Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
Vincent Hoarau, France
Suggestiveness in haiku through the work of
The dictionary defines suggestion as an act of advising, inspiring, evoking, thinking of something without formulating it. It is therefore about causing a person to think something without expressing it, or, in the words of Victor Hugo, "making in the minds of others a small incision where you put an idea of yourself". In the field of haiku, this process is considered by most authors as one of the most important elements of haiku. Thus, in the presentation of the book Haiku, an anthology of short Japanese poem, we can read: "The haiku poetic form is the shortest in the world. As an art of ellipsis and suggestion, as a poem of an instant revealed, it seeks to awaken in us an awareness of life as a miracle." With ellipsis, it is one of the most fundamental aspects of haiku. For some authors, there's even no good haiku without suggestion. For instance, Dominique Chipot considers it cement without which haiku "disintegrates into the depths of thought." Dominique Chipot raises the question of suggestion in an interview given to the Journal des Grandes Ecoles, in France.
"Haiku is distinguished by its evocative power and by suggestion. It does not express a thought or a direct sense; it seeks the imaginary world of the reader. It is characterized by a withdrawal of the author who does not try to get on stage in his work. Haiku is like an inverted funnel, the share of small everyday things that will lead the reader to a wide range of feelings and senses." Haiku is the art of transcending the mundane (...) We tend to pay attention not only to external rules but to what really defines the haiku -- its internal rules, secret rules. Haiku must not say everything; ellipsis must invite the reader to unfold the world that the author was careful to withdraw. The key message of the haiku is therefore not necessarily expressed. This is a poem where silence is as important as words. In this, the haiku is a typical embodiment of Japanese culture in which exchanges are implicit and silence of great value. (...) The haiku must first seek to suggest the direction and keep some mystery. A perfect haiku is the one that confronts the ephemeral with the eternal, the place where opposites connect. "
Is suggestion the soul of haiku? Can we conceive a haiku without it? Is it necessary? And what processes can give it full force? To this last question, a brief analysis of the writing of a talented New Zealand haijin Svetlana Marisova gives some answers.
The difficulty - and beauty - of haiku is its ability to say much in few words. The art of haiku is for the author to search for processes and ways that will allow him to purify, to prune, to simplify the haiku by eliminating repetitions, redundancies, clumsiness, and to keep only what's essential. This is to prevent him from saying all. Haijin beginners often tend to fall into this first mistake by succumbing to the temptation of telling all and by piling up images and words to get 17 syllables. With practice, haiku poets will learn to get rid of the superfluous and by a variety of processes (removal of determinants and repetitions, use of ellipsis, precise choice of words...) but also by using suggestion. But does that mean that suggestion is a must?
Some have insisted that haiku should not contain any hidden meaning or double meaning. They quote a remark made by Shiki about Bashô's old mare, "The meaning of this verse is exactly what it expresses, it has no other meaning, no special meaning" or they repeat Bashô himself who defined haiku as "just what happens in a particular place, at a particular time."
Consider, for example, this haiku of Issa (1763-1828):
at the bathhouse
from one head to another
a butterfly flutters
We must avoid too much interpreting or reasoning. A scholar may study the author’s entire life and find in this particular haiku hidden messages, metaphors, keys needed to explain what Issa actually wanted to express through this haiku, the haiku that has become for him as complex and mysterious as a puzzle. But it is not so. Issa tells nothing more than what he tells. His haiku is not a puzzle to solve. However, it does not say all, just the main thing.
There are some haiku that don't seem to suggest anything, or at least not deliberately, but instead tend to show things as they are, by favoring the obvious, the simple, the pure description and by leaving very little possibility for the reader’s interpretation. Such haiku are not necessarily of lesser value. Authors choose to aim straight at the heart and senses of the reader rather than at his intellect. The ability of deduction and imagination is not called upon. This does not mean that the readers can not put in a particular haiku a part of their own imagination or that they can't visualize things which are not obvious, but simply that the author chooses to depict a scene as it is, that there are no hidden messages, symbols or ideas cleverly encrypted in it. The strength of these haiku is in their simplicity, in their truth without artifice, in their obviousness.
Conversely, many haiku poets offer a less accessible writing, a more hermetic, "poetic" one.
Take, for example, this haiku by Fuyuno Niji (1943-2002):
We will not venture into establishing any relationship between the qualitative superiority of the two, as each type of haiku style houses real gems. These haiku are similar to Western contemporary poetry and are conspicuous by their evocative power. However, this approach can lead to the creation of abstruse, hermetic haiku, unable to produce any emotion. A haijin must also be wary of this pitfall, by taking care not to make his poems too inaccessible. André Duhaime, when talking about the main "rules" of haiku, gives this advice: "Never use obscure allusions: the real haiku is intuitive, it is not intellectual or abstract."
However, whatever the degree of complexity or accessibility of their haiku, most authors resort to suggestion. For this, they rely on the collective memory and common cultural references of the readers to the multiple meanings of the words they use and to their connotations, but especially to the process of juxtaposition.
Japanese haiku poets use the term yugen, defined as "the art of suggesting a state without describing it.” Yugen enhances the power to evoke rather than the power to state things directly. It is based on the idea of highlighting the "real beauty" by suggestiveness. Just a few words, a few brush strokes, to suggest what was not said or shown, and so generate an avalanche of thoughts and feelings.
There are many ways to suggest ideas, images or emotions that are not expressed in a haiku. The first is to play on the multiple meanings of words, to use words or expressions that carry a variety of emotions, or even just because they strongly connote and provide hints, innuendo or evocations. A haijin who disposes of a wide variety of similar words chooses one word over another not only because it expresses better what he means but sometimes because it allows him to say more, to imply, to generate more varied images and ideas, because a word he chooses gives more depth to his haiku thanks to the connotations it carries.
Another method refers to placing historical, artistic or cultural references in his haiku, to taking them from a collective cultural heritage. This could be a part of a song, a saying, a proverb or a famous speech, a reference to a historical figure or personality, in a word, any element of a given culture.
Similarly, the kigo, or season word, can play a similar role when used well. "Japanese poets are very attached to season words, which, for the Japanese, have a strong power of suggestion", explains Dominique Chipot. With a huge repertoire of season words, the Japanese can easily suggest emotions and ideas to their readers. Alain Kervern even adds in “Why do the non-Japanese write haikus?” that "Japanese is a language of ambiguity. As soon as you combine a phrase with words, you create ambiguity. This gives Japanese haiku a dimension that can not be found in other languages." Outside Japan, however, haiku poets can also use highly evocative season words that will allow them to draw emotions, memories, images that can strengthen their haiku.
Each author of haiku, whatever his country and his culture of origin and/or adoption are, has a considerable number of season words at his disposal to allow him to easily determine a setting and locate the haiku in the time when it was created. For example, if an author of haiku speaks of the "harvest festival", any French reader will know immediately what time of year he is referring to and will share clear images, impressions and feelings. Using kigo is a good way to make suggestions to readers. "The reference to season, even if not explicit”, says Dominique Chipot, “should highlight the contrast between the shortness of the moment captured in haiku and the eternal cycle of time. It is certainly not an intellectual artifice or an aesthetic game, which is often too common in the West, where the use of the season word becomes trivial: when it is a mere "weather report" without any additional interest. A careful selection of kigo is thus crucial in the art of haiku. As such, if some kigo "speak" to all mankind, others will be specific to a country, region, city, culture or folklore and will add a note of nostalgia, exotic or originality to the haiku.
There are many other ways to make suggestions. We will mainly focus on the process of juxtaposition being perhaps the most powerful "tool". Juxtaposition is the poetic process of placing side by side two words or phrases seemingly without any semantic links. "Something has to be expressed in A, and then another thing happens in B. All the energy and vitality of haiku depend on how the reader moves from point A to point B." (Alain Kervern). This juxtaposition will be accompanied by a kireji, a pause, a void in the haiku (materialized or not, a punctuation mark or exclamation). The kireji is the small incision Hugo mentioned, the cut which is full of suggestiveness. It is a notch, a tiny space between the lines, a small sign that is subtler than a wink or a nod.
Among contemporary haiku writers, there is one outstanding by her use of suggestion and juxtaposition therefore deserving a special attention: Svetlana Marisova, an author of Russian origin who immigrated to New Zealand at an early age. She serves as a webmaster for Simply Haiku, owned and edited by Robert D. Wilson and Saša Važić. Svetlana has published a number of haiku of a rare strength and beauty. Here's how Robert D. Wilson, his mentor, speaks of her work:
dérivant - / le fardeau de mon ombre / sur une éphémère
floating downstream -
the burden of my shadow
on a mayfly
“Marisova’s short poem is an activity (process)-biased haiku, in line with Basho’s teachings. It’s not object-biased, or subjective. Marisova makes good use of yugen, hinting at and suggesting, versus "telling all." Likewise, the poet uses ma (dreaming room). These two aesthetic styles play an important role in bringing to surface the unsaid. It is the un-said’s dance with the said combined with a haiku to make room for multiple interpretations. Marisova makes excellent use of the Japanese styles (aesthetic tools) that transform haiku into a medium that says much with little, with its ability to suggest, hint at, coupled with a proper understanding of kigo.”
Wrote the artist (1617-1691) Tosa Mituoki in regard to painting, which applies to haiku as well:
“Do not fill up the whole picture with lines; also apply colors with a light touch. Some imperfection in design is desirable. You should not fill in more than a third of the background. Just as you would if you were writing poetry, take care to hold something back. The viewer, too, must bring something into it. If one includes some empty space along with an image, then the mind will fill it in.”
Consider another haiku:
swan song ...
the limb-loosening rush
of dark feathers
chant du cygne ... / l'élan aux membres relâchés / des plumes sombres
According to Robert D. Wilson, this use of the juxtaposition by Svetlana Marisova is creative because it allows readers to interpret a mystery. In this particular haiku, for example, what justifies this “rush”? Is this a white swan attacked by a black-feathered predator? Is the swan a rare black swan, and if so, what is the cause of her rush? And why this “swan song”? Will it die? If so, why is it that its members are released? Etc. A single interpretation is impossible here. Without necessarily any hidden message (only the knowledge of the life of the author and her work could help to decrypt her poem), there is indeed a mystery, and this is made possible by the juxtaposition of elements that complete or oppose one another, by an excellent control of what Wilson calls "the aesthetic tools."
Here are some other haiku:
autumn rain -
the colour of birdsong
pluie d'automne - / la couleur des chants d'oiseaux / maculée
again my dreams
morphine ... / une fois encore mes rêves / submergés
pearl diving ...
haiku and tumours
from the depths
plongée aux perles ... / les haïku et les tumeurs / des profondeurs
in the wind
what might have been ...
dans le vent / ce qui aurait peu être ... / lune sans sommeil
suddenly personal ...
l'univers / soudain personnel ... / nouveau-né
In these examples the translation amputates the original haiku twice as it reveals my own interpretation of the poems and is - by the very fact that it is translation - unfaithful (a fortiori from the English language which can be very concise and convenient). Nevertheless, we can get an idea of Marisova's specific style, which proceeds by juxtaposition of images, hints, suggestiveness and conciseness. This is probably what I like in her writing best -- this permanent mystery, those blurred lines, this suffering and this beauty, these words that talk about pain, the ephemeral, the wonder and the emergency.
of the blackbird's song ...
dans le chant du merle ...
clinging to a leaf
all day long
cette goutte d'eau
s'accrochant à une feuille
le jour durant
The last haiku is particularly moving. Svetlana Marisova is indeed about to have a surgery operation in Russia, due to a brain tumor. Her recent poems are marked by great sadness, a deep attachment to life, an emergency, an unquenchable thirst for images and for love. However, even a reader who does not know the situation of the author can feel the sadness and the courage in this poem. He will vaguely feel that the author does not just describe the image of a drop of water clinging to a leaf. He will understand that the haiku is speaking about fight, courage, strength and he will be affected in the deepest part of his inner body by this apparently trivial image.
and at the core
half a worm
une pomme juteuse
et au coeur
la moitié d'un ver
blinded with tears ...
aveuglée par les larmes ...
cold morning ...
reality drifts back
as a dream
matin froid …
la réalité reflue
comme un rêve
in the twilight
dans le crépuscule
winter chill ...
some bird singing
her heart out
froid e l'hiver ...
quelque oiseau chantant
de tout son coeur
why must you sprout
pourquoi dois-tu germer
wintry sky ...
these dark tumours
ciel hivernal ...
ces tumeurs noires
drainant la lumière
these dark ages ...
sand waders gathering
ces âges sombres ...
les échassiers se rassemblent
I’d like to conclude this article with my interpretation of this last haiku. One could imagine those plovers as some night creatures that appear, like vultures, to take advantage of this moment of rest and of this weakness. My feeling was different: in this dark period of the author’s life who is about to face her disease, her friends gather together around her to tell her “goodbye” and wish her good luck. Then comes the dawn, the time for departure and of deep sadness. I imagine a moving meeting, a last farewell. At this dark and difficult moment, the birds come closer to each other and unite to resist the approaching threat. Yet, the very last word of the haiku is "dawn". There’s no doubt that many readers will find a lot of hope in this haiku. That's the magic of suggestion, which allows each of us to make the poem his or hers and to put part of him/herself in it.
Rarely putting herself on stage (or when she does, she does it very discreetly), Svetlana Marisova knows how to leave room for the readers, how to share her poems with them. If her haiku are so full of energy and emotion, it's probably because they carry as much mystery with them and, at the same time, as much universality.
Translated from Gong, revue franchophone de haiku, November 2011. Reprinted by the author’s permission.