Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,
Last week I had a wonderful article on tanka for you (written by Jane Reichhold) and this week I have another nice article for you, but now more specific for haiku. This article is by Jim Kacian and it's about "Thingness in haiku".
article was published earlier in:
Valley Voices: A Literary Review 8:1
Mississippi Valley State University
Spring 2008, pp. 60-61.
Van Gogh’s Shoes: Thingness in Haiku
haiku differ from other kinds of poetry? This is a vast subject, and of course
can’t really be
answered haiku is very like other kinds of poetry, at times, and at other times
nothing like it at all. Which poetry it is, and which haiku, makes all the
characteristic of haiku that contrasts with other poetry is lack of story. That
is, haiku are not generally in the business of trying to narrate a tale, though
of course there may be a tale involved, either in the content of the poem, or
in its discovery. If one is attempting to tell the story of the Trojan War, one
might opt for a kind of poetry in which to tell it, but it assuredly won’t be
haiku. (And so, naturally, a story, attributed to Basho: challenged by a man to include the Eight Views of Omi in a single verse (merely listing the names of the eight views would require more than 60-on), the poet produced shichikei wa kiri ni kakurete mii no kane // seven views / hidden in the mist / the (temple) bell of Mii // returning story once again to poetry).
not so much opposed to narrative as beyond it not telling tales, but
encompassing them. Haiku have neither past nor future, and are not strictly
narratable. As narrative fails, description takes over, bits and pieces
obtrude. A description of bits and pieces is concerned with neither memory nor
desire. It insists on the presence of that presented.
bits and pieces may stir memory for an instant: they are signs. But they are
never inclusive, and though selected, cannot aspire to conjuring the world
whole in any individual poem. They are, instead, the meaningfully random, and
only taken as a whole that is, the entirety of all haiku ever written does
anything like comprehensiveness arise. The bits and pieces are not more than
bits and pieces they will remain for the duration of the poem exactly what they
already are. But in accumulation they approach fractally the sum of reality, of
mind. As I’ve written elsewhere, haiku, the world’s shortest poetry,
agglomerates to haiku, the world’s longest poem. Read enough haiku, then, and
the world will work in that special sense that literature permits.
keeps fresh the capacity for memory and desire that, in turn, freshens
narrative. What bits and pieces keep fresh is something else again, something
we might term sensibility. The Japanese coined special words for elements of
this: sabi, for instance, and wabi, karumi, yugen. These collectively amount to
a sort of nostalgia, a state which is not memory, is not desire, but requires
access to them in order to work. These bits and pieces, these objects, were not
considered worthy of description until they had acquired the patina of
sensibility. This is considered to be revealing not only of the condition of
objects, but of their owners or perceivers. There must be a sense of having been
used that conveys worth. Poets are expected to spend some time in the presence
of such detritus, in order to achieve tone. When the poet stops writing the
stories of these objects and begins to describe them (or, as we are wont to
say, permit them to speak for themselves), s/he is ready for haiku.
To make the
abstract concrete: recall your favorite pair of jeans. You can’t quite throw
them away, in part because they are enmeshed with your memories and desires,
but also in part because they still work. You can wear them (to some places,
anyway) without embarrassment and with physical and psychological comfort.
Their utility has not been used up. They remain commodities in the real world
you remove this commodity from the real world and make of it something else an
element in a painting or a poem, say you have changed its meaning. This is
precisely what Van Gogh does in his famous painting A Pair of Shoes (painted in
Paris in 1886, just as the first wave of Japonisme was seizing the French avant-garde).
painting the shoes are immortalized not for their utility but for their affect.
(Another tale: the story is told that Van Gogh bought these shoes at a flea
market for use in a still life, but found them unready only a long walk in the
Parisian rain made them fit for paint.)
generally, this commodification in haiku is an important element in its
conveying of meaning. A commodity is an object worthy of exchange that is,
containing value in two minds. But it need not be the same value, and in fact
in haiku objects are seen to be removed from their utility (although it was
utility which created their worth) and elevated to the status of idea. This is
an old conceit, here and abroad in the west Karl Marx in Das Kapital defines
commodification as a kind of transcendence; in the east, we have haiku.
of an object (in haiku, in Marxism) is not in its continued usefulness that is,
in its ability to contribute to the furtherance of a narrative that includes it
but rather simply as itself in its current state. Such an object has no past
and no future it simply is, and now. But haiku values this not in commercial
(that is, real) terms, but on its own terms. In haiku, matter survives
commodification intact, even inside the idea that has made it a commodity,
where it can be grasped by a theory: not Marx's theory, but literature’s. One
might say there are two kinds of commodification: the real, theorized by Marx,
which raises matter into meaning and value but always the same hard currency meaning
and value; and the abstract, theorized in literature, which raises it, oddly,
yet further, into a compelling particularity (in fact, into a type of
particular). That is, it re-objectifies the object. This is precisely haiku’s
western analogues, of course, most specifically suggested in the philosophy of
Heidegger, and by William Carlos Williams's “No ideas but in things.” This does
not suggest that there should be no ideas at all, but rather that objects be
the necessary condition for ideas. This is an important extension of our
understanding of haiku, in that it permits it to grow beyond a simple listing
of objects to the repository of idea, and so a greater claim to inclusiveness.
The best haiku, Japanese and western, arise from the “thingness” of their
elements that suggests breadth of thought and possibility. It is in this “(post-)modern” sense of the object that we are to
find the direction for growth in haiku. Not just knowing the difference between
an object and a thing, but also the sense of things having nothing to do with
the sensation of thingness. The being of things lies no more in the details of
their mere physicality than does the being of humans. Objects are to be
reobjectified not by an accretion of details but by their powers of allusion,
the accumulation of meanings and feelings which people have found therein.
If haiku is
to remain viable, it must not be a catalog poetry, but a poetry of emanation.
This flies in the face of most supposed definitions of haiku as “moments keenly
perceived” if we take perception to be the close noticing of attributes. Rather
it must become what Wallace Stevens suggested in “The Plain Sense of Things”
when he anticipates the wearing thin of meaning imbued in things, but
recognizes that in reality such is inexhaustible, even if it must rebound upon
ourselves: “Yet the absence of the imagination,” he continues, “had / Itself to
In the above article Jim shares a haiku by Basho, which Basho wrote as a response on a challenge which he was asked for, a kind of bet so to say.
shichikei wa kiri ni kakurete mii no kane
hidden in the mist -
the (temple) bell of Mii
© Basho (Tr. Jim Kacian)
A nice one I would say, especially the idea of the challenge behind it, And that brings me to your challenge for this episode of Tokubetsudesu. In the haiku by Basho he describes the 8 views of Omi in just a few lines, and the painting by Van Gogh shows you how simplicity can work. That brings me to the following challenge:
Try to tell a story, like the haiku by Basho and using the simplicity of the description of the painting by Van Gogh, for a haiku ... only a haiku!
I have given it a try too, but I don't know for sure if I succeeded.
snowflakes fall gently
slowly the black earth becomes white
even the scarecrow
Well ... I hope you all did like this Tokubetsudesu episode and that it will inspire you to write a haiku.
This episode is open for your submissions tonight at 7.00 PM (CET) and will remain open until January 29th at noon (CET). I will try to publish our next episode, the last CD Special of this month, later on. For now ... have fun, be inspired and share your haiku with us all.