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FNQ&A: Tom D'Evelyn

Started by Field Notes, November 22, 2013, 09:03:09 PM

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Field Notes

FNQ&A is an occasional feature wherein a Field Notes panelist is asked to comment on a previous Field Notes post. For this first FNQ&A, Tom D'Evelyn agreed to expand upon the essay--"A Modest Proposal"-- he wrote for FN4. We're grateful for his generosity.


Metaphysical Reflections on Issa's Fly

Key Terms: Cut, hyperbole, void, asymmetry, transcendence, universal, particular, imaginative universal, finesse, metaphysics,  Zhuangzi, Simone Weil 

My "Modest Proposal" requires an answer. There I argued that much of modern haiku is cast in the modern, objective mode sanctioned by the modern mind-set.  As a companion to "A Modest Proposal,"  this piece sketches a metaphysical approach to the poetics of haiku, hereafter "H." Original terms of art – kigo, kireji –reappear in a vocabulary that will be foreign to most readers, prompting I hope a rethinking of H. By "rethinking" I don't mean anything revolutionary; on the contrary, I believe there is a core of existential truth in the hokku tradition, starting with the structure of the hokku. By "existential" I refer to something more elemental  than the modern configuration of mind's possibilities, which are limited by the modern episteme. The historicist will argue that we are all trapped by dint of birth in this historical moment, that even our thought processes are limited by this accident. I disagree.

Major critical sources for this project (a work-in-progress) include: Simply Haiku, the journal edited by Robert Wilson and Sasa Vazic, and scholarly books by Pipei Qiu, Haruo Shirane, and William LaFleur, and the contributors to Matsuo Basho's Poetic Spaces: Exploring Haikai Intersections, ed. Eleanor Kerkham (2006). On the other hand, I draw on the explorations of the "metaxu" by Simone Weil, Eric Voegelin, and William Desmond. Practical outcomes of this "East-West" dialogue have been posted at

I have numbered the paragraphs to guide the reader through this labyrinth of concepts. For an overview, read only paragraphs headed with whole numbers: e.g. 4.00.

I.00 The defining feature of H is the "cut." In the popular three-line form, the cut is indicated by a dash or colon after the short line, or simply by nothing; everybody who knows H. expects the cut. The cut creates  syntactic tension and expressive rhythm. Avoiding the cut is, well, playing tennis without the net.

1.01The "cut" does not cut the form in half; the smaller part is devoted to the "universal" and the larger part to the particular or concrete.

I.02 "Universal" refers to a transcendent element; universals include "concepts" like "autumn evening"; universals can be seemingly conceptual or they can be imaginative. In H. universals by their nature are "hyperbolic" or "exaggerated" when compared with the particular details of the base. Once linked to the base with finesse, they resonate.

I.03 The term "imaginative universal" goes back to Vico and is current in critical discourse, e.g. about the philosophy of William Desmond and about Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

1.04 We see the imaginative universal in Zhuangzi 32: "Zhuangzi was dying, and his disciples wanted to give him a lavish funeral. Zhuangzi said to them, 'I will have heaven and earth as my coffin and crypt, the sun and moon for my paired jades, the stars and constellations for my round and oblong gems, all creatures for my tomb gifts and pallbearers" (Ziporyn).

1.05 The imagination engaged by H. is not the imagination of Simone Weil in "Imagination Which Fills the Void," Gravity and Grace. Weil writes: "We must continually suspend the work of the imagination in filling the void within ourselves. If we accept no matter what void, what stroke of fate can prevent us from loving the universe? We have the assurance that, come what may, the universe is full." This is directly relevant to H.

2.00 The "cut" does not assert a determinate relationship between the parts; it does not signify "this was caused by this"; yet it is more than mere juxtaposition. The relationship between transcendence and what it transcends is more than linguistic; it is ontological. We imagine Zhuangzi lying dead in his coffin surrounded by the sun and moon. The image expresses the tension or difference between the finite and mortal and the universal, transcendent, eternal. As always in Zhuangzi, a delicate hyperbole plays over the images; hyperbole points towards the "more" of transcendent meaning. (H. often have this sense of heightened reality; it is one source of the sense of affective or "profound" immediacy achieved by the form.)

2.01  H. has a vertical (hyperbolic) and a horizontal (concrete) dimension, as Shirane has often said. These are in tension – dynamic tension. They are in communication. The dynamism of the cut is suggested in this passage by William Desmond, from God and the Between (165): "The hyperbolic startles us with a reversal of directionality: more than our erotic self-transcending from below up, a reverse way down is suggested in the agapeics of communication. This way down is not symmetrical with our way up. Given the asymmetry, can we think, even in our not-knowing, the reverse movement from the origin?" This kind of thinking suggests the spiritual discipline of H.

3.00 The unique particularity of the singular is felt most sharply as informed by the universal.  Basho: "coolness / a crescent moon faintly seen / over Black Feather Mountain" (Reichhold 140). Coolness is the transcendent universal; the rest is particular, densely particular, given the proper name of the mountain. The tangle of universal and particular has the result of making the "crescent moon" stubbornly there, drawing some of its energy from the single line, and in tension with the black mass of the mountain. In H. the particular has presence. The poet's finesse is seen in the modifier "faintly."

4.00 Pressed for a clear (geometric) image for the relationship between the two parts of H., I suggest "diagonal." As whole, H. is not linear, and it is not circular. It is diagonal because of the abiding tension between the universal and the particular. The space of H. is not geometric, it is directional. The "whole" is not a self-enclosed unit; it is a whole open to its transcendent other (conceptual paradox is part of H. discourse; see the opening of the Tao Te Ching). 

4.01 Discussing the relationship between rhythm and color in the music of his master Messiaen, Pierre Boulez said that what we should hear in all this complexity is "the strange 'diagonal' where harmony and colour blend with rhythm and melody" (see John Milbank in Between System and Poetics, 231). This distinction between harmony/color and rhythm/melody is a musical version of the distinction between the universal and the particular in the verbal arts.

5.00 The mental state associated with H. is not a normal everyday state of mind. It is meditative. For the everydayness, as well as the sublimity, of the meditative background of H., see David Hinton, Classical Chinese Poetry. For research, see Louis Roy, O.P. Mystical Consciousness: Western Perspectives and Dialogue with Japanese Thinkers (2003). The struggle to attain this state of mind is unforgettably dramatized in Natsume Soseki's novel Kasamakura (1906). Readers of Wallace Stevens will know William W. Bevis, Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature (1988).

5.01 As the word "meditative" suggests, H. requires an act of mind. It involves the will and attention in inverse proportion. Simone Weil's remarks on "Attention and Will" (Gravity and Grace) include this: "It is only effort without desire (not attached to an object) which infallibly contains a reward." As for Zhuangzi's Cook Dan, practice makes perfect. Reading mindfully and rewriting critically prepare one for H., but only when the cut is deeply interiorized as a way of "seeing" the world afresh can H. appear as if spontaneously.

6.00 There is a metaphysics of haiku. The world is not simple, not clearly organized, not atomic. It is complex and equivocal, ultimately mysterious as to its meaning. As Weil would say, in this world, all things are metaxu, intermediaries.

6.01 Each individual comes from nothing and returns to nothing. This nothing is a fertile void. The wonder that signals H. is a wonder that there is anything at all.

6.02 Issa's fly moving from window ledge to window edge following the autumn sun is a timeless image of this relationship.  The imaginative universal of the sun allows us to know that fly in its singularity/originality. As creaturely finite beings ourselves we can identify with the fly in its pursuit of the last warmth of the season. We just can't talk about the universal or nothingness directly. We can talk about it diagonally, as the fly flies.

6.03 The image of the warm sun on the fly's back is "sympathetic" (the whole issue of "anthropomorphism" in H. needs refreshing). The sun is an "imaginative universal" because it, the sun, is universal, imaginative because our lives are saturated with light and darkness. The sun, to use Desmond's distinction, may be an image of the Tao "making way" by "giving way," allowing the particulars their own spaces, their elemental selves. (This is the root of the Zhuangzi's infamous "relativism.") 

7.00 H. is ubiquitous today. Recently Abigail Friedman posted a haiku on her Facebook page (November 5, 2013): "in the swirl / of autumn leaves / your joy" . . . . This seems exemplary in several senses. On the page it looks "traditional"; read carefully, one has questions. Who is you? Or rather, what is "your" joy? Just where is the "cut" between the universal and the particular? (Readers of Japanese hokku will know how the kigo can drift from one side of the cut to the other.) One feels the tension between the two images, the swirl of leaves and the "joy." The intermediations of the personal finite element and the impersonal, universal element are handled with finesse. They are not easily separated by the formal design, yet they are distinct. The haiku is about the surging of ultimacy within experience. Joy is embodied; joy is a universal. In ontological terms, the haiku opens to "immanent transcendence."

8.00 H. is not a blank page, it is a "form." As such it "informs" experience. Because of its defining features – the cut, the asymmetrical proportions – it sponsors a mindful act of attention. As a form of writing, it requires "finesse" for the two parts to be brought into right relationship.

8.01 There's a term we can borrow from Desmond in discussing this "right relationship": "porosity." He writes, "The porosity is a between space where there is no fixation of the difference of minding and things, where our mindfulness wakes to itself by being woken up by the communication of being in its emphatic otherness. Already before we more reflectively come to ourselves, in the original porosity of being there is the more primal opening in astonishment. There is no fixed boundary between there and here, between outside and inside, between below and above. There is a passage from what is into the awakening of mindfulness as, before its own self-determination, opened to what communicates to it from beyond itself. We do not open ourselves; being opened, we are as an opening" (see "Wording the Between" in The William Desmond Reader [2012], 201 f.)

I do not know a better philosophic text with which to explore the ahah! moment of H. It is more than emotion; it is not sentiment; it is not narcissistic.... It is ontological. One reason H. is important is that it provides a "model" for this elemental experience, which, cross-culturally, indicates the capacity of the artist to go beyond the limits of the present by entertaining the presence of particular beings in light of the mystery of being.

--Tom D'Evelyn

Paul Miller

Hi Tom,

Forgive the delay in responding.

I was intrigued and a bit puzzled by your comment in the original Proposal: "that there is an "American" assumption that good haiku are written by interesting individuals (see the thumbnails) who display the American virtue of individualism, even iconoclasm. Haiku then would ideally capture something arbitrary in the writer's experience that mark it as unique. This would justify the approach to interpretation that favors impressionism over analysis connecting the text to beliefs shared by others. Perhaps contemporary haiku as envisioned by the editors involves a kind of "will-to-power," a happy-go-lucky nihilism.

I take this (possibly incorrectly) to mean that you favor haiku that are less individualistic. But if haiku are the meeting between the universal and the particular I don't see how this individualism can be avoided. A particular pine tree is not the same to everyone. Despite the notion that a pine tree has a special pine tree-ness outside of my experience (which it does), in a poem or any creative act I stand between the pine tree and the page, and it is viewed through my eyes and my perception. I can go to the pine to learn of the pine, but it is ultimately "my" pine tree I learn about. Until pine trees learn to write their own poems I don't see any way around that fact.


Good point! The individual can be just that pine. I recognize its singularity in analogy with my own singular finite being. My model would be issa's insects but also Julian of Norwich's hazelnut poised over the abyss of God. I'm getting clearer and clearer in my head about this as I get older. I think haiku admirably fit as a mode of expression for self-transcendence through awareness of agapeic being.  It is so because of its double structure. Last night I read David Young's intro to his new Basho and almost threw the book against the wall. He talks about a triple structure and reduces Basho to an American transcendental ego. Drives me crazy. Young should at least read Pipei Qiu on Zhuangzi in Basho.

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