Vol. 11, No 18, Spring 2014
Vol. 10, No 17, Summer 2013
Vol. 9, No. 16, Summer 2012
Vol. 8, No. 15, Winter 2011
Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
Bruce Ross, USA
Haiku as an Absolute Metaphor
Art does not represent what is visible but makes things visible.
Modern Japanese haiku centered around shasei (a sketch from nature) probably adapted from the French en plein air (in the open air) painting. Yet, the connection of Japanese haiku to nature had previously been a mandated structural part of haiku in the kigo (season word) and kidai (season theme), making haiku essentially a nature poem of a specific sort. In Haiku Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku (1993), which I edited, there is a distinction between Eastern and Western concepts of nature in my introduction:
Broadly speaking, the poetics of the East reflects an ontological union of [humanity’s] consciousness with nature in which nature is of equal valence to [humanity] while the poetics of the West reflects an allegorical subsuming of nature in which [humanity] dominates nature. Eastern and Western concepts of subjectivity thus differ, the East accenting an emotional relation of the self to nature and the West accenting an intellectual relation to nature. In the East nature tends to dominate consciousness. In the West the mind tends to determine consciousness.2
At the Haiku Society of America session at the 2013 American Literature Association annual meeting, my talk “The Lyric Strain in American Haiku: Tom Tico” suggested how another structural element of haiku, the kireji (the cutting word), might further the implications of this nature distinction and bring Eastern and Western haiku poetics closer together:
The English Romantics explored the function of the imagination in their poetics, really how consciousness works in the act of creating poetry. In effect, in the Western tradition of poetry, an understated relation between objectivity and subjectivity were being explored. This in essence is the use of metaphor at the heart of Western poetry. Japanese haiku’s kireji or implied kireji, which separate the two parts of a haiku, reveals this Western metaphor. In discussing a haiku by Hasegawa Sosei, Ooka Makoto, in pointing out the phrasing and orientation of one of the haiku’s images, notes how “a simple description of nature can become at the same time an expression of the poet’s emotion.”3
Thus, shasei seen in a different light could be described by my term “absolute metaphor” in both Eastern and Western haiku.
Two aspects of haiku that came to influence American haiku at its beginning are Zen Buddhism and yugen (mystery). In his anthology of Japanese literature Donald Keene in his introduction to Nō notes of the obscure language of these plays that it was “due in part to the influence of Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on intuitive understanding.”4 Zen Buddhism is centered on achieving a special state of consciousness and its literature is filled in an allusive way to the various states and awareness of reality in such states, Keene’s “intuitive understanding.” As an example here is a contemporary haiku from an American Zen practitioner, Burnell Lippy, who may be alluding to a Bashō haiku. Note the kireji between the two images in an intuition of nature:
deep in the sink
the great veins of chard
Here is one by vincent tripi who is a yoga practitioner. It and many of the examples in this talk are from the recent anthology Where the River Goes, The Nature Tradition inEnglish-language Haiku (2013) which is edited by Allan Burns:
Ah water-strider never to have left a track!6
What Lippy sees in the chard at that seasonal period, tripi analogically sees, almost as a koan, in the water-strider’s unmarked path.
Yugen or mystery according to Keene “retains something of the sense of a mysterious power.”7 Here are examples from O Mabson Southard, Virginia Brady Young, and Carolyn Hall:
The old rooster crows . . .
Out of the mist come the rocks
and the twisted pine8
a grove of saplings
fog . . .9
on river rocks
the long day10
The first two mist and fog haiku address the mystery of being and nonbeing in nature and the last river rocks haiku is a deep meditation on marking the passage of time. A final haiku of mystery by the contemporary Japanese haiku poet Koko Kato expresses the opening up of a winter scene:
Through the branches of a tree
Utterly leaflessThe sky deepens.11
It is clear this haiku has elements of Shinto which considers trees sacred. All the elements of haiku from Zen and Shinto support the unique approach to nature particular to the haiku form as against the objectifying approach to nature in much Western art and poetry. Haiku in contrast is revealing something deep in nature through a subjective emotional reception of nature. Zeami Motokiyu, the father of Nō, describes those moments when the actor is neither singing, dancing, or moving about as “no action” that is defined by a powerful inner energy.12 Zeami states, “If [‘no mind’] is obvious, it becomes an act . . . The actions before and after an interval of ‘no action’ must be linked by entering the state of mindlessness . . . .”13 In much haiku the consciousness of the poet directed toward nature seems in a state that resembles “no action” but the poet is rather probably in a state of heightened awareness that is nonetheless expressed in a simply expressed diction. Thus the images and the nature of the images in haiku determine what the given haiku is and the kireji determines the “no action” subjectivity that links the images.
The element of images and the embedded nature of images dominate Western haiku as it does Japanese haiku. Professor Yoshinobu Hakutani notes dramatically in his recent book on Richard Wright and haiku, “The most influential East-West artistic, cultural, and literary exchange that has taken place in modern and postmodern times was reading and writing of haiku in the West.”14 Surely, something in the treatment of images in haiku itself is beyond painterly intentions. To be sure two figures focused their attention on the nature of the poetic image in this sense and the aesthetic treatment of the image in this sense. First, and most importantly, is Ezra Pound through his translations of Chinese and Japanese verse, his explorations of the imagist intention in Chinese characters, and in the influential development of the Imagism movement in poetry. Secondly, is Kenneth Rexroth through his translations of Chinese and Japanese verse, his own nature-oriented verse, and his influence on poets like Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Jack Kerouac and others. If the Puritan poets constructed nature through religious allegory and the Transcendentalist poets like Emerson and Thoreau, as well as Whitman, through intellectual reckoning with Eastern thought, and later poets through English pre-Romantic and Romantic sentiment, and finally through European symbolism, Pound and Rexroth introduced the focus on the image itself. If there is an overriding aspect to the image in haiku, it is simplicity, as in these haiku by Ferris Gilli, Anita Virgil, and Paul MacNeil:
cries of an egret
changing its roost15
one loon call
The egret, the trees, and the loon are simple images from nature at a certain season or time of day, thus they could be considered kigo. But is the simple nature image enough? Each of these haiku has a break between images and this break could be considered a kireji.
The break, including an implied break, could deepen the simplicity of a nature image. The idea of such a “cut” in the linking of verses or parts of verses is an aesthetics embedded in Japanese culture, such as the “no action” of Nō, and the haiku in particular. This break is perhaps the key to the absolute metaphor in haiku. In my essay “The Essence of Haiku” I noted that two haiku images, one implying the absolute, such as weather, and the other presenting the particular, such as a butterfly, combine to make an absolute metaphor. When this absolute metaphor is linked by a kireji, an “affective spark joining the universal and particular” is created.18 This complex is noted in the egret, trees, and loon haiku. It is also noted in this haiku by Virginia Brady Young:
a sand dune
The separation or “cut” in Japanese haiku is marked linguistically by a short element that demarcates emotion, such as our exclamation mark in English. This sound unit in fact is an opening out of emotional space that contains the spark that unifies the absolute and particular. It points to the emotionally felt dynamic in a haiku and creates it, really, thus enriching the nature of simple nature images.
A given haiku’s feeling, expressed in images, is thus an opening out and spaciousness brought about by the kireji which separates two parts: mu, “nothingness,” that provokes deep feeling of a metaphysical nature, and ma, a space between two parts with aesthetic implications. Further, in Shinto, the indigenous Japanese religion, nature images in reality, are subject to yoshiro, an object in nature that attracts divine energy.20 Haiku by Robert Spiess and Elizabeth Searle Lamb exemplify such a complex:
as one, the chirping sparrows
fall silent in the spruce21
a mayfly so transparent
it makes no shadow22
As to actual poetic form, the 5-7-5 sound units usually written in a single line in Japanese, most American and non-Japanese haiku is written in three horizontal, short-long-short lines justified at the left margin, though many variations occur. But the short-long-short form, sometimes supported by punctuation marks, asserts the Japanese phrasing breaks and kireji. In a compressed version of this assertion is the now more frequent use of one-line haiku as these by Peggy Willis Lyles, Jim Kacian, and Marlene Mountain:
in the dark places first fireflies23
camping alone one star then many24
water falls all over itself over the falls25
These examples also exemplify a more recent sense of a poetically compressed idiom of phrasing in which the opening out of haiku, at least in the formal sense, seems closer to simple nature imagery at first glance. One by Ruth Yarrow, an ecologist, betrays her experience of nature and expresses it in a poetically charged way:
over rounded stones a snake
Is this merely a simply stated nature image? Does the last line poeticize the haiku? Is there an absolute metaphor in the break? Does the imagery suggest the Tao Te Ching? Perhaps “yes,” would be the suggested response to these questions. Haiku by Elizabeth Searle Lamb and Charles B. Dickson, two early American haiku poets, reflect a lyric approach of the English Romantics that emphasizes Western compressed metaphoric language and rhythmic sound elements:
a robin’s singing the color of this first jonquil27
of water pipits28
These poets certainly celebrate the beauty of nature in phrasing that dominates each haiku. Each of the haiku expresses delight. Does the reader share this delight or delight in the cleverness of expression? Is there a spark of awareness here? Perhaps a look at other image dominated nature haiku will clarify these questions. The presiding question would be whether these and other haiku are presenting only nature description or are providing a dynamic of insight one looks for in a haiku.
In Klees’s terms, is something being merely represented or is something being revealed. In the East-West dialogue, including haiku, ut pictura poesis or poetry is like a painting enters in. Figurative representation is carried over to poetry, in this case to haiku and its nature image, regardless of expressive treatment. Here are a mockingbird haiku by Charles B. Dickson, an egret haiku by John Wills, and a kingfisher haiku by Wally Swist:
stalks the reeds
without a ripple30
deep bend of the brook
the kingfisher’s chatter
after its dive31
Each of these bird haiku offers an objective image of the creature’s behavior. Is there something more? The mockingbird by its boisterous nature possibly offers humor to its haiku and there is cleverness in filling fog with sound. The egret is in eloquently simple language being what the Buddhist call “just as it is.” The third line elaborates this emotional undercurrent by, as the Buddhists might say, leaving no trace. The lively kingfisher is being itself. Is there a spark in any of them? Perhaps John Wills’ egret has a deeper resonance than the others. It suggests the heightened idea of leaving no trace in a likewise transparency of language without the intrusion of poeticized language through mere representational imagery. Its third line is even like a koan. Could nature imagery haiku that is merely representative be successful? In haiku unstated reverberation is everything. If that is present, the haiku would probably be successful.
In the issue of shasei or nature sketch, favored by the founder of modern traditional Japanese haiku, Kyoshi, and more or less followed by most current Japanese haiku poets, where does imagination come in? Of course, Kyoshi was looking at nature beautified, aided by the kigo. How does imagination fit into representation in haiku? Here are haiku by John Barlow, John Wills, Garry Gay, Jack Barry, and Billie Wilson:
into the deer’s ribs the winter rain32
dusk from rock to rock a waterthrush33
into the clouds
the view within34
gathering thunderheads the bullfrog’s bulging eyes35
in the dog’s eyes
The deer haiku and the bullfrog haiku are nature sketches, with the feeling of death in a simple sentence in the first and a perhaps metaphor in the second. The hiking haiku concerns mental experience, an aspect of the imagination, here perhaps with an expression of irony. The dog’s eyes haiku is wild nature sketched without beauty, a sketch of a seasonal time. The space in the water thrush one-line haiku between dusk and the rest of the haiku is nature “just as it is” but made eloquent by the first word which opens out the poem to deeper meaning.
Meaning as such is an issue in haiku. In its essence one opposes a Buddhist no-mind, Shinto regard for nature, and a conceptual treatment. As such, the haiku is “just as it is,” an animist mystery, a modern psychic space, or a combination of these. In general, though, in American contemporary haiku one opposes the traditional “affective spark” to a postmodern “intellectual angst.” Here are haiku by Marian Olson, vincent tripi, Christopher Herold, Marlene Mountain, Chad Lee Robinson, and Mark Harris:
god or no god
does it matter
wild blue flax37
from the end of its trail
empty snail shell39
a pond turtle rises from 200 million years40
all our sounds
burl bark grown into a wound a word42
Two haiku, snowflake and snail shell, reflect the “affective spark” in a traditional idiom, each with a Buddhist coloring in the issue of form and emptiness. The wild blue flax is traditional in form with a postmodern angst mediated by the blue flax plant. The pond turtle is in a modern idiom but reflects a regard for a long-evolved species. The sounds and vowels haiku deconstructs the haiku form by incorporating the moon in its first line, a kind of logopoeia, or incorporation of language usages. The burl bark haiku extends this treatment with sound poetry values. These two haiku reflect similar directions in contemporary poetry that cast a blind eye on nature as such. Not a valuable tactic for a nature poem like haiku. Perhaps not even haiku, really. Yet, changes in idioms are natural. Still, why impose other poetry approaches on the basic haiku form? Two centuries ago when Shiki was working out the nature of modern Japanese haiku, the response to more radical approaches was, Do what you want but why call it haiku? This question seems relevant today in discussing these different approaches.
Perhaps for now, one might consider a term such as “absolute transparent image” to reflect the understated simplicity of “just as it is” and an implied or direct kireji to produce a true nature connection and moment of insight or heightened awareness desired in haiku, as in these haiku by Jim Kacian, Jack Barry, and Allan Burns:
a turtle’s wet back
in tall grass
the scent of honeysuckle45