Haiku and Well-being (R13+)

Writing Proper Haiku Affects the Way You Are in the World

In their Mutative Metaphors in Psychotherapy (1994), Cox & Theilgaard offer brilliant insights into the way that conventional poetry can be used to stimulate the seamless progress of formally therapeutic interventions; they describe how very skilled operators can use poetry & drama in their work – they would need to learn how to combine the listening skills normal in a sensitive therapist with a genuinely working understanding of the function of literary imagery and metaphor.

Cox & Theilgaard do not include the possible uses of haiku by therapists but since it’s arguable that haiku variously function as metaphor for all aspects of human experience, it would seem likely that, on the basis of their explorations, the habit of writing & reading ‘pure form’ haiku might well have the same kind of positive integrative effect on our lives as other kinds of poetry might have. Their very compression and economy makes this more likely, I would argue: there’s a focus that doesn’t necessarily come with longer forms of poetry.

‘pure form’

By ‘pure form’ haiku is meant what comes spontaneously from some relatively obscure part of one’s being, something, as it were, dictated by the relationship between self and world, something that’s the result of what Sartre (1950) called an ‘aesthetic imperative’, a phrase intended to represent the way in which we are driven to record something that just seems ‘right’ because it propels us into ‘something larger than ourselves’, almost as though we were not present.

So-called ‘modern’ haiku and throwaway three-line poems that are constructed out of some kind of clever mental disposition are emphatically not ‘pure form’ – they are limited intellectual constructions that lead the soul nowhere.

‘aesthetic imperative’

The ‘aesthetic imperative’ is an insistent, irresistible call to action in order to make the commonplace uncommon; it may be brought to life by some occasion which seems to proclaim the desire of the world to reveal itself to human consciousness via a moving, but hardly ever monumental, experience that demands to be recorded; a desire of the inner world to reveal itself through some sudden perception of previously unnoticed harmony, shape, colour, relationship, continuity, sense of ‘fit’ or coherence, maybe even the feeling of really living one’s life for the very first time or at least a sense of renewal.

June sun after rain –
patch of waste ground
awash with poppies

There’s a sudden moment of broad sympathy with the externals of life bringing about an urgent need, escaping precise definition, to change the structure of the world: for the reader it’s often the same – there’s a something-or-other behind the words on the page which cannot be put any other way. It’s like being stopped in your tracks which may, by magic, have you swapping tracks.

Such sudden perceptions are not to be missed: when you are so alive to circumstances that you write a long succession of haiku, more than likely to be of varying quality, it seems to lend coherence to experience overall. In itself a ‘successful’ haiku is a little self-referential system; its significance is an emergent property of the system; it can be whatever it is, not invented but perceived by a jolt of sensory and super-sensory experience or an other-than-conscious shift from one field of reality to another which leaves the reader to construct whatever ‘meaning’ emerges.

single magpie –
old country woman
pauses for a second

‘a poetry without poets’

The philosopher Heidegger drew a distinction between poetry which requires a poet and ‘a poetry without poets’ – ‘…the blooming of a blossom, the coming out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt…’, threshold occasions when you feel you’re on the point of something but not quite getting there, moments of ecstasy when things are just as they are, not coming into being by intellectual comparison with something else. Bashō said, ‘Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk…’

still summer night –
bat calls sort out
the young from the old

Bashō taught that the poet should always detach the mind from the self and enter the object in order to share its ‘delicate life and feelings’. Coming to terms with haiku is about the paradox of absenting the self as a way of getting close to its essential nature: it’s perhaps what happens to our psyche when it becomes ‘the blooming of a blossom’ or understanding the essence of ‘pine tree’.


What does happen when we quell the hubbub that goes on in the brain? It is arguably from silence that real haiku emerge; there are so many different ways in which we can contrive to be silent; different kinds of haiku mirror these ways. Cox & Theilgaard quote Leslie Kane’s (1984) survey of The Language of Silence:

The dumb silence of apathy, the sober silence of solemnity, the fertile silence of awareness, the active silence of perception, the baffled silence of confusion, the uneasy silence of impasse, the muzzled silence of outrage, the expectant silence of waiting, the reproachful silence of censure, the tacit silence of approval, the vituperative silence of accusation, the eloquent silence of awe, the unnerving silence of menace, the peaceful silence of communion, and the irrevocable silence of death illustrate by their unspoken response to speech that experiences exist for which we lack the word.

Pure form haiku consists of a metaphorical statement about the relationship between Being and Context that, lacking the words, hardly breaks the silence.

the oaks he planted
tall enough
to steal his shadow


Which raises the question: what is a metaphor? The word itself means literally a ‘bearing across’ from one field of existence to another. At school we are (or used to be) taught that metaphor is about some invented comparison, often now completely dead, for instance ‘a storm in a teacup’ or ‘the bonnet of a car’; such inventions are rightly taboo in haiku where direct observation precludes invention. But metaphor as ‘invented comparison’ is a very limited definition. It could be argued, for instance, that all words are metaphors in the sense that they ‘bear across’ from our undifferentiated experience of the world towards the attempt to capture it in words; it takes an effort of imagination to understand that words are emphatically not the things we take them to refer to; the things of the world exist without the words we habitually attach to them.

harvesting carrots
his grandson giggles –
a rude one

Neuroscience and Haiku

The distinction between Left Brain and Right Brain is more complex than was once thought – it is no longer a true up-to-date neuroscientific description of brain functioning – but it is still quite acceptable as a rough & ready description of observable behaviour – it’s quite clear that we live through discernable patterns of behaviour (regarded since the 1950’s as deriving from a Right Brain view of things) which we then attempt to capture in an inevitably linear way via the Left Brain. Haiku is the bearing across from either side of the brain via the corpus callosum. In that sense too it is a metaphor.

neighbour’s funeral
when church bell tolls
his flock looks up

In the rough & tumble of life, we have countless uncategorised perceptions, not just visual but through the senses of smell, taste, hearing, perhaps giving rise to what’s called a ‘sixth sense’ which may simply be an emergent property of the conventional five senses. A percept depends on direct sensory input while image is an inner world construct. A percept never replicates the world we imagine we live in: it is the result of an active, selective and adaptive process. We not only see, but we look for; not only hear, but we listen to; when we feel we seek for comparable past experiences in order to explain what we’re feeling. Perception takes place in an already tuned organism, and the process itself is influenced by memory and the general categorizing principles we choose to apply to the world. The world we imagine we live in depends on the words we happen to be able to manage; the words we have at our disposal are dumped on us by education and upbringing – they might have been a completely different selection.

Because a metaphor is open-ended there’s an absence of direction both to writer and reader; it is always open to interpretation. As a result metaphor is transformative by its very nature; it can help you see your being in the world in a different way. And seeing is not so simple: we perhaps construct haiku at different times in different places by some choice from seeing, looking, regarding, beholding, studying, glancing, eyeing, surveying, scanning, inspecting, watching, observing, staring, discerning, gazing, gloating, noticing, inspecting, or recognising… Cox & Theilgaard usefully widen the concept of visual perception in this way. What kinds of perception do we exercise at different times when writing haiku?

high-pitched alarm –
old dog fails to bark
his sight failing too

Therapy and Haiku

Their review of the uses of literature in therapy does not extend to the consideration of haiku at all but it’s quite easy to relate Cox & Theilgaard’s therapeutic line to haiku studies. For instance, they quote Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962): ‘…the image touches the depths before it stirs the surface…’ which could be said to be precisely what happens when one writes a haiku – or when it writes you.

There have been many attempts to define haiku. One might simply say that haiku is a spontaneous brief response, without the intervention of thinking, to the concrete particulars of the here & now. Conventional metaphor & simile go beyond the here & now by relating one thing to another; their use, common in ordinary poetry, is out of place in haiku. On the other hand, it is arguable that every haiku is in itself a metaphor – literally a ‘bearing across from one field of existence to another’ – a bridge between what seems to be ‘out-there’ and what may with more or less certainty be ‘in-here’. Like on the London Underground, there’s a gap between the train, or moving experience, and what seems like the comparatively solid platform of the haiku. Or it could be conceived as a threshold, a stepping out into a different kind of world; the haiku moment exists in the gap or threshold between: it has its sole being there as in the shifting boundary between sea & dry land. What’s more, the images that crop up as haiku-metaphor safely hold experience which may be impossible to talk about openly in consecutive words, just as the demand for an explanation destroys a joke.

What I shall never know
I must make known

Edwin Muir

Life is about the endless story we tell ourselves; it is always incomplete because always being told or retold; the unresolvedness of a haiku depicts such incompletion. It’s no good searching for meaning within the story – the meaning is in the gap, at the threshold and haiku dances on the threshold between one thing and another; of course there are concrete elements in haiku but they only exist as markers or reference points to delineate the Nothingness of the gap.

So haiku give us a pattern (or metaphor) which somehow connects out-there & in-here – we are left to search for the pattern which is an integrative process in itself; in piecing a haiku together we reconstruct ourselves. What’s needed is an acceptance of the feeling of contentment that we are always on the threshold of understanding but never fully achieving it. Thus the truly effective haiku is the one that leaves us with a bit of a mystery; its image-connection or metaphor comes initially from a pre-verbal somatic state – meaning, always provisional, trails along after it if you’re lucky or persistent.

We often resort to abstractions (depression, anger, fear, guilt, passivity, helplessness, emptiness) to describe inner turmoil but they are human inventions, reifications of some disturbance in the neurons – you can’t ‘put any of them in a wheelbarrow’ which is always a good reality-test. The labelling process that our linear thinking habitually resorts to is no good for the purpose of achieving understanding. Understanding is always a matter of balancing the meagre knowledge we have with focussed awareness – haiku helps.

joints predict rain
barometer points to fair –
he trusts his joints

Poiesis & Praxis

The Greeks had a couple of useful words for what haiku-writers often struggle over – the concept of a haiku and the moment of committing idea to paper. Haiku-writers, and others, are only too familiar with the kind of feeling that suggests that the linearity involved in finding the right words in the right order runs the risk of distorting the thing you first thought of; if it takes too long to settle on the ‘right words’ we probably have the experience of deciding not to bother. The Greek word poiesis stands for the act of bringing something from the uncertainty of the other-than-conscious pre-verbal mind out into the full light of day; it does not go further than an ‘unveiling’, a ‘leading into presence’. After that praxis must take over as a will to accomplish or complete itself in action.

If, in relation to haiku, poiesis might mean the arrival of some inchoate notion and praxis refer to the formal expression of it in words, then the concept of autopoiesis takes things a stage further. Autopoiesis means self-production: the act of writing is a way of defining the self which can be done discursively or intellectually; conventional poetry works this way by the conscious elaboration of ideas, whereas haiku is a mode of disclosure of relationship rather than a way of capturing what’s out there intellectually. As a result something is called into existence, neatly rather than discursively, which was not there before. A haiku is about being-in-the-world, rather than an indulging in subject-object dualism. The haiku writer hovers (or maybe dances) in the uncertain gap between poiesis and praxis, never quite sure about either.

parallel stripes
he pushes the mower
straight up straight down

And then there arises mystery, astonishment, uniqueness provided by the something which was not there before that is called into existence by autopoiesis. The tapping of the other-than-conscious mind affirms the depths of our being, gives us a more conscious awareness with an enhanced focus on the outside world; the result is a new capacity for confronting experience and a different way of seeing the world. As Wallace Stevens wrote: ‘Poetry is a purging of the world’s poverty… a poem is a meteor… a pheasant disappearing into the brush… a café… the disengagement from reality… a cure of the mind… a renovation of experience… nature created by the poet…’ He was writing about poetry in general as he saw it but all this could easily be related to the writing of haiku.

Shifting Focus and the Revealing of Meaning

So, in writing haiku there’s a shift of focus from interior to exterior events; the place of renewal is in the potential space between the individual and what’s out-there. The writer reveals something about a momentary relationship; the poetic encounter with other people’s haiku causes you to see things differently; a reader, as Sartre argues, is a revealer of meaning; reading somebody else’s haiku results is an associative search, comparison, empathy. In both reading and writing haiku there’s a need to cultivate Keats’ ‘Negative Capability’ – the state that comes into being ‘…when one is capable of being in uncertanities, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…’

We can irritably ‘reach after fact and reason’; logic & reason & classifying cut us off from a valuable part of Being – the other-than-conscious part of ourselves. Alternatively, we can teach ourselves how to ‘tolerate ambiguity’. Whatever way we choose it’s a demonstrable fact that we are not passive onlookers but active participants in the creation of experience however we do it. Specifically, haiku create experience by isolating factors never before juxtaposed; they depict what cannot ever be fully understood and therefore incorporate uncertainty as a valid part of experience.

putting the bin out
he spots a brilliant planet
from his own

What we have been conditioned to try to do by print and e-gadgetry is to impose our will on intractable experienced confusion; the alternative is the patient humanly directed extraction of meaning from whatever meaning we construct ourselves. Principally by teaching ourselves to develop ‘perceptual expectancy’ – being alive to whatever is presented to us without judgement. Mental readiness is being attentive to what’s outside us. Anticipation interacts with percepts in some kind of staging centre, in which the sensory input is matched with a hypothesis. That becomes a haiku.

It requires the awakening of the body-brain to the possibilities of image construction with new possibilities actualised through playfulness and a certain degree of intimacy with what goes on around us. A haiku can be seen as an integral part of oneself, uniting the cognitive and affective domains, endowing experience with meaningful coherence – an emergent property of multiple events. An ordinary poem can make this happen but the outcome is more certain within the compression of haiku.

first daffodils –
old gardener
with spring in his step

Somatic Markers

The eminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio talks about ‘somatic markers’: somewhere in the pre-verbal state, in the other-than-conscious realm, there are points about the body where ideas are located and get fired in relation to circumstances; this gives us a kinaesthetic whole body empathy with events as they take place outside of us so that there’s an interweaving of content & cadence and a widening of experience.

Reading haiku written by others involves a search for understanding self and others; a presented image makes us think of a host of remembered images: how many other things have I seen thus? I wait to receive a little bit of enlightenment. Going through haiku images gets us to a place of safety (the safety of words on the page) via something obscure & hidden. We experience attunement & empathy – transposing self into the thinking & feeling of another, re-structuring the world as they do.

Mystical Melting

Ultimately haiku offer us the chance to perform a mystical melting together with universal rhythm.

closing the skylight
he almost traps
the evening star


NOTE: All the haiku quoted in this Glob come from A Year About the Farm by Michael Scott with his permission.

11 thoughts on “Haiku and Well-being (R13+)

  1. What a brilliant post, Colin! I now have a much deeper appreciation of the subtle art of haiku. Thank you!

    I was particularly struck by your paragraph on “perceptual expectancy”. Here are some excerpts from a book I just recently read – Stephen Batchelor’s “Living with the Devil”. In a chapter entitled “Learning to Wait”, he talks about the proper attitude to hold when meditating. I believe he’s pointing to the same phenomenon ….

    “You just wait in the abyss of perplexity without expecting anything. You open yourself to the uncanniness of what unfolds without construing it as this or that.”

    “One does not strain ahead of oneself in anticipation of a result, One waits at ease for a response one cannot foresee and that might never come. The most one can ‘do’ is remain optimally receptive and alert.”

    “Waiting can be seen as a cipher of nirvana. Since life is ultimately a situation over which we have no control, waiting is a response that accords with its fleeting and unreliable nature. The practice of waiting is to learn how to rest in the nirvanic ease of contingent things.”

    What do you think?



    1. Excellent!

      21st July – a remarkable synchronicity: I’m editing some stuff for a British Haiku Society book and Batchelor is mentioned in somebody’s writing. I haven’t read it!


      1. Ah, I’ve now read all of your article Colin and see youve answered my question about Keats! Particularly taken with the idea of aesthetic imperative and ‘maybe even the feeling of really living one’s life for the first time or at least a sense of renewal. I’ve suffered from depression most of my life and yet find these moments of ‘is-ness’ where I feel lifted out of the ‘depressed-self.’ I’m not sure if you saw my video talk about Keats and my experience listening to a nightingale but there I describe such a moment. I’m afraid my resulting poems don’t do the moment justice! But after rading your article I’d like to try more haiku.


    2. I’ve recently seen parallels between the wisdom of uncertainty and Keats’ negative capability; do you think they are the same thing? I must read Bachelor one of these days!


      1. While you read Batchelor, I shall have to read Keats, and then perhaps we’ll be able to look more closely at the parallels between uncertainty and negative capability. As Colin always says, Onward!!


      2. Erik – I suppose that there are many variants on how to get to what could be called ’emptiness’, a turfing out of all the clutter that gets in the way of the reception of what Gurdjieff calls the Food of Pure Impressions. Why would one want to get there anyway? Always to start over again with Beginner’s Mind, maybe. Becoming like a little child.

        For many years I’ve been keen on Frenkel-Brunswick’s Toleration of Ambiguity which is about living with uncertainty, relishing it even.

        Stephen Covey’s First Habit – putting a GAP between stimulus and response. Gurdjieff’s STOP! exercise. Sartre’s Nothingness. Lawrence’s Ship of Death.

        Keats’ Negative Capability. Setting aside of self. Meta-I.

        Perhaps not ‘the same thing’ but all variant efforts to define the emptying out (‘of all that makes me man’ – The Dream of Gerontius! Newman/Elgar)


        Is it possible to empty out the mind? To become as No-thing?

        I’ve found that the very simplest of exercises works in a practical way, though it has to be repeated several times to work ‘in the muscle’. Write an idea you have on a bit of paper – stand on it and associate into it completely, see what you see, feel what you feel. hear what you hear. Stand off the bit of paper and move to another place on the floor where you can still see it; you are now in Meta-I or Observer-I – mark the spot with a bit of paper with Meta-I written on it. What does the ‘idea’ on the first bit of paper now look like when there’s a GAP, when you’re in Negative Capability, tolerating ambiguity… As soon as you begin to feel sceptical about the process get off Meta-I and stand on a bit of paper with Being-in-sceptical-I written on it and associate fully. Then go back to Meta-I putting a GAP between the one and the other!

        Living in the GAP – a useful place to be? Haiku come there.


  2. I recently had problems with my email address & had to change it. The WordPress machine seems incapable of allowing me to change my contact details. I’ve tried several times to do so and written to ‘them’ but I think it must be a ghost operation. Anyway, I’m not getting notice of comments… Sorry.


    1. Thanks Colin. I wrote a few haiku yesterday — here’s a couple:

      Three men on a green
      rolling bowls towards the sun,
      “You’ve hit the jack Ron!”

      In the park a swan sunning,
      spread-eagled on tarmac –
      a girl takes a selfie.


      1. Make the second line in the first haiku simply ‘bowling towards the sun’ would be my suggestion… More economical and more emphatic! I wonder if it’s the girl or the swan who is spread-eagled on the tarmac – whatever, I suggest leaving out the hyphen and the comma then you’d have what’s called a ‘pivot line’ – one that can be related either to the first line or the second or both!


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