Haiku and R. K. Singh: A Critical Analysis of his Peddling Dream
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Haiku originally was a Japanese form of poetry consisting of seventeen moras or on, in three metrical phrases of five, seven and five moras respectively. Haiku contain a kigo, or seasonal reference, and a kireji or verbal caesura, i.e., pause or break after each metrical phrase. In Japanese, haiku are printed in a single vertical line, while in English usually they appear in three lines. The famous verses of Japanese masters like Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa in the Edo-period (1600-1868) are properly referred to as hokku. Hokku was given the name Haiku by the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki at the end of the 19th century.
There is no fixed format or subject matter for English haiku. The common features that are found in English haiku are the following:
Use of three (or fewer) lines of seventeen or fewer syllables
Use of lines as breath groups with number of syllables 5-7-5 or lesser in number
Use of a season word or kigo
Use of verbal caesura to bring out contrast or comparison
Use of caesura at the end of either the first or second line, but seldom at both
The three lines never make a complete or run-on sentence
Always written in the present tense of here and now
Limited use (or non-use) of personal pronouns
Use of common sentence syntax in both phrases
Use of sentence fragments
Writing about ordinary things in an ordinary way using ordinary language
Use of concrete images
Use no punctuation or normal sentence punctuation
While traditional Japanese haiku concentrate on Nature and humans in it, some modern haiku poets, in Japan, India and the West, take a broader range of subject matter suitable, including urban contexts. While traditional haiku avoided themes of sex and overt violence, contemporary haiku sometimes deal with them. In the words of Jane Reichhold:
The fact that the smallest literary form—haiku–has the most rules never ceases to amaze and astound. The only real comfort one can find in this situation is the concept that this affords a wider range of rules from which a writer can pick and choose. You cannot follow all of the rules and several of them are so contradictory that there is no way to honor them both at once. You must always choose. In order to make a choice, you have to understand the reasons and methods. (“Haiku: How to Haiku”)
Prof. R. K. Singh was born, brought up and educated in Varanasi, India. He is a University Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian School of Mines University, Dhanbad, India. He has authored more than 150 articles, 165 book reviews and 34 books, including twelve collections of poems. Jointly with U S Bahri, Catherine Maire and Patricia Prime, Singh has published two more anthologies. He has been critically studied by several critics through articles and anthologies. His poems have been translated into French, Spanish, Romanian, Chinese, Serbian, Croatian, Slovene, Japanese, Bulgarian, German, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Esperanto, Kannada, Tamil, and Bangla. Prof. R. K. Singh has received innumerable awards and honours, including honorary Litt. D. from the World Academy of Arts and Culture, Taiwan, in 1984, Michael Madhusudan Award, Calcutta, in 1994 and Peace Museum Award from Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, in 1999.
As a great poet, critic and editor, the immense contribution R. K. Singh has given to Indian English Literature and through it to World Literature is praiseworthy. Without any set norm or pattern, not concentrating particularly on any theme, without even naming the poems, but only numbering them, he goes on writing on all aspects of human life, on Nature and Universe, on abstract and concrete. As D. G. Rossetti and his Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood have written vividly on the beauty of human body, R. K. Singh also praises the Creator, extolling the beauty of human body in many of his poems. Prof. Singh writes about it thus: ““don’t condemn me if I am not white” . . . “I love Him through the bodies He made” (qtd. in Sharma). I. K Sharma in his Foreword to R. K. Singh’s book Sexless Solitude and Other Poems compliments the poet aptly thus:
Well-read in the important literary classics of India, well-trained in the use of English language, well-versed in modern western thoughts, Dr. Singh articulates his perceptions, his experiences, in a very unconventional way. Not at all shy of using words associated with sex , he puts them to different uses in his poems. It makes purists of literature believe that the poet is a shameless hawker of sex in the street of literature. His poems, they think, have soiled the white house (not the White House) of literature. Such persons in fact suffer from agoraphobia. (i)
Some poetasters and orthodox critics attacked Rossetti and his group calling them Fleshly School of Poets. Similarly we find such wrong-headed critics even in this twenty-first century attacking R. K. Singh as a hawker of sex. In the ocean of the poems Prof. Singh has written, one can not accuse him of any obsession with sex, rather he touches that aspect also because sex is divine, sexual feelings are divine and sexual organs are divine.
I agree to the opinion of Dr Lyle Glazier of Bennington, Vermont, USA: “R. K. Singh writes with the directness of an overheard whisper, or a wind through trees, a ripple in a stream, or a cry in the street after dark” (qtd. in Krishna Srinivas). What Krishna Srinivas has written of genuine poets is cent percent true of R. K. Singh. In the words of Srinivas, “To the poet, the world is an extension of himself—his flesh, his blood, his bones. Poetical modernity is expressing its freedom of form, of structure, of imagery and idea” (“Foreword” i).
R. K. Singh is a poet specialised in economy of expression and brevity. Every Stone Drop Pebble (1999), Peddling Dreams (2003) and The River Returns (2006) are his collections of haiku. Every Stone Drop Pebble contains fifty seven haiku, Peddling Dreams has one hundred and ninety one haiku, and The River Returns bears two hundred and ninety five haiku. In addition to that there are one hundred and twenty nine haiku titled under Some More Haiku. There are also fifteen haiku sequences with the title Some Haiku Sequences. About R. K. Singh’s haiku, Abdul Rashid Bijapure writes:
Perhaps it is the single-minded journey of R. K. Singh to press for brevity in expression that leads him to devote his poetic energy to the three line Haiku poems. Even Singh says “a Haiku is terse, dynamic and complete poetry, rendering the vital energy, which animates not only an individual’s small world but also the entire cosmos.” For Singh it is rather a self-disciplining spiritual exercise marked by living momentness of a moment, imaging a moment. (qtd. in Rajni Singh 3)
As I have pointed out above, there is no set syllabic pattern in the contemporary English haiku. Instead of the traditional 5-7-5 pattern, contemporary poets do not follow any pattern at all. R. K. Singh speaks on his haiku pattern thus:
Now I do not adhere to the 5-7-5 syllables, nor do I make any difference between haiku and senryu. I just practise haiku in different beats (3-5-3; 4-6-4; 5-7-5) or free-form haiku, and when possible, expand its lyrical content to a tanka in five lines without restricting myself to 5-7-5-7-7 rhythm.
As readers will bear me out, it is possible to convey so much within the 3- or 5-line span of the short-long-short or short-long-short-long-long flow of the haiku or tanka rhythm. It is also possible to elevate the quotidian experiences to the level of poetry, using the medium of haiku and tanka, provided one seeks to be visual or sensuous, or expresses natural concrete action or object, or experiences from ones whole being, and does not ‘fake’ poetic feelings or render fictitious or imaginative experiences. (Prefatory Note 1).
Peddling Dream was originally published in Pacem in Terris, a trilogy collection, in 2003. It was republished in Collected Poems 1974 – 2009, by Book Enclave, Jaipur. Of the one hundred and ninety one haiku in Peddling Dream, none could be written off as silly or ordinary. Majority of haiku are on Nature, the magic of different seasons, how man goes hand in hand with Nature and reflections and echoes of Nature on man. The opening word of each of his haiku starts with a capital letter and there is often a caesura after the second line. Let me analyse a few poems in the following pages:
A star shines bright
beside the crescent moon:
she fakes a smile
How suggestive are the lines! The very shape of the moon—crescent–reminds the reader of a smiling face. The moon is not happy at all at the presence of the bright star beside her because the star is more beautiful and brilliant than the moon. Hence the fake smile. No doubt the celestial moon is gentler than millions of moons on earth who turn their faces out of jealousy when such earthly stars appear before them. The punctuation mark of colon at the end of the second line is a connector of the first two lines to the third, with an additional function of explaining the third line. In the haiku
couldn’t part with the henna
on her palms
the poet speaks about the eternal relationships that can not be parted with mere shake hands. Out of warmth of the shaking palms the henna got stained to the lover’s palm. Naturally, like the henna, their love also will stick onto their hearts forever. The abstract idea of love and friendship is concretized well in this haiku.
Reluctant to climb
the spiral staircase–
bathing in kitchen
Though seemingly funny, this haiku laughs at our lazy nature. Not willing to take pains, people are prone to lead low and average lives, just eating, sleeping and procreating. In the following haiku loneliness is measured to the sipping of coffee. The punctuation mark of dash at the end of the second line acts as a semantic marker of cause and effect: the third line is the effect of the first and second lines.
sip by sip
at dining table
Loneliness is something intolerable and hence the poet compares it to the sipping of a very hot coffee, eager to finish it soon and then leave the hall. The abstract idea of loneliness is visualized elegantly by the poet in this haiku.
Thick dust on leaves
unwashed by rains for days–
This haiku speak about the stark reality of drought which many parts of India face now. The drought, the poet believes, is man-made. Even though there has been continuous rain for several days, the dust on the leaves could not be washed out as the dust formation was very thick. The time is stagnant because there is no change in the nature. It is still hot summer, in spite of the rains. The rain can not make any impact on nature. ‘Thick dust on leaves’ is a kigo phrase connoting the concrete image of the summer season. The punctuation mark of dash at the end of the second line is a very powerful semantic marker as it indicates that the first and second lines are the explanation of the third line.
no soul on the road
guard at gate
R. K. Singh seems to be very considerate and humane as is expressed in the above haiku. It is winter season; and night also. No human being is found outside the buildings, except the guard at gate. If people can not go outside why should there be a guard at the gate? To guard against whom? Animals? The disregard and cruelty shown by the middle class and upper class to the working class is portrayed in this haiku. ‘Chilly night,’ ‘no soul on the road’ are kigo phrases standing for concrete images of winter season.
Welcoming the sun
dew drops on dry leaves–
In the above haiku, the dew drops are longing for the appearance of the sun. They have been remaining as epitaph of the dry leaves throughout night, as lonely as in a cemetery. Hence they welcome the sun. The punctuation mark of dash at the end of the second line reveals that the first two lines are explanatory of the third line.
A tiny spider
on the marigold sucking
its golden hue
Unlike the conventional beautiful creatures in nature, a spider is portrayed by the poet, extolling the beauty of sucking golden hue from a marigold. R. K. Singh, like all great poets, believes that there is nothing ugly in this universe because God has created them. ‘A tiny spider,’ ‘marigold’ and ‘golden hue’ are kigo phrases standing for concrete images of the spring season.
A load of wood
on her frail back
Here is a picture of a weak woman carrying a heavy load of wood on her frail back. This also is a regular sight in the villages of India. Winter is approaching and hence firewood has to be collected and stored for the season in autumn itself. The patriarchy has condemned women to do all the household works and even if they are sick and weak they are destined to do all such activities. It is their duty to look after the family. The poet seems to attack this evil trend. ‘A load of wood on her frail back’ is a concrete image of the autumn season, a usual sight at country sides.
On a cycle
he sells bouquets and roses
In the above haiku a flower vendor is portrayed selling bouquets and roses on his cycle. The caesura after the second line brings out the contrast of ideas. Even though he is selling tokens of dreams and love, in his own life he has only unfulfilled dreams, and while he is selling such realities he is destined to have only fantasies, and that is what he does while peddling. The poet’s humaneness and commitment to the society is reflected in these lines. The plight and futile dreams of the poor people are visualized in this beautiful haiku.
The mirror is so small
I can’t see the ocean
beyond my own look
The above haiku proclaims that what we see, learn and understand is little. There is a vast ocean beyond, which is hidden to us. Our own ego hinders us from seeking the ocean of truth. We look at own reflection and feel content. A great abstract idea is concretized deftly in this haiku.
Silent Ram sheds
tears over the bodies burnt
in temple’s name
The statue of Ram, mute and helpless, sheds tears over the blood spilled and bodies burnt in His own name. As most of the terrorism is done in the name of God, and religious mafia dictates the world as such, this haiku is very relevant to the present century. An attack on the terrorists is found in the next haiku:
climb power ladder–
The terrorists, using power—military as well as religious and political—climb up the ladder to dictate the world and annihilate Peace; but Peace stings them like gnats. The caesura at the end of the second line followed by the dash brings out the antithesis of violence and peace. The terrorists are bound to climb down, and the poet believes that it is being happening in this world. The ultimate victory is that of Peace. Two abstract terms of “violence” and “peace” are beautifully concretized in this haiku.
on his water face
Here the statue of the Buddha is crying invisible to men. The caesura at the end of the second line gives an explanation of the final line. Due to rain, the Buddha’s face is wet and hence none can identify the tears running through his cheeks. The Buddha can’t but shed tears when he meditates on what is happening in this bloody world. The prophet of Ahimsa sees only blood and dead bodies—both human and non-human—around him. He shuts his eyes and cries over it.
Through long shadows
in the morning remembering
The poet appears to be highly philosophical in the above haiku. He has been watching his own shadow throughout the morning. As morning grows on to noon, his shadow wanes, and it reminds him of the gradual advent of Death. Through the concrete image of shadows the poet explains the abstract idea of the advent of death in this haiku.
She snuggles up
in my arms her dimples
joy of heaven
The above haiku portrays a love scene. The protagonist finds joy of heaven in the dimples of the lady love when she is cuddled up in his arms. As God is love, and sex is love, the sexual emotion and satisfaction bring heaven on earth.
A moving train–
confined in water bottle
Here is a characteristic image of train journey in India. In summer, when the non-AC bogies of trains are just like furnaces, passengers are destined to drink bottles after bottles of water. The poet synthesizes the rhythm of the train with the rhythm of ripplets while drinking from the bottle. The scorching heat of summer is concretized in this haiku.
Two toads croaking
in the drain celebrate
How Nature celebrates the seasons is portrayed in the above haiku. The Creator’s bounties are welcomed and greeted more merrily by non-human beings. The materialistic man fails to notice such beauties around him. ‘Toads,’ ‘croaking,’ ‘shower’ are kigos of rainy season.
Basking in the past
they grow backward and yet talk
about the future
The poet reminds us about the futility of basking in the past. We will only grow backward if we are obsessed with the past achievements and glories. We have to look forward and plan our future. Mere talking about the future plans is not sufficient.
Lingering in bed:
to go to church or pub–
It is Sunday morning. The poet is still lingering in bed with the dilemma: go to church for Sunday Mass or celebrate in a pub. He doesn’t find much difference between the options. Rather he may choose the latter as it gives him much enjoyment. The poet seems to criticize the religious rituals and ceremonies devoid of real faith. It is useless to spend time in a church if one has no faith in such practices. The dash at the end of the second line is a semantic symbol, acting as an explanation of the third line.
in the silence of the room–
An abstract thing is concretized in the above haiku. The huge shadows which got into the silent room through the narrow bars of the window rattle the bars. R. K. Singh’s high imagination is visible here. The beauty it imparts is superb. The caesura and the dash at the end of the second line act as cause and effect of the lines before and after them.
Facing the sun
the lone flower
dying to bloom
Here is the pathetic sight of a lone flower longing to bloom, but destined to die. All the other flowers have died and fallen. The intolerable heat of the sun and the absence of water cause the flower to wither and die. ‘Sun,’ ‘flower,’ ‘bloom’ are kigos of spring and summer.
They take off again
their unthrown nets frighten fish–
water turns whiter
Fishing is satisfying and pleasurable to the fishermen. But how it is frightening and shocking to fish and sea is portrayed in the above haiku. It is very mysterious why man is so cruel and unsympathetic to one of the meekest and most beautiful creatures—fish. He is sometimes sympathetic to his domestic animals but never to fish. Even the nature lovers have no love left to fish. The sea turns whiter and pale when the nets touch the surface. The sea is shocked at the atrocity of the fishermen. The dash at the end of the second line acts as a semantic marker of cause and effect.
Only two of us–
and a big house with roaming
rats and cockroaches
The poet here attacks the wealthy peoples’ craze of building mansions where only an old man and his wife live. Their children are employed abroad or in any remote cites. The house has become a status symbol to the Indians where they spend millions to compete with their neighbours. The palatial rooms where humans seldom tread have become haunting places for rats, cockroaches and spiders. The dash at the end of the first line expresses the effect of the idea of first line on the following lines. The concrete image in the haiku portrays the tragic fate of today’s nuclear family.
Chess of love:
playing the game
In this excellent haiku, the poet compares love to a game of chess. Since the path of love is crooked and full of obstacles and hindrances, every step or movement meets with a checkmate. He who conquers checkmate comes out victorious in love. The colon at the end of the first line acts as definition or explanation of the first line as expressed in the following lines. Through the concrete image of the game of chess the poet has explained an abstract idea.
The holy Ganges
tolerates the city’s garbage
even rape and death
The pathetic situation of our rivers, especially holy rivers is portrayed in this haiku. It seems that the majority of the Indians believe that God has created rivers to dispose their garbage. Fully aware that it is the same water that they have to drink, they throw away their waste to the rivers. The holy river Ganges is destined to carry hundreds of dead bodies every day. The poor river has also to bear the screams of several rapes done on her lap. Even in the twenty first century, Indians are not a bit saved from the superstitions. Taking the Ganges as holy, they dispose the dead bodies in it so that the souls of the bodies will get Moksha. Religious leaders or religious mafia are to be blamed for cultivating such superstitions in the minds of the illiterate laymen and thus exploiting them through unnecessary rituals and ceremonies.
Cloud over cloud
darken earth and hide stars:
dawn and dusk one
Here is another tragic and appalling sight caused by indiscriminate industrialization. The cities are always overcast by the poisonous fumes of factories and vehicles. The sun, the moon and the stars are seldom visible. There is no difference between dawn and dusk. Rather it is always monotonous dusk. The poet, a social critic, invites our attention to this dangerous situation. The colon at the end of the second line is a semantic marker expressing cause and effect. Through concrete images the poet has pictured the horrible face of modern cities.
Like a magician with a magical wand, Prof. R. K. Singh has wielded these short lines of triplets with an enchanting effect. The readers are tempted to run their eyes over them again and again. It is the grand images which make his haiku splendid rather than the rhythm and music of words. Though alliteration and assonance are rare, the readers are bewitched by the grandeur of high imagination. Beyond any doubt, R. K. Singh has an immortal place of his own among the haiku masters of the world.
Reichhold, Jane. “Haiku: How to Haiku.” Web. 10 Feb. 2010.
Sharma, I. K. Foreword. Sexless Solitude and Other Poems. By R. K. Singh. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 2009. Print.
Singh, Rajni. “Haiku of R. K. Singh.” Muse India Issue 17, Jan-Feb 2008. Web. 10 Feb. 2010. http://www.museindia.com/showfeature6.asp?id=818
Singh, R. K. Collected Poems 1974 – 2009. Jaipur: Book Enclave, 2009. Print. (haiku quoted in this paper are from this anthology)
—. Prefatory Note. The River Returns: A Collection of Tanka and Haiku. By R. K. Singh. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 2006. Print.
Srinivas, Krishna. Foreword. My Silence. By R. K. Singh. Madras: Poets Press India, 1985. Print.
First Published by K.V. Dominic on his blog http://www.profkvdominic.com/?page_id=375
R K Singh