H.W. Brands hopes his latest book, Haiku History: The American Saga Three Lines at a Time, won’t be a page turner. Haiku, with its familiar five-seven-five syllable structure, is a form of poetry meant to inspire contemplation rather than to transmit volumes of plot.
In his preface, Brands encourages the reader to travel slowly through the narrative, taking in only a few haiku at a time and pondering them before returning for more. The collection includes around 300 poems spanning from the earliest human arrivals to the North American continent to 21st century events still fresh in our collective memory.
“That’s the most important difference between this approach to history and the standard approach.” explains Brands, a professor of history at UT Austin. “This is more about summoning emotions and less about conveying information.”
The project began as what Brands describes as something between a dare and a lark. For many years he’d been encouraging his history students to use a reliable essay format for their papers but also allowing them to deviate from the format if they felt so inclined. “Genius makes its own rules.” he would tell them. If they wanted to turn in a series of haiku for their final paper, they were welcome to do so. One year a student punted the rhetorical example back to Brands, asking if he himself had ever written history as haiku. Brands had not, but for the first time he began to consider the possibility.
Around this time, Brands had also taken an interest in social media, specifically Twitter, which was still in its humble 140-character beginnings. Haiku, he realized, would easily fit within the character limit and its novel form could rise above the clutter of the average Twitter feed. So, he decided to publish his haiku history of the United States as a series of tweets, posting a new three-line installment of the story every couple days.
His rules for composing haiku were loose, he need only follow the five-seven-five format, but Brands soon discovered that this simple structure forces the writer to adopt a more contemplative approach. Unlike other forms of poetry whose flowing rhythms allow them to gather momentum, each haiku was its own self-contained island.
“A haiku keeps tripping you up,” he says. “Even if I strung ten of them together, they would constantly be coming to a halt.”
Brands didn’t create an outline of how many poems should be allocated for the various parts of the story. Sometimes multiple haiku were needed to properly convey a particular event. Whereas other aspects of the history lent themselves to a more sweeping approach, condensing years or decades into a single poem. The Great Depression of the 1930s, for example, is told in three concise lines:
The homeless wander
The streets, the roads, the highways
The trains to nowhere.
The choice of what to emphasize and what to leave out is a question that historians writing at any scale must answer for themselves, as even a 10,000 page book could not include every detail and every perspective. A history is, after all, an author’s rendering of a story and each author tells that story in their own way.
“There is no canonical list of the things that have to be in any history of anything,” says Brands. “And so, we choose what we consider to be important.”
Brands kindly includes short explanations of what is depicted below each poem. And the series has turned out to be not just an amusing social media distraction, but also a useful educational tool. It was, in part, enthusiastic responses from teachers of U.S. history that prompted Brands to compile the poems in book form.
The haiku contained in the book are only a fraction of what was published on Twitter, and he’s still posting new tweets every few days. However, he’s no longer moving forward chronologically. Brands’ goal is to write histories, not to chronical current events. The difference between to two being that we can’t know the long term significance of things happening in the present. Even the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently consuming so much of our attention, he explains, may not turn out to be important to historians twenty-five years from now.
So, instead, Brands is going back and covering certain events and people in greater detail. A bit, he notes, like how newer films and television series in the Star Wars franchise tell the backstory of a particular character or fill in details of stories alluded to in earlier installments.
The haiku that concludes the book describes the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency – an event that is, depending on one’s political position, either the triumph of A New Hope or a devastating Empire Strikes Back defeat. He opted to end there because the impact of the Trump presidency in the greater scheme of U.S. history is still very much unknown. Depending on the outcome of the 2020 election, future historians may view our present moment as a curious anomaly, worth only a few paragraphs, or as an important shift in government that demands at least a chapter if not an entire book.
Additionally, says Brands, what is considered important changes over time.
“Histories of the United States today look very different in their coverage of women and their coverage of minorities and their coverage of issues — the environment for example — than histories written a hundred years ago,” says Brands. “And histories written a hundred years from now will certainly look different than histories written today.
“This is one of the things that gives comfort to historians like me that we’ll always be needed,” he adds. “Each generation asks its own questions of the past.”