Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of your favorites among the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Patricia McGuire, was:An empty plate Smashing it
Autumn clearer — Masaya Saito Ash, TELS 1988, and Haiku in English — The First Hundred Years; Kacian, Rowland, & Burns, Norton, 2013. and a later version: An empty plate
smashing it autumn clearer Snow Bones, Isobar Press, 2016
Introducing this poem, Patricia writes:
I read the version of this poem in Ash and I was struck by the juxtaposition, and the extra line Saito has inserted into his poem, and his interesting expression of the kigo.
What an interesting juxtaposition. The violence and pent up frustration I read into the first two lines and the final line “ Autumn clearer” quite the opposite, for me. A sigh of relief, a moment of calm.
I wonder if I am alone in finding it difficult to find interesting phrasing of kigo? I suspect not, but Saito has a very simple kigo, unusually articulated and quite distinct.
The insertion of the extra line in the Ash version works particularly well for me, some white space to develop that sense of calm, or to allow us time to consider our reading.
Keith brought the second version to my attention. In this version Saito has inserted the extra line in a different place. Why? Does it make a difference to your reading, to your enjoyment of the piece? I would be very interested to know.
An interesting haiku, and an interesting layout. The three lines make separate elements in the older version, aided by the capital letters, and the staccato telegraphic style sounds a little ungainly, which is perhaps in keeping with the apparent harshness of the word, ‘smashing.’ In the newer version, the removal of initial capitals in L2 & 3, and the change in the place of the double linefeed’s extended pause, join together the ‘smashing it’ and ‘autumn clearer’ as an act and a consequence. A double line spacing is a feature in several of Saito’s poems.
On first and subsequent readings, there is a strong feeling of catharsis, of purification, in this poem. Taking the first version, I looked for some reverberation in the last line, casting light on, and returning to, the first line. This aligns the “empty plate” with autumn. It prompted thoughts of the summer over, the harvest in, and the feast eaten. The ‘plate’ is done with, disposed of, clearing the way. (Had the poet been Greek, we might have had a different context where ‘smashing the plates’ is believed to ward off evil spirits and foster luck.)
Along with the catharsis comes a feeling of de-cluttering. The leaves having fallen, we see the trees for what they are. Does a hungry poet, a fasted poet, a poet who has cast aside a sybaritic life, see better, I wondered?
In past re:Virals we’ve had several instances where an arresting word gets a reader’s attention and brings about focus. “Smashing” is such a word. Kerouac used it (re:Virals 343: Nightfall/boy smashing dandelions/with a stick) also put forward by Patricia. These days it has acquired an additional slang meaning of success, as in smashing a world record.
Some say that a test of a good haiku is whether it stays with you. This one does. Many of Masaya Saito’s poems in Ash still seem very modern: another good sign.
A truly riveting poem and excellent selection, unsurprising to have also caught Kacian and Rowland et. al.’s discerning attentions, and another instance where one is truly appreciative for the great kindness offered and resource represented by the Haiku Foundation’s digital library, in which the collection where this originated can be read in its entirety. The yugen and ‘mystery’ in this piece is downright magnificent, particularly in the second image’s evocation of fog lifting figuratively, a landscape gradually clearing in a literal sense too as preexisting obscuring foliage vanishes leaf by leaf from view. The juxtaposition of that concept and feeling with the breaking of a plate violently, one with nothing on it begs many intriguing questions, and calls to mind Eastern religious concepts associated with transcendence and epiphany (or satori, ‘sudden enlightenment’), the idea of renouncement and non-attachment so pivotal to the Zen Buddhist tradition, the four noble truths about ending suffering being predicated upon relinquishing our insidious and self-destructive desires. While the empty plate may have rich symbolic pertinence (alluding potentially to materialistic pursuits and the chains of vanity and ego which bind our increasingly narcissistic and ego-driven modern man in the West and East alike) it also provocatively conjures for the reader a sense of material poverty, scarcity and starvation, in a sense the dearth and beauty to be found there too associated with the tradition of wabi, while the smashed plate and Autumnal transience similarly align strikingly with the haiku ideal of sabi, or ‘rusting’ as the term can literally translate. Furthermore a broken object precipitating and leading to paradoxical wholeness may elicit connotations of the the kintsugi or “golden repair” that has played such an integral role philosophically and aesthetically in Japanese artwork for centuries. It’s such a rare treat to find so many profound ideas and facets of the haiku tradition dazzlingly displayed in one piece, a phenomenal poem the nuances of which are so worth parsing through thoughtfully…
Saito’s poem wants to evoke something deeper within its narrative, but hints at it in ways that aren’t necessarily clear. Readers can’t tell if this is a celebration or grief and rage, but I interpret this as a poem of profound emptiness. For some reason, the speaker’s thoughts are muddied, possibly depressed or angry, and they have a need to feel something—anything—so they smash a plate.
Aware, the Japanese aesthetic that loosely translates as “pathos” plays a role here. We are meant to empathize with this speaker, finding empathy with the desire for destructive and solace in the act as an emotional release. Thus, “autumn clearer” reads as both literal and metaphorical. This emotional calm, perhaps, is the mood shift we’re looking for in the anxious chaos of L1-2.
What makes this poem very curious is the formal break. The two-line break between L2 and L3 creates a visual and aural pause, possibly creating kire typographically. This technique is effective and adds gravity to the piece, echoing some of the themes and emotional release in the poem.
According to The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words, the phrase ‘autumn is clearing’ refers to “the clearing autumn sky” and is a kigo for ‘all Autumn’.
Gabi Greve also has “high sky”, “high heaven” (trans. “ten takashi 天高し – Clear Autumn Sky “) as a kigo for all Autumn on her website. The traditional kigo behind Masaya Saito’s “autumn clearer”, then, seems to me to be “autumn is clearing” (sky is becoming clearer) or ‘high, clear sky’
The quirky thing (or should I say ‘the original thing’? ) about Masaya Saito’s haiku seems to me to be the juxtaposition of the serene, clear, high autumn sky with the action of picking up an empty plate then smashing it. The subsequent sound would be that of china shattering. But what’s the point of it?
Does the clarity of a high, clear autumn sky somehow seem even clearer after the smashing and the shattering sounds? Does the action of smashing a plate somehow prepare the smasher to appreciate the clear, blue sky better? Is it that the author wanted to contrast a serene scene with action? To contrast sound with the silence of deep serenity ? I have questions, no answers.
Masaya Saito does have another haiku in ‘Ash’ in which he portrays himself as having potentially violent tendencies:
Breaking off an icicle,
To stab it
For comparison, here is a haiku by Buson with the same traditional kigo, “high autumn sky”:
kangetsu ya mon naki tera no ten takashi
cold moon –
a temple without gate and
the high autumn sky
(Tr. Gabi Greve )
Here, we have a scene with plenty of space, but no action.
Mystifying at the beginning, some possible glimmers of meaning in the poem began to emerge for me with questions:
What is “it” in line 2?
Does the answer to this lie in the last line? The smashing has made “Autumn clearer”. Could “it”, then, be a glass window / window pane that is opaque, has been made opaque with colour / paper, or is grimy and thus through which the outside cannot be seen? Also why has “it” not been named?
The word “empty” lent itself to an interesting reading. With the word, “plate”, food came in the picture. But this plate is bare. Has the person finished eating and then hurled the plate at the window in frustration, to escape from a situation? Or is it an unused one? Poignantly here, the word “empty” could be metaphorical, alluding obliquely to the essence of his life.
So why this drastic action of “smashing”? Could he not just step outside himself to view Autumn more clearly? Or is it that he cannot, because of physical inability or because he lives in hospice isolation, or even captivity? Whatever the reason, he can now view the hues of Autumn better, to probably breathe in a little bit of the Fall air, and feel a part of the seasonal cycle. There seems to be almost a sense of relief, even triumph, behind the words, “Autumn clearer”/ “autumn clearer”, after the violent act.
A more horrifying conjecture of the “smashing” would be of a fight between people that got out of control and a plate aimed, missed, hitting “it” (the glass window), consequently bringing inside, the outside.
The structure of the verse aligns itself to its content. In Version 1, the pause after the smashing, with an entire one line space between the phrase and the fragment is unusual. But possibly this could be the revelled moment when he finally felt a little free. The movement in the verse, from the smaller space of a room inside to the vastness of outdoors (albeit through a broken window) enlarges perspectives. And the capital letters at the beginning of each line, in the first version of the poem, are unexpected.
What is compelling about the poem is that it allows the readers to imagine infinite possibilities through its images, and invites them to ponder on new structures that could deepen the reading of the verse.
It always interests me when a specific image has a poetic resonance and whether or not this is the sort of thing modern haiku writing ought to be able to handle. Otherwise we’ll end up – worthy as it may be – rehashing the sentiments of the old masters, but never doing it as well as they did. ‘Smashing it’, as far as I am concerned, has the connotation of achievement and I actually don’t think this is a problem but, rather, a source of enjoyment, and deepens the haiku in the way that, for some, ‘cherry blossoms’ will always have a whole unspoken history behind it that I may never fully be able to grasp. This haiku may, too, be a good example of those where the interpretation of the reader (i.e. me) is so far removed from what might have been the intention of the writer that I am reminded of the importance of not always trying to get inside their mind but of simply allowing their words to free up the thoughts in mine.
So, in this case, I am put in the moment of the anorexic, eating a little – but nevertheless all – that is on their plate, and, for the first time in a long time, being able to see some way further into their own future.
Which is also why I prefer the stresses of the all capitals version, although the emphasis when just the ‘a’ of ‘An’ is capitalised does have something of an appeal to me too.
Rereading seemed to raise more questions than help to interpret this poem. To what does the “it” in the second line refer? The most obvious answer would be the plate, and this could be about clearing out unwanted items and having fun while doing so. However, since the idiom “to smash” can also mean to succeed or do something very well, this might refer to a person who has just prepared a meal for someone he or she was aiming to impress. The empty plate would indicate that this was a success and that the speaker now looks forward to spending time with this individual. Or, looking at it negatively, is this a long-suffering partner who is constantly keeping dinner warm and has had enough of their husband or wife’s tardiness, and the plate flung into the sink is like a line drawn in the sand?
What happens in the blank third line of the earlier version of the poem? If it were the first scenario above, there might have been an exchange of smiles, meaningful glances or telephone numbers. In the second, it may have been introduced to add tension. If an empty plate has literally been smashed, the reader has the space to imagine the shocked reaction and after-silence.
Perhaps this is played out in a workplace? This could be in a restaurant where a kitchen porter has had enough of the head chef or maître d’s bullying and has taken a stance. Breaking a plate on purpose would no doubt mean dismissal but, even so, the last line contains more than a hint of relief.
This is an open, almost filmic poem that invites the reader to create a narrative. I can almost hear a satisfied sigh at the end!
This seven word poem makes a strong impact. L1 makes one think about food, a plate ready to be filled or swept clean or the possibility of poverty and lack of food. However, L2 brings in a violent change and one would immediately think of anger – a child’s temper tantrums or even domestic abuse. L3 suggests to me an aged person who may have developed dementia and could be in the aggressive phase.
The first line starting with a capital letter followed by a space in the next line (depicting the emptiness) and then the next two lines beginning with lower case alphabets seems to show better clarity (the Snow bones ku). L1 could also imply memory loss and/or loneliness. In the Ash ku, in my first few readings, I was left wondering if the plate was made to smash something rather than being smashed, and I couldn’t connect the phrase with the fragment since the space was between L2 and L3. However, when I focussed on the capital letters at the start of all three lines, though written unlike most haiku and more resembling free verse poetry, the verse then made sense. L2 – the capital S emphasizes the action and, taken separately, the ‘it’ relates to the empty plate in the above line. The person the poet refers to is in the autumn of their life, consistent with dementia and the smashing of the empty plate.
Peter C. Forster:
There is little music in this violent haiku which reads as if it was three abbreviated notes in a notebook. Anger bursts from it. Why smash a plate — smash, not simply break or discard it — because it’s empty? That seems to be excessive active rage. Reading on, “autumn clearer” is a statement of the result. Not “clear autumn” but “autumn clearer.” Cause and effect. A peculiar kind of juxtaposition, though it is a juxtaposition, I think, because obviously the literal autumn doesn’t become clearer by smashing a plate. The clearing must be in the poet’s mind. It is stretching the imagination to suppose that he has actually smashed or is actually smashing a plate in the writing of this poem. We must be working in metaphors. So:
An empty plate = no food, no fulfilment.
Smashing it = rage and destruction; liberation
Autumn clearer = the prospect for a more fulfilling later life.
Smashing a plate is a forceful way of “letting go.” Mid-life crisis? Furious decision to leave a dead-end job? Desperate divorce in a loveless marriage?… readers fill in the gaps. A stimulating unsentimental haiku.
Jonathan Epstein — breakthrough:
Haiku images tend to seep into our consciousness slowly, as earth absorbs water. In contrast, Masaya Saito’s haiku does not gently saturate; it sends a bolt of lightning.
We are in the poet’s (or narrator’s) home, perhaps sitting or about to sit down to a meal alone when a strong, implacable emotion — likely anger/ frustration at not knowing how to handle some troubling loss or sadness (‘autumn’ association) — explodes. A plate is picked up and deliberately shattered. Whatever unsettling thoughts brought on this action, the outcome is cathartic, an epiphany illuminating the emptiness represented by the “empty plate.” The way forward may not be fully known, but it is “clearer.” A psychological logjam has been unclogged.
In seven words Masaya Saito’s haiku depicts a drastic action leading to a breakthrough (“autumn clearer”). Emotion — forcefully expressed — proves the tipping point, not nature. Perhaps this haiku is a window into the poet’s approach to haiku —“smashing” convention to find a way to his own truth.
Note: In the two versions shown, both include a double-spaced line-break. In the 1988 ASH version, this line-break follows L2; in the 2016 “Snow Bones” version, it occurs after L1 — “An empty plate.” Both line-breaks add suspense and drama, but when the pause occurs after L1, the impact is greater. It gives the poem two contrasting ‘moods’ — one passive/yin (“An empty plate”), the other active/yang (“smashing it/ autumn clearer”). The cumulative effect of this device in the “Snow Bones” narrative (2016) makes the ma element significant and decisive.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. Everyone’s a winner. Eloquent Jonathan gets the golden apple and has chosen next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. All with respect for the poet. Out-takes from the best of these take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the chosen commentary’s author gets to pick the next poem.
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a birch tree a lichen archipelago — Warren Decker The Heron’s Nest Vol XXV, Number 1: March, 2023
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Received after the deadline from Cezar Florescu:
“The poem attracted me especially from the perspective of the distribution of the verses. Thus, between the two parts the poet intentionally left a larger white space to suggest the clarity that comes probably after a nervous discharge, perhaps after a kind of soul liberation. It can be said that the person in question experiences a moment of enlightenment, a magic epiphany, fully rewarding his/ her expectations or looking-for.
I also find it very appropriate to use the word “smashing”, whose onomatopoeic root suggests phonetically the release of negative energy, at the end of which appears a solution that brings some balance.”
Masaya Saito’s bio is here.
Meandering, I checked what happened to Marie Kondo whose decluttering advice was all the rage some years ago and made her fortune, but who didn’t recommend smashing as a way of doing it, as far as I recall. It turns out that she has now given up on de-cluttering since having her third child…