Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Carpe Diem Haiku Writing Techniques #18 Yugen

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

Maybe I am a little bit late with publishing this new episode of our Haiku Writing Techniques, but ... well I had a very busy day at work and we had to "baby-sit" on three of our grandkids. So I apologize for that.

It is Wednesday again and as we all know that's the day on which I introduce different Haiku Writing Techniques to you all in cooperation with Jane Reichhold. She has written several books about haiku and in those books she describes several (know and unknown) haiku writing techniques. Today (or do I have to say "this week") the haiku writing technique which I love to introduce to you is Yugen. Yugen is in a way related to Wabi Sabi, one of the haiku writing techniques which we explored in our first series of CDHWT.

Yugen is usually defined as "mystery" and "unknowable depth". Somehow Yugen has avoided the controversy of Wabi and Sabi. But since deciding which haiku exemplifies this quality is a judgmental decision, there is rarely consent over which verse has it and which does not. One could say a woman's face half-hidden behind a fan has Yugen. The same face half-covered with pink goo while getting a facial, however, does not. But still, haiku poets do use the atmosphere as defined by Yugen to make their words be a good haiku by forcing their readers to think and to delve into the everyday sacredness of common things.

Here is an example of a "yugen-haiku" by Jane Reichhold, whom I am very grateful that she gave me permission to use her writings:

a swinging gate
on both sides flowers
open - close

© Jane Reichhold

As I was doing research for this episode I dived into the Internet and found a wonderful essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Yugen. I will reproduce that essay hereafter. It's part of a bigger essay titled "Japanese Aesthetics": 

Yūgen may be, among generally recondite Japanese aesthetic ideas, the most ineffable. The term is first found in Chinese philosophical texts, where it has the meaning of “dark,” or “mysterious.”
Kamo no Chōmei, the author of the well-known Hōjōki (An Account of my Hut, 1212), also wrote about poetry and considered yūgen to be a primary concern of the poetry of his time. He offers the following as a characterization of yūgen: “It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.” Another characterization helpfully mentions the importance of the imagination: “When looking at autumn mountains through mist, the view may be indistinct yet have great depth. Although few autumn leaves may be visible through the mist, the view is alluring. The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything one can see more clearly” (Hume, 253–54).

This passage instantiates a general feature of East-Asian culture, which favors allusiveness over explicitness and completeness. Yūgen does not, as has sometimes been supposed, have to do with some other world beyond this one, but rather with the depth of the world we live in, as experienced through cultivated imagination.

Credits: Noh Theater

The art in which the notion of yūgen has played the most important role is the Nō (or Noh) drama, one of the world's great theater traditions, which attained its highest flourishing through the artistry of Zeami Motokiyo (1363–1443). Zeami wrote a number of treatises on Nō drama, in which yūgen (“Grace”) figures as “the highest principle(Rimer, 92). He associates it with the highly refined culture of the Japanese nobility, and with their speech in particular, though there is also in Nō a “Grace of music,” a “Grace of performance [of different roles],” and a “Grace of the dance” (Rimer, 93). It is something rare, that is attained only by the greatest actors in the tradition, and only after decades of dedicated practice of the art. It is impossible to conceptualize, so that Zeami often resorts to imagery in trying to explain it: “Cannot the beauty of Grace be compared to the image of a swan holding a flower in its bill, I wonder?” (Rimer, 73).

The most famous formulation (of yugen) comes at the beginning of Zeami's “Notes on the Nine Levels [of artistic attainment in Nō],” where the highest level is referred to as “the art of the flower[ing] of peerless charm”:

[...] "The meaning of the phrase Peerless Charm surpasses any explanation in words and lies beyond the workings of consciousness. It can surely be said that the phrase ‘in the dead of night, the sun shines brightly’ exists in a realm beyond logical explanation. Indeed, concerning the Grace of the greatest performers in our art [it gives rise to] the moment of Feeling that Transcends Cognition, and to an art that lies beyond any level that the artist may consciously have attained". [...] (Rimer, 120)

This passage alludes to the results of a pattern of rigorous discipline that informs many “performing arts” (which would include the tea ceremony and calligraphy as well as theater) in Japan, as well as East-Asian martial arts. Nō is exemplary in this respect, since its forms of diction, gestures, gaits, and dance movements are all highly stylized and extremely unnatural. The idea is that one practices for years a “form” (kata) that goes counter to the natural movements of the body and thus requires tremendous discipline—to the point of a breakthrough to a “higher naturalness” that is exhibited when the form has been consummately incorporated. This kind of spontaneity gives the impression, as in the case of Grace, of something “supernatural.” (Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

 In "Basho, The Complete Haiku" Jane Reichhold gives us an example of a haiku by Basho in which he used yugen and I love to share that haiku here with you all:

souvenir paintings
what kind of a brush first drew
the image of Buddha

© Basho (Tr. Jane Reichhold)

So ... yugen as defined "mystery" and "unknowable depth" is not a well known (or often used) haiku writing techniques, but in a way I am attracted to this technique. In a way I feel yugen in our November prompts about the Altai Mountains and our search for what Hamish Managua Gunn (Pirate) calls "shaman-haiku". I even think that in the most haiku shared here at Carpe Diem Haiku Kai we can find yugen, but that's just my humble opinion.

Credits: An example of yugen in a woodblock print (bamboo)

What to do with this haiku writing technique? I think we have to explore this, because I belief that haiku needs yugen, needs "mystery" and "unknowable depth". So let us focus on that in our responses, our inspired haiku, for this episode of Carpe Diem Haiku Writing Techniques.

I will give it a try ... I just have to, because how can I expect it from you, as I don't even have tried it myself to catch "mystery" ... yugen ... "unknowable depth" in a haiku? So here is my attempt to write a "yugen-haiku" and a few examples from my archives:

translucent tea cup
hides a deep secret
ghost of tea

© Chèvrefeuille

Or what do you think of this one from one of former posts here at CDHK:

one empty bowl
thrown away in the sink
the faint scent of tea

the faint scent of tea
as I empty the kettle -
time for coffee

© Chèvrefeuille

Credits: cicada-shell

And to conclude this episode about yugen I have a tanka for you in which I think we can find yugen too:

from a treetop
emptiness dropped down
in a cicada shell
the soothing sound of spring rain
makes the silence stronger  

© Chèvrefeuille

I hope you did like this CDHWT episode about yugen (mystery) and I hope it will help to improve your haiku writing skills.

This episode is NOW OPEN for your submissions and will remain open until November 13th at noon (CET). Have fun, be inspired and share!


  1. glad to try out dfor yugen haiku.

  2. This was a hard one - a real challenge. Your yugens are so beautiful.
    I found a photo with that kind of woman face you mentioned ;)

  3. Wonderful lesson and I found your tanka very beautifully written indeed! Bastet

  4. I agree = that tanka was really stunning Chevrefeuille. Very interesting, yes, complex, but we need to strive for Yugen.