Poems About Nothing:
Learning Haiku from Antonio Porchia
First published in Juxtapositions 5.1, November 2019, pages 61–76. Originally written from February to December of 2017, with revisions in October and December of 2018. My gratitude to Charles Trumbull for his help in locating some of the poems quoted in this essay—haiku about nothing. See this essay on the Haiku Foundation website, and in the JuxtaFive book publication on Amazon. My essay, “Laughing with Karumi,” may also be of interest. See also Max Verhart’s essay, “Haiku About Almost Nothing,” available on The Art of Haiku and The Haiku Foundation websites. See also “Antonio Porchia—The Master of Aphorisms,” Vincenzo Villella’s “The Extraordinary Story of Antonio Porchia,” and the following three videos, in Spanish: “Antonio Porchia” (with music by John Cage), “Antonio Porchia ‘Voces,’” and “Voces de Antonio Porchia.” And see also Nothing, John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” and Erling Kagge’s TEDx talk, “Another Lecture on Nothing.” + +
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“The listener beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” —Wallace Stevens
“Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to be nothingness.” —Thomas Merton
“Saying nothing sometimes says the most.” —Emily Dickinson
In 1943, Argentine poet Antonio Porchia (1885–1968) published Voices in a small private edition, and expanded it in 1947—his only book. It collects hundreds of the author’s poignant and timeless aphorisms, but they are considered so poetic that Porchia is referred to not as a nonfiction writer but as a poet. Over the years his book gained a cult following and has been published in many editions and translated into several languages, notably into English by W. S. Merwin (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2003). The Wikipedia page for Porchia says “Some critics have paralleled his work to Japanese haiku and found many similarities with a number of Zen schools of thought.” No citation is given for this claim, but in speaking of Porchia elsewhere, Jorge Luis Borges has been quoted as saying that “he was creating for others the image of a lonely man, who sees things with clarity and is conscious of the unique mystery of every moment.” This sounds like the spirit of haiku, does it not? In first introducing his translations in 1969, Merwin wrote that “A few of the aphorisms have close affinities with sentences from Taoist and Buddhist scriptures,” adding that “the authority which the entries invoke, both in their matter and in their tone, is not that of tradition or antecedents, but that of particular individual experience” (viii). This observation suggests at least some level of an affinity with haiku, or at least a haiku sensibility.
Beyond this philosophical overlay, however, it seems that the comparison of Porchia’s aphorisms to haiku rests chiefly on their brevity. Merwin does note that each aphorism is coloured by immediacy, but it’s an immediacy of ideas, not experience, thus they might be considered something other than haiku. In his 1988 introduction to an expanded book of his translations, Merwin quotes the poet Roberto Juarroz, who knew Porchia closely, as referring to Porchia’s “unusual and deepening attention” (xii), but again, this seems to be an attention—at least in the aphorisms—to words, ideas, and the intellect, and less to the five senses of personal experience that typically serve as the primary realm of haiku poetry. And yet, as Merwin notes, “Porchia the man was something of a mystery” (xi), so we may never know.
Ultimately, nothing in the aphorisms themselves feels haiku-like other than the occasional image from nature and their shortness—and even then, most of them are longer than haiku. Nevertheless, Porchia still has something to say about haiku through his aphorisms. He teaches us, I propose, that haiku are poems about nothing, in a very positive manner. Nothing is the same as everything. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Everything is nothing with a twist.” Antonio Porchia teaches us that we can embrace nothingness in the way we can embrace the mereness of now as simultaneously significant and yet insignificant in relation to infinity. This is because, in fact, they are one and the same.
“Situated in some nebulous distance I do what I do so that the universal balance of which I am a part may remain a balance.” (3)
Bashō told us to learn of the pine from the pine, not just so that we might write with authenticity, but also to recognize that we are not merely observers of nature but part of it. We are part of a whole. It seems that haiku recognizes this wholeness, and seeks to preserve it—thus its appeal as a kind of ecopoetry. As haiku poets we may sometimes feel a nebulous distance between us and what we might write about, but in some sense it is illusory. We are part of everything, and it’s our challenge, even duty, as haiku poets, to maintain a balance with what we observe and our relation to it. We are even part of what we write. As Bashō said, “When composing a verse let there not be a hair’s breadth separating your mind from what you write.”
“The little things are what is eternal, and the rest, all the rest, is brevity, extreme brevity.” (5)
Haiku are poems about those little things, and they speak of the infinite, the full and expansive. It’s the big things, whatever we may take that to mean, that are really small—that is, not of eternal value. In a paradoxical way, haiku dwell on the seemingly ephemeral minutia of daily life that may turn out to be the most important details of our existence. As Rilke once said, “If your everyday life seems poor don’t blame it; blame yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches.”
polishing the new haiku
till nothing is left
Patricia Neubauer, Bottle Rockets #17, 9:1, 2007, 21
Pare everything down to almost nothing,
then cut the rest, and you’ve got
the poem I’m trying to write.
David Budbill, Bottle Rockets #30, 2014, 57
“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.” (11)
Perhaps haiku, too, may come into being in the hope of being remembered, just as each poem makes the experience it celebrates memorable. If humans live in the hope of being remembered, perhaps haiku poets can accomplish this through their poetry and their valuing of the ephemeral. Indeed, if anything, it could be that our poems are remembered instead of us.
Robert Kania, The Heron’s Nest 16:1, March 2014, 2
“Nothing that is complete breathes.” (13)
Many of Porchia’s observations speak of nothingness. We may take this particular observation to speak of the incompleteness that earmarks each haiku—Seisensui referred to haiku as an “incomplete” poem, relying on the reader’s interaction to complete it. In this way, each haiku poem remains forever alive, forever in need of human interaction to complete it. When the poem has said too much, and completes itself, then the poem dies.
“He who tells the truth says almost nothing.” (25)
A chief goal of haiku to strive after authenticity, that is, to tell the truth, is counterbalanced by the reality that even the truth is nothing. Rather than despairing in such a suffering point of view, Porchia’s book is one of accepting this suffering, of accepting the nothingness of existence. Where haiku point out the most ephemeral and insignificant of details, they may partake of the eternal and the infinite, yet they are still nothing. But Porchia says “almost.” This reminds me of Issa’s poem about the world being merely a world of dew . . . “and yet.” We can identify the subject of a given haiku easily enough, of course, but what are they truly about? What is their truth? Are they really about nothing? In How to Write a Haiku (Verborum Editions, 2016, 27), David Lindley writes that “We do not ask of a haiku what it is ‘about.’ It is about nothing beyond its own immediacy.” This statement agrees with Roland Barthes who asserted in Empire of Signs that haiku do not signify but simply are, and agrees with Archibald Macleish who said a poem should not mean but be. I find it difficult to stop at these assertions when the reverberations of meaning in the best haiku arise not just from being but from signifying. And yet, such signifying, such significance, such truth, can still be said to amount to nothing. Porchia is suggesting that we accept exactly this realization.
Whatever I say
a dewdrop says much better
saying nothing now.
Cid Corman, Modern Haiku 35:1, Winter–Spring 2004, 86
“When I believe that the stone is stone and the cloud cloud, I am in a state of unconsciousness.” (33)
This is an example of Porchia’s thought that echoes Buddhist or Taoist beliefs. Here I am also reminded of Richard Gilbert, who refers to haiku as “poems of consciousness.” That may be, and one can take many paths to haiku, but the integration of going to the pine to learn of the pine would seem to speak of the unconsciousness that Porchia mentions, the way a chess master does not have to think consciously about avoiding bad moves. As D. T. Suzuki put it in his introduction to Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, “One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the Unconscious.” When we are one with the subject of our contemplation—that art thou—we are not conscious of this oneness, this suchness. Rather, we are oneness and suchness. Fish, as they say, are unaware of water.
“They will say that you are on the wrong road, if it is your own.” (35)
Everyone must find his or her own road for haiku—and I do mean for haiku, not to haiku. Plenty of pundits, me included, may well suggest or feel that a particular poet is on the wrong road, but ultimately each of us must always find our own way. Yet this does not mean we should completely ignore the advice of others, especially when they have experience that we are just beginning to explore. There are no shortcuts to haiku, but there may well be overpasses, and we can certainly seek guidance from those who have travelled similar paths.
a path that stops
Matt Morden, Presence 49, January 2014
“We become aware of the void as we fill it.” (43)
Everything is nothing. We are all part of the void. But again, this is not a nihilistic resignation but an acceptance of that void. But what does it mean to become aware of the void, or to fill the void ourselves? How does this relate to haiku poetry? We may find the answer in every good haiku we read, especially in the way it makes us aware of what we already knew, but didn’t realize that we knew. That’s how we fill the void with our haiku.
“A hundred years die in a moment, just as a moment dies in a moment.” (45)
Ah, the ephemerality of haiku. Even a hundred years is nothing, in terms of time. Same with a million billion trillion years. I think of Carole MacRury’s poem (Haiku Friends Volume 2, Masaharu Hirata, ed., Osaka, Japan: Umeda Printing Factory, 2007, 68):
the horse blinks away
a gnat’s life
And yet a millionth billionth trillionth of a nanosecond is equally valuable. And simply equal. If we do not grasp this verisimilitude, perhaps we do not grasp the wonder of haiku. As Diane Ackerman once said, “Wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”
“Only a few arrive at nothing, because the way is long.” (51)
Yes, perhaps haiku is nothing, a dissolving into the merest image, the merest subtlety, the merest moment. But getting there, to the point of finding value in nothingness, is indeed often a long road.
“Certainties are arrived at only on foot.” (53)
If the road to haiku is long, like the road to nothingness, our road will not be certain for us if we try to take shortcuts. A journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step. But more than being an inspiration to start, this adage is a reminder that it’s the process of stepping and stepping again that gets us to any kind of certainty. This is the value of pilgrimages such as the Shikoku Henro in Japan, or the Camino de Santiago in Spain, taken one step at a time. I also appreciate Porchia’s candor, amid his intellectual musings, that we must remain practical, real, and on solid ground. And yet, and yet.
I am certain
Scott Mason, third place, 2013 Porad Haiku Award
“A child shows his toy, a man hides his.” (55)
Haiku has been described as having a childlike point of view, of being wide-eyed in wonder at the world around us. This is what I believe Bashō meant when he said, “To write haiku, get a three-foot child.” We delight in our discoveries as haiku poets, our daily uncoverings of experience. If we are shy about sharing, this may happen because we do not have the child’s joy of discovery and curiosity. It is well worth cultivating. No wonder William J. Higginson began his Haiku Handbook by saying that the point of haiku is to share them. Sharing one’s haiku is an act of joy.
“Some things become so completely our own that we forget them.” (55)
This thought brings to mind Bashō’s proposal to learn the rules and then forget them. He did not mean, in my estimation, to learn the rules in order to forget them, or to ignore them. Rather, by learning the rules, and internalizing them deeply, we will end up forgetting them—that is, we will no longer be conscious of them, like fish that know nothing of water. In a practical sense, in writing our haiku, this means that we have integrated the haiku way of life so deeply that observing, feeling, and writing about our experiences becomes ingrained, as do the most reliable techniques for writing these poems. It becomes who we are to do this. And in doing this, that’s the moment when we forget the haiku way—because it has become so completely our own.
“I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received.” (61)
In crafting our haiku, it seems reasonable to refine them in such a way that we prevent misreading. There’s a point where ambiguity goes too far and confuses rather than expands meaning. Yet no matter where we think we’ve gone with our haiku, or what we think we are giving to others through our poems, the reader may receive something different. There is value in letting each poem go, in trusting that each poem will find its audience, and in our being content with the fact that some poems may find their own audience without us.
“The shadows: some hide, others reveal.” (61)
André Gide once said, “Suffering consists in being unable to reveal oneself and, when one happens to succeed in doing so, in having nothing more to say.” Haiku dwell in shadows—celebrating the partially revealed, the partially hidden. The subject of shadows themselves may be overdone in haiku, in that it can be exceedingly hard to write freshly about any kind of physical shadow, but to the extent that our haiku are shadowlike, metaphorically, we can endlessly partake in the ritual of sharing our haiku, in hiding and revealing. It’s because of its shadows that haiku is an unfinished poem. The reader adds light.
for the butterfly
nothing but shadow
Jeff Hoagland, Bottle Rockets #26, 2012, 35
“Everything is a little bit of darkness, even the light.” (69)
This thought may well extend the previous one, that the reader adds light to the author’s shadows. Yet even the light we add has its own shadows. Every haiku is a shadow of meaning, written out of the darkness of life, with shades of Lorca’s duende. Porchia has been referred to as a creator who does not fear the abyss and makes his work the abyss itself. +
“My bits of time play with eternity.” (73)
This is a comment about the author’s bits of time. But, for Antonio Porchia, what were those bits of time? What was his daily life like in Buenos Aires? What were the moments that he might have written haiku about? In an alternate world, perhaps there’s an undiscovered manuscript of Porchia’s haiku. But unless we can visit that world, we might just have to write those haiku ourselves. In each one, by focusing on the moment, we can play with eternity. In each one, by focusing on nothing, we can play with everything.
“In its last moment the whole of my life will last only a moment.” (79)
There’s that eternity in a grain of sand again. Here I think of the Japanese tradition of writing a death poem, or jisei. The following example is by Banzan, who died in 1730, from Yoel Hoffman’s Japanese Death Poems (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1986, 143):
I pass as all things do
dew on the grass
“Every time I wake I understand how easy it is to be nothing.” (79)
Once again we feel an acceptance of the nothingness and even the suffering of life (another theme of Porchia’s aphorisms, even if not often referred to here). As Samuel Beckett once said, “Nothing is more real than nothing.”
maybe nothing matters
Michael Ketchek, Frogpond 30:2, Spring/Summer 2007, 30
And as W. H. Auden said, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
“A full heart has room for everything, and an empty heart has room for nothing. Who understands?” (91)
Porchia also says “A large heart can be filled with very little” (93). One of the joys of haiku is that it fills our hearts, which makes us open still further—to everything. But it’s a nothingness that fills us, an acceptance of the insignificant. This is what I think Bashō meant by karumi, or lightness, in haiku, and the haiku poet pays attention to such nothingness. It is one thing to begin our haiku by noting. Add an “h” (for haiku) and noting can become nothing. But it is quite another to move beyond merely noting to making our haiku celebrate nothing. As John Mellancamp said in titling his fourth studio album, “Nothin’ matters and what if it did?” Or as John Cage once said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”
have nothing to say
and go on saying it
Ken H. Jones, Blithe Spirit 9:1, March 1999
there is nothing to do
and I’m doing it
Michael Ketchek, Bottle Rockets #24, 2011, 12
The golden maples:
saying things that can't be said,
by not saying them.
Nicholas Virgilio, American Haiku, II:1, 1964
There is nothing to be said
about Mount Fuji, so
I have said it.
James Kirkup, Blue Bamboo, Hub Editions, 1993, 49
This nothingness, which is everythingness, fills our hearts. As poet Mark Doty said, “The heart is a repository of vanished things.” Again, haiku embraces ephemerality, the insignificant, and thus, paradoxically, it embraces the infinite. We have all heard that a cup or bowl is useful only because of the space inside it. Perhaps we can come to understand that this space is not emptiness but a kind of fullness. Likewise, the beginner’s mind, which we like to think of as empty, is actually completely full, but in the sense of being completely open, the way every cup is full of potential.
coming to it with nothing
in my hands
Leatrice Lifshitz, Frogpond 19:3, December 1996, 46
“I hold up what I know with what I do not know.” (97)
We might easily think of “holding up” here to mean to elevate or celebrate. But we could also take it to mean inhibit. Indeed, what we do not know inhibits what we do know. Yet how does stopping at what we know inhibit us, in haiku and beyond? Many scientists have said that their ever-expanding learning, though they learn so much, merely shows them how much they do not know. Or as Will Durant put it, “Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.” This is what it means to explore the infinite, to recognize the gnat-ness of our lives. This idea can apply to haiku in two ways. One is that we may know a few techniques for haiku, but what little we know may well inhibit us. An example is someone who believes that counting 5-7-5 syllables is all there is to haiku. Such a person, it would seem, is “held up” by what little he or she does know, which seems unfortunate. But Porchia is suggesting the opposite, and it may well be self-evident—that we are held up by what we do not know. Yet beyond Porchia’s claim, even after we learn much more, might we still be “held up” by the more that we know? Just as we can be inhibited by what we do not know, might we remain endlessly inhibited by what we do know? Thus we can be reminded of beginner’s mind, the nothingness that haiku welcomes, and that welcomes haiku. Meanwhile, there I go saying that the syllable-counter’s road is a wrong road, but the admonition to move beyond paint-by-numbers haiku will lead to deeper mastery, if I get out of the way after raising the question. Yet a larger point remains that whatever we “master” can still inhibit us. As Shunryu Suzuki put it in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” The second way Porchia’s observation applies to haiku is not in terms of haiku craft but haiku spirit. I hesitate to use the term “haiku spirit” when it is so easily thought of in idealized and precious ways. But something behind haiku drives this poetry forward, and drives its practitioners forward, that elusive something that the masters sought. At any moment, we do not know what we do not know, yet as we learn we may see what we didn’t know before, and that realization may instill in us a kind of humility that makes us open to more learning. It brings us to a point, I think, where the full heart has room for everything.
No sound, no movement—
nothing out there in the night . . .
yet the somethingness . . .
Foster Jewell, American Haiku 6:2, May 1968
“He who has made a thousand things and he who has made none, both feel the same desire: to make something.” (103)
This is the passion of haiku, to make something—even if it’s about nothing. And if the passion remains, we still want to make something even if we’ve already made a thousand. This is how process can matter more than product. The conscientious poet does not ignore product, polishing and refining his or her poetry to push it out the door, but the passion remains in the process, of always wanting to make more. It’s like that old Doritos tortilla chip slogan: “Crunch all you want—we’ll make more.”
“The virtues of a thing do not come from it: they go to it.” (105)
We may like to think of haiku as having many virtues, but it’s surely what we bring to haiku that may or may not give it any virtue. And those virtues may vary for different poets, at times being literary, at times being self expression, therapy, diary records, or amusement. Each stance has its place. As readers of haiku, too, it may well be our responsibility to find the poet’s virtues, and not just assume our own virtues will be what give another writer’s haiku their value. As readers, we need to go to the poem, and not always expect the poem to come to us.
“In the eternal dream, eternity is the same as an instant. Maybe I will come back in an instant.” (115)
Chuang Tzu wondered if he was dreaming he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. We may never know the truth. And what is truth? Likewise, what is time? Time keeps everything from happening all at once. But to think about this another way, if the here and now is the same as eternity, perhaps everything is happening all at once. Eternity is an instant, whether we come back or not, as Porchia speculates—but perhaps we don’t need to come back because we are already part of eternity. Likewise, if the universe is infinite in all directions, there can be no center—or everywhere is the center. All this theorizing may seem remote from haiku, but if we remember that haiku captures not just an instant but eternity—that haiku is a means of approaching infinity—it may humble us in choosing to write about the everyday and the ordinary.
about 100 billion galaxies I’m about nothing
Dietmar Tauchner, Noise of Our Origin, Red Moon Press, 2013
“Everything is nothing, but afterwards. After having suffered everything.” (119)
Ultimately, nothing lasts, and that is why haiku writes about nothing. The nothingness of haiku lies in the impermanence that haiku captures, or rather, releases. Here, note the reference to “afterwards”—like Wordsworth’s sense of poetry being powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. But there’s more to learn here. Antonio Porchia’s aphorisms repeatedly speak of life as suffering and of his acceptance of this suffering. They also speak of life as nothing but also of his acceptance of this nothing. In this way, everything is not only nothing, but nothing is everything—and human life reaches both everything and nothing through inevitable suffering. As Antonio Porchia says near the beginning of his book, “I believe that the soul consists of its sufferings,” adding that “the soul that cures its own sufferings dies” (13). This echoes with the thought from the same page that “Nothing that is complete breathes.” Life is suffering, or dukkha, as we may know from Buddhist scripture. Or, as we may know from our own personal experience, life is hard, and then we die. Haiku, in seeking nothing, speaks of everything. Or we might say the opposite. Haiku, in seeking everything, speaks of nothing. In this way, haiku is poetry about nothing, but also about everything. Balance, wholeness, suchness. An acceptance of suffering. Much ado about nothing. The inevitable, beautiful everything. Haiku are poems about nothing.
as if nothing had happened
dogwood in bloom
Carolyne Rohrig, Daily Haiku, November 16, 2010
Through the aphorisms of his only book, Voices, first published in 1943, Argentine poet Antonio Porchia has proved to be popular around the world in various translations, especially those in English by W. S. Merwin. This essay reviews twenty-five selected aphorisms for their relevance to reading and writing haiku poetry in English, focusing largely on Porchia’s ideas regarding “nothingness” and how they apply to haiku poetry—leading to the conclusion that haiku may be considered “poems about nothing.” Porchia teaches haiku poets that they can embrace nothingness in the way they can embrace the mereness of now as simultaneously significant and yet insignificant in relation to infinity. The essay folds in numerous tangential but essential ideas, contexts, and other quotations, and includes seventeen haiku by various poets on the theme of nothingness.