By Rick Black
When you’re writing a haiku, do you feel obliged to stick to “the facts” of your observation, of the circumstances that you encounter? Or do you feel at liberty to change morning to afternoon, or spring to winter? In a famous article, Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths (Modern Haiku, XXXI:1, Winter-Spring 2000), Japanese literature scholar Haruo Shirane discusses numerous aspects of North American haiku. But I’d like to focus on his reflections on what is felt to be the need for direct personal experience.
In speaking about Basho’s poetic oeuvre, Shirane says that while Basho believed that haiku should describe the world “as it is,” he also believed that it was permissible – in fact, perhaps, essential – to change the original circumstances of a poem in order to heighten its poetic effect.
“For Basho, it was necessary to experience everyday life, to travel, to expose oneself to the world as much as possible, so that the poet could reveal the world as it was,” writes Shirane. “But it could also be fictional, something born of the imagination. In fact, you had to use your imagination to compose haikai, since it was very much about the ability to move from one world to another.”
“Basho himself often rewrote his poetry: he would change the gender, the place, the time, the situation,” adds Shirane. “The only thing that mattered was the effectiveness of the poetry, not whether it was faithful to the original experience.”
Buson evidently felt the same way. In Shirane’s article, he cites an example of one of Buson’s famous poems to illustrate this point:
stepping on my dead wife’s comb
in the bedroom
In fact, comments Shirane, Buson’s wife was very much alive when he composed this poem and outlived him by 31 years. I tend to agree with this approach to haiku and often change the “facts” of poems that I write myself; at the same time, though, I have to be faithful to the emotion that first inspired the poem or it gets away from me. If I can sharpen that emotional core by fictionalizing it, though, then that’s fine by me.
Take, for instance, the following poem:
a soldier relives
the nightmare of battle
tel aviv beachfront
It creates the effect of an isolated soldier by the beach. In fact, while I was walking along the beach in Tel Aviv years ago, there were a bunch of soldiers in uniform, rifles by their side, reclining on lounge chairs in the bright sunlight which reflected off their sunglasses. I couldn’t possibly know what they were thinking, but I imagined what they might be thinking to create the poem and switched to the singular so that the poem would focus more on one individual.
Of course, this wasn’t really a matter of changing the “facts” of the poem to heighten its effect but simply trying to put myself in another’s place to try to understand their situation or how I might feel if I were them. So, what’s your creative process? Do you allow yourself to change details or do you prefer to stick to your own personal observations of a particular moment?