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May 2009  Issue IX:2


How One Writes in the Haiku Moment:
Mythos vs. Logos

William M. Ramsey 


“Go to the pine to learn of the pine,” Basho is said to have advised his follower Doho, “and go to the bamboo to learn of the bamboo.” How simple, and yet how elusive this instruction for writing haiku. It so happens that I have a pine in my backyard. This morning I went to it to learn of it, and for a good while I gazed at it receptively. What I found was cracked bark, a mosquito or two, but no fertile moment of haiku composing. I had failed. Was it mental clutter that prevented my entrance into the “essence” of the pine? Or was it that no impression crossing my consciousness took any cognitive leap—any effective creative gambit—for generating a haiku moment?

These questions lead to others. What precisely is the so-called “haiku experience”? Is it a specially heightened moment different than other art moments (the sonnet moment, or villanelle moment, or limerick moment)? What exactly is the evocative, Zen-like “haiku path” that we are urged to take? These often-used phrases—always in the singular—fill our haiku handbooks and suggest a monolithic, unitary, or essentialist core that a haiku writer must tap into. What they presuppose is mythos. They evoke some kind of vertical leap upward from gross, material reality into higher, integrated vision. That is to say, they promise the “aha!” moment—something transcendent, transhistorical, and “up there.”

We live, however, in a postmodern age in which the horizontal view of things is supplanting the vertical. Truth statements now are presumed not to correlate to realities intuited from “on high.” They are constructed within social contexts and codes in which we are situated. Further, our statements are conveyed in language—a system of creative distinctions that impose on reality, carrying assumptions, always contributing to our constructing of perception. Once, John Keats was feeling oracular and declared that Beauty is Truth. His claim would now get deferred into an endless chain of social significations, dismissed as an enunciation of cosmic principle.

In this context, to write a haiku is not to elevate into rarified vision but to invent a language statement. It is not to access myth but to deploy logos. Logos here means not to apprehend universal Reason (the mytho-vertical), but to deploy reason and orchestrate language for the sake of manipulating cognition (the socio-horizontal).

I am a haiku writer, and each composing session raises the specter of not generating something fresh, well crafted, or authentic. When I began writing in the early 1990s, I strove to enter the “haiku moment” only to find that I didn’t know what it was. It was my misfortune never to have entered a Buddhist monastery, or made walking tours through Japan, or to know a sudden flash of satori. Why was it that I could not look at snow collecting on a tree twig to capture something precisely etched and uncannily profound? R. H. Blyth’s books on haiku suggested I must seek that kind of vision.

Eventually I woke up to writing practicalities. Most helpful was Modern Haiku’s editor Bob Spiess, whose speculations on juxtaposition in haiku turned my attention to practical generative tactics. I also was aware of one famous Western example of haiku juxtaposition, Ezra Pound’s modernist “In a Station of the Metro.” On a subway platform pale urban faces are juxtaposed with petals on a rain-darkened bough, without explanatory statement. Pound strikingly rendered a “moment,” as well as a practical model of how juxtaposition of unlike images can drive unexpected perception. He was not pushing, however, a mythic apprehension of going to the pine.

Recently Richard Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness has hurtled contemporary haiku writers dramatically into a postmodern sensibility. Gilbert vigorously advocates abandoning the mytho-poetics explanation of haiku, including the rarified “haiku moment.” He advances in its place a theory of “cognitive poetics.” Without rehashing the hefty theoretical complexities of his book, I wish to consider a practical question: How will his theory help us in the crucial creative moment—the haiku composing session?

The cornerstone of his theory is a linguistic strategy useful in writing called disjunction; it takes simple juxtaposition of images many steps further. Convincingly, he recasts all talk of a haiku mythos by showing how a haiku—if it is to be rhetorically effective—must be a language performance that manipulates a reader’s consciousness through “cutting” (kire), a kind of pivot point. In this view Basho’s brilliance, despite his cryptic advice about the pine, lies in how he alters the reader’s initial cognition in a haiku into unexpected perception through dexterous semantic moves that shift how a haiku is being read. Dismissing mystique, Gilbert shows how haiku perception occurs as one’s mind leaps “disjunctively” from one order of linguistic expectation to another. Going to the pine thus is not about Zen elimination of ego but operations of language that we too might acquire.

The haiku moment has been demystified; yet, I want to glance back at Basho’s advice for the excellent practical values it still offers writers. First, the self-effacement Basho recommends is still a cardinal rule of writers—suppressing self can reduce intrusive mental clutter, intensifying focused observation outward. A great many writers in the ubiquitous craft interviews touch upon “getting all things down,” or “not missing anything,” or “seeing everything to be seen” in the subject matter. Indeed haiku writers on a ginko make an odd sight. They stop, they stare, they bend over to peer, they poise pen over notebook, they move a few steps, pause, and freeze again—it’s no casual walk through a park. They are focusing hungrily on the “out there.”

What they seize upon, of course, is the power of a precise, vivid image. Going to the pine or bamboo is in part about concreteness—the powerful way that sensory impression attaches to consciousness. The compact haiku is not poetry of direct statement, expressive vagary, or cute commentary. The difference between a poetic aphorism and a haiku—superficially they look alike—is that the former prepackages a reader’s thinking by wrapping all in a witty closing point. The haiku, in contrast, triggers the start of perceptual discovery—the shift into it. Thus, Basho seems to communicate at the pre-verbal level, capturing fragmentarily an idea just as it breaks into awareness—before discursive grammatical structure, before “stated” ideation. Image begins this.

Yet, there are things Basho’s advice does not explain (and which Gilbert’s argument does). After he went to a pine or bamboo (i.e., a nature object or action), Basho then treated what he saw with a verbal brilliance that induces supple psychological impact. The fact is, a haiku is far more than a concrete image of something “out there.” It is very much about the cognitive awareness “in here.” That is why Gilbert regards Shiki’s shasei, the realist nature sketch, as an inadequate model for haiku theory. He privileges instead mind-shifting linguistic operations.

Of course, there is more to Basho’s pithy pine remark than its self-effacing brevity. The influence of his daily Zen meditations is probably at work here. These would routinely depend on focusing tactics. Presumably “going to the pine” is equivalent to a meditation’s focusing cue used for shutting out mental distractions, readying one for the concentrated clarity to follow. Thus, receptiveness to the pine means a clearing of mind that precedes a subtle, dynamic shift in inner experience. If that is so, Basho’s understated advice—itself a kind of haiku—implies far more subjective content than is explicitly stated and opens the door for cognitive poetics. He seems to say one must enter the pine’s essence, but he really means that disciplined creative concentration is required to compose productively.

This is an important point because so much content of a powerful haiku is cognitive shifting that occurs not “out there” in objectively observed landscape but in the poet and reader’s psyche. This puts us in territory that Richard Gilbert explores. If we were unaware of that interior work, we would take Basho’s famed description of a crow having settled on a bare branch at autumn dusk as a flat nature snapshot. Instead, its convergence of concrete image with psychological resonance is deeply human and rhetorically manipulated. Omitting some of Gilbert’s difficult nomenclature, I want to suggest how intricate are its few disjunctive shifts in cognition.

Basho’s one-image haiku seems caught fresh at the moment of the eye’s glance. Apparently it is a single moment-perception, spontaneously entering awareness as a whole, but actually it adroitly “cuts” perception. Initially, a crow has just finished an action (on a bare branch, having settled). This base section linguistically creates an expectation: the moment seems to be about a period of perched rest, or inaction, that will follow. For now, I note that the word “bare” seems to offer simple descriptive information; but it actually withholds its full import for the final line. The haiku’s low-key cutting (kire) happens as one goes to the final line and learns this is in “autumn dusk.” As if a camera lens has pulled back to a panoramic view, we now see the whole scene, not just the branch in it, and we discover this is autumn’s transition toward the dead of winter. The shift is disjunctive because now we must revise the text quickly.

Earlier we expected a bird’s becoming inactive. That now conflates with our own passing toward a state of inactivity. The word “bare,” initially a tree descriptor, applies with new force to oneself—our hair thins, our skin ages, our energies decline. The haiku’s sere descriptive coloration—black raven and drab bark—now penetrates our consciousness as the new alternative text—we all enter our own sere winter. This revised comprehension pulls coherence out of two conflicting orders, the temporal landscape of literal description and the a-temporal finality we will face. But for an instant the cut has made us dangle in a disjunctive gap between two worlds. Linguistically examined, this is not a still snapshot, not quite the serene haiku “moment” it seems. Basho’s cutting has shaped an interior drama rich and subtly charged by nuanced re-orderings of consciousness. We have managed to “go to the bird” (like the bamboo), a journey effected through precise and namable mental operations of logos not mythos.

I am able now to answer the earlier question about what happens when a haiku composing session is unproductive. It’s not that I failed to observe my pine closely enough “out there” in the back yard. It’s that my interior drama of cognition, the “in here,” simply didn’t get its juices flowing that day.

Has Richard Gilbert’s cognitive poetics given me a writer’s solution? The answer is, well, more or less. Positive benefits are multiple. Gilbert’s linguistic methodology enhances my reading of haiku, explaining things I have sensed, and even which have been noted before but for which old terminology did not precisely grasp. At the same time, it helps me understand why mediocre haiku fall flat. That means I can recognize when my own haiku are weak and discard them more quickly. Better, I can salvage some by re-conceiving their linguistic tactics. Indeed I see why in drafting I constantly reorder lines, alter word choices, and reach for different images. Instinctively this is the work of cognitive poetics. Most importantly, I am disposed to look not for a static, singular snapshot moment but to push into an unexpected direction, to cut, to withhold and then reveal—to invite unpredictability. That’s because an effective haiku is not a singular image-moment but a sequence of performed instants.

So far, however, this new linguistic knowledge has yet to convert in me to natural poetic command. When Gilbert says in Poems of Consciousness, “It is hoped that the manner of discovery presented here could be easily enough applied by the sensitive reader or poet”—I catch myself in some disbelief (111). His central chapter, “The Disjunctive Dragonfly,” gives a dizzying taxonomy of disjunctive modes with daunting names like “linguistic oxymoron,” “imagistic fusion” and “metaphoric fusion,” “concrete disjunction” and “rhythmic disjunction,” “displaced mythic resonance,” “semantic register shift,” and “irruptive collocation.” I cannot, pen in hand, look at my pine and think, “Now I will try a semantic register shift.” The leap from a complex nomenclature to putting oneself in a creative act is a stretch, and I cannot produce a haiku that way. It will take time to integrate the new knowledge into my impulses.

The haiku that Gilbert shows as models of disjunctive technique are excellent, but I fear I will lose something if I emulate disjunction too obsessively for its own sake. I don’t want to write what are “demo haiku,” made chiefly to demonstrate expertise in clever distortions of meaning. I want a haiku to remain a personal event connected to a sense of life story. In other words, I still want to venture truth claims, at least in the existential context of where I find myself in this lovely, distressing, difficult, and refreshing world. If haiku becomes a repeated story of semantics we will lose. That, I concede, is a general issue and not particular to what is generously offered in cognitive poetics. As for tomorrow, I am sure there will be grand political events in world news, but I hope to confront the pine once again. I hope to clarify in a passing, private impression one resonant fragment of a life journey—the most personal news there is.

Copyright © 2004-2009 by Roadrunner Haiku Journal. All rights revert to the authors upon publication.