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. This essay was also presented as a talk at the Mountain Rain Zen Community in Vancouver, British Columbia on 28 April 2019. Note the three new postscripts at the end. See also my “Skywriting: Learning Haiku from Annie Dillard” essay and Linda Pastan’s skywriting poem, “There Are Poems.”

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 the Japanese concept of ma (間), 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, making one plus one equal three.

        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 whatever we may 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 or iron stove, 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, in our much more comfortable lives, 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.

Postscript 1

“Only from the heart can you touch the sky.” —Rumi

In her book Haiku Mind (Boston: Shambhala, 2008), Patricia Donegan presents the following poem in a chapter titled “Sky Mind.” She reports that it was “Allen Ginsberg’s death haiku, written about a week before he died” (3):

                To see Void vast infinite

                look out the window

                into the blue sky.

Donegan adds the following commentary:

This haiku is a wonderful reminder of a simple practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition called sky meditation: looking up into the vast sky and feeling the large expanse of space, which stops our mind’s preoccupation of the moment. The sky is merely a reminder of this openness that is always within us, that we can tap into anytime. Wherever we are, we can always simply stop and look up at the sky, or even imagine the sky . . . and breathe out a long-awaited sigh. For a moment we are back to our natural state of mind, which is as vast and open as the sky; all else is just thoughts and feelings like clouds passing by. In any moment we can come back to sky mind. (3–4)

Ginsberg’s poem first appeared in Death & Fame: Last Poems 1993–1997 (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1999), page 81. To me it’s more of a statement than a haiku, but Donegan does explain that it was written as an “American Sentence,” Ginsberg’s invention of an alternative to haiku, seeking to be just seventeen syllables, usually in a single line, paying no attention to most of the other targets for haiku in English or Japanese. But still it’s a sky mind poem, and seeking sky mind may be part of what it means to find the sky in each haiku we write and read.

—15 November 2019

Postscript 2

Without further commentary, here is a quotation from The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts (New York: Vintage Books, 1951, page 110):

But you will cease to feel isolated when you recognize, for example, that you do not have a sensation of the sky: you are that sensation. For all purposes of feeling, your sensation of the sky is the sky, and there is no “you” apart from what you sense, feel, and know. This is why the mystics and many of the poets give frequent utterance to the feeling that they are “one with the All,” or “united with God,” or, as Sir Edwin Arnold expressed it—

Foregoing self, the universe grows I.

—3 October 2020

Postscript 3

I recently came across these words that seem immediately relevant to the idea of finding the sky—in life and in poetry. They’re from a meditation exercise in John Brehm’s The Dharma of Poetry (Wisdom Publications, 2021, page 49–50):

In this meditation . . . practice noticing the space between and around everything. Just as we are conditioned to focus on our thoughts, rather than the space between thoughts, we are conditioned to focus on objects rather than the space between them. Shifting the focus of our outward visual attention from things to space can help us detach from thoughts and relax into awareness itself.

Indeed, as any experienced downhill skier will tell you, the secret to skiing well through a glade of trees is not to look at the trees but at the spaces between them.

—21 July 2023