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ABSTRACT: Haiku has been shown to be fruitful material in investigating the manner in which we come to appreciate poetic and literary texts, providing a promising path for understanding the neuro-cognitive processes of poetry reading. The latter accolade, by way of our first study, has now found further evidence in our second series of tests, which repeated and extended the first. Specifically, the use of the ‘cut’ in haiku creates a recognizable trace which is reflected in the pattern of eye movements that readers make in their efforts to understand the poem – with the eye movements telling us where attention, and mental effort, is focused during initial reading and re-reading. Our new findings show that the use of explicit punctuation to mark the cut in haiku (such as dashes and ellipses) modifies the eye-movement pattern in characteristic ways compared to poems with unmarked cuts. Following a sketch and discussion of the new findings and their implications for understanding how we read haiku, we consider a number of interesting questions and methodological approaches for further research on how the ‘mind-brain’ constructs poetic meaning.


by Stella Pierides, Thomas Geyer, Franziska Günther, Jim Kacian, Heinrich René Liesefeld, and Hermann J. Müller


Reading and appreciating haiku

While haiku was shedding its garments originally acquired through the Japanese form via its translations in the West, and transforming through an alliance with Imagism, to the form it has come to acquire today, a parallel development was taking place: the consideration of how to read this new-to-the-West poetic genre and what reading haiku, or learning to read haiku, might yield for the reader in terms of how to appreciate haiku (and poetry in general); and at a later date, for the neuro-cognitive scientist interested in the processes of how the ‘mind-brain’ arrives at an understanding of the poems’ meaning. In this paper, we highlight two signposts on the roadmap of reading haiku: an interesting early essay by Phyllis Rose Thompson, titled ‘The “Haiku Question” and the Reading of Images’ (Thompson), which was meant to provide a guide to teaching haiku in the classroom, recognizing its potential for engaging the senses and enriching sensual awareness; and our recent attempts to ‘read’ haiku on its way through the ‘sensory’ system in our eye-movement studies.

Thompson, in her 1967 essay, considered failure to engage the senses fully in the imaginative appreciation of poetry as the barrier to appreciating the reading of poetry at large. Thompson recommended that prior to the reading of sensuous poetry, one should study haiku. Taught to read fast, she wrote — at a time when society and culture were far less hurried than today — the reader does not always appreciate the sensory content of the poem, the main difficulty being how to place oneself in the “there” of the poem. Studying haiku before venturing to appreciate sensuous poetry would offer the necessary tools. Haiku require close observation of a named object and precise delineation of all the sensations aroused by it in the reader; it asks of its readers that they narrowly question their feelings.

Thompson illustrates this close questioning by quoting and discussing two haiku, one by Buson:

On the temple bell
Has settled and is fast asleep
A butterfly.

and one by Shiki:

On the temple bell
Is settled and is glittering
A firefly.

In Thompson’s reading of the two haiku, placing herself, in imagination, in the very spot in which the poets stood, and recreating their experience, the differences between the poems became clear to the uninformed reader.

In a process mirroring the poet’s questioning, Thompson interrogated the images from all senses: where exactly is the bell (in a church steeple? outside the temple?), how heavy is it, what is it made of, how is it sounded (struck with a hammer? swung and rung with a clapper?), is it warm or cold to the touch? Similarly with the butterfly: what color is it, what is its texture, its weight, what time of the day is it portrayed, in which season is the experience taking place, what are the similarities between temple and butterfly? (stillness) . . .

In Thompson’s essay, a similar process of questioning the poem and the sensory associations in it follows, this time with the firefly. In contrast to the butterfly, the firefly is seen in different light conditions: early nighttime. While the butterfly haiku is bathed in a warm, soft, sleepy color, Thompson pointed out that the firefly nervously settling in the early evening evokes a cooler setting and feeling.

Thus, even though composed of similar elements, the sensations and feelings evoked by the two haiku are very different, and the difference becomes apparent only through close reading. Haiku require an attentive, image-creating response from every sense of the reader. It is as if the questioning of sensations is an attempt to match item by item the rich images emanating from the haiku’s words to the neuronal networks affording our sensory awareness. And so this practice of reading haiku in an accurate, deep, and direct manner, trains the mind in asking the same kind of questions when reading other forms of poetry.

There have been other illustrations, by poets, theorists, and teachers, before and after Thompson’s essay: For instance, Higginson and Harter (Higginson and Harter), Gurga (Gurga), and Kacian (Kacian How to Haiku) spend at least part of a chapter on using the senses as catalysts toward the writing and appreciation of haiku. And those books specifically devoted to teaching children the appreciation of haiku — Haiku: Asian Arts and Crafts for Creative Kids (Donegan), H is for Haiku (Rosenberg), and the four bilingual (French/English) seasonal collections by André Duhaime (Duhaime), among others — tend to stress it to an even greater degree.

In Thompson’s, one might say, ‘informed’ way of reading haiku, reading achieves understanding, or approaches it. It is a measured, slow process of elaborating the images in one’s mind and integrating these into a coherent whole, or into what Wolfgang Iser (Iser) referred to as a ‘meaning Gestalt’. Given the need for rich sensory imagination, reading haiku can be considered a prime example of reading as a process of ‘embodied’ comprehension (e.g., Zwaan “The Immersed Experiencer: Toward an Embodied Theory of Language Comprehension”; Zwaan “Embodiment and Language Comprehension: Reframing the Discussion”; Glenberg and Robertson; Vandaele and Brône; see also, e.g., Barsalou; Shapiro for more general, psychological approaches to embodied cognition): (re-)creating — on the ‘stage of consciousness’— a rich, multisensory simulation (e.g. of perception and/or motor activity) of experiencing the moment the poem encapsulates, and, in this way, giving rise to feelings of insight and aesthetic appreciation. [How many readers actually practice this ‘reading’ deliberately is an interesting question.]

Haiku as ‘paradigmatic material’

Note that Thompson’s essay advocates the use of haiku as paradigmatic material for learning to appreciate poetry in general: mastering the art of reading haiku enriches reading and appreciation of other forms of poetry.

Similarly, we have recently proposed that haiku might provide an exemplary study material for understanding the brain mechanisms and processes involved in reading poetry and, perhaps, in constructing meaning in general. More precisely, in a series of studies, we asked:

“Might its [i.e., haiku’s] shape, juxtaposition of images, play with pacing, rhythm, speed, and other qualities have something to do with the way it is being received by the brain and transformed into gold? Might the poetic form of haiku have unique properties that act on us like ‘a magical utterance’, a ‘poetic spell’ (Lucas)? And if so, were we to explore some of the form’s pathways to the brain, might we understand how a given haiku is re-created by the neuro-/cognitive system, as well as discover a baseline of how meaning in general is re-constructed by the mind-brain?” (Pierides et al.)

To approach these questions, we began by examining how non-expert readers of haiku read this form of poetry — specifically by looking at their eye movements while scanning and re-scanning the poems’ lines — aiming to contrast their reading of haiku with more informed readers in the future.

Our arguments for using haiku — specifically, normative English-language haiku (ELH) — as exemplary material for studying the processes of meaning construction were twofold. Quoting from our 2017 study, we saw: (i) “[Normative ELH] engage a rich set of mental functions with the minimum of linguistic means, using everyday, unadorned language, characterized by the use of high-frequency vocabulary and ‘plain style’ (Brooks) thus offering a potent literary form for investigating processes of meaning construction. Importantly, processes of arriving at a coherent ‘meaning Gestalt’ can be assumed to figure centrally in ELH comprehension, since it requires the resolution of surprise induced by the fact that ELH usually juxtapose two seemingly unconnected images.” And (ii): “they are compositionally well constrained and highly similar in structure; they thus constitute ideal test material for experimental research in (Neuro-)Cognitive Poetics by allowing for systematic variation of stimulus features and repeated measurement.”

Examples of the haiku that we presented to our novice readers (in our 2019 study) are shown in the table below. As can be seen, we systematically varied: (i) the type of haiku: context–action vs. juxtaposition; (ii) the cut position: at the end of line 1 (i.e., ‘fragment’ in line 1, ‘phrase’ in lines 2 and 3) vs. the end of line 2 (i.e., phrase in lines 1 and 2, fragment in line 3); and the cut marker: marker (such as a dash or an ellipsis) present vs. absent.

Briefly, in context–action haiku, one component (image) of the haiku, the fragment, provides the context (take, for example, Hansha Teki’s poem: [fragment] “last rites —“) and the other, the phrase, describes an action set within this context ([phrase] “I watch her eyes / let go of me”). Both images, although each relatively familiar, are set in a relationship with one another by the poet.

In juxtaposition haiku, by contrast, there is no immediate, straightforward (familiar) context–action relationship, that is, the images juxtaposed are more jarring, in a relationship of tension that needs to be resolved (e.g., Melissa Allen’s poem: [fragment] “bruised apples /” [phrase] “he wonders what else / I haven’t told him”). In a given poem, the cut can be either at the end of line 1 (i.e., the fragment part is in line 1, like in Allen’s poem) or at the end of line 2 (i.e., the fragment is in line 3). Further, cut effects can be reinforced by punctuation (i.e., explicit cut markers) at the end of the fragment line 1 (L.1-cut haiku) or second phrase line 2 (L.2-cut haiku). In the 2019 study, reading behavior was also assessed in a control condition: one-image haiku (e.g., “behind the camera / I face / my family”, Eve Luckring) with only a single picture/image, i.e., without significant tension between conflicting elements (fragment and phrase lines in haiku, respectively).

It should be noted that by examining readers’ eye-movements as they read the poem for the first time and then re-read it, we focus on the beginnings of the processes of understanding and appreciation. The deliberate and close questioning of the poem described, for instance, by Thompson belongs to/is highly likely involved in a later process in that it requires that the poem has already been read (or heard) and is represented in the reader’s mind. Our eye-movement research, by contrast, focuses more on the earlier processes that render a more or less elaborate form of this representation; so, in a sense, it is the first knocks on the doors of perception, comprehension and appreciation.

Table. Example haiku from the sample used in the 2019 study.
(Teki; Pierides; McInerney; Antonio; Hotham; Allen; Baker; Everett; Luckring)
In the tradition of eye-tracking research in reading, our work is based on the ‘eye-mind assumption’ (Just and Carpenter): eye movements tell us where, when, and for how long attention — and, thus, the mind — is allocated within the text to extract information in a first attempt to integrate it into global meaning. Importantly, we know (from cognitive linguistics) that the mind attempts to construct meaning immediately (‘on-line’) as it encounters each new piece of information (and it continually predicts, syntactically and semantically, what is likely to come next: e.g., Clark; Friston; Kuperberg and Jaeger). Also, there are some points, for instance, at the end of a sentence, where there is ‘meaning wrap-up’: the eye pauses as if taking a break to enable the mind to establish a coherent interpretation of what is being conveyed by the sentence (Carpenter and Just). On this background, we assumed that reading eye-movements would reveal something about how the first under-standing when reading a haiku is created, which then forms the basis for the subsequent ‘query process’ illustrated by Thompson.

Importantly, we examined the reading of normative, three-line ELH with a clearly discernible ‘cut’, that is: a gap between two image components (‘fragment’ and ‘phrase’, in Reichhold’s terms) brought, by the poet, in a more or less tense relationship with each other, which needs to be worked out (‘resolved’) by the reader to understand the haiku’s meaning. Accordingly, our central question was whether the reader’s encountering the cut would at all be discernible in the eye-movement patterns; and, further, whether the strength of the cut (stronger in juxtaposition than in context–action haiku), its positioning (at the end of line 1 or the end of line 2), and whether or not it is marked by punctuation would be reflected in the eye movements.

The (Neuro-)Cognitive Poetics Approach

We consider our work set within a ‘(neuro-)cognitive poetics’ approach which conceives of the processes of meaning construction in analogy to the processes of ‘Gestalt’ formation elaborated by Gestalt Psychology for visual perception. The main proponents of this approach are A. Jacobs and collaborators. In their (qualitative) model of literary reading (Jacobs; Schrott and Jacobs), they envisage that all literary texts, including even single words in isolation, consist of, and transport, background [BG] and foreground [FG] features, in various mixture ratios (see also Van Peer, Hakemulder and Zyngier). When combined, these elements constitute the ‘meaning Gestalt’ of a text (Iser). Gestalt Psychology (Koffka; Wertheimer; Arnheim; Gombrich) has described processes that energize and organize the array of elementary features in the visual field into unified, coherent ‘objects’ that can become the focus of attention in perception (against a background ‘context’). In analogy to these processes, processes of literary construction and appreciation are seen as encouraging play with different perspectives, conceptions, and expectations, and thus of processes that are all directed towards eventually arriving at a coherent, contextualized ‘meaning Gestalt’ for a text (for applications of Gestalt Psychological principles to language more generally, see, e.g., Langacker; Croft and Cruse; Ungerer and Schmid).

Shifts between background and foreground features figure centrally in this process of literary comprehension (see also Lüdtke, Meyer-Sickendieck and Jacobs). BG features are said to be the elements of a text that create a feeling of familiarity in the reader: familiar words, phrases, and images; familiar situation models, socio-cultural codes, and affective scripts. As such, BG features are coherent with readers’ previous experiences and expectations, and thus provide them with a context against which the cognitively more challenging FG features stand out and in which they can be grounded (Jacobs). Background features therefore enable rich and relatively effortless cognitive simulation, and, accordingly, facilitate automatic (fast) processing of the respective passages of literary texts (Jacobs; Schrott and Jacobs).

In contrast, FG features, such as unusual form elements (including, the use of line breaks) and semantic vagueness or ambiguity as well as textual inconsistency or (seeming) incoherence, may be brought in a relationship of tension or conflict with the BG elements, interrupting the (automatic) processing of texts by capturing attention. In such situations, the repertory of standard cognitive and affective schemas no longer suffices to make meaning. Instead, FG elements challenge the situation model that a reader has formed on the basis of the BG elements and make it necessary for her/him to reconsider and update this model. This will trigger a controlled (slow) reading mode, involving ongoing, cognitively challenging processes of ‘meaning Gestalt’ construction through information integration and synthesis. Reaching the end of this effortful “aesthetic trajectory” (Fitch, Graevenitz and Nicolas) is likely experienced as rewarding: “after initial moments of familiar recognition, followed by surprise, ambiguity, and tension, the closure of meaning gestalts [releases the tension and is] . . . occasionally supplemented by an ‘aha’ experience . . . or feeling of good fit, ‘rightness’, or harmony . . .” (Jacobs p. 16).

Jacobs and colleagues developed this model based on investigating, in the main, the reading of longer texts, including texts from novels and longer poems (sonnets: Xue et al.). And so it may not be immediately transparent how it applies to haiku. In the Buson and Shiki poems above, the bell, its warmth, weight, sound, stand for background features that ring associations in the reader’s mind and reverberate with other poems, moods, situations. Also, fragment lines — with seasonal references (kigo) such as “heatwave”, “bruised apples”, “cricket song” in the example poems in the table — would evoke some ‘situation model’ and/or ‘affective script’ allowing for an element of immersion, on the part of the reader, in the poet’s situation. However, the fact that there is no straightforward linkage between this image and the one presented in the phrase lines would jolt the reader out of an immersive (automatic) into an attentive reading mode; that is, the cut acts as a ‘foregrounding’ element evoking active processes of filling-in the gap and constructing the ‘bridging context’ that allows the fragment to be aligned with the phrase. The end state would be the poem’s meaning Gestalt, constructed out of its (seemingly conflicting, jarring) image elements.

The ‘Cut’ Effect in Eye-Movement Patterns

Thus, to investigate how this reading ‘trajectory’ — and especially, processes involving foregrounding elements in haiku, in particular, the ‘cut’ and punctuation marking the cut — would be reflected in (non-experienced, naïve haiku) readers’ eye-movement patterns, we conducted a series of experiments (Müller et al.; Geyer et al.). Here, we focus on the new study (as we already reported on the first one in Juxta 2017). In addition to replicating the basic ‘cut effect’, i.e., the extended fixational dwell time spent on the fragment line relative to the other lines (see below for details), the new study further examined (i) how this effect is influenced by whether the cut is purely implicit or explicitly marked by punctuation, and (b) whether the effect pattern could be delineated against a control condition of ‘uncut’, one-image haiku.

Before summarizing our main findings, a note on how they were statistically corroborated is in order: All ‘findings’ referred to below are corroborated by Bayesian ANOVA- (analysis-of-variance-) type analyses or, for direct comparisons between two conditions, two-tailed Bayesian t-tests. Here (below), we simply report the so-called Bayes Factor (BF10) associated with an effect (main effect or interaction in an ANOVA or a direct comparison); a full specification of the analyses, numerical descriptions of the effects, and statistics can be found in Geyer et al. The Bayes Factor weighs the evidence in favor of the existence of an effect (the statistical ‘hypothesis’) by the evidence for its non-existence (the ‘null-hypothesis’) (see, e.g., Rouder et al.). Accordingly, BF10 values > 1 provide net evidence for an effect, with values > 3 providing ‘substantial’ evidence; conversely, BF10 values < 1 favor the null-hypothesis, with values < 1/3 providing ‘substantial’ evidence for the absence of an effect.

Our findings can be summarized as follows:

The eye spends more time (per word) in the poem’s fragment line, compared to the phrase lines (BF10 = 1.04+e7) — a finding we have referred to as ‘cut effect’. For instance in “bruised apples / he wonders what else / I haven’t told him”, the reading time (per word) is longest for “bruised apples”. This is true whether the cut occurs after line 1 (like in the above example) or after line 2 (like in “closing my eyes / to find it / cricket’s song”), and whether the poem is a context–action haiku (“closing my eyes . . .”) or a juxtaposition haiku (“bruised apples . . .”). Nevertheless, the type of poem makes a difference: more time is spent in the fragment line, relative to the phrase lines, in juxtaposition haiku (e.g., on “bruised apples”) than in context–action haiku (e.g., on “cricket’s song”) (BF10 = 6.3+e7). No such pattern is evident in uncut, one-image (control) haiku, in which the eyes dwell for similar amounts of time (per word) in all lines. Thus, the cut effect in two-image haiku indicates that the reader treats the fragment as being pivotal for global meaning construction: it is, ultimately, in the fragment line that the tension between the two images is resolved.

In juxtaposition haiku, the increased activity in the fragment line reflects the increased difficulty of working out the fragment’s meaning in relation to the phrase. And the amount of time required to elaborate and settle on a fitting interpretation would depend on when the fragment image is encountered: before or after the phrase image (BF10 = 75.86). If encountered after the phrase, working out a possible relationship would already be informed by the prior reading of the phrase lines, and the fit of any emerging interpretation(s) could be assessed directly in the fragment line. Thus, with a cut at the end of line 2, both the elaboration of plausible relationships and the assessment of their fit would be concentrated on the fragment line — giving rise to a pronounced cut effect (BF10 = 602.25). By contrast, if the fragment is encountered before the phrase, while some, ‘salient’ interpretation(s) may immediately be evoked in the fragment line, the matching process (elaboration and assessment of fit) would have to be deferred to the subsequent reading of the phrase lines, thus reducing the cut effect in haiku with a cut at the end of line 1 (BF10 = 67.65).

While this pattern would be similar for context–action haiku, with this type of poem, less mental effort would be required to align the two images because the setting and its fit with the action taking place within this context is easier to determine (perhaps because the context–action relation is one of the most fundamental schemas available to us to construct ‘episodic’ representations) — thus giving rise to a less marked cut effect (BF10 = 60.41).

Note that readers engage in these two processes — elaboration of relationships and assessment of fit of the fragment to the phrase image — already during the first reading of the haiku, and continue to do so when re-entering the fragment line in a second (or third) reading. However, after the first reading, the cut effect tends to be less pronounced (BF10 =.86), suggesting that re-reading may serve to confirm some already favored solution, and that readers would engage in an extended rechecking mode only if the preferred solution is dismissed on second reading.

Interestingly, on top of these general cut effects, the presence of punctuation marking the cut — like the dash after “last rites — / I watch her eyes / let go of me” — had a significant effect on the way the eyes sampled the poem. In particular, the eye ‘dwelled’ relatively longer on the line/s after the cut (line 1 BF10 = 56.72). This suggests that when encountering a marker at the end of line 1 (like in “last rites —”), the reader might be prompted to attempt an integrative analysis of the haiku as a whole (working out and aligning the meaning of the fragment image with the phrase image) already in the phrase lines (“I watch her eyes / let go of me”). This would reduce the cut effect (BF10 = 2.83), especially on the first reading of the haiku, that is: the cut marker makes the eye move on to (i.e., look for the poem’s solution in) the phrase. Conversely, when encountering a marker after line 2 (like the ellipsis in “another talk / that’s only in my head . . . / summer rain”), these processes of working out the impact of the fragment on the already sampled phrase are concentrated on the fragment line (“summer rain”) (BF10 = 28.59). This immediately enhances the cut effect (BF10 = 8.63), that is: the marker makes the eye dwell extendedly on the fragment (in a foreground-processing mode), possibly because it heightens the surprise associated with encountering the cut.

These modulatory effects are generally similar for the two types of cut marker — dashes and ellipses — that we examined. Interestingly, however, ellipsis markers, perhaps counter-intuitively, appeared to be more beneficial (hastening the eye on when encountered at the end of line 1) or less disruptive (making the eye dwell less when encountered at the end of line 2) than dash markers, at least for juxtaposition haiku for which we could make this comparison (BF10 = 12.73). This suggests that readers make immediate use of the marker type to construct the haiku’s meaning. Specifically, ellipsis markers hint at something that is left unsaid (but implied) and so might trigger active foregrounding ‘generation’ processes, that is, working out what is implied (in foreground-processing mode), that may ultimately help bridge the gap and promote understanding.

Interestingly, this is how the poet Aparna Pathak described this effect in her haibun “Vacuum” published recently (Pathak).

The ellipsis is toughest of all the punctuation marks. It provides space to leave the things unsaid. But I want to join the dots, as sound can’t travel without a medium.

twinkling stars . . .
jargon of an
autistic boy

Discussion and further Research Directions

We interpret these highly characteristic eye-movement and cut-effect patterns to track and illuminate the earliest, moment-to-moment processes in the reading and understanding of haiku — prior to those of our participants reflecting on their sensations and understanding the poem as a coherent whole.

How to describe this? If we imagine a continuum, it would be a graph of the readers scanning the poem for the first time (first pass) and then following this up by one or more (re-)readings, to construct and settle on the poem’s meaning. However, in our tests, the readers did not follow an orderly left to right, top to bottom sequence of reading behavior. They did not simply read from beginning to end. Instead, their eye-movement behavior showed a pattern that we believe is unique to haiku reading: reading several times, the eyes jumping back and forth within lines and between lines — but nevertheless showing a regularity that is determined by the cut: its placement and strength, as well as its marking by punctuation (or the absence of punctuation, respectively).

In this respect, our results suggest that at least elementary processes of elaboration (to some rudimentary extent including Thompson’s ‘questioning of the senses’) take place not only after reading the whole poem, but already during it, while encountering the cut, which causes back-tracking to the previous line, and jumping ahead again — indicative of simultaneous, ongoing meaning construction processes. We expect that, especially during these later (re-)readings, the senses and cognitive system are being interrogated until at least some degree of closure or meaning resolution is achieved.

In the present set of (eye-movement) data, we glimpse some of the initial processes through which we acquire information to achieve understanding. To gain a richer picture of these processes, in addition to eye movements, we also recorded our readers’ electroencephalogram (EEG) while they were reading and re-reading the haiku. The EEG data have yet to be analyzed. Specifically, guided by the cut effects (i.e., the time at which they emerge in the eye-movement record), we plan to look for special markers of the experience of ‘surprise’ in the EEG (triggered by encountering the cut) as well as markers of ‘aha’, feelings of ‘harmony’, and aesthetic appreciation if and when a solution — a coherent meaning Gestalt — has been worked out. We have a rich data set available to examine for such markers, but whether we will find them remains to be seen. It is a bit like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

In a follow-up study, we also plan to look at readers’ reactions to the senses addressed by the poem: such as the sensation of warmth, light, etc. evoked in Buson’s and Shiki’s poems; taste when reading “bruised apples”, hearing when reading “cricket song”. We know that by merely thinking about, or imagining, certain sensations, specific areas of the brain that are involved in providing us with the respective (real) sensory experiences become active. Thus, for instance, when processing foods conceptually, gustatory regions become active (e.g., Simmons, Martin and Barsalou); when processing things that emit smells, olfactory areas become active (e.g., González et al.); etc. We can track activity in these areas while reading haiku by conducting our experiments in an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner. These sensory associations, together with the more semantic associations (including organizing situation models and affective scripts) evoked by the poem would form part of the poem’s representation in the reader’s mind — on the stage of consciousness. One interesting question that arises from this neuroscientific approach is whether brain activations (in sensory regions) are predictive of the ‘reading trajectory’ (i.e., cut effect, haiku understanding, etc.). Beyond this, we might also get at the dynamics of how such an — initially perhaps incoherent — representation of (passive-automatically invoked) elementary associations might, over time, evolve and settle into a coherent meaning Gestalt. This is likely to involve attentive, ‘foreground’ processes, triggered by encountering the cut, as well as active generation of new, ‘bridging’ associations and the discarding of associations that do not fit. These processes are likely to involve more frontal brain areas related to ‘problem solving’.

Concerning the issue of how we parse haiku, one interesting extension of our work with normative, three-line ELH would be to explore the eye movements during the reading of one-line haiku, or monoku, in which one image is extended into a second context, and where the cut can be placed arbitrarily in several parts of the line, thus allowing for a number of alternative ‘readings’ of the poem. An example would be Kala Ramesh’s monoku (One-line Haiku, Ramesh):

a tornado spiraling thoughts to the sky

Kacian (Kacian “The Way of One”) elaborates: “Multiple stops yield subtle, rich, often ambiguous texts which generate alternative readings, and subsequent variable meanings. Each poem can be several poems, and the more the different readings cohere and reinforce each other, the larger the field occupied by the poem, the greater its weight in the mind.” These poems might be said to be more reader-driven, in that the reader is invited by the poet, through the poem’s construction, to try to determine the poem’s meanings by parsing it in various ways. It would be most interesting to examine whether we can see the emergence of such multiple readings in the eye-movement patterns (involving asking the reader to explicitly mark where she placed the cuts).

Furthermore, while we found the reading dynamics outlined above (for three-line normative ELH) to be going on even in those of our readers who took the shortest time to read a poem, it is an open question whether ‘expert’ readers of haiku would exhibit the same or different patterns of eye movements. To examine this, we envisage a study involving a 2-tier design: first testing ‘naïve’ participants using our standard procedure, followed by instructing them in the reading and ‘questioning’ of ELH, and finally testing them again now as ‘expert’ readers. This design would allow us to compare the same participants’ eye-movement patterns between a ‘novice’ and an ‘expert’ stage of haiku reading.

So far in our research, we have only looked at the reading of haiku — in our experiments presented visually on a computer screen for a time determined by the reader (though with an upper limit). One interesting scenario to compare with this reading situation would be the auditory presentation and reception of haiku, when the poem is read out aloud to the listener. The practice of reading aloud the poem and, after a brief interval, reading it out a second time, has been practiced in the Japanese tradition. Modern-day ELH practitioners, too, in readings and conferences, present their haiku by reading them aloud typically twice, providing the listener with the opportunity and time to imagine the situation being conveyed through the poem. Still, due to the limitations of the auditory system, the listener is limited in the way she can sample the poem and its constituent images, unlike the reader who is free to scan the poem, or selected parts of it, several times to understand it. The (so far unresolved) challenge would be to find ways of tracking the listening process on a moment-by-moment basis.

In summary, we believe our work thus far demonstrates the potential that the neuro-cognitive study of haiku reading holds for understanding how we construct poetic meaning at large. While this work is of interest to the field of cognitive neuroscience, some of its results would also have implications for the poetic practice: knowing how we read haiku (and, for instance, process cut markers) may inform the ways in which the haiku poet uses the various devices offered by this form of poetry.


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