Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
Robert D. Wilson, Philippines
Study of Japanese Aesthetics:
Part I The Importance of Ma
"The man who has no imagination has no wings." - Muhammad Ali
Every day I read haiku and tanka online in journals and see people new to these two Japanese genres posting three to five poems per day, as if the composition of haiku and tanka were the easiest thing to do in the world. Oftentimes their output lacks meter, and are far from memorable.
What is the popular perception of Japanese short form poetry in the English-language poetic community? Why are various journals today showcasing some of these same haiku and tanka for publication? Is it because no one's adequately defined the rudiments and heart sense of the two genres? Are English tanka and haiku distinct from Japanese tanka and haiku, having become their own individualized poetic expressions, thus new genres lacking a consistent set of rules to follow?
Perhaps Western interpretations of these genres (most vary), heralded, defended, and defined by many poetry associations and like-minded journals, are indicative of an identity crisis which, again, raises the question of why?
I read the articles regarding the why and what a Western haiku should be and not be, yet come away unconvinced. Yes, the syllable tonal length in the English language differs from that used in the Japanese language (their syllables aren’t syllables as Westerners know and understand syllables. They are shorter in intonation, and oftentimes contain more than one beat, whereas in an English syllable, each syllable is one beat, thus, when a Westerner taught in public or private school to write a haiku using a 5/7/5 meter, composes a haiku, the result is oftentimes an awkward sounding haiku).
Very few Western haiku poets disagree on this point and have adjusted their haiku to fit into a schemata utilizing a shorter amount of syllables.
What's agreed upon and disagreed upon are the pieces of the puzzle missing. With so many opinions and theories, it's easy to tell that something's not right.
Poets new to haiku and tanka need direction, knowledge, and homework before they settle into a routine, wax self-confident, and disseminate their poetry in venues other than on on-line and off-line workshops and in Facebook conversations, extending their misconceptions regarding the two genres to people who, for the most part, will never attend a tanka or haiku club meeting, participate in a poetry workshop, read a journal, let alone study the form from an academic perspective other than the uninformed crap they read in school textbooks; then share their misconceptions with others, etc.
The Japanese aesthetic terms: ma, sabi, yugen, makoto, kigo, etc.: what do these terms mean? They pop up in books, journals and on the Internet, yet finding a clear definition for any of these terms is next to impossible. I have trouble finding anything about these terms on or off-line written in layman’s language, and the definitions vary between writers.
Is a lack of understanding of these terms and the failure by many poets to see the value of using Japanese aesthetics in their poetry, coupled with the stance taken by some "Western" haiku, tanka, haibun, and haiga on- and off-line journal editors, who feel that breaking the rules of the aforementioned Japanese poetic genres, are essential if "Western" poets want an authentic voice that is non-Japan-centric; the reason for what appears to be the Western bastardization of Japanese short form poetry?
Take, for example, the following haiku used in a haibun published by a popular Western European poetry journal:
the oil is getting low - his thoughts are of autumn sleep
Pettit's quasi three verse haiku lacks the magic infused into a successful haiku via the utilization of ma and other Japanese aesthetic tools that transform a short poem into a multi-dimensional entity that leaps from the obvious to the metaphysical, inviting the reader to interpret what the poet wrote.
To illustrate my point, compare the latter with following haiku by Buson:
That little fox,
What made him cough ---
In a field with bush clover?
Kogitsune no nani ni musekemu kohagihara
Translated by Edith M. Shiffert and Yuki Sawa
Buson's poem hints at something that the reader must interpret. The (animist/shamanistic) mention of the fox makes me wonder if this is an allegorical reference or a real animal in the space between lines two and three, which the Japanese call ma. Buson's poem is mystical, swathed with yugen (depth and mystery). Like an echo after the clang of a brass bell, Buson's haiku lingers in my mind after reading it; an echo that reverberates each time I read it.
In the next several issues of Simply Haiku, I will examine some of the tools available for tanka and haiku poets; tools that'll help us to understand the genres better and, in turn, compose better haiku and tanka that are indigenous to the genres as they were designed to be taught and handed down to Westerners by the two genres’ originators.
They are frozen in one lump:
Translated by Makoto Ueda
What does it mean to westernize haiku and other forms of Japanese short form poetry?
The following haiku was written in Eastern Europe, an area considered to be a part of the West. Is this, then, an example of Western haiku? Is geography a deciding factor? The use of English?
The poet's cultural memory, coupled with one's experience, education, and outlook towards the metaphysical define a haiku. All of us on this planet are individuals.
I read the haiku below and see it as an authentic haiku. It doesn't tell all, it makes use of ma (time and space), yugen (depth and mystery), utilizes the meter indigenous to haiku. No haiku is indigenous to its geographical locale, nor to the racial, ethnic, or spiritual make-up of its author.
dark afternoon . . .
kicking a stone down the path
with my winter shoe
The haiku above was written in Eastern Europe (the West), the one below, in Asia (the East). Both in their native language utilize the S/L/S metric schemata indigenous to haiku and both utilize Japanese aesthetic tools. The aforementioned tools are more than just a geographical region's aesthetics. They are specific tools essential to the creation of a specific genre. The utilization of "Western" aesthetics as taught by Caucasoid European and North American universities, for the most part, lack the metaphysical mindset needed to elevate a haiku into the "ma" of what is and isn't. A haiku must transcend the said, mount the unsaid, in a timeless moment, one's senses intertwined in an undefined orgasm of then, now, and will; like Alice, jumping into the white rabbit's black hole, feeling the wind, caressed by darkness, chasing what could or could not be in a dream inside a dream, independent of preconceptions.
airing out kimonos
as well as her heart
is never enough
Translated by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie
- - - - -
Of my breast
The rising moon;
And when I turn to look at it ---
In clumps of cloud.
shizuka naru / waga mune wakete / izuru tsuki / furisakemireba / murakumo no tsuki
Translated by Steven D. Carter
The next tanka, written by an American, is also beautiful, making good use of the Japanese aesthetic tools: sabi, yugen, and ma. The pause creating the ma is at the end of line three:
when I am gone
doctors will donate this heart
to someone else
only to find you
deep within the scar tissue
Kathy Lippard Cobb
It was awarded an honorable mention in a California based tanka contest recently. The winning tanka deviates from the meter indigenous to tanka which many "Western" editors are claiming as allowable due to what they allege to be a difference in tonality and iambic pentameter indigenous to the West's conceptualization of poetry. They are quick to label those who disagree as Japan-centric or Japanophiles; a labeling that's ignorant and based on generalities, which cannot apply to Westerners in general unless one applies this assumption, based upon their ethnicity, and "buy in" to the philosophical theories propagated by Anglo-files and Anglo-centrics. I write this with a smile because to write good haiku and tanka, membership in a 'phile,' be it Japanese or Anglo, is irrelevant. Tanka (Japanese song) is called that for a reason . . .
"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance."
If tanka was just another name for the general term, song, my critique would be mute. Tanka isn't just a song, but a specific type of song, just as opera is a specific type of song. Look at the difference in the tanka's meter below when I place the word "been" at the end of line four, at the beginning of line five of the tanka that won first place in the same contest Lippard-Cobb's tanka won an honorable mention, although I feel Lippard-Cobb's is the stronger of the two poems:
in an updraft...
who I might have been,
in an updraft...
who I might have
My minor change doesn't alter the tanka's meaning; only the meter, which is just that: meter, neither Western nor Eastern . . . a different way to play a song.
The East and the West have different mindsets in many ways, yet to classify a mindset by geography alone is ludicrous.
The majority in Japan are influenced by Chinese linguistics and poetry; animism, the shamanistic beliefs of the indigenous Ainu; and by Taoism, Shinto, Zen and other sects of Buddhism, which at times, can become a concatenate of Japan's cultural mindscape.
Then again, other people who live in and call the West their home, share similar beliefs.
China 's influence on Japanese poetry cannot be underestimated, negated, or ignored. It was China who colonized Japan and intermarried with the Ainu and other indigenous peoples living in this island grouping before it was unified and became Japan. China, one of the world's first three civilizations, introduced written language, poetry, etc. to Japan.
The aesthetic terms: sabi, yugen, makoto, ma, etc. have Chinese roots that have been hard to grasp for many English-speaking people (primarily due to what they were taught in school), because the Asian mindset utilizes metaphysical silence, impermanence, the undefined, the untouchable, ambiguity, minimalism, and other forms of non-concrete thinking in the creation of their poetry; the antithesis, in many ways, to that found in what’s today labeled, "Western thinking."
"At the south window, my back to a lamp, I sit. Wind scatters sleet into darkness. In lone depths of silent village night: the call of a late goose in falling snow"
Po Chu -I
ChineseTang Dynasty poet
Translated by David Hinton
Many "Westerners" prefer terms with concrete definitions. They are trained in school to dissect and define everything, leaving little room for pure metaphysical manifestation, spontaneity, the essence of the thought patterns they began life with as children.
"You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices."
"The first precept was never to accept a thing as true until I knew it as such without a single doubt."
Japanese aesthetics aren't a religion or a culture's ism. They are important tools essential to the sculpting of authentic haiku and tanka; and, contrary to misinformed teaching, have counterparts in Western thought: counterparts that merit consideration when authoring English-language Japanese short form poetry.
One set of tools is not enough. It’s better to work with a full toolbox. What’s central to this paper, however, is the finished result: authentic tanka and haiku.
Every time I study Japanese aesthetics, which form the heart of all Japanese art, from anime, cinema, music, drama, poetics, etc., I encounter an awareness of time and space called ma.
Ma is not an easy term to comprehend from a Western sensitivity, due to the West's penchant to examine and think in terms of tangibility and non-metaphysical comprehension.
“Mystical explanations are thought to be deep; the truth is that they are not even shallow.”
Friederich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Before entering the school system as small children, metaphysical thoughts and imagination are innate sensibilities all are born with. In school, tangibility is the catch-all phrase necessitating theorization and dissection via Western tradition influenced by Greco-Roman tradition that's built upon further by European philosophers, theologians, and social scientists like Hegel, Kierkegaard, Kant, Nietzsche, Papal theorists, Descartes, Spengler, McLuhan, Albert Camus, Martin Luther, Freud, Jung; coupled with the comprehension of science as defined by Machiavelli, Pavlov, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc.
"I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect, has intended us to forgo their use."
How does Western thought define: senses, reason, and intellect, especially when introduced to a haiku like the one below, by someone who many consider to be one of the founders of the Serbian haiku movement?
Why do some influential poets in America advocate and justify a style of haiku and tanka that's very different from the original conceptualization and foundation of the two genres?
A moment ago
the stain on the road
chased field mice
Мрља на цести
Малочас је ловила
Translated by Sasa Vazic
Stated Kai Hasegawa from Japan's Tokai University, the author of over 20 books of haiku criticism, in one of two interviews I conducted with him in Simply Haiku:
"Western languages are thought ultimately to belong to God, but in Japan, from ancient times, language has been considered exceedingly private. This is in fact a big problem, but it's also a discussion that won't get us anywhere.
A more realistic problem for discussion is that of ma. This Japanese word can have a spatial meaning, as in ‘empty space’ or ‘blank space,’ a temporal meaning (silence), a psychological meaning, and so on. Ma is at work in various areas of life and culture in Japan. Without doubt, Japanese culture is a culture of ma. This is the case with haiku as well. The ‘cutting’ (kire) of haiku is there to create ma, and that ma is more eloquent than words. That is because even though a superior haiku may appear to be simply describing a 'thing,' the working of ma conveys feeling (kokoro).
In contrast to this, Western culture [as defined by educational institutions?] does not recognize this thing called ma. In the literary arts, everything must be expressed by words. But Japanese literature, especially haiku, is different. As with the blank spaces in a painting or the silent parts of a musical composition, it is what is not put into words that is important.
The reader of a haiku is indispensable to the working of ma. This person must notice the ma and sense the kokoro of the poet. A haiku is not completed by the poet. The poet creates half of the haiku, while the remaining half must wait for the appearance of a superior reader . . ."
"Surely, then," continued Hasagawa, "it must be more difficult in the West, where there is no concept of ma . . ." [None, or little?]
"Let me add here that from the standpoint of ma, ‘junk’ haiku are haiku that have no ma."
Ma defined is ambiguous: time and space. How does Eastern and Western thought come to terms with the ambiguity of this definition, and are the interpretations that different? Sometimes two alleged chasms are not chasms but a difference in how something is explained.
To most Japanese artists, the time and space called Ma is a sensory space, an ambiguous something requiring both the artist and his fan's participation.
at the temple gate
shows its whiteness
quick brush strokes
while the light holds
Peggy Willis Lyles
In music, Ma becomes a combination of feeling and thought without form; a silence that speaks to you without words and cannot be sensorily heard audibly. The unsaid, ma, is a catalyst, which to a Westerner educated to rely primarily on sight and touch, and to take the intuition and empathy he felt as a young child for granted, is an odd concept that's hard to comprehend.
Ma is the pause (space and length of space) in a musical piece (physical and non-physical); the pause building anticipation, touching the senses, painting with the listener, a mood touching upon what is needed to interpret the musician's music. It's felt through the silences between musical phrases or single notes, yet even more.
The music, via ma, becomes the defining moment when both listeners and musicians toss out preconceptions and allow emotion to speak together in tongues. It is formless, devoid of shape or audio-bility from a non-metaphysical point of view.
I feel these pauses in Miles Davis' tune from his poignant Sketches in Spain performance of Concierto de Aranjuez, and similar pauses in John Coltrane's Alabama (an epitaph for a girl who was killed by racists in Alabama ).
I experienced MA during the late 1960's, listening to the spontaneity of musicians like Jimi Hendrix, exploring the wild west of whatever, less the promise of an ever.
"Even Castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually."
Says Indian musician and poet, _kala Ramesh:
"Our mind is a chattering box - we need to go into it to find ma. Ma is the unsaid and the unheard. In Hindu thought it [ma] is called 'anhad baani,' meaning: the un-struck sound. See the beauty in that term? It is there that the unsaid and the unheard resonate. Ma is formless."
According to theoretician, educator, publisher, poet, Denis Garrison, the prominent Japanese composer, Toshio Hosokawa posits:
"Western music is more concerned with how groups of notes function together . . . while Japanese music, on the other hand, focuses on each note’s tone color, its birth and termination and, because of this, exalts the space that each note occupies."
What does Hosokawa mean by his generalization, Western music; and does he fall into the same trap as some in the West, lumping together the music composed from another geographic locale under one generalized classification, in essence, displaying a bias that "necessitates the theorization and dissection" attributed to Western thinking?
The definition of tanka: Japanese song
A strange thing in American universities today; a professor will assign a thesis asking students to give him their ideas and fact-based opinions on a particular subject and students come up to him after class and ask him what he wants them to say specifically. It puzzles many professors. Learning today resembles the entertainment industry: what sells!
"The facts are always friendly, every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true."
"The University brings out all abilities, including incapability."
Divorce yourself, for a moment, when listening to a musical master who allows his instrument to play him and he, it, in a waltz of now, and let the metaphysical you felt as a child take over, unleashing the open minded tabula rasa of your inner child, your preconceptions gone. This is ma: the moment that isn't a moment, the word that isn't a word, a time without space or shape; yet is a space, in a dimension a young child, an Asian, or an indigenous being would understand clearly as timelessness, whispering leaves, the moon painting treetops, the tin man with a heart that can't be real, but is.
Many of the great Western painters understood the value of white space (another manifestation of ma), influenced by Chinese, Japanese, African, cave paintings, indigenous tribal art, and . . . children's art.
Pablo Picasso stated:
"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."
"Art is the elimination of the unnecessary."
"I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it."
Jean Miro sought to recreate what he felt and thought as a child while drawing and painting, unrestrained by an ism or school of thought:
“Form for me is never something abstract. It is always a token of something. . . . For me, form is never an end in itself"
As ma is sensory in relation to what is evoked in a person's mind when experiencing something, examining its relationship to the Japanese genres of Haiku, Tanka, and other forms of Japanese short form poetry, is pertinent.
To say these genres can deviate away from their origin and foundation in order to be westernized is more ambiguous to me than the definition of "ma" is to many Westerners.
A genre is a genre, and all genres have their own point of origin. In various cultures, a genre can have sub-genres; just as in science, phylums have sub-phylums. In Jazz, a genre indigenous to Afro-American origin, sub-genres have developed such as modern jazz, Latino jazz, etc.; but they are parts of one genre as they share a common heritage, musicality, and tonal exploration.
Dogs aren't cats, and haiku isn't free verse.
Adaptation is good. Basho welcomed it. Shiki did also, but within reason, not trying to change haiku and tanka, but to revitalize it and make it relevant to the time he was living in.
Adaptation and seeking freshness of voice is vital, but not if the adaptation is, in reality, a disguised term for literary surgery that alters a genre so dramatically that it no longer resembles the original.
Buddha too ---
he's opened his altar doors,
mihotake mo / tobira o akete / suzumi kana
hear the drums
and alone late at night
sort out haiku
Yoshiwara no / taiko kikoete / fukuru yo ni / hitori haiku o / bunri su ware wa
Translated by Burton Watson
Porn author (Pirates of The Narrow Seas Trilogy), sailor, and poet, M. Kei, said in his introduction to a newly published book of poetry, The First Winter Rain:
“. . . many poets and readers are intimidated by the massive erudition demanded by figures such as Robert Wilson, managing editor of Simply Haiku, who maintains a strict focus on Japanese tanka as the sole arbiter of the genre. Two possible results can be imagined: readers and poets are turned off by the Japan-centric approach and abandon tanka, leaving it as the province of a small, highly sophisticated elite (as was the case with waka before the tanka reforms), or the Japanophiles will be ignored, and the broader tanka, by being more accessible, will permit more readers and poets to participate . . .“
Anyone can participate, but the composition of tanka is not an anything goes free for all orgy of whatever.
Spengler believed the visual space of perspective and lines of force extending into infinity define how Westerners should comprehend the field of action and space.
Gordon Rumsford in his article, Methods of Genocide: The Abuses of the Soundscape in Extermination, in 2000, contradicts Spengler, reminding readers that Western thinking before the advent of civilization thought differently:
"Until writing was invented, we lived in acoustic space, where the Eskimo now lives: boundless, directionless, horizonless, the dark of the mind, the world of emotion, primordial intuition, terror. Speech is a social chart of this dark bog."
Is writing, visualization for the "West's" conceptualization of the unsaid?
What defines the term Western? The term Western is usually associated with North American and Western European philosophical, theological, scientific thought patterns and conceptualizations of existence, and, as my father would say, "what makes things tick."
In actuality, North America and Western Europe are not truly Western, except geographically. North America was populated long before Anglo-Europeans claimed to have discovered the continent. North America’s original inhabitants are a collection of indigenous tribes who were forced into servitude by their conquerors and reliance due to the robbery of their homelands and the diseases Europeans brought with them to North America that killed millions, because the tribal people had no biological defenses against said diseases. Europeans came to the North American continent to conquer, and had no patience or tolerance for the skin color or beliefs of the indigenous inhabitants.
They were treated as religious heathens and thought of as animals. In California, for example, Father Junipero Serra, currently under consideration for Sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church, forced Native American inhabitants into indentured servitude and slavery, using them to help him build missions in California, and forcing them to adopt Catholicism.
The same attitude towards indigenous people in North America, Canada included, was universal among the European conquerors. The Kawkyutl in British Columbia, and other arctic tribes were subjugated, and still are to a limited degree, to the forced eradication of their cultural patterning, practices, religion, and cultural memory.
Of interest to me is where many of the indigenous people originally came from. The Apache, Navajo, Hopi, and other tribal people in Southwest America belong to the same ethnic stock as do the Eskimo (Inuit) and related tribes (including the Kawkyutl); a grouping of people who, before and during the Ice Age, crossed a land bridge connecting Asia with North America in an area that’s now called the Bering Strait.
They descended from Mongolia and China, and those they intermarried along the route. They shared, and many still share, beliefs similar to those held by the indigenous peoples who played a major role in the development of Asian thinking today, including Japan and China.
The Navajo conceptualization of life, Diné Bahane, begins with the appearance of the Holy Wind: the mists of lights which arose through the darkness to animate and bring purpose to the myriad Diyin Dineʼé (spirit people) who lived below the earth's surface
Life in this underground world was divided into four different worlds, where things were spiritually created in the time before the earth existed and the physical aspect of humans did not exist yet, but the spiritual did. Eventually some of the spirit people left their spiritual underground abodes to form the human race and interact with nature, co-creating a 5th world, consisting of the tangible and non-tangible: an animistic wild west of the now.
Is Western thought, in actuality, a term for Euro-Caucasian thought? The United States is a cultural melting pot. Over 50% of California’s population is Mexican-American. Millions of Filipinos live in the U.S. as do millions of Chinese, Japanese, and other non-European/Caucasian ethnic groups and races.
Why then, do many claim Western haiku and tanka are different entities than those composed in Japan?
Erase the presence of African Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, all who came originally from indigenous cultures, with thinking more akin to Japanese thought than that propagated by Western universities, how many Euro-Caucasoid people are left over?
A large part of Western Europe was once a continent and island grouping too, made up of indigenous peoples (Picts, Druids, the Faerie Witchcraft Cult, etc) that were conquered by Romans, Greeks, Middle Eastern and Eastern European cultures that thought of the indigenous people (though Caucasoid) in this region as animal-like heathens in league with the Devil; indigenous people thought to have originally migrated from the Asian region, Iberia, with belief systems like those we experienced as children and toddlers, before we went to school and learned to question and analyze everything, distaining almost anything metaphysical or unseen.
Spengler and other theorists like him forgot that the world can be conceptualized in more than one way.
The Australian aborigines (from whom the original Filipinos, the Negritos, are descended from, coming to the Philippines in Southeast Asia via another land bridge before and during the Ice Age), believed in a dream time; that man didn't exist before they saw it and sung it. They believed a land that was not sung was a dead land, since, if the songs were forgotten, the land itself would die.
Posits Tony Crisp in his online article Australian Aborigine Dream Beliefs:
"There are at least four aspects to Dreamtime – The beginning of all things; the life and influence of the ancestors; the way of life and death; and sources of power in life. Dreamtime includes all of these four facets at the same time, being a condition beyond time and space as known in everyday life.
The aborigines call it the ‘all-at-once’ time instead of the ‘one-thing-after-another’ time. This is because they experience Dreamtime as the past, present, and future coexisting.
Although Dreamtime may sound rather mystical or mysterious to the Western mind, the experience is based on understandable and observable facts of social and mental life which are unfortunately little valued in Western society."
"The aborigine people believe that each person has a part of their nature that is eternal. This eternal being pre-existed the life of the individual and only became a living person through being born to a mother. The person then lived a life in time, and at death melted back into the eternal life.
If we remember our early childhood, with the absence of an awareness of passing time, the fullness of each day, the eternity of a week or a month, the enormous and unquestioned – if still untraumatised – sense of connection with our family, then we will have an idea of the mental world of the older races. For the aborigines, these facts of their life were tangible realities, known through their inner experience in dreams and waking visions.
. . . It is what the baby experiences in the womb prior to the separation at birth and the development of concepts through the learning of language . . . Life in time is simply a passing phase – a gap in eternity. It has a beginning and it has an end. . . Dreamtime has no beginning and no end.
Like many tribal peoples, the Australian native people are deeply dependent upon their beliefs, the landscape and their inner life for their identity and strength. This makes them vulnerable to anything which disrupts their beliefs, although, apart from such vulnerability, they have a greater psychic sense of wholeness and identity with their tribe and environment than is common in Western individuals."
With this said, is Australia a Western nation? England used Australia as a penal colony, exiling their worst criminals there. These same criminals, in time, took control of the sub-continent/island, doing to the aborigines what European colonists did to the indigenous people in North America.
Crisp's description of the aboriginal dreamtime calls to mind what publisher, editor, poet, and academician Denis Garrison refers to as "dreaming room":
"I think the reason the phrase 'dreaming room' has found favor is that it readily evokes the necessary participation of the reader of haiku in the completion of the haiku. By 'dreaming room,' I mean some empty space inside the poem which the reader can fill with his personal experience, from his unique social context.
That empty space is not, as one might expect, impotent; rather, used properly, it is potent indeed. Hence, we speak also of the 'multivalence' of these empty spaces in haiku and tanka. As I wrote in the editorial, Dreaming Room:
'There is another lens through which to look at this same technique: the concept of multivalency. 'Valence' is used in biology to refer to the forces of reaction and interaction and is used in chemistry to refer to the properties of atoms by which they have the power of combination.
This informs the use of the adjective, 'ambivalent,' which refers to confusion and uncertainty. So, we use the term 'multivalency' to refer to the property of words to react to one another, interact with one another, to be fungible and suggestive. A multivalent tanka is one with dreaming room. It is a poem which may be read in many different ways, all of them correct. It is this freedom for the reader that we refer to as making the reader a co-creator of the poem. The reader's experiential context determines the true meaning of the poem, for that reader."
"This," continues Garrison, "brings us full circle, back to the proposition that, amongst traditional Japanese aesthetic considerations applicable to the art of haiku writing, ma is arguably preeminent for poets working in another language. Why? Look at what Western poets lose when writing in English. The vast treasury of traditional allusions is virtually lost in cultures for which those allusions do not resonate. The major technique of kigo, season-words, is also largely vitiated by the seasonal differences from those of Japan that apply throughout the world. In the world's briefest poems, such losses strip away a multitude of opportunities to convey much by few words. In such a context, it becomes really essential to not only make use of every word in the poem, but also of every silence in the poem. Even the spaces between words need to resonate.
Ma is the aesthetic from which techniques that can accomplish such rhetoric of omission can flow. I believe that assimilation of the ma aesthetic will indeed better equip Western poets to write haiku in English that have meaning and power."
The following two haiku exhibit the power and beauty of authentic haiku. The ma in Issa's poem comes after the word, leap, creating a power pause connecting the remainder of the haiku to a space and time, similar to the surfacing of the Navajo spirit people from the four worlds below the earth to a 5th world on the Earth's surface . . . a leap from one dimension to another, and a marriage of the two.
a single leap --- from
waterweed blossom to
that cloud in heaven
Translated by Sam Hamill
fresh sea breeze
the mimosa he planted
tall enough to wave
The ma in Heinrich's poem appears twice; the first at the end of line one, and the second at the end of line two. The first pause is a rope bridge connecting two contrasting images (juxtaposition), a short moment expertly used to invite the reader to interpret the haiku, not fully, but using yugen (depth and mystery) to illustrate and set the stage for the longer pause . . . that intertwines two dimensions, again the leap, impossible without the use of ma, exhibiting what haiku, and no other verse form, can do as effectively, via the utilization of minimalism and the unsaid, ma more than an aesthetic, more than a tool, becoming an invisible 3rd participant, sculpting the tangible with the intangible, to metaphysically bring one into the aboriginal "all at once time."
Pauses are important in poetry. Ma is an interval in time and space, yet more than mere space; Zen's “it is but it isn’t.” Onstage in a play, it is a dramatic pause, the look and timing after a line to emphasize feeling, humor, etc.
In Japanese short form poetry, ma calls attention to a tanka’s and haiku's focus. It is the waltz of the unsaid, a porthole into a timeless headspace reaching for pure essence.
as a kid
it was piles and piles
red in their sensual lure
toward the mystery of crisp
with her words
"How cold your fingers,"
I drew her close
on that night
of quiet snow
shinsin to / yuki furishi yo ni / sono yubi no / ana tsumetayo to / iite yorishi ka
Translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda
According to Lizzy Van Lysebeth in her book, Transforming Traditions: Japanese Design and Philosophy, Ma is a silent fullness. “It is a sort of untouched moment or space which can be completed by every individual observer differently, a moment or space in which one’s fantasy can move freely. In this way the artist gets the observers actively involved in his work.”
In Kakuzo Okakura’s Book of Tea, Laotse is quoted as saying: “The usefulness of the water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made. Vacuum is all potent because [it is] all containing. In vacuum alone motion becomes possible. One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations. The whole can dominate the part.”
Skillfully used, ma enhances a tanka or haiku, emphasizing important words, setting a mood, building anticipation, and more. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Masaoka Shiki felt that painting and poetry were in essence, the same. Both poet and painter begin their work, careful to leave white space for observers to fill in the blanks, making their work a participatory experience. It’s dreaming room, a place where observers are free to explore.
In the depths of night ---
The sound of the river flowing on,
And the moonlight
Shining clear above the village
Of Mizuno in Yamashito
Translated by Robert H. Brower
Ma is a principal experienced by many cultures and by most babies and toddlers, Occidental or Eastern. It is stepping outside of oneself as Buson would do in the forest, an emptied mind without preconception in touch with the unsaid. It is not a moment where a poet says, "I'll write a haiku about a duck." The poet thinks about a duck she saw once, seeing the duck through her eyes instead of through the duck's eyes, and somehow, joining together with the duck in a symbiotic oneness. Writing the haiku thus becomes an artistic process where one follows prescribed rules, precepts, and hell, even bends the rules, relying more on formula than aesthetics, saying nothing memorable, or stimulating; what Professor Hasegawa calls "junk haiku."
" . . . these 'realism haiku' contain a number of pitfalls. The greatest of these," says Hasegawa, "is that the haiku have lost kokoro (feeling, heart, spirit). From the time of the Man'yoshu, Japan's earliest poetry anthology, the Japanese literary arts have invested mono (things) with kokoro. Haiku are no exception. Even if they appear to be written only about things, there is definitely kokoro beneath the surface. However, because of the extremes of modern realism, kokoro is neglected, and only 'things' have come to be written about in haiku. These are what I referred to as 'junk' (garakuta) haiku. Sooner or later this tendency will have to be corrected. For one thing, it is a serious departure from the main principle of Japanese literary art. And more to the point, 'junk haiku' just aren't interesting.”
Posits Bruno Descartes, from his article, Aesthetics in Japanese Arts;
"I think, as with any non-Western arts, if one has a fundamental understanding of the aesthetic principles at the basis of [most] Asian art forms, one might be better able to enjoy and appreciate them."
With footsteps of air
I draw near the steeple bells
that are dreaming me.
Translated by D. Sam Adams
Reprinted from Simply Haiku, Winter 2011, Vol. 8, No. 3, by the author’s permission.