Reflection 90: Interpreting Haiku

April 15, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Through studies of split-brain subjects, Michael Gazzaniga has proposed that normal consciousness is informed by two separate cognitive systems, one in each hemisphere of the brain. Further, he posits a left-brain interpreter having access to language processing centers largely denied to the right brain, which normally constrains interpretive activity via the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerve fibers running between cortical hemispheres, and severed in split-brain subjects).

 

It is the interpretive module on the left side of the brain that shapes possible interpretations to be consistent with sensory details provided by the right side of the brain. If, as in split-brain subjects, those details are not available to the interpreter, then it is largely free to come up with a narrative consistent with its own understanding and mood. As Gazzaniga sees it, the left-brain interpreter, deprived of right-brain input, “confabulates” a narrative in such instances (Chapter 94 by Kathleen Baynes and Michael S. Gassaniga, in Michael S. Gazziniga, Editor-in-Chief, The New Cognitive Neuroscience, Second Edition, MIT Press, 2000).

 

Perhaps this is the source of many acts of imagination on the part of whole-brain subjects unconstrained by access to the facts and relationships of a particular situation, or inhibited by logical or emotional duress in taking a stab at the truth. The left-brain interpreter is equally employed whether generating fiction or nonfiction, animated cartoons or documentaries.

 

One issue in consciousness is how the left-brain interpreter binds the two main parts of a haiku into a coherent narrative supported by (or accounting for) both the sensory and conceptual aspects presented in a given poem, including the time of year in which it is set. The interpreter, by its own devices, provides a rationale for the poem being a fulfillment of the author’s intention, every detail supporting the overall narrative.

 

The process of writing or reading haiku provides a glimpse of the left-brain interpreter at work, either coming up with elements that go together, or piecing together an interpretation that “explains” the finished work. I have read thousands of haiku and written many hundreds. Which certainly does not make me an expert, but does provide a basis for understanding what is involved in either creating or understanding a particular example from among the millions composed every day around the world. I offer the following five of my own as illustrations of one man’s left-brain interpreter at work.

 

late autumn now

keys to forgotten doors

clink as I walk

 

Placement in “late autumn” sets the mood for what is to follow, which is likely to be more somber than upbeat. “Keys to forgotten doors” is a concept with haunting overtones. That sharp “clink” jars the mind as the sensory note at the heart of the poem, which is made sorrowful by the pointlessness of a sound produced accidentally by merely walking along—that is, living a life to no purpose.

 

fall strollers

he, hands in pockets

she, holding flowers

 

No skipping or jumping here, just strolling along. Perhaps shuffling through leaves. Caught neither here nor there between the mood of high summer and low winter. We know which way the seasons are flowing, so immediately place the strollers in context of what is ahead, what left behind. Represented solely by their hands, he and she are in relationship, but as distinct individuals. He is dour and inward, she lighthearted and appreciative. There is a sense they’ve lost something, and are perhaps still together by habit more than choice. Or, they find strength in complementing each other, so are perfectly content. The flowers would be asters, perhaps purple. They are the sensory center of the haiku, and make her the dominant figure because more active than he. This is more her poem than his. He must realize that. Maybe he wrote it.

 

fall camping

get up to . . .

Milky Way, Orion!

 

In Maine, fall camping is ever an adventure entailing wool sweaters, open fires, wood smoke, and down sleeping bags. Also heeding nature’s call at night as well as in daytime. And the unexpected discovery of bright stars shining through cold air blown down from the north. The clarity of fall constellations always comes as a revelation, the essence of fall camping. Maybe you see a moose, or discover icicles on the face of a cliff. You love your companions; everything tastes good; every moment is filled. You gotta live this life.

 

November

all vanes point

north

 

By itself, “November” speaks to all that has gone before in the year, and the short time remaining. More than anticipation, it emphasizes remembering. The name speaks of penultimate things—not ends themselves but preparations for ends. Not cold, but preparations for cold. Cold in the context of warmer days behind us. Like accusing fingers, “all vanes point” where? North! The vote is unanimous. That’s where winds originate this time of year. North is responsible. North is to blame for the descending chill. For hard days to come. November is the hollow category to which the pointing vanes add sensory detail to constitute a meaningful interpretation within consciousness. My interpreter made me do it.

 

five below

no apples on the bough

purple finch

 

Whether Celsius or Fahrenheit, five below is cold. It’s winter, or close enough. That sets a harrowing shiver to the spine. Too late for apples. Those days are long gone. Prospects are limited. But what’s this?—a purple finch. What a surprise on a day like today. All puffed up against the cold, rounded—like an apple. Even better, this is a living being, a denizen of winter. Joy in hard times personified. If he can make it, so can I. So can we all. Come to think of it, winter hosts many such signs of hope. Five below and so what! Look, there’s a blue jay. Chickadee. Redpoll. Red crossbill. Pine grosbeak. I hope spring doesn’t come too soon; I want to savor this.

 

If your interpreter spins a different narrative on any of these, I invite you to leave a comment. Thanks.

 

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