This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for the last few weeks. Here and elsewhere readers question the significance of haiku: just how much weight to give a poem sometimes presented in one line and that traditionally avoids our own history of metaphor and narrative.
The best I can do is to communicate what I love about the form. I’m writing a novel, off and on again, but longer works don’t come easily to me. I’m a natural-born minimalist. The less paper you give me, the more my talents take fire. The haiku is my playground. Every word counts. There can be no redundancy.
It’s the brevity of the haiku that makes the best of them great literature. And it’s the great poets who turn the haiku’s allusiveness to their advantage, using a few words to suggest a multitude of human experiences. In a sense, the fewer the words, the greater the potential complexity.
Sometimes I like to imagine haiku as a moment of tremendous compression where the poet’s experience is focused into a kind of singularity; where the reader, in reading the haiku, passes through and outward into an ever opening realm of interpretation. I’ve always thought of poems, and haiku especially, in terms of light cones. And so I’ve borrowed a little from physics to illustrate:
While the illustration rings true for any work of literature, I think it’s especially apt as a way of illustrating the interpretive compression latent in the best haiku. The bottom cone represents Basho’s life in time and space. All of Basho’s life experiences are gradually focused over time and space into an evening when he heard a frog’s leap into the water—into the singular expression of his famous poem. Without all of Basho’s life experiences preceding this moment, the poem wouldn’t have been possible. At the nexus of the poem’s creation, Basho’s “life cone” ceases and our interpretive readings expand the haiku indefinitely. In the book Basho and his Interpreters, the variety of reactions and interpretations to this haiku go on for almost three pages—and the commentaries are themselves comprised of extracts from more expansive readings.
The point of all this is to argue that the art of haiku is in finding that sweet spot that is the literal, the suggestive, the symbolic and even the metaphorical. Consider the following haiku by the fourth great master of Japanese haiku, Shiki:
full of spring
The haiku may initially strike the reader as trite or trivial. But think about the Shiki’s ‘life cone’. If the reader looks back just a little he or she will discover Shiki’s ever increasing and terminal illness when he wrote this haiku. Every day he was suffering from fever and thirst. The haiku assumes a richer association that we can apply to our own lives and in ways that might have astonished Shiki—or Basho for that matter.
And that brings me to my own haiku. I wasn’t born knowing how to write them. Their significance was a complete mystery to me, but I was fascinated and intrigued by them. How could these diminutive slipknots become the defining literature of an entire culture?
As I was returning to my room after a summer’s course in poetry at Bennington College, I saw a single, bright red something on an otherwise perfectly green hedgerow. I was distracted by it. I was drawn to it. Was it a slip of paper that had fallen into, or been blown into, the shrubbery? Why was it still there?
It wasn’t until I almost stood over the swatch of color that I saw what it was, a single leaf, among all the hundreds of other leaves in the hedgerow that, for one reason or another, had died—inasmuch as a leaf may die. It had turned a brilliant red. Seeing what it was was a strange shock. In an instant (which is the way with enlightenment I’m told) I understood haiku and wrote my first:
the many, many leaves, the red
That was over twenty years ago. And then earlier this year I received an email from India asking if this haiku could be used as part of a memorial. The memorial is meant to honor Jarbom Gamlin, the former Chief Minister of the State, and the request came from his surviving brother, Moji Riba. I couldn’t imagine a more humbling request.
I never would have imagined that this haiku, the first I’d written and before the existence of the world wide web, would mean so much to another half way round the world. But this is the argument I would make for haiku, these tiny little somethings. Their brevity, in the hands of the right poet, is what lends them their power. They only ask a willingness of the reader to look beyond the words and for the willingness to let them expansively open in the reader’s life and imagination.
I only wish I could read them in the original Japanese.
Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto