Points of Growth:
Learning Haiku Truth from Louise Glück

First published in Haiku Canada Review 16:2, October 2022, pages 10–17. Originally written in August 2022. +

In her book Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Hopewell, New Jersey: The Echo Press, 1994), Nobel prize winner Louise Glück offers a set of challenging essays, one of which is “Education of the Poet,” meaning herself. She says of her early explorations of poetry, “I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind” (4). Haiku poets should all wish to write poems like this, even if she means longer poems that still seem small on the page. Here are some other quotations from the book’s various essays, all related to haiku in a perhaps accidental way, all offering points of growth.

In the essay just mentioned, Glück writes, “The artist who bears witness begins with a judgment, though it is moral, not aesthetic. But the artist whose gift is the sketch, the anecdote: that artist makes, as far as I can tell, no such judgment” (15). This seems on the surface to be true of haiku, especially the shasei (sketch of life) haiku advocated by Shiki. But is it true? Do we begin such poems without judgment? Billy Collins has said that haiku poets drip with existential gratitude, and it is surely this attitude that generates most haiku—and surely that’s a judgment, or at least a stance. However, in the best “sketch” haiku, no judgment is imparted by the haiku poet; the thing is what it is, and a sensitive reader will cotton on to its nuances of feeling. The writing of good sketch haiku, at the very least, should be uninhibited. As Glück adds, “nothing impedes the setting down of detail, because there is no investment in the idea of importance” (15). The paradox, perhaps, is that the detail in every haiku is at once both unimportant and indispensable. And we value the vital even as we recognize its ephemerality—all while we swell with gratitude. Or as Glück puts it, “the desire to make art produces an ongoing experience of longing” (16). Why would that be but for our recognition of importance, that gratitude the entreats us to pay attention, as Mary Oliver has said, to be astonished, and to tell about it?

In an essay on “The Idea of Courage,” Glück writes, “Poets have something to gain by giving currency to the idea of courage” (23). I’ve written before that each haiku is an act of vulnerability, offering observations that matter to us, asking if they matter to others—and sometimes they don’t. Although vulnerability takes courage, I propose that she does not mean the bravery of telling one’s story, dark as it may be, or of confrontationally advocating for the downtrodden or signaling virtue in the face of injustice or inequity. Rather, she speaks of the courage of attention: “courage . . . concentrates on the poet’s relation to his materials and to his audience, rather than on the political results of speech” (24). In other words, stick to your knitting. She adds that “courage is also accorded to the writer who makes some radical change of style and so courts disfavor” (24). Fortunately, this courage is not without reward. One benefit is that “the poet engaged in the act of writing feels giddy exhilaration” (25), yet she cautions later, “obsession is not courage” (126). Ultimately, before euphoria comes courage, something to grow into.

Glück’s essay “On George Oppen” presents an extended paragraph that seems relevant to haiku:

As a reader, consequently as a writer, I am partial to most forms of voluntary silence. I love what is implicit or present in outline, that which summons (as opposed to imposes) thought. I love white space, love the telling omission, love lacunae, and find oddly depressing that which seems to have left out nothing. Such poetry seems to love completion too much, and like a thoroughly cleaned room, it paralyzes activity. Or, to use another figure, it lacks magnetism, the power to seem, simultaneously, whole and not final, the power to generate, not annul, energy. (29)

Haiku poets know this silence, of course, the unsaid, and have learned how to summon thought (or feeling) rather than to impose it—a skill that may be haiku’s central art. It would seem to take practice to recognize if one’s own poems create energy or drain it, to reverberate and expand rather than implode, but that is a useful step in the haiku poet’s maturity. All of this revolves around silence, perhaps wordlessness, empowered as a voluntary silence. To summon rather than impose both thought and feeling seems to be an effective mantra for haiku composition. In a later essay, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” Glück writes the following in a similar vein:

I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied. . . . It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. (74–75)

Toward the end of the same essay, Glück quotes T. S. Eliot:

Words, after speech, reach

Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

We might move for a moment from the wordless to the wordfull. As such, I wonder if the following comment in the George Oppen essay applies to gendai haiku, or at least its avant-garde variety: “precision is not the opposite of mystery” (31). Think about that, but not too much. Later, Glück writes, “When poems are difficult, it is often because their silences are complicated, hard to follow” (82), and still later, “The poems from which I feel excluded are not poems from which I can learn. Neither are they poems I can ignore” (123).

Oscar Wilde is said to have declared that “All bad poetry is sincere.” Whether that’s true or not, my favourite essay in Glück’s book is perhaps “Against Sincerity.” Near the start she says, “The artist’s task . . . involves the transformation of the actual to the true. And the ability to achieve such transformations, especially in art that presumes to be subjective, depends on conscious willingness to distinguish truth from honesty or sincerity” (33). For me, haiku is a truth beyond whatever happened, and if we can grow into recognizing that, we can become stronger and more assured as haiku poets, and broader in our range and opportunity.

The same essay also says, “the source of art is experience, the end product truth, and the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.” (34). She opines that “There is, unfortunately, no test for truth” (34), but another growth point for haiku poets would seem to be this ability to migrate the actual to the true (including, as I’ve said elsewhere, transforming private meaning to public clarity), transforming incident to transcendent. In a later essay she writes that “the true is not a resting place, not an epiphany” (81), and indeed we have the opportunity to find each poem’s truth beyond whatever epiphany it may offer. Many haiku poets may believe that haiku’s epiphany is its truth, but some epiphanies might be just sugar, not substance. In Poetry magazine, Christian Wiman once wrote that, “Nature poets can’t walk across the backyard without tripping over an epiphany.” Such epiphanies are deeper truths that may have a confident, quieter, less flashy unfolding.

after the garden party the garden

—Ruth Yarrow

Later in “Against Sincerity,” Glück writes that, “When we speak of honesty, in relation to poems, we mean the degree to which and the power with which the generating impulse has been transcribed” (35). But here she emphasizes “Transcribed, not transformed,” adding that “Any attempt to evaluate the honesty of a text must always lead away from that text, and toward intention” (35). We can transform the actual to the true, but the honesty within the true, the generating vision, must still be transcribed—not transformed. And this is where we come to intention. In Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes said haiku should signify (that is, simply point to things named), and not symbolize. I have never felt comfortable with that perspective, which stinks of Zen, and Glück seems to agree, invoking intention. It can indeed be fine if some of our haiku get away from us, so to speak, finding meaning beyond our intention, but I think the best haiku still blossom from intention, even if subconscious. To me this is how haiku find honesty, the deeper truth of the self. I have sometimes heard Japanese haiku poets say that a weakness in some haiku is that they are “common thought” haiku—holding up some detail that anyone could produce. The implication is that the best haiku need to dwell in what only you can say, or on how only you can say it, thus representing kokoro or heart.

Ultimately, as Glück concludes later, “authenticity, in the poem, is not produced by sincerity” (44), insisting that “the processes by which experience is changed—heightened, distilled, made memorable—have nothing to do with sincerity” and that “The truth, on the page, need not have been lived” (45). This last thought may be a remarkable claim when applied to haiku, when so many Westerners have been raised on the oatmeal of direct personal experience as the only source of haiku. But this need not be so, if one chooses to grow into broadened opportunity. Glück concludes her essay by asserting that “The true, in poetry, is felt as insight. It is very rare, but beside it other poems seem merely intelligent comment” (45). Yet I wonder, are these insights not the same as epiphanies? Perhaps we have to figure that out for ourselves and entertain the idea that Glück, and perhaps we ourselves, contain multitudes. At the end of another essay, on Stanley Kunitz, Glück writes, “whatever the truth is, to speak it is a great adventure” (111).

In the “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence” essay mentioned earlier, Glück writes, “All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power” (74). She also adds that “What wholeness gives up is the dynamic: the mind need not rush in to fill a void” (75). This is how the juxtaposition of the haiku’s two parts creates a “vacuum” that sucks readers in. It is unwhole, incomplete, inviting mystery. But if the poem is whole, saying too much, or imposing judgment or feeling, then the mind (or heart) has nowhere to go, no void to attempt to fill. Nothing is summoned. The best haiku create this void, this nothingness, this reverence for the Chinese jar’s emptiness.

Included in Proofs & Theories is Glück’s essay that introduced the 1993 edition of The Best American Poetry, for which she served as guest editor. She writes that “we must remember [the poem’s] agenda: not simply to record the actual but to continuously create the sensation of immersion in the actual” (92). The nuance here is part of what I think she meant earlier by transforming the actual to the true. She adds that “Art’s truth is as different from sincerity’s honest disclosure as it is different from the truth we get in the doctor’s office” and that “The poem may embody perception so luminous it seems truth, but what keeps it alive is not fixed discovery but the means to discovery” (93).

One of the later pieces in Louise Glück’s essay collection is “Invitation and Exclusion,” in which she writes, “If you treat objects as icons, presuming some inherent significance, you presume, likewise, the universal applicability of that single significance, and this assumption of common ground links the poet to the reader” (118–119). As Joyce said, Dublin is everywhere. A point of growth here is to recognize and celebrate this common ground, this gestalt of the collective unconscious. Perhaps commonality is too easily presumed in haiku poems, to the point of seldom being mentioned, but it’s worth emphasizing that a good haiku makes readers realize what they already know—as Glück says, “contact, of the most intimate sort, is what poetry can accomplish” (128), which can be a reward for writers beyond momentary vulnerability, and thus also a reward for readers.

In the “Invitation and Exclusion” essay, Glück also says “The sea is an occasion” (118) and explains that “If . . . objects are occasions, and the notion of inherent significance secondary, beside the point, if it exists at all, then all weight, all import, is conferred by the perceiving eye” (119). This thought puts a great and welcome burden on the haiku poet, the perceiving eye. And this attention lies at the center of haiku, to be not just an eye but to perceive the sea of experience in all its weight. In the end, if we grow into achieving universality through commonality, if we transform the real into the true, if we embrace a kind of impoverishment that makes us hungry with “passionate openness” (134), then the path before us as haiku poets remains wide and welcoming.