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Creative Blooms 7: Surprise of the In-Between


Haiku evoke islands of cognitive coherence (those language parts and image-constellations which follow familiar lexical and syntactic rules), while by contrast cognitive disjunction (dissonance, alternativity) is evoked via lacunae, kire (cutting), and “misreading as meaning” evolving in reader-consciousness. In discussing the via negativa of haiku, Tsubouchi Nenten applies the term katakoto (broken language); Hasegawa Kai uses ma — especially psychological ma — connoting a “psycho-poetic interval of betweenness.”

Figure and ground are at any moment of reading both distinct and mutating. Because haiku are extremely brief, the reader not only reads but also re-reads. As re-reading occurs, further thoughts and feelings arise, interpretations build up, while some are discarded; you could say that the poem grows out of itself — thought grows out of itself, feeling grows out of itself, the image grows out of itself, imagination grows out of itself (and/or out of the poem). I term this process “misreading as meaning” because haiku resist easy solutions as to meaning, resisting reader attempts to ferret out singular meanings or messages, scenes, worlds, or any singular, “true” interpretation. (Gilbert, “Plausible deniability: Nature as hypothesis in English‑language haiku,” Sec. 3.1 & 3.2, 2009.

In the haiku below, ma arises between the words and images. This psychological phenomenology is a form of cutting (kire), central to the nature of haiku as a poetic form. Many haiku create an obvious, literal cut — by, say, using the em-dash, semicolon, or line-break. Yet in Constable’s “first light” the sense of disjunction is rather mysteriously evocative, as each succeeding line is positioned at a psychological distance from the previous. What is the not-green of green seen at dawn? In Stevenson, an evocation of ma seems the most potent element in this strongly reader-resistant work: how is it that “a bird” is ascribed to the conditionally-causative “if”? A delicate and fragile sense of pathos accompanies the strongly hypothetical image. There exists an altogether different kind of ma in Kilbride’s haiku of social consciousness, alluding to the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” US policy on “military service by gays, bisexuals, and lesbians, instituted by the Clinton Administration on February 28, 1994” (cf. Wikipedia). As well, an 18-year ban on photos of military coffins was only (partially) lifted in 2009. The multiple vectors of reference exhibited in this poem — societal context, regarding the sanitization of war, structural discrimination, censorship, and needless death — create the sense of ma; what has been purposely hid lies between the lines.

   first light
not enough words
    for green
if glass breaks easily a bird 
                    body bag
                    not asking
                    not telling
[Susan Constable, Living Haiku Anthology, 2006; John Stevenson, Haiku 2015 (Modern Haiku Press, 2016); Jerry Kilbride Haiku in English (W.W. Norton, 2013)]

Here are three haiku published this year each, for different reasons, evokes ma — a sense of “psychological inbetweenness.” Your comments on any of the haiku presented here are welcome:

writing life into its symbols missing years of wind

Rebecca Lilly (is/let, 28 Feb 2020)


the light
est rain

ing me


Scott Metz (is/let, 17 Feb 2020)


where the truth tends into horseshit into god

Kelly Sauvage Angel (Bones 19, 15 Mar 2020, 108)


Richard Gilbert, professor of English Literature at Kumamoto University in Japan, is the author of Poetry as Consciousness: Haiku Forests, Space of Mind, and an Ethics of Freedom (illustrated by Sabine Miller, Kebunsha Co. Ltd., 2018, ISBN 978-4-86330-189-4), The Disjunctive Dragonfly (Red Moon Press, 2008, rev. 2013), and Poems of Consciousness (Red Moon Press, 2008), among others. He is also director of the Kon Nichi Translation Group, whose most recent book is the tour de force Haiku as Life: A Tohta Kaneko Omnnibus (Red Moon Press, 2019). In January 2020, he announced the creation of Heliosparrow Poetry Journal, an evolution of the Haiku Sanctuary forum.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Many thanks for this column and sharing these ideas which make haiku seem much more creative and challenging.

  2. I also want to add that I am thoroughly enjoying this weekly posting. The analytical comments stretch my mind to look beyond what I think I know about haiku and the poems included to illustrate the concept force me to look at them with different eyes. Thanks so much for adding all this to my weekly readings!

  3. The word fragment ‘light’ on the first line, leads us in one direction, before we arrive at ‘est rain’ and must change the mental image we are working with. I think the same applies to some degree with the word fragment ‘push’, which leaves us with no direction for that push till we reach the following line. Deep could be deep into ourselves, or deep into sleep (lulled by the light rain). A reading of it as into the ground is totally the reader’s contribution to meaning. I also feel that fragmenting the words emphasizes the lightness of the rain…the separation of the gentle raindrops, which eventually do end up in the ground to nourish new growth. Or perhaps the rain is pushing the poet deeper into depression, or a wish to end up in the ground himself. Whether this is a poem with a positive emotion or a negative emotion depends completely on the context of the reader.

  4. I’m wondering if anyone could give me some insight on why the Scott Metz haiku is broken the way it is. I know line breaks are used to slow the reader down but is there more to it?

    1. Maybe to create the visual aspect of it looking like a stake driving into the ground. The shape of the poem itself reflects the dynamic of “pushing down.”

    2. Perhaps to indicate the way light rain is blown against your face randomly, without pattern or rythym. It’s almost not there but but the tapping away as one walks along in solitude may bring about the sense of drawing down into yourself – hunkering against the outside world and life.

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