Saturday, March 23, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Haiku as a Form of Super-Position

Before Basho’s famous frog haiku was known to the literary world, the most influential Japanese haiku was written by Arakida Moritake (1472-1549):

 The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
 A butterfly
(Pound, 1914, p.467).

In his essay on Vorticism in the September 1914 issue of The Fortnightly Review, Pound “explicitly credits the technique of the Japanese hokku in helping him work out the solution to a ‘metro emotion:’” (Pound, 1916, p. 103)

A Chinaman said long ago that if a man can’t say what he has to say in twelve lines he had better to keep quiet. The Japanese have evolved the still shorter form of the hokku… The "one-image poem" is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work "of second intensity." Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence 1:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.

Pound’s learning about haiku was mainly through his reading of Yone Noguchi’s (1875 – 1947) work. Noguchi’s poetry, The Pilgrimage and Japanese Hokkus, and his literary criticism, The Spirit of Japanese Poetry, in particular, were widely read in the West. He played “a principal role in relating Japanese poetics to Western intensions in early modernism.” (Hakutani, p. 2) In his essay, entitled “What Is a Hokku Poem?,” Noguchi emphasized that “poetic images must be active instead of suggestive, direct instead of symbolic, and that the aim of a hokku is to understand the spirit of nature rather than to express the will of man.” (Noguchi, p.34). These aesthetic ideas were employed in Pound’s essay, one of whose main goals was to articulate poetic ideals opposed to Victorian poetry, which he characterized as wordy and rhetorical, …and … in contrast to “the suggestiveness and vagueness of symbolist poetry.” (Hakutani, p3)

Now, let’s have an in-depth look at what Pound learned about the Japanese haiku poetics. Below is Noguchi’s English translation

I thought I saw the fallen leaves
Returning to their branches:
Alas, butterflies were they.
(Noguchi, p. 50)

Both Pound’s and Noguchi’s translations as well as the Japanese original contain the following keywords:  “fallen”, “branch, “ and “butterfly.” The big difference in diction is between Pound’s “blossom” and Noguchi’s “leaves.” And syntactically speaking, Pound’s translation starts objectively and ends subjectively; conversely, Noguchi’s translation begins subjectively (“I thought I saw”…) and ends objectively (Noguchi, p.35).

In terms of haiku poetics, the most aesthetically significant thing about Pound’s translation is that he succinctly reconstructed Noguchi’s three-line hokku in two lines, which reveals his view of haiku as a “form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another.” (Pound, 1916, p. 103). The super-pository division is indicated by his use of a colon.

Read in the context of Japanese classic haiku, technically speaking, there is nothing new about Moritake’ s haiku. In it, he employed a centuries-old poetic device, “mitate” (taking one thing for another) 2 as shown in the following waka:

In my garden
plum blossoms fall –
or is it not rain
but snow, cast down
from the sky?

Otomo No Tabito (665 – 731)
(Addiss, p. 17)

However, this haiku gains more resonance if the reader is aware of the following Zen saying: “The fallen blossom cannot return to its branch.” It makes this saying anew in light of the transformative power of a butterfly. That’s one of the reasons that Moritake’ s haiku is considered “one of the most famous verses of all early haikai poets.” (Addiss, p. 62)


1 For more information about Pound's "metro poem," see To the Lighthouse: Haikuesque Reading of Ezra Pound’s “Metro Poem.”

2 In the haiku below, which was posted on Saturday, March 16, 2013,

breezy morning
the gliding yellow bird
turns into a leaf

Peggy Heinrich's emotionally effective use of  mitate is impressive: the good context-setting L1 and the shift, tonal and thematic, in L3 lift the haiku up a notch.


Pound, Ezra, Gaudier-Brzeska, 1916,
                 --, “Vorticism, ” The Fortnightly Review, September 1914
Hakutani, Yoshinobu, Haiku and Modernist Poetics, 2009
Noguchi, Yoné, Selected English Writings of Yone Noguchi: Prose, 1992
Addiss, Stephen, The Art of Haiku:Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters, Shambhala, 2012.


  1. Pound's super-position (his notion of juxtaposition) centers mainly on sharp contrasts in texture and color; therefore it often creates vivid, compact metaphors. The big difference between his concept of super-position and the haikuesque notion of juxtaposition is the link between the superposed/ juxtaposed images.

  2. There is so much to learn about the art of writing haiku. Your website is such a wonderful garden of information where I can gather a small bouquet to enjoy each time you post. Thank you!

  3. Many thanks for your words of encouragement.