By Richard Gilbert, illustrated by Sabine Miller, July 2018
Who are we, and how briefly? the haiku seems to ask. Like a firefly, a cicada, the poem rises with a sudden flare of brilliant light and life and is gone, disappearing in the few instants of its first reading. Knowing is dying. In the art of haiku, life isn’t just close to death, it is creased by it. When we think of death, there is usually a pause in contemplating what has occurred and is occurring all around us (leaving us out, for now). So in haiku, both poet and reader boldly ignite consciousness in invoking sudden and ever-brief images. As with love, the art of haiku may be dangerous: we are urged by the poem to experience an edge — on one side is here-ness, on the other gone-ness.
In longer forms of poetry, a narrative structure ensues which allows for story, and we travel, walking, riding, flying, driving, through landscapes of imagination and reality with explanation as guide. By contrast, in haiku each word and image is etched stark; solitary islands surrounded by seas. Haiku is an art form suited for adults who have experienced love and loss; as works they intrinsically possess this canvas. The love of singular, evanescent images living so long as attention (rather than narrative) provides, intermingles with the mystery of disappearing, of unknowing. The sea of language may represent fertility and potential, yet also harbingers personal extinction.
Haiku play in this way with presence and absence, and also with the present as “ever-now,” presence as an un-fleeting eternal. The very brief non-narrative poem lives and dies, brightens and fades in the way we attend through presence, in reading and contemplation. Such “edgy” aspects of context, background and backstory promise haiku romance.
As a moonlit pillar desires to bloom? If you so, as you like.
— Ikeda Sumiko (Japan)
“If so, as you like” is an offering, a prayer spoken of love, to the void, to a lover, or to you in barely veiled metaphor in promise of sexual intimacy. Where is the romance, you might ask? It must be in what lingers, in feelings that persist beyond the death (ending) of the poem; in the way we are able to return, reminded of an offering in re-reading. Following this logic, all haiku possess an atmosphere of romance if they succeed in lingering, as seduction.
Examining the entirety of haiku worldwide, the topic of romantic love is rarely attempted, and is even more rarely successful. Reading through the Living Haiku Anthology (LHA) archive, out of several thousand haiku published internationally, perhaps two dozen examples have been found, and of these only a dozen seem excellent. For romance to bloom in haiku, “person” must lose to or become sintered by depth, to those seas which surround and relativize the human. The significance of human love in haiku is entwined with insignificance, not as an either-or dialectic, but as a third-way sensibility: an “insignificant significance,” if paradoxically so. The Hamletean soliloquy amended: “to be and not to be in a question” regarding the relationship of romantic love, a human experience so strong that as Helen Fisher points out, we will kill or die for it:
Around the world, people love. They sing for love, they dance for love, they compose poems and stories about love. They tell myths and legends about love. They pine for love, they live for love, they kill for love, and they die for love. As Walt Whitman once said, “Oh, I would stake all for you.” Anthropologists have found evidence of romantic love in 170 societies. They’ve never found a society that did not have it (TED Talks, 2008).
In haiku romance, love romance, personal pronouns are usually present. This is a poetic challenge, because as readers we cannot know the “I” or “She” or “Him” of the poem. The poet is in love, and I am not with them. In effect, haiku proclaiming romantic love run the risk of irrelevance, or worse a cheapening of sensibility. One means of resolving the conundrum of personal-self foregrounding is through reference to nature as implicit metaphor,
of the river
— Coralie Berhault-Creuzet (France)
The first image-instance “whatever happens” here invokes a media res: the reader is immediately inserted into the midst of a relationship. Part of the poet’s design is that “song of the river,” a patently stereotypical-romantic image, allows the reader to finish off the first line (mentally) as “whatever happens to us,” or “whatever happens to me.” Poetic abstraction (“whatever happens”) juxtaposes with romantic trope, and this conflation acts through reflection, recollection — one recalls a love-situation specific to the poem’s scenario: a romance just after its first blooming. In this way, past becomes presence for the reader. What resurfaces is also gone (is but memory), even as the “song of the river” moves endlessly on.
A similar move or approach to romance, and a starry one at that, is next presented:
the space between us
tastes of pine
— Peggy Willis Lyles (US)
This haiku ends with an “impossible” synesthesia combining the taste of space as pine. A geomantic series of worlds arises in interacting geographies: the distance of lovers walking together, the forest (or park), the night sky, and its scattered stars — evoking a play of human significance/insignificance among world-relations. The poem speaks both to promise (“tastes of pine”), and possible loss (“scattered,” “the space between”; “pine” might also reference “to pine for”). Islands of words matter here as much as images — mid-step is there to be, or has a mis-step already occurred? Is the refuge of an already-lost relationship to end in pine (as a barrens), or does “tastes of pine” infer mutual intimacy — perhaps a walk together in shared post-coital bliss? Intimations of truths pondered in reader-experience, the poem leads us into its mystery.
Romance may also be expressed anti-romantically:
where ancient cedars stood the ache the blue sky mine
— Lorin Ford (Australia)
in the exact erasure of all that was, projected into the sky. This poem is a silent cry, which begins and ends with “mine”: not the “mine” of ego, the “mine” of knowing. Re-reading offers circular continuity in the single looped line, as “blue sky mine where ancient cedars stood the ache the (etc.)” circulates in a sensed depth of aesthetic beauty: truth down to the bones. Romantic naiveté is done away with as the loss is to a world, a cosmos, a landscape valued as soul, as psyche. Who but the poet is left to care, as a lover of presence in this world, even if humbly, as remembrance? The poet passes on, and the poem survives — but the trees, they’ve already gone. Now we too know, not only though image, also through the rhythmic drumbeat of love and grief: “the ache the blue sky mine,” evocative whether as song or prayer, steps to a new ecology of mind.
In plying romance in haiku, among the difficulties is the problematic dichotomy of “her/his, “I/me/mine.” “Pronouned” protagonists typically fail, though there are some survivors:
her hand in his
how it’s getting colder
— Ralf Bröker (Germany)
“Sublime” is what we might desire haiku to reveal through nuanced inference, so the overt use of the term here strikes a discordant, if not inexpert note. As such, this haiku presents an in-your-face attitude in confronting genre-possibility. As with “whatever happens” in Berhault-Creuzet above, Bröker first offers an image-abstraction in “sublime message.” This haiku faux pas is compounded by another, “her hand in his.” Up to this point, it seems haiku disaster, and not of the romantic type. The following phrase, “how it’s getting” is likewise a careworn trope from the annals of haiku-land. Yet this poem charms from “colder,” due to a dislocation: the question of objective subject arising from “it’s” in the last line. Is the “it” here her hand, the weather, the sublimity, its message, his heart? “It” is a question of what (and who) we hold onto, in dreams of loving, together. We only have each other — yet something more — and thirdly, much less. In the winter of this romantic sublime, the romance of endings appears in the ending, and the curtain closes fast.
To be and not to be in a question
To remain uniquely individual while also holding to genre limitation provides for creative tension in haiku, and presents a challenge to composition. How much can be said of a romantic relationship in which a love story is successfully encapsulated in about 12 syllables (the median length of haiku in English)? As in the examples above, what is revealed reflects intimately on what is in question. Looking further into it, in terms of reader experience, the art of haiku relates to incompleteness in several ways. ‘Images as islands’ implies the use of fragmentary language: an extreme brevity of syntax with grammar-parts often left out, from which the reader must intuit sense. Another mode of incompleteness relates to disjunction: the reader is left to forge coherence out of a series of images for which the author provides no obvious semantic glue.
For instance, in the above examples, how does “If so, as you like” connect with the “moon”; how does “whatever” connect with a “song”; how does “the ache the blue sky” relate to “ancient cedars”; and how does a “sublime message” relate with “colder”? In finding or encompassing the poem as a whole, the reader moves toward some third thing regarding placement of perspective.
This third may be where the poem lives. In a recent essay, “Grief and the Collapse of ‘Distancing’ in the Reader — Haiku and Ethics, a Brief Consideration,” aspects of distance as a notion of this “thirdness” of form were discussed (here slightly amended):
Interestingly, haiku fragmentation and omission allow for a potent universalism, in that universals of love [etc.] in the haiku above are relativized by each individual reader, via subjective, idiosyncratic experience. Each in a uniquely specific manner persuades a collapse of emotional distancing in the reader.
What can be added to this idea is that the collapse of emotional distancing is itself (paradoxically) created through forms of distancing — not of the reader, but of the poem with regard to the reader. Incompleteness in language, in image, and ambivalence as to meaning (haiku become effective as they become ambivalent regarding any singular extractive meaning) creates removal, creates distance. Images and possible meanings and feelings are evoked, enter us — yet the poem also distances itself from us. This phenomenon can be termed instrumental distancing. It is this removal and resulting obliquity which allows the poem’s images to linger, forges this lingering.
Where does the poem go, and what is the texture or field of this distanced space? While there cannot be a single answer, for haiku of romantic love, the poem itself acts much like a third sense of “person,” a poetic of personification — or at least, animate presence. In general, this third space may be referenced in Japanese criticism as “ma” (a space of in-betweenness, psychological interstitiality), combined with “ba” (which indicates location: a place in space, home). Semblance as a personification of “an in-betweenness which is home” represents this third element of haiku.
As a rule, critics throw up their hands at this point, or turn to some group of poems under discussion to illustrate the effect. Yet considering haiku of romantic love specifically, the power of romance forges a sense of “person” out of distance, binds us to a wish, a dream, as a more concrete reality. The poem itself insists on its own reality as romance; the author limns this poetic world into being as a third thing — a third space or place, even as a third voice: as an embodiment.
As a moonlit pillar desires to bloom? If you so, as you like.
Regarding romance, the “who” (the “I” or self) of the haiku might here be the author, their lover, yourself, your lover — “person” remains indeterminate. Yet what is unambivalent is that within the imagined scene of the poem there is a relationship: an intimacy of a ‘you-and-I,’ in place, space and time. The ‘you-and-I’ of the poem neither exists, nor lacks in significance. More strongly, this “other” ‘you-and-I’ pertains to what is most significant in embodying romance in the poem; that is, to what activates intimacy for the reader.
Where exists the space in which language becomes image?
This poem provocatively poses the question. Where is the space in which how we dream, in the wish to be touched to be free, in touch, blossoms? It is out of this distance that intimacy blooms — depending on the reader. So, this third isn’t the distance itself, yet there is distance. What is meant by distance then? The distance is as far as imagination travels in its creation of fragmentary, incomplete images of romantic love. In haiku, the truth may be told, though excursions must be instigated in search of it. Consequently, resolutions rely on reader intuition. When there ensues a collapse of distancing in the reader, intimations are made intimate.
Haiku create an intimate distance through which, in subtle ways, the poem itself elides into “person” — a thing becomes animate, a dreamlike scenario becomes significant, real to us, intimate, and valued. The theatre of haiku relativizes the human in part because the poem itself, modest instrument of language and most minimal object of artifice, is given independent existence on its own terms, in its own space, as a being, by the reader.
From this perspective, inquiries can be made regarding a given haiku taken on its own terms. When I read:
the space between us
tastes of pine
What infuses the scenario with romance is “the space between”— a space which “tastes of pine.” Who lives there, in that space? Neither the lovers of the poem, nor myself; the distance is traveled in an alternate direction, into the poem’s own dimension, deeper into the mirror of being implied by its language. Presence felt in the body, yet imaginary at the same time. By focusing on the minimal-elemental as haiku do, there arrives a unique form of artistic satisfaction.
In each of these poems one finds aspects of instrumental distancing, which may paradoxically cause a collapse of emotional distancing, an embodied intimacy, in the reader. Just as we may wish to unite or reunite with a lover, feeling equally their apartness, otherness (alterity), haiku of romantic love reflect imaginal being through the lens of poetic distancing — and its opposite may ensue as union, or apotheosis.
her hand in his
how it’s getting colder
freed by the reader, or conversely, the poem frees itself from its reader.
In the distance which pierces resides the arrow of romance.
First pub., Under the Basho Haiku Journal (14 March 2016).