the most of that dash between the beginning and the end. Here’s another Issa poem, written on the death of his daughter:

this world of dew
is but a world of dew
and yet, and yet . . .

Next is a haiku by Yvonne Cabalona, from Feel of the Handrail, an anthology she edited with W. F. Owen, Modesto, California: Leaning Bamboo Press, 2005, page 7.

old cemetery
all of those dashes
between life and death

Cabalona notes not just the dashes but how many she sees in this old cemetery. We cannot help but feel a moment of awe and respect. She also suggests that perhaps we spend our lives “dashing,” in too much of a frenzy, seldom slowing down enough to smell the roses, to make the most of life on our own terms.

A soldier’s headstone—
between one date and another
so short a line

The preceding poem is by Sylvia Forges-Ryan. It appeared in The Sixth Annual ukiaHaiku Festival Winning Entries, Ukiah, California: Ukiah Haiku Festival, 2008, page 17. Jane Reichhold was the contest judge, and this poem was the first-place winner in the “adult contemporary” category. The poem also appeared in Dandelion Clocks: Haiku Society of America Members’ Anthology 2008, New York: Haiku Society of America, 2008, page 30. This time the focus is on the deaths of soldiers, with this one headstone implying others, and how they died young—and perhaps also shared similar death dates in service to their countries.

winter gravestone
hyphen between dates
my father’s life

James Martin, in the preceding poem, also moves from many gravestones to just one—his father’s. This poem is from Frogpond 32:2, Spring/Summer 2009, page 12. The abstraction of the “father’s life” carries the weight of every story and memory that filled it. Also, we cannot help but feel that the poet is contemplating his own life, the quality of the dash that will appear on his own gravestone.

Reading a tombstone.
The hyphen between the years
tells many stories.

This poem by Jermaine Williams appeared in Pebbles 25:2, October 2012, page 9. The last line is more explanatory compared with the same implication present in other haiku shared here, but it’s ultimately the point of each poem—that each tombstone tells a story. Or, in reality, it doesn’t, but we are left to wonder about each of the stories suggested by the dash.

the dates on Dad’s gravestone
what matters is the hyphen

The preceding poem by Frank Judge was published in Last Ginkgo Leaf: Rochester Area Haiku Group 10th Anniversary Members’ Anthology, edited by Michael Ketchek and Carolyn Coit Dancy, Rochester, New York: Rochester Area Haiku Group, 2015, page 16. It previously appeared in Brass Bell, September 2014. Whether a dash or a hyphen, yes, what matters is the life it represents.

between two dates
the length of life

This poem, by Kwaku Feni Adow, is from his book Between Two Dates, Kumasi, Ghana: Mamba Africa Press, 2020, page 17. He means not just the length but the quality of that life. What do we do, during the length of our lives, between the two dates each of us are given? That, as with all the other examples, is the question these poems raise, an introspective challenge to improve ourselves.

The shared observation in these independently written poems is one to be celebrated. As we remember those who have died before us, and think about their lives, represented by that simple dash on their gravestones, we may all be inspired to deepen the quality of our lives. We might do that, in fact, by writing haiku.

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Watching Haiku: People

GoodA surprising number of haiku present the experience of someone or something watching someone or something else that, in turn, is watching someone or something . Sound complicated? The following example poems, fortunately, are clearer than my description of this shared sort of experience. I’ve presented essays on “Watching Haiku: Cats” and “Watching Haiku: Other Creatures,” and now it’s time to focus on people. Each one of these haiku, created independently, offers its own celebration of a common experience, and it’s this very sort of commonality that makes haiku poetry rewarding to both write and to read. All poems are arranged by year.

      watching my daughter
watching her daughter washing
her doll’s white socks

The preceding poem by Louise Beaven appeared in The Haiku Hundred (North Shields, United Kingdom: Iron Press 1992, page 15), a book edited by David Cobb, James Kirkup, and Peter Mortimer. A common variation of these “watching” haiku is one generation watching another watching something else, which we see here. And although the youngest daughter is “washing” rather than watching, we know that her doll is being watched too.

watching you
as you watch

Jocelyne Villeneuve’s poem, from Marigolds in Snow (Waterloo, Ontario: Penumbra Press, 1993, page 54) takes places indoors, where she’s watching a friend or loved one. We get the sense, too, that the poet might be feeling a little bored, or wishes she could interact with the other person because the television show isn’t nearly as interesting.

breakfast time—
watching strangers across the way
watching televised war

Another television poem. This one from New Cicada 10:1, Summer 1993, page 5, is by Norma C. Plummer. Readers cannot quite know exactly what “across the way” means (a road, an alley, a gap between tenements?), but whatever the interpretation we do see the watching of those strangers watching war on television. Perhaps the author is weary of that war, and can watch its unfolding no longer, yet she cannot get away from seeing others who are still watching it.

First China trip
Watching people watching me
Watching them

We often watch creatures in nature to see what they’re doing. Here the creature being watched is a tourist, who in turn watches those who are watching her. The poet is D. Ronnie Barrett, and the poem was published in A Solitary Leaf, the 1996 Haiku Society of America members’ anthology edited by Randy M. Brooks and Lee Gurga (page 8).

in the river reflection
he watches himself
watch the sunset

This poem appeared in 1997 in the Australian poetry journal Paper Wasp. Poet Alan J. Summers gives us someone watching himself. And yet that “himself” is not the poet, but someone the poet is seeing—and he is surely empathizing with that person’s introspection (self-reflection). The sunset must be reflecting in the water too. I’m not quite sure how the person watching a sunset (far away in the distance, with eyes looking up) could also watch himself in a river’s reflection (close by, with eyes cast down), so the logic is not quite solid with this poem, unless we take it to mean the person watches himself in the river’s reflection after he has just been watching the sunset—they cannot quite happen at the same time.

the sculptor and his head of clay
watching each other

Tomislav Mijović’s poem was published in Knots (Tolmin, Slovenia: Prijatelj Haiku Press, 1999, page 132), edited by Dimitar Anakiev and Jim Kacian. Here we have an inanimate but anthropomorphized object watching a human, a different take on this watching theme. One kind of watching is literal, the other figurative.

watching her watch
on the way to the pawn shop
for groceries

Dwight L. Wilson’s poem appeared in “Family Sequence,” in A Half-Moon Shining: Haiku from an African-American/Quaker Perspective (Princeton, New Jersey: Leopard Press, 1999, page 51). In this case the “watch” is a timepiece (a noun rather than a verb) so not strictly connected to the commonality of someone watching something watch something else, but I include it here for being in the ballpark. It’s a sad poem where the watch is being watched . . . for the last time (pun intended).

watching my daughter
watch her daughter
miss the basket

This poem is by Nina Wicker, and it appeared in Frogpond 22:3, 1999, page 44, and also in Wild Again: Selected Haiku (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2005, page 24). Here we have a hint of empathy—more than a hint. The grandparent feels love, surely, for her daughter, who is so intent on paying attention to her own daughter, perhaps worrying how the youngest daughter feels after missing a shot in a game of basketball. Even if no words are exchanged, or no pat on the back offered, the youngest daughter no doubt feels the support of her mother and grandmother who are both present to watch the game—and watch over their youngest.

4 a.m.
a neighbour I have never seen
watching the eclipse

Seán O’Connor’s poem appeared in Haiku Spirit #19 in March 2000. In this case the poet’s act of watching is not explicitly stated. However, it’s clearly implied that the poet is watching his neighbour watch the eclipse. A small tension arises in that the poet has never seen this person before, yet we also feel that they have at least a small bond in both appreciating the eclipse. Perhaps, too, this neighbor is not known to the poet because something else has been “eclipsing” the poet’s view of his neighbour, such as that neighbour being reclusive.

a short pause
watching tourists watch me

I have no publication credit for this poem (it came to me via Charles Trumbull’s haiku database—thanks, Charlie), but it would have been written before August of 2003, which was when Kylan Jones-Huffman, its author, had died—a casualty of the war in Iraq. Here the focus of attention is on rappelling, and in this case the poet is doing the activity rather than watching someone or something else do something. The poet becomes aware that others are watching him and for a moment he is watching them watching him. And thus the reason they are watching him, rappelling down a mountain face or climbing wall, is probably no longer happening at that moment. But after that pause he will begin rappelling again.

waiting for bats
you notice me
watching you

Malcolm Williams published this poem in Presence #26 in 2005. Here we have noticing instead of watching, but still we have one person seeing someone else watching him or her. This contrasts intriguingly with the context of bats, creatures that notice their prey by echolocation instead of by sight. The bats, however, are not being watched, but two people notice each other while waiting for the unseen bats. We can imagine that both of the people are hoping the bats will fly soon, presumably at dusk. Because the bats are not present in the poem, this is more of a people poem that a creature poem.

linden shadows
watching people watching
the blind man

This poem, by Helen Buckingham, was an award-winning haiku in the English section of the ninth Suruga-Baika Literary Prize in 2007. All the other example watching poems here are about the act of seeing, but this time the poem presents someone who cannot see. The viewer is apparently under the shade of a linden tree, most likely in a place of comfort and repose, where it is easy to watch other people who are watching a blind man—who is perhaps not at ease at all.

clear sky
the window washer
watching us watching him

Ed Markowski’s poem tied for eighth place in the Shiki Internet Kukai (anonymous haiku contest) in November of 2008. The window washer is the source of attention, and we may immediately worry about being up at such heights. Such risks have become ordinary and accepted by the window washer, but perhaps the window washer watches the people below with a touch of envy, not necessarily to be on the ground but to be idle enough to not be working. Over and over, these “watching” poem imply empathy for a nearby person or animal.

early dawn—
I watch her on the balcony
watching it

This poem, by A. Thiagarajan, appeared in Modern Haiku 40:1, Winter–Spring 2009, page 88. It preserves that moment of appreciating someone else appreciating a natural phenomenon. It must be a beautiful sunrise, and the love or admiration that one person surely has for the other must be more beautiful yet. There’s an unspoken love here, in that one person might feel a deeper pang of love when seeing someone he or she loves appreciate something beautiful that he or she also appreciates.

watching his face
watching the moon
a passing cloud

Pat Benedict Campbell wrote this poem. It appeared on the DailyHaiku website on 4 May 2009, and later in her book The Alchemy of Tea (Carleton Place, Ontario: Catkin Press, 2019, page 39). Here we have a moon poem—the moon is so much more watchable than the sun. There’s an overtone of love in this haiku. As with the previous poem, the poet sees someone else watching the moon, and surely admiring it. And when a cloud passes over the moon, surely a “cloud” also passes over the face of the male being watched. The sense of love comes to mind because of an inherent empathy for that moment of loss because of the passing cloud. The unstated emotions of the observed person seem to extend to the concern of the observer as they both share this moment together, but in different ways.

watching my son
watching his son

Quendryth Young published this poem in the online German haiku journal Chrysanthemum, in issue #6, October 2009. Here we have intergenerational attention, and no doubt pride. So often in these poems the connection between human watchers is between generations.

I catch him
watching me
watch someone else

The word “catch” suggests an interpersonal relationship between the “me” and “him.” Did someone attractive catch the poet’s eye? The poem does not say “he catches me / watch someone else,” which would suggest guilt on the poet’s part for being caught. Instead, the poet catches someone else catching her watching someone else, which complicates the nature of the relationship. Is the “him” jealous, perhaps? We may also infer any number of possibilities for who the “someone” is—is it a child at a playground, a cute guy at a bar, a skater pirouetting in a competition? But quite aside from that, the poet has “caught” someone noticing her noticing something else, and the poem draws us into that moment. This poem by Philomene Kocher appeared in Hearing the Silence (Pointe Claire, Québec: King’s Road Press, 2011, page 14).

Come in her nightgown
to watch the moon—
I watch her . . .

We turn from possible jealousy to love. David E. LeCount’s poem appeared in his book La Honda Journal (El Granada, California: Day’s Eye Press and Studios, 2011, page 13). When the poet and his lover (so it seems) both go out to look at the moon, he finds her the more attractive option. The word “nightgown” also gives the poem a potentially erotic overtone. No wonder he is watching her instead of the moon.

approaching squall
she watches his eyes
undressing someone else

This poem, by Cameron Mount, brings to mind the earlier one by Philomene Kocher, but more overtly suggests guilt and eroticism. Cameron’s poem appeared in Frogpond 35:2, Spring–Summer 2012, page 49. That approaching squall is not just a rainstorm but quite likely a storm of protest from the woman in this poem.

I catch her
watching me . . .
pitch on my fingers

Bill Pauly published this poem in Modern Haiku 44:2, Summer 2013, page 96. The poet is obviously busy at an important task, working with his hands, and the only clue as to what the task might be is the word “pitch.” Perhaps it’s also dangerous, which might be why the female is watching him carefully. Or perhaps she’s just admiring him for being industrious, doing whatever the work is, whether it’s dangerous or not. Either way, there’s a connection, with the “catching” having nothing to do with guilt, unlike Philomene Kocher’s earlier poem.

watching people watching me
condo balconies

This poem by Ben Moeller-Gaa appeared in the German online journal Chrysanthemum #14 in October of 2013. This is a common inner-city experience, but it could be anywhere—we’re always watching each other, or at least aware of each other because of our increasingly close proximity.

watching the machine
watching me

Jane Reichhold’s poem, from her book A Dictionary of Haiku (Gualala, California: AHA Books, second edition, 2013, page 252) lets us imagine what the machine might be in the intensive care unit. Perhaps it’s an ultrasound machine. Or perhaps it’s a machine providing medication, sustenance, or some other benefit, and thus “watching over” her. Or is it a closed-circuit video recorder, for security or safety purposes? Whatever it might be, the poet is watching back.

losing her mind—
watching a woman
as she watches herself

This poem, by Fran Witham, appeared in Bottle Rockets #31, 16:1, 2014, page 19. The poet is watching a woman who is somehow watching herself—we don’t know how. Nor do we know how the watched woman might be losing her mind, but that fact or presumption is offered as a given. Perhaps the act of watching herself incessantly is why the woman is losing her mind.

I watch someone
watch someone else
the promise of rain

Rainy and overcast days are conducive to watching—and introspection. This poem, by Nicholas Klacsanzky, is a small confession. We don’t know why he is watching someone else, or who that person is, but something that person is doing is enough to catch the observer’s attention. The unstated aspects of this poem empower readers to engage with the poem to finish its unfinishedness. All of this is presented in the context of a promise of rain, and we might easily assume that the rain, if it comes, will change the activities of the person being watched—and the watcher as well. This poem appeared in Zen and Son, by George Klacsanzky and Nicholas Klacsanzky (n.p., 2017, page 36).

watching them
not watching us
sun-hatted gardeners

Now we have a turn—in this case the people being watched are not aware of being watched and are not watching back. By this fact we can easily gather that the gardeners don’t know they are being observed because they so engrossed in their work or pastime. We get a sense of the summer season from the mention of sun hats, but we don’t know who the people identified as “us” are. Somehow we feel that the watchers are self-conscious, not necessarily for watching others at work but for not also being similarly productive or engaged in a hobby. This poem, by David Jacobs, was published in his book Buzz (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2018, page 13).

night train
watching myself
watching myself

This poem by Alan S. Bridges appeared in his ebook, In a Flash (Ormskirk, United Kingdom: Snapshot Press, 2019, page 25). It shares a moment of introspection, of seeing one’s reflection while looking out a train window. That reflection, of course, is both literal and figurative.

condolence card thinking of you thinking of him

Susan B. Auld’s poem, from Chrysanthemum Dusk (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2016, page 9) moves from sight to focus on an idea. This is a poem of empathy once again. The card is a sympathy card, but the poem is all empathy—the poet is motivated to send condolences because she wonders how her friend must be feeling when thinking of a lost loved one. While this poem is about more than the sense of sight, it extends a similar perception to other senses and feelings.

Haiku poems dwell in experience. Haiku poets write similar poems because they have similar experiences—and cannot help but have similar experiences, simply because they are human. In some cases the writing can be tired, saying what too many people have already said, or even plagiarizing another poem. But aside from such extremes, poems that have a common topic offer a cause for celebration. The similarity of such poems serves to validate our human existence, and how we share much more than we may realize. In the opening paragraph of The Haiku Handbook (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1989), William J. Higginson emphasizes that the purpose of haiku is to share them. We cannot celebrate this sharing if we do not hold much experience in common.


Note: Some poems do not appear with indented lines as originally published, due to a limitation in the WordPress blog software. A nod of thanks to Charles Trumbull for his help in discovering some of these poems through his invaluable haiku database. See also “Watching Haiku: Cats” and “Watching Haiku: Other Creatures.”


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Watching Haiku: Other Creatures

GoodIn my essay “Watching Haiku: Cats,” I offered sixteen poems about watching cats watch something else, sometimes with a circular sort of awareness that makes watching a conscious act. Each poem offered empathy for something smaller than the observer, sometimes with hints of danger or foreboding. Many other haiku are similar to these poems, although not about cats. Sometimes they’re about other creatures, large and small. For example, the first few of the following poems are about a frog, a squirrel, a rabbit, robins, and a mouse. Humans also appear, but each verse features some sort of creature in addition to the watching human (read more about humans in “Watching Haiku: People”). These poems, despite their similarities, are uniquely told celebrations of a common phenomenon—noticing something that notices something else and writing haiku about it. We need not shy away from writing poems that share this surprisingly common observation, so long as we write what we experience and convey what we feel in fresh ways that we make our own. I’ve arranged the following poems chronologically by year.

            green and hazel eyes
watching their first frog watching
green and hazel eyes

Elizabeth G. Hood published the preceding poem in Modern Haiku 3:1, 1972, page 23. There may well be earlier English-language poems that offer this experience, but I haven’t yet discovered them. The first and third lines undergo a sort of transformation, because we may wonder if they describe the frog’s eyes or the child’s eyes. Perhaps both. And surely this is a child, since it’s their first frog, giving the poem extra delight. Surely the frog and the child (I picture a girl) both have the same eye colour.

Cold, blustery day—
a squirrel at the pecans
spies me—spying him.

This poem is by Louise Somers Winder, and it appeared in Haiku Six, edited by Phil Garland, the sixth collection of winners from an annual haiku contest run by the Washington Poets Association (Tacoma, Washington: The Rhododendron Press, 1980. page 22). There’s a measure of delight in this poem too, in noticing something that is clearly paying attention to something else—or, in this case, you. We are left to wonder if the poet will shoo away those squirrels to protect the pecans.

the rabbit watching
the falling.

This poem appeared in Ten Years’ Collected Haiku, Volume 1 (Fanwood, New Jersey: From Here Press, 1987, page 16). Out of context, the poem does not make it clear what is meant by “the falling.” However, it appears under the heading of “3 Poems at Niagara,” so “the falling” is obviously the great waterfall. We can wonder how conscious the rabbit is of the falling water, let alone its fame and magnificence, or if it’s just looking in its direction. That speculation may well be on the author’s mind as he is watching the rabbit. For humans, and perhaps rabbits too, the endlessly falling water is mesmerizing.

Robins watch
the snowfall

The preceding poem, by Richard Balus, was published in Haiku Zasshi Zō, Winter/Spring 1989, page 11. Here we feel the poet’s empathy for the robins, for surely that snowfall is cold, and a danger to their survival. And yet, by extension, cold temperatures are also a challenge for people. Or perhaps we feel a contrast, in that what is a nuisance to small birds is perhaps beautiful to human observers.

watching the mouse watching me

Joanne Morcom’s one-line poem saw first publication in Frogpond 17:4, Winter 1994, page 20. As with so many of these poems, the watched thing is vulnerable and wary. The watcher and watched are trapped in an instant of stalemate, and we may wonder who will twitch first.

at picnic tables
people watching gulls
watching people

This haiku, by Gordon Dickens, appeared in 2000 in the Mainichi Daily News. There’s a mutual wariness here, with both the people and the gulls deeply aware of each other. The people want to protect their food at the picnic tables, and the gulls are watching for an opportunity to snatch something to eat. The poet is another unspoken observer, watching the people who are watching the gulls watch the people.

watching my daughter
watch the sparrows
at the feeder

It amazes me how many variations this theme can take. This poem by Susan Scholl appeared in Crinkled Sunshine, the 2000 Haiku Society of America membership anthology, edited by D. Claire Gallagher. Just as the mother has compassion for her daughter who is intently watching the sparrows, so too the family demonstrates compassion for the sparrows by stocking a birdfeeder. In so many of these poems, something being watched is either something vulnerable, such as these sparrows, or a predator (in other poems), such as a cat.

Watching the gulls
watching the fishermen
watching the sea

This poem, by Ken Stein, was a “work of merit” in the 2003 R. H. Blyth Award sponsored by the World Haiku Club. In this case the stated watching begins with seagulls rather than with a person, but the unstated watching begins with the person who sees the seagulls. The fishermen are watching the sea to determine if the weather will permit them to go fishing, and if they do, surely they will bring back spoils that the gulls can enjoy too. A similar poem is the following, by Elizabeth Crocket, published online in Chrysanthemum #16 in October 2014 (and thus presented here out of chronological order):

watching the osprey
watching the fisherman
watching the fish

The details have changed but the here the fishermen have returned from a successful trip, and the bird, itself a fisher, is eager for a share.

watching the rat
watch me—
we both run

Doris Thurston gives us some humour here. I published this poem in the 2005 Haiku North America conference anthology, Tracing the Fern, which I edited with Billie Wilson (Sammamish, Washington: Press Here, 2005, page 18). Again the poem speaks of empathy, with both the human and the rodent being afraid of each other, a shared feeling, even if the poet has no sympathy for the rat.

watching me
watching him

Those dragonfly eyes are multifaceted, so their watching is very different from the poet’s, both in vision and in understanding. Marie Summers published this poem in White Lotus #2, Spring/Summer 2006. This is a fleeting moment, too, for surely that dragonfly will soon dart away. And yet, the other “watching” poems here are just as fleeting too, even if the creature being watched isn’t as fleeting as a dragonfly.

cold morning
a pair of ducks watching me
watching them

Yu Chang wrote the preceding poem, and it appeared on the Cornell University Mann Library’s Daily Haiku website on 4 December 2006. It also appeared in his book Small Things Make Me Laugh (Rochester, New York: Free Food Press, 2016, page 5). Haiku poetry has a tradition to write about established season words. Haiku poets and readers do not hesitate to repeat any of these common seasonal subjects, such as cherry blossoms or icicles. We should similarly not hesitate to celebrate other subjects repeatedly as well, of which this poem is another example. It takes its turn to express what the poet saw, without worrying about whether others have seen the same thing too—or perhaps doing so because others have seen it too. Here the ducks and the poet are mutually aware of each other, and perhaps the ducks are also wary of the poet—or perhaps the ducks are eager for a handout, and maybe the poet is feeling guilty for not having any bread to toss.


D. Boyer’s poem surfaced in Bottle Rockets #16, 8:2, 2007, page 16. In this case it’s clear that the people are whale watching, where they are seeing the whales (apparently) watching the people. The watchers are being watched too.

            desert path
a coyote watches me
watch a coyote

In Proposing to the Woman in the Rear View Mirror (Baltimore, Maryland: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008, page 13), James Tipton offers the preceding take on this surprisingly common haiku trope, this time with a coyote. The poem’s last word introduces an ambiguity—is it yet another coyote that isn’t aware of being watched, or is it the same coyote that is watching “me”? Either way, the poem creates tension, a tension that may be deepened by that ambiguity, which suggests that there could be more than one coyote nearby, increasing the danger to the observer. On a desert path the poet has encountered at least one coyote, and they are both suspiciously eyeing each other—and we don’t know what will happen next.

southern shore
watching a penguin
watching me

Nola Borrell published this poem in Taste of Nashi: New Zealand Haiku (Wellington, New Zealand: Windrift, 2008, page 67), a book she edited with Karen Peterson Butterworth. New Zealand has three species of penguins, which you can see on the South Island, thus the reference to the southern shore. Tourists, of course, are fascinated by these birds, but the birds may be just as fascinated with human visitors.

boy watches heron
watching for a glint
on the water

Alegria Imperial entered this poem in the Shiki Internet Kukai (anonymous haiku contest) in May of 2010 to fit the theme of fishing. That glint on the water will no doubt indicate a fish, which the heron will surely strike. The poet is an unstated observer here, watching the boy watching that heron, which is intently watching the water.

watching the deer
watch my morning train
pass by

Mark E. Brager’s poem was published in The Heron’s Nest 13:4 in December 2011. No doubt the person in the poem is on his way to work or some other obligatory destination and momentarily envies the deer’s idleness and its lack of obligation—or at least he empathizes with the deer.

me watching
something big
watching me

Previous poems have identified specific creatures that are being watched. But here we have a mystery—just something “big.” That uncertainty creates additional tension—the creature being big and unknown increases the danger. This poem, by Stephanie Baker, was published in Mariposa #32, Spring/Summer 2015, page 10. It brings to mind the following poem, by Issa, here in David Lanoue’s translation (from his http://haikuguy.com/ website):

ware wo miru sugata mo miete usu-gasumi

that shape’s watching me
watching him . . .
thin mist

So as you can see, haiku poets have been inspired by this watching theme for centuries, and surely there are many further examples in Japanese. In Issa’s poem, like Baker’s, we have the mystery of not knowing what “that shape” might really be, made a notch more ominous by the mist.

The solstice
I watch an owl
watching the moon

Christina Sng’s owl poem appeared on the Asahi Haikuist Network online on 16 September 2016. To me it feels like it must be the winter solstice, because of what I perceive to be a cool moon, but it could also be summer. When not modified in Japanese haiku to indicate otherwise, the moon is normally an autumn season word, but here the solstice puts this poem on the cusp between autumn and winter. Again we feel tension in wondering what the owl might be seeing by moonlight, and thus about to devour.

watching the deer
watching me
morning moon

This would seem to be a delicate and contemplative time of day, when one can see the morning moon. Perhaps the moon’s light is enough for the deer to see, if it’s not a day moon. The poet sees the deer, which is watching the person, and in that context the moon is also mentioned. The poet, John Hawk, does not need to specify whether either he or the deer are watching the moon, but that is still possibly implied. John’s poem placed in the Ninth Yamadera Bashō Memorial Museum English Haiku Contest in 2017.

           rainy day
I watch you watching
an ant

Christiane Ranieri’s poem can be found in Wild Plum 3:1, Spring/Summer 2017, page 15. We feel at least a little empathy for the ant on this rainy day, and perhaps that’s what the “you” in this poem feels, and by extension so too does the observer of that person watching the ant.

flaring nostrils
smelling me
smelling the horse

This poem goes in a different direction, speaking of the sense of smell instead of sight, but its structure is reminiscent of the watching poems. Jerome Cushman wrote this haiku, and it appeared in his book Amidst (Windsor, Connecticut: Café Nietzsche Press, 2007, page 37). Somehow the horse smelling the human makes us more deeply aware of how the horse must smell—and our nostrils must be flaring too.

Whenever we write about our experiences, those experiences are very likely to have been shared by others. In fact, for haiku, we hope that they have, because that sharedness, that empathy, lies at the center of haiku appreciation. There’s a point when poems about similar topics might cross a line and be excessively similar, but I don’t find that to be the case with the preceding “watching” poems. Instead, we can celebrate their sharedness, celebrate their commonality, and revel in how each poet takes a turn to say, in his or her own way, what they hope others have experienced too.


Note: Some poems do not appear with indented lines as originally published, due to a limitation in the WordPress blog software. See also “Watching Haiku: Cats” and “Watching Haiku: People.”


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Watching Haiku: Cats

GoodFor years I’ve admired the following poem by Marco Fraticelli, which first appeared in Beyond Spring Rain: Haiku Canada 25th Anniversary Members’ Anthology, edited by LeRoy Gorman (Aylmer: Québec: Haiku Canada, 2002, page 13):

watching the cat
watching the bird
watching the butterfly

Later versions also appeared as follows:

watching the cat
watching  the  sparrow
watching   the   butterfly

I tend to prefer the more specific mention of a sparrow rather than a bird, but what’s your preference? Either way, the poem has made me more aware of other poems that capture a similar moment, of noticing someone or something that is noticing something else. It’s a sort of double or even triple awareness, sometimes circular, and the reader adds another level to it all by noticing the poem that notices the poet that notices something noticing something else. The following are additional examples of similar haiku, arranged by year, all celebrating the same shared insight in unique and independently created ways. In addition, each of these poems features cats. For other animals and people, also check out “Watching Haiku: Other Creatures” and “Watching Haiku: People.” The abundance of these poems demonstrates how common this experience is, making this commonality all the more celebratory.

Second coffee break:
I watch the cat watching
the twig-tapped window

This poem is part of a set of several haiku, “A Sequence of Hours,” published by Geraldine Clinton Little in Modern Haiku 4:2, 1973, page 14. The key detail of the poem is that this is a second coffee break, so the observer seemingly has more time to observe. Cats are inveterate watchers, too, especially when kept indoors, longing to go out.

a black cat’s eyes on us watching the silence in reeds and water

This poem, by Elizabeth Searle Lamb, appeared in Frogpond 4:2, 1981, page 4. The people indicated by “us” are watching the silence in the reeds and water, but surely the cat is too, even while it also has its eyes on its observers. We are caught in a moment of mutual observation, and we may contemplate what might happen next.

I watch the cat
the empty corner

Debra Bryson’s poem, from Tidepool #1, 1984, page 42, mirrors other cat haiku collected here, in that the cat is paying attention to something it might eat or at least catch. In this case, the empty corner is where some creature used to be, perhaps a mouse or an insect, or where it might soon be again. As readers we are caught in that suspended moment, just as the cat is caught in its own suspense.

August morning—
watching me watch it,
the feral cat

Neca Stoller’s poem was published in Gerald England’s book, The Art of Haiku 2000 (Hyde, United Kingdom: New Hope International, 2000, page 7). Another cat being watched, with the cat watching the human, and both are probably wondering what the other is up to.

bay window
a persian cat watches me
watching her

We can easily imagine the watcher in this poem being outside, seeing that cat in a bay window, watching the person passing by. This poem, by Kirsty Karkow, appeared online in Haiku Harvest 2:1, January–April 2001.

spying in the bushes
watching a black cat
watching us

We may wonder what the cat in this haiku might be seeing. This poem, by Connor Brearley, was printed in Around Haiku: Celebrating Haiku: Words, Music, Visual Art (Leeds, United Kingdom: ArtForms / Education Leeds / British Haiku Society, 2006, page 7). In this case we have not just one observer but many, a plural “us” that makes this a shared experience beyond just the animal being observed.

robins watching me—
watching the cat watching me
watching the robins

It’s amazing how many of these watching/cat poems there are. This one, by J. D. Nelson, appeared on the Tinywords website on 4 May 2006. Here we can wonder if the robins are in danger from the cat, which may well be why the person is watching the robins—and the cat.

I watch my neighbor
Watch her cat that is watching
A fallen fledgling

This poem is by Lorraine Ward. It was the third-place winner in the 2008 Tokutomi Haiku Contest sponsored by the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, and first appeared Geppo XXXIII:4, July–August 2008, page 10. Tension again here, and danger to the fallen fledgling instead of to the observer. The poem offers a chain of attention, a chain that binds everyone and everything together, at least for a moment.

wire fence
cat watches the dog
watching her

G. R. LeBlanc’s poem appeared in Mainichi Daily News daily haiku selection online on 15 July 2010. This poem offers mutual uncertainty and surely apprehension, hence the close watching.

his last days at home
my son and I watch the cat
watching a bird

The anticipation in this poem and perhaps the danger awaiting the cat both echo with the idea of the son about to leave home. This poem by Deb Baker was published in Bottle Rockets #26, 2012, page 23.

watching the cat watch the rabbit
watching me

The writing team of Jan Conn, Mary di Michele, Susan Gillis, and Jane Munro, known as Yoko’s Dogs, produced this poem in their collaborative book Whisk (St. John’s, Newfoundland: Pedlar’s Press, 2013, page 65). The renku-like context called for a two-line poem, or they might have presented this verse in a more expected three lines. Yet something about the combination of “watching the cat” and “watch the rabbit” in the same line makes those elements more instantaneous. And then we have the turn to “watching me,” creating a full circle. This circle makes this poem differ from other examples, where only two things are watching each other, or a short litany of observers ends with something other than a return to the first observer. Again, a moment of tension—what will the cat do, and what will happen to the rabbit? But also, what about the person observing all of this? What will he or she do?

watching the cat’s eyes
watching me
watching the night

Here’s a poem by Jane Reichhold, from A Dictionary of Haiku (Gualala, California: AHA Books, second edition, 2013, page 212). The night may be foreboding to many people, but to a cat it’s an opportunity to explore, perhaps to hunt. But here the cat is no doubt confined to the house and cannot go out, yet it longs for the night, just as the person in the poem seems to long for something out in the darkness.

my neighbour’s cat

The poet here, Ernest J. Berry, is engaged in bird-watching, and notices that the neighbor’s cat is watching him—perhaps not even aware of the birds that the poet sees. Or is the cat also watching the birds rather than the poet? The poem, which appeared in Berry’s book Getting On (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2016, page 43), engages us with that double possibility.

Watching the cat watch the pot smoke I just blew its way.

This poem, by Jonathan Hayes, appeared in the online haiku website called Haikuniverse (posted 30 December 2016). Cats seem to be disdainful about everything. Here, however, readers can’t help but imagine that the cat is particularly disdainful about the pot smoke. Whatever the case, the cat and the person in this poem are mutually observing each other, locked for a moment in the arms of attention.

lazy afternoon
watching a cat
watching the waves

Cats seem to appear in a great number of poems about watchers watching watchers—in contrast, I know of just one such poem about dogs (shared earlier). And here’s one more cat poem, by Bob Lucky, from Acorn #40, Spring 2018, page 52. We get a feeling for the day’s laziness if we have enough idleness to notice a cat that is staring, perhaps vacantly, at the waves. This might be by the ocean, or perhaps by a lake, but we easily get a sense of summer vacation from this poem, and may also wonder what the cat is thinking as it watches those waves—if it is thinking anything at all. In contrast to some of the other poems mentioned, this one does not present a tension or danger (I doubt the waves are any kind of threat). But still that watchfulness occurs, and the poet is watching too.

And so we take our turn saying what others have seen, and by doing so we join a dance of celebration. Watching cats watching something that catches their interest, just as the cat is catching our interest. We appreciate these poems because we’ve had similar experiences ourselves, or can empathize with them even if we haven’t. As writers, it is useful to be wary of keeping one’s poem from being too similar to what another person has already written, but if we remain true to our experience and let the poem speak of our own heart, our own voice and point of view, then we too can join the dance of every poetic subject imaginable. And thus we can easily agree with the poet Dobby Gibson, who wrote the following in his book Polar (Alice James Books, 2005):

It may be true that everything
has already been said,
but it’s just as true that not everyone
has had a chance to say it.


Note: Some poems do not appear with indented lines as originally published, due to a limitation in the WordPress blog software. See also “Watching Haiku: Other Creatures” and “Watching Haiku: People.”


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How Attribution Becomes Plagiarism

UncertainIn July of 2018, Gary Hotham emailed me to ask if I knew who wrote the following poem, presented anonymously, which he had encountered in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here, by David Friend and the Editors of LIFE (New York: Little Brown & Company, 1991):

Quite apart from our religion
there are plum blossoms
there are cherry blossoms

He wondered if I knew the author, as it seemed like it might be a Japanese haiku. I did not know, but suggested he ask Charles Trumbull to check for similar poems in his expansive haiku database, which documents hundreds of thousands of published haiku in English, including haiku in translation. Charlie found that H. F. (Tom) Noyes had published a similar poem in Persimmon 2:2, Spring 1999, page 32:

Religion aside
there are plum blossoms
and pussy willows

You might suspect plagiarism here, but that’s fortunately not the case, as we’ll see by digging into the poem’s history. Charlie also noted that Tom’s poem had been reprinted in the following journals and anthologies (I’ve added some of the publication details here), with a lowercase “religion” in The Heron’s Nest, South by Southeast, and Seed Packets, but initial-capped elsewhere:

  • The Heron’s Nest 4:4, April 2002 (see online)
  • South by Southeast 16:1, 2009, page 18
  • Stanford M. Forrester, ed., Seed Packets, Windsor, Connecticut: Bottle Rockets Press, 2009, page 101
  • H. F. Noyes, Raking Aside Leaves, Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2011, page 2
  • Jim Kacian, Allan Burns, and Philip Rowland, eds., Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, New York: Norton, 2013, page 117

What’s significant with Tom’s poem is that its first publication, in Persimmon, included the following attribution: “After Nanpoku—R. H. Blyth, Zen and Zen Classics.” Tom clearly meant to acknowledge his source. His poem is therefore homage rather than plagiarism, but nor is it allusion, as the “after” construction acknowledges that the poem is surely too obscure for readers to receive the poem as an allusion, or at least that Tom chooses to be overt in acknowledging a direct derivation, regardless of how obscure or well known the original poem might be. The poem does indeed appear in Blyth’s Zen and Zen Classics collection, which I have in the one-volume compilation edited by Frederick Franck (New York: Vintage, 1978). I found it on page 41, where it differs slightly from the unattributed version Gary found in the Meaning of Life book, and should have the middle line indented (not shown here):

Quite apart from our religion,
There are plum blossoms,
There are cherry blossoms.

Tom’s acknowledgment therefore helped us determine the original author, but if that acknowledgment had not been present, I and others might have wondered if Tom had plagiarized. My point here, however, is not to focus on the Nanpoku poem but how the Tom Noyes poem lost its attribution and especially how that loss nudges the poem—or shoves it—from attribution to plagiarism. Or at least so it would seem, if one did not know the history that I present here. Years from now someone might encounter Tom’s poem and feel indignation, or falsely accuse Tom of plagiarism when that is not the case. This is because instances where the acknowledgment is missing suggest that Tom wrote it himself, when he clearly intended it as an homage to Nanpoku, as demonstrated by his original acknowledgment.

I’m not sure why Tom would have submitted a previously published poem for republication in The Heron’s Nest and then South by Southeast, since both journals have typically sought only unpublished poems. Gary Hotham has told me that The Heron’s Nest did allow previously published poems at the time (later ending the practice), but I don’t believe South by Southeast ever allowed prior publication. Whatever the case, no prior publication acknowledgment appeared with the poem in either journal. Moreover, perhaps Tom became less detail-oriented in his old age, and it may have slipped his mind to include the prior publication credit when he submitted this poem, or he may not have remembered that the poem was already published. Tom died at age 91 in 2010, so he would have been about 83 when the poem was republished in The Heron’s Nest in 2002, and about 90 when it appeared in South by Southeast in 2009. This apparent inattentiveness is relevant because it could explain why the “After Nanpoku” attribution was also omitted, when surely Tom would have conscientiously included it if it had been brought to his attention. The same issue of Persimmon included another poem by Tom with a note that says “After Rabindranath Tagore,” demonstrating a pattern of intent to acknowledge his sources. So if there’s any accident here, it was Tom’s for not including the “After Nanpoku” acknowledgment in later publications, and anthology editors for not knowing that the poem was really an homage to Nanpoku that should have been acknowledged rather than being offered as an original poem or allusion.

And so readers would not know. With its publication in The Heron’s Nest and South by Southeast, and then in the Seed Packets anthology, this poem lost its assertion of homage and became an apparent plagiarism—for anyone who knows the Nanpoku poem and would spot the extensive similarity. Even if one does not know the original poem, Tom’s piece still remains a silent plagiarism when it lacks the original acknowledgment. The matter becomes particularly problematic with the poem’s publication in Norton’s Haiku in English anthology, which is much more widely available, will have many more readers than prior publications, and will be read for years to come. In this collection, any reader encountering the poem would naturally assume that Noyes wrote it himself rather than deriving it from Nanpoku. So Tom’s poem has unwittingly moved from homage, with attribution, to a seeming plagiarism, moving away from the author’s conscientious intent. How easily this happened, suggesting that any of us who write haiku with “after so-and-so” attributions should be careful to maintain those attributions. I hope that a correction can be made in Haiku in English to make sure that future readers are not misled.

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A Pattern of Plagiarism

BadThis essay was originally written in response to Sandra Simpson’s essay, “How Close Is Too Close?” (https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/how-close-is-too-close/, posted to the New Zealand Poetry Society website in June of 2014), but greatly expanded since then as more and more new evidence came to light. Please read Sandra’s essay before reading this one. I dig deep here, but do so to explore complex issues thoroughly and fairly.


Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt.
“Perish those who said our good things before we did.”

It would be easy to start these comments by saying “Ernest J. Berry is a plagiarist.” Or, in a softer vein, perhaps “Ernest J. Berry has plagiarized.” But I won’t do so. Instead, I’d like to start by letting two poems speak for themselves—and bear in mind that this is just the tip of the iceberg. What does the following look like to you?

extended rain
the heron’s legs
get shorter 

            —Ernest J. Berry, in Pinesong, 2014, page 53, published in this anthology as the third prize winner of the 2014 Griffin-Farlow Haiku Award sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society

The crane’s legs
have gotten shorter
in the spring rain.

            —Matsuo Bashō, translated by Robert Hass in The Essential Haiku, Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1994, page 13


Allusion versus Plagiarism

Let me clarify the issues at stake here. In haiku terms, the central issue is the difference between allusion and outright copying (whether intentional or unintentional). I’d like to be generous and assume that this is not a case of intentional and conscious plagiarism, but of accidentally repeating someone else’s words, in this instance Robert Hass’s prominent translation of Bashō’s prominent poem. And while cases like this may not involve deliberate plagiarism, they are still plagiarism even if they’re cryptomnesia, which is the phenomenon whereby one remembers someone else’s words but forgets the source of those words. Cryptomnesia can be insidious because an actual experience often triggers the memory of someone else’s words because those words fit the experience so well. But when you don’t realize that you’re remembering rather than creating the words that fit that experience, you succumb to an unwitting act of plagiarism. Worse yet, it can be next to impossible to tell the difference between true creation and merely remembering someone else’s already fitting words for a particular experience (the fact that it can be difficult to feel that difference does not excuse plagiarism in the slightest, please note).

Seeing a bird’s legs getting shorter in water after a rainy period is a case in point. Bashō has already written about that (for the sake of poetic effect, it does not make much difference that he wrote about a crane rather than a heron). What Bashō wrote is a memorable and widely quoted poem. And so, forever after, anyone seeing that experience, when publishing his or her haiku, must surely defer to Bashō as having already written definitively about that experience. One has to write in a sufficiently fresh way about that experience, or write about a different experience to avoid this problem. Ernie Berry has not done either with his heron poem. What’s more, he entered the poem into a contest as if it were his own. What would you call that?

In contrast to plagiarism, allusion is where you refer to an existing poem, place, or event to enlarge the context of what your poem says. Allusion is not to be confused with parody, where one uses an existing poem, but changes it in significant ways, typically to have fun with the poem, or to poke fun at some other target (although parody, of course, still “alludes” to something else). For example, when Alan Pizzarelli changes Nick Virgilio’s famous lily poem to say “her suit” instead of “itself,” he radically transforms the poem from referring to a flower to one that refers to a buck-naked bathing beauty named Lily: “Lily: / out of the water . . . / out of her suit.” While this is similar to allusion, in that it brings to mind the other poem, parody is a form of deliberate revision where the full effect of “getting” the poem requires that the reader know the original poem—and to know that someone else has written that other poem. Everyone is in on the trick, in on the joke. Again, that wasn’t what Ernie was doing in his use of the Bashō poem, where he seems to have no intent at all to add to Bashō’s poem, and no intent for readers to think of Bashō’s poem when reading his. It’s not a conversation between poems at all, but a restatement of Bashō’s words and experience with Ernie’s name after them. Quite simply, it isn’t his poem. But by putting his name after the poem, Ernie clearly intended to pass the poem off as if he wrote it.

In his gem of a book, The Little Book of Plagiarism (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007, in which I was reminded of the Donatus quotation that starts this essay, although I’ve seen it use both dixerent and dixerunt in the Latin original), judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals writes that “Concealment is at the heart of plagiarism” (17). Ernie’s poem conceals Bashō as the original author. Parody is not concealment because, as Posner adds, “the parodist will plant clues so numerous and unmistakable that the reader will recognize the copying, for otherwise the parody will not be recognized as a parody” (18). But there are no clues here that Ernie intends a parody, such as changing the original in some humourous way. Likewise, Posner tells us, “Allusion is not plagiarism, because the reader is expected to recognize the allusion” (18). Astute readers will recognize the source here, to be sure, but it’s not an allusion because the poem is, again, essentially a restatement of Bashō’s original poem, with only incidental differences (and I would suggest that even if one wishes to argue that the differences are more than incidental, enough of the rest of the poem is still excessively similar). Ernie Berry may have had the experience that he describes, but he has not used original words to describe that experience. He has stolen Bashō’s words for that experience (in Hass’s translation). Quite simply, Ernie Berry has plagiarized. And the plagiarism does not end here. Rather, this is one of many examples that show a most unfortunate pattern of plagiarism.


No One Owns Experience

Yet no one owns experience, so what are we to do? That is the endless challenge with haiku and experience. The solution is to write from the heart, to write as freshly as possible, and, before publishing, to know the literature as best as one can to prevent oneself from submitting poems that are too similar to existing poems (and to accept the help of editors and contest administrators in pointing out excessive similarities—as was offered here by the North Carolina Poetry Society, yet objected to defensively by Ernie in response). It’s also vital to keep good records of one’s drafts, submissions, and publications, to help prevent sloppy repetitions or the submission of previously published work.

From his experience, would Ernie have come up with the words on his own for the heron’s legs getting shorter, or did the presence of the words in his subconscious mind make him aware of the experience when it happened? I have little doubt that Ernie saw a tall bird that seemed to be shorter in the water after rain. But Bashō has already written a poem about that, and not just any old poem, but a definitive and memorable one. And even if it were an obscure poem, it would likely still be cryptomnesia if Ernie had read that poem, as I believe is the case here with Hass’s book. Furthermore, even if he had not read an obscure poem on this subject, the problem would still remain that his version is excessively similar, and thus a copyright infringement of Hass’s translation (if not others). The case for plagiarism is even stronger when the poem is not obscure, as in this case, and stronger yet when the translation in question is from one of the most prominent and widely selling books of haiku translation yet published in the English language—one that Ernie surely has read.

So from all angles, there’s no defense here. One should simply apologize, withdraw the poem, and move on—as is done even by prominent haiku masters in Japan, as well as by those who are less prominent. Haiku is short enough that we are bound to repeat each other with independently created haiku, and these are withdrawn in Japan if they are found to be excessively similar to existing poems. But of course such acts are relevant to truly independent creation, which isn’t the case here. Ernie readily admits the similarity to Bashō and—in his words—the “lack of originality” in his version. Yet, by defending himself despite the similarity, Ernie has not demonstrated any sort of graciousness.

From a decade of being a judge and organizer with the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival’s annual Haiku Invitational contest—for haiku on the theme of cherry blossoms—I know from reading thousands of cherry blossom haiku how easy it is to repeat what others have already thought and written. So many of the entries fail to see freshly, and repeat the common tropes of equating falling cherry blossoms to confetti or snow. It’s been done to death. Some of these poems can be okay, but the best haiku on the theme of cherry blossoms see far more freshly than that. This is a case of sharing the same topic in haiku (as with other kigo, or season words), but this by itself is not plagiarism, parody, or allusion. Again, Ernie’s poem is not merely on the same topic as Bashō’s poem. Rather, the central experience and the expression of that experience are both too similar to an existing poem, in this case the translation by Robert Hass. For comparison, here’s Tom Lowenstein’s translation, from Classic Haiku (London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2007; 66):

Rainy season
and the crane’s legs
have grown shorter

And here is Hart Larrabee’s translation from Haiku: Classic Japanese Short Poems (New York: Chartwell Books, 2016; 9):

The crane’s legs
Grow shorter in the
Early summer rain

Ernie’s criticism of Hass’s translation misses one point, which is that Bashō wrote in Japanese about the heron’s legs getting shorter, and it’s the Japanese that matters first—and the experience behind it. Ernie’s poem is too similar to the concepts in the Japanese original, and could be compared to many different translations, such as the Lowenstein one. Hass’s is just one of them, albeit the most similar or prominent one. So one could argue that Ernie’s poem fails by not seeing freshly in terms of experience and in not respecting the literature about that experience. I care about these matters. A second and separate point is the direct similarity not just to the experience that Bashō rendered in Japanese, but the similarity of a particular translator’s translation of the original poem, which is significantly similar. Let’s please call a spade a spade, and consider that plagiarism.

Posner writes that “The reader has to care about being deceived about authorial identity in order for the deceit to cross the line to fraud and thus constitute plagiarism” (20). Certainly, in Ernie’s case of ripping off Bashō, we care. And if anyone does not care, they should.


Robert Hass’s Translation

I find it telling that Ernie criticizes the translation that his poem is the most similar to, as if to suggest that his “version” is acceptable because it’s “better.” But that’s fundamentally irrelevant. For all of the “failings” that Ernie believes to exist in Hass’s version, it was Hass’s translation that came to mind for Ernie, in what seems like an obvious case of cryptomnesia. So Hass’s version clearly succeeded by being memorable to Ernie. I doubt that this was a deliberate plagiarism, so it has to be accidental plagiarism—but it’s still plagiarism. It doesn’t matter how deeply and how long one might live and breathe haiku, either; plagiarism is still plagiarism.

Later in this essay I’ll look a little closer at Hass’s version, and will explore the fact that the quality of one version versus the other is irrelevant to whether plagiarism has occurred. Perhaps Hass’s version is a little wordy. And yes, it does read as a single sentence, with no cut, but the original Japanese does not have a cut, so Ernie is wrong to criticize Hass’s version for reading as a single sentence. But all of this is utterly beside the point—Ernie has copied it, even if by an act of faulty memory. Even if he has improved on it, he has presented it as his own haiku, which of course it isn’t. That offends me, and it should offend other readers too, if they are to take the act of creative expression and publication through haiku as professionally and as seriously as possible. Thank goodness the North Carolina Poetry Society took offense enough to rescind Ernie’s award for this poem.

Posner observes that “there seem always to be people willing to leap to the defense of the detected plagiarist” (92), as there may well be for Ernie Berry—and they may do so by comparing Ernie’s version with Hass’s, perhaps dwelling on what’s different rather than on what’s the same. Such defense may speak more to how much we may appreciate Ernie as a person, and appreciate the quality of his nonplagiarized work. But that needs no defense. The plagiarism remains, and is still plagiarism.


The North Carolina Poetry Society’s Response

Perhaps the case could be made that Ernie’s poem is not even a sufficiently original translation, still being too similar to an existing translation. However, if Ernie had offered his heron poem as a translation of Bashō, I would have said bravo, because it does an excellent job of rendering the original experience (but lacking the seasonal reference in the original, so a notch weaker on that point, not to mention changing the bird species). But he offered the heron poem as his own original haiku, which strikes me as fraud, especially when trying to win contest money in such an effort.

Posner says that “A judgment of plagiarism requires that the copying, besides being deceitful in the sense of misleading the intended readers, induce reliance by them” (19), something that he refers to as “detrimental reliance.” Readers rely on Ernie’s poem to be his own original creation. To violate that reliance by appropriating a significant amount of text from another writer (or translator), and passing it off as his own, is simply fraudulent.

The North Carolina Poetry Society’s website removed its reference to Ernie as the third prize winner of the 2014 Griffin-Farlow Haiku Award (see http://www.ncpoetrysociety.org/winners/), but the poem does still appear (on page 53) in Pinesong, the printed anthology of various 2014 NCPS contest winners. Richard Krawiec, a well-established haiku poet who is also a board member of the society, discovered the infraction and immediately brought it to the society’s attention, although this did not occur until after the book was printed. The society made the right choice by rescinding the award and not awarding the prize money. But it could go farther by putting a sticker over the poem in the printed anthology, or by inserting an errata sheet. If it explained the reason for the disqualification of the poem, doing so would send a clear and necessary message to others who might enter the same contest or other contests. The society could also find a new third-place winner to replace the one that would have been there were it not for Ernie’s deception—a poet who has been directly harmed by Ernie’s action.

On behalf of poets everywhere, the North Carolina Poetry Society has a duty to act professionally and to demonstrate zero tolerance for plagiarism. It has not (yet?) gone far enough in correcting the problem, and could also employ more experienced haiku judges who would more likely spot problems of appropriation. The resolution on the matter quoted by NCPS board member Richard Krawiec (see https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/how-close-is-too-close/) is as follows:

The majority decision is that most haiku poets would want to be told if they submitted as original work a poem that so closely parallels the published work of another poet. We also agree that such a close resemblance would disqualify the later poem from being published as original work under existing Copyright law. Since (Berry’s) poem so closely parallels the Haas [sic; they should have said Hass] translation of Basho in The Essential Haiku (published by Ecco Press, Penguin Books Canada, and Bloodaxe Books, Ireland) we unfortunately must withdraw the award to minimize any potential conflict with those publishers.

This shall be the NCPS sole response, ie. no public notice via Emuse or web posting. If people should later remark on the poems’ similarity we simply provide them with this response to Mr. Berry and the two web links. [Richard clarifies that “The reference to ‘web links’ refers to columns written on plagiarism in haiku by Sandra Simpson [see https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/cleaning-up-our-act/], and another by Michael Dylan Welch [see https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/a-spades-a-spade-plagiarism-and-deja-ku/].”]

Despite this being voted as their “sole response” on the issue (and voted on unanimously, Richard indicates), I would suggest that the organization needs to go farther in decrying the fraud of submitting plagiarized poems for its contests. They might also ban Ernie Berry from submitting ever again, a ban that other contests and journals might also consider.


Translations versus Rip-offs

It also misses the point, perhaps more deeply than anything Ernie has written about this issue, to hold up Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs to cite all the different variations of Bashō’s famous frog poem there. Those are nearly all translations of one single poem, and everyone knows that it’s Bashō’s poem—except for the obvious parodies or take-offs also included in the book, which are instead obvious allusions, not even counting the context of being included in Sato’s book. Translations of one single poem have nothing at all to do with another poet trying to pass off another poet’s poem as his or her own, which is what Ernie has done. Nor do they have anything to do with a new poem alluding to an older poem. To misunderstand this distinction seems like a massive failure of logic, sorry to say. More on this misunderstanding later.

When Sandra Simpson wrote earlier about issues of plagiarism and what I’ve dubbed “déjà-ku” (haiku that bring to mind other poems in both good and bad ways), she referred to a well-known poet who advocated the reuse of other people’s work. Here is what Sandra wrote (see https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/cleaning-up-our-act/):

A number of years ago when I was a still a fresh-faced newcomer to haiku I was at a workshop listening to a senior poet who said words to the effect that “if you see a line or phrase you like, write it down and reuse it” and “if you change one word in a haiku, it’s yours”. I can still remember the frisson of shock that went round the room, generated by the more experienced members of the audience. No one said anything but the disapproval was palpable.

She adds that “It seems to me now that it was an opportunity missed. Disagreement should have been voiced—it may not have deterred the speaker, but it would have set things straight for the less-experienced writers.” In my response to Sandra’s essay, I speculated that that well-known poet might have been Cid Corman. But the other shoe has now dropped. It is obvious that Sandra was referring to Ernie Berry, and she has confirmed with me that this is the case. That fact seems even more obvious when her essay also quotes the following poems under the heading of “Cryptomnesia”:

autumn breeze
a pine cone waddles
toward the shore

            Allan Burns, The Heron’s Nest IX.1, 2007

hot wind
a pine cone waddles
to the pond

Ernest J. Berry, Third Prize, Kaji Aso Competition 2012 (see http://www.kajiasostudio.com/webroot/haikuContest_2012.cfm); also in Inside Out: Home and Garden Sequences (no place or publisher, no date (2016?). p. 25, from a PDF ebook available at http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/1806)

If I were Allan, I would feel ripped off. As a reader, I feel deceived. But wait, there’s more. Take a look at this pair of poems (Sandra shared them with me via email on 8 July 2014):

in the cat’s mouth
the cicada
keeps on singing

Vanessa Proctor, A to Zazen: Haiku Anthology by the Zazen Group, Vanessa Proctor, ed. Tauranga, New Zealand: Kiwiana Publishing, 2004, p. 56 (Ernie is a member of this group and his poems appeared in the same volume)

neighbour’s cat
the cicada in its teeth
keeps singing

Ernest J. Berry, Honorable Mention, Kaji Aso Studio Contest, 2006 (see http://www.kajiasostudio.com/webroot/haikuContest_2006.cfm; and despite clear evidence of plagiarism, the poem continues to appear on the New Zealand Poetry Society’s showcase page for Ernie at https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/nz-haiku-showcase/ernest-j-berry/)

Has your jaw dropped yet? It should. There’s clearly a precedent here, and to me the plagiarism is egregious. In addition to this evidence of a pattern of plagiarism (even if truly “accidental,” via cryptomnesia, although still plagiarism), let me add the following examples, to show an even deeper pattern:

after the quake
the weathervane
pointing to earth

Michael Dylan Welch, Frogpond XIII:1, February 1990, p. 23 (and widely published in numerous other books and journals before the following poem).

granddad’s estate
a frozen weathervane
points to his grave

                Ernest J. Berry, Haiku Headlines #136, 12:4, July 1999, p. 1.

old folks’ home—
the square of light
crosses the room

                Michael Dylan Welch, Harvest (Haiku North America anthology), 1991, p. 15. Also in Haiku World, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1996, p. 315.

convalesing [sic]
the window takes 2 1/4 hours
to cross the carpet

                Ernest J. Berry, Haiku Wine (written with an’ya). Prineville, Oregon: The Natal*Light Press, 2003. p. 52; also second place winner in the 2000 Jack Stamm Award. The poem also appears in Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi (Blenheim, New Zealand: Prisma Print, 2016), p. 141, but all flush left, with “convalescing” spelled correctly and followed by an ellipsis, and with the length of time reduced to just “2 hours.” [Note: The intended indents of some poems are not appearing correctly in parts of this essay.]

convalescence ~
the window takes 12 minutes
to cross the carpet

                Ernest J. Berry, Inside Out: Home and Garden Sequences. No place or publisher, no date (2016?), p. 11 (from a PDF ebook available at http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/1806); also in Getting On. Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2016, p. 24 (without the tilde); note that to fully cross the carpet of a room, twelve minutes would surely not be possible, which indicates sloppiness (or invention rather than experience), so that would explain the more accurate variation in the 2003 version, but does not explain the retained “12 minutes” in the two 2016 versions.

long service
stained glass saints cross
the altar cloth

                Ernest J. Berry, Haiku Wine (written with an’ya). Prineville, Oregon: The Natal*Light Press, 2003. p. 72 (note that this is in the same book as the previous example, indicating a ready willingness to repeat even himself).

I know of the preceding examples because they are similar to my own prior poems. And I have to wonder: What other poems by Ernie are too similar to poems by other poets? A one-off accident may be forgivable, especially if the offender makes amends. Or maybe even two accidents are forgivable. But a repeated pattern of such “accidents” points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues and responsibilities involved, especially when coupled with comments such as Ernie saying “I frequently confuse what I’ve read or heard with what I originated” (see https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/how-close-is-too-close/), and even more so when he says “if you see a line or phrase you like, write it down and reuse it” and “if you change one word in a haiku, it’s yours” (quoted above). I’m appalled that anyone would be teaching this irresponsible thinking to anyone. This is grossly misguided thinking, and even suggests that Ernie knew he was appropriating others, and was attempting to set up a defense for it. But there’s no defense for plagiarism such as this.


Earlier “Reuse”

There’s even further evidence that Ernie’s “reuse” of poems by others is willful, even when not outright plagiarism. In Forgotten War: Bulldozers Remove the Memorial (Post Pressed), 2000 (a second edition of the original book, under a new title, featuring haiku about the Korean War), Ernie provides the following statement: “Haiku nos 25, 70, 86, 116, & 131 were influenced to some degree by the book Haiku Iz Rata 1995 by the Croatian Haiku Association” (3). Such an acknowledgment indicates that Ernie knows better (or at least knew better at one time) than to steal willfully. This reference to intentional borrowing is evidence, therefore, that at least some of Ernie’s later acts of plagiarism are unintentional, even if they resulted from sloppy record-keeping or advancing age (one of his latest haiku books, published by Red Moon Press in 2016, is tilted Getting On, which we might easily take to mean “getting on in age”—Ernie was born in 1929). Nevertheless, it is worth looking a little more closely at the war poems that Ernie says “influenced” him. Here are the five poems from Forgotten War on the left paired with poems from Haiku Iz Rata: War Haiku (Marijan Čekolj, editor, Samobor, Croatia: Croatian Haiku Society, 1995) on the right that I believe were the influencing poems (bear in mind that these translations are sometimes a little awkward):

refugees                                                           wearing their homes
he wears a hat                                               only in their eyes—
she the home                                                  the refugees

                                                                                    Robert Bebek (22)

ancient temple                                               the destroyed roof
without a roof                                                of a church—look at
the night sky                                                   the sky the same

                                                                                    Alojz Buljan (27)

pronounced dead                                          A fallen soldier.
the continuing tick                                       How loud the ticking
of his watch                                                     of the watch.

                                                                                    Enes Kišević (44)

waif                                                                   Out of the crowd—
the eyes                                                            the big eyes of a girl
ask why                                                            asking just: why?

                                                                                    Emilija Kovać (45)

lilies on his cross early frost                            On the chrysanthemum
.                                                                       at the grave of a warrior
.                                                                       too early frost

                                                                            Tomislav Maretić (49)

It may be a bit of an understatement to say that the earlier poems “influenced” the later ones in Forgotten War. Rather, each of Ernie’s poems might be considered as “rewrites” of the other poems. Some observers might equate this, if they wish to be generous, to an art student taking an easel into a gallery to copy a great master’s painting, for the sake of learning. But I don’t think that’s the situation here. Rather, in writing his own often powerful poems about his Korean war experience, Ernie found inspiration in the haiku poems from another war and wrote his own versions of some of them, with no intent of learning as a painter might do when trying to repaint a master painting. Trying to rewrite another poet’s poems may well prove instructive, but I would not seek to publish such poems, unless the new poet cites his or her sources or explains the process. Ernie did exactly that here, which is better than nothing, although some readers might still find the poems to be too similar, regardless of the acknowledgment. But this might have been acceptable if it had stopped here, or if future poems also acknowledged sources where an allusion isn’t obvious. But that has not been the case.

It has been said that poetry is a conversation, with each new poem contributing to the dialog. Responding to another poem, or even riffing off it by going in a new direction, has a long and respected history among poets. In that sense, Ernie’s war poems, with a citation of their influences, might be considered acceptable. They also connect his often powerful and moving Korean war haiku with the more recent war in Croatia—itself a sad statement about human nature and the persistence of war. If Ernie had cited sources for all of his other poems at issue in later contests and journals, the issues under discussion here would at least be minimized (provided that he did not submit these “rewrites” or “riffs” to contests, where one does not expect to cite influences), but this repeated practice, even if sources are cited, still raises red flags.

In any case, the war poems are not an isolated instance of “borrowing.” If it were, I would not bat an eyelid at Ernie’s appropriate acknowledgment of his sources. However, when seen in the larger picture of other borrowings, especially where no source or influence is cited, my sense is that the poems in Forgotten War are an early marker of an emerging pattern. I appreciate Ernie’s acknowledgment of his sources at least in this case. Nevertheless, with at least some of his poems, he later exhibits a clear habit of crossing the line beyond mere inspiration and allusion to excessive copying of work by other poets, and presenting them as wholly his own. Even when a rare acknowledgment of sources occurs, as in Forgotten War, it contributes to a pattern of blurring the lines between what may be acceptable and what is not.

Furthermore, such patterns of deception warrant correction, and if the poet won’t correct himself, then it’s up to the community to offer its corrections—just as the North Carolina Poetry Society did by rescinding its award. The Kaji Aso haiku contest might also want to rescind the awards it gave Ernie in 2006 and 2012 for his poems that are remarkably and significantly similar to the 2004 poem by Vanessa Proctor and the 2007 poem by Allan Burns. We may now wonder about similarities in other publications, and in other contests (Ernie enters haiku contests more than anyone I know, so there’s a financial issue at stake here, not just legal and moral concerns). While surely most of Ernie’s poems are not plagiarized, the shadow of a question mark has now descended upon them, and the haiku community can no longer rely on their originality.

I recall a line of Nola Borrell’s poem, “Classic Haiku: A New Zealand Perspective” (see http://www.graceguts.com/poems-about-haiku/classic-haiku-a-new-zealand-perspective), in which she says “look at Ernie who can write / forty haiku without leaving his desk / and wins all the competitions.” She deliberately invokes the term “desk haiku” as a pejorative in referring to Ernie’s prolific writing and “contest-whoring”—and the “Ernie” reference is clearly New Zealander Ernie Berry. I have no objection to writing from various influences and with well-crafted allusion (see my essay “How Do You Write Haiku” at http://www.graceguts.com/essays/how-do-you-write-haiku), but plagiarism is not among them.

On the similarity between Ernie’s 2012 Kaji Aso contest poem and the prior poem by Allan Burns, Ernie wrote (see https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/cleaning-up-our-act/), “Was I aware of the first haiku? There are degrees of awareness. I read so many haiku that I don’t always know if what I’ve written is mine or if I’ve read it somewhere. It’s a hazard and it’s always worrying me. The last thing any artist wants is to be accused of plagiarism or even suspected of it.” Well, apparently Ernie hasn’t been worrying enough. And I think, by necessity, we’ve moved beyond suspicion and accusation to conclusion: Ernie Berry has plagiarized. Repeatedly.


Negligence versus Accident

It’s also interesting to note the timing of the preceding comment about the hazard of plagiarism that is “always worrying him.” It was published on the New Zealand Poetry Society site in October of 2013, thus it was obviously written and on his mind before then. Yet the deadline for the North Carolina Poetry Society’s haiku contest was not until 10 January 2014, so Ernie was not even following his own advice to be vigilant. Since I have no reason to believe in intentional plagiarism here, the timing of this particular misstep underscores the likelihood that his copying was not deliberate but accidental—or rather, negligent.

There’s a pattern to this negligence, though, and it smacks of sloppiness, if not greed. On 24 September 2016, on Facebook, Alenka Zorman publically posted results from the 18th Apokalipsa Association haiku contest in Slovenia. First prize (tied) was given to Ernest J. Berry for this poem:

family bible
a wisp of baby hair
in Genesis

Yet compare this to another of Ernie’s poems, which won first place in the 2008 James W. Hackett haiku competition sponsored by the British Haiku Society, and was also reprinted in the 2008 Red Moon Anthology, White Lies (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2009, 16):

     family bible
a wisp of baby hair
in Revelation

It’s a wonderful poem, in either version, but it’s really the same poem, and thus violated the later contest’s requirement that entries be unpublished. Accordingly, on learning about this violation (not from me), the Apokalipsa Association immediately rescinded the award, and notified Ernie, but who knows if the message is getting through to him. See Sandra Simpson’s 28 September 2016 discussion of this poem on her blog at https://breathhaiku.wordpress.com/2016/09/28/errors-made/. Such recycling, even with a variation, seems vastly inappropriate for contests—and very poor judgment. Or maybe it’s sloppiness. Or greed.

As already mentioned, Ernest Berry was born in 1929, so we may wonder if mental health is an issue here. Since I have never met him in person, I am hesitant to speculate, but I would suggest that such possibilities, even if true now, do not explain the length of this repeated pattern, which seems to have begun fifteen or twenty years ago. Nor is senility or Alzheimer’s an excuse for plagiarism. Furthermore, even as he nears 90 years of age, he remains perfectly capable of submitting poems to numerous contests and journals, and has recently published several books, which surely would be difficult, if not impossible, with any mental challenges. Ernie shows tremendous enthusiasm for the haiku art, as so many of its addicts do, but this enthusiasm needs to be tempered with responsibility, which includes keeping careful records of submissions (at https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/nz-haiku-showcase/ernest-j-berry/, where a set of Ernie’s poems are showcased, a note at the end says “Ernie was unable to supply publication details for these haiku but believes they have all been published somewhere”), and to think more rigorously about the influences upon one’s poems and whether one should seek to publish poems that are clearly influenced by other sources in ways that are not allusion.

Here’s yet another example of reuse, and again it’s a sloppy and unethical reuse of the same poem (or nearly so) in two different contests. In the 2016 British Haiku Society’s haiku contest, the judges gave a “special mention” to the following poem by Ernie:

breast scan
one liquidambar leaf

Yet almost exactly the same poem, also by Ernie, placed in the 2014 Yamadera Bashō Memorial Museum English Haiku Contest (on page 40 of their PDF results booklet, available at https://www.slideshare.net/debeljackitatjana/6th-yamadera-basho-memorial-museum-english-haiku-contest-38019468):

breast scan
one liquidambar’s last leaf

One cannot help but roll one’s eyes. Because of Ernie’s violation of the contest rules, his poem has been removed from the BHS contest results (available at http://britishhaikusociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/RESULTS-OF-THE-BRITISH-HAIKU-AWARDS-2016-edited-Copy.pdf).

And yet there’s more, returning to what many readers would consider plagiarism of others. Ernie’s latest book, Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi (Blenheim, New Zealand: Prisma Print, 2016), offers this poem (7):

autumn leaves
the names of the dead
sink deeper

For my tastes this is excessively similar to Eric Amann’s classic poem:

The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the red leaves

Amann’s poem is famous. It won grand prize in the 1978 Yukuharu Haiku Contest, the first haiku contest sponsored by what is now the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society in California, judged by the preeminent Japanese haiku master, Shugyō Takaha. It also appeared in the society’s Haiku Journal, and was published in Amann’s book Cicada Voices: Selected Haiku of Eric Amann, 1966–1979 (Battle Ground, Indiana: High/Coo Press, 1983, 38). It further appears in several anthologies, notably in the second and third editions of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology. Ernie has surely seen the poem in at least one of these incarnations. Yet he seems to feel no hesitation in “borrowing” as freely as he likes.

This next example may be independent creation, but it still illustrates a pattern. The following poem is also from Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi (159):

ground fog
the top of a kangaroo

For me this is too similar to Carlos Colón’s “ground fog / a pair of headlines / leaving the cemetery” (Brocade of Leaves, Foster City, California: Press Here, 2003, 12). Even if one does not consider the similarity excessive (perhaps it could be considered an amusing parody), the preponderance of examples like this suggests repeated influences that Ernie is sloppy with. It could well be that this is a case of independent creation, but numerous other examples are clearly not independent.

What does Ernie gain from these infractions, especially when they result from plagiarizing others if not the recycling of his own poems? What does he gain by plagiarizing Bashō? Perhaps there is a better question to ask. Posner writes that “harm results not from the plagiarism but from its discovery” (44). Thus, it would seem better to ask, who has Ernie harmed? At the very least, he has harmed another poet who could have had his or her poem selected for each contest, as already mentioned—a moral, ethical, and financial harm. But the harm does not stop there. He also harms the contest organizers who have to deal with a thorny and unsavory situation. Ernie also harms the haiku community in general by disrespecting another poet’s original expression (the fact that it’s a Bashō poem simply made the infraction more easily discoverable, not more important). He also harms himself by diminishing the reliability readers may place on his haiku. Finally, Ernie harms haiku as a genre, if his behavior is considered tolerable in the haiku community when it would be grounds for disciplinary action in other settings, such as expulsion from college or job termination.

We may also wonder about Ernie’s motives, but it’s probably more relevant to wonder about the causes of this situation. I’ve already said that I do not think the plagiarism is willful, but I do not understand why he would resubmit old poems in direct violation of contest rules. Perhaps the problem here can be explained by what is known as Hanlon’s Razor, a philosophical way of eliminating unlikely explanations for a phenomenon. As Robert J. Hanlon once said, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Instead of stupidity, we might say sloppiness or incompetence, and they have produced most unfortunate consequences.

Ernie had four other poems selected for the 18th Apokalipsa contest, and now they can’t be trusted. Ernie’s rip-off of Bashō seems (one hopes) to be a clear case of accidental copying, via cryptomnesia, but, as Posner notes, “Plagiarism can be deliberate or negligent, but . . . it is never unavoidable” and emphasizes that “Negligent copying can do the same harm as deliberate” (78). Indeed, “negligent copying” is a more accurate and better term than “accidental copying” because “negligence” emphasizes the unfortunate consequences that result from such appropriation, and underscores the responsibilities that the usurper has neglected. The copyist still has the burden to prevent the consequences of his or her negligence. Where the term “accidental” would seem to absolve the copyist of wrongdoing or responsibility, it’s more accurate to recognize cryptomnesia as negligent rather than accidental. The negligence lies in the poet failing to recognize the prior expression, and the harm caused to others by the negligent version, whereas the term “accidental” suggests that the copyist could not help it, even to the point of seemingly having no duty to be responsible for recognizing prior expression or unintentional harm, or to make amends. As Posner points out, even negligent plagiarism is “never unavoidable.”

Nevertheless, I would agree that negligent copying is not quite as serious a problem as intentional copying—although it’s still very serious. And perhaps Ernie forgetfully copied himself with his “family bible” poem, rather than doing so willfully. As Posner puts it, “Unconscious plagiarism is a sin of neglect rather than of intention and, therefore, less blameworthy” (97), but he hastens to point out that “when plagiarists are caught they invariably argue that their plagiarism was unconscious” (97), as if attempting to lessen their crime, so to speak (and when it really wasn’t unconscious, such rationalizations diminish the relevance of actual cryptomnesia). In Ernie’s recycling of Bashō, Ernie himself does not have to argue that point, at least not with me, because I myself already believe the plagiarism was unconscious, or at least I hope it is. Nevertheless, we may still wonder if it was conscious and deliberate. I’m inclined to think it was not, because poetry as short as haiku readily lends itself to unconscious copying—an occupational hazard of this sort of poetry. However, it is still plagiarism, no matter how unconscious.


Ernie’s Attempt to Defend Himself

Let’s take a closer look at Ernie’s defensive response, from 2014. I’ll quote it here in its entirety (from https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/how-close-is-too-close/), interspersed with my comments and corrections. I’m no doubt saying what most readers could conclude for themselves, but I’ll spell this all out anyway, leaving no stone unturned. Please note that words appearing in square brackets are also by Ernie, and that Sandra notes that she has made “minor modifications to change his distinctive email style into more readable English.”

A shocking, painful but not totally surprising experience which I can only explain as follows:

Should we presume it’s “not surprising” because he’s been aware of doing the same thing previously? I would wish no further pain on Ernie, but as I said in my previous essay on the matter (see https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/a-spades-a-spade-plagiarism-and-deja-ku/), we should call a spade a spade, and not shoot the messenger who delivers the uncomfortable but responsible and necessary news. I do want to sympathize with Ernie that this experience is shocking and painful to him, but he has brought it upon himself—and he doesn’t make things easier on himself with the rest of his defense. To wit:

After 2 decades of total immersion in haiku I tend to fantasise it, dream it, think it, talk it, read and write it to the exclusion of nearly all other creative activity to the point where I frequently confuse what I’ve read or heard with what I originated.

So what? Ernie is hardly alone in immersing himself in haiku like this, although others seem to do a much better job (most often perfect) of not confusing the memory of someone else’s work with their own original creation—even those who have been at it far longer, and just as prolifically. However, it does not matter whether one has been living the haiku life for two minutes or twenty years—or two hundred, for that matter. The fact remains that confusing what you’ve read with what you’ve originated is no defense. It’s still plagiarism. Indeed, the longer a person has been at the haiku game, the less tolerant we should be of this sort of error. A poet who takes his or her art seriously will learn how to behave professionally and responsibly. We may be inclined to be more tolerant of this issue among those who are new to haiku, but those who have been at it longer should be held to a higher standard. Here Ernie is really saying that he’s sloppy at keeping things straight, and I personally feel that such sloppiness violates the trust I believe poets have in each other to present work that’s as original as possible while also making effective allusions as part of poetic conversation. We can no longer rely on Ernie’s poetry as being original, even if the great majority is. At least Ernie admits that he “frequently” confuses what he’s read with what he’s originated. I wish his comments had stopped there, that he had graciously withdrawn his poem, admitted to other similar cases, withdrew those poems too (and returned prize money where relevant), and humbly apologized. That could easily put the matter to rest, along with future diligence—and I’d suggest the same course of action to anyone else (even myself) if they happened to do the same thing. But, alas, he goes on:

This is similar to my [and countless others’] experience with Shakespeare . . . almost everybody unwittingly uses the bard’s words and phrases (which constitute about 85% of our language) without acknowledgement.

This is a massive and wanton misunderstanding of the issue of plagiarism. For starters, it’s not unwittingly. And quoting Shakespeare is exactly that—quoting him. Ernie was not intending to “quote” Bashō. He was fraudulently offering Bashō’s words as his own, even if an actual experience of herons rather than cranes changed one of the poem’s essentially arbitrary details. Quoting is not plagiarism in the slightest. And when people quote Shakespeare in everyday speech, they employ bits and pieces, not whole soliloquies, and never claim them to be their own writing. Nor do they claim contest winnings with such arrogance. And in printed text, they put these bits in quotation marks or, when quotation marks are omitted, they use material that is now so common as to be known as Shakespeare’s words (as with any effective allusion) or that has so thoroughly entered the language as to no longer need attribution. To make a claim of plagiarism against those who quote Shakespeare is naïve and laughable, which is why no one seriously does that. Many phrases from Shakespeare have entered the language, but it’s absurd to consider it plagiarism whenever one says “a fool’s paradise” (where Ernie seems to be living) or any of a hundred similar phrases (you can see a list of these at http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/phrases-sayings-shakespeare.html). Furthermore, to alter or quote certain Shakespeare phrases where people do recognize the source is actually parody or allusion, and again not plagiarism, such as when I say “To pee or not to pee” or “to write plagiarized haiku or not to write plagiarized haiku.” If I were to think that merely quoting Shakespeare was plagiarism, I would be mortally embarrassed by such a misunderstanding. But I’d also be very grateful to learn of my error so that I might correct it.

Ernie’s percentage is way off, too. At http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=3762, the Folger Shakespeare Library indicates that Shakespeare’s vocabulary, while large, was similar to rather than greater than the vocabularies of his contemporary writers. What’s more, the number of words in the English language is vastly greater than all the words Shakespeare used—about ten to twenty times greater. Nevertheless, let’s leave Ernie’s careless percentage alone, except to note that it’s a symptom of faulty logic, a faultiness that rears its ugly head in other statements.

Thus I had not the faintest idea that I was quoting anybody – let alone the recognisable Basho when I wrote the verse in question – to do so would have [as it turned out to be] been poetic suicide.

It’s high time Ernie started having some of those faintest ideas that he has plagiarized other poets, and not just the Japanese masters. Note, too, that Ernie admits that the Bashō poem is recognizable. He refers to the act of “quoting” Bashō (let’s presume he means doing so deliberately) as poetic suicide. I’m not sure about that, although Ernie himself thinks so with his parenthetical comment (again, the comments in square brackets are Ernie’s), but he does at least recognize the dire consequences of passing off the poem as his own. Yet the direness of those consequences has apparently not deterred him in his pattern of appropriation, not to mention what I now know to be his stated advice to deliberately “reuse” phrases by others if you like them, and that changing one word somehow makes the poem yours—a problem also evident in the haiku of fellow Down Under poets Graham Nunn and Vuong Pham (see https://rochfordstreetreview.com/tag/vuong-pham/, among other sources), who we may now wonder if Ernie had influenced.

As a quick aside here, I should point out that Jane Reichhold has shared similarly misguided advice. In her book Writing and Enjoying Haiku (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2002), she says that someone else “Changing one word or inverting the line order makes the poem new, and no longer yours” (90). In his review of Reichhold’s book, from Modern Haiku 34:2 (Summer 2003), William J. Higginson wrote of this statement that “While some participants in grammar school haiku contests may try this, such deliberate plagiarisms soon come to light if published, and are universally despised throughout the literary world, not just the narrow niche of haiku” (see http://www.modernhaiku.org/bookreviews/reichhold2003.html). Indeed, Reichhold’s stance is deeply misguided, and fails to understand the context of honkadori, or allusive variation, where readers would know the source poem and know that such changes employ allusion—and usually amount to much more than merely changing one word.

In any case, for Ernie to call what he did “quoting” is not accurate. When I quote a source, I routinely cite the source or I expect the audience to be informed enough to know the source or allusion (that distinction, in fact, is the art of allusion versus quotation). Again, I wish Ernie had stopped here, if not earlier, admitted his mistake, among other mistakes, and withdrew the poem. But again, he goes on:

Since you have been to my Picton home, you may recall our ‘resident’ herons – the blue, white-faced and white [kotuku] which it was my privilege to contemplate and haiku-ise in all seasons year after year in the course of which I employed every available phrase to idolise our avian icon.

Ernie now turns defensive, first by appealing to camaraderie, as if to elicit sympathy (“you wouldn’t turn on a chum, would you?”), or so it feels—if one wants to be cynical. Let’s try to avoid such cynicism and consider Ernie’s reference to Sandra having visited his home as being purely a fact. However, what follows is then an attempt to defend his use of words to describe the heron. Actually, this is natural, and I’ve seen exactly the same step taken by others in defense of their plagiarism (usually cryptomnesia). As mentioned before, Posner says that plagiarists invariably point to unconscious plagiarism (cryptomnesia) because it’s “less blameworthy” (97). Any extended experience with herons or cranes is sooner or later bound to come to that experience, the one that Bashō wrote about. And there are obvious words one would have to use to describe elements of that experience. But Ernie’s description of his experience with herons is clutching at straws. The main problem remains that Ernie’s version of expression is excessively similar to Hass’s version, and that he’s passed it off as his own writing rather than Bashō’s, a moral problem that is much aside from the legal problem of seemingly infringing on Robert Hass’s copyright. Too much is similar, and even partly identical. If nothing else, it’s an ethical violation. But, as Posner notes, “Plagiarism that infringes copyright adds a clear legal violation to an ethical violation” (48). Note that Ernie refers to employing “every available phrase to idolise” the heron. Apparently, employing every available phrase includes stealing someone else’s words, and too many of them—in a manner that, unflinchingly, we should call plagiarism.

Again, Ernie would have done himself a favour if he had stopped there, but he digs an even deeper hole for himself, which Richard Krawiec rightly refers to as petty (Richard could have said other things, too, and I’ll go ahead and say them for him in a moment):

Even had I been aware of maiku’s lack of originality,

Let’s stop here for a moment. The idiosyncratic term “maiku” is presumably Ernie’s term for his haiku (his emails are often far more idiosyncratic and cryptic than this). I’m guessing here, because I do not know what he means by the term, or what he’s trying to differentiate it from. Does he write his versions of other people’s haiku as a routine habit? (Thank goodness Sandra has already made modifications to change Ernie’s “distinctive email style” into more comprehensible English, but she hasn’t changed anything here.) I did a search online, hoping to find some widespread or even obscure precedent for the term “maiku” in relation to haiku that I was somehow unaware of. Instead, at the Urban Dictionary site (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Maiku), I found this definition of the term: “A short, often nonsensical remark, used as a defense mechanism to sustain the self-absorbed notion that one’s own perception of reality—misguided and uninformed as it may be—is consistently superior to the collective intelligence of the global Internet community.” I’m not making this up. And I’m trying not to laugh. Yet this seems to be exactly what Ernie is doing—self-absorbed defense mechanism and all—even though he surely intends a different meaning for the term, perhaps merely meaning “my haiku” by using the idiosyncratic portmanteau of “maiku.” But let’s move on:

there are countless precedents where famous haiku or haiku by the famous are paraphrased/borrowed/pruned/improved/ or otherwise monkeyed with without comment or censure . . .

Apparently, Ernie is feeling the pressure of “censure.” And well he should. More significantly, he is confusing allusion, including the Japanese practice of honkadori, with plagiarism—plain and simple. He seems not to know the difference, or how they are different in practice. Note his defensiveness here in claiming that the appropriate use of allusion (which is not what he did) is not censured, clearly indicating that he feels that he does not deserve censure. I believe that he does. He had just admitted the “lack of originality” in his poem, and yet he says with his next breath (see below) that there are “zillions” of poems that apparently “lack originality” because they are “paraphrased/borrowed/pruned/improved” and are thus defensible. Not only is the number overinflated, but why would there be so many zillions of them if they truly lacked originality? Rather, the entire point of allusion and parody is to create originality while also connecting the new poem to something old. Indeed, all those “borrowed” poems are allusions, where each author knows that the reader will know what he or she is referring to—such as if I were to start out a haiku with the phrase “new pond”—it’s an obvious take-off on Bashō’s old pond. Where Ernie refers to “zillions” of examples, his overstatement is actually referring to allusion, not plagiarism, so his logic is off, but then his logic goes even further off the rails in what follows (an aside is that I’d like to know which poems Ernie has in mind by his parenthetical comment):

one of a zillion examples [including some of mine, one of which came to light just today] is Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs – which has versions of Basho’s ‘old pond’ by a hundred luminaries including the likes of Blyth, Henderson, Higginson, Ginsberg, Suzuki, Yasuda, Shiki et al. There are few well-known haiku which have not been thus been treated as public property.

Here is what may be Ernie’s most telling lack of understanding. As mentioned already, Sato’s book is a collection of translations (with a few parodies thrown in). Sato makes this abundantly clear, although it’s self-evident from the poems themselves. Every reader knows that these are variations of Bashō’s poem in translation, not Blyth or Henderson et al passing off someone else’s poem as their own. To miss this massive distinction would seem to explain everything in Ernie’s behavior, and his prior comments on this matter (especially when he said, far too cavalierly, that “if you see a line or phrase you like, write it down and reuse it” and “if you change one word in a haiku, it’s yours”). Ernie quite simply does not understand the difference between translation and allusion, as well as the difference between allusion and plagiarism. But anyway, things are about to get a notch worse.

My poem: extended rain/ the heron’s legs/ get shorter . . . is a haiku! Whereas the Hass translation is but a fully punctuated sentence, ie, The crane’s legs/ have gotten shorter,/ in the spring rain. – the sort of thing a beginner would write before learning any of the basics!

Like every haiku master, Bashō has written his stronger and weaker poems, but this heron poem is widely appreciated as one of his better poems, and is widely quoted online, in translation by Hass and others. When Ernie says his poem (note that he still seems to think it’s his, not Bashō’s) is “a haiku” (with an exclamation mark), it would appear that his point is to imply that Hass’s version is not a haiku, or fails as such. One can quibble with Hass’s translation (every translation has to make compromises, and fixing a problem with one translation choice will inevitably create another compromise), but the real point here is that Ernie is denigrating Hass’s translation (a petty, desperate move, as Richard Krawiec noted), as if to say his version is better. No “if” about it—Ernie clearly does feel that his version is better, referring to Hass’s version as an abject “beginner” failure (never mind that Hass served two terms as poet laureate of the United States, and that his book The Essential Haiku has been one of the best-selling and most prominent books of haiku translation in the English language since it was published in 1994—and even if less known down under than it is in North America, it’s such a prominent and influential book that not to know it and the appearances of its many translations online would seem to be a serious dereliction of duty for any prominent or conscientious English-language haiku poet). If we were talking about original poems here, I might actually agree with Ernie, not that Hass’s version is a failure in the slightest, but that Ernie’s version is possibly better. However, as Posner emphasizes, “a verdict of plagiarism is pronounced without regard to the quality of the plagiarized original or, for that matter, of the plagiarizing copy” (109). If Ernie’s poem were offered as a translation, meanwhile, it would need to say crane rather than heron, “summer rain” instead of “extended rain,” and “has gotten” instead of “gets” (to match the nuances of the Japanese, which I’m about to explore), in addition to losing the juxtapositional structure, and possibly reverting to Bashō’s original image order. At the risk of repeating myself again, offering a translation is not what Ernie did; rather, regardless of whether the act was unconscious or conscious, he claimed the Bashō poem to be his own, with a tweak or two to “improve” it—although tweaking would suggest conscious knowledge of the original, whereas I suspect the tweaking was done without any conscious intent. And again, despite Ernie’s denigration of Hass’s translations, the quality of one version relative to the other is irrelevant to the charge of plagiarism.

In any event, let’s look a little more closely at the original Japanese poem to consider the reasons Hass translated it as he did, and thereby debunk Ernie’s hasty criticism of it (a nod of thanks to Emiko Miyashita for help with a question I had about the original Japanese, and confirming whether this poem has a cutting word):

samidare ni tsuru no ashi mijikaku nareri

Bashō wrote this poem in 1681 when he was 38. Any student of Japanese haiku will recognize that the poem contains no cutting word, so the poem should typically read as a single sentence in translation, thus Ernie has unwittingly and incorrectly criticized Bashō with his comments, not Hass, when he complains that it’s a “fully punctuated sentence.” In Traces of Dreams (100), Haruo Shirane lists numerous kireji, or cutting words (Henderson also lists many of the same kireji and other particles in his appendix to An Introduction to Haiku): kana, mogana, zo, ka, yo, ya, keri, ran, tsu, nu, zu (su), ji, se, re, he, ke, ikani, and shi, none of which are present in the Bashō poem (the word 足, ashi, sounds similar to the cutting word し, shi, but ashi means leg or foot, and is not itself a cutting word). To clarify, consider the following breakdown of the Japanese:

五月雨に        May rain (五月 is “fifth month,” actually summer in Japan by the old lunar calendar used by Bashō, which had New Year’s Day in February; David Landis Barnhill and Jane Reichhold more accurately translate “fifth month” by saying “summer rain” rather than Hass’s “spring rain”; indeed, the rainy season in Japan is early summer—Bashō may have even been alluding to this so-called “plum rain” of the rainy season because it is referred to as tsuyu, a term that sounds similar to tsuru, the word for crane)

鶴                    crane

の                    of (possessive)

足                    foot/leg

短く                short

なれり            has become (meaning that the action has already taken place, thus a translation of this poem should not use the word “gets” that Ernie uses)

For Hass to say “spring rain” is a misstep (which Ernie doesn’t mention—and is probably not even aware of); Hass seems to have overlooked Bashō’s use of the lunar calendar rather than our current solar calendar. Hass’s version also reverses the image order, putting the rain at the end, but this is done commonly when translating from the Japanese (not just in poetry) because of how the Japanese syntax and grammar work. Here’s a possible translation I might offer: “in plum rain / the crane’s legs / have gotten shorter” (note, by the way, that Reichhold says “leg” in the singular, but Barnhill uses the plural). However, in recognizing that the poem lacks a cutting word, Hass is right to avoid the two-part construction Ernie used (and which I avoid with my version), and so Hass’s uncut phrasings seem perfectly defensible to me in representing the way the original poem was written.

Moreover, the line-breaks are meaningless, there’s no rhythm, merit, resonance or aha moment . . . and as it stands it could never have won a contest or merited publication.

Gee, isn’t that arrogant? Shall I dare to disagree? These offhand statements are cavalier, discourteous, and absurdly speculative, not to mention unfounded. The line breaks are completely natural—they are no more “meaningless” or rhythmless than Ernie’s. Hass’s translation has an easy and natural cadence (one of the reasons his versions are so popular), and of course Hass’s version has merit and resonance, and of course an aha moment—the same resonance and moment that Ernie “borrowed.” Ernie seems to have blinders on, failing to recognize that Japanese haiku without cutting words, or with cutting words at the very end, are supposed to read as a single sentence, with no internal cut or juxtapositional structure. In fact, no-cut haiku are rather difficult to do well in English and thus less common, which could easily lead an inexperienced poet to believe that one always has to have a two-part juxtaposition even in English-language haiku, which is not the case. I would expect a poet with Ernie’s experience to know this.

To start wrapping up this discussion, I can’t help but cite another poem of Ernie’s, this one about plagiarism itself:

writer’s block
i plagiarise
my old haiku

This poem appeared in Inside Out: Home and Garden Sequences (no place or publisher, no date (2016?), p. 15, from a PDF ebook available at http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/1806). I would think that “plagiarizing” oneself is impossible—it’s called “revision.” The Japanese masters are known to have done several versions of particular poems over many years. That’s not plagiarism. If this poem might be a confession of larger sins (plagiarizing others), being open about it still does not absolve him. In addition to seeing this poem as an indication of guilt that goes beyond this poem, we can also take it as a joke. Making a joke out of this issue underscores Ernie’s apparent disrespect for the actual plagiarism in some of his verses, and demonstrates that Ernie does not really understand the issue—or, apparently, take it seriously.



A metaphor to conclude. Most of us who drive cars typically hold the opinion that we drive better than other drivers. But that cannot possibly be true. Rather, I believe we all have our idiot moments while driving. It’s just that we experience far more other drivers and their occasional idiot moments than we experience our own idiot moments. There’s no other way to explain why the majority of people believe that they are better drivers than others, which of course cannot be possible. I mention this because we all have our moments. And I’m not talking haiku moments here. We all goof up and make mistakes—me included. With his haiku, Ernie Berry has shown a significant pattern that indicates not just sloppiness but plagiarism, even though the great majority of his poetry may be fine. It’s just that he’s run through a few too many stoplights—and the rest of us should find that unacceptable. It’s a safety issue while driving, and an issue of ethics, integrity, and respect in poetry. While no small children will be dying as a result of his poetic stoplight-running, a significant minority of his actions show disrespect to his fellow authors and to the poetry to which he is deeply dedicated, even if that disrespect is unintentional. His words and actions also demonstrate a misunderstanding of allusion and translation versus plagiarism. I imagine that most of us don’t fancy ourselves to be the Haiku Police, but when the occasion warrants, I hope we would fire up our sirens and pull over any stoplight runner—the way George Swede did when he was systematically plagiarized by Adrian Saich (see “Plagiarism—The Haiku Community Delivers Swift Justice!” at http://simplyhaiku.com/SHv3n3/tracks/tracks_v3n3.html; see also http://www.tempslibres.org/tl/en/alert.html and http://blogs.harvard.edu/ethicalesq/2006/02/14/plagiarized-haiku-george-swedes-tale/). Surely we would at least do what we can to stop a crime in progress. Even if we don’t have a siren to activate or a badge to wave, I hope we would all speak up against “traffic violations” (or worse) such as plagiarism. Bad things happen when good people do nothing. Or, as Edmund Burke put it, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Ernest Berry is far from evil, but plagiarism, no matter whose it is, still smacks of malevolence or irresponsibility. That’s why I think we should all speak up whenever we encounter it. Plagiarism should never be tolerated. I’ve surely let the siren run longer than is necessary here, but I have wanted to clarify all the issues as I see them—and would welcome other perspectives.

A word of caution here is that others, including me, may occasionally be in the same boat as Ernie Berry—accidentally or negligently. Posner observes that “old ideas are constantly being rediscovered by people unaware that the ideas had been discovered already” (100). The trending term for this longstanding phenomenon is “Columbusing” (see http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/07/06/328466757/columbusing-the-art-of-discovering-something-that-is-not-new and http://www.collegehumor.com/video/6976820/columbusing-discovering-things-for-white-people)—derived from the notion that Columbus “discovered” America, when of course there were already people living there. The point here is that there’s nothing new under the sun (see, there I go quoting something that has been written previously to make my point about many things having been written previously). Yet we do our best to express ourselves as freshly as we can. If we do find ourselves in that boat of Columbusing someone else’s haiku (whether via independent creation or cryptomnesia)—as will surely happen to many haiku poets at some time or another—the action to take is to immediately withdraw the poem, apologize, and make necessary amends, or never publish or share the poem in the first place. We can minimize the problem, too, if we take care to keep meticulous records of all poems we submit and publish. Such meticulousness needs to start when we write our poems, in fact, because it can be so easy to forget what led to a particular poem of ours when we encounter it in a notebook years later.

One wonders if Ernie Berry graciously accepted the NCPS decision to deny giving the heron poem any award, or if he appealed it and didn’t agree with the decision. Same with the Apokalipsa award, even though in this case he copied himself rather than Bashō. His response would seem to say a lot about his character, or at least whether he truly understood the gravity of what he had done in literary and moral terms. Denigrating Hass’s essentially accurate translation would seem to be a move of naïve desperation that indicates, despite contradictory prior statements, that Ernie does think his plagiarism is defensible and acceptable. But no, it isn’t. And the haiku community should stand up against such acts of plagiarism, as kindly and factually as possible, which is what I’m attempting to do here, no matter how beloved the offending poet might be otherwise. We should follow the lead of poets such as Ira Lightman, who has brought numerous cases of plagiarism to light in longer poetry, or has commented extensively about specific cases (including Andrew Slattery, and in haiku circles more recently, Graham Nunn and Vuong Pham). Neal Bowers has written an excellent book, Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist (New York: Norton, 1997) about how his poetry was systematically plagiarized (a problem first pointed out to him by haiku poet Carrie Etter, I might add). I have a bookshelf filled with similar books on copyright, infringement, cryptomnesia, and intellectual property, and could quote from them just as much as I have Posner’s book. As already mentioned, George Swede has written about how his haiku were plagiarized. Robert Spiess would not tolerate plagiarism in haiku, and said so—once even leaving a blank space in Modern Haiku with a note saying, as I recall, that the poem he had intended to print there was removed when he discovered it to be plagiarized [addendum: without finding the original issue to check, it may be that what happened here was that Spiess had discovered that the poem was previously published, rather than plagiarized, but he still took a stand against it, since his journal sought only unpublished material]. Sandra Simpson and Richard Krawiec have now joined their ranks. Whistleblowers like these should be applauded for taking a difficult step. Any complaints should be directed at the offender, not the whistleblower. If such whistleblowing makes any observer feel uncomfortable, well, it should, because the acts of fraud, plagiarism, or excessive similarity are uncomfortable to begin with. Even if you are not the direct victim of such plagiarism, it’s worth standing up against it because someday the victim might be you. Fraud, plagiarism, or excessive similarity are unacceptable and need to be called out judiciously—and their perpetrators should be held appropriately accountable. As the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox said, in her 1914 poem “Protest,” “To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.”

A new wrinkle that has come up recently is that Ernie’s latest book, Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi, includes two of the aforementioned poems, but now with attributions. The poem “extended rain / the heron’s legs / get shorter” now has “with a nod 2 basho” after it, and “hot wind / a pine cone waddles / to the pond” is now given “a nod to Allan Burns.” This is a step in the right direction, but far from enough. And the book introduces new problems, covered earlier in this essay.

Ernest J. Berry has plagiarized. This is evident not just in the heron poem that was rightfully stripped of its contest award and prize money by a unanimous vote, but also evident in additional examples—and there may well be more that aren’t accounted for here. It seems the best thing for him to do is to be extra vigilant with all future submissions to journals and contests. Better yet, he should graciously admit these errors, withdraw the relevant poems by notifying the publications or contests where they appeared, and return all relevant prize money. Nor should he publish these or any other plagiarized haiku in any of his books or other publications. For their part, editors and contest organizers would be well advised to give Ernie’s submissions extra scrutiny, if they don’t ban him from submitting altogether. However, perhaps an outright ban would not be necessary if Ernie makes appropriate public and private apologies and other amends for his plagiarism, his unethical resubmission of published and prize-winning poems, and other infractions. I certainly hope that he does, and that we can continue to read and enjoy Ernie’s many other fine haiku.



I had submitted this essay to be published on the website of the New Zealand Poetry Society, which had previously published other commentaries of mine on the subject of déjà-ku and plagiarism. Because of its sensitive nature, the essay was reviewed by the society’s entire leadership committee, which responded on 8 August 2016 with a “resounding no” to publishing this piece on their site. Ernest J. Berry is apparently a lifetime member of the society, an honour bestowed upon him at least in part for his financial contributions, so it is perhaps understandable that they would choose not to publish my evidence and observations, despite the society’s website having already published prior essays by me and Sandra Simpson that point out Ernie’s plagiarism, although with less detail. While I do understand their decision (because who wants to throw one of their own under the bus?), I know that they and others are not blind to the fact that Ernest Berry has still plagiarized, no matter how well loved he might be or whatever his age. It’s unfortunate that he has persisted with his pattern of plagiarism and sloppy record-keeping, even if it has affected just a small minority of his prodigious output. The truth is, I have every reason to like Ernest Berry and his poetry, including his two books that collect his prize-winning haiku, Getting On and Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi (both 2016), but this liking of him should never lead me or anyone else, including the New Zealand Poetry Society, to gloss over any act of plagiarism on his part. Plagiarism should never be taken lightly. Fortunately, that “resounding no” from the society has softened—I have learned that the New Zealand Poetry Society has sent Ernie a letter of censure and did not accept his submissions for its 2017 poetry contest, so one hopes that Ernie will heed their message. It’s a message, too, that all of us may learn from.

Another Postscript

Despite concerns presented in the preceding essay, let me make it clear that I admire and recommend a great majority of Ernest J. Berry’s haiku and senryu. For more information about him and his work, see the Top Writers and New Zealand Poetry Society websites. See also the Haiku Foundation profile and video interview (video recorded 22 June 2012) and the Terebess profile.

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Do Not Resuscitate: A Case of Haiku Similarity

In Geppo XLI:4 (August–October 2016, page 2), the following poem immediately grabbed my attention, not the least because of its subject:

winter twilight
the weight of a pen
for the DNR

UncertainA “DNR,” of course, is a “do not resuscitate” order. Signing such a directive is a difficult—weighty—decision, and such a somber moment echoes poignantly with the setting of winter twilight. This poem was presented anonymously in that issue of Geppo, as its submissions mostly are (so that favourites can be voted on anonymously), but I’ve since learned who the author was. But here’s the twist. It wasn’t just the poem itself that grabbed my attention, but its similarity to another poem, by Yu Chang, first published in The Heron’s Nest XI:2 (June 2009), where it was an editor’s choice selection, and republished in numerous other places, including in Jim Kacian’s widely available anthology Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (Norton, 2013). This is a famous haiku:

bearing down
on a borrowed pen
do not resuscitate

I initially wondered if the first poem might have been influenced by Yu Chang’s, where the person in the poem feels so helpless than even the pen must be borrowed. Might the more recent poem have been a case of cryptomnesia, or remembering someone else’s work but forgetting the source (and thinking it to be one’s own)? I doubted that it might have been deliberate plagiarism, but the possibility did cross my mind (since at first I did not know who the author was or anything about the poem’s circumstances). Or was it independently created? But even if so, was the similarity excessive? I raised the issue with Geppo editor Betty Arnold, and she let me know that the poem’s author was Bruce H. Feingold. He has since explained how this poem arose out of his direct personal experience as a clinical psychologist. “I remember writing this haiku very vividly,” Bruce said in an email to me on 8 December 2016. “I wrote it several years ago on the spot when a patient told me about signing his wife’s DNR and relating how the pen, which is so light, felt so heavy in his hands.” Bruce also said that he was unaware of Yu’s poem when he wrote his, although he did say it was possible he might have seen it, though unlikely. Nevertheless, the poems do seem to have been written entirely independently. This is what I would expect with Bruce’s work, since I have the utmost respect for his integrity.

Yet still the similarity remains. Is it too much? Even though two poems may be written independently, at what point is similarity excessive? Can anyone be “first to the patent office” with haiku? This is a subjective question, and your feelings may differ if you wrote one or the other of the two poems in question (as a “victim” or “perpetrator”), or if you’re a third-party reader of both poems (an “innocent bystander”). Ultimately, what may seem excessive to one reader may not feel excessive to another, especially when these two poems aren’t alone. Indeed, other poems have been written along this vein. Betty asked Charles Trumbull to check his haiku database, and she sent me Charlie’s results, including two directly similar poems (with publication credits for the first one):

by the light of the pine do not resuscitate

John Stevenson,
Roadrunner VIII:3, August 2008; this poem also appeared in Haiku 21, Lee Gurga and Scott Metz, eds., Modern Haiku Press, 2011, 165

“do not resuscitate”
moonlight outlines
a left-over cloud

        Mark Hollingsworth (previously unpublished)

John Stevenson and Yu Chang are both members of the Upstate Dim Sum haiku group, and we may wonder if Yu had seen John’s poem (published about a year before Yu’s, which Yu told me was written about his stepmother), and speculate on whether it was any influence on the later poem, but apparently not. John told me in an email of 5 January 2017 that “when I first read [Yu’s poem] (at one of our monthly Dim Sum sessions), I thought of two poems immediately. One was mine, and the other was an earlier poem of Yu’s: ‘lichened pine / my poet friend asks / for a pencil.’” It’s invigorating how poems resonate and echo like this, in personal ways, but they do seem to have been written independently. John also said, “I remember writing mine—vividly. And yet I would find it hard, and perhaps perverse, to attempt to explain it. I was staying at Jim Kacian’s house, in one of the guest rooms downstairs. Had turned the lights out and was about to go to sleep when the words came to me. I got up and wrote them down and then went back to bed. There was a pine tree outside the window and the window was open. Perhaps ‘do not resuscitate’ related to ‘stop thinking about everything and get some sleep.’ It came in one of those twilight moments of consciousness, which is not quite wakeful and not quite dreaming.” For his part, Mark Hollingsworth said in an email of 6 January 2017 that he wrote his poem on 27 January 2005. “I can’t recall if the incident was personal or professional (I am a pastor),” he said, “but I do recall the feeling after making the decision in the hospital, walking outside and seeing a lone small cloud in front of the moon, the front had passed and all the other clouds were far to the east.” He also said he wrote the following poem on 12 October 2005, almost a year later (also previously unpublished):

do not resuscitate
blot at the end
of her signature

And now, of course, the subject extends to Bruce’s poem, and beyond, and all of them seem to have been written independently. We can dwell in the serendipitous mystery of how they each came to be, and celebrate their shared subject, even if sad and traumatic.

Charlie’s haiku database results also included the following poems about a pen’s weight:

another death—
the weight
of a pen in my hand

        Carolyn Hall, Frogpond 34:3, Fall 2011

His hand trembles
On the will’s last page
Heavy gold pen

        Herb Batt, Brussels Sprout 11:1, January 1994

And surely there are more, and they reverberate with us because the point of haiku is to commemorate shared experience. These are simply shared subjects, much like sharing the same season word. Such similarities are usually of no concern, except to note that they may well enrich a poem if they help to bring to mind other poems that share the same season word or subject. This cross-pollinating resonance, in fact, is one of the virtues of the season-word tradition in Japanese haiku. Similarity or a common sharedness (provided that it does not go too far) adds possible reverberations to each poem and shows each haiku to be a part of a larger poetic conversation. DNR topics are clearly fraught with emotion, so it’s no wonder that the subject, difficult though it may be, would draw the attention of a number of haiku poets, especially those who may have to deal with these issues in a professional capacity, such as Mark as a pastor or Bruce as a psychologist.

What else are we to make of this similarity? One observation is that similarities between haiku are certainly not isolated, which I’ve written about extensively. A further example involves another of Bruce’s poems—although in this case his poem came first. The Autumn 2016 issue of Frogpond (39:3) carried this note: “Bruce H. Feingold’s poem, ‘Egotesticle,’ was a 2012 Haiku Now finalist in the Innovative Haiku Category, which should have precluded Cynthia Cechota’s submission, ‘egotesticle,’ from being published in Frogpond 39:2” (127). This is a polite way of saying that the similarity was excessive, and leaves aside the issue of whether the later poem was possibly plagiarized or (as I would hope) written independently. In this case, though, even if written independently, the second poem is excessively similar to the previous poem (only the capitalization differs), and thus it was rightly “withdrawn.”

I could cite many other examples, but here’s just one more, also very recent, starting with the following poem by Irish poet Anatoly Kudryavitsky, from his book Horizon (Red Moon Press, 2016, page 39). Prior to this book appearance, the poem appeared in World Haiku Review in August of 2012, so this poem is the earliest of the poems I’m about to discuss here.

unscheduled stop
a scarecrow welcomes us
with open arms

Compare this with the results of the 18th annual Haiku International Association haiku contest, which included the following honorable mention by Kwaku Feni Adow of Ghana:

arriving on the farm—
the open arms
of the scarecrow

It’s remarkably similar to the following poem by Arvinder Kaur, from India, from the September 2014 issue of Cattails, later published in her book, Dandelion Seeds, in 2015 (page 108):

a scarecrow’s open arms
in the fields

And in October of 2015, Shrikaanth K. Murthy (new editor of the British Haiku Society journal Blithe Spirit) won second place in the kigo category of the Shiki online kukai with the following poem, later appearing 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

Shrikaanth told me he submitted his poem to the kukai a month before Arvinder sent him a copy of her book, and that he believes he created his poem independently (he said he hadn’t seen the poem in Cattails, even though he’s now a proofreader for Cattails). So perhaps Shrikaanth’s and Arvinder’s poems are independently created, despite obvious similarities, but what about the poem by Kwaku Feni Adow? It’s impossible to know from the poem itself, and I doubt that much would be gained by asking the poet. Kwaku seems to be rather new to haiku, and I’ve seen others who are new to haiku who have “borrowed” haiku and passed them off as their own when they’re first learning to write, but I have no idea if that’s the situation here—I would rather assume independent creation. I do not see Kwaku’s poem as any kind of allusion to the earlier poems, but is it excessively similar? Indeed, is the similarity of all of these poems excessive? Or should we just note the shared subject—and perhaps even celebrate it—and move on? Ultimately, it’s our emotional responses to these situations that may matter most, especially when we may never know the facts of whether similar poems were created independently or not, and may interpret those facts differently even if we did know them for certain.

This is an issue I’ve been tracking for two decades. The Essays page on my Graceguts website has several essays on what I call “deja-ku,” as does my “Deja-ku Diary” blog. For many years, too, I’ve been maintaining a Deja-ku Database, and have classified many hundreds of examples in two broad categories. The bad kind include plagiarism, cryptomnesia (a sort of “accidental” plagiarism), and excessive similarity (which is the most subjective and hardest to define). The good kind include shared subjects or season words, allusion (or honkadori, as it’s called in Japan, which can include judicious borrowing of widely known content), parody, homage, and a couple of other less common varieties. A note about honkadori is that it’s also called allusive variation. A key point with this technique in Japanese haiku is that the variation of an earlier haiku is deliberate, and readers are expected to know the earlier poem—and thus all be in on the game, the way we all know the Shakespeare reference whenever we make creative variations of “to be or not to be.”

A side note here is that I was more concerned about Bruce’s DNR poem before I learned who the author was. As soon as I found out it was Bruce’s, his reputation, integrity, and profession as a psychiatrist all came into play—ruling out, for me, any possibility of plagiarism. This change of feeling as a result of learning the author’s name goes to show how the name under most haiku acts as a “fourth line,” providing information outside the poem that can inform and enlarge the poem, such as gender, nationality, and other details that readers may know about the author, including biography, geographical location, the type of haiku he or she usually writes (his or her “brand,” as it were), and more. The anonymous judging process used in Geppo and most haiku contests is completely defensible, of course, but I also like finding out who the author is, because that usually expands most poems for me, as was certainly the case for Bruce’s DNR poem.

There’s one more wrinkle to the DNR story. After Bruce H. Feingold’s haiku appeared in Geppo XLI:4 (August–October 2016), it was voted on as one of the top ten poems and was reprinted in the following issue, Geppo XLII:1 (November 2016–January 2017), page 9. And then another DNR haiku appeared in the next issue, in Geppo XLII:2 (February–April 2017), page 2, by Ruth Holzer:

Father’s Day—
he signs
the DNR form

The timing may have been a pure coincidence, but the poem might also have been reactionary, written in response to Feingold’s poem. Reaction poems are perfectly defensible, because poetry is, after all, a conversation, and the addition of “Father’s Day” adds a sad twist to the experience, whether real or imagined. A useful ambiguity also arises in the word “he”—does it mean a father signing the form on behalf of a child who is gravely ill? Or is a child signing the form on behalf of an aging or sick father? Either way, the “he” is surely signing the form as a father or for his father, making the date of this event especially poignant. On the deja-ku continuum, I would consider this poem to be a shared subject rather than excessive similarity or plagiarism.

As mentioned, we might easily assume that this new poem was written in direct reaction to the previous poem. However, in an email of 23 June 2017, Ruth told me that she wrote the poem “about seven years ago, directly from the experience,” and added that “when I read Bruce’s haiku [in Geppo], I thought hmm . . . that sounds something like mine—how we are all subject to the same misfortunes. Of course, I voted for it.” As sad as this experience is, there’s something celebratory in sharing such an experience—we are not alone.

Twenty years ago, I never spoke up about another case of deja-ku in the pages of Geppo, and I wish I had. It happened in Geppo XIX:4 (July–August 1996), page 2. Yvonne Hardenbrook offered the following poem:

carolina wren
its morning song larger
than itself

It ended up getting the top number of votes from readers of that issue (by far), and was reprinted in Geppo XIX:5 (September–October 1996), page 6, as the best poem of the issue. It bothered me that most readers were apparently unaware of its antecedent, by John Wills, which is one of his most famous poems:

than the wren himself
the wren joy

The Wills poem appeared in the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (New York, Fireside, 1986, page 298). It also appeared in Wills’ book Reed Shadows (Burnt Lake Press/Black Moss Press, 1987, page 42), and was probably published prior to this in a journal. What’s more, I also featured the poem in my journal Woodnotes as the tribute poem to Wills when he died in 1993. Yvonne would have definitely seen at least two of these publications, if not all three (she was an avid Woodnotes subscriber and reader, and had also read Cor’s anthology). There is no way she couldn’t have read Wills’ poem before writing hers, and she told me that she obviously must have, even while defending her poem—she wrote me a two-page single-spaced letter explaining the circumstances of its composition, believing it to have been written independently. But I don’t believe it was, even if it was accidental. This, in my opinion, is a case of cryptomnesia, and it can be insidious because you think you’re writing something original when you’re not. The very real experience she had brought the Wills poem to mind, but as I see it she forgot that she was essentially remembering someone else’s work rather than writing something original—the way most of us, upon seeing a frog in a pond, might think of Bashō’s “old pond” poem (and typically also remember that it’s Bashō’s poem, not our own). I could imagine a case where Yvonne’s poem could have been written independently, but not when there is irrefutable evidence (that she herself acknowledged) that she had read the original Wills poem in at least two prominent places.

Yvonne’s poem may be an accidental sort of plagiarism, but cryptomnesia is still plagiarism, and we should be watchful for it—in the haiku we read and in the haiku we write. Similarity to previous poems is an occupational hazard for the haiku poet, and it will happen to all of us at one time or another, whether we’re “victims,” “perpetrators,” or “innocent bystanders.” The “accidental plagiarism” of cryptomnesia is especially likely to happen with poems as short as haiku, and thus we should be forgiving towards such situations (up to a point). Aside from the deliberate similarity of allusion or parody, it is even likely that we will unintentionally write in a similar way about shared subjects—there are only so many ways to crack an egg. As the poet Dobby Gibson says in his book Polar, “It may be true that everything / has already been said, / but it’s just as true that not everyone / has had a chance to say it.” The trick is to take your turn at saying something but to do it in as fresh a way as possible. We can’t always know what’s fresh, of course, but we can do our best.

The good news is that most cases of deja-ku are positive, such as sharing the same subject or season word, or in alluding to or parodying another poem. In the case of Bruce Feingold’s striking “DNR” poem, like Yu Chang’s and the other poignant examples, the moment resonates so deeply it’s no wonder that more than one person has written about it.

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Similar Saturdays

UncertainIssues of deja-ku may be more pronounced in haiku because of the genre’s brevity and the common sensory experiences we are inclined to write about, but they are not confined to haiku. In 1974, Shel Silverstein included the poem “Sick” in his book Where the Sidewalk Ends (New York: Harper & Row, pages 58–59):

“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox
And there’s one more—that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut—my eyes are blue—
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke—
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ’pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.
My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.
My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is—what?
What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is . . . Saturday?
G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

In 2008, Jack Prelutsky included “Please Let Me Sleep All Day Today” in My Dog May Be a Genius (New York: Greenwillow Books, page 8). Here’s Prelutsky’s poem:

Please let me sleep all day today,
I need to stay in bed.
I’m hardly even half awake,
I’m sure my eyes are red.

I try and try to open them,
but can’t remember how.
You say today is Saturday?
I’m getting up right now.

Surely Prelutsky was aware of the Silverstein poem. Not only are the words of the penultimate line identical to Silverstein’s poem, the ideas driving both poems are the same. In one the protagonist is supposedly sick, and in the other supposedly sleepy, but both ploys are used to avoid school as each poem builds to the same punchline. Despite the differences, what are we to make of these and other similarities? The resemblance seemingly never bothered Prelutsky or his publisher (I doubt they were unaware of the Silverstein poem). However, surely numerous readers, like me, noticed the similarity, perhaps feeling momentarily proud for having noticed it, but then perhaps slightly distracted by the overlap.

In terms of deja-ku, simply sharing the same subject is usually something to be celebrated, the way readers of haiku have little hesitation in appreciating poems with the same kigo, or season word. But at what point does similarity become excessive? Prelutsky’s poem immediately made me think of Silverstein’s, at least at the end. Along the way, both poems employ iambic rhythms, and both mostly with tetrameter lines. Silverstein’s poem employs iambic tetrameter throughout, except for the third- and fourth-last lines, where a deliberately disruptive change in meter matches the change in meaning at that point in the poem. Prelutsky’s poem also uses iambic tetrameter but alternates such lines with iambic trimeter. They both have the same ending, with identical penultimate lines, and of course the same conceit. It’s easy to say we can enjoy both, and I’m certainly in that camp, but still I wonder. If I were Prelutsky’s editor, might I have suggested omitting this poem? Would you?

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Make It Yours

GoodHaiku poems are so short that they are particularly susceptible to the repetition of subjects and structures. In She Was Just Seventeen, a collection of haiku by former United States poet laureate Billy Collins (Lincoln, Illinois: Modern Haiku Press, 2006, page 9), the poet includes the following poem:

If I write spring moon
or mountain, is that
haiku plagiarism?

In a review of She Was Just Seventeen, William J. Higginson comments as follows on this poem (Modern Haiku 38.1, Autumn, 2007, page 82):

While I may not value this especially as a haiku, it certainly spoofs the repetition of favored phrases and images that plagues haiku to the point where even the great Shiki once doubted [more than a hundred years ago] if haiku could continue another decade or two without utterly repeating itself. (If Shiki had foreseen the explosion of interest in haiku in scores of languages around the world, perhaps he would have been less doubtful!)

Emiko Miyashita has shared the following two lines of a Japanese poem titled “Asa no Hikari” (“Morning’s Light”) by Shuntaro Tanigawa (from her 2009 Haiku North America conference paper, “Feel the Word”). His ninth line is as follows:


I wonder, why things that repeat themselves can stay fresh and timeless?

And the twelfth line is:


While a thing that happens only once becomes old so quickly.

One secret to avoiding the problems of deja-ku (especially writing on a tired subject) is to write about what is true to yourself and your perspective. In contrast to Ezra Pound who exhorted poets to “Make it new,” I side more with Jane Hirshfield, who has said “Make it yours.” Related to this is the advice to write about the timeless rather than about subjects that are faddish or trendy. Haiku values the ephemeral, but the ephemeral is not the same as fleeting trivialities. This is why there are so many thousands of good haiku about cherry blossoms (both ephemeral and endlessly repeating) but so few about Rubik’s Cubes or hula hoops (but, ahem, maybe that’s a challenge, isn’t it?). Whatever we write about, it’s a good practice to make each poem yours rather than feeling pressure to make it new. As the painter Robert Henri once wrote, “A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not need to adopt new and startling methods.” Here’s to making haiku yours!

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