A Moment in the Sun: When Is a Haiku?

First published in Notes from the Gean issue 3:3, December 2011. First written in February of 2007, and revised in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. My own poems quoted in this essay have been previously published in various haiku journals.                         +       +

 

“How fragile we are, between the few good moments.”

—Jane Hirshfield, “Vinegar and Oil”

 

The “now” of haiku isn’t quite as simple as many haiku poets think. Is it the original moment of experience? Is it the moment of inspiration when you are moved to write about an experience, regardless of when that experience happened? Is it the “moment” that is captured within the poem, that may or may not have actually happened, but that readers believe happened, or could have? Or is it the moment when the reader “gets” the same experience upon reading the poem, upon realizing that he or she has had the same experience? It’s easy to say “all of the above.” And perhaps that’s the fullest answer, but not every haiku poet believes that each of these possible “moments” has equal value. Some believe that haiku must be about direct personal experience, and that you must not alter any of the facts. This perspective contrasts with Bashō and many other Japanese masters who routinely tweaked the facts for literary purposes (Bashō heavily revised and reordered elements of the Oku no hosomichi, and Buson’s wife was very much alive when he wrote about the chill of stepping on his “dead wife’s comb”). Experience is frequently the best inspiration, but not the only possibility. For me, what matters is to make the poem believable, with veritas, which is independent of whether the experience really happened or not, or to what degree. Does the poem affect the reader as if it really happened? That is at least a notch more important than whether the experience really happened or not, which can’t even be proved anyway. Haiku, after all, is poetry, not diary entries. (See Kathleen Rooneys 2013 essay from Poetry magazine, Based on a True Story Or Not, in which she says that an audiences refusal to accept made-up poetry seems to be a catastrophic failure of imagination and empathy.)

        This poetic license includes shaping the “now” of the poem to achieve the best literary effect, provided that the poem still remains or feels authentic for the reader. Here’s a poem of mine that many readers have resonated with over the years:

 

                spring breeze—

                the pull of her hand

                as we near the pet store

 

I share this poem in my haiku workshops, and nearly everyone responds by saying that they picture a child. No child is mentioned in this poem, yet a child is just what I want readers to imagine. I think that happens because of specific edits to elements of the experience. What “really” happened was that it was my girlfriend, in November, and she was eager to get to a coffee shop (in Palo Alto, California) because it was cold out. And so she pulled a little ahead of me, and it was the pull of her hand that arrested me, especially when it was usually me who walked faster than she did. She always used to call my fast walking a “Disneyland walk,” as if I were always in a hurry to get to the next ride or attraction, which made it unusual for her to be walking faster than me. In that small motion, I felt her eagerness, her urgency, and I wanted to record that. It felt more right to me to make it spring, which seemed closer to youthful enthusiasm. And to match the exuberance of spring, I made the destination a pet store instead of a coffee shop. These revisions all came quickly and intuitively.

        So I changed the “now” of my poem, or at least parts of it. But what I changed was selected facts of the original experience, in this case staying true to the core inspiration, the pull of the hand. What remains strong, I hope, is that moment when the persona in the poem (presumably me, the author, though not necessarily) feels the pull of “her” hand. As readers comprehend this, they presumably recognize the experience from their own lives, and resonate with it. And hopefully the emotion of eagerness and perhaps even joy is heightened by its association with spring and the pet store. Even the breeze has a lightness to it that aids the feeling (I don’t remember if that “really” happened, but the point is that what really happened does not necessarily matter).

        I’ve also found that the moments haiku depict come in two varieties, which I call static and dynamic. A “static” moment isn’t really a moment at all, but a state of being. Something is described that exists in a particular way, and will continue to exist that way for an undetermined amount of time. Nothing changes. In these poems, it’s the observer’s realizing what he or she is seeing that becomes the “moment,” the “now” of the poem. Here are two examples:

 

                after the quake

                    the weathervane

                        pointing to earth

 

                grey sky—

                the dog’s water dish

                iced over

 

In the first poem, something significant has obviously happened, but not during the time of the poem. There’s no action in the poem itself, but a state of being—the weathervane was already pointing to earth, and then the poet sees this. No wonder the poem uses a gerund—indicating a “present continuous” state of being. In the second poem, the action has also taken place beforehand—the dish icing over because of cold temperatures. The state of being is observed later, but nothing actually changes or happens in the poem itself. Sometimes poems with “static” moments have no verbs, which is a useful technique. It’s worthwhile to think about verb usage (or lack thereof) in haiku to assess whether the poem would be best presented as a static or dynamic moment—and sometimes the static moment is best, although perhaps less common.

        In contrast, other haiku have action that starts and stops—a “dynamic” moment. In my “spring breeze” poem, the hand pulls. It’s not an extremely quick moment, but it’s an action that does start or stop during the time of the poem, thus it’s dynamic. Consider this poem:

 

                landing swallow—

                the ship’s chain

                dips slightly

 

Here the action of the bird landing on the ship’s chain seems to cause it to dip at that moment. Or it could be that the bird is so inconsequentially light that it couldn’t possibly affect the chain, yet the chain happens to dip at that same moment. Either way, the chain dips, and it’s a moment that quickly starts and stops. It’s a little quicker than the “spring breeze” poem.

        Moments where the action starts and stops may be slightly longer than ones where the action only starts or only stops. First, the following poem is an example of a quick moment where the action (the domino’s click) immediately starts and stops:

 

                first cold night—

                the click of your domino

                as we play by the fire

 

The moment is indeed very quick, but we are also aware of time before and after the domino’s click, which may make the entire poem feel longer. Now consider the following two examples, the first where the action starts but does not stop (the conversation is ongoing, but the focus on death has just started), the second where the action was ongoing but then stops in the poem:

 

                dwindling fire—

                our conversation shifts

                to death

 

                slushy street—

                with my index finger

                I stop the busy signal

 

By focusing just on the beginning or ending of an action, each of these examples may have a sharper or quicker moment than a poem where action starts and stops. Neither variation is more virtuous for haiku than the other, but it’s worthwhile being aware of the difference, not just between actions that start and actions that stop, but between an action that either starts or stops and one that both starts and stops. In the second poem, the seasonal reference to the slushy street helps to place the poem in time, but note that that does not affect whether the moment is static or dynamic, or whether the moments start or stop, but can make us more aware of time in the poem, which is often true for season words—one of ways kigo can improve haiku.

        Sometimes, too, action can occur in the poem, but we see neither the start or stop of that action:

 

                summer moonlight

                     the potter’s wheel

                          slows

 

                chessmen in boxes . . .

                the café’s ceiling fan

                turns by itself

 

In the first example, the potter’s wheel is turning both before and after the moment of the poem, although we do perceive a change in the wheel’s speed. Because that change of speed is a continuum, we cannot pinpoint the exact moment when the change in action started, at least not within the poem. In the second example, the fan keeps turning, so there’s action in the poem, but we don’t see the fan either start or stop, so the “moment” in the poem is actually static (unchanging action) rather than dynamic.

        As a contrast to short moments, the following moment is longer—the minutes it takes to do a particular seasonal task:

 

                first Christmas—

                our baby sleeps through

                the unwrapping of his gifts

 

        Now consider this haiku:

 

                old folks’ home

                    the square of light

                        crosses the room

 

An afternoon goes by in this poem. Some people would say that it presents too much time for a haiku. Such an attitude presumes too narrow a sense of what a “moment” should be in a haiku, it seems to me. As a teenager, I spent a summer working in a nursing home, and saw how time flows differently for its elderly residents. I see time, for many of them, as having greatly slowed down, perhaps to a point of ennui, and I wanted to present the idea that the crossing of the light, which takes an entire afternoon, is a moment for the very elderly. This is a dynamic moment, but obviously a long one. I hope, too, that the poem conveys a measure of sadness, perhaps even loneliness, as a result.

        Sometimes it’s hard to tell when a moment starts or stops, or a difference of interpretation alters our perception of the “moment” in the poem. For example, in the “chess men in boxes” poem already mentioned, if we interpret the fan as starting to turn by itself, then the poem would indeed have a dynamic moment rather than a static one. An action, however small, may be interpreted as ongoing as opposed to being an event that starts or stops, or we may perceive something as being in a state of being rather than as an action. Consider the following one-liner:

 

                deserted park     hail on the chessboard

 

The hail on the chessboard may be about to melt, so there’s possibly an implied action about to happen. On the other hand, “on” could be interpreted as “falling on.” If so, hail is falling, and thus the action seems dynamic. Nevertheless, because the falling of hail is ongoing, at least in terms of the poem, there is no actual start or stop to the action conveyed in the poem itself. Thus this poem could be read as having dynamic action, yet the poem is still not a “dynamic” moment. Even though action is happening here, the poem still presents a state of being, like the “summer moonlight” and “chess men in boxes” poems. And of course, it’s ambiguous, because the description could also be interpreted as lacking the action of “falling.” Rather, it could be that hail that has already fallen is just resting on the chessboard, and though we know it will melt, for now the hail is simply there, its whiteness contrasting with the chessboard’s black squares and blending in with the white ones. In this interpretation, the poem is static rather than dynamic, even though readers may readily infer the dynamic action of the hail falling or melting. These inferences are part of what give poems their reverberations. These inferences sometimes arise from how time—and the moment—is handled in haiku.

        Indeed, a distinction is worth making between the moment that a poem specifically focuses on and what the reader infers will happen later. As another example, consider the following:

 

                sultry afternoon—

                I return again

                to the unsigned painting

 

Here, the “moment” is the action of the persona returning to the painting. The action happens and then stops, and thus this moment is dynamic. We infer that the persona lingers in front of the painting, but the poem does not actually say that. In fact, the return may have been accidental, except for the clue that its being unsigned has something to do with why the person returned to the painting. It is thus important to differentiate between what the poem itself says (in this case, that the persona returns to an unsigned painting, presumably in a gallery) and what the reader infers (that the persona stays there for whatever reason, and why).

        Some poets will write of two moments that take place too far apart, or that couldn’t be experienced in a single location (such as indoors and outdoors). In these situations, typically two different observers are required for the poem to be experienced at a single moment in time, thus the poem loses authenticity, or at least the immediacy of one personal experience. A haiku nearly always works best with a first-person point of view, and its believability may suffer if it employs an omniscient or third-person point of view. For me, that nearly always goes too far with the “moment” (and location) of the poem. Others may not be bothered by this, but perhaps they should be because it diffuses the poem’s intensity. Here’s a made-up example that I believe fails because of these problems (which, alas, I’ve seen in too many published poems):

 

                my finger presses the doorbell—

                her knitting laid aside

                on an antique end table

 

This poem strikes me as having a problem with perspective, taking, as it does, an omniscient point of view, or one viewpoint (outside the door) and then a second one (inside the house). This is generally best avoided in haiku, certainly by beginners, because both moments or scenes are unknowable from a single personal perspective, unless you can see through a window—although the poem would have to make that clear, which it doesn’t. The reader is thus potentially confused as to which point of view in the poem he or she should identify with. At the very least, the poem would be stronger with just one point of view. In our normal experience, we are each just one person or the other in such a scenario, and can never have the experience of both people simultaneously in a single scenario. The poem also has the issue of cause and effect, which is usually too facile a way to describe events in haiku, and typically also requires two moments, which can again diffuse the intensity of a poem. Indeed, in this example, notice the problem of one event happening and then another (whether it’s cause and effect or not), and how this diffuses the intensity that haiku is capable of. A worse situation would be when the two parts of the poem are separated by an even greater amount of time.

        One of my favourite examples of a sharp moment is in a poem by Christopher Herold:

 

                dark dark night

                a leaf strikes the pavement

                stem first

 

This is exquisite. We see the leaf for the utterly briefest of discernible moments when it first touches the pavement. We know that an instant later the leaf will fall to the side and lie flat, but for a split second we focus on the moment when it first touches. The image suspends us there, and we revel in it. The image is barely perceived visually because of the low light, but what makes the poem even stronger is that perhaps it’s not seen at all, but heard. Because we are told that it’s a very dark night, perhaps the leaf can’t be seen at all. So the poem is deepened even further, in that this subtle experience is perceived by ear, not by eye. When you add the biographical detail that the poet wears strong hearing aids in both ears (as a result of a former career as a rock musician), the sensitivity is deepened even further.

        So what sort of “now” should a haiku have? It could be static or dynamic (these “moments” could also be referred to as passive and active). Both moments can be effective. The dynamic moment need not always be very short, though it seems worthwhile that it not be too long. A haiku is usually improved, too, by focusing on a single moment rather than two, unless very close together. At the very least, it’s worthwhile to be aware of “when” a haiku is, and the various ways a haiku poem can have its moment in the sun.

 

                meteor shower . . .

                a gentle wave

                wets our sandals