Simplicity and Obscurity: Crossing the Haiku Rubicon

First published in Haiku Canada Review 10:1, February 2016, pages 36 to 41. Originally written in February of 2011.

“At some point, brevity doesn’t translate into simplicity. It translates into obscurity. Knowing the exact point that happens—when a haiku I’ve shortened lacks clarity and only becomes confusing—isn’t always apparent. It depends on the context the reader brings.”

The preceding comment was written by Utah technical writer Tom Johnson, on his “I’d Rather Be Writing” blog. He didn’t actually refer to haiku, though. I changed that bit to get your attention. What he referred to was technical documentation, and how the common need for anyone seeking guidance on technical topics is for the documentation to be as brief as possible. If you want to learn how to wire a computer network, then simple and short is the documentation’s goal. If you want to do anything technical, then the guidance should be as direct and as simple as possible, with no unnecessary parts, as Strunk and White told us. Simplify, simplify!
        Sound like haiku? It should. Technical writing and haiku have a lot in common, at least among certain techniques and especially in how they favour brevity and concision—if not emotional effect. As Jack Kerouac once wrote, haiku should be as simple as porridge, and so should technical writing. Or, as Satya Nadella, the new CEO of Microsoft, has put it, “You’re trying to take something that can be described in many, many sentences and pages of prose, but you can convert it into a couple of lines of poetry and you still get the essence.” On his blog, Tom Johnson’s statement came immediately after he wrote “If I could deliver everything [all my technical documentation] in a handful of haikus [sic], I would be the most popular writer in town.” And then, alas, he proceeded to deliver a pseudo-haiku about joyful user-guide readers that is best left unquoted. But the point is that smartphones, blogs, tweets, Facebook updates, Google and Bing search results, website blurbs, and nearly everything about our Web 2.0 society (or is it 3.0 by now?) is slouching towards the shortest possible. And it has been doing this far more dramatically in the last five years than ever before.
        So maybe haiku will come to rule the world after all. For poetry, though, I’ve said for years that haiku should not be as short as possible but as short as necessary. In other words, it’s not enough merely to be short, which can too easily become cryptic, crossing that magical Rubicon into obscurity. Nor do you want to lop off all the articles or other parts of speech just for the sake of shortness (haiku are not telegrams, and Paul O. Williams warned haiku writers against the “Tontoism” of omitting necessary articles). Indeed, haiku needs to be short while communicating clearly, saying what needs to be said—thus, to be as short as necessary. That distinction, I think, is a vital one for haiku writers to learn. In the effort to compress, some haiku lose sight of their audience, or lose clarity, and fail to communicate. As Tom Johnson notes, it isn’t always easy to see when you cross the line from simplicity (haiku’s goal, or at least one of them) into obscurity (haiku’s enemy, or at least, I think so). But perhaps it could be said that a good haiku comes as close to that line as possible without slipping over into the void beyond.
        What makes the difference? Tom Johnson’s comment provides an answer: “It depends on the context the reader brings.” In technical documentation, that context would include the reader’s technical knowledge. In haiku, it depends on language, literature, and cultural awareness, including one’s knowledge and experience with haiku. In his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), E. D. Hirsch, Jr. delved into various subjects that he deemed essential for people who wish to consider themselves culturally literate—everything from the significance of John Lennon to the geographical importance of Iguazu Falls (I’m making up these examples, regardless of whether they’re in the book). Or, as the ever-trusty Wikipedia tells us, “Cultural literacy is the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions, and informal content that creates and constitutes a dominant culture.” It goes on to say that “Cultural literacy stresses the knowledge of those pieces of information that content creators will assume the audience already possesses.”
        The cultural literacy I’m talking about here has to do with haiku content, however, not technique. So if your haiku refers to the “children of tāne,” will any readers know that you mean birds, trees, and other forest fauna unless they’re Māori or live in New Zealand? That’s an example of a regionalism that assumes a particular audience, or wishes to deliberately exclude anyone who’s not part of the “in” crowd to get the reference. Either that or the reference fails to be sensitive to the reach of the writer’s own culture, or wishes to deliberately challenge others to learn something new. Yes, content could be obscure to some people on purpose. Even if content is not trying to exclude people, that problem can happen even if you don’t intend it. Consider this progression of terms:

transportation device à wheeled vehicle à motorcycle à Vespa            

Never mind that a Vespa is a motor scooter and technically isn’t a motorcycle. Let’s consider it to be close enough—or perhaps in a subset of motorcycles. In any case, look at how each of these terms gets progressively more precise. To me, too, a Vespa conjures up Italian streets, so it has geographical overtones as well as being precise in the kind of vehicle it refers to. But notice what occurs in this progression. We all know what is meant by a transportation device, wheeled vehicle, and motorcycle. But then something happens. We might not happen to know what a Vespa is, and so a haiku referring to this particular mode of transportation could leave us puzzled—and we might not even know it’s a form of transportation. Oh, sure, we could look it up, but we could easily be puzzled until we did so, and the poem would fail for us, at least temporarily.
        This doesn’t mean a haiku poet should avoid words such as “Vespa.” I recall a haiku in John Barlow’s book Flamingo Shapes about a scooter he rode while on a Greek holiday—a Piaggio Liberty. In fact, more power to the haiku writer who uses words like this, as they add colour and character to the poem—as with the overtones of a busy Italian street that I get with “Vespa.” But they do take a risk. The haiku writer should be aware of when he or she is crossing a line into potential obscurity, as with the word “Vespa”—perhaps even moreso with “Piaggio Liberty”—and be careful to do so only in a deliberate context or with a limited audience in mind. Much of this sensitivity is common sense, but it also benefits from practice and experience. One can go too far, because saying Peromyscus maniculatus, while precise, is far too obscure when you merely mean a deer mouse. But even saying “deer mouse” might not be clear to some readers, beyond the basic sense that you’re referring to some kind of rodent. Haiku writers develop a sense of how far to push their readers—and pushing a little is often fresh, distinctive, and colourful, so “deer mouse” could work well while the scientific name almost certainly wouldn’t. When readers encounter a puzzling reference in a haiku, that’s a signal that they have something to learn (assuming that the poem itself is competent). As British critic and philosopher Owen Barfield has said, “wonder is our reaction to things which we are conscious of not quite understanding”—something he calls “strangeness.” This strangeness, he says, “arises from contact with a different kind of consciousness from our own.” So it can be good to be pushed, to be made more broadly aware of consciousness that differs from our own. I’m wary—and weary
of writers who push readers unnecessarily, in a self-involved sort of way, or are unnecessarily opaque in ways that just yank the reader’s chain. However, when something unusual is handled well, it can be truly effective. Indeed, the borders of strangeness are signals of potential growth. But tripping into those borders of strangeness could also backfire on the writer—they could indicate the potential for where the writer needs to grow in his or her art to exhibit better sensitivity to his or her audience.
        But sensitivity to cultural literacy isn’t the only sort of obscurity that I think Tom Johnson was getting at. Rather, think in these terms: “Turn it on.” Turn what on? You have no idea from this particular instruction what needs to be turned on. Flip a switch? Become energetic? Turn a person on romantically? Often a careful degree of ambiguity, if artfully controlled, can help to evoke overtones—a technique I’ve previously called “perpetrated ambiguity.” But ambiguity can go too far, if uncontrolled, and tip into obscurity. So, turn what on? In what way? I may have been thinking of a Vespa, or a moon rocket, for all you know. But you don’t know. And I haven’t told you. So that’s the limitation of what I just wrote. In haiku, what matters is not just cultural literacy (what the reader knows and can be expected to know), but also the writer’s sensitivity for context and completeness. In other words, has the writer provided enough information for the informed and somewhat typical reader to understand? Poems written while on a Greek holiday provide a context to help us understand a Piaggio Liberty reference, for example. A reference may be colourful, but another question for the writer to consider is whether the poem’s audience will clearly understand the reference. And when does providing too much information turn the poem into a report? No wonder the art of poetry, and haiku in particular, can be such a challenge. It’s an art of balance.
        Let me close with a famous passage from Strunk and White, alluded to at the start—as good advice for haiku poets as anything they ever wrote:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

        There’s a time for Henry James and a time for Ernest Hemingway, but their differences in sentence length come down to a matter of style. I believe I could argue that both were writing as short as necessary—for their own particular style. Issues of style aside, each haiku is like a car engine that should have no unnecessary parts, no levers or cranks that are purely there for show. 
No wonder William Carlos Williams once said that “A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words . . . pruned to a perfect economy.” As we write our haiku, as with technical writing, it helps to aim for brevity, concision, and simplicity. But the tradeoff, if we go too far, is indeed that peculiar sort of brevity that veers into obscurity. Here’s to haiku that remain sensitive to that boundary, even while they explore that boundary, and sometimes come as close as they can.