Skip to content

Headset (((two)))

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.



More About Mood

BY Paul Watsky

Sometimes we read poetry in order to experience a soothing sense of refuge from life’s stresses. We want a gentle swoop downward to darkness on extended wing rather than rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Haiku which provide conventional images, rhythms, and diction, even perhaps a nice cliché, affirm that the world’s peaceful rituals and nostalgic consolations remain at hand, comfortably unchanged, e.g. Southard’s bland

In the garden pool,
    dark and still, a stepping-stone
        releases the moon

(The Haiku Anthology, 3rd edition, p. 190)

or Virgilio’s

after father’s wake
the long walk in the moonlight
to the darkened house

(p. 263)

Dark and still, darkened house—no surprises or discords here, nothing to disrupt sleep, and, as we know from scientific studies, excessive sleep disruption precipitates madness.

Although tending toward the cliché, dark and its cousins darkness and darken are venerable power words partaking of a western literary tradition that descends from Homer’s wine-dark sea and Milton’s well known description of hell in Paradise Lost, which hinges on the inspired oxymoron darkness visible:

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round

As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible

Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe . . . . (Lines 61-5)

Epic traditions, however, gradually degenerate, as exemplified by this oft-parodied opening sentence from a Bulwer–Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

A poet’s unmindful insertion of dark or one of its variants into a haiku can mean trouble, since many readers will be equipped not only with numerous unpredictable literary and other cultural associations, including death, ignorance, and racial stereotypes, but also idiosyncratic emotionally-charged memories of encountering the dark: scary nights in childhood, thrills at the movies, adventure while exploring caves, etc. All that dark constitutes a special challenge for haikuists, because a single clumsy word choice can wreck a short poem’s tone. In the 1999 edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s, The Haiku Anthology, from which all of the present column’s examples are drawn, dark, and its variants, appear in twenty-nine poems (see pps. 15, 30, 34, 47, 49, 71, 77, 83, 91, 96, 110, 148, 149, 173,190, 193, 195, 231, 233, 238, 241, 244, 247, 249, 250, 261, 262, 263), usually in the more conventional mode, but not glaringly cliche. Several, however, illustrate how, if carefully presented, dark still can increase a haiku’s stimulus value, its novelty.

One way to achieve this is by offering the starkest, zen-like simplicity, as with Kerouac’s

Birds singing
  in the dark
—Rainy dawn

(p. 96)

Minimalist, chiseled diction, just the “what is.” There’s no attempt to stage-manage a reader’s mood, to steer projections, except perhaps a cryptic dismembered echo of the homily It’s always darkest before the dawn.

Another way is to play traditional associations of dark off against the poem’s idiosyncratic context, as in Larry Gates’

The lights are going out
    in the museum, a fetus
        suddenly darkens

(p. 47)

An already-dead unborn child, deceptively reanimated by the lit-up exhibit case, suffers a second death. That’s heavy! as old-time stoners used to say—and certainly not conducive to restful sleep.

But such strategy also can produce humorous effects: Garry Gay’s first two lines, Snowflake’s fall/into the darkness, sets us up for a comic turn: of the tuba (p. 49) What a tomb! And what a sound. That tuba evokes an elaborate American scene: under gray skies a chilly halftime at the college or high school football game, bands parading on chilly fields. . . .

Then there’s the ironic approach, as exemplified by two of Alan Pizzarelli’s non-standard pieces:

a spark
falls to the ground

that’s it

(p. 148)

The blank line after darkens allows us an interlude for maudlin projection before the poet pulls out from under us the self-indulgent rug.

And how about “Porno Movie:”

the girl
         loosens her bra
starts peeling off panties


(p. 149)

The editing process offers an opportunity to evaluate your haiku’s tonality. Decide what responsive mood you want your readers to experience, and whether that’s a realistic agenda. If you’re uneasy about the results try the poem out on truthful friends. If you identify a problem, ask yourself whether any previously unrecognized discordant feelings or attitudes of yours may be responsible. Make adjustments—and repeat the debugging sequence as often as necessary.

Here are a few questions that came to mind after reading Paul’s piece:

While “dark” and its cousins are, as Paul writes, “venerable power words partaking of a western literary tradition,” do you think this is where this influence is predominantly coming from when it comes to English-language haiku? My immediate, personal, associations were to a few of Bashō’s more popular poems. So, do you think the influence is western, or from translations of haikai/hokku/haiku?

Also, are there other ways to attain the same kind of mood without leaning on the use of the word “dark” or any of its variations? Can you think of examples of haiku that are able to create this mood, feeling, or idea, without being so explicit?

Lastly, is the overt use of “dark” and its cousins something we should avoid in haiku? Sometimes, “it depends,” always? Are you mindful of using it—if not avoiding it altogether—when you write?


This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. I am reminded of Susan Stewart’s wonderful book about humor:
    “nonsense: aspects of intertextuality in folklore and literature”
    where she poses the theory that to have humor you must have pretty strong rules, and often rules that have outlived themselves into making no sense. I’ve often thought that haiku gave much of its strength to that twist that makes humor so alive. To me it’s all contained in reaching down into the word for something that can work for you in your poetry. It may not even be meaning…it may just be something even more vital. What is it about a word that makes is indespensible for any given haiku?

  2. The sentence of mine singled out by Eve is indeed a tangle. Sorry. When I write directly to the message box . . . ? The complex sentence could have become several paragraphs and perhaps made my points more clearly. I agree with Sandra’s agreement (ha!) that looking to other types of poetry for individual words can be hazardous or at least problematic. Allusion is a refined form of Art. As Eve mentions, Haruo Shirane discussed the vertical axis in the reprint of his speech to HSA ‘99. There and in his book is the impression that more than poetry is involved: Japanese history, military and political, and awareness of places of special occurences or feelings of emotional seriousness and or beauty (uta makura) as passed through the generations. That is what anthropologists use to define “culture” — generational transmission. And, of course a generous dollop of the arts to include Chinese arts. In Basho’s time and previous, the educated nobility had a common familiarity with the “classics” of that time. Basho’s century highlights the elevated education of the middle and merchant classes. Readers understood what “Sado Island” had been, and what “Yoshino” meant vis-a-vis a glorious vista of the cherry experience.

    I did not mean to throw down red meat to the pack of degreed Professors of Literature (I know of at least three on this and the previous Headset thread at THF). I chuckle at _that_ image. Smile with me, please. The average merchant of Basho’s acquaintance knew more literature (and such cultural referents as their country’s history) than most college graduates today, at least in the US. I speculate, of course.

    Back to Paul Watsky (Headset #2), I also allow that the words that can become cliche are not to be completely dropped. I sometimes teach haiku with the example of a Beethoven Symphony. Usually #5, but last weekend I attended a performance of his #6. They are called “Old Warhorses” — the opening chords of the famous Fifth are in cartoons and commercials and may be the very essence of cliche. When I see it programmed, I might cringe — oh that again. But, and this is the teaching point, it can be revealed afresh. A certain conductor, orchestra may bring it to life and show why it is and has been so popular, and is such effective Art. So too with a rainbow, dew, or frost. Such images are part of the music of haiku. In good employ, they have power.

    Chris is so right, it is hard for editors and other frequent readers/students of ELH to get past hackneyed elements. I remember when we published Carolyn’s “so suddenly winter” and several of Gary’s other star haiku, not the one Chris quoted. Fresh they are. I daresay some spider haiku are in the Nest Archive. I am sure there are in dark recesses of my own notebooks.

  3. are we tired of “scarecrow” yet? –P MacNeil

    No, but the issue of overused words and themes is accentuated (to put it mildly) for an editor.

  4. Paul,

    when you say “I continue to find less than useful reference to non-haiku poets and poetry to make points about haiku, although other poetry can often be the cultural context for a haiku (the vertical axis in Shirane’s construct). Homage or obeisance.”

    I am prompted to suggest that Shirane’s whole idea of the “vertical axis” encourages a discussion of other forms of poetry and literature that shape the larger history and context of haiku poets writing in any given language and culture. (e.g. Basho’s and Buson’s references to waka and Chinese classics)

    Particularly in regards to the overuse of certain words and cliche phrases, I think it is very helpful to consider this larger context.

    As Paul W. points out:
    “A poet’s unmindful insertion of dark or one of its variants into a haiku can mean trouble, since many readers will be equipped not only with numerous unpredictable literary and other cultural associations, including death, ignorance, and racial stereotypes, but also idiosyncratic emotionally-charged memories of encountering the dark: scary nights in childhood, thrills at the movies, adventure while exploring caves, etc.”

    and from Shirane:

    “The vertical axis does not always have to be a connection to another poem. It can be what I call cultural memory, a larger body of associations that the larger community can identify with. It could be about a past crisis (such as the Vietnam War or the loss of a leader) that the poet of a community is trying to come to terms with. The key here is the larger frame, the larger body of associations that carries from one generation to the next and that goes beyond the here and now, beyond the so-called haiku moment. The key point is that for the horizontal (contemporary) axis to survive, to transcend time and place, it needs at some point to cross the vertical (historical) axis; the present moment has to engage with the past or with a broader sense of time and community (such as family, national or literary history). ”

    Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths; Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000)

    Opening up beyond haiku, and looking at other contemporary voices, like Michael Ondaatje, seems particularly relevant to the discussion at hand.
    I, for one, learn from poets working outside of haiku, especially
    in gaining insight into the issues Paul W. raises.
    For example, I am constantly amazed by Li-Young Lee’s ability to take well worn images and make them his own:

    The birds don’t alter space.
    They reveal it. The sky
    never fills with any
    leftover flying. They leave
    nothing to trace. It is our own
    astonishment collects
    in chill air. Be glad.
    They equal their due
    moment never begging,
    and enter ours
    without parting day. See
    how three birds in a winter tree
    make the tree barer. ……..
    from Praise Them
    Li-Young Lee

    (hope the line breaks come through)

  5. Although I quoted non-haiku poets, I think you’re kind of agreeing with me, Paul.

    Or, maybe, I should say that I’m agreeing with you!

    I didn’t mean to sound like I was encouraging overuse of “poetic” words, just that there are times when no other word can be used, something you’ve backed up with your example.

    Although writers should spurn cliches at every turn, my point there was that they (the phrase, word, whatever) work, hence their overuse.

    It’s up to poets to be fresh and lively. That’s what we’re paid for! 🙂

  6. At the risk of adding yet another Paul to the mix, I agree with P. Watsky. In addition to the example of “dark” or darkness,” it is possible that a single word can be overused and that use descends to the realm of hackneyed or cliche. Care must be exercised to allow the reader to find and share the poet/observer’s precise meaning. Context, especially for a single word. Two of my least favorite are “gnarled” and “abandoned.” Also to Paul Watsky’s point, I think, are certain word clusters that are over done. As we have adopted and continue to use certain kigo or seasonal keywords, care needs must be taken to not criticize what may be useful to some writers of haiku. I do not speak to the language of poets not writing haiku. I continue to find less than useful reference to non-haiku poets and poetry to make points about haiku, although other poetry can often be the cultural context for a haiku (the vertical axis in Shirane’s construct). Homage or obeisance.

    Among haiku editors, off to the side at haiku conferences, maybe over a large beer, some good mirth is produced on this subject. One image we all see often is the dewdrop in a spider’s web. Perhaps a tattered web; perhaps seen with dawn light (hopefully not Dawn’s Early Light). A “necklace” of dew drops. Then there is the image of the world in a dewdrop — hey, some folks see the same as Issa and have not seen his classic, but that imitation is another topic for another essay. My point is that a lot of poets will see and feel a rainbow upside-down in a raindrop that clings to a branch, and many will write of it. Another I see is “the last leaf” on a tree. Might be curled or not, might be spinning in the autumn wind. In our language, some words and phrases can just bear no more weight. “Last” and “only” have their own misuse.

    I can note that the “deep” woods and the darkness implied in Paul Miller’s that Chris quoted

    deep woods
    a sapling with one leaf
    changes color

    paul m.

    first pub. The Heron’s Nest, V. 8. Dec. ‘06, an Editors’ Choice

    is necessary both to the meaning and experience. I was with paul when he composed this experience; I saw his pencil move. I saw the finished poem some time later. It is lack of light that condemns such saplings to maybe have one leaf a year. Unless a giant falls, the inner meaning, wait ‘til next year.

    Back to Paul Watsky’s conversation starter, even thought it is a kigo, are we tired of “scarecrow” yet?

  7. And what would “Japan” by Billy Collins be without:

    And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
    you are the bell.
    and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you

    Context is everything, eh?

  8. The point that words have meanings is an important one.

    In my paid employment (not poetry, alas) I work with words and try to teach the 25-year-old I work most closely with this lesson to improve her work.

    There is a difference between “premise” and “premises” that is bigger than one letter, and to be effective communicators we need to know what that difference is. It’s no good describing a jacket with a zip as a “blazer”, that’s just wrong.

    The word dark has many meanings and it’s up to us as creative writers to use this word (or any word) in an effective manner.

    But we shouldn’t be avoiding words simply because they’re used a lot (an argument I don’t support, on the other hand, for “tranquil”) – cliches are cliches for a reason, even though that word carries a negative connotation. “Deep” is a popular word in poetry and with good reason …

    He stands and
    breathes night

    air deep
    into himself

    swallows all
    he can of

    nine small sounds
    a distant coolness

    Dark peace,
    like a cave of water

    – Michael Ondaatje, from the poem “The Brother Thief”

    or this haiku-like phrase by the same author from “Night Fever”

    someone with fever
    in the darkness of a room

    (Both poems found in “Handwriting”, Picador, 2000)

  9. Chris’s example of Paul M.’s fine haiku touches on a what is, for me, a crucial point in this discussion. After reading the first line, anyone who has been through high school in U.S. schools will probably immediately remember the Robert Frost line:

    “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,”

    as I suspect Paul M. anticipated. And as Paul W. points out, Milton’s

    “No light, but darkness visible”

    is simarly well-known and loaded. It immediately brings to my mind William Styron’s book on depression “Darkness Visible.” Does that mean I shouldn’t use it? Yes, in my case. If the Dirty Projectors mix it into a song, Scott M. will probably be fine with it, even though he might already have emailed them Fay Aoyagi’s complete oevre along with lyric suggestions.

    The challenge is to make our word combinations fresh, not an easy task. I don’t find cliche nice or comfortable.

    I do disagree with Paul W.’s contention that “dark” is “nearly a one-word cliche.” After all, the word has meaning, and descriptive use beyond all our conflicted associations.

  10. “is the overt use of “dark” and its cousins something we should avoid in haiku?” –Scott M

    “Dark” has been worked so hard over the years that it’s nearly a one-word cliche.” –Paul W

    The overtly poetic use of the word ‘deep’ has often caused me to roll my eyes. Not unlike the word ‘suddenly’ which Billy Collins pokes fun at in his poem Tension (poem #7 at:

    But all the words we use come with meanings, associations, and baggage that either helps or hinders what we’re trying to achieve in any given context. We could all site examples where the same words that feel cliche or overwrought in some poems are used to powerful effect in others:

    deep woods
    a sapling with one leaf
    changes color

    so suddenly winter
    baby teeth at the bottom
    of the button jar

    dark darker—
    too many stars
    too far

    (Paul M, Carolyn Hall, Gary Hotham)

    Writing (and all artmaking) takes a threefold skill of conception, creation, and evaluation (which happens both simultaneously and in stages), and it’s the third part that comes into play here (and what we’re doing on this forum). The writer has to take on the role of reader; to experience the power of the piece, or the lack thereof, as if someone else created it; to evaluate whether it will move an intended audience or make them roll their eyes.

    What helps me asses my work is reading it aloud repeatedly, time—spent with and away from it, and getting feedback whenever possible. Often the very act of reciting something to others, or posting it on a writer’s workshop, will put me in reader-mode.

    Speaking of which, I may be off the topic.

  11. The thought occurred to me this morning that perhaps the words “dark” “darkness” etc. have become ineffectual is perhaps that they are not being used to convey what they mean. The old adage of “don’t say, show” applies here I think.
    If you are trying to say that the word “dark” implies something ominous… show us what it is… The word “dark” doesn’t necessarily connote something ominous. To get down to the real meaning of words is perhaps one of the requirements for a good poem.

  12. I’ve had that discussion before…as to whether or not haiku is a kind of chanting or not… Personally, chanting doesn’t do much for me…I suppose that’s because I write and read alone. I have enjoyed CD’s of haiku that were accompanied by flute, and in one case read in a cave where there was a certain amount of chanting quality that really added a new dimension to them, and wonderfully so. But it is not necessary for there to be a chanting quality about it as far as I’m concerned.
    What makes a haiku fine for me is a certain turn of mind that seems to grasp unspeakable things. These are the kind of haiku that really hold my attention and from which I learn so much. There’s so much that can not be said. And music can take that place for some people, but I seem to be drawn to those who come so close to actually putting it into words…as words themselve are so strange to me.

  13. I’m not so much trying to invent rules about word choice as to suggest that certain words carry more associational freight than others, freight that can affect readers’ reactions. Unless one is striving to elicit laughter it’s probably safer to write, “It was a stormy night,” than, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    “Dark” has been worked so hard over the years that it’s nearly a one-word cliche. But some people embrace poetry because it reunites them, comfortingly, with the familiar, i.e. meets a type of psychological need—almost like chanting, which certainly doesn’t aim for novelty.

  14. “Lastly, is the overt use of “dark” and its cousins something we should avoid in haiku? Sometimes, “it depends,” always? Are you mindful of using it—if not avoiding it altogether—when you write?”
    This raises a question that I’ve bumped into before with haiku. (It’s the ‘scarecrow’ question.) In these three little lines that we work within, in a single language, with so many poets diligently working to exhaust the usage, how can we or should we (can we afford to) avoid using anything (word or image) that comes to hand? Does this kind of avoidance artificially stilt a poet’s voice? Will editors automatically discard a poem for perceived current overuse? After a period of time, can the word be new-minted? Surely, this kind of thinking can power energetic creativity, but it can also be a loss.

  15. Alan, I remember your “turning into the thermals” from Azami…I always liked it as it reminded me of that old Chinese proverb about luck…The old man has a son and some horses and all his horses get out one night and they are gone; and all the neighbor’s lament his bad luck…and the story goes on and on turning bad luck to good luck to bad luck again…till you see the silliness of assigning good or bad to luck at all.

    Cherie, I agree with you, thinning bones is much more ominous
    than dark or darkness. I just recovered from a broken right wrist and was not sure I’d have the use of my right hand again…thankfully I had a good doctor and it’s o.k. now…

    I just came across a wonderful haiku on “tiny words” by Grant Hackett. It brings to mind the “shadow” which sort of indicates darkness or at least less light.

    “and don’t snow geese and immortality take their shadows from the sea.” – Grant Hackett – Issue 9.1/2 February 2010 – Tiny Words…originally published on “Falling Off The Mountain”….
    It’s a one line haiku but it didn’t fit all on one line here.
    I think this haiku is marvelous…so much to contemplate.

  16. I found six or seven published haiku where I’ve used ‘dark, darken, or darkest.’ Dark can come at any time of year and be promising or ominous. The spring dark is full of life and possibility. I think “thinning bones—” is more ominous than “winter weeds.” By acknowledging death (winter) and focusing on the architectural beauty of the weeds the feeling of foreboding is reduced. In the end my darkest secret isn’t all that dark.

    spring dark
    pivot in the flight
    of barn swallows
    Frogpond XXIX: 1 (2006)

    thinning bones—
    craters darken
    the harvest moon
    The Heron’s Nest VI: 8 (2004)
    The Horse with One Blue Eye (2006) Snapshot Press

    winter weeds
    the darkest secret
    I know
    Snapshots 12 (2006)
    The Horse with One Blue Eye (2006) Snapshot Press

  17. Intriguing, just on a search of haiku written by me using the word dark or darkening I have only two both dealing with birdlife, and none using ‘deepening’ that have been published yet (I have two yet to go, neither to do with birdlife).

    turning into the thermals
    unknown birds
    into white then dark again

    Alan Summers
    Azami #26, Japan

    fading last note
    a torresian crow sounds
    the darkening sky

    Alan Summers
    From Crow Haibun: different versions published in Paper Wasp, Queensland, 1997; Azami haiku journal, Osaka, Japan 1998; Blithe Spirit, June 2004; and Shamrock Haiku Journal, Irish Haiku Society, Spring 2006; HAIKU HIKE (World Walks) (Part of Crossover UK’s 2006 ‘Renewability’ project); Sketchbook, A Journal for Eastern & Western Short Forms Nov. 2007.

  18. Here’s one I find much more frightening:

    the piercing blue
    of a young jackdaw’s eyes…
    morning chill
    – John Barlow
    from Wing Beats

    Not even the slightest reference to darkness. But such a threatening image in a time of “light”…..

  19. I don’t know if these thoughts about the concept of dark, darkness etc. are particularly Western or not. I have completely different takes on them. Being light sensative, I sometimes find excessive light painful..and darkness a relief…
    As a child I could see in the dark and sort of enjoyed a gift that other childen did not seem to have. As an artist I find that the darks are the power in a black and white drawing. And so when I come to these images in haiku, I don’t associate them with trouble, or maudelin sentiments, or sadness or grief necessarily, except if there is something else in the haiku to indicate that it is being used for that purpose.

    I’m reading “Wing Beats” at the moment…and come to these haiku:

    darkening mere —
    a heron coils its neck
    the last half inch
    -David Cobb

    The day is over, the heron’s come to a resting place, and pulls itself in… I don’t sense any fear or trouble or sadness here at all.

    grey frozen loch
    beyond darker rocks
    the brow of a grouse
    – David Platt

    This haiku refers to the Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix) and as I read this haiku the darkness of the grouse fits into a larger and greater scene than the frozen loch… it is one with “the other” in its darkness.

    swallows on a wire the sky darkens towards evening
    -Stuart Quine

    The swallows have returned. It’s been a long migration. There is fatigue…but it is spring, after all. Darkening towards evening to me denotes rest.

    And the darkest one I could find last night:

    through the curls
    of a crow’s feet…
    deepening twilight
    – John Barlow

    doesn’t actually use the word darkness but the crow’s form and shadow certainly imply darkness. To be caught in the crow’s feet to me sounds a lot more menacing than the mere thought of darkness.

    I think somewhere in the Psalms it says that darkness and light are the same to God… I don’t think they are the same, but I do know there would be no sight without degrees of darkness.

    So glad I finally caught up with Headsets… This column could get very interesting and informative. Many thanks.

  20. after father’s wake
    the long walk in the moonlight
    to the darkened house

    I would have thought the change from moonlit walk to dark house would precisely be something that would preclude an easy bedtime. The haiku preserves the difference, and the difference is absolute.

  21. “So, do you think the influence is western, or from translations of haikai/hokku/haiku?”

    This raises a more complex question for me:

    when a western poet translates a Japanese haiku, does the western poet impart the western associations of darkness onto the Japanese original? (even, perhaps, without realising it?) I don’t know if it’s possible to escape this, so even if the translator was trying desperately to retain the original sense of the poem, there may be something of a fusion of influences. Not necessarily a bad thing by any means… but still something to think about in discussing this matter. Any thoughts?

  22. Just saw this on national HAIKU TV

    kono michi ya yuku hito nashi ni aki no kure

    This road:
    with no one traveling on it,
    autumn darkness falls.

    Matsuo Basho
    (Tr. Harold Henderson)

    dark and darkness, the end of a day or a season, as KURE in Japanese.

    Sensei said :
    You use an appropriate kigo to describe your feelings. That is the purpose of kigo.

    Click my name for more translations of this haiku by Basho and the “darkness of an autumn evening”.

Comments are closed.

Back To Top