Henry Moore sculpture “Large Four Piece Reclining Figure”, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
Photo by Daderot

Randy Brooks in his essay “Genesis of Haiku: Where do Haiku Come From?” quotes Makoto Ueda explaining in Modern Japanese Haiku,

“Any poem demands a measure of active participation on the part of the reader, but this is especially true of haiku. With only slight exaggeration it might be said that the haiku poet completes only one half of his poem, leaving the other half to be supplied in the reader’s imagination.”

Half of the poem! This places a huge responsibility on readers’ shoulders. It not only invites us to look more closely into the relationship between the writer and the reader – Brooks addresses this issue in this and other papers; it helps us understand some of the sensitivity haiku writers display towards their readers and reviewers; and raises the mark of how we use our haiku ‘receptors’ to read haiku.

Journal editors have their own personal, professional, and journal-specific list of criteria for “reading” haiku. Seasoned readers too, as Rick’s and Tom’s comments on the last blog post illustrate. But as ‘lay’ readers, this side of the divide, so to speak, what do we use to understand and connect with a haiku? In addition to the individual, general and universally shared perspectives (mentioned in post 1) which help us ‘read’ haiku, might there be an additional tool available to us?

Arguably, any individual perspective the reader – lay or seasoned – might take has a dual, though intrinsically linked aspect: one relating to the mind and one to the heart. Concerning the latter, the question above might be posed differently: do we ‘walk’ with an open heart (rather than mind), open to be touched by the sensitivity or strength of a poem, or do we carry a shield, only allowing certain aspects of the poem in, and not others? For instance, even when appreciating a poem ‘intellectually’, are we allowing its essence, its excellence to touch us? Might the ‘heart’ be our most basic tool?

Michael Dylan Welch reflects on this matter in his essay “Seeing Into the Heart: Vulnerability in Haiku”. Welch understands Bashō, who told haiku poets to learn of the pine from the pine, and of the bamboo from the bamboo, as telling us to be vulnerable to the subjects of our haiku, and

“to humble ourselves so that we might learn something, and speak of it authentically. The full teacup cannot receive more tea, so we must empty ourselves, and become vulnerable, in order to receive.”

I like this: a reader’s open heart responding to the writer’s. Humbling ourselves as readers, recognizing, that is, our limitations, our preferences, perspectives, ideologies, so as to be open to others’ difference.
Here’s how Welch puts it,

“When we click with a poem, it’s because we have let down our guard, allowing our emotions to be affected, feeling what the poet felt. The poet has dared to hint at what he or she has felt, and thus lights a candle, proudly yet vulnerably, against the imminent dark.”

Not an easy task, for both writer and reader, as opening the heart is often experienced as tantamount to undergoing open heart surgery. Yet, once accomplished, may we not deservedly lay claim as readers to our fifty per cent/half of the creation of the poem?

Thinking about it now, I am reminded that several of Henry Moore’s sculptures have a hole in the area of the heart. One can only muse at the openings this allows – and we will come back to this hole later on in the month. For now, the thought: it may well be the case that one needs to have a hole in the heart in order to be — as a reader too — whole.

Brooks, Randy: “Genesis of Haiku: Where do Haiku Come From?”  in Frogpond 34.1 2011
Welch, Michael Dylan: “Seeing Into the Heart: Vulnerability in Haiku” in Graceguts, Essays
(From the writer’s perspective) You may also be interested in:
Cox, Aubrie: “Writing With the Reader as Co-Creator” in mind, in Aubrie Cox


2 thoughts on “OPENING THE HEART

  1. Hi Stella,
    I am reminded of my mantra that once published “the poem belongs to the reader”. I am not certain about exact percentages but a poet does,indeed, invite their readers to participate with the poem—an “open” invitation, you may say. One only has to read critical analysis of a poem by different people to see that folk can read many different things into a poem, and though the author may have intended some of the different readings I do not believe they intended them all.

    As a reader, a lot does depend where your head is at at the time when one engages with a poem and this does make the readers response a subjective one. There are many factors which colour our responses: social; political; and economic to name a few—while we may strive to be open can we truly ever transcend our bias. I for one do not like inversions—I am a fan of natural grammar and speech patterns. As haiku were originally meant to be spoken I like to write for the ear and use assonance and consonance among other poetic devices if they fit the poem.

    In the internet age it is too easy to just Google something but the best way to understand and engage with a poem is to read more poetry. I would say though “never to confuse the poet with the speaker of the poem” and many do read more into haiku because they may have some knowledge of the poet. Haiku is still, however, a form of creative writing, despite the predominance of the shasei school in recent years, and readers must be creative too and not just see the sum of the words used—this also goes for writers who must go beyond mere weather reporting and include some poetry in their poems.

    • Hi Colin,

      Thanks for sharing your process.

      “…while we may strive to be open can we truly ever transcend our bias.” I appreciate your asking this question. I believe that reminding ourselves of our common humanity, our preferences, prejudices and biases; opening the heart, opening the mind are rewarding us with extra ounces of transcendence. But yes, there are dark corners and crevices in the mind and in the heart too, spaces in our unconscious selves we will never know…

      I like your point about writing for the ear. As a reader, it gives me one more point of entrance: ‘opening the ear’ as well as opening the heart …

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