Reflection 76: Haiku Consciousness

March 13, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

One way to study consciousness is to study activities people throw themselves into and are good at. As a species, we are good at making and doing things. Toys, furniture, weapons, art, and poetry are products of human consciousness, of the body and brain working together to reach a goal or produce a desired result. Every artifact is a reflection of human consciousness at work—planning, judging, choosing, doing.

 

I read a blog the other day that claimed Japanese haiku to be the simplest form of poetry, and therefore the easiest to create. I don’t believe that’s true—that haiku are either simple or easy—but they are relatively brief. And are certainly products of disciplined conscious endeavor. So what can haiku as a creative artifact tell us about consciousness?

 

Let’s take a look at four sample haiku. Right away, some will complain that these poems don’t satisfy the required syllable count. As we are taught in school, the 5-7-5 syllable sequence accords with a sacred formula that defines a haiku. Except that emphasis in Japanese haiku is indicated by words, not punctuation marks, and those words are written and read as part of the poem, whereas in English question and exclamation marks don’t add to the syllable count. Haiku in Japanese are written in one vertical line, not three horizontal lines. And most Japanese words end in vowel sounds, so Japanese haikus are flush with internal rhymes, but when translated, many of those words end in consonants, so there is no way to translate Japanese rhymes into English. Some teachers may like to teach rules for convenience, but when they distort the object of study, it is best to see through them to the true nature of the original form.

 

In this post I offer rough English translations of four haiku by the Japanese master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) as examples of consciousness reflected in a small number of words.

 

Example A.          on a bare branch

a crow is perched—

autumn evening

 

In this first example we are given the sensory image of a crow on a bare branch, and the idea (concept) that it is late in the year and late in the day. Images and ideas are integral parts of consciousness, but they arise in two different parts of the mind—the senses and conceptual memory. What Basho is doing in this poem is putting two aspects of consciousness together so they play off against each other, the experiential whole adding to more than the sum of its parts. This gets closer to the essence of haiku than counting syllables on our fingers or listening for rhymes.

 

What is the dynamic between image and concept in this poem? Do they support each other or are they in conflict? We sense the bare branch silhouetted against the dusk, the black crow not flying but clutching the branch. All the while knowing that days are getting colder and darker. The fall setting provides a conceptual frame for the specific image Basho gives us, frame and figure combining to fill us with a kind of bleak chill and emptiness. The time has come to get scarves and mittens out; it will get colder and darker before spring revives us again—if spring ever comes.

 

As I have written (see Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain), metaphor is also composed of two parts, the subject or tenor and the predicate or vehicle. The vehicle qualifies the tenor so we see it in a way that expresses our feeling toward a particular event. Haiku set up similar mutual interactions between their major parts, but not through equivalency or comparison. In this case, the image of branch and crow gives substance to the conceptual frame provided by knowing it is not only autumn but also late in the day. Yes, the two parts complement each other, reinforcing our understanding through reference to what we can see with our own eyes. The result is a feeling that is not actually conveyed by the language of the poem. Nowhere do words like sadness or gloom and doom appear to suggest foreboding at the approach of death—but we feel their chill nonetheless. Basho has taken us straight inside his conscious mind, without telling us in so many words what he wants us to feel.

 

Example B.          June rain

hollyhocks stare

where the sun should be

 

Phototropic hollyhocks turn with the sun. Even in the rain, they still follow the brightest part of the sky. Hollyhocks in the rain serve as the vehicle of this poem, the concrete image pointing to the subject or tenor, which can’t be shown at all because the sky is overcast. “Where the sun should be” is an idea, not a sensory image. Putting the image together with that idea, consciousness creates a sense of yearning for, or being faithful to, a desired presence that, in this case, is denied. This haiku is not about beautiful flowers but behavior dedicated to one who is absent, as the mind of the beloved is filled with thoughts of her lover so that she carries on in fond and familiar ways while he is away.

 

Example C.          old pond—

a frog leaps in

water sound

 

This is probably the most famous poem in the world, and also the most underappreciated to the extent of seeming trivial. An old pond is a venerable aspect of nature. A frog is best known by its croak in the night. Here “water sound” is ambiguous, but certainly results from the frog leaping into the pond, which swallows it in one gulp. The tenor of this haiku is not the pond itself but the frog leaping into it. The concrete vehicle is the sound emanating from that unremarkable event—not a rude croak as expected but the subtle slip of a lithe body merging with its element. The surprise of that sound unifies the poem in a wholly suitable manner that the reader does not anticipate. Like the punch line of a joke, it shocks while at the same time fulfilling the expectations aroused by the situation—a frog by a pond.

 

Example D.          coolness

the clean lines

of the wild pine

 

Here again, image and idea combine in arousing a feeling within us. In this case an appreciation for the spare but elegant simplicity of the wild pine (as opposed to the domesticated form of a stunted pine in a pot) as viewed at a particular time of year when it stands apart from more complex deciduous trees that have lost their leaves. The tenor-subject is the concept of coolness in the fall; the vehicle-predicate the sensory image of a free-growing pine sharpened by consciousness to emphasize the uncluttered outlines of branches and stem. The surprise comes from applying a visual image as the avatar or physical incarnation of a season noted for declining temperatures. It’s not winter—yet, but rapid changes are taking place in the landscape of conscious expectations. The pine comes into its own as temperatures fall. Which comes as an abrupt revelation to the poet passing along the road through the forest.

 

Haiku use figurative language to convey aspects of consciousness that cannot be told in conventional terms. Their meaning is more to be sensed or felt than declared in so many words. Like metaphors, haiku thrive on the relationship between sensory images and conceptual memory, combining the two to convey the power of the ineffable. Where metaphors achieve coherence through implied similarities, haiku rely on simple juxtaposition to bring images and ideas into unity.

 

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