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How haiku structures experience

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

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Beth Vieira

This topic is large, but I did that intentionally so see what people might want to bring up.  One of the things I'm interested in is how there is an interaction between the writer and the reader that could be said to co-create the experience.  That haiku is a kind of open form which places lots of demands and trust in the reader to enter the poem and fill in the blanks, thereby creating the poem upon reading.  The writer has, in this kind of poetry, to resist being too explicit.  Not that there is a puzzle, but rather that there's an effect that is better conveyed by activity on the part of the reader instead of passivity.  I'd be interested in examples of poems that do this, but also I'm also interested in how people approach reading and writing haiku in their own experience.


This particular haiku has always intrigued me because of the strong reactions by the general public; mainstream poets; and a number of haiku writers.

lime quarter
an ice cube collapses
over jazz

Alan Summers

Publications credits:
Presence No.13  (2001); Bristol Evening Post article//Latimer's Diary (2002);  (2003); Haiku Friends (Japan, 2003); BBC 1 - Regional arts feature  (November 2003); tinywords, (2004);  City: Bristol Today in Poems and Pictures, Paralaia (2004); Seven magazine feature: "Three lines of simple beauty" (2006); BroadcastLab, ArtsWork Bath Spa University (2006 - 2007); : Blogging Along Tobacco Road: Alan Summers - Three Questions (2010) Twitter Seven By Twenty (2010); See Haiku Here haiga (Japan, 2011); haijinx volume IV, issue 1 (2011); Derbyshire Library Service Poem a Month (June 2011); THFhaiku app for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch (2011): THF Per Diem series Haiku of the Senses (March 2012)

I will never forget the time a family stopped by at a Christmas Market stall I was running, and I overheard their conversation over this haiku in particular.  They were just an ordinary family, and I don't think they were a particularly poetry reading group, yet they broke down the poem to its component parts.  Basically they not only loved the poem - and they had no idea I was the author, or that I was listening - but were pulling out layers of meaning, some I guessed, some I was surprised at.

There have been a number of poets, including a director of a poetry agency, who have requested this haiku from me at open mic and guest reader slots. And the owner of a noodle bar and successful live music venue who booked myself and my wife to run live poetry events influenced me in running The Lime Quarter for quite a while.

There is no intention whatsoever at manipulating the reader, but it successfully creates an active reader, rather than a passive one.  Further insights by writers and commentators alike as to why this haiku is so popular with the public and poets alike will be welcomed.

And also, what is it about certain poems that capture the imagination of large bodies of the public, and become loved, iconic, and a core part of their being on occasion?

There's a second of my haiku that I have been surprised at how it has become part of a person's being.  But that can be for another post.


Quote from: Beth Vieira on April 04, 2012, 03:48:26 PM
This topic is large, but I did that intentionally so see what people might want to bring up.  One of the things I'm interested in is how there is an interaction between the writer and the reader that could be said to co-create the experience.  That haiku is a kind of open form which places lots of demands and trust in the reader to enter the poem and fill in the blanks, thereby creating the poem upon reading.  The writer has, in this kind of poetry, to resist being too explicit.  Not that there is a puzzle, but rather that there's an effect that is better conveyed by activity on the part of the reader instead of passivity.  I'd be interested in examples of poems that do this, but also I'm also interested in how people approach reading and writing haiku in their own experience.
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Jack Galmitz

I think your question, Beth, goes to the heart of any language event or game, not just poetry or haiku.  We are all influenced by verbal or written signs, and sometimes it is forced observation (for instance, just mentioning something, saying look at that or look at natural objects), but it is always a challenge because language is quite equivocal, quite indefinite, and words always refer to other words, to people's experiences of the referents of words, connotation, so on.
There is one haiku I wrote which has remained popular and it certainly invites participation on the reader's part:

Inside of me
bison are stampeding
across caves

I'm sure if we asked 10 people what this meant we would probably get 10 different answers. I can give you my "intended" meaning, as a starter.

I was thinking of the cave paintings whether of Altamira in Spain or the wounded bison of Lascaux cave in France (20,000 years old). I was simultaneously hearing Joseph Campbell discussing his experience of being in the caves, the darkness and enough light to see the mammal drawings and I could hear the stampeding of the great plains bison in the cave (the womb) of being, which is to say the cave of consciousness/unconsciousness.  I realized as I wrote that creation, its powerful roar and pounding is going on now, inside me, inside you, inside everyone, in mind and that the cave as the mother of creation is our own collective unconscious which is outside of time; in short, creation is happening just at this very moment.
So, through this haiku, I offer the reader an opportunity to see time/space/self in different coordinates than they are usually understood.  Really it is all quite synchronous.  The past is not over, the present is a passage.

Beth Vieira

I enjoyed reading your responses and being offered two haiku to play with.  Though they are very different in scope because one has a minute focus and the other a broad one, they have things in common. 

The first is that something curious is happening; intrigue is set up.  Set up but not resolved.  That leaves it open ended so that the reader has lots of space to move around.

This openness is facilitated by two related features: the absence of a controlling subjectivity and the focus instead on actions of something that is not the poet.  The verbs in both cases do not belong to the subject who is writing; they belong to things in the poem.  This I take to be intentional in both cases.  It is not a question of manipulation really, but rather what selections are made in the process of constructing a poem.  Indirectly the poet's fascination is shared, but it is deflected away and toward the object of attention.  So even the lines that seem to draw attention to the poet--"inside of me"--are subordinated to the activity of the bison and become part of what is fascinating about that.

Both also use language in ways that peak intrigue.  In Alan's poem, the use of the verb "collapses" with ice is a kind of density of writing that I would call textual.  It asks for more attention that a normal statement.  In Jack's poem, both "inside of me" and the fact its caves not fields or something similar implicitly links the two, asking how the inside of someone is like a cave with visual images streaming across.  That kind of linking plus the clear pointing to the cave paintings makes for a density I would also call textual.

Both then support and even ask for more than a cursory look.  They sustain and reward more than one reading.  What I would argue is different is that they do it with such economy of language and such self-restraint that they are not like other forms of textual density in poetry.  The genre convention of having English language haiku in 3 short lines tells the reader that these poems are finished, complete in themselves, nothing more is coming.  But since so much more is implied, the reader is invited to jump right in.

Jack Galmitz

Well, Beth, that is a rich and rewarding reading of the two poems.
I will be interested soon (in June sometime) when the next issue of Notes from the Gean is published to see your response to an essay I am currently writing on the book Rustic by Dimitar Anakiev.
The interesting fact is that he takes sashei poems, or at least some of them, those where the emphasis is on landscape absent human nature, as "capitalist haiku."  His argument is in these types of poems nature is an end in itself, recorded rather than interacted with, where nature is, as Marx understood it, to be human's inorganic body from which all value came in inter-relationship.
Of course, the two poems you interpreted would not belong to this category, as the involvement, the expression of the human is present.
But, I'll be interested in your opinion of my piece once it's finished.
AS a matter of fact, if you'd like to see what I've done so far, let me know, I'll email it to you.

Beth Vieira

Jack, yes, I'll have a look at your essay before I comment, but it does sound interesting.

If I can pull out some of the features that I highlighted through a simple close reading, that might help continue the discussion.

One thing that I'm loosely calling "openness" perhaps needs to be theorized more and given a better name.  I see it as part of the genre of haiku, but I've been challenged on that so am open to other views.

What I see is something like a structural component in making the poem that deliberately makes space for the reader.  This is done by various techniques like not being too explicit, deflecting attention away from authorial presence, and what I have called textual density.

In other words, the writer in a sense deliberately holds back, trusting the reader to enter the poem.  There may not a singular meaning at all, but the structure of allowing the reader to inhabit the poem allows for deeper involvement because the reader in at least a hypothetical way is asked to become the author of the poem and produce its meanings.

This activity of reading, while available in potentially any form of writing, can be foregrounded in haiku due to its brevity and some of its conventions.  I'd like to call it "intersubjective" because it allows the overlap and perhaps sometimes the merging of subjectivities through the medium of the poem.  Intersubjective participation in a poem allows the reader to re-create or co-create the poem.  It differs from other acts of reading in the sense that the poem is not taken as a thing that is simply what it is and then consumed.  Rather the reader has to do something with and for the poem.  Whether the writer intended it or not, if a reader is able to inhabit the poem in this way, the writer has also participated at least retroactively in intersubjective experience. 

Of course there's an asymmetrical relationship, partly because it is in the medium of written language, so we don't literally have two subjectivities intermingling in shared actual space and time.  The writer has more of a role to play as the creator of the experience that is to be shared.  But in the act of re-creating the experience of the poem, that part of the equation is temporarily effaced.  In other terminology, the subject-object distinctions are loosened to the point of let go of. 

This loosening of the subject-object distinction was in fact an early principle in the haiku teachings of Basho.  He feared that if this did not occur, one would be left with only the subjectivity of the writer merely projected onto things which would have only an artificial effect.  I'll look for the passage of Basho that discusses this and post it.

Jack Galmitz

I await your further remarks, Beth.
However, after reading your brilliant essay Pearls of Dew: Transitional Phenomena and Haiku on the period in childhood that Dr. Winnicott called the period of transitional objects, I understand what you mean by the "open" space between subject/object in distinction to imposition of subjectivity onto objects.
For me this comes naturally and is how I write haiku (perhaps because I never achieved an identity to lose-something a psychotherapist once said, to his amusement).
Anyway, there is always this space, call it ambiguity, aporia, indeterminacy, which is practiced by all poets and excellent prose writers. It comes from say Wittgenstein's theories of language games and the equivocalness of non-ostensive words.  Much of our language is about "things"that are substanceless, without boundaries or figuration.
And, at least from my perspective, and I think also from yours, if I understood your essay, this state is not something of the East, but a stage of being human.
The thing is that the body becomes territorialized in the first six months by the mother's particular attention to specific body parts and as the child sees itself as both subject or unity in the mirror stage it also simultaneously sees itself as an object amongst other objects and begins to formulate attributions to what is now the forming ego.
Does Winnicott believe that with the ongoing development of the child the initial stages of development co-exist with the later forms of maturation?

Beth Vieira

The space of ambiguity, aporia, indeterminacy might be said to be inherent in any language game, but it is brought the foreground in what I call after post-structuralists "textuality" or in the above posts "textual density."  Derrida following Nietzsche called this the aphoristic energy of language.  But Wittgenstein who by no coincidence wrote aphoristically saw it more ordinary kinds of language games.  My favorite saying by him, that has something of a haiku energy to it, is that it does not bother us that we cannot describe the smell of coffee.

Lacan too wrote in a highly textually dense style so it is difficult to appropriate parts of his theorizing, which changed over time.  The same can be said about Winnicott though they make strange and interesting bed fellows.

As far as both psychologies go, the developmental stages do appear in each theorist's writing as temporal, but they are also meant to be taken as simultaneously existing in the adult.  Unlike Freud who has a more mechanical notion of stages that are either passed through or fixated upon, Lacan had a fluid and complex view.  One way he phrases it is that you are always a subject given to be seen.  In that sense you are always the object of the gaze.  Not necessarily literally the mother or any other subject but an internalized notion of what he describes as the mirror stage.  In some accounts, this other is the Big Other of the Real or even God, as in his account of female sexuality via a reading of the ecstatic statue of St. Teresa.

In Winnicott too, to get to your question, though it seems a developmental model and is to some extent.  After all Winnicott was a baby doctor as well as an analyst and theorist.  But he is clear that what he means by transitional phenonmena is not just what happens in early childhood object formation but is constitutive of what he elsewhere calls play, the highest form of human activity in his psychology and the roots of all creative endeavors.

Jack Galmitz

Beth, my question to you is why "nature;" why not any "objects" that are indeterminately object/subject??
Isn't consciousness of two kinds: awareness of an "outside" and a consciousness of consciousness.  Why would modern haiku stress "nature" or avoid "subjectivity"?
Shirane in Traces of Dreams points out that most modern citizens live in cities, not in the rural places where haiku began, so there seems, to him as well as to me, much to be written about in city-scapes.
Are we too pretentious, believing that haiku is a higher art than senryu; or, are we forgetting that Richard Gilbert pointed out (In Poems of Consciousness, Kigo and Seasonal Reference ) and elsewhere, that the West does not have saijikis and so does not really have kigo; hence, by default, he drew the conclusion that all Western haiku was really gendai senryu.
Besides, is senryu really a separate form from haiku? After all, it may have historically become so in Japan, but Senryu himself wrote renku, linked verse, he just did it without reference in the opening hokku to a season or with a formal kire.
As Lenin wrote: What's To Be Done?

Beth Vieira

There are several interrelated questions to which I don't have preformulated answers so I'm going to wing it.

First I don't necessarily see a distinction between nature and objects.  I'm not sure what "nature" is really, except some left over idea from the American Transcendentalists?  But after all, the hut at Walden was within a short walk to town and he accepted many visitors so he hardly was a hermit in Chinese mountains.

I don't see the need to have so-called nature in haiku at all.  Sometimes it's nice to have a seasonal reference if appropriate, but that's because of temporality and larger scope, not because it's natural.  Kigo after all were many steps removed from nature in any idealized sense because there were saijikis that are all about literary convention and allusion.  And some of these connections to modern readers seem quite arcane so saijikis are actually necessary or footnotes to explain what was taken to be a naturalized phenomenon.

What strikes me as strange is when a kigo like first line is then followed by something that is all about the subjectivity of the writer and then called haiku.  That just doesn't make sense to me.  It seems a fundamental misunderstanding of how haiku conventions have developed in modern English or Western haiku.

The question of subjectivity or consciousness in haiku is very bit and tangled.  I have learned from another discussion that there is a tendency toward more explicit displays of particularly the emotions because of a tanka-esque influence on recent haiku.  I haven't digested the implications of that.  It seems to me that making subjectivity into an object for the reader's consumption might be problematic.  But this refers to the above discussion about the difference between subjectivity as projected versus subject-object blending or blurring.

As to senryu, I do have a distinction that I carry around in my head, but that's baggage from being a reader of Japanese early modern haikai, not anything I apply very often.  If you look at Issa's corpus, I think there's an argument to be made that a large number of his haiku have more in common with senryu. 

Perhaps if there's a poem, kigo or not, that seems to have as its sole purpose a satirical aim, I would call it senryu, but it's just using a fancy and borrowed Japanese expression that isn't really binding or necessary.

There is a larger problem here that's just endemic to many aspects of Western language haiku.  It's a borrowed form from a highly developed and often insular culture.  So even the word "form" doesn't really apply.  In Japanese we don't even have what is translated as syllables.  They are onji, sound units, very brief, not replicable in English certainly where syllables have varying lengths and also have stress or not.  We have just adopted for the most part 3 lines, though lots of people are breaking even that convention.  There's no intrinsic relationship between 3 lines and 17 onji.  And though that may not be a big deal to note, the important word is "intrinsic."  Just like "naturalized" it implies that there are cultural, hence ideological components at work to appropriate, transform, and yet present as if normative and natural.  Lots of people take up art forms without exploring how these things came into being or what the implications are. 

What's to be done is to actually examine what appears to be normative and natural.  And then, in echo of your guy Lenin, to take a step farther and see what the ideological implications are.  Only then can you understand how your writing participates in a larger context.

The best example I have at the moment for this comes from contemporary poetry, not specifically haikai.  If you take the first person lyric poem and treat it as a kind of genre, there are many implications that writers of the genre tend to overlook.  For instance, it participates in and reinforces certain notions of individuality that seem naturalized but are really ideological products.  A whole set of beliefs emerge without too much scratching of the surface:  a centered subject, complete with self-willed identity and agency, valuable in its own right and similarly self-determining.  There are so many critiques of that kind of subjectivity that it is almost embarrassing to hear hear a first person lyric poem that naively presents itself as just what poets do.


I have to jump in briefly into this fascinating and utterly gripping discussion.

I agree with so much that I needn't touch on that.  Just one thing, onji was a method that ceased in the early 20th century.  Counting sound units by 'on' is still used, but is very different than onji

I'm told Japanese does have syllables, as such, and not all one short even duration, and this subject could really benefit from a definitive(ish) essay, or a summation of essays touching on it.

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Jack Galmitz

Just briefly, I've been spending much of my time reading Language School Poetry books on the idea of the "subject," as well as all the post-structuralist assaults on the subject per se.
I read an interesting essay on the subject of the Lyrical Subject post Language Poetry, which essentially left two alternatives: "flarf," which for me means the end of poetry, and the pseudo-innocent, sincere voice, the voice of the unaffected. Neither suited me.
There is of course something definitely dangerous in the demolition of the centered, determining self; to reduce the self to a praxis and pronoun of the competing codes and formulas of the social system (say Baudrillard, Barthes, et al) is not much of a self (even if it is at least truer, if completely lacking a substance ontology).
The self (I'm ad hocing here) was the creation of the industrial age, the creation of the commodification of a person as labor power, but now that self is the loci of signs and the stream of complex and often contradictory information systems of the internet and other social media.
Is it too late to say as Sartre said that man is free, must be free, because if he is determined then he is utterly exteriorized, which would mean he is not conscious, because exteriorization and consciousness are at odds.
What does anyone have to say to the dilemma. 

Beth Vieira

Thanks, Alan, for the correction about onji.  It leads to adjustment I should make.  I overstated the differences for the sake of argument. It would have been better to say that Japanese syllables don't neatly correspond to those in English.  Japanese has two syllabaries, which consist of either just vowels or consonants followed by vowels with the exception of the nasal "n."  These units are very short and more regular than in English.  For instance, even the word "haiku" which would count as two syllables in English is actually three units in Japanese--"ha-i-ku"--even though over time dipthongs have emerged to combine the "a" and "i" sounds so in pronunciation it sounds more like two syllables in Japanese though the first syllable is somewhat longer.  In English we have much more variation.  We have established meters and stress patterns.  The word "ha" is shorter than the word "long," even though they would both count as single syllables in meter.  This leads to often funny renditions of foreign words in Japanese because they add a vowel after every consonant, and thus stretch out words sometimes beyond recognition.

Beth Vieira

Jack, you raise not only the current condition of Western poetics but also the condition of man!  That's going to take a whole lot of thought and consideration before even making an attempt. 

I have friends who have go the way of flarf and agree with you that it really is a dead end.  So is an naive stance.

You seem to have some answers in your essay, which I need to read again before I give you comments, but just a few things about it.  You cite Rich, who among others talks about poetry as a social practice and that poets have forgotten that poets used to be public figures articulating common concerns, not sollipsistly existing and focussed on private experience.  The doctor you center on is doing something extraordinary with haiku.  Not only is the political there, but it's cultural memory. And because it's so pressing and artful, there's not really a gap between himself as a subject and his self as a subject of ideological influences.  His poetry is a cultural struggle as he says in one of his haiku as well as an account of it.  It's true that Satre called for freedom, but existentialism requires that a responsibility to be taken on along with that freedom.  There are different ways to place yourself, cultural, psychological, political, etc.  Things aren't determined as is the case of the self prepared to go to market.  Things are overdetermined.  And there are many approaches to that.

Larry Bole

So much to respond to! I will have to respond in bits and pieces, as time allows.

Beth writes:

QuoteOne of the things I'm interested in is how there is an interaction between the writer and the reader that could be said to co-create the experience.  That haiku is a kind of open form which places lots of demands and trust in the reader to enter the poem and fill in the blanks, thereby creating the poem upon reading.  The writer has, in this kind of poetry, to resist being too explicit.  Not that there is a puzzle, but rather that there's an effect that is better conveyed by activity on the part of the reader instead of passivity.

The first thing I would like to say is that I don't think a reader is ever TOTALLY passive when reading any poem. However, the type of active reader involvement in any given poem can range from very simple to very complex. I assume, Beth, that you are referring to the kind of haiku/poetry that requires more complex reader involvement.

I recommend, for an interesting discussion of this aspect of haiku, pages two through five from the introduction to Henderson's An Introduction to Haiku (pagination from my Anchor Book Edition: 1958).

I will try to be as brief as possible in providing some relevant passages from these pages:

QuoteBecause the haiku is shorter than other forms of poetry it naturally has to depend for its effect on the power of suggestion, even more than they do. As haiku are studied further, it will be seen that they usually gain their effect not only by suggesting a mood, but also by giving a clear-cut picture [emphasis mine] which serves as a starting point for trains of thought and emotion. But, again owing to their shortness, haiku can seldom give the picture in detail. Only the outlines or important parts are drawn, and the rest the reader must fill in for himself. Haiku indeed have a very close resemblance to the "ink sketches" so dear to the hearts of the Japanese.

. . .

...haiku reading is in itself an art, and why in order really to understand a good haiku one has to read it over many times. It is not that the picture is hazy in any way, for if the author has done his work properly, the picture is quite clear. The point is that good haiku are full of overtones. The elusiveness that is one of of their chief charms comes, not from haziness, but from the fact that so much suggestion is put into so few words.

One point worth pondering is the difference between what Beth calls "being too explicit" vs. what Henderson calls "a clear-cut picture."

Here I would like to address one more comment of Beth's in a post on this thread:

QuoteWhat I see is something like a structural component in making the poem that deliberately makes space for the reader.

The concept of 'space' here makes me think of the Japanese concept ma. For an introduction to ma, I refer everone to the Wikipedia entry:

More to say as time allows, but right now I have to get ready to attend a seminar on the much-neglected  American poet William Bronk.

Larry Bole

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