Finding the Sky

First published in Kyoto Journal 86, July 2016, pages 108–111, with photographs by John Einarsen. Originally written in March of 2015. Newly added here, since the original publication, is the quotation from Alan Watts.

There’s a story told about Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche that speaks to the idea of implication in haiku. In 1971, Rinpoche was teaching a class on Buddhism at the University of Colorado. In one lecture, as John J. Baker reports in his reminiscence, “The Dharma in a Single Drawing” (Tricycle, Spring 2015), Rinpoche drew a picture on the blackboard, and asked, “What is this a picture of?” Eventually someone answered by saying the obvious, “It’s a picture of a bird,” as indeed it was. But Rinpoche then said something that altered his students’ view of the obvious, akin to how we might approach haiku. He said, “It’s a picture of the sky.”
        A lesson for haiku poets is that, as we write, we can fixate so intensely on what’s in front of us that we neglect what is out the corner of the eye, what might also be happening at the same time, and what might be implied—emotionally, culturally, and spatially. As readers, too, we can focus so much on the image that we miss the image’s context, again usually implied, in emotional, cultural, and spatial ways. It’s one thing to think about ma (), or the silence or psychological space within the poem, usually created by kireji (切れ字) in Japanese haiku, or the two-part structure in English, but another challenge to think about the “space” around the poem as well. Kireji are “cutting words” that divide haiku into two juxtaposed parts that are both grammatically and imagistically separate. Though at first seemingly unrelated, these two parts interact much like a chemical reaction—like the mixing of baking soda and vinegar. Kazue Mizumura has referred to kireji as “soul punctuation,” as “virtually untranslatable emotional shading.” They give the reader two parts to leap between, and create a transcendent space within the poem. But more than that, an effective haiku has space around these two parts as well.
        The poem’s emotional effect is perhaps the most obvious consequence of the words we read, something deeper than superficial compassion we might feel in a haiku about a puppy or homeless person. A broader compassion recognizes that the subject in the poem matters, whatever it is, moving beyond a feeling of “This is wonderful” or “This is sad” to the exclamation that “This is.” We direct this sense of wonder to the particular focus of each poem, and to the relationship we and the author have to each individual subject. An additional context is what we have previously learned about the author. For example, we know Shiki’s short life was wracked with pain from tuberculosis, which provides a profound emotional context for many of his poems. This is part of the space around the poem.
        Culturally, of course, the poem shares a moment of experience in our language, in our time, with allusions to the places, events, and activities of our daily lives. Part of the space we might bring to a poem is knowing when it was written, and who it was written for. For example, if a haiku refers to “tending the fire,” the meaning changes over time. Such a reference two centuries ago would readily imply a fireplace, which would have been the only source of heat in many homes. This context makes tending a fire a chore, a necessity. But when tending a fire today, we might more readily think of camping, or as a luxury in a chiefly decorative fireplace at home, thus a choice rather than a chore. Thus, the meaning of the poem would be affected by the context of when it was written, not just in terms of what wars were being fought at the time, but in much simpler matters of language. The cultural space around a poem is an intuitive exercise in empathy and sometimes projection, but other implications—the skies around the birds—are less obvious.
        Indeed, aside from the effect of haiku’s “fourth line” (the context provided by the name under the poem), and the way meaning might change over time, the seasoned haiku reader takes a moment to contemplate other factors that provide context for the poem. No wonder Seisensui referred to haiku as an “unfinished” poem, requiring the reader’s interaction to complete the poem’s scant details, to extrapolate the context, what might happen next, and the emotional or cultural setting of each poem. In Cor van den Heuvel’s famous “tundra” poem, the white space around the word, alone in the middle of the otherwise blank page, provides an example of one kind of spatial context—with so little text that one has to interact with the poem to “finish” it. Here the “snow” around the “rock” of the word “tundra,” as if emerging from snow melting in the spring, can imply space and expanse, with a hint of spring’s promise of resurgence after a bleak and barren winter. This is not the most important kind of spatial implication, however. 
In The Way of Zen (Pantheon, 1957), Alan Watts wrote that “In poetry the empty space is the surrounding silence . . . of the mind in which one does not ‘think about’ the poem but actually feels the sensation which it evokes—all the more strongly for having said so little. Indeed, in more conventional haiku, a different kind of spatial implication occurs when we think of what else is happening in the context of the poem in front of us—the environment that is part of the poem’s “space.” Consider this poem by Peggy Willis Lyles:

                winter night
                he patiently untangles
                her antique silver chain

Spatially, in a physical sense, we can imagine an implied wife, perhaps in the next room, waiting just as patiently—or perhaps not even aware that her husband is helping to solve a problem for her. The kigo (季語) or seasonal reference tells us something, too. The long and dark evenings of winter provide the time to focus on tasks such as this, tasks we might not do in the summer when we prefer to be outdoors to take advantage of longer daylight hours. The question a sensitive reader will ask is “what is this poem about?” The obvious answer is the untangling of a silver chain. But the deeper answer is relationships, probably between a husband and wife, and the love one feels for the other, demonstrated by the patient untangling of a silver chain—an heirloom that is now the wife’s, but surely has a much longer history beginning before the wife was born. It is, after all, an antique chain. So really the poem is about relationships over generations, about the “chain” of connections from person to person that motivated a mother to give the silver chain to her daughter, and for that daughter to give it to her daughter—and how family members near these mothers and daughters are also part of the heirloom’s history. While the chain of connections may become tangled over the decades, we still seek to untangle and understand them. This is because we value them, and value the love, history, and continuity they represent—added to here by the attention demonstrated by the husband who values his wife even more than the symbolic value of a prized possession.
        Yes, sensitive haiku readers will ask, “What is this poem really about?” In the best haiku, the answer is not what’s in plain sight. The more sensitive answer is akin to saying “It’s a picture of the sky.” It’s our job as readers of haiku poetry to discover each poem’s sky.

Michael Dylan Welch is founder of National Haiku Writing Month,, and his personal website, devoted mostly to haiku, is His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies in twenty languages. He lives in Sammamish, Washington.