Sunday, February 24, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Re-examining the Concept and Practice of Cutting

                                                                    heated haiku debate ...
                                                                    I peek through the gap
                                                                    in his argument 

                                                                    ( a senryu for "Eric Liu")

Re-examining the Concept of Cutting:

Evaluated in the historical and literary context, cutting words (kireji) “need not be as dramatic in effect as many non-Japanese poets have believed.” (Morris, p. 409). However, some kind or another of cutting (kire) or break has been the major aesthetic criterion that makes a hokku (pre-modern name for haiku) a hokku. The way cutting words were employed and the kinds of hokku they helped shape have changed a lot since the early days of haikai no renga (Morris, p.409)

According to his groundbreaking essay, entitled “Buson and Shiki” (pp. 409-14), Mark Morris points out three formulations about the use of cutting in the classic Japanese haiku tradition (editorial note: for more information, see To the Lighthouse: Three Formulations about the Use of Cutting). Unlike his poetic predecessors, Basho treated cutting words in terms of function and effect:

First, the cutting word is inserted in order to cut the verse. If the verse is already cut, it is not necessary to employ a word to cut it. For those poets who cannot distinguish between a cut and non-cut poem, earlier poets established cutting words. If one uses one of these words in a hokku, seven or eight times out of ten the hokku will be cut. The remaining two or three times, however, the hokku will not be cut even though it includes a cutting word. On the other hand, there are hokku that are cut even though they include no cutting words (NKBZ 51:478-79)”

For Basho, it was “the cutting effect rather than the cutting word itself that ultimately mattered.” (Shirane, p 104). According to Herbert Jonsson's study, in the haikai-related writings after Basho the actual use of cutting words became less important, whereas, the cut, whether it is marked by a cutting word or not, was the central issue (Jonsson, p. 43)

This view of cutting was re-articulated in “one of Buson's texts, the preface written for an ambitious study of cutting words, the Ya-kana-sho, by Ueda Akinari:

A Kireji is something which is not when it is, and is when it is not. There are poems with kireji that are not cut, and poems with no kireji that are cut. (Jonsson, p. 43)

Buson's main point here is the mere insertion of a cutting word doesn't by itself create a cut.

Armed with this view of the use of cutting, I think it’s fair to say that the mere use of a punctuation mark/line break/… doesn’t by itself create the cutting effect, and that most importantly, there are some haiku creating the cutting effects without using any sort of Western equivalents of Japanese cutting words.

Most English-speaking haiku poets understand a cut as a syntactic break through the use of punctuation. This view produces, comparatively speaking, weaker haiku (at best, “postcard” haiku or “aha” haiku). For me, a good haiku, evaluated in the historical and literary contexts of the English language haiku (with no abiding kigo tradition) and of modern poetry (with an emphasis on psychological depth and the poetic image), is an imagistic poem with a psychological bent, opening up an interpretative space for the reader to co-author the poem. This type of haiku can be easily found in the ones with psychological “ma” advocated by Professor Hasegawa Kai, who, in my view, has been articulating a new/the fourth view on the use of cutting/cutting words (editorial note: for more information, see  To the Lighthouse: Cutting through Time and Space )

Re-examining the Practice of Cutting

I haiku that create cutting effects


the brightness
of the full moon
deepens the cold

Hiss of Leaves, T. D. Ingram,

The haiku above is the so-called one-sentence haiku. Ingram’s use of cutting (through the excellent choice of a verbal phrase) makes a successful shift from the physical/outer world (portrayed in a natural scene) to the mental/inner one (indicating the implied speaker’s state of mood). The contrasts between these two worlds are psychologically effective. The haiku reminds me of one of Basho’s:

over the evening sea
the wild ducks' cry
is faintly white


eyes of the ancestors
the twinkle
in winter stars

NeverEnding Story, Rebecca Drouilhet

(authorial note: L1 refers to a North American Indian legend. The Inuit , formerly known as Eskimo, have a star legend that says the night sky is full of holes. After death the ancestors peer through the holes at the happenings on earth to keep an eye on the living.)

i) Armed with Extra-Textual Knowledge

L1, “eyes of the ancestors,” refers to the centuries-old story told above, setting a thematic context for the poem. On the surface Ls 2&3 refer to this old story above; However, read in the socio-politico-economic context of the fate/destiny of North American aboriginal peoples, the use of a seasonal reference (winter), which successfully makes a thematic shift with a psychological bent, adds emotional weight to the poem. Most importantly, the “twinkle” is now layered with multiple meanings. This haiku is timely, emotionally poignant, and sociopolitically conscious.

ii) Without Extra-Textual Knowledge.

For most readers who live in urbanized environments, L1 doesn’t seem to be realistic or truthful due to the impossibility of physically seeing the eyes of one’s ancestors. Therefore, the reader is encouraged to read L1 symbolically, such as the window into the ancestral world.

And structurally speaking, L2, the twinkle, is well-placed, creating image play (twinkling eyes vs twinkling stars). This shift (from human to natural/scenic) creates a psychological effect on the reader’s mind: the disruption of semantic expectation.

(editorial note: the Chinese people living in the rural areas today can still go to their ancestral temples to see the eyes of the ancestors whose portraits/photos on the walls)

II a haiku that creates no cutting effect

an ice angel's wings
bending the light
low winter sun

Rebecca Drouilhet

The opening image (Ls 1&2) is riveting, and I particularly like her verbal phrase (L2); however, the “juxtaposed” (?) L3 adds little to the poem. It’s because the sun is implied by the light in L2 and winter by ice in L1.

It doesn’t matter if Rebecca uses a punctuation mark (Western equivalent of a Japanese cutting word) as shown in the following revisions:

an ice angel's wings
bending the light… (or --, or :, …...)
low winter sun


low winter sun… (or --, or :, …...)
an ice angel's wings
bending the light

It’s because there is no actual cutting effect demonstrated in her poem, such as a shift/twist/ break (semantic, thematic, perceptual, and psychological, …) that occurs in the poem.

However, if a new line like “Christmas morning…” is used as the first line, functioning as a context-setting line.

Christmas morning …
an ice angel's wings
bending the light

The revision is a well-crafted haiku that creates the cutting effect. It’s because there is a shift that occurs in Ls 2&3, and most importantly, the new opening line situates the haiku in a religio-cultural context that is richly textured. It adds at least one more layer of meaning to the poem, and works emotionally effectively on two levels, literal and metaphoric (it’s because the theologically effective collocation of “Christmas,” “ice angel”, and “bending the light” (editorial note: According to the NT, especially to “John, “8:12, “[Jesus is] the light of the world.”)

By the way, if Rebecca’s original haiku ends with ‘in lower winter sun,”

an ice angel's wings
bending the light
in lower winter sun

then it becomes a so-called Ichibutsu Shitate (one-scene/image/theme/object haiku), a "single-object poem, which [focuses] on a single topic and in which the [haiku flows] smoothly from start to finish, without leap or gap found in the "composition poem" (that reads a poem with two juxtaposed images/topics...; Traces of Dreams, p. 111)


Mark Morris,"Buson and Shiki: Part One," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Dec., 1984), pp. 381-425

Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams Traces of Dreams Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, 1998

Herbert Jonsson, Haikai Poetics: Buson, Kitō and the Interpretation of Renku Poetry, Doctoral Thesis, Stockholm University, 2006


  1. One aspect of kire – or disjunction – has to do with the reader-sense of how at the moment of entering a haiku there can be experienced an instantaneous cutting away of linear time and space, in terms of reality-sense. At the completion of the haiku there is again, an abrupt return. In the English tradition, the kireji has been heretofore seen as the only significant element of juxtaposition, which has also been limited in function to juxtaposing realist-oriented, naturalistic imagery

    -- Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness (p. 300)

  2. is all about the musical pauses that let dreams build out of textual hints?

  3. I appreciate the comparison between poems with and without the cut. It helps cllarify the term. Also, the explanation that the cutting effect is more important than the actual cutting word is insightful. Still, examples of english equivalents of cutting words would be helpful if such words exist.
    One alternate view of "eyes of ancestors" - ancestors eyes are seen in the eyes of their descendents. Borrowing from the OT tradition, Israel refers to the man and/or his descendants.

    1. Many thanks for your encouraging comment and for sharing your thought on "eyes of ancestors."