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William Blake — similar to haiku poets on simile?

Do you think in “Lives of the Poets” by Michael Schmidt, William Blake’s ideas on simile are similar to what many haiku artists think of simile?

“He distrusts similes because they single out qualities—moral or otherwise—from a subject and the thing to which it is compared. Simile disembodies and is at variance with his vision. ‘The Sunflower’ and ‘The Rose’ are not referred back to human experience: they include it…

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  1. Scott, I would suggest that “like” in the one example you quote suggests the meaning of “in the same way as,” and is not strictly a simile. The “like” structure is more overtly a simile in case like “she entered the room like a hurricane.” If anything, the poem you quote has a metaphor in the word “ruckus,” which personifies the bamboo. In any event, if 205 out of about 10,000 Issa haiku (that David Lanoue has translated so far) have similes (and you say the number is actually less than that), that’s only 2 percent — a very small number. One could therefore argue that at least 98 percent of his haiku do NOT have similes (and the number would actually be higher than that, since not every use of “like” is a simile). This is further compounded by whether the simile appears in the original or just in the translation. Furthermore, merely crunching the numbers on Issa’s haiku doesn’t necessary equate to each Issa haiku being *successful*. Like the rest of us, he wrote a lot of poor haiku too — and some of his haiku with similes could be failed haiku. In other words, the similes might appear in his weaker haiku.

    In any event, I said that “Explicit metaphors and similes succeed only rarely in haiku,” and I still think that’s true. Your numbers about Issa bear this out. One or two percent of the time is pretty rare. And I dare say that the incidence of similes and metaphors are even more rare in Issa’s best haiku.

    Should one use metaphor or simile in haiku? Yes, sometimes, but not often. Here are three poems by Hamish Ironside that I think do so very well:

    sun and wind—
    the frisbee tilt
    of a seagull

    running past
    a strip of trees
    a strobe of sun

    at the doctor’s
    her heartbeat crackling
    like the moon landing

  2. Apparently Issa would disagree with “most haiku poets,” as well as William Blake.

    A simple search with the word “like” on David G. Lanoue’s “Haiku of Kobayashi Issa” website finds 205 poems. Granted, not all of them are simile, but most all of them are:

    yabu take mo wakai uchi tote sawagu nari

    the thicket’s bamboo
    like all young folk
    raising a ruckus


    “Don’t believe the hype.” —Public Enemy

  3. I particularly want to bring this out, and agree that this is a core element of shortverse like haiku in particular:

    “If a haiku doesn’t create some sort of vacuum by what is left out, what is there to draw the reader in?” Michael Dylan Welch

    Blake’s distrust of simile (although they can work sometimes) is still valid today, and would there be that vital vacuum that Michael Dylan Welch states so clearly?


  4. In Notes from the Gean, Colin Stewart Jones began an interview with me by asking about three lines of Blake. You can read the full interview at or in NftG 3:3 December 2011. My response is not strictly about simile, but it is about how Blake is similar to and different from haiku:

    Colin: I was recently reading Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience again and noticed these three lines from Blake’s poem “The Blossom”:

    . . . Pretty Robin!
    Under leaves so green,
    A happy blossom

    Would you regard this as a haiku, and if so, could you tell us why? And if not, could you tell us why not?

    Michael: These lines appreciate nature and colour, which are clear haiku sensitivities, but no, I wouldn’t consider this a haiku. Aside from whether haiku was intended, I would say that “pretty” and “happy” demonstrate too much authorial intrusion. These words are a little too sappy for haiku, too, to my tastes. Even the word “so” speaks too much of the author. The right touch of subjectivity in contemporary English-language haiku can work well (one needs to control it, not avoid it entirely), but for the most part I think the author should get out of the way. Let the poem imply its meaning, not hit you over the noggin with it. Furthermore, the last line here may not be describing a blossom but interpreting the robin as if it were a blossom. The metaphor points at the author (“this is what I think of the image”) rather than letting a carefully chosen image or experience do its own talking. It’s the difference between the first and second parts of Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow” poem (even though it’s a poem I like very much). Explicit metaphors and similes succeed only rarely in haiku because they are detours to the image, or substitutes for it, and not the image itself. In attempting to be postmodern or post-whatever, some poets treat haiku as if it celebrates the poet. They’re welcome to do so. But for my money it seems vital for haiku to celebrate the experience, not the experiencer. Of course, such an assertion begs for its opposite—for some haiku poet out there to turn all Whitmanesque in celebrating himself, which I think we already see with some gendai haiku. However, haiku poems succeed best, I think, if they trust the image (read Robert Hass’s “Images” essay), and juxtapose images carefully to create implied emotion by what is left out. I like to refer to this space as the “vacuum” in haiku. In The Book of Tea, though not speaking of haiku, Kakuzo Okakura said “In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up to the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.” If a haiku doesn’t create some sort of vacuum by what is left out, what is there to draw the reader in?

  5. I think Judith Wright would have possibly agreed with William Blake: An extract from ‘Brevity’ by Wright:

    I used to love Keats, Blake.
    Now I try Haiku
    for its honed brevities,
    its inclusive silences.

    Issa. Shiki. Buson. Bashõ.
    Few words and with no rhetoric.
    Enclosed by silence
    as is the thrush’s call.

    Harvill Book of 20th Century Poetry
    By Michael Schmidt p337

    Judith Wright puts it well, and where similes might take us out of the immediate subject, and its immediacy, at a tangent, the directness to a subject gives us “its honed brevities, its inclusive silences […] with no rhetoric.”

    “Lives of the Poets” by Michael Schmidt at Amazon:

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