Saturday, September 20, 2014

To the Lighthouse: Two-Axis Haiku -- See and Think beyond the "Haiku Moment"

                                                                                                        winter twilight
                                                                                                        the "tick, tock, tick, tock"
                                                                                                        of my old wall clock
                                                                                                       
In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems. As I have shown in my book Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti-traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.
--  Haruo Shirane, Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature, Columbia University

Unlike modern English-language haiku, "which [are] often monologic, a single voice describing or responding to a scene or experience," the haiku Shuuson wrote was mainly situated in a communal setting and dialogic responses to earlier poems by other poets. "The brevity of the [haiku] is in fact possible because each poem is implicitly part of a massive, communally shared poem."
-- Chen-ou Liu


Below is excerpted from "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths" by Haruo Shirane, which was first published in Modern Haiku, 31:1, Winter/Spring 1999 and awarded First Prize in the World Haiku Essay Competition by the World Haiku Club, Feb. 2001:

We are often told, particularly by the pioneers of English language haiku (such as D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and the Beats) who mistakenly emphasized Zen Buddhism in Japanese haiku, that haiku should be about the "here and now". This is an extension of the notion that haiku must derive from direct observation and personal experience. Haiku is extremely short, and therefore it can concentrate on only a few details. It is thus suitable for focusing on the here and now. But there is no reason why these moments have to be only in the present, contemporary world or why haiku can't deal with other kinds of time. This noted haiku appears in Basho's Narrow Road:

samidare no furinokoshite ya hikarido.

Have the summer rains
come and gone, sparing
the Hall of Light

The summer rains (samidare) refers both to the rains falling now and to past summer rains, which have spared the Hall of Light over the centuries. Perhaps Basho's most famous poem in Narrow Road is "natsukusa ya tsuwamonodomo ga yume no ato" in which the "dreams" and the "summer grasses" are both those of the contemporary poet and of the warriors of the distant past.

Summer grasses --
traces of dreams
of ancient warriors

As we can see from these examples, haiku moments can occur in the distant past or in distant, imaginary places. In fact, one of Buson's great accomplishments was his ability to create other worlds.

Basho traveled to explore the present, the contemporary world, to meet new poets, and to compose linked verse together. Equally important, travel was a means of entering into the past, of meeting the spirits of the dead, of experiencing what his poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced. In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems. As I have shown in my book Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti- traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.


Below is excerpted from "Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally" by Chen-ou Liu, which was first published in A Hundred Gourds, 1:1, December 2011

The following haiku is written by Katoh Shuuson (or Kato Shuson; 1905-1993), haiku poet and leader of the humanist school that seeks the truths of human existence through the poetic means of haiku, and who is "known for his scholarly and poetic appreciations of the great classic haijin, notably Matsuo Basho:" 15

Japanese Original:

hakutai-no kakaku shingari-ni neko-no ko-mo

English Translation:

the days and months travelers
through a hundred generations
kitten tags along

Trans. by Dhugal J. Lindsay 16

On a denotative level, this haiku speaks of two types of movement: one is temporal, and the other spatial; one is portrayed in a metaphorical language, and the other a literal one. The juxtaposition of these two parts of the poem stirs the reader's reflection on temporal awareness and consciousness, and it reminds me of one of the thematic foci described in "Book XI" of Confessions, in which St. Augustine explores the relationship between God's timelessness and his creation's experience of time. Most importantly, the image juxtaposed with the first two lines – the Existentialist statement on time as the traveler – is an innocent, uninvited, kitten, offsetting the unbearable heaviness of its preceding lines and thus creating some sort of a comic-tragic effect. It further stirs up the reader's emotions about and reflection on the absence of human beings in the poem. This haiku is brilliantly written and its suggestive power relies on the thematic gap between the two parts of the poem. It can definitely stand on its own without the reader's extra/inter-textual knowledge.

On a connotative level, the first two lines of this haiku are a direct quote from the opening line of the first haibun in Basho's travelogue, The Narrow Road to the Interior, one that is followed by "and the years that come and go are also travelers." 17 Read in the context of Basho's travelogue, the opening haibun is the most important section of the work that determines the theme, tone, movement, and goals. 18 It also describes multiple departures – "the hermit-poet's philosophical departure from a particular way of life and his actual physical departure from the hermitage, a symbol of life he abandons." 19

The haibun was written in the first person perspective, and Basho stressed that "[many] in the past also died while traveling. In which year it was I do not recall, but I, too, began to be lured by the wind like a fragmentary cloud and have since been unable to resist wanderlust, roaming out to the seashores." 20 According to Hiroaki Sato, "many in the past" might refer to Japanese poets, such as Saigyo and Sogi, and Chinese poets, such as, Li Po and Tu Fu, who all died while traveling. 21 More importantly, Basho's opening lines allude to a popular piece, the preface to "Holding a Banquet in the Peach and Pear Garden on a Spring Night," written by Chinese poet Li Po. 22 They are almost a literal translation into Japanese of Li Po's lines, except that " one Chinese term, using the compound tsukihi (month and days, moon and sun, or time) [is] in place of [Li Po's] koin (day and night, light and darkness, or time)." 23 Unlike his contemporaries, such as Ihara Saikaku and Oyodo Michikaze, both of whom used a direct quote,24 Basho changed koin to tsukihi. It's because tsukihi brings to the Japanese reader's mind "more concrete and vivid images of the moon and sun with all the connotations the two carry in the Japanese poetic tradition." 25 In the haibun, Basho established a poetic-interpersonal relationship with the ancients, one that reveals his sense of rootedness.

Shuuson, unlike his poetic forefather Basho, used a direct quote written in modern Japanese from Basho's famous haibun, and subtly showed the tonal difference between his quoted line and Basho's original. 26 And he wrote his haiku from a perspective of an objective observer. There is no human figure in the haiku. What we see is just a cute kitten unaware of the passage of time, tagging along the procession of the days and months as travelers. The psycho-philosophical impact of the inner tension and thematic gap is brought about by the sharp contrast between the two parts of the poem.

For attentive Japanese readers, Shuuson's haiku is fresh and original in terms of his skillful use of a haikai twist through honkadori that parodies the existential themes of death and of the transience of life explored in Basho's work. When they encounter his poem, they read it slowly, repeatedly and communally. Unlike modern English-language haiku, "which [are] often monologic, a single voice describing or responding to a scene or experience," 27 the haiku Shuuson wrote was mainly situated in a communal setting and dialogic responses to earlier poems by other poets. "The brevity of the [haiku] is in fact possible because each poem is implicitly part of a massive, communally shared poem." 28 More importantly, it was until the post-Enlightenment that this non-individualist/communal concept of poetry began to be less known to the poets who were brought up in the Western literary culture. 29 In his influential book, titled The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Harold Bloom particularly mentions Shelley's speculations that: "poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress." 30 Like Japanese poets, Shelley viewed poetry as a collective enterprise.

Veteran haiku poet and editor Cor van den Heuvel gives an incisive explanation about these perspective differences between Japanese poets and "Western-minded" poets who are worried about not being original or fresh: "If a haiku is a good one, it doesn't matter if the subject has been used before. The writing of variations on certain subjects in haiku, sometimes using the same or similar phrases (or even changing a few words of a previous haiku), is one of the most interesting challenges the genre offers a poet and can result in refreshingly different ways of 'seeing anew' for the reader. This is an aspect of traditional Japanese haiku which is hard for many Westerners, with their ideas of uniqueness and Romantic individualism, to accept. But some of the most original voices in haiku do not hesitate to dare to seem derivative if they see a way of reworking an 'old' image." 31 (You can read the full text here)

1 comment:

  1. Below are the haiku definitions offered by the Haiku Society of America:

    An unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature. It usually consists of seventeen onji, 1973/1976

    A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition. 2004

    Both definitions don't consider the "vertical axis" aspect of a haiku.

    My 'winter twilight" haiku is two-axis, alluding to the popular song, " "My Grandfather's Clock"

    Note: Below is excerpted from the Wikipedia entry,My Grandfather's Clock:

    "My Grandfather's Clock" is a song written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work, the author of "Marching Through Georgia". It is a standard of British brass bands and colliery bands, and is also popular in bluegrass music. It has also been sung by male choruses such as the Robert Shaw Chorale.

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