Monday, June 02, 2008

Allusion in Haiku

Allusions are references to literary works, to art, to cultural, historical, and political events. They can be explicit or indirect, evocative or direct. They are connections to a shared pool of cultural imagery and conception, and the reader is expected to understand the reference. Allusion in poetry is expected to deepen the meaning of a poem, for example by connecting a contemporary scene to one from ancient Greek mythology.

Allusion is common in classical Chinese and Japanese poetry: references to great poets of the past are made frequently, and one is expected to understand them. This tendency of classical poetry does appear in classical haiku. More than one of Basho's haiku in Oku no hosomichi refers to a poet or famous figure of the past, and many haiku memorialize places that resonate with history and memory. There is no doubt that allusion can be effective in haiku for deepening the emotional response to the poem.

But what of haiku in English?

Are we to use allusions to the Western cultural heritage, or may we also use allusions to classical Japanese literature of the past? I find myself doing the latter more often than the former, in part because for haiku is also a do, a way, a form of meditation, with both Taoist and Zen overtones. One often reads about "the haiku moment," which is a timeless moment, a moment or experience that stands outside of the normal flow of time, in the eternal present. The best haiku, for me, are memorable and resonant precisely because they exist in the eternal present: the image that inspired the haiku may have been fleeting, and the poem itself may have been dashed off in a quick burst of inspiration, but the experience in the poem itself is timeless, eternal, never-ending.

I would tend to avoid simile and metaphor in haiku, though, because the haiku moment is about direct observation, about seeing what is really there. What the poem evokes is a recreation of what was actually there. There is no need—and no room, in such a short poetic form—to say things like "the clouds were like creampuffs."

Actually, I don't much like simile in poetry, in any way: simile is usually lazy, a shorthand way of making metaphoric connections, but without committing to using an actual metaphor. One does much better in any poem to use metaphor rather than simile, regardless of content, form, or style. It's just more concise and direct.

In using allusion in haiku, it is considered more classically usual to allude to nature, to natural rhythms and cycles, and to personal experience. It is far less usual to allude to political and social-history images. One of the basic distinctions that is often made between haiku and senryu is that senryu are poems in haiku form that are ironic, humorous, and about people and social relationships, rather than the classical timeless nature-infused topics of haiku. Senryu tend to be funny, in a gently ironic manner, and often get us to laugh at the failings and foibles of our imperfect human selves. When you encounter a haiku whose content is political, especially if it is satirical or mocking, it is often better to classify it as a senryu. Of course, none of this is absolute; there are exceptions, and some definitions have permeable membranes.

Let's look for example at two English-language poems that were published as haiku, in haiku journals.

the tulips
wide open

—Carolyn Hall (Published in Heron's Nest)

At Quang Tri, Vietnam

both armies

—Ty Hadman (Published in Haiku World)

Both of these poems are concise, compact, short-syllable poems. The second is unusual for haiku in that it rhymes; rhyme is problematic in English-language haiku, as are many other techniques familiar to English-language poets, for example, meter, or alliteration. (Some bad early translations of haiku set the poems into rhymed quatrains. Not only does this really miss the entire spirit of haiku, it's really clunky and inaccurate in terms of bringing either the tone or the meaning of haiku into English.)

Both of these have political themes. Both refer to the memorials of war, and to war itself, either directly or indirectly. Both of them could be considered anti-war poems, although it's not clear that the poets intended this.

There is a tendency in English-language haiku to carry concision and compression too far. Arguments continue to be made that because English is naturally iambic (Japanese is not), it is more acceptable for English-language haiku to fall into a 4/6/4 syllabic pattern rather than the classical 5/7/5 pattern. This is highly debatable. One of the joys of writing haiku, for example, can be to discover what one can do within the traditional constraints, before one gives them up in favor of the spirit and tone of the form.

I'm honestly not sure I'd call either of these poems haiku, per se, even American haiku. They succeed of allusion, bringing forth many memories: of the graveyard at Arlington, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier there, both of which I have visited; and of the horrors of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, in which so many soldiers were butchered. But part of me wants to see, in English (frankly, American) haiku, more of a sense of respect for the original style and tone of the haiku form.

Are these excellent short poems? Absolutely. For that reason alone, they're worth discussing. But are they haiku? I'm not completely convinced of that.

Meanwhile, returning to the idea of allusion per se: I tend to want haiku to be timeless, egoless, eternal, epiphany moments of the human experience, and of life's many kinds of moments. This isn't to say that one cannot write an allusive, topical, even political poem in haiku form. But when does the poem lose that numinous quality that the best haiku have and become, for example, a senryu?

I think that the Arlington poem is the better of the two, on this front: very much in the spirit of evoking the floating world, this dewdrop world, the ephemerality of life, the sense of life's transience, and the sadness at its passing. I would say it works not because it's allusive to the national military cemetery at Arlington, but because it falls into that genre of war poetry that goes back centuries. Wilfred Owen. Keith Douglas. Siegfried Sassoon. Michael Casey. Musashi. And so forth. These are mother's poems, warrior's poems, poems about the pity and desolation of war. The Arlington poem can safely join ranks with those.

The Tet poem, to my reading, seems glib, even a bit gimmicky. The rhyme in such a short poem makes the poem seem glib for this serious topic. Yes, gallows humor, laughter in the face of death, and so forth, I respect all that. But the poem is less allusive, for me, than the Arlington poem, or than anything Michael Casey wrote in his book Obscenities, which is a collection of short poems about his experiences in Nam during the war—and about coming home. Casey's short book set a high standard for contemporary war poetry, to be sure.

A poet who works mostly in this very short, haiku-derived if not always strictly haiku formalism, is Cid Corman. Both of these poems remind me of his poetry.

Now let's look at a haiku-form poem I wrote some years ago. Politcal, perhaps allusive, possibly topical although also timeless. Is it a haiku? Or just a poem in haiku form? Is it a senryu?

politicians and
businessmen lie constantly—
snow falls in the tropics

It's a sarcastic poem about impossible events: snow falling in the tropics. I don't think it's a haiku, personally, but then, what is it?

There is often mention, in discussions of the spirit of haiku poetry, of that quality that is non-literary to the poem: the numinous, liminal part of the experience of the poem that pushes it past words towards something more sublime. Some haiku masters claim that this non-linguistic aspect of the poetry must also be present, in order for it to be a haiku rather than a senryu. I generally tend to agree. All of Basho's and Issa's best haiku have that sense of the ineffable about them: that there is something more going on, something both larger and deeper than our everyday selves. In this lies, in part, the transcendance of the ego that we were talking about earlier. Perhaps the use of political allusions in haiku bring the spirit of the poetry out of the numinous and too much into "the floating world," that world of impermanence and transience that marks all of mortal life.

The Arlington poem reminds me of two of Basho's haiku in Oku no hosomichi that refer to wars and battlefields of the past:

summer grass
all that remains
of warrior's dreams

in deutzia blossoms
Kanefusa can be seen:
white hair

The haibun section between these two haiku is perhaps necessary to supply the backdrop, although the story of the retainer/warrior whose name was Kanefusa would have to have been known to make this poem work—a prime example of historical allusion in classical haiku. (Basho was visiting the Takadate Castle at Hiraizumi, where a historic battle was fought in a civil war in the 12th century. It was a tragedy, ending with the great general Yoshitune committing suicide after killing his wife and children.)

The reasons I would be willing to call the Arlington poem a haiku, but would not call the Tet poem a haiku, are tied up with both this allusiveness, and with the numinous quality of the best haiku, already mentioned. The Arlington poem is also more suggestive, a technique used to good effect in the best haiku, while the Tet poem is more bluntly direct (an American characteristic).

But lest we think that the numinous quality of haiku is all about being pretty, and using stereotypical nature imagery, let's remind ourselves that sometimes the haiku moment is very raw, even while being exalted and sublime. Another of Basho's haiku in Oku no hosomichi is this one, coming after a description of a long day of travel, followed by nights sleepless in a barn during a heavy storm:

fleas, lice,
the horse pissing
near my pillow

Yes, exalted. Yes, sublime. The exalted and sublime are precisely in the piss-ridden barn and the compost pile. Thinking haiku only have to be about "pretty things" misses the point by making a judgment about the superficial elements of the poem, missing the non-literary aspects of the poem.

Haiku is all about waking up. That's the Zen influence on it, of course, but Basho and Issa emphasized that very strongly. To write a haiku, to experience a haiku moment and write it down, is to, if only for a moment, be awakened. "Buddha" means "awakened one," not "savior." Everyone is potentially the Buddha, if only they'd wake up for long enough to realize it! Haiku writing can be a form of spiritual practice, therefore, as much as it can be a literary art. How do you approach it? It is possible to approach it as both literary art and as a spiritual practice.

This discussion of allusion, I think, deals with the literary more than the spiritual; but note how the sublime moment described in the Arlington poem makes that piece a haiku because it contains a spiritual view as well—and don't conflate "spiritual" with "religious"—whereas the Tet poem is not a haiku because it is all about being glib and clever on the literary level, but lacks that non-literary movement of the spirit that the Arlingotn poem contains. The same goes for my own political senryu: it lacks any movement of the spirit, it's just a clever bit of irony.

Clever, witty, glib irony—literary wit in its most self-conscious exemplars—overshadows, even kills, the movement of the spirit, in most poetry that is written from the ego, the head, rather than from egolessness, and from the heart. Egolessness in haiku is about waking up to what's really there, versus what we think is there, or what we project as being there, or what we imagine is there.

So, I would say that the Arlington poem is a rare achievement: a haiku tha does contain allusion. Basho's own haiku along these lines also work because they contain that same sadness and awareness of the transcience of life.

Here's how the whole world wants to wake us up, if only we'd let it:

Our usual experience is that, just when our perception is getting vivid, we get jumpy. The world is always displaying itself, always waving an winking, but we are so self-involved that we miss it. The experience of sticking with it, of not giving up, is one in which the whole world, everything that we see, becomes extremely vivid and more solid, and at the same time, less substantial and more transparent. We’re not talking about seeing anything other than the person sitting in front of us: seeing how his or her hair sticks up or lies down, is dirty or clean, brushed or gnarled; or seeing a bird with black feathers and a twig in its mouth, sitting in a tree. The things we see all the time can pop us out of the painful cycle of samsara.

If we stick with it, our experience becomes more vivid and more transparent, and we can no longer not get the message. And this is a message that never gets interpreted. Things speak for themselves. It’s not that red cushion means passion, or little mouse darting in and out means discursive mind; it’s just red cushion and little mouse darting out from behind the chair.

Sound is the same thing, ordinary sound—every sound that we ever hear, from the alarm clock waking us up in the morning to our snoring companion at night. We all know what sounds are like when they punctuate and startle us, but what does your pen sound like, writing in your notebook? And how does it sound when you turn the pages of this book? What about your own voice? It’s interesting to hear one’s own voice; it sounds like someone else’s voice. To hear what we say and see how it goes out into the environment and communicates also has the power to pop us out of the deadness of samsara. Even if we’re alone, our yawns and farts communicate. So every ordinary little peep or scratch or snicker, every little chewing sound or drinking sound or whatever, can wake us up. The idea of samaya is that if we don’t avoid our personal experience—if we don’t think there’s a better, more inspiring, less irritating, or less disturbing sound—sounds become vivid and transparent.

The same goes for mind. As we practice, we see that thoughts do not go away; they become more precise and less substantial. At the level of mind, we break samaya making things “wrong” or making things “right.” We think we have some choice to make, some alternative to just hanging out with not solving anything, not resolving anything, We could say that, at the level of mind, breaking samaya is feeling that we must come up with a solution to a problem—or feeling that there is a solution or a problem at all. That might give you some idea of how difficult it is to keep samaya.

—Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, from the chapter entitled The Trick of Choicelessness

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Enjoyable post. I think the reason I steer clear of haiku myself is that it's been done to death and so bastardised that most of us wouldn't recognise a pure haiku if it came up and bit us on the bum. I was so relieved when I discovered that haiku didn't have to have a 5-7-5 structure but that one could instead write a compact poem that contained the spirit of haiku. I personally find that form is something that comes to me last. The words come first and then a shape appears.

As for whether you can or should incorporate allusions in a haiku, my answer would have to be, yes, but care would need to be taken. 'Tet' meant nothing to me on first reading, neither did 'Arlington' but then I'm not very interested in history or politics. So, for me, the simple fact is that neither of these worked as a haiku or anything else. You make the point yourself in reference to the haiku by Bashō, that a backdrop is needed to equip the reader before approaching the poem.

4:18 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Even a lot of classic Japanese haiku rely on a shared tradition of political and literary historical knowledge. This of course is an educated-class thing, even then. On the other hand, Basho is still taught to and loved by schoolchildren in Japan, and is understood. It can become a chicken or egg situation: do the children learn the history before reading the poem, or beacuse of reading the poem?

For me, the spirit of the haiku form, it's non-technical elements that are still considered to be part of the form, are essential in order for it to be a haiku. I like to experiment with the technical aspects of the form, but retain the spirit and non-technical aspects of the form.

Haiku and its related forms are pretty much the only forms I ever write in. The rest of time, as you say, the words start to come and the form emerges from them, as the poem grows. Or I invent a form, and stick to it.

9:22 AM  

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