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How haiku structures experience

Started by Beth Vieira, April 04, 2012, 03:48:26 PM

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Larry Bole

Regarding the Ma (negative space) link I provided in my previous post. I c & p'd the url as I found it, but instead of taking me back to the Wikipedia entry, for some reason it takes me to an intermediate entry. When you get to that intermediate entry, you have to click on the "Did you mean: Ma (negative space) link within the entry. That will take you to the main "Ma" Wikipedia entry. Jeesh!

Or you can do a search on "Japanese ma". There are many sites about this on the internet.

Larry Bole


Ma is a fascinating area to explore, and along with white space/negative space, there is not enough written about these subjects that impact so much on society, and not just in literature and art.

Hasegawa Kai says this of Ma:

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 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.

Haiku do require close reading, but I've experienced many non-poetry readers getting haiku, and some haiku composers losing aspects of meaning and technique.

Why is that I wonder?

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Beth Vieira

I've read many things about "ma," some a bit too dense to summarize.  I first encountered "ma" through a film maker who filmed the famous rock garden in Kyoto.  He used Heidegger, whose later work was influenced by Asian thought.  Although Heidegger doesn't mention "ma," he does theorize the space/silence needed in poetry and the arts. 

In a book called Electric Language, Michael Heim picks up the Heideggerian argument.  It's based on Heidegger's assessment in part of the "technological world picture," in which everything becomes "ready-to-hand," that is, lacks being and instead is treated for its "use value."  So for instance, friendship comes to be replaced by networking. 

In language, we get "verbal noise," the endless chatter of information, for ready-to-handedness, calculation, and manipulation.  But language depends upon silence to make things appear.  He writes, "things can only stand out in full presence when the background is silences or open formlessness."  He questions whether Western culture has been able to learn "silent hesitation," a "pause" in which language does not become verbal noise, which he further characterizes as "an ocean of infinite symbols drowning the hints of taut meaning in the loose wash of noisy chaos where meaning is swallowed up."

Larry Bole

Well, as the Wikipedia entry for ma points, out, the concept behind ma is not unknown in the Eurocentric tradition, but the Eurocentric tradition hasn't privileged the concept with a label as have the Japanese, in whose artistic culture the concept plays a much more prominent role, although not an exclusive role.

I find this comment by Hasegawa Kai interesting:

QuoteThis 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 a new attribute of kire to me. I'll have to think about this. Haruo Shirane, in Traces of Dreams, says that kireji can both cut and join. He says that in "English haiku, or translations into English, where the visual line remains an indispensable unit of the English poetic tradition, the visual spacing, usually units of two or three lines, carries out the cutting function that the kireji often performs in Japanese."  I recognize that there are ELH haiku practitioners who don't totally agree with this, but I, for the most part, do agree with it. I also think that certain English punctuation can serve the same purpose, although as Lorin Ford (I believe it was) pointed out, kireji have a vocal presence in Japanese haiku that punctuation doesn't have in English (unless one follows Victor Borge's example of "phonetic punctuation"-- :D).

I would like to discuss a little more the idea of "being too explicit." What does "being too explicit" mean? One dogma of ELH is to "show, not tell." Perhaps what is meant by "being too explicit" is when a haiku violates this dogma, and "tells." I suspect this frowned-upon telling is when the poet tells their thoughts and emotions in a haiku.

The problem with this ELH dogma is that I am not aware of such a restriction in the tradition of Japanese haiku. This leads me to wonder which interpreter of haiku, writing in English, decided that this dogma was a 'rule' of haiku.

William Higginson is quoted online as writing the following:

Quote"When we compose a haiku we are saying, 'It is hard to tell you how I am feeling. Perhaps if I share with you the event that made me aware of these feelings, you will have similar feelings of your own'."

". . . We know that we cannot share our feelings with others unless we share the causes of those feelings with them. . . Stating the feelings alone builds walls; stating the causes of the feelings builds paths."

You'll notice that Higginson doesn't say it's wrong to share feelings. He just says that in sharing feelings, one needs to show the cause of those feelings as well.

When I first encountered this notion in ELH that the poet wasn't to explictily state their feelings, it came as a surprise to me since, in my reading of Japanese haiku, Japanese haiku poets sometimes do state their feelings explicitly (at least in the English translation).

This prompted me to survey the 400 haiku in Ueda's Modern Japanese Haiku and the 400 haiku in Ueda's Far  Beyond the Field, and list the haiku that explictily state, or clearly imply, a feeling / emotion. I posted this list on one of Gabi Greve's yahoo haiku groups. It was not a miniscule list.

And I will end this brief diatribe against one of the misguided dogmas of ELH by giving this what-should-be well-known example of "telling" by Basho:

omoshiroote yagate kanashiki ubune kana

so exciting
and, after a while, so sad--
cormorant fishing

--Basho, trans. Ueda

Does this explicit stating of emotions turn the reader into a passive recipient? I don't think so.  When a haiku poet explicitly states an emotion, the poet is inviting the reader to share in that emotion, and the poet attempts to persuade the reader to share in that emotion by how well the emotion has been 'earned' by "a clear-cut picture" or an allusion.  The reader can actively choose to share in the emotion, or actively choose to reject the emotion. I imagine there are some Japanese who disagreed with the sentiment of this haiku when it was first written, and who disagree with it today. Of course, that is their privilege.

Does this haiku have overtones? According to one of the commentators that Ueda quotes, it does.

QuoteThis hokku draws on two sentences that appear in the noo play Ukai. One is: "The sight of cormorants catching fish one after another in rapid succession is so exciting that the thoughts of sin, retribution, and afterlife all go out of my mind." The other is: "It is so sad to see the darkness after the torchlight on the boat goes out."  --Shoogatsudoo

Now the reason for the sadness expressed in the Noh play is a little different I think than the reason for Basho's sadness. That, to me, is the 'twist' in this haiku, the "transformation of classical associations," the "recontextualization" that are used as sub-topic descriptions by Shirane under the entry for haikai in the index for Traces of Dreams.


P.S. Sorry about the italicized section in the middle of the post. This is unintentional on my part, but I can't figure out how to un-italicize it, and I'm not going to retype the whole thing. The italicizing in that section does not signify anything out of the ordinary.

Alan's EDIT NOTE: Hi Larry, it was just after the word kire didn't have a closed italic code in:
That is a new attribute of kire to me.

Larry Bole

Here is something Beth wrote on this thread that I want to comment on:

QuoteI'm not sure what "nature" is really, except some left over idea from the American Transcendentalists?

Leaving the topic of American Transcendentalism aside for the time being, I would like to quote some of the first several paragraphs from the entry "NATURE"  in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (enlarged paperback edition, 1974):

QuoteTo deal with n. [nature] in poetry is, in some sense, to deal with nearly the whole task of poetry. For poetry is, to paraphrase John Dryden, the "image of nature." All theories of poetry have made some allowance for both terms ("image"---a thing in itself, a construct; "nature"---what the poem imitates or speaks about), however much a given theory may stress some peculiar aspect of the many interconnections. Hence, n., both as subject and as involved in poetic theory is central in poetry.

It is symptomatic of our times, semanticism being in some measure a product of the Cartesian division and romantic doubts about n., that "nature" is so often thought of by modern writers as primarily an ambiguous word. [emphasis added] But the situation is not quite so desperate as might appear... . For the galaxy of meanings [of "nature"] ... do have a center---reality, manifested in this way or that---and the crucial differences in meaning are more ontological than semantic.

Man has puzzled much about his relation to n. throughout the history of thought. People have felt that man is in, but not of, n.; or of, but not quite in, n.; or, in any case, that he is a very special part of n. (astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer). And from the earliest semireligious, semimaterialistic speculations about the n. of things, literature and men's views about n. have been mutually though not exclusively causative, and considerably complicated.

The entry goes on, for more than four small-type pages, to outline the relationship of nature to poetry in the Eurocentric tradition, starting with Homer, and concluding by pointing out the ongoing influence of Coleridge, and making references to Suzanne Langer, I. A. Richardson, Wallace Fowlie, Herbert Read, Elizabeth Drew, Cleanth  Brooks, W. C. Williams, and Ezra Pound.

I don't have much information regarding Japanese theorizing about nature and its relation to poetry. The contributors to this thread appear to have a good grasp of the difference between things found in nature and natural phenomena as topics that can be written about in haiku, vs. seasonal references in haiku, seasonal references serving the purpose of time-orientation, and sometimes emotional context (although of course there is much overlap between nature as 'thing' and 'phenomena', and 'seasonal reference').

I am hoping that Haruo Shirane's newest book, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts, will provide valuable insights into this topic.


Gabi Greve

I guess for Japanese haiku, the idea of nature is expressed in these categories

jikoo 時候 Season, climate, time 
tenmon 天文 Heaven, natural phenomena, astronomy, celestial
chiri 地理 Earth, geography, terrestrial
doobutsu 動物 Animals, Zoology
shokubutsu 植物 Plants, Biology

and two categories about human life  are

seikatsu 生活 Humanity, daily life, livelihood
gyooji 行事 Observances, seasonal events, occasions




I am hoping that Haruo Shirane's newest book, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts, will provide valuable insights into this topic.


I'd certainly be interested in anyone doing a review or article on this book.  Any takers?

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Beth Vieira

Perhaps a way into both topics, Larry, is to emphasize the literary qualities of haiku, which are foreclosed if haiku ends up being categorized as referential.  Since there have at times been tendencies to privilege the referential in haiku, whether it's to experience or to nature, it's sometimes important to resist the pull to do that.

It's interesting that the Basho poem uses literary allusion of a rather dense type to register reactions to the scene.  Even without knowing that, the relation between the two parts is far from explicit.  There's a textual density there that draws us in and asks us to fill in the gaps.  Even in poems that state the mood outright--like Basho's loneliness/cricket poem--it's the connection and the way the topic is picked up and inflected by the poet that makes all the difference since loneliness is part of the literary topoi of the genre so it can't be taken up as merely a private, subjective experience.

Nature too in haiku is literary in the form of kigo.  These are built up poetic and cultural associations that one learns as part of the genre.  But nature is such a difficult topic to cover because it is hotly contested, and lots of writing shows how ideological it is to separate out a category called "nature."

Shirane's book sounds interesting.  I like his approach in general.  He is very densely literary as a reader and scholar.  And in an essay I recently read, he makes that a real point, that haikai is an imaginative set of genres, something we may overlook if we are too referential about approaching it.  He cites a Buson poem:  piercingly cold/stepping on my dead wife's comb/in the bedroom to discuss the poet's feelings, only to point out that at the time of the poem his wife was alive and in fact outlived him by 31 years!

Larry Bole

Gabi, what those categories express to me is the Japanese penchant for categorizing things, and specifically, the categorizing of poetry by key words or expressions.

By an idea of nature, I mean something more along the lines of Shinto's animism as a way of seeing nature and natural phenomena.

How does an idea of nature relate to Japanese poetry? On a simple level, I have read that at one time, the word hana, when used by itself without modification, meant plum blossoms. At some point, the meaning of the unmodified word hana shifted to mean cherry blossoms. Why did this shift occur?

I mean an idea of nature as it relates to Japanese poetry such as is explored by Kooji Kawamoto in his book The Poetics of Japanese Verse: Imagery, Structure, Meter, in the first chapter, "Autumn Dusk."

Here is an example of what I mean, quoting from the above-mentioned book:

QuoteBecause the topic of "autumn evening" (aki no yuube), together with the seven-syllable phrase aki no yuugure (autumn dusk), is so familiar tro readers of Japanese literature, associated as it is with so many fine poems, it seems to hold a peculiarly Japanese resonance. There is thus a danger of mistakenly assuming that "autumn dusk" possesses a lengthy history. However, in actuality, this intially amorphous theme first began to attract interest relatively late in the long history of Japanese poetry. The phrase itself first appears in the Goshuuishuu anthology (1086). As a poetic topic in an imperially sponsored anthology, shuuseki (autumn evening) first appears well over a century later.

Kawamoto goes on to point out that:

QuoteWith its carefully organized and systematic classification of seasonal poems, the Kokinshuu exerted a decisive influence on later attitudes towards the poetic treatment of natural phenomena.

And yet later:

QuoteAccording to Tsuda Sookichi, the emotions expressed in these poems are the product of pre-existing convention rather than an unmediated, individual response to the season.

Well, there is one difference between nature as it is treated in Eurocentric poetry and as it is treated in traditional Japanese poetry. Eurocentric poetry placed a higher premium on "unmediated, individual response" to nature than did traditional Japanese poetry.

Another example of the role of nature in Japanese poetry is discussed in Karatani Koojin's book, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, in the first chapter, "The Discovery of Landscape." Koojin makes a case for the concept of 'landscape' in Japanese literature being a relatively modern one. At one point he writes:

Quote[after discussing painting] Similarly, poets like Bashoo and Sanetomo were not looking at "landscapes." As Yanagita Kunio has said, there is not a single line of description in Bashoo's Oku no hosomichi (Narrow road to the deep north, 1694). Even what looks like description is not. If we can follow the subtle yet crucial distinction Yanagita has drawn here, we will be able to see both the process of the Japanese discovery of "landscape" and the literary "history" that paralleled that transformation of perception.

So, what I'm interested in, is how Japanese poets have perceived 'nature' through poetry, and how those perceptions of 'nature' may or may not have changed over time.


P.S. I would also like to point out that it is my understanding that using cormorants for fishing is still-practiced on several Japanese rivers as a tourist attraction, I suspect for domestic tourists as well as foreign, in spite of contemporary protests of the practice because of a modern concept that to use cormorants in this fashion is a form of animal cruelty. And I rankle at the idealized characterization of the Japanese as being somehow superior nature lovers. Buddhist tenants and nature-loving didn't stop cormorant-fishing from happening even when it appears that there was some notion of the animal cruelty involved as far back as Basho's era.

Larry Bole

Well, Beth, let me do a survey of David Barnrhill's translation of 724 of Basho's haiku, to see how many seem to me to be examples of Basho being explicit regarding his thoughts and feelings (I am skipping some that seem to me to be too obtuse)  (I might do this over several days):

hana ni akanu nageki ya kochi no utabukuro (1662-1669)

among blossoms:
grieving that I can't even open
my poem bag

bashoo uete mazu nikumu ogi no futaba kana (1681)

having planted the bashoo,
now I despise them:
the reed sprouts

gu ni kuraku ibara o tsukamu hotaru kana (1681)

foolishly, in the dark,
he grabs a thorn:
hunting fireflies

(in the original, gu is "folly", but that still tells us what Basho thinks about it)

monohoshi ya fukuro no uchi no tsuki to hana (1684-94)

On a portrait of Hotei

so desirable--
inside his satchel
moon and blossoms

(miscellaneous--no definitive season word)

kirishigure fuji o minu hi zo omoshiroki (1684)

misty rain,
a day with Mt. Fuji unseen:
so enchanting

(in the original, omoshiroki is "interesting," but it still tells us what Basho was thinking about it)

wata yumi ya biwa ni nagusamu take no oku (1684)

cotton-beating bow--
as consoling as a lute
deep in the bamboo

ikameshiki  oto ya arare no hinokigasa (1684-85)

so harsh--
the sound of hail
on my cypress hat

yamaji kite naniyara yukashi sumiregusa (1685)

on a mountain path,
somehow so moving:
wild violets

(in the original, yukashi means "appealing / attractive")

furusu tada aware narubeki tonaeri kana (1686)

the old nest:
so lonely it will be
next door

(Spring; "old nest" refers to a place someone has lived a long time; in the original, aware is "pathos")

hana mina karete aware o kobosu kusa no tane (1686-87)

An old garden

flowers all withered,
spilling their sadness:
seeds for grass

(in the original, aware means "pathos")

That's 10 in the first 186. That's a little more than 5%. If I remember, it was around 5% of the 800 I mentioned checking earlier. So it is not common, but it is not unheard of.


Beth Vieira

I appreciate a great set of examples, which I'll take some time with to comment on.  For now I just wanted to say two things.  First we were generally speaking of Western haiku, what the norms are, what the definition is, since it is a borrowed form.  I tend to view Japanese early modern haiku in a different light since things like post-modernism and other developments don't apply.  But I have studied Basho and Japanese so I'm interested.  That leads to the second thing which is that there's a dense literary factor going on that isn't like modern Western haiku in many cases.  Haiku poetics developed in a very distinctive culture.  Basho would have been so involved in that he wouldn't have made absolute boundaries between the personal and the poetic, between nature and culture.  Those binaries happened with modernism; it's anachronistic to attribute them to the 17th century.  So one example I gave was Basho's use of "loneliness" as a topos not a personal feeling.  Similarly "mono aware" is part of the genre; ascribing lots of personal attributes to it is not exactly correct. 

I think there has been some sort of misunderstanding about my position here, just because I used the terms "too explicit."  I was reflecting on how some contemporary poets tend to think of haiku as confessional poetry, which it could never be for one thing because it's just too short.  Also generically it is too dense a form to have unmediated, raw emotion or statement take up that much space.  If that happens you lose the literary nature of the form. 

You found that yourself when you commented on the difference between nature in Western versus Japanese poetics.  That there is an idea out there that seems to say that nature can be an unmediated experience.  I really doubt that early modern haiku artists thought of nature as so reified and divorced from cultural experience.  Or even tried to divide the world up that way.  It's a very specific ideology that separates "man" from "nature," one fairly recent and on its way out, though I'm overstating to make the point.

Paul Miller

I think the dogma against "telling" is not actually so much against telling (since haiku tell us a lot), but against interpreting. For example, in one of your Basho examples:

foolishly, in the dark,
he grabs a thorn:
hunting fireflies

Basho doesn't tell you what this means to him. Just that it happened. The literal is that in trying to grab a firefly he pricked his hand. Left unsaid is the parallel between the sharpness of a thorn and the sharpness of the insect's light. There are other layers as well.

Even in this seemingly interpreted poem,

among blossoms:
grieving that I can't even open
my poem bag

I find other layers, specifically the parallel between the blossoms and a poem he might write. Literally he is saying he wishes he could get to his tools and write a poem. But I think he is also recognizing his inability in poetry to adequately convey the beauty of the blossoms.

This isn't to say that Basho or other Japanese poets never wrote poems that told/interpreted everything, but I think poems that do all the work and leave the reader little or no room to engage on their own are less effective. Now whether this notion is a borrowed one or not I'll leave to others. 


I've enjoyed reading the discussions and ideas spawned by this topic.  I'm not sure if my own experiences regarding this are what you were looking for when you introduced the topic, but I find that when it comes to reading haiku, I am very interactive.  One of the things I enjoy most about haiku is the intuitive sizzle and the intellectual leap that I experience when I enter a well-crafted haiku.  I appreciate those poets who allow me interpretive space while at the same time giving me enough information to enter the poem.  Some haiku I enter easily, but in other poems I find myself locked outside the poem.  There may be a variety of reasons for this.  Haiku poets today are writing from specific locales all over the globe, and they come from a dizzying array of cultures and educational backgrounds.  When Elizabeth Searle Lamb wrote a haiku about the scrub jay, it had no meaning from me since I had never seen one.  However, when I found a photo of the bird on the internet, I was able to enter the haiku and experience its brilliant plumage along with the poet.  I also found the nightingals's song by typing in nightingale audio.  One poet wrote about a flightless parrot from his home country of New Zealand.  The bird was booming its mating call even as it headed toward the brink of extinction. Only by learning of the bird's native name and habitat did I realize the significance of the poet's work in alerting the rest of us to an endangered species. When I enter a haiku actively, I may use a variety of tools to do so.  When I encounter unfamiliar plants, animals, cultural practices or art works, I use my computer to help transport me into the poems.  As I do so, my world grows larger and more complex just as it does in those haiku I can easily enter.  Still, I have to admit that were it not for newly acquired tools and culture (such as this discussion forum), my ability to interact with haiku would not be as rich or as vibrant.  This causes me to wonder if I am not part woman and part machine as I interact with haiku for I bring not only my own intellect and consciousness to the process of haiku, but also the intellctual wealth and consciousness of many others who contribute to my understanding and enjoyment. 

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