I arrived at haiku sometime in the 1960’s while I was reading Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen. I was very drawn to his argument that went something like this: in Western philosophy (and, as a result, pervasive throughout western thinking processes) there’s a habitual cognitive dichotomy between thinker and thing-thought, between mind and body, between observer and whatever is observed; in Zen, he asserted, there is no such dichotomy – there is simply an experiencing, just like that, as the great British comedian Tommy Cooper used to say. I have never wavered from the idea that haiku is the expression, not of a dichotomous thought-out experience, but of an experiencing – of a verb not a noun.
Test it! Look at the words you’re reading now and notice that the words on the page are separate from what you imagine is happening in your mind, your reconstruction of ‘meaning’ – you as an observer and the last paragraph, for instance… Now, get rid of that and just be a ‘reading’. This will require practice. It’s as though you and the words somehow have become one; writing a haiku, you become the tree or the landscape, sun or sea; they become you; the haiku writes you…
Sorry, My Mistake…
But now, anyway, though I find it cognitively unsettling, at least as far as haiku are concerned, it turns out that I have been misguided all along – the source of my initial guidance was challenged a few years ago by the influential Haruo Shirane (for instance in Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 2000) who refers to the way Western notions of haiku – a few words resulting from ‘being in the moment’ – have been skewed by Shiki’s emphasis on ‘the sketch (shasei) based on direct observation of the subject [without the intervention of ‘intellect’] as the key to the composition of the modern haiku’. Those who have nothing better to do than to allocate writers to artistic movements as though it were the answer to a maiden’s dream tell us that Shiki (d 1902) was a ‘realist’ in that he believed that poetry was an expression of the individual rather than being an incidental contribution to an intellectual literary game. Shiki’s realism just happened to coincide with the birth of Western ‘Imagism’ at the beginning of the 20th Century; so Shiki’s view of haiku, so they say, can be dismissed because it was taken on board as an aspect of imagism and haiku has been represented in the West as being part of the same movement. Realism, it seems, is to be regarded as dead & gone.
In a very thoughtful review of Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness, Randy Brooks (Modern Haiku Volume 40.1 Winter 2009) refers to Hasegawa Kai’s condemnation of what he calls ‘junk haiku’ – these are ‘… verses that have become predictable and stagnant owing to the influence of Western realism, haiku compositions based only upon those things you have directly seen…’ What’s the alternative? Hasegawa Kai calls for haiku with the kind of ‘…cutting which cuts a haiku from this reality within which we live…’
within the pillar
the rushing of waves
There’s certainly a degree of alienation here! How can we account for the construction of such a haiku? I imagine the writer’s conscious thought process: “Ah, brrrrrr… snow and bitter cold – I observe that it’s what might be called ‘deep winter’ – I write that down but because I’m of the new dispensation I must think of a way of resisting making reference to what would normally follow this (snow, mist, trees full of frost etc) – to take readers beyond the ordinary sense of ‘reality’ – to dumbfound them with something stunningly different so they have to really exercise their imagination: so,” says the poet, “I think of the new pillar outside my front door and I hear the wind which reminds me of the sound of waves…” This is a good example of pure ‘intellect’, a species of ‘consciousness’, at work…
My understanding is that this intrusion of thinking (loosely called ‘consciousness’) is justifiable by reference to contemporary accounts, quoted with apparent relish by Gilbert, of how Bashō’s frog/pond/plop haiku came into being: “Here I am sitting at my desk,” Bashō might have said, “…in my hut – I hear the plop of a frog in the distance – I know there’s a pond outside so I’ll construct a haiku out of my thinking process… And I will draw on past experience of ponds and typical frog behaviour…”
Haiku as Literary Construct?
Thus the essence of the ‘Modern Haiku’ movement seems to be that a haiku is a ‘literary construct’ rather than a direct expression of Being in the world. During the British Haiku Society 2013 AGM I presented a way of constructing what, in a Ludlow moment of bright & memorable humour, Martin Lucas and I decided to call ‘knotweed hycoo’ out of random words written on separate bits of card to be assembled like a disjunctive jigsaw. For a brief example, here is a very small fraction of the word-list I presented:-
highly strung, butterflies, immense, startling, thirty-two, Quaker, physique, concerns, tortures, mistaken, days, reason, pointed, bathroom, approach, starlings, hiding, market, marble, afternoon, happy, callousness, nothing, figure, fastness, expedition, escape, monotonous, ilex, incognito, purple
and so on…
The instruction was to let the list linger in the head and then consciously arrange the cards to make a hycoo, using any little joining words you liked, thus, maybe:-
the callous reason of
thirty-two purple starlings
in a marble bathroom
figure with a happy physique
on a market day
These are ‘knotweed hycoo’ – spreading around the globe with the insidious quality of Japanese knotweed, undermining the edifice we apparent throwbacks call the house of ‘haiku’. At the AGM I posed the question of whether, through its journal, Blithe Spirit, the BHS, one of whose aims is to act as upholder of standards in haiku-writing, should make a principled stand against so-called ‘modern’ trends; to make energetic resistence to what I suppose is part of the general post-modernist trend to exterminate the past. I still think an answer is required.
Focusing on the Here & Now
As a contribution to the discussion we might begin by asking the question: What exactly does it mean ‘to focus on the here & now’? It’s clear from many of Bashō’s examples that ‘here & now’ can of necessity encapsulate past & future; it’s a researched fact that our neurons are by no means neutral.
What happens in the here-&-now-mind cannot possibly not contain reference to memories and prognostications; just as awareness in ‘the present moment’ constantly strays backwards & forwards into what we choose to call ‘past’ & ‘future’ so haiku-expression moves subtly into these areas while remaining conceptually ‘in the present’ – they can create new ways of mentally reconstructing the universe, as in this well-known example:-
summer grasses –
traces of dreams
of ancient warriors
As readers we are presented with what is for us a present moment – we are in some corner of a foreign field; there’s grass growing on ground where the glorious dead are buried; the simple observation with its not too extravagant corollary has the effect of extending our world, of modifying our feeling for grass. If poetry is not ‘the renovation of experience’ (William Carlos Williams) it’s a waste of space, in my humble opinion. (“That’s the very last thing you are, ‘humble’…” says my wife over my shoulder). A ‘so-what’ haiku is one that fails to renovate experience in some way.
Haiku as Intellectual Construction
It seems that we have come full circle: according to Haruo Shirane, before Bashō haiku was fictional, an intellectual construction. He provides this 17th Century example:-
making sea lions and whales
swim in the cherry blossom waves
at the hill top
This is a hycoo that would not be out of place in an anthology of so-called ‘gendai’ poems. Shirane writes that ‘…Bashō was one of the critics of this kind of ‘nonsense’ haiku. He believed that haiku should describe the world ‘as it is’ [not denying fiction which] can be very realistic and even more real than life itself…’ Thus haiku can be ‘something born of the imagination’ which Shirane says is ‘about the ability to move from one world to another…’ ‘…entering into the past, meeting the spirits of the dead, experiencing what poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced’ while remaining ‘faithful to the original experience…’ in the moment, as in the ‘summer grasses’ example. We might then ask – What exactly is the abstraction ‘imagination’? How does it work? It could be argued that imagination is nothing other than awareness in ‘the present moment’ constantly straying backwards & forwards into what we choose to call ‘past’ & ‘future’, connecting things up together, and making a response to the essential spirit in things.
Models for Thinking
Shirane famously proposed two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to memory, to other poems. ‘…To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haiku, which is rooted in the everyday world…’
For me, these axes are the wrong way round. Shirane’s axes disturb my way of thinking. My own horizontal axis represents tick-tock time, time forwards & backwards forever; the vertical axis is oneself in the here & now, one’s I, being a haiku deriving in some way from tick-tock time, by allusion to or conversation about things that happened, places visited, accumulated experiencing, in past or future rediscovered in the present – the ‘haiku moment’ – the utterly timeless moment when a haiku comes into being.
The Death of Realism?
Richard Gilbert quotes Hoshinaga Fumio approvingly: ‘realism was a brief, temporary movement’… He asserts, for some undefined reason, that it’s necessary to incorporate modern movements that followed imagism – ‘cubism, surrealism, dada’ in some postmodernist hycooic mélange. ‘Right you are if you think so’ as Pirandello said. Gilbert is of the opinion that haiku is a naturally ‘modern’ phenomenon and I suppose that’s true because it has always been what’s called an ‘open’ text – it leaves space for reader participation which is typical of modern films that just end unexpectedly or, in music, Cage’s 4.33.
Hasagawa Kai talks about ma ‘empty space’ – a moment of psychological silence – a concept supposedly unique to Japanese culture. In haiku, he says, ma conveys feeling without expressing it: ‘…it is what is not put into words that is important… Haiku is literature created jointly by the poet and the reader. A Western poem is the product of the poet alone, and thus… the way of thinking about haiku is different…’ It’s true that we do not have a word representing the concept of ma but Hasagawa Kai has obviously not heard of the plays of Harold Pinter with their deliberate pregnant pauses; it’s no stretch of western sensibility to understand that it’s what’s left out of a haiku that’s important; the words are merely a hint of something more profound which the reader may or may not pick up.
And there’s no need or reason to bolt on to haiku every fad & fancy that comes along in the ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ zeitgeist to fill a ma with bizarre images.
It’s exactly as Gilbert says: ‘…gendai Japanese haiku exhibit many of the principles, theories and techniques found in modern poetry or modern arts generally…’ In other words they have simply taken over 20th Century western movements and become what, because of our inheritance, most of us would not call ‘haiku’ at all. The fundamental question is – why should haiku incorporate ‘principles, theories and techniques found in modern poetry or modern arts’? One person’s say-so is not sufficient. The only obvious thing they preserve from the past is brevity.
walrus with its mouth wide open war statistics
a drowning man
pulled into violet worlds
in a hippo’s jaws –
the lettuce’s bliss
Avoided the Meaning and Missed the Experience
I wonder if individual reference to a ‘haiku moment’ has fallen into a state of zealous approbrium because those who reject it have never had the experience and, what’s worse, have no strategy for arriving there – they are therefore obliged to invent some other way of producing what looks vaguely like the haiku-form; it might be all too easy for such unfortunates to bolt on ‘surrealism’ or ‘dadaism’ to it. But it’s so old hat – a harking back to the 1920’s, excitingly new then but now nearly a hundred years past its sell-by date. Gilbert says he finds ‘…modern haiku to be tremendously exciting, profound and fresh…’ On the contrary, I find their imagery simply old hat though still of course acceptable in general as a hilarious jolt to the system as in, for example, the films of Luis Bunuel.
Another question we might ask about ‘knotweed hycoo’ is – what is ‘consciousness’? Blithely to call haiku ‘poems of consciousness’ is to beg the question of what we understand as ‘consciousness’. Gilbert says that ‘…conscious experience itself has not yet been demonstrably elucidated – there is so much we experience and feel which remains immeasurable…’, but he seems to take the word ‘consciousness’ for granted. It might be ‘the human faculty which thinks’ or ‘the capacity for engaging in intellectual construction’, ‘neuronal activity’, ‘mental gymnastics’. If it’s anything, ordinary consciousness is probably something akin to any or all of these periphrastic notions: you imagine, for example, that you are ‘conscious’ and awake just by virtue of reading these words; I imagine, of course, that I am ‘conscious’ and fully awake as I write them.
But consider for a moment that there’s a different kind of Consciousness – one with an upper case ‘C’ to indicate that it transcends ordinary consciousness by a long chalk; it’s a certain something in us that’s vitally awake, full of life and energy if only we could grasp it. On the one hand, paradoxically, it’s a dry nothingness at the centre of our being; on the other hand it’s the name for an invented construct of the human imagination. We are so overwhelmed by the idea of listing its limitless possibilities in nothingness that we settle for using the word ‘consciousness’ and hope that everybody will know what we mean. ‘Consciousness’ is dodgy shorthand for a huge systemic process: here’s a snapshot of a little bit of it:-
How does this apply to writing (and reading) haiku? Here’s a ho-hum haiku I wrote recently:-
four ceramic ducks
lined up on a window-sill –
my life museum
In a system you can start where you like; everything is connected: in this case I started at the top – I saw the ducks, I heard an outline history of their past inside me and consequently I feel for these inanimate things – the cognitive taste of them, quite without the smell that would accompany the real feathered model – contrast of solid objects & squawking reality; I pause to note that all this merges in a moment of synaesthesia. Occupying my left brain I could go on analysing thus but I slip into the pattern produced by my right brain which seems to embrace wider issues: I reconstruct a duck-past and remember when I bought them one by one going back to the department store four times in acquisitive mode; there’s a growing feeling of something indescribably special about the words on the base – ‘Jaipur, made in Taiwan’; I recall a bit of research (Finesmith 1959) which, consequent upon the attachment of wires to fingers, shows up a psycho-galvanic skin response to anything you care to think of – all objects, words, ideas, thoughts, have emotional connections – then ma, space for thought, mirror of the infinite space within… I am reminded of all the things I’ve hoarded in this museum of a house where I live – they are a part of who I am – hence the last line that helps to construct a haiku which may (or may not) resonate with the reader’s own hoarding proclivities, or lack of them.
This last paragraph took 15 minutes to write out, longer to think about; it’s a left-brain drawn out re-construction of a moment of Consciousness; doing the circuit round the systemic process represented in the diagram took a split second when the haiku wrote me – I’m used to the system. It’s a strategy for arriving at a ‘haiku moment’. It can be learned; it becomes second nature; once learned it has to be forgotten. There’s no dichotomy – no divided system and working the system.
True Consciousness is a whizz round the cognitive system without getting stuck in any particular bit of it.
I’ll probably reject the ‘duck’ haiku – it seems to be too much the result of ‘thought’ and it lacks Martin Lucas’s ‘Poetic Spell’.