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ABSTRACT: Applying psychoanalytic theory to haiku, this article explores how haiku might be seen as an attempt to return to the preverbal state of oneness with the world in what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order — doing so with the mechanism of language, which Lacan says begins our entry into the Symbolic Order, where we begin to recognize the separation of self from the world — and while living in Lacan’s Real Order, where objects outside the self are seen as symbols of lack. Ultimately, haiku place us in the fraught position of being caught between possibilities — between lack and oneness, separation and unity. A good haiku, despite the fragmentary syntax often used to present juxtaposed images, offers us the possibility of jouissance, that momentary return to the Imaginary Order and the breakthrough into oneness with the world associated with the haiku moment. At the same time, a good haiku also reminds us that things outside the self, like the images in a haiku, are just as likely to be symbols of lack.



by Ian Marshall


For those of us who are interested in seeing the study of haiku make its way into the broader literary canon — and into college literature classrooms — one way of achieving that goal is to demonstrate how fruitfully contemporary literary theory can be applied to haiku. What I propose to undertake here is a reading of haiku using Lacanian psychoanalytic literary theory. To sum up the basics, Jacques Lacan traces human development through three stages. First there is the Imaginary Order, the pre-verbal world of the infant where all needs are met, mostly by the mother, and there is no recognition of any division between self and not-self. Since this is a pre-verbal state, we know the world in the Imaginary Order only as a series of undifferentiated images that are not seen as discrete from the self.

As we grow we enter the Symbolic Order, where we begin to learn language. For Lacan, this is a powerful experience, for, as linguist Ferdinand de Saussure had argued, rather than reflecting our experience of the world, or even our consciousness, language structures our experience of the world and our consciousness. Learning language is the beginning of recognizing that the things outside the self are not the self. Each thing out there is labeled with a word that identifies it as not-me. But of course a word is not the thing itself — and even more distressing, it may well be an indication of the absence of a thing, for we can say the word in the absence of the thing; in fact, that’s usually why we need to use the word in the first place, because the thing is not present. It is in the Symbolic Order that we realize where the self ends and other people — and objects — begin, and it is at this point that we realize all these things are separate from the self. This is the beginning of our fall into the Real Order, the real world of things. But those objects outside the self are known only through language, and every one becomes a symbol of lack. It is not one with us, and since we still yearn for the sense of oneness of self and world that we experienced in the Imaginary Order, those objects out there become objects of desire. But it is unfulfilled desire, so each is a symbol of lack. Occasionally, though, we experience moments of intense feeling called jouissance that take us somewhere beyond language to the oneness with the “all” that we experienced in the Imaginary Order. Literally, jouissance means “enjoyment,” but the term also evokes suggestions of orgasm and, for Lacan, it can be a kind of pleasure that goes beyond joy into pain or suffering. But regardless of whether they are pleasurable, the intensity of these moments is significant for allowing us to momentarily experience again what it is to live in the Imaginary Order.

Applying Lacanian theory at a basic level is simple enough: you look at the objects in a poem (or story) and recognize them as objects of desire and symbols of some sort of lack that has led to a fragmented self.1 We might also look for those moments of jouissance that take us out of the Real Order and return us (only for a brief moment) to the pre-verbal state of the Imaginary Order, where we have no sense of a self that is separate from the world around us. Haiku practitioners might recognize that moment as the much-vaunted “oneness” that many associate with haiku. R. H. Blyth, in his influential four-volume study Haiku published in the 1950s, called it “selflessness,” one of thirteen traits he considered the necessary states of mind to create and appreciate haiku. By selflessness Blyth meant “self-identification with nature,” or with all of life (168-69). A few other Blythian principles of haiku may also come to mind in thinking about Lacan’s emphasis on both objects and the pre-verbal state of the Imaginary Order. I’m thinking, for example, of haiku’s “materiality” — what has often been called the “suchness of things” — which is associated with what Blyth called “non-intellectuality.” Blyth says that with “intellect alone we arrive nowhere,” for it can lead to a “divorce from the suchness, the wholeness of that thing” (197-98). Finally, there is the haiku ideal of “wordlessness.”2 Haiku strives for a presentation of things in such unprepossessing, simple, and sense-appealing language that it is as if we see the thing itself, and not words representing the thing.

In its emphasis on pure image, and on the perception of things in their thinginess without a lot of abstract intellectualizing about it, haiku is the closest we get in poetry to a representation of the pre-verbal (and wordless) state of the Imaginary Order. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this tendency is Cor van den Heuvel’s one word haiku “tundra” — a single word on an otherwise blank page. It is a representation of a tundra landscape, yes, but in such a way that the picture of that landscape is not contained wholly in the meaning of the word on the page, but on the picture — the visual image — it makes of spareness of objects amid the flat, snowy barrens of a tundra landscape. Often in haiku these moments of imagistic perception evoke the intensity of a moment of jouissance. Consider, for example, Gary Hotham’s “letting / the dog out / the stars out” (87).3 Hotham captures that moment — perhaps a speechless moment, potentially one where we may feel overwhelmed by the senses, such that words can not suffice to express our awe — when we open the front door to let the dog out, and, wow, just look at that sky full of stars. Or consider Issa’s “Naked/ on a naked horse / in pouring rain!” (Hass 159). There is something almost orgasmic about the expression of ecstasy here — perhaps because of the repetition of the word “naked” — but even if you don’t perceive this as a moment of sexual joy, we can’t help but get the sense that this is someone reveling in pure physical, sensory experience. There is no commentary on or analysis of the experience — just the gush of sensation. This is the stuff of the Imaginary Order, where we are one with the world, achieved through a moment of jouissance.

Perhaps one more example will suffice to suggest the ways in which Lacan’s descriptions of the Imaginary Order — and our momentary re-entry into the Imaginary Order during moments of jouissance — seems pertinent to a reading of so many haiku. Let’s choose the most famous haiku of all, Bashō’s “old pond / a frog jumps into / the sound of water” (Reichhold 59). Again, this is a poem made up of just images — both visual (the old pond, the frog jumping) and aural (the sound of water). But notice how, especially in Reichhold’s translation, there is a neat ambiguity that defies language’s attempt to express causality. We could read this haiku in a couple of ways. First, we could read the first two lines with inverted syntax, so that the reference is to the “old pond” that a frog jumps into, followed by “the sound of water.” Or we could read the first line as a scene-setter, and then the frog is jumping into “the sound of water” — which is also unusual phrasing, since we would expect the frog to jump into the water, and then the frog and the water together would make the sound. It is precisely in the syntactic ambiguity of the poem that we enter a state of perception that is not governed (yet) by language. Despite the potential for confusion deriving from the syntactic ambiguities, somehow the poem makes sense. Whatever it is that the frog is jumping into and whatever it is that is making the sound involving the water, we get the picture. Clearly. But we are getting the picture, or picturing the scene that resolves the ambiguities, in a way that language does not quite do for us. It is in this sense that we are in a realm akin to the pre-verbal realm of the Imaginary Order.

For the reader, then, the poem evokes jouissance. And for that matter, it evidently did for Bashō as well. As the story goes, it is with this poem that Bashō’s practice of haiku changed, as he realized that haiku could (and should) be crafted from ordinary life — and ordinary language. It is these ordinary moments, best captured perhaps in language that does not overtly call a great deal of attention to itself (at least not at first reading), that are the moments of deepest intensity, where we perceive the suchness of things and can feel ourselves at one with them. But of course Lacan also talks about the rarity of such moments; more often he emphasizes that once we are in the Real Order objects of the world serve as symbols of lack. If haiku specializes in the “suchness” of things, presenting pure image, we may find that all too often these images become reminders of all sorts of losses and unfulfilled desires.

A classic example is Nicholas Virgilio’s “the autumn wind / has torn the telegram and more / from mother’s hands” (261). The most prominent physical object here — Lacan called these symbols of lack objet petit a — is the telegram, and in the context of the sequence of poems from which this is drawn we know what it says: Virgilio’s brother has died in Viet Nam. The telegram is a stand-in for the brother in the poem, its presence a reminder of his absence, and of the sudden lack being experienced by the poet-observer and his mother. Talk about a fall from the Imaginary Order where the mother is undifferentiated from the infant and fulfills all the infant’s needs. Here the mother is separated from her son by an ocean and a continent, powerless to do anything to help even if it were not already too late. The other prominent object in the poem is the “autumn wind,” which we can perceive as all the forces bigger than ourselves and seemingly antagonistic to us — or at least indifferent to our needs and desires. The autumn wind is symbolic of not only the fall (the season) but the fall into the Real Order, into a world of loss and separation.

Not all haiku that express something about the nature of lack in the Real Order need be so dark or so explicitly about loss. Consider J. W. Hackett’s “half of the minnows / within this sunlit shallow / are not really there” (61). The object here is the minnows, and it turns out that only half of the ones we see are really there. The others, of course, are shadows indistinguishable from the actual minnows. While that seems to speak of a lack of sorts (of half the minnows), one way to read this poem is as a moment of jouissance. It’s about a moment of recognition — that the world of shadows, the unspoken symbols of lack here, is tied to the world of physical objects, and the shadows are the products of the objects of the world brought to light. Of course, another way to read the poem is that the poem remains primarily a portrayal of lack. It captures the operations of a logical mind that has entered into the scene here, separating the minnows into real versus not-real (the shadows). That rationality is the work of the Real Order, and in this case it very clearly serves to sever images into real and imaginary. There is no oneness here, but a clear separation of things that seem to be one into two. And where does that leave us? Not so caught up in the scene that we see all things merging into one; rather, we are the coolly detached observers, making distinctions between what’s real and what’s not, and so all things are seen as separate and discrete entities — and that would include we observers ourselves.

Given how Hackett’s minnow haiku lends itself to balanced and opposite readings that can suggest either jouissance or the operations of the intellect in the Real Order, perhaps it’s worth returning to a poem I cited earlier as an example of jouissance. If it is possible to read van den Heuvel’s relatively wordless poem “tundra” as a return to the pre-verbal state of the Imaginary Order, we might also recognize that it is only “relatively” wordless. There’s still a word there. Is that word really an image of tundra, or is it a word whose presence might also serve as a reminder of the absence of tundra? It sort of makes a picture of tundra on the page — but it’s still a word, a symbolic representation of a thing, in this case a landscape, and not the thing itself. The word tundra, then, rather than placing us directly on or in the tundra, might also be seen as reminding us of the absence of the tundra. Which is the opposite of what I suggested earlier that the poem might do. To reconcile these apparently opposite readings, we could see haiku as placing us in a position caught between possibilities — of oneness with the world of images on the one hand, or on the other hand of awareness of our lack of unity with that world and our desire to somehow bridge that gulf. Language then becomes the means of attempting to reconcile our separation from the world—even as it is in large part responsible for creating that separation. This would explain the centrality of haiku’s impossible goal of “wordlessness” — it is a literary form built (as all literary arts are) out of words that paradoxically aspire to take us beyond words to the world itself.

Most haiku, it seems to me, place us in the fraught position of being caught between lack and oneness, separation and unity. It is another form of haiku’s characteristic aesthetic of ma, or “betweenness,” which Richard Gilbert has identified as the “crucial effect” of haiku (78). A good haiku presents us with the possibility of jouissance and of achieving that oneness with the world that is so often associated with haiku — but always with a reminder that all those things outside the self, like the images in a haiku, are just as likely to be symbols of lack.

For another example, consider Wally Swist’s “walking into and out of / the sound / of the brook” (220). While we could read this literally as a description of a trail that comes close to a stream and then veers away from it, we could also read it as a commentary on perception: it’s about noticing the sound of the brook and then not noticing it. This reminds me of a state I sometimes find myself in while backpacking — noticing for the first couple of days not much more than the weight of my pack, and my mind preoccupied with questions about how much further I have to go. But there comes a moment when I get caught up in the rhythm of the walk, and I’m not thinking about the destination or the weight of the pack, and I’m just noticing things, taking in sensory information — the pattern of bark on a tree, the colors of a wildflower, the movement of a cloud — without ever consciously processing that sensory information in the form of an actual thought. It’s what psychologist Mihalyi Czsikszentmihalyi (which is fun to say: “me-hi-yee chick-sent-me-high-ye) called “flow,” when you are caught up in the flow of a moment without intellectualizing. Think of a basketball player caught up in the flow of a game and reacting without thinking, or a musician playing a song. Then when you step out of the moment and realize that for a minute or so there you forgot about the weight on your back, then you are back to reality (Lacan’s Real Order). And now you are outside the moment, thinking about yourself perceiving the color of the flower or the movement of the cloud — and no longer one with it all. In Swist’s poem, one of those moments is hearing the sound of the brook while walking, and the other moment is not hearing it. The question is, which is the moment of oneness? Is it when you are noticing the sound of the brook (which, by the way, ought to remind us of Bashō’s experience with the sound of water)? Or is it when you are not noticing it, because that is when you are not consciously processing the perception with thought and language but are simply immersed in it? We talk about being “lost” in such moments, and what is lost is the sense of self, because in those moments there is no longer a sense of self separate from the world. And then you are in Lacan’s Imaginary Order, and you got there in a moment of jouissance.

The very style of haiku, particularly its reliance on syntactic fragments and its reliance on juxtaposition of images, also reinforces the tension between the recognition of lack and a fragmented self on the one hand and the possibility of reconciliation and oneness on the other. The syntactic fragments and grammatical incompleteness of a haiku both suggest the fragmented self. In Swist’s haiku, for instance, there is no mention of a subject who is doing the walking into and out of the sound of the brook, and no helper verb to complete the action, and no mention of what resulted from the walking in and out of earshot of the stream. And yet, from these fragments, meaning is somehow created, and a oneness achieved — a oneness where the lack of a subject works to reinforce the meaning, since the point may be to suggest that there is no sense of a self separate from the stream and its sound. From the fragmented syntax and grammatical incompleteness, then, somehow a unity manages to be suggested. But the fragmented pieces are still there, to suggest the illusion of the breakthrough moment.

Similarly, the disjunctive effects of haiku’s reliance on cutting, or kire, which Gilbert calls “a haiku fundament,” would appear to suggest the fragmented self that we experience when we no longer dwell in the Imaginary Order. But as Gilbert points out, “It is the semantic act of cutting which paradoxically forges the sense of non-duality, that is, a reader-sense of coherence arising from the fragmentary aspects (katakoto) of haiku. If coherence did not occur, we would not have a poem, but merely a grouping of linguistic fragments” (41). In Bashō’s “old pond,” there are disparate elements perceived and presented separately — an old pond, a young frog, the stillness of the pond, the action of the frog’s jump, the sound of water that is in fact the sound of water when it accepts the presence of a leaping frog — it is out of these disparate perceptions that a moment of intense oneness occurs. On the other hand, maybe too in that moment of perception we are reminded of all other poems that are about the sounds that frogs make, which takes us back to the world of texts and language and the Symbolic Order. A haiku places us in the ambivalent position between possibilities: of oneness and fragmentation. And there are elements of the haiku present that take us in both directions at once.

This state of Lacanian “betweenness” that is evoked by haiku might also be relevant to Koji Kawamoto’s discussion of the heteroglossic nature of haiku (at least in the Japanese tradition), its blend of the different language registers of ga and zoku. The language of ga appears in what Kawamoto calls the “superposed” section, the part of the haiku that points toward or hints at meaning. It is here that we may find seasonal references, more generalized images, and the more elegant and formal and consciously poetic language of the renga tradition. Zoku, featuring colloquial diction and simpler language, appears in the “base” section that presents the haiku’s main image. Between base and superposed sections, of course, appears the kire, or cut. For example, in Bashō’s “Stillness–/ the cicada’s cry / drills into the rocks,” lines two and three are the base section, composed of aural imagery (Hass 40). The opening line, “Stillness,” gives a pretty broad hint about what to think of the effect of the cicada’s cry — the sound of the busy cicadas paradoxically evokes stillness — and it invokes the haiku and renga traditions by putting the poem in the context of all other poems about stillness. In Lacanian terms, we might think of the image-focused, colloquial language of zoku in the base section as evocative of the Imaginary Order — pure image and simple diction that does not call attention to itself. The first line we might think of as evocative of the Symbolic Order, sending us into the realm of language — where the poem brings other poems to bear on this one in order to suggest context, theme, meaning. The superposed section, then, directs our attention to language, while the base section directs our attention to the world of images, and the result is a tension that makes a haiku worth returning to. At each reading there is the possibility of breaking through the Real Order to return to the Imaginary Order — and there is the alternate possibility of being reminded that language always stands between us and the world, constructing the world for us.

That tension is highlighted in a whole subcategory of haiku that explicitly takes language and poetry as its subject. We think of haiku as being predominantly about the natural world or the seasons, but you don’t have to look far to find plenty of haiku that are about books, other writers, the haiku tradition, or the nature-writing tradition. To cite a few quick examples from van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology: Rod Willmot’s “A page of Shelley / brightens and dims / with passing clouds” (281); Ebba Story’s “lighting the path / to Walden Pond — / my bedside lamp” (207); and Bruce Ross’s “Thoreau’s gravesite: / the smell of woodsmoke / on the cold spring air” (167). I imagine that you could build a pretty good anthology out of haiku that mention or were inspired by Thoreau alone (poems from Vincent Tripi’s collection Haiku Pond: A Trace of the Trail and Thoreau would make a good starting point). We should recall that Bashō’s classic Narrow Road to the Deep North was a journey not just to wild places but to wild places that had been commemorated in poetry by his literary hero Saigyō. And of course Bashō’s poems are full of literary allusions (or, in the haiku tradition, honkadori, allusion with a difference, as a phrase is lifted and then twisted placed in a new context). Poems like these are, at least by implication, as much about language and literature as they are about the world. Or more to the point, poems like these remind us of how language and literature are invariably implicated in how we perceive the world.

At the same time, these poems still raise the possibility of moments of jouissance, where somehow language permits the magic trick of getting past language. But if that’s all we ever expected or hoped for from a haiku, why foreground language in the first place, whether it be via pun, allusion, sound devices, or all the other technical elements of haiku that make us admire its language as poetry and not just snapshot? Perhaps it is precisely in order to highlight the inherent (and interesting) tension between language and reality — or in Lacanian terms, between our desire to re-enter the Imaginary Order (if only for an epiphanic moment) or to recognize the role that language plays in constructing our reality.

One poem that highlights this tension is Vincent Tripi’s “Left open wide / at the centre / the butterfly book” (226). This is not a poem that is likely to spur much sense of a jouissance moment of wonderment, though perhaps we might appreciate how our manufactured objects so often mimic the shapes of nature. A more common reaction to this poem might involve recognition of the ironic humor — the butterfly book in the shape of a butterfly (in that the two leaves of the open book, left page and right page, resemble spread wings). But there is some interesting depth here as well that might make us ponder the ways in which our perceptions of nature are mediated by language. The objet petit a, the symbol of lack, is the butterfly book, where we go to identify a species of lepidoptera, maybe learn a thing or two about its habitat and adaptive features. But what we’re looking at is a book, not a butterfly. And in a sense the more we look at the book, the less we are looking at the butterfly. For all its mimicry of the butterfly shape, the field guide is a poor substitute for the actual butterfly, and the poem comments wryly on our attempt to know the natural world by looking not at the natural world itself but at a book about the natural world. What’s missing here — what is absent — is the butterfly. Looking at the poem through a Lacanian lens, it’s not too far-fetched to see the poem as engaging with the way in which language invariably constructs our perceptions of the world — and in the process may actually distance us from it.

I hope it is clear that I am not in any way suggesting that a haiku that grapples with issues of language and representation is somehow inferior to one that manages to give us the moment of oneness we might experience through an experience of jouissance. What I am suggesting is that these basic concepts from Lacanian pyschoanalytic literary theory highlight a central tension in haiku. It is this tension that might account for the richness of a successful haiku, one that rewards rereading and reconsideration of just what it is that it evokes. It is why we can admire a haiku that gives us that ah!-inspiring moment of recognition, or satisfaction, or connection with the world — and at the same time it is why we can admire a haiku that so cleverly plays with the sounds and rhythms of words or achieves depth with reference to other poems that we know and love. There is even more to cherish and admire when the same haiku manages to do both.


Works Cited

Blyth, R. H. Eastern Culture. Vol. 1. Haiku. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1949.
Biswas, Santanu, ed. The Literary Lacan: From Literature to Lituraterre and Beyond. University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 5th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011.
Gallop, Jane. “Lacan and Literature: A Case for Transference.” Poetics 13.4-5 (1984): 301-8.
——. Reading Lacan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Gilbert, Richard. Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English-Language Haiku in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2008.
Gurga, Lee. Haiku: A Poet’s Guide. Lincoln, IL: Modern Haiku Press, 2003.
Hass, Robert, ed. and trans. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa. New York: Ecco, 1994.
Kawamoto, Koji. The Poetics of Japanese Verse: Imagery, Structure, Meter. Trans. Stephen Collington, Kevin Collins, and Gustav Heldt. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2000.
Reichhold, Jane, ed., trans., and intro. Bashō: The Complete Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2008.
Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Stoltzfus, Ben. Lacan and Literature: Purloined Pretexts. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996.
van den Heuvel, Cor. The Haiku Anthology. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

  1. I should point out that Lacanian theory gets a lot more complicated than the stripped-down version of it that I am working with here. This is out of a desire to keep things clear and simple for readers who may have little or no familiarity with Lacan’s complex ideas. For a further introduction to Lacanian theory, see Elizabeth Wright’s “Modern Psychoanalytic Theory” or the chapter on “Psychoanalytic Criticism” in Charles E. Bressler’s Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice (123-42). For deeper discussions of Lacan’s ideas, see Ben Stoltzfus’s Lacan and Literature: Purloined Pretexts, Jane Gallop’s Reading Lacan or her essay “Lacan and Literature: A Case for Transference,” or Santanu Biswas’s edited collection The Literary Lacan: From Literature to Lituraterre and Beyond.
  2. For Blyth these states of mind compatible with haiku are associated with Zen philosophy and practice, which made for part of the appeal of haiku for Beat poets like Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac. The association of haiku with Zen has been critiqued in recent years, especially since the publication of Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams. Shirane in particular objects that Blyth overstated the “spiritual subject-object fusion” — the ideal of oneness or selflessness — and the view in American haiku of haiku as “the poetry of the object (particularly small things), of ’sensation,’ and of the moment” (45,47). Nevertheless, Blyth’s listing of the states of mind characteristic of haiku remains influential. As Lee Gurga says, “it is useful and instructive to revisit Blyth’s Zen-based aesthetic principles” (128).
  3. Unless otherwise attributed, quoted haiku are from Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology.
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