Thinking About Haiku


I write haiku to suit myself: they come from the relationship I imagine I have with the world out there in the here & now. They reconstruct something between me & it – I’m never quite sure what that might be.

One can so easily fall into the trap of producing standard formula haiku – what seems important to me is to break the mould while remaining true to what I presuppose to be the spirit of haiku. Infinitely remote from it are the new-fangled ‘modern’ hycoo which are a poor person’s escape from the moment into some fantasy world which might just produce interesting imagery in ‘proper poetry’, as distinct from haiku.

Then there are readers – for whom one cannot legislate at all. What one person may think is a merely descriptive haiku (a hohumhaiku), for instance, another will find captivating because it resonates with them for some obscure reason, maybe not even known to themselves. One haiku, 20 readers = 20 different haiku.

Having edited Blithe Spirit, journal of the British Haiku Society for fourteen years on & off, I served for a time as ‘mentor’ being privileged to receive many haiku from new members for comment; I worried about saying ‘the right thing’ – ‘right’ for that person at that time.

first spots of rain
on the south wind
that smell

Taking a deep breath, I commented: ‘Some might say this was purely descriptive but for me it holds all the relish of a change in the weather – I’ve experienced this moment myself – for me, it’s the dramatic ‘that smell’ that makes the haiku ‘fly’. It deposits something in the nose and the mind. I wondered if the writer would have described ‘that smell’ as having ‘dramatic’ intensity…

between the wood
and the tree
uncertainty

There was a time when abstractions like ‘uncertainty’ would have been frowned upon but here I think it works – again because it leaves something unresolved in the reader’s mind. I like a haiku that’s without resolution or makes me see things in a different way, leaves me pondering. ‘Poetry is the renovation of experience’ is a favourite quotation of mine from William Carlos Williams. Just a little tiny shift of perspective in a haiku will do.

Incidentally, many moons ago I said that my method of judging a haiku is to ‘chuck it out of the window and see if it flies…’

I ask myself: What do I imagine gave rise to this particular haiku? I still believe in the ‘haiku moment’. I wonder what the driving selective principle might be – what is it makes it not ‘just a poem’, words plucked out of the air? When ‘mentoring’ I used to re-write a haiku with apologies if I thought it’d make a useful point, chopping a few words out, leaving feelings to the reader. Haiku-writers must trust their readers to use the space they create sensitively. So

Two little children
sitting next to the grave.
Mourning for their brother.

could become

two small children
sit next to the grave
of their little brother

We don’t need to be told they are mourning; leave that to the reader; in fact they could be just wondering where their little brother’s gone having been told he’s there… If you change the first little to ‘small’ (a visual adjective) it enables you to reinforce the young life involved by emphasising ‘little’ brother.

She is tall, elegant and beautiful
like a palm tree on the beach.
Watching waves.

would be much better as

palm tree on the beach –
an elegant woman
watching the waves

Just ‘watching’… That’s all that’s needed for haiku-writing. But it is possible that one might like to think a bit further about it all… Like this…

In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency in order to function mentally in the real world. Whenever we experience some internal perplexity as a result of perceived contradictions, paradoxes or discrepancies of some kind, we become psychologically uncomfortable, and so can be motivated to reduce the resulting cognitive dissonance, by making mental changes in order to reduce a feeling of uncertainty or confusion: we might reframe x & y by looking at them from a different point of view or we might work to fill in the notional gap (or disjunction) between two oppositions by creating some kind of synthesis for ourselves.

The ‘success’ of a haiku depends on the writer’s prowess in creating a notional ‘gap’ between x & y which offers readers the space to close it or fill it by elaborating ‘meaning’ for themselves where there was perhaps little or no meaning on first reading.

On the other hand, and more generatively, in The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler ‘…coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane,’ as it were, and the creative act, which … always operates on more than one plane [at one and the same time]. The former can be called single-minded, the latter double-minded, the transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed…’

brussels on a stall
two colourful clowns
dance on cobblestones

          Richard Cluroe

First there’s a visual image – stick with it for a moment: greenish, small round static items dangling from a nail (maybe) from the side of a market stall. The shift of viewpoint or ‘cut’ is not specifically noted but the next two lines come from a completely different frame of reference – another visual image but more colourful and moving humanly in some mad sort of way, maybe to the sound of music. The visual link is in the roundness of brussel sprouts and cobbles. The two things, x & y, dance together bisociatively. Difference through sameness.

…The pattern underlying [the creative act] is the perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, M1 [x, round vegetables on a market stall] and M2 [y, round cobblestones with colourful clown] . The event L, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate [or dance] simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, L is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.

Scan0039

By filling things in this way, the reader becomes a co-creator with the poet. The poet has facilitated the act of re-creation.

glimpsed between
bungalows and clipped hedges
the ocean

                    Michael Bangerter

The bungalows with their clipped hedges (x – neat, tidy & managed) and then the ocean (y – unmanageable and monstrous); the link is in the being of the virtual observer who marries the two things just briefly – just glimpses them – that’s the bisociative explosion when the two matrices meet. The reader co-creates what results from the link of near & far.

All haiku pre-suppose the existence of an ‘I’ – usually without the need for drawing attention to itself.

5 thoughts on “Thinking About Haiku

  1. Hello – Glad to see you are still ticking and whirring!

    I know, and you know I know, diddly squat about haiku BUT

    Two little children
    sitting next to the grave.
    Mourning for their brother.

    could become

    two small children
    sit next to the grave
    of their little brother

    We don’t need to be told they are mourning; leave that to the reader; in fact they could be just wondering where their little brother’s gone having been told he’s there… If you change the first little to ‘small’ (a visual adjective) it enables you to reinforce the young life involved by emphasising ‘little’ brother.

    Can you help me to understand how you know that this brother was little? – could he not just as easily have been an older (bigger) brother?

    Also; because I like to understand these things, what makes the two original sentences, into haiku?or even the words in your “could become” anything more than a sentence. Is it merely the way they words are separated on the page? forming distinct phrases?

    I’ve probably missed the point entirely – but I genuinely would like to know.

    Thanks Colin

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice to hear from you, Pat!

    You’re quite right – I don’t know how old the dead brother was… Something in my head told me! You’ve made me think again…

    two small children
    sit next to the grave
    of their brother

    That would do: it leaves it to the reader to imagine the age of the brother. Haiku should make you think a little.

    Full stops are not really appropriate in haiku at all (imho) so the two sentence original is dubious. On the other hand it’s useful for there to be a ‘cut’ between two contrasting (in some way) images (your ‘distinct phrases’). That way the reader has to make a cognitive leap (however small) which is the point of a haiku. Better for this example not to be all one sentence then.

    two small children –
    next to the grave
    of their brother

    The neutral image of ‘two small children’ is greatly saddened by the next image. The ‘cut’ is the dash.

    So much in such a small item!

    Like

    1. Thank you Colin – Aha! I see…

      The dash gives it much more emotional umph!

      And I can now appreciate what distinguishes this form from a sentence.

      Thanks again.

      Love

      Pat x

      Like

  3. Dear Colin,

    This short article is extremely interesting and revealing – simple yet has depth – a haiku In itself!!!

    I have many of your excellent books, and I cannot put into words how my life has improved as a result of learning from your writing.

    May all that is good be always with you.

    Love/Peace

    John Gonzalez.

    Like

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