This essay, in a shorter form, was originally presented as the opening address for the 2005 Haiku North America conference, held September 21 through 25 at Centrum (Fort Worden) in Port Townsend, Washington. First published in Frogpond 29:1, Winter 2006, pages 59 to 62. It was reprinted in Big Sky: The Red Moon Anthology 2006 (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2007). The poem by Garry Gay appears by permission of the author. See also “Ordinary Lives.”
A dark sea
—Garry Gay, River Stones
As haiku poets mature into their art, I believe a sort of “inflation” of expectation often occurs: As we read more and more haiku, it typically takes an ever more superior poem to catch our attention, let alone impress us. Thus we may read journals such as Frogpond or Modern Haiku or any other journal for years and have the growing sense that the quality has lessened. Perhaps you’ve had conversations with people who say they’re less enthralled with haiku books and journals than they used to be, feeling certain that the poems aren’t as good as before. Yet what may be happening is that we, as readers, have progressed to a saturation point where haiku has to accomplish more and yet more to “top itself” and get our attention—not by being over the top, pretentious, or in your face, but by being truly new, fresh, and insightful. Old haiku poets can simply become blasé about the wonder and awe that assails them through the pages of haiku journals and books. Call it, if you will, haiku ennui.
Indeed, in giving the impression of diminishing quality, it’s not necessarily the journal that has moved, but us. The question is, if we feel this happening to ourselves, how can we revitalize haiku, or our sensitivity to it? I’m reminded of environmentalist writer Rachel Carson, who once wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
Carson’s wish is perhaps the remedy to the problem of haiku inflation—that we not take the world for granted, and that we remind ourselves that life and experience are precious. Carson also states that “it is not half so important to know as to feel,” and that “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” Haiku is the poetry of the senses, and its objective depictions present the facts that can be seeds of understanding and awareness in our lives. If we slow down and take extra time reading each haiku poem, perhaps we can provide better soil for the seed of wonder to grow and flourish—and thus revitalize our sensitivity to these poems in the act of reading them. And perhaps we can revitalize our way of writing haiku, too. By being more acutely aware of our emotions—something that academics call the “precognitive response”—we can be in better touch with ourselves and what it means to be human. The best haiku begin and end with emotion, and if we are too hurried to notice, and to feel, it’s no wonder that haiku and haiku moments sometimes pass by without getting under our skin the way they used to, even while, in an intellectual or habitual way, we continue to pursue our haiku passion.
Life is achingly wonderful, endlessly brimming with beauty, and the art of haiku lies in capturing that wonder, whether each subject we apprehend is beautiful or not. Perhaps you know the scene in the movie American Beauty, where the character with the video camera is entranced by a white plastic bag that blows around persistently in front of a red brick wall. For many long minutes he films the random and ultimately ordinary beauty that he sees—a beauty of everyday lifefulness. If we keep ourselves from merely consuming haiku, and give ourselves more time to deeply feel and empathize with each poem and the touch of life behind it, we can combat their tendency towards a cumulative dullness, and catch their joy and fullness—or catch, as Carson calls it, “a breathtaking glimpse at the wonder of life.” That’s what authentic haiku is all about.
The British critic and philosopher Owen Barfield has said that “wonder is our reaction to things which we are conscious of not quite understanding.” Wonder at the beauty of life, and in poetry, can take us closer to what Barfield calls “strangeness.” This strangeness, he says, “arises from contact with a different kind of consciousness from our own.” Because haiku is such a personal poetry, in both the writing and reading of it, the wonder that can help us appreciate the subjects and content of haiku can also help us appreciate the varying and sometimes “strange” consciousness of their writers. “Strangeness,” Barfield says, “arouses wonder when we do not understand, aesthetic imagination when we do.” As Harold Bloom says in The Art of Reading Poetry, “poetry at its greatest . . . has one broad and essential difficulty: it is the true mode for expanding consciousness.” This difficulty, he concurs, he has “learned to call strangeness.” This strangeness requires our acceptance, as A. R. Ammons put it in his poem “Scribbles” from Worldly Hopes (New York: Norton, 1982, page 24):
perplexity is such that sometimes it must be
embraced before it will clear, to the deep
clear, when it may be put aside, as a bee
puts aside color, pattern, flight when he reaches
at the stigma’s base the pure nectar:
As W. B. Yeats said, “Art is meeting something you didn’t expect, something that isn’t yourself.” And no wonder Paul Valery once said that “The advantage of the incomprehensible is that it never loses its freshness.”
Perhaps if some of the haiku we encounter seem not only remote but strange, this may be a signal that they stem from a different sort of consciousness from our own. We can more deeply appreciate “strange” poems not only with a renewed sense of Carsonian wonder, but with the realization that they may be challenging us with the very strangeness of the unique consciousness out of which every haiku is written. We should apprehend haiku not just from where we are, but from where the poet is. If we put ourselves where the poet was, rather than remain indolent and always expect the poet to come to where we are, we may find that poems we might otherwise let pass by will instead streak brightly to life. An attitude of empathy, which can begin with the seed of wonder, will take us to new places from whence each haiku originates. These new places are often psychological, and will include not only the consciousness of the poet, but places where our own consciousness is expanded as well. In both strange and wonderful ways, if we let it, haiku can change our consciousness.
I would like for all readers and writers of haiku to know the following anecdote, also conveyed by Rachel Carson in her book The Sense of Wonder. I hope this story will take you to the intuitive, passionate, and consciousness-altering place where haiku can always begin, where both the reading and writing of this transformative poetry can always be fresh and intense.
Exploring nature . . . [Carson writes] is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.
For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?
I remember a summer night when such a thought came to me strongly. It was a clear night without a moon. With a friend, I went out on a flat headland this is almost a tiny island, being all but surrounded by the waters of the bay. There the horizons are remote and distant rims on the edge of space. We lay and looked up at the sky and the millions of stars that blazed in darkness. The night was so still that we could hear the buoy on the ledges out beyond the mouth of the bay. Once or twice a word spoken by someone on the far shore was carried across the clear air. A few lights burned in cottages. Otherwise there was no reminder of other human life; my companion and I were alone with the stars. I have never seen them more beautiful: the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon. Once or twice a meteor burned its way into the earth’s atmosphere.
It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it.