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Tontoism and other thoughts

Blog Posted:1/23/2019 10:05:00 AM

I must credit Chris A. for the inspiration here which brought to mind a connected issue relative to dreaded syllable count, so....I will post this article and follow up with my brief "other thoughts".

Tontoism in American Haiku

      by Paul O. Williams

From the author’s book, The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, Foster City, California: Press Here, 2001, edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. Essay originally published in Dragonfly III:2, April 1975. See also “The Question of Articles in Haiku” and the bookintroduction. This essay is shared here for historical purposes. While some readers may feel that the term “Tontoism” is racist in how it depicts Native Americans, another way to look at it is to see it as descriptive of a character who was depicted in a racist way. A more culturally sensitive approach might be to say that such haiku are “telegraphic.” Just as we would not want to be racist, neither should we succumb to the problem described as “Tontoism” in our haiku.       +


Some time ago, a friend and I originated the term Tontoism to describe the tendency of some haiku writers to omit, from their haiku, articles or other sentence elements where they would appear in normal English usage. We were referring, of course, to the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, whom we had often heard, in the guttural tones of Jay Silverheels, uttering. “Uuuuh. That not good,” or, “We not go,” “You not take horse,” and so forth.
        Unfortunately, Tontoism is becoming widespread in English-language haiku. The Japanese language, having no articles, can state a great deal in the short form. Yet, much modern haiku goes to forms shorter than conventional haiku. Reduction carried to extremes reaches absurdity. The movement toward total brevity can lead haiku to the point of incoherence. “Sun / wind / sand.” Or, “Desert”!
        Omission of conventional speech patterns calls attention to itself rather than the essence of the haiku. Because of syllable count, one occasionally sees a haiku beginning with “Passing stable door” rather than the more normal “Passing the stable door.” Some haiku verge on being only a series of grunts. Even the finest observations can be marred by telegraphic brevity. “Dandelion / wind.” “Hooker / fix.” “Plumber / clog.” Ad nauseam.
        The freedom the haiku poet has in using effective phrases, and the disciplined liberty the form, with its scant language, allows, would indicate that Tontoism is simply a failure on the part of the poet to effectively or adequately record the haiku experience. The appearance of “artlessness” is often the result of much more care and perception than the Tontoists are willing to give their work. One may decide not to begin a haiku with a conventional “the,” but this may mean discarding our whole language conception. An otherwise good haiku is spoiled when one hears the voice of Tonto grunting the words, “Wind in walnut tree.” The vehicle takes over the haiku and the humor becomes unavoidable.

OKAY - Here are my other thoughts - At least recently (a few years) Haiku and other Asian forms have been given more freedom for creativity when using English so his advice here is excellent - screw the 5-7-5 and write English correctly, but where does that leave us with traditionally English forms. Actually, the same dilemma lurks unless you're writing a modern/contemporary version of a traditional form. The dilemma lurks in twisting the language well beyond the absence of articles, into an awkward/untenable form which makes no sense to the reader while satisfying rhyme and syllable count. We mustn't do that because that is not poetic license, it's lazy writing and we should restucture our write or suffer the consequences which mean that the reader STOPS at that point. Subtle twists are poetic license, not total nonsensical revision of the language.  OKAY - Just food for thought.

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Date: 1/25/2019 10:49:00 AM
I honestly have never learned how to write a haiku. This is good advice! I Will keep it in mind! I need to practice for a while, before I will have something fit to post. Thanks for article! ;-)
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Date: 1/25/2019 8:33:00 AM
Craig, it is so hard to bring beauty into 5-7-5 syllables or even at times less. But, I suppose that is the skill of the writer. But I do not go for lines with grunts and meaningless words and phrases, where is the beauty in that, great blog and very interesting to read ~
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Date: 1/24/2019 7:07:00 PM
HI-HO SILVER.....AWAY......
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craig cornish
Date: 1/24/2019 8:53:00 PM
Good night kemo sabe
Date: 1/23/2019 2:18:00 PM
Heart and message over form, heart and message over syllable count does not mean both of those(syllable count and form) are to be ignored. Poetic license and the level of personal love of the art play into it. Let the modern day arrogant, elitist poetry critics wail if need be but one should remain true to their own style, integrity, and most of all- artistic expression, IMHO. Writing to be published one either alters their verses to please others or else must self-publish their works. Point is, who is to say that refusing the modern day whims of modern critics/publishers is not the correct path to take? Perhaps many decades later such poets will be recognized as great poets.
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craig cornish
Date: 1/23/2019 2:48:00 PM
And therein lies the conundrum, we must decide, like all else in life, what our goals are, to win every little contest which means selling part of your soul &or principles or publishing, which can be much the same (perhaps even less rewarding) or better yet, finding our comfortable niche in the midst of it all plucking the fruit that helps us improve and most importantly, having a little fun along the way.
Date: 1/23/2019 1:55:00 PM
This article reflects my thoughts exactly concerning the balanced art of flow and meaningfulness. Thank you for sharing, Craig.
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craig cornish
Date: 1/23/2019 2:10:00 PM
Yup, we grab a little of this and that - leave some, take the rest for our little bag of tricks. Sometimes I think of it like that small basket on a bike - we've only got so much room and must decide what to take along on our ride...Thank you Line.
Date: 1/23/2019 1:47:00 PM
Chewy food for thought! Enjoyed :) xomo
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craig cornish
Date: 1/23/2019 2:03:00 PM
LOL Dear Maureen, although some things we do tire of chewing on and must toss the rest away...but 8-)
Date: 1/23/2019 11:45:00 AM
I feel that the message you're sending is honest and correct. Why take the beauty away from your written work because of a rule given for the form or forms.
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craig cornish
Date: 1/23/2019 1:58:00 PM
Yet, if required to write in form we either must deal with those issues or don't even do it. Some can write brilliantly in forms without sacrificing the message. What we must know like all else in life is our limitations and our assets and make the best of them. As the bible says "A time for every purpose under Heaven"

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