Common Wisdom:
Learning Haiku from Heraclitus

First published in Blithe Spirit, the journal of the British Haiku Society, 32:2, May 2022, pages 37–42. Originally written in November and December of 2021. I recall, too, a poem by Makiko, that I published in Woodnotes #29, Summer 1996, page 26: philosophizing / I put my foot in the stream / a second time.” Everything flows.        +

You’ve surely heard the phrase, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” This may feel like a Zen saying from Japan, but it’s from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. In Brooks Haxton’s translation, Heraclitus said, “The river / where you set / your foot just now / is gone— / those waters / giving way to this, / now this” (from Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, New York, Viking, 2001, 27). What resonates with haiku poets, I believe, is the notion that each moment is of value, not to be repeated, or as Dee Evetts once suggested, the haiku and the haiku moment is “a small ceremony.”

     In a foreword for Haxton’s translations, James Hillman writes that “Heraclitus insists on a keen practical sense of things,” adding that he seeks “No lofty idealism or dulling generalities that smooth over life’s honest hardness” (xiv). Hillman explains that the ancient Greek philosopher, who died circa 475 BCE, “also bequeathed to Western culture . . . the aphoristic phrase” (xvi). This is partly because what has survived is a collection of “incendiary sparks that scholarship calls ‘fragments,’ as if to say the work is incomplete, only shards of a lost whole” (xvi). This partially equates to haiku poetry, not just for brevity but because haiku’s “incompleteness” engages readers to fill out the story and to add emotional interaction. Hillman notes, however, that “scholarship misses the fact that the style is the message,” saying that “The snapshot, the aperçu, reveals things as they are” (xvi), and then quotes a fragment from Heraclitus himself: “The eye, the ear, / the mind in action, / these I value” (9). Heraclitus is no haiku poet, but his brevities and timeless values present a stance that haiku poets can appreciate, offering “gestures . . . that neither reveal nor conceal” and that “allow for many meanings with ambiguous and suggestive possibilities” (xvii). The following examples from Heraclitus demonstrate these gestures, and also offer additional thoughts of interest to haiku poets.


             The prophet’s voice possessed of god

             requires no ornament, no sweetening of tone,

             but carries over a thousand years. (9)


Would that our haiku employed no ornament, no sweetening, carrying the depth of a thousand years, the wisdom of kairos amid chronos, that all our haiku be possessed of god. As Heraclitus says elsewhere, “wisdom . . . is the action of the mind / beyond all things that may be said” (13), a perspective thriving in the unsayable said, the province of fine haiku.


             Wisdom is the oneness

             of mind that guides

             and permeates all things. (13)


The oneness of a well-wrought haiku is a kind of clicking into place, a transcendent rightness not just for itself but with the entire universe. Haiku is the poetry of the collective unconscious but also the collective conscious. As Heraclitus says later, “The oneness of all wisdom / may be found, or not, / under the name of God” (41). It’s a rightness the Greek sage finds in an awareness of objectivity: “To be evenminded is the greatest virtue” (xxvi).


             The sun is new

             again, all day. (21)


And this:


         The sun, timekeeper

             of the day and season,

             oversees all things. (23)


The seasonal reference at the core of each traditional haiku taps into this primordial wisdom, each day new but also the same, a river of time you can never set foot in ever again, a flow of time revered for its emphemerality. Haiku celebrates the new river of every waking day. “Any day stands,” Heraclitus says, “equal to the rest” (83).


             By cosmic rule,

             as day yields night,

             so winter summer,

             war peace, plenty famine.

             All things change. (25)


This is the fleetingness where haiku dwells, the world of dew.


             From the strain

             of binding opposites

             comes harmony. (31)


Yin and yang bind together in wholeness, in oneness, a unity in dichotomy. R. H. Blyth said, “haiku is a perception and expression of unity” (Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture, Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1949, 1981, 284). Blyth emphasized that this unity “must never be expressed: it must be overheard, seen in a glass darkly, felt like a breath of wandering air.” Haiku dwell in the strain that Heraclitus speaks of, a tension in moments of attention. Indeed, the ancient Greek philosopher says, “The cosmos works / by harmony of tensions, / like the lyre and bow” (37). And, “Health seems sweetest / after sickness, food / in hunger, goodness / in the wake of evil” (69). All one, in flow.


             Seekers of wisdom first

             need sound intelligence. (33)


Haiku begin in objective sensory imagery. Wisdom may never come without a solid grounding in experience, a kind of experiential intelligence. Thus the wisdom of haiku oneness is like a comb for one’s hair, for which “the tangle and the straight path / are the same” (33).


             The way up is the way back. (45)


And this:


             The beginning is the end. (45)


Again, oneness. A marvelous whole. It’s a constancy, too, like the poet Marianne Moore, who said she would be there after the wave passes by.


             Only the living may be dead,

             the waking sleep,

             the young be old. (49)


Potential abounds, and with it, destiny. The receptive reader of haiku knows the potential in every image, in every moment, the dark with the light, the demons and angels, the waiting death that colours the living.


             Time is a game

             played beautifully

             by children. (51)


As a song lyric has put it, time makes us bolder, even children get older, and we’re getting older too. And as Bashō put it, to write haiku, get a three-foot child.


             Applicants for wisdom

             do what I have done:

             inquire within. (51)


Here I think of a favourite line from Harold G. Henderson’s The Bamboo Broom, in speaking of Bashō’s famous haiku about the frog jumping into the ancient pond. He said, “there must have been external quiet for the sound to have been heard and internal quiet for it to have been noticed strongly enough to make Bashō compose a poem about it” (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934, 34, emphasis added). Inquire within, indeed. For both writing and reading, haiku is just such an act of inquiry.


             Goat cheese melted

             in warm wine congeals

             if not well stirred. (53)


Because you might need to know this. Wisdom takes many forms.


             Even a soul submerged in sleep

             is hard at work, and helps

             make something of this world. (57)


Our subconscious and even unconscious mind is ever sifting experience—the touches of a child’s hand, the nodding of a jonquil.


             Since mindfulness, of all things,

             is the ground of being,

             to speak one’s true mind,

             and to keep things known

             in common, serves all being (59)


We share this mindfulness, this mind full of isness, the commonalities of existence, with our fellow haiku poets. The purpose of haiku is to share them, so William J. Higginson has implored, because haiku is a common wisdom. This common wisdom serves all beings, if we will listen, a wisdom to be made more common. And listen to this, from Heraclitus: “All people ought to know themselves / and everyone be wholly mindful” (71).


             Although we need the Word

             to keep things known in common,

             people still treat specialists

             as if their nonsense

             were a form of wisdom. (61)


Is this the haiku poet’s cliff edge? Do we risk specialist knowledge? All too easily, surely. Kerouac said haiku should be as simple as porridge. This is how we keep well back from danger.


             The habit of knowledge

             is not human but divine. (63)


This is the sort of knowledge that haiku partakes of, the divine beyond the human, kairos beyond chronos time—a spiritual freedom, as Kandinsky put it. And it is not just an occasional knowledge, but a daily habit, the haiku habit.


             Sound thinking

             is to listen well and choose

             one course of action. (73)


Or to listen well and choose the one poem to write in response. As Mary Oliver said, pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it.


             One’s bearing

             shapes one’s fate. (83)


This is perhaps true of haiku, that one’s outlook on nature, one’s approach to the world, molds one’s understanding of experience and reaction to it. It is a bearing that may be found in common wisdom, in the wisdom of the common. Haiku is this kind of wisdom. And wisdom, Heraclitus says, “is to speak the truth and act in keeping with its nature” (xxvi).

     And so we come to an end. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must remain silent.” But there is more, a little more, in the closing wisdom of Heraclitus:


             Silence, healing. (91)