Haiku and the Imagination

Painting of Basho by Buson -- Wikipedia

Painting of Basho by Buson — Wikipedia

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:

piercingly cold
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?

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2 thoughts on “Haiku and the Imagination

  1. I would suggest that while one can and sometimes should change the “facts” for poetic effect (even doing do often), for me it is quite another thing to project oneself into something that one cannot know. At its extreme, it could even be dishonest. It also puts the reader at further remove because instead of feeling an experience (regardless of whether the facts might be changed), such a poem also requires the reader to jump the extra hoop of projection. For me, the best haiku are nearly always poems of direct experience — not that *you* have to have directly experienced something to write about it, but that the *poem* should come across AS IF it’s a direct experience (for you or the persona). So poems about what someone else is feeling simply go out of bounds nearly all of the time, at least for me. It steps into the realm of the unknowable. Instead, I would advocate for writing, for example, about what you *can* observe of soldiers sitting in deck chairs on a Tel Aviv beach, rather that to co-opt or usurp their point of view with imaginary speculations (even if they might be accurate). The issue is point of view. I find that third-person omniscient point of view puts too much remove in the haiku poem, and I would suggest that that’s the case with the soldier poem here. I would generally avoid third-person point of view in haiku, especially the omniscient perspective.

    I heartily agree, however, that one should feel free — and even feel encouraged, when appropriate — to revise a haiku for the sake of poetry. They’re POEMS, not diary entries. Basho and Buson and many other classic and contemporary haiku masters have demonstrated the virtue of this approach. But there’s a subtle distinction between this and the projection required of third-person point of view.

    Michael Dylan Welch

    • Hi Michael,
      Thanks for your comments and the opportunity to further think about some of these issues of direct observation and how much a poet needs to restrict themselves to what they actually see, hear, smell, etc.

      You seem to concur with the idea of a poet’s being able to change a scene’s details to make it a better poem, regardless of whether or not the changes are “true,” yet not with a poet’s ability to empathize with a subject in the act of writing a poem – and that, to me, is a shame.

      Poetry is, essentially, an act of the imagination. Of precise observation of both what one sees as well as what one imagines. To ignore either would be both dishonest and an unnatural truncation of the act of poetry. Personally, I don’t see a difference between projecting what one imagines to be the thoughts of a soldier or projecting one’s own feelings of, say, loneliness or imprisonment, as Issa often does, onto an insect. So, I suppose that the following Issa poem wouldn’t work for you because he’s “projecting.”

      Ah, the sad expression
      in the eyes of that caged bird –
      envying the butterfly!

      Clearly, the bird is not envying the butterfly; this is Issa projecting onto the bird his own preference for freedom, or wishing that the bird could be free; however, the bird is not “thinking” this. Issa is empathizing with the bird in the same way that I was empathizing with the soldiers. He does this in numerous haiku and I would assume that Issa and Shiki would have the same discussion between them about the best approach to haiku that we are having.

      As a matter of course, we all project our observations and thoughts in our poetry, regardless of whether or not it’s apparent. Our very selection of observed detail is a projection of our eye and mind. What would be dishonest is not to admit it. Direct observation is only one of many forms of writing and it can produce wonderful poems. Direct, “impartial” observation, though, is a myth – an illusion.

      Moreover, the soldier poem is about much more than the actual moment – it expands the present moment of observation to include the past. This is critical to haiku connecting to a larger social, cultural and literary tradition. To focus exclusively on a present moment can produce excellent poems but it’s not the only way to do so.
      In the end, regardless of one’s approach, the only thing that matters is the poem. As Picasso says, art is a lie which tells the truth.

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