THE STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS – Lessons in Haiku from a Hospital Bed (R17)


In recent years there’s been an attempt to brainwash anybody involved in haiku-writing with the idea that haiku is a ‘poem of consciousness’. The profound objection to this as a bald mantra is firstly, as RHBlyth points out, a haiku is NOT a poem in the ordinary sense of the word; the corollary of which is that if you think you are writing a poem you are not writing a haiku. Secondly, though we use the word ‘consciousness’ as though we know precisely what it means, we don’t  – its literature is huge and usually unexplored by haiku-writers. Nobody would argue about whether haiku come from ‘consciousness’ of some kind ‒ of course they do, but the question is: WHAT KIND OF CONSCIOUSNESS?

Early in the morning of Monday 30th November 2020 I found myself carted off to hospital without having time to grab either pen, notebook, or current reading book (which happened to be Virginia Woolf’s The Waves). Consequently, out of joint with bouts of extreme lower abdominal pain, my mind was focussed solely on other ancient hospital guests being wheeled swiftly about to avoid the Plague, walls bare except for miscellaneous grey hospital equipment, drips, trolleys, wheelchairs, beds & bright ceiling strip-lighting – all these things occupied what I often unthinkingly call my ‘consciousness’. I was also lapsing into extreme self-pity until I suddenly thought of a little book that Claire Knight, Paul Hickey and myself produced five years ago called, the wind that blows through us (subtitled, exploring the world of haiku and well-being…) An extract from this now out-of-print book which consisted of many papers by British Haiku Society members can be found by simply Googling ‘Haiku and Well-being, 11th May 2015’. Remembering it caused me to make a sudden conscious choice to walk the talk and I cadged a bit of paper and a pen from the nurses with the intention of attempting to drag myself from misery by looking out of the large picture window blessedly at my end of the ward, the view from which was dominated by a huge bare oak tree behind which was a busy main road roundabout. Putting myself in the frame of mind to write haiku would be certain to help put the world together again.I identified very strongly with this tree standing as a representation of how I’d like to be, arms stretched upright and so on; but I also recognised its status as something completely ‘other’. The thing in itself not the thing for itself, or for anything or anybody but itself. The ‘tree’ in itself not for its shadow, or for the roundabout which it partially conceals, or for its ‘arms’ (which it does not have).

It was a shock to have to sketch the tree with the hospital pen – it was a red biro! For seventy years I have sketched and done hand-written notes with black ink flowing out of a fountain pen nib. In my fitful state of mind, the deeply felt discrepancy just served to emphasise once more for me the general unnatural character of the words we use: we like to imagine that they stand for, or even become, the things themselves, (‘tree’ = tree, for example) when it’s not like that at all. All words, made with red biro or fountain pen black, are mere scribbles we imagine to be useful additions to our fundamental experience (or ‘consciousness’) of the world… Of course, words always add something to pure experience but haiku-writers in particular should consider whether what they add is useful or not.

One might think about how, far from helping us to say what we mean, words are in fact divisive: they split things (‘hedge’, ‘sea’, ‘apple’) into how they are existentially – that is, without the labels that are supposed to represent them – pure impressions – and the novel entity created by label + the thing itself, ‘hedge’ + hedge, ‘sea’ + sea, ‘apple’ + apple, ‘tree’ + tree. For three days I rested as content as possible in unadorned pure consciousness, thinking about the way words are useful or not, tinkering with the labels.

just as it is –                                           pigeon & leaf
a crookedness                                       fall as one
of random branches                            from a top branch

Sometimes what I saw seemed to change its nature of its own accord, as things do, and the words conspired to reflect the change:-

green sky-line
above this dark cloud-tree ‒
bright dawn-green under it

The curious combination noun ‘cloud-tree’ (or ‘tree-cloud’, as it might have been) was a certain something-or-other generated by the way the morning darkness attached itself to the shape of the branches themselves, or vice-versa.

Once, without thinking about it, I found myself quite unashamably doing the sort of thing many have done before me.

small kinked branch
turns into the shape of a bird
and flies off

And then there was something of a mystery.

great bare thing out there
shaping the sky
into grey unnamables

It took me a while to figure out where this last word had come from; it accurately records the utter impossibility of labelling the myriad shapes created by little twigs & branches crossing over one another and, then, by extension, all the indeterminate shapes in the world at large that our poor simple words, ‘square’ & ‘triangle’, ‘circle’ & ‘trapezium’, and so on, are never able to capture. Though we like to kid ourselves it can, ‘consciousness’, even with the lengthy string of words it has at its disposal, is totally incapable of recording the true nature of things, which is what this brief allusion to Samuel Beckett’s L’Innommable, seems in retrospect to refer to ‒ the complete unnameability of things we like to invent names for. The last line of the work he didn’t want to be called his ‘great Trilogy’ goes: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on…” which came to seem rather apposite during my ward-weary three days.

I think it’s essential to consider how, in essence, haiku set out to capture the true nature of the way things are without thought or the impulse towards clever decoration of some kind.

Then I remembered something Neville said in Virginia Woolf’s brilliant ‘stream of consciousness’ novel The Waves:-

“In a world which contains the present moment,” said Neville, “why discriminate? Nothing should be named lest by so doing we change it. Let it exist, this bank, this beauty, and I myself, for one instant, steeped in pleasure. The sun is hot. I see the river. I see trees specked and burnt in the autumn sunlight. Boats float past, through the red, through the green…”

Let the bare oak tree exist in the present moment and the busy roundabout behind it…

hospital picture window
so many people
on the roundabout

both inside and outside ‒ contemplating which, after the event, one might enlarge conceptually  into the thought of life’s endless carousel.

This long preamble seems entirely necessary because, completely abandoned inside my mental apparatus, I also began to think about ‘consciousness’. Most British Haiku Society members are perhaps not aware of the way so-called ‘leaders’ in the haiku world seem intent on perverting the form by intimating that haiku are the result of applying what they call ‘consciousness’ to the world as it is, as though one were simply writing a consciously ‘thought out’ poem or menu for a party. Their notion of ‘consciousness’ makes it acceptable to pluck words & images from out of nowhere with feigned intellectual egoistic certainty generated from the words presented together on the page but having no relevance to the present moment. The names of the authors of these four examples seem as irrelevant as the words presented as what they imagine can be called ‘haiku’. I don’t wish to pick bones.

mistakes were implemented as flightless birds

fallen nest bumblebees reframe the question

inside a bat’s ear
a rose
opens to a star

a blue coffin one nail escapes the solar system

Four hycoo! A few stray words chopped out of longer bits of possibly respectable ‘modern’ poetry maybe but if you think you’re writing a poem you’re not writing a haiku ‒ you’re in the wrong part of your brain to make it happen; you’re ‘thinking’ in the same way you might be when drawing up a shopping list, or batting order as the late David Cobb might have done, wondering what’s next; you are not in tune with the objective here & now, free from the uses of ego; you are not dealing with the world as it is; you are tossing a few words out of a tin cup and manoeuvring them into something with seeming disdain for the entire history of what is properly called ‘haiku’. You probably think you are indulging in ‘Haiku Experiment’ of a high order.

A ‘genre’ is a category characterized by a particular style or content. It’s arguable therefore that when the term ‘haiku genre’ contains anything, from a jumping frog to a blue coffin with an escaping nail, anything expressed in a way that seems clever and experimental enough to acquire a certain notoriety, it ceases to have any meaning whatsoever as an identifiable category or class. Either by copying what’s gone before or by harnessing some poetic prowess you think you might have, you can just dash something off, and dump it in the ‘genre’ file that becomes more and more meaningless the fatter it becomes. It makes a mockery of the provenance of haiku . A thought of any kind, surreal or reflective, like the following, is not a haiku.

in this pandemic
we all are safer at home
we heal and we grow

Flying above Alaska in 1977 on a professional pedagogic visit to Japan, David Cobb discovered the idea of haiku in a flight information dossier hanging on the back of the seat in front of him. He seized upon the opportunity, as he saw it, of being able to establish a quick rapport with his hosts by referring in conversation to what he had discovered up in the air.

Later, greatly influenced by Joan Giroux, he was advised by Bill Higginson to find out what was behind haiku sensibility and to spend ten years practising before ever letting a haiku loose on the world. Though he had contact with James Hackett in the intervening years, he did experience rejection by established publishers but it was not till 1990 that he teamed up with James Kirkup and Dee Evetts to canvas interest in the possibility of a UK Haiku Society. They were surprised by the response. It’s where I came in.

There’s so much to learn about the production of true haiku as David well understood – it’s not at all about just calling oneself a ‘haiku poet’.

Anyway, going back to my hospital bed, what about ‘Consciousness’? How does it figure in haiku writing? What kind of ‘Consciousness’ is really appropriate for the writing of haiku?

What came into my red biro mind was the memory of a brilliant essay I have long been familiar with – The Stream of Consciousness by William James which first appeared in his Textbook of Psychology (1892). ANWhitehead championed James and his own writing about ‘consciousness’ incorporates many of James’ ideas. I had to wait till I got home from the hospital to consult books in my library; but the experience of being locked into my mind for three days was a valuable one ‒ there was an endless stream of consciousness as there is for all of us all the time without our realising it; we’re only too happy to chop it up into bits & pieces as we focus on this & that for short periods of time during the course of time. I wrote a number of more or less tolerable haiku and spent some time comparing what was happening when I was ‘thinking’ in a Left Brain, non-haikuic, kind of way, word-spinning, with the feeling of something emerging as a haiku/senryu, as it should, from a wordless unification of egoless being and the great joy of non-being which is well worth cultivating.

How, then, does one become aware of the relative tightness of an event that fits naturally into the Stream of Consciousness, which, when captured, results in a haiku? To discover the answer is, for me, the only worthwhile experimental process for haiku-writers. An example… Over the years my, thankfully, few stays in hospital suggest that nurses, busy with their all too necessary roles, have little regard for the comfort of sleeping people:

midnight voices
turning electricity
into daylight

Too clever by half! So I closed my intellect down and I went back into the general stream of consciousness. Emerging once more from a deep dream-state it seemed as though the same voices kept coming in waves, something which, even if going beyond the here & now, felt more descriptive of the process (‘…waves of nurse chat…’). A memory of the opening of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves turned what was admittedly an ‘idea’ into something completely unmanageable like the nurses and their inconsequential exchanges ‒ more powerful, a tidal movement.

…the sun had not yet risen …as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and …became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually. As they neared the shore each bar rose, heaped itself, broke and swept a thin veil of white water across the sand. The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously…

And, finding my dreaming self turning rather solidly into the textures of smooth sand into which the tide was dissolving I settled for

a tide
of midnight voices
sinking into mind-sand

In early editions of Blithe Spirit both David Cobb and I independently expressed the view that true haiku emerge from Right Brain consciousness – the kind that on the whole is not ‘thinking’ in the way that I’m having to do to write this essay with the effort to make sense but just recognises the rhythm and pattern of the multiplicity of surrounding world-events with self being ‘implicated’ (literally folded into the way things happen to be). I felt myself thus ‘implicated’ in a tide of voices sinking unaccountably into my soggy-sand unreflective being for about half an hour. Left Brain consciousness which deals with language and accountancy, things in seemingly apple-pie order, of course has to come into play when a haiku is put into words; the left brain is certainly at home counting syllables! I switched on the bed-light and went back & forth over the corpus callosum that joins my two brains till I was happy with the idea of having become a metaphor ‒ a satisfying annihilation of self in a haiku.

William James died in 1910 and Whitehead in 1947. The way the brain is divided into Left and Right sides with significant double function (a concept refined somewhat during the 1990’s, ‘the Decade of the Brain’) did not come into general use until the 1960’s. I think both philosophers would have enjoyed adding it to their thinking though Whitehead would probably have seen it as an example of what he called ‘bifurcation’. His analysis suggests that we habitually work with an illusory or invented view of the world:  we typically engage in ‘bifurcation’, splitting things in two: simple/complex, self/other; we imagine that we are observers of things observed, people trying to make sense of things which are separate from us, when we are, in fact, implicated in a systemic process; the stream of consciousness is the most obvious part of our experience when we become aware of it – it’s usually so obvious that we fail to notice it any more than we notice the air we breathe. Everything we experience is part of the stream. There’s a constant mental flux from feeling to thought to sensations, contrast & comparison, finding echoes of past & future. It all feels continuous and we imagine that things & people outside remain the same but nothing we experience is ever the same twice being subject to one’s state of mind, always revisited in the light of new experience ‒ new every moment. This is my version of Whitehead’s systemic process; it gives rise to what he calls ‘the occasion’:-One morning, this ‘occasion’ occurred to me:-

a contemplation
of abandoned patients
in early winter sunlight

Nurses being pushed to the limit in the current Plague crisis, there was a feeling of our being abandoned in the sunlight ‒ my Left Brain observation ‒ but then I realised I was not just the observer of the others in the ward but a participant, hence the collective noun ‒ it was a mass contemplation in the Right Brain, not one that was added to the experience. Whitehead’s systemic process describes the emergent ‘occasion’; it is descriptive of the way real haiku may emerge without (2) and (3) being fore-grounded. Adding contemplation of any kind in haiku, intellectual or emotional, takes away from the purity of the occasion which is what we should be aiming at making a record of. What began unthinkingly as me versus them (the other patients, bifurcated) and it (the quality of the day & the notional abandonment) became an undifferentiated whole, a selflessness wrapped in the (perhaps novel?) collective noun, ‘a contemplation’.

My lonely hospital experience forced me to be aware of the way this system works; there was nothing else for it! It was useful because I became more than aware of the absolute functional validity of James’ concept of the Stream of Consciousness; it provides a neat label for the unity of apprehension that is our fundamental experience. To become aware of it in normal circumstances it’s simply a case of checking in every so often, as I think I am in the long-time habit of doing, and suddenly fixing on an existential awareness of being implicated in an undifferentiated unity out of which a haiku sometimes leaps.

William James suggests that it’s not correct to believe that ‘consciousness’ is built up of compounds of discrete elements – it’s the other way round. What we know directly, unthinkingly… (look up without naming anything and check it out right now…) is a unity to start with; it’s only afterwards that we choose to look at trees, cat, crackling bonfire, river, whatever it is that grabs our attention for the moment. Consciousness of some kind is always going on and only afterwards comes making the choice of things to focus on specifically.

We are implicated, folded into, a stream of events or occasions in relation to which our consciousness is constantly changing – never ever the same state twice over; it flows smoothly between seeing, hearing, sensing, reasoning, being temperamental, willing, recollecting, expecting, loving/hating, and so on.

James suggests that we can have ‘knowledge about’ things we flow past – topics, subjects, ideas – these days we can say that we pick them out for Left Brain intellectual inspection; on the other hand, James contrasts that with having a mere passing ‘acquaintance with’ what’s happening – pure impressions in the Right Brain without straying into thoughtful, fanciful or imaginative decoration of bare occasions (finding fanciful things inside a bat’s ear, for example… or recording the antics of a blue coffin nail…) It’s a passing ‘acquaintance with’ what’s happening that’s relevant to the writing of haiku: the capturing of pure impressions without going beyond the concrete specificity, without choosing to indulge in conventional poetic tropes of one kind and another or drifting away from the way things are into abstraction.

But, crucially, James says that there are things that interrupt the flow, at least momentarily: a voice, a shriek, contrasting shifts, something strange happening, an explosion, a musical climax; they interrupt, while remaining folded into, the continuing stream – an explosion contains some mental reference to the silence that preceded it, for example.

On the second night in hospital I was deeply asleep when at exactly eleven o’clock curtains were being rapidly pulled round beds, followed by shouts and loud voices issuing ferocious commands. The man next to me was in crisis. I could have been deeply moved by the memory of a brief very ordinary conversation that same afternoon I had with the man who was dying. I could have gone into intellectual thoughts about human life being ‘but as grass’ and so on. But in my stream of consciousness I simply related to events which went on till dawn, making automatic responses to various shouted commands.

dying man in the next bed
urged to move his left leg
‒ I move mine

By breakfast time his remains were gone. Later, I found myself lost again in one end of a loud telephone conversation conducted by a very healthy-seeming young man, confined to bed for two days because of something shattered in his backbone, explaining his intention to get up and walk with sticks.

the whole ward shares
his problem with vertebrae
– I think about a stretch

In both cases, though it seems to have a presence, the ‘I’ is annihilated into the occasion.

By comparison, paradoxically, in a Left Brain intellectual hycoo like

mistakes were implemented as flightless birds

the writer’s ego is fully present since the reader feels bound to ask questions like: whose mistakes? who is doing the implementing? who is making the absurd comparison and why? The line bursts with a strong ego-presence, the hiring of an intellect that thinks itself a poet.

Meanwhile, during a short period of deep fitful sleep which might have been the result of a morphine fix, some people, strange to me, came with contraptions announcing some menacing procedure they intended for me:-

alien takeover
through deep sleep they tell me
I need tubes

I notice it says in the Hospital Report that I refused to have anything to do with whatever they were going to do. I preferred to escape into the relief of a dream vision of

bright-faced nurses
dancing
out of the dark night

The Stream of Consciousness extends itself into the whole of time, night & day ‒ I quite often write ‘dream haiku’…

Finally, I rejected the following which while being quite true is a thought rather than a haiku/senryu:-

nurses avoid eye contact
in case you ask them
for something

Poor heroes…

11 thoughts on “THE STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS – Lessons in Haiku from a Hospital Bed (R17)

  1. Dear Colin,

    Great to have you back ! Where would poetry be without the dedicated work of people such as yourself !
    Everything that you share with us is always very revealing.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. So sorry to hear about your recent illness and hospitalization, Colin … but as always, you find such deep insights hidden within every experience that enters your “stream of consciousness”, and then you find such inspiring words with which to share those insights through your writing. Welcome back, and stay well!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent silver lining to a horrid interlude Colin! Thank you for having the coronae to go where you did to gain these insights when many might have gone in a very different direction. Really insightful and helpful. Soooooo happy that you are back in your haven. Long to meeting up again later this year if all goes as we hope xxxx

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Wow! This isn’t so much a Glob than it is a thrilling short-story. Moving from identifying with a giant Oak outside the hospital windows that imposes on the author a completely “other” meaning it gives us meaning. The story is punctuated often by questions concerning haiku and consciousness, questions that have swirled around Colin’s brain for decades; always searching, always seeking, always leaping creatively from the ideas of William James, Gurdjieff, and many others: what is consciousness? How fast does it move?

    Like I said this reads more like a short-story, the ideas about haiku and consciousness cross between perceptions fueled by a hospital, the soon to be dead, the over-worked nurses, and Colin’s own pain and treatment.

    Meaning! Can words offer us meaning, can they give us a glimpse into the truth? If the lengthy string of words at our disposal are creatively placed in a structure offer us a surprise, a genuine surprise about this condition of ours?

    I digress. The first thoughts I had after reading the beginning of this story were emotions aimed at Janet. My mind quickly tried to imagine how Janet felt during all this, how crazy and yet how gracious she must have been. It seems time is having its way with us, my wife at this moment is in bed weakened by the virus, going on 4 weeks now.

    I know for me there is a shift in consciousness when I write a haiku, something slows down, the mind and the outside world connect almost like a dream, suddenly my attention becomes clear and this three dimensional world for lack of a better word is illuminated.

    Maybe we live within a long preamble spelling out its stream of consciousness eternally and we are just too distracted to listen.

    I know the haiku you wrote during your stay at the hospital are full of life, highlighted by imagination, and as curious as a dream, just marvelous Colin.

    Maybe all we can do is trudge onward despite what comes our way and hold dear to the beauty that strikes us like that eternal bell. Thanks Colin!!!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, Patrick. This was a story I told myself like so many others I tell me day by day but in this case it took over a month to get my scrappy red biro notes into order!

      I think this is what the story is about: ‘…Maybe we live within a long preamble spelling out its stream of consciousness eternally and we are just too distracted to listen…’ Distracted by intellect & emotion and all the A Influences that ghost us – turn us into ghosts. On a negative note, too many so-called ‘haiku writers’ think that they’re writing a conventional poem where intellect & emotion are run of the mill. That was the sub-text of my story.

      I think Janet thought I was on my way out – so did I to start with. She caught my tiredness but we’re soldiering on in a pacifistic kind of way. You’ll know what it’s like. Love to Trina.

      The eternal bell… Trudging on!

      Colin

      Liked by 3 people

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