Haiku as History:
The Ultimate Short Story

First published in Modern Haiku XXIX:1, Winter–Spring 1998, pages 54–56. All the epigraphs have been added since the original publication. Also see the short postscripts at the end. Read some discussion about this essay at James Karkoski’s blog, “The Haiku Experiment.” I think also of Dietmar Tauchner’s haiku, “frost-touched hair / the future consists / of memories.”

“Poetry is memory become image, and image become voice.” —Octavio Paz


“By the act of observation we may have selected a ‘real’ history

out of the many realities, and once someone has seen a tree in our world

it stays there even when nobody is looking at it.” —John Gribbon


“Reality is only a memory ahead of its time.” —Noah ben Shea


“In any good lyric poem—even one as brief as a haiku—a tiny narrative exists: 

there is a moment of transformation.” —Jane Hirshfield


“By the time a thing is / noticed, it has happened.” —Kay Ryan


“Every haiku is a piece of a story. It is not a whole story, but a hint of a story that the reader

completes in his or her own mind.” —Patricia Donegan


“A memory once clearly stated ceases to be a memory. It becomes perpetually present, because every time we experience something which recalls it, the clear and lucid original experience imposes its formal beauty on the new experience.” —Stephen Spender


“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future.

In truth all sensation is already memory.” —Henri Bergson

“Poetry feeds on the remembrance of our perceptions that are no more,

since they belong to a moment in the past.” —Czeslaw Milosz

“Has it ever struck you that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick
you hardly catch it going?” —Tennessee Williams

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” —William Faulkner

“Write to register history.” —Isabel Allende

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember

and how you remember it.” —Gabriel Garcia Márquez

“A haiku is retrospection in the present tense.” —Jean LeBlanc, The Haiku Aesthetic

“All narrative is metaphor.” —Mary Oliver

“We do not know the true value of our moments until they have undergone the test of memory.”

—Georges Duhamel

“Poetry is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.” —Robert Frost

I can read someones haiku and imagine a whole story, not just a flash of an image.” Glenn G. Coats, Furrows of Snow

“The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality.
The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal.
Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal.
Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place.
There is no other reality.” —Robert M. Pirsig



Writing in the seventeenth century, the English philosopher Francis Bacon divided all knowledge into two broad categories. He defined his first category, human knowledge, as “information derived from the senses.” He further divided this category into the subcategories of history, poesy, and philosophy, saying that history derived from memory, poesy from the imagination, and philosophy from reason. The second broad category, theology, he defined as “information derived from revelation.” We immediately know that haiku are inspired through the senses, yet also through intuitive revelation. If we look at haiku through Bacon’s eyes, we can behold this poetry as offering a unique combination of human and divine “knowledge,” the combination of which may be responsible for its unique appeal.

      At first it would seem that haiku falls just into Bacon’s category of human knowledge, and specifically under his subcategory of “poesy.” Yet we know haiku to be a poetry of the here and now, of direct personal experience, not of the imagination (as Bacon defined poesy). The best haiku, by the classic Japanese masters up through today, are not generally made up, not dreamed up with no authenticity or basis in fact. But if haiku seems not to be “poesy,” then what is it? We also know haiku to be a poetry of intuition, so it seems also that it isn’t a poetry of “reason”—assuming intuition and reason to be dipolar opposites. Thus haiku would not fall into the “philosophy” subcategory. Perhaps, then, haiku is a poetry of “history.”

      Haiku as history? That may seem to be a radical thought because “history” is in the past. Haiku poets are often told not to write from memory but from the here and now—to dwell in the present rather than the past (or future). But how is this prescription a proper recommendation for how to write haiku, or an appropriate description of the best impetus of one’s writing? Rather, perhaps the perceived dictum to not write from memory but from the here and now might be better understood in terms of the product (the poem) rather than the process (experiencing something and writing the poem). The poem should be apprehended by the reader as happening in a present time and place; the poet need not have just seen an image, experienced an event, or felt the poem’s momentary realization before writing the haiku. The relationship of memory to haiku, then, might be better understood by focusing on the reader rather than the writer. Instead of saying “don’t write haiku from memory but in the present moment,” perhaps we could look at the poem from the reader’s perspective, thinking, “is this poem about something that the reader reads as if it is happening in the present moment, regardless of when it may have actually happened?” With this thought in mind, perhaps haiku can then fall into Bacon’s “history” subcategory of human knowledge. After all, in ancient Greece, memory was considered the mother of all the muses.

      Indeed, what we write in a haiku is an objective record of history, something we have experienced through our senses. Writing in the present tense keeps the poem immediate and accessible; yet the poem’s subject is still historic, a small and meaningful slice of the past. Those who say haiku should not be a poetry of memory but just of the present moment may be forgetting that the instant anything happens, it’s history. The moment a twig snaps in the woods and we notice the sound of a bird trilling in response, that moment becomes history. It instantly becomes a memory. So even those who write “in the present moment” are nevertheless writing from memory. The old canard still persists, however. Furthermore, why is a very recent memory somehow more valuable to some haiku poets than an older memory? We may not be able to remember what we had for dinner yesterday, but we recollect certain life events with utter clarity even though they may have happened many years in the past. Is not the clarity of the memory (or the image/intuition) more significant than its recency? Furthermore, doesn’t the act of remembering exist in the present moment even if the remembered event happened years (or seconds) ago? And, as a consequence of this act of remembrance, regardless of how long ago the memory occurred, do we not feel an emotional response to it now, in the present moment? In this context, it seems clear—and acceptable—that haiku is a poetry of “history” yet still very much in the here-and-now. Haiku is not a poetry of “philosophy” because it does not spring from reason but intuition; it is not of “poesy” because generally it does not spring from imagination or present imaginary content but from remembered reality. Even if the memory is of a very recent moment, haiku is a poetry of the past—powerful emotion, as Wordsworth put it, recollected in tranquility.

      Yet, as we know, haiku is also in the present. We craft the poem to convey a sense of the present moment—specific moments written as if in the present. And readers apprehend the poem by recalling their own memories, and the poem can remind them of what they have experienced and already know but perhaps haven’t really noticed. In the present moment of being read, the poem enables the reader to experience the poet’s initial intuitive response to sensory perception by objectively depicting that perception (the best haiku usually present the image that causes an emotional response, not the emotion itself). In this manner, the experience of life is imparted from writer to reader. With a haiku poem, personal and intimate knowledge is profoundly imparted from one person to another.

      The prevailing thrust of English-language haiku tends toward the objective depiction of nature and human nature, using particular traditional and formal techniques such as seasonal reference, internal comparison, caesura, and so on. Yet essentially the content imparts “knowledge”—something collective that we understand through our senses. Indeed, haiku has often been defined as a poetry of the senses, reflecting all the things we can know by seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. Haiku is a poetry where we share something with others—not just the surface knowledge (facts) of some experience, but also the deeper intuitions and realizations of dwelling in the here and now. Thus haiku is a poetic means of sharing a deep kind of knowledge.

      Yet haiku is more than just “human” knowledge. A sense of the divine also exists in haiku. Something transcendent resonates in the best haiku. Haiku may not be Bacon’s “theology,” but something of a spiritual revelation exists in the haiku’s “aha” moment, its satori in miniature. At the moment a smile crosses a reader’s face on hearing a strong haiku, the moment a reader leaps a haiku’s gap of juxtaposition, he or she tastes the divine and experiences a revelation just as the poet did. Thus the reader shares, through the poem, that deeper, intuitive kind of knowledge—human and divine—and becomes more fully interconnected with life.

      Perhaps this divine knowledge may be thought of as “timeless.” The divine nature of haiku revelation catapults the poem beyond time—beyond history, beyond the present moment, beyond the future. The poem comes to life, becomes eternal, becomes all-encompassing truth. Jeanette Winterson, in her book Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (New York: Knopf, 1996), put it this way: “If truth is that which lasts, then art has proved truer than any other human endeavor. What is certain is that pictures and poetry and music are not only marks in time but marks through time, of their own time and ours, not antique or historical, but living as they ever did, exuberantly, untired.” Indeed, it is the utter truth of a haiku to which we spontaneously, exuberantly respond with our “aha!”

      Francis Bacon’s classifications of knowledge may be seen to encompass the past and the future. Yet haiku straddles time’s continuum, recording both history and intuition (revelation) squarely in the present. In this way, haiku offers a unique combination of knowledge. Haiku’s appeal may result from this straddling, this ontological inclusiveness, this sharpening of life into the infinite now. Knowing this possibility may not help us write better haiku, but it may help us understand how and why haiku affects us as deeply as it can.

      History, it’s been said, is simply stories about people. Haiku can be a way of telling our own histories, for each haiku is a story—the ultimate short story. Yet haiku is not just history, for it transcends time. As such, haiku tell us about each other in ways that help us understand ourselves and our world. To keep from repeating the mistakes of the past, we have the opportunity to learn from history. Haiku is history, and tells our individual stories—and it’s up to us what stories we tell. We can learn from haiku too. Perhaps, as a result, we can make the world a better place, and ourselves better in it.

Postscript 1

I am not alone in taking haiku as being records of history, as the following example of this understanding illustrates (surely among others). In A String Untouched: Dag Hammarskjöld’s Life in Haiku and Photographs (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2007), Kai Falkman declares that “a haiku is a memorandum,” and that “Whenever a haiku is composed, immediately after the experience when feeling is most intense and memory most visual, or several decades later . . . the haiku is always a description of something that has happened in the past, be it immediate or long ago” (24). What matters in writing haiku is not the recency of an experience but its vibrancy. Meanwhile, in the fifth chapter of The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan W. Watts said, “a memory of the past . . . is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.

—24 June 2017, 22 August 2021

Postscript 2

In his book Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers (New York: Grove, 1955), in the chapter on “The Japanese Theatre,” Donald Keene writes that “The [also stylized as Noh] provides a superb framework for a dramatic poet. It is in some ways an enlarged equivalent of the tiny haiku, portraying only the moments of greatest intensity so as to suggest the rest of the drama. Like the haiku also, the has two elements, the interval between the first and second appearance of the principal dancer serving the function of the break [kireji, or cutting word] in the haiku, and the audience having to supply the link between the two. Sometimes theres also the intersection of the momentary and the timeless which may be noted in many haiku” (52–53). With these comments Keene equates haiku to Noh in its dramatic structure, lending credence to the idea of haiku as story, even if the story is implied—suggesting, as Keene says, “the rest of the drama.” Keene also notes that the poetry of Noh employs “alternating lines of 7 and 5 syllables, like most Japanese verse, but in the plays attains heights otherwise unknown in the language” (52). And yet haiku, in its condensery, would seem to achieve such heights despite its brevity, or perhaps even because of it—and because it may well be the ultimate short story.

—11 January 2022

Postscript 3

David Mamet is known to emphasize the screenwriter/playwright dictum, to enter a scene late and leave early. The point is that if you join in medias res, the action that has already happened can be implied. Likewise, if you leave the scene early, what is about to happen can also be implied. This is what nearly every haiku does, giving readers a pinpoint of experience amid a larger drama. This is how haiku is the ultimate “short story” (decidedly not anti-story), providing the barest plot point that enables us to fill in the story before and after that heightened moment. This is surely a key part of why Seisensui referred to haiku as an “unfinished” poem, not in the sense that it was deficient but that it requires reader empathy and engagement. The reader supplies the before and after, and the connection between the poems two parts, filling in the implications—temporal, physical, and emotional. See also “Defining Moments.”

—24 May 2022