by Noragh Jones

Seven Pebbles dropped in the Pond
How closely must we stick to direct personal experience in haiku and haibun if we want to be true to the spirit of the Japanese haiku tradition?
Haruo Shirane points out (in Traces of Dreams ) that imaginative invention and literary allusions have always played a part in Japanese haiku and haibun writing. How far then are we willing to stretch ourselves by exploring truths beyond our direct experiences? How can we write out of an imagination that is expansive and inclusive while staying honest to life? Well, isn’t that what all creative writing is about?
We can begin by practicing new ways of seeing and feeling which go beyond our personal experience into moments of illuminating diversity where we enter (however briefly) into oneness with others’ experiences (of laughter and grief, of being young or old, of birthing and dying, of exile and belonging).
A creative imagination that is open and inclusive is the heart of the haiku spirit. The well of life within each of us is the source of dreams and fantasies as well as wideawake consciousness. The mind comes furnished with remembrance of things past. In haiku moments we may feel we are seeing the world anew, but we never come untrammelled to the way of haiku.
What is the western version of karumi – that light touch of suggestion and humour that understates and leaves space for the reader to enjoy a faint smile of recognition?
The most human of our stand-up funny men (Bill Connolly) and funny women (Victoria Wood) stick to the immediacy of direct experience (even if they are making it up), and make us laugh at our hopeless strivings to grasp the meaning of life. So it’s worth making space in our haibun and haiku for irony and jokes and the colloquial phrases we exchange in the teeth of miseries (‘Yeah, TELL me about it!’). And also remember the kind of affectionate humour in Thoreau’s haibun-like Walden and A Week on the Concord:

…the frogs sat meditating, all Sabbath thoughts, summing up their week, with one eye out on the golden sun, and one toe upon a reed, eyeing the wondrous universe in which they act their part; the fishes swam more staid and soberly, as maidens go to church…

How do we westerners, with our sceptical and competitive tendencies, strike a note of tenderness and affection for the rest of creation, as Basho, Buson and Issa rarely failed to do?
Keep checking our own writing for hubris, and keep on reading the masters:

lifting up the hatchet
to cut it down –
it was budding
sharpening the sickle
the goose foot grass
looks to be grieving


Listen more than you talk and be on the lookout for modest things, ordinary people doing everyday work with love, irrational secret joys, moments of vacancy/mindfulness where you can hear the sounds of silence.
What is the nature of Nature in different cultures, east and west?
In Shinto and Taoist philosophies all nature is breathing with life, is ensouled, and from nature we are given visions and insights into the reunion of Small Me, Big Me. We in the west look down on this instinctive animism as the pathetic fallacy (though we still name savage hurricanes Ivan or Denise or Charlie). But in Celtic and Japanese mythologies stones, trees, winds, waters and mountains partake of life and have things to say to us if we are ready to listen:

The stones are silent, but they do communicate. They may not use words, but they convey images which may be intensely resonant and durable. Some stones, some words, seem almost to last forever. On them we can rely. Ikeishi (stone arrangement) uses only unworked natural stones. I found them, while living, while travelling…in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. (Stephen Gill on his stone arrangements)

At the other extreme, many people in the west live in inner cities where nature is reduced to dandelions growing through cracks in the pavement, or buddleia and rosebay willow herb spreading briefly on redevelopment sites. It’s not so easy to swallow R.H.Blyth’s belief that:

The love of nature is religion, religion is poetry; these three things are one thing. This is the creed of the haiku poets.

We live, moreover, in our inner landscapes as much as in outer landscapes and our inner seasons often clash with nature’s seasons. There are times in our lives when Nature seems to have nothing to do with it, and ugliness is a more natural stuff of poetry than beauty. Better then to write tenderly of call centre staff or the smells of crowded poverty in an early morning kitchen, than try to resurrect a golden host of daffodils. Better to give ourselves fully to our everyday life whether it be in supermarkets and flats (with or without window boxes and bird feeders), or suburbanized countryside. As the Welsh poet Waldo Williams says:

There is in the root of Being no withering.
There the heartwood grows still.
There is the courage which is the gentleness
Of life in every fragile life.

There the heart retreats after every storm.
The world is in ruins
But in the low stronghold, the squirrel of enlightenment
Makes its nest tonight.

Does the traditional haiku spirit tend to exclude rather than include violence and hate, the sexual sufferings, the twistings and deceptions that are interwoven with our lives?

Zen includes, haiku excludes…war, sex, poisonous plants and ferocious animals, floods, pestilences, earthquakes and so on. (R.H.Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics)

Are we too defensive, too vulnerable, to write haiku and haibun about, for example, our experiences of sexual relationships with or without love? Or to consider how the sexual undertow gives energy and life to writing about everything else (D.H.Lawrence’s and Ted Hughes’ nature poetry are examples). When, like the unhappy Issa, we experience life as unsteady and falling to bits, we might use our haiku practice to see how we can go on giving ourselves to life – to deepen or lighten the life we are living, rather than turn away from the bits that don’t fit our dreams and desires?
How to put the wordless into words?

‘Late Buddhism with its doctrine of the Void, which has a remarkable correspondence in existentialism, made man not Everything, as in Hindusim, but Nothing, not the negative nothing of primitive Buddhism but something positive from which all things exfoliate. In this Nothing all things are equal because infinite. In this Silence all things speak.’ (R.H.Blyth, Zen in English Literature and oriental Classics)

Sartre and De Beauvoir say the human predicament is being condemned to be free. This means telling, questioning our own stories and others’ stories about us. Trying to stay aware of the absences as well as the presences in our ways of seeing ourselves in the world … staying with the sensations before words and beyond words. As Emerson says:

Nature bites her lips as she watches the antics of her puppets. Sometimes, but this is rare, the doll glances back at the puppeteer and they wink at each other.

Writing haiku then may become a way of freedom, a resistance to the taken-for-granted. We can reject the set of stories imposed upon us from without, listen to the silence before words and write our meanings anew. Staying mindful and waiting for Mrs Godot?
Resonance Good? Symbolism Bad?
Haiku, argues R.H.Blyth, ‘are not natural phenomena with some meaning behind them (symbolic)’. Is it possible for westerners to stop looking for the meaning behind things, instead of letting them be just what they are? Can we stay with the feeling without pursuing the meaning of the image? Probably not, because it is hard to say where resonance ends and symbolism begins in many classic haiku like these Basho poems:

hearing the hailstones
my old self sits again
in the new house
like an overgrown oak
in the utter darkness
of a moonless night
a powerful wind embraces
the ancient cedar trees

Very often there ARE different layers of perception and meaning in haiku images, and the best haiku can be read over and over again precisely because of images that resonate with the parts other images do not reach. The writer and the readers each bring different perceptions and conceptions to the same poem. A wonderfully risky encounter takes place each time, in which we may find more or less common ground - or miss each other entirely.
Well, I daresay there’ll be another chance to meet in the restaurant at the end of the universe?
Noragh Jones October 2004


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