Building Blocks

 

Building Blocks

 Posted by Susan Shand on January 8, 2013 at 7:05 PM Comments comments (4)

So what IS a haiku anyway? I imagine that you will get as many varied responses to that question as people you ask. Everyone has an opinion, everyone is in their own place of relationship to this small poetry form and their understanding of it. I’m not sure that I have a clear answer to that question, mostly because I approach haiku on an instinctive level rather than a rule level, I am content-biased rather than form-biased.

 

So if we trek around the bazaars asking that question what answers will we get? If the responder to your question is form-biased then they will talk about the building blocks of haiku; kigo, kireji, juxtaposition, layout, length, and probably a lot of Japanese words for aesthetic qualities. The content-biased response might focus on the same aesthetic qualities but be more concerned with what is actually going on IN the haiku than how it is presented, or any supposed rules about what it should or should not contain.

 

William J Higginson, writing in 1985, tells us that,

 

“Basho emphasised the depth of content and the sincerity of the poet as perceived in the poem, and was not overly concerned with kigo andkireji, though he used both and did promote kisetsu (seasonal aspect) in poetry. […] Some modern haiku poets have abandoned traditional form […] holding that haiku has a deeper essence based on our response to the objects and events of our lives.” [WJH p.289]

 

 

So at what point does the scale between *5/7/5, kigo, kireji, nature focus* and (at the other end of the scale) “micro-poetry”, shift from haiku to not-haiku? Or in other words how many legs can we lose from the buffet before it falls over? From a form-biased perspective, how many of the building blocks of haiku must we use in order for it to be considered haiku? Actually, whenever I hear this argument my earworm (Ohrwurm) kicks in to the internal CD player with “Three wheels on my wagon, and I’m still rolling along….” (Oh blast! there it goes again…) 

 

I think many teachers begin by teaching form simply because it is so difficult to talk about the essence of what we mean by “essence”. It may be in some cases, that teaching form is merely a ruse to keep students occupied whilst they absorb by gradual osmosis, the essence of ‘essence’. This seems to me to be a cop-out on the teacher’s part, and singularly unskillful. In that rules, once inculcated into a student’s psyche, are very difficult to unlearn; so as a bridge they actually make a good barrier.

 

 

Higginson again, tells us that,

 

“Haiku happen all the time, wherever there are people who are “in touch” with the world of their senses, and with their own feeling response to it.” [WJH p.4]

 

So there is clearly something about this “essence” that includes us and our inner world. Which would suggest that somehow we must be intimately involved in what we are writing about. That the flat observational description, like a snapshot unexplained, is insufficient to convey “essence”.

 

“…that just as a mere “look at” an object is not enough to produce the deep seeing that begins inspiration, so the writing of a mere description cannot capture the essence of an object…” [WJH p.10]

 

(I would add here “or experience”. Bill makes this overt elsewhere and I wouldn’t want to imply that haiku should be object-focused.)

 

Somehow, our looking at the world needs to be an in depth experience which links us intimately with what we observe. Without casual thought or a chattering mind, but with an open unjudging approach to the external thing which has caught our attention. It is my feeling that our attention is captured because something outside of ourselves, in some way reflects what is inside of us. That we paint our own internal onto the external; and by doing so reach deeply into our own subconscious concerns and feeling responses. Then we apply our craft to attempting to transmit that valuable experience of seeing, to others.

 

 

Bill explains that the ideal of the Basho-school haiku is

“In the final poem, both the language of the poem and the mind of the poet should be transparent to the reader.” [WJH p10]

 

The point is NOT to obscure that experience by Yodaesque or pseudo-Japanese language. Nor by the Dadaesque association of words to confuse the mind with the intellectuality of concepts. Nor indeed to scatter words like crossword clues to engage the puzzling mind in a cleverness we hesitate to admit that we don’t understand. It is rather to expose our inner selves deeply and openly to the observation of others, so that they too can share in our experience.

 

Maybe, possibly, (and you must decide for yourself here) maybe even with no wheels at all, the wagon is still a wagon.

 

Susan

(stardate 20130108)

 

William J Higginson with Penny Harter (1985) “The Haiku Handbook”, Kodansha International

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4 thoughts on “Building Blocks

  1. Gabi Greve 11:28 PM on January 08, 2013
    If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog?
    Five? No, four.
    Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.!
    Abraham Lincoln
    .
    Before reading the parable of Lincoln, I had phrased my question in this way (and that was way before the birth of my kitten Haiku-Kun).
    If you take a cat (or dog to keep in the parable),
    cut off his head (kigo),
    cut off his four legs (5-7-5),
    cut off his tail (kire-ji) and
    present this creature to the world,
    what would it be called?
    .
    smile
    http://happyhaiku.blogspot.jp/2006/03/dog-without-tail.html

  2. Susan Shand 01:36 AM on January 09, 2013
    Gabi Greve says…
    If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog?
    Five? No, four.
    Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.!
    Abraham Lincoln
    .
    Before reading the parable of Lincoln, I had phrased my question in this way (and that was way before the birth of my kitten Haiku-Kun).
    If you take a cat (or dog to keep in the parable),
    cut off his head (kigo),
    cut off his four legs (5-7-5),
    cut off his tail (kire-ji) and
    present this creature to the world,
    what would it be called?
    .
    smile
    http://happyhaiku.blogspot.jp/2006/03/dog-without-tail.html

    Smiling back.

    I had your questions in mind when I composed this Gabi, they are memorable questions. It is an interesting debate this one. The west has already cut off the four legs, we don’t need the actual kireji in the English language so the tail is docked, we frequently use our own local seasonal markers or a delicate kisetsu, so the head is cooked — if the animal were, instead of a cat or dog, a Kobe beef – then what you would have left would be a very tasty steak with all the good parts served up for consumption.

  3. Reply
    sara winteridge 06:13 PM on January 09, 2013
    my dog only had 3 legs to start with, the forth one was injured when the buffet collapsed. Yoda was also knocked unconscious at the time of the incident and the RSPCA and Health and Safety Exec were subsequently involved 🙂
    The debate, as you say Susan, goes on but it does seem to be evolving and there are more avant-garde poets pushing the limits in east and west. What is art to some is nonsense to another. Perhaps most people, or just me, are not confident enough to declare which side they are on. No one wanted to tell the Emperor he had no clothes on.. but then they were probably distracted by the dog on wheels without a tail that was part of hisentourage!… Sara x

  4. Mikeymike 05:32 PM on January 10, 2013
    I am also smiling see — 🙂

    Dogs, cats or cows ect… without they’re extremities
    are just pieces of meat, as are the poems; Just three
    lined poems without the bits that make it a Haiku.

    Why write haiku when you don’t or can’t follow the way
    it is written? As a cow is a cow till the head, legs and tail
    are remove; it becomes BEEF.

    So my conclusion would be: to find a new western / English
    name for what we do! I call what I write poems, for me this
    saves all the confustion.

    Mikeymike, just sayin init.
    by the way Susan; “init” that’s an Indian word init? 😉

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