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Headset (((one)))



By Paul Watsky

A reader’s mood, “a conscious state of mind or emotion” (according to Webster’s on-line dictionary), derives from two principal factors: the poem’s tone—herein understood as the writer’s expressed attitude toward the material and/or reader—and the reader’s subjective associations, both conscious and unconscious, to the poem’s elements. If the poet’s tone and the reader’s personal associations disagree the reader usually will dislike the work, as Oscar Wilde seems to do with his epigram rejecting the sentimentality in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” I very much doubt that Dickens himself was guffawing as he created those passages. Hence, for poets who hope our work will be appreciated, and for readers who may want to understand better the causes of our reactions, it can be helpful to scrutinize the interaction of tone and mood.

Let’s consider a couple poems from The San Francisco Haiku Anthology (Windsor, CA, 1992):

     by tree
             the summer fog

Paul O. Williams
          (p. 14)

coming home

Jane Reichhold

They’re characterized structurally by an identical rhetorical device, but they elicit in me very different moods.

The tonal message these poems convey includes a neutral attitude towards the reader—no special pleadings, apostrophes, provocations—but they’re rich in implicit stances regarding their dramatic situations. The x by x device onomatopoetically conveys incremental, repetitive activity, while the offsets and spacing give a sense of slowness, perhaps in the Reichhold haiku even of diminished momentum along with increasing struggle. The diction and rhythms further color tone: congruently with his subject matter, Williams’ uninflected monosyllables, his use of windy open vowel sounds, and the curt finisher fog communicate deliberateness, visual simplicity verging on starkness, as well as a sense of solemnity. Reichhold’s effortful-seeming x by x is balanced by the metrical lightness of an anapest (coming home) and a pair of trochees (flower), though the trochaic foot’s first-syllable stress may sound evocative of a limp.

Although these tonally well-controlled formal elements might seem inevitably to dictate our moods, they nonetheless leave us with room enough to respond idiosyncratically. Does everybody feel the same way in fog-muffled woods? Let’s say you were in the New Jersey pine barrens, with their radiation fog, or in the dripping redwoods of Humboldt County, California, suffused by the coastal marine layer billowing onshore…. Did you feel confident, relaxed, enjoy yourself along an exciting, unfamiliar trail? Or were you alone, damp, hungry, maybe due to your poor directional sense, and now with a door of your mind even opening onto fear? Nothing anywhere to be seen except those silent trees looming up one at a time.

Reichhold offers us flowers and home, the latter a hugely emotion-laden word in German but non-existent in French. How closely do you identify with the poet’s hypothetical situation—perhaps descending a hilly, flower-garnished path to your front door? Joyous, right? Are you less spry these days on broken ground? Arthritic? And what about the haiku’s symbolic, more archetypal implications, which are enhanced by the downward motion of poem on page? Have you lost a valued contemporary lately? Attended the flower-laden funeral, a symbolic homecoming into mother earth?

It’s unfair to blame the poet for one’s idiosyncratic, association-driven discordant moods. Or for poets always to blame themselves if readers fail to get on board with their poem’s intent. As John Thompson (p. 176) puts it:

so many ways
within the waterfall
for water to fall

((( )))

Have you other associations and reactions to these poems than the possibilities I’ve mentioned?

As poets and readers, do you find it helpful, irrelevant, or worse to take account of poetry’s psychological dimension?

Headsets addresses the psychological aspect of literary craft as it applies to haiku and senryu. Poetry elicits emotion and associations from readers by means of subjectively potent rhetorical devices. Classic psychotherapy questions will be asked: “What’s happening here?” and “How do you (might one) feel about that?” Readers are invited to examine their responses, and poets to explore their purposes.

Headsets is overseen by Paul Watsky.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. In Paul O. Williams haiku I feel a playfullness. Summer is a time of play, and I liken the fog to children playing tag. If this were in autumn, I would perceive a somber tone.

    In Jane Reichhold’s haiku there is a comforting mood. Home is a comfort word, unlike house which is just a structure. “coming home” perhaps the poet has been away a long time or even for a short time, she is welcome, even by the flowers, standing in line like family waiting to greet her.

    The individual reader will have his own memories and association. Home for some may be unhappy and coming home is a downward descent into bad memories. Fog may be felt as clostrophobic and scarey, uncomfortable and depressing. The poet has no way of knowing the reader’s reaction and must write the poem as he feels it.


  2. Williams’s minimalist haiku certainly intimates “inner weather”, although because of its ambiguous nature, it yields both “glass half-full” and “glass half-empty” readings. Is the fog rolling in or out? Are we watching the trees vanishing or being revealed? I admit my own (initial) tendency is to read it the former way, so the poem’s “covert” psychological theme becomes that of diminishment. Yet the other reading remains available, and like Tenzing’s “stone” one could place this haiku in the “Necker cube” category. The word “summer” here, btw, isn’t at all superfluous, fog (kiri) functioning traditionally as an autumn kigo. It reacts upon “tree/ by tree”, bringing into focus an image of luxuriant greenness, which has its own psychological associations. I suspect it was also necessary to convey the motivating experience and adds as well a judiciously-chosen “anchor” to the poem’s otherwise evanescent “weightlessness”. There’s also, of course, the evocation of place (SF).

    More generally, “the writer’s expressed attitude toward the material…and the reader’s subjective associations, both conscious and unconscious” seem crucial topics to explore in today’s fragmented, ideological haiku scene, and I thank Paul Watsky for focusing on them. What might be regarded as a “mere nature sketch” yields much more when the poet’s nuanced relationship to his materials is taken into account. This subtle ex. by a recently-departed master of North American haiku seems well-chosen indeed to illustrate the “psychological dimension” of haiku.

    Also–I find it interesting to contrast the minimalism of this haiku with the free-flowing amplitude (relatively speaking) and sound-resonance of another that employs a loosely related strategy, yet more elements, to create such a different inner and outer effect:

    dusk lights the ridge
    evening grosbeaks pinwheel
    tree to tree
    (Wally Swist, The Silence Between Us, Brooks Books, 2005)

    (Do you participate in the child-like joy and wonder, the feeling of “being there” in this crystalline intensity of the moment, conveyed in part by that “killing” word, “pinwheel”?)

  3. O happy gazing
    A Poet going to sea
    Poetry in Christmas

    Love has gotten us
    3 points of the starboard
    Lives forgotten

    Was this silly and
    spiritless leadership

    We are justified
    in complete cynicism¡
    Mystery there.

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