Reflection 77: Haiku Situations

March 16, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)


Haiku and metaphor originate in situations that bring two aspects of consciousness together simultaneously as a comparison or more basic juxtaposition. One aspect is a sensory image, the other is a series of images that has mellowed into a concept or an idea stored in memory. The conscious mind addresses both aspects as a unified situation having a concrete sensory and an abstract cognitive part, the two parts binding in a moment of emotional comprehension which joins them, perhaps for the first time.


Too, haiku and metaphor have an additional dimension involving words and phrases representing the experiential situation as a disciplined language event. The experience of emotional understanding is given linguistic form, and the entire ensemble of sensory image, idea, emotional insight, and specific language is referred to as a haiku or metaphor.


It is the creator’s job to translate conscious experience into words which carry the burden of the event without distortion, deletion, or unnecessary addition. It is the reader’s job to rekindle the emotional understanding from exposure to the raw words. Both jobs require full conscious participation and an attitude supporting an undertaking requiring full awareness, concentration, emotional sensitivity, and linguistic skill.


It is no wonder that the true poets of our species are few and far between. But by a lesser standard, all of us are poets in everyday life when we achieve a grasp of a conscious situation involving sensory and cognitive input, emotional insight, understanding, and speech skills at our personal level of mastery—which we do every day.


Language is not the whole of consciousness by any means, but it is one door opening into the many aspects of consciousness underwriting every episode of human behavior. This adds a qualitative avenue to the understanding of the mind as a supplement to the quantitative route so favored by laboratory scientists. Artists and humanists have access to consciousness in ways those trained in scientific disciplines avoid, and therefore fail to fully appreciate, understand, or explore.


I base today’s post on rough translations of three haiku by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa ( 1763-1828 ) and one by Yosa Buson ( 1716-1783 ).


Example E.          a tethered horse


                             in both stirrups


Buson’s horse is an idea, a compilation from all of the black-and-white westerns we have ever seen. Whoa! What’s that snow doing here? Not on the ground but in both stirrups! What’s the situation here? The rider has dismounted and is not minding his steed, staying overlong at the tavern, perhaps, or the whorehouse. He is inferred but not even mentioned, so we enter the consciousness of the horse. How does it feel to be left out in the cold? Terrible! Lonely. Hungry. Neglected. Of no use. Forgotten. It’s those snow-filled stirrups that so shock us. We’ve never considered such an image before. So it speaks clearly to us, rousing us, waking us up. Buson must actually have seen it, so he successfully conveys his compassion for the horse across all those miles and years which separate us. In the most economical way possible—that is the genius of haiku.


Example F.          mother I never knew

                             every time I see the ocean

                             every time


If you don’t know your mother, she is little more than an abstract idea. But the ocean is concrete—all those waves rolling, rolling against the shore. The sky has to be overcast, the waves glowing restless green. That feeling comes again, that empty yearning, that sadness, that self-blame for having no home to go to. It’s my fault. I must’ve really screwed up. So this is the home I keep coming back to. It is the same every time, yet not the home I was looking for. The home where she would be—if she were anywhere I could visit. Portraying ocean as unknown mother, Issa has done it again. Taken us into his conscious mind where we can glimpse how it must feel to be him.


Example G.         the man pulling radishes

                             points my way

                             with a radish


Like the stirrups and the ocean, that radish makes me see with fresh eyes. Makes me appreciate the situation. I’m on a journey and can’t find my way. Who can I ask for directions? Ah, in that field, the man pulling something up—radishes. He’s a stranger, so I don’t know him at all. He’s just another farmer to me. How else would he answer than by pointing with the radish in his hand? It all comes together: me the lone wanderer, the farmer, the radish. Now I know exactly where I am. And take delight in the image before me as I failed to appreciate it before. We are what we are. How could we be anything else? The trick now is to get that carrot gesture down on paper without burying the spontaneity of it under too many words. Issa makes it easy for me to put myself in his place as if his and my consciousness were the same.


Example H.         visiting the graves

                             the old dog

                             leads the way


Whose graves? The fallen, the famous, the ancients? This poem starts with graves as an idea, which doesn’t tell us much. Ah, the old dog. Not just any old dog, the one, specific old dog. We can see him there up ahead of us. The one in the lead that we follow as we visit the graves. We leap from our mind and our relationship with the dead to the dog’s mind and its relationship with the dead. That’s no mean leap—from human consciousness to dog consciousness. And we get the point. The dog had—and still has—a relationship with the dead. And we have come to rely on that relationship when we visit the graves ourselves. We love this particular guide because we respect his feelings and he respects ours. The dog is old, which suggests he had a relationship with the dead when they were alive. But, too, it warns us that soon we will have to visit the graves without our faithful guide. Which is not only a saddening thought but a scary one. We will be on our own. And we’re not getting any younger ourselves. Who will lead others to our graves when we are gone?


So here I have turned 38 of Issa’s and Buson’s words (in translation) into 1,087 words from my own consciousness. It took me 29 times as many words to say a part of what they said. Which is why some are poets and some are not. Haiku and metaphors are efficient means of conveying the sense of personal consciousness in the fewest possible words. The effort it takes to do that, however, can be immense. Poets are those who put in their ten-thousand hours of living, self-study, and preparation. Just ask Issa and Buson, they’ll tell you.




For additional haiku, see:

Haiku Society of America Online Haiku Collections


Modern Haiku online issue samples


One Response to “Reflection 77: Haiku Situations”

  1. disebia said

    I appreciate the toughts presented in this article. I am a poet and writer of Haiku reflections myself and would like you to visit and comment my work. I will also be introducing the brands HAIKU FASHION and HAIKU REFLECTION in the beginningh of next year (

    Keep on with the good work !

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