Private and Public Vision:
Learning Haiku from Joyce Carol Oates

First published in Presence #55, June 2016, pages 72–81. A few minor revisions appear in the following text, and in the title. Originally written in November 2014.       +

If you blink a few times, Joyce Carol Oates is sure to have another book out. As one of the most prolific authors writing in the English language—with critical acclaim, not potboiler stardom—she is a seasoned writer worth learning from. Even haiku poets can learn something from her advice to writers, her sense of vision that drives each novel, each story, each poem. We can find a good measure of that advice in The Faith of a Writer (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2003), a book that the dust-jacket trumpets as providing “A tribute to the brilliant craftsmanship of one of our most distinguished writers, providing valuable insight into her inspiration and her method.” Regarding writing, she says, “it’s necessary to think of this art as a craft,” adding that “Without craft, art remains private. Without art, craft is merely hackwork” (xii). It’s a point she comes back to, emphatically, at the end of her book. The Faith of a Writer explores the balance of art and craft in writing in various genres, and it applies very directly, at times, to haiku.

“Young or beginning writers must be urged to read widely, ceaselessly, both classics and contemporaries, for without an immersion in the history of our craft, one is doomed to remain an amateur: an individual for whom enthusiasm is ninety-nine percent of the creative effort.” (xii)

What better place to begin than with an admonishment to read? Or better yet, think of it as an invitation, not an admonishment. Haiku poets, to excel in their art—and their craft—must read widely. Read the standard books on the subject, from Addiss to Blyth to Hass to Higginson to Shirane to Ueda to Yasuda, and many more. Read the standard biographies on the Japanese masters: Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki, and don’t forget Chiyo-ni. Read contemporary Japanese haiku in translation. If you can’t find it, look harder. Read current haiku writers by buying their books. Join the haiku societies, attend their meetings. Read the best contemporary journals for haiku in English. Find some of the older journals, too, to understand the concerns that have changed, and those that have stayed the same. Read reviews, read contest results, read and share poems online, read read read. Mere enthusiasm for haiku is not enough.

“Life is lived head-on, like a roller coaster ride: ‘art’ is coolly selective, and can be created only in retrospect.” (25)

Haiku poets are told to be in the moment, to write in the moment. But those are actually two different things. By being in the moment, we can experience it. That much is valuable. And then those moments become memories, and some of these moments can become haiku. But we can never write in the moment, only from the moment. I think of Wordsworth, who defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Or, as Anaïs Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” If we can free ourselves from writing only about immediately recent experience, we can embrace all of our memories to write haiku more broadly. And a key point Oates makes, too, is “coolly selective”—in retrospect, in tranquility, we are not just gushing out in haiku whatever just happened to us, but selecting the best, the standouts of memory and experience. As wonderful as any given moment might be, and all the inspiration it gives us, sometimes we need the perspective of writing in retrospect. But then, as I’ve always maintained, all haiku are written in retrospect—it’s just that we can lengthen that retrospect to include memories from years or even decades ago.

“I’ve never thought of writing as the mere arrangement of words on the page but the attempted embodiment of a vision.” (35)

As haiku poets our modus operandi is to be sensitive to experience, to record our experiences, and then, if we choose, to share our common experiences with others. We are trained receivers. Effective haiku can result from this receptivity, from noticing the time of day, the time of year, the changes in nature and ourselves, the slants of light or the hues of leaves. But what if we add vision to that receptivity? What if we had a goal, even if it changed from day to day, to write in a particular way, or on particular subjects? Could we deliberately try to start each haiku with a preposition? Think about writing haiku that are all in question form? Write just one-liners? Or four-liners? Write about plants or animals native to our region in alphabetical order? Try writing without the letter E? Perhaps some of these “visions” are superficial, but such games might result in breakthroughs, and some visions might be gravely serious, such as truly internalizing the idea of writing our haiku as death poems—last-breath poems—imbued with duende. Can we take our haiku to different levels, or to new terrain, by applying goals and vision to imagistic receptivity?

“The most seemingly conscious of artists acknowledges his subordination to discovery: ‘In fashioning a work of art we are by no means free, we do not choose how we shall make it but . . . it preexists us and therefore we are obliged, since it is both necessary and hidden, to do what we should have to do if it were a law of nature—that is to say, to discover it.’ (Marcel Proust) What begins in childlike wonder and curiosity becomes, with the passage of time, if we persist in our devotion (or delusion) a ‘calling’; a ‘profession.’” (38)

Surely all haiku poets know this feeling. We do not write our haiku so much as discover them, at least sometimes. They come unbidden as often as not. This is not to say we do not craft them, do not put ourselves in circumstances where these poems are more likely to arise. Or at least carry a notebook so we can jot them down easily. But when they come, it feels like the spray of a wave over an ocean-front pier, doesn’t it? By cultivating a sense of wonder at the world, we create a fertile receptivity that makes our haiku more likely to occur. I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson, who once wrote that “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” In A Writer’s Time, Kenneth Atchity calls this “productive elation.” It’s a matter of always being open. But haiku do not end with experience. Rather, experience is where they start.

        A little after the preceding quotation, Oates quotes the last stanza from William Stafford’s poem “Bi-Focal,” the last line of which provided the title for what may be Stafford’s most definitive poetry book, The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1998; Oates seems to quote the poem slightly inaccurately—I’m correcting it here):

                So, the world happens twice—

                once what we see it as;

                second it legends itself

                deep, the way it is.

Surely this idea is true for haiku poets, that experience has two components: what we see something as, and what it actually is. These can be different things. If we remember this distinction, and learn to spot the difference, and that the way it is is deeper, we have the potential to observe and interpret our world more profoundly. Our haiku can benefit as a result. As Oates extrapolates, “The crucial word here is ‘legends’ with its suggestion of storytelling; a secondary creation over and above the existential experience of the world in which we find ourselves. To experience seems not quite enough for us” (39).

“I suggest several theories of the genesis of art: 1. Art originates in play—in improvisation, experiment, and fantasy; it remains forever, in its deepest instincts, playful and spontaneous. . . . 2. Art is fueled by rebellion: the need, in something amounting to obsession, to resist what is; to defy one’s elders. . . . 3. Art is a means of memorialization of the past; a recording of a rapidly vanishing world; a means of exorcising, at least temporarily, the ravages of homesickness. . . . 4. The artist is born damned, and struggles through his (or her) life to achieve an ever-elusive redemption, by way of art; a sense of one’s incompleteness or inadequacy fuels the instinct for ceaseless invention.” (39–40)

It is fairly easy, I believe, to see the applications of these theories to the genesis of haiku. Play? Certainly. The word “haiku” has been defined as meaning, in Japanese, “playful verse.” We improvise, we try things out, we see what communicates energy and feeling to our readers. Or at least we please ourselves. As Wordsworth said, poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion. And yes, it’s also rebellion. For every approach to haiku, there’s someone out there taking another approach, either consciously or not. Perhaps we can elect, at times, to rebel against our own proclivities and habits, to see where such rebellions might take us in our haiku. And yes, haiku memorializes our world, recording moments of history, moments of experience—and the emotions that go with them. They need not be the grandest moments, like the births, graduations, weddings, and funerals, but everyday and ordinary, like the cracking of an egg into a skillet. As Bashō put it, “Prefer vegetable broth to duck soup.” And as Kerouac said (I love to quote this), “haiku should be as simple as porridge.” These poems record the ways we were, the world as we knew it, life as it went by. We write, at least sometimes, as Oates suggests, as a way to cling to the threads of each present moment as they weave together into a tapestry of our past. And yes, some of us are damned, condemned to seek redemption, feeling the need to fill a vacancy, driven, perhaps, by a need to achieve, or overcome inadequacy. Perhaps not all of these theories apply to us as haiku writers, but perhaps they have at different times. More useful, perhaps, is the idea of trying out each of these approaches, so see what might result. To the extent that we are writers, we are surely always curious to find out what’s behind each door.

“Why certain individuals appear to devote their lives to the phenomenon of interpreting experience in terms of structure, and of language, must remain a mystery. It is not an alternative to life, still less an escape from life, it is life: yet overlaid with a peculiar sort of luminosity, as if one were, and were not, fully inhabiting the present tense.” (58)

The psychology of haiku poets surely can’t be boiled down to the “typical.” Nevertheless, I’ve noticed a streak of obsessiveness—or perhaps we should call it passion—in most haiku poets. Once the haiku bug bites, for some people it bites deeply. Think of Richard Wright’s feverish outpouring of more than 4,000 haiku in the last eighteen months of his life—that’s seven or eight haiku per day, every day, for that entire stretch of time—all written while he was suffering through pain, just before he died. And he’s hardly alone. Haiku are addictive, and perhaps they attract addictive personalities. Yet I agree with Oates that writing (haiku included) is not an escape from life, or an alternative to it, but it is life—in this case, the haiku life. Surely haiku poets fully inhabit the present tense, in their poems and in their close observations of life around them, natural and emotional. Haiku poets make up a fraternity, it seems to me, that dwells in the need to interpret life, in all its myriad moments, to express experience through this distinctive brand of poetry. Later, Oates says that “the impulse [to write] can rise to the level of a sacred obligation” (87). That, it seems to me, is a weighty way to approach haiku.

“I think the early Surrealists were surely right: the world is a ‘forest of signs’ for us to interpret. The visual world contains ‘messages’ beneath its apparent disorder, just as meanings lie beneath the apparent disorder of the dream. Images abound to those who look with reverence, and are primed to see.” (76)

Could the haiku poet be catalogued more succinctly? We are primed to see. We follow the advice of Thoreau: “It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see.” Those who imbibe in the haiku art instinctively feel the forest of signs around us—Roland Barthes referred to Japan, the home of haiku, as the “Empire of Signs”—and we interpret these signs, these images, with reverence and wonder and awe. Perhaps we are passionate about haiku, to the point of obsessiveness, because we feel intense importance in the messages of nature and seasonal transformation beneath the world’s apparent disorder.

“The epiphany has significance, of course, only in its evocation of an already existing (but undefined) interior state.” (83)

For the moment, I can’t resist quoting Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine, who once said, “Nature poets can’t walk across the backyard without tripping over an epiphany.” He seems, of course, to bemoan clichéd epiphany, or the mistaken belief that everything we encounter in nature is somehow transcendent. If we look beyond that superficiality, true epiphanies remain. Whether we catch them as haiku poets—in the product of our poems—is a separate matter. But what’s interesting here is the idea of a preexisting interior state. Haiku has been described as a genre of poetry that records what we already know, but didn’t know that we knew. External experience finds resonance in internal understanding, in contemplative recognition rather than mere observation.

        A page earlier, Oates quotes Joyce from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in describing the epiphany as “A sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself,” and in saying that “it was for the artist to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments” (82). To this extent, perhaps haiku poets are obliged to record the moments of life, not just because the moments are delicate and evanescent, but because artists—and really all human beings—are delicate and evanescent. As Edgar Degas once put it, “The artist does not draw what he sees but what he must make others see.” As haiku poets, perhaps we are charged with a responsibility that others do not have, or cannot feel—a sacred obligation. Here I think of a poem by Naomi Beth Wakan, from her book Segues:

                One does not write

                because the goldfish play

                at the bottom of the waterfall,

                but because not everyone

                can see them.

        The central essence of haiku in Japan seems to be emphasis on life as fleeting, ephemeral. When we recognize that we too are ephemeral, we cannot help but record moments with our passionate verses to connect our own ephemerality to the ephemerality of the world. In this way haiku is a joining of internal and external states, a combination, as has been said many times, of nature with human nature.

“‘All poetry is positional,’ Nabokov notes in his autobiography Speak, Memory; ‘to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe.’ . . . For Nabokov as for many writers . . . experience itself is not authentic until it has been transcribed by way of language: the writer puts his imprimatur upon his (historic) self by way of writing.” (86–87)

Much has been said in an effort to define authenticity in haiku. For me, determining authenticity—or better yet, feeling it—is the reader’s job, not the writer’s. All that matters is whether the poem comes across to the reader as feeling authentic, without regard to whether the experience portrayed really happened. I believe this perspective makes some haiku poets uncomfortable. They believe they have to transcribe their experiences as truthfully and faithfully as possible. That’s any poet’s choice, but I believe there’s more to haiku than that, and that such a choice is an arbitrary and unfounded limitation upon oneself. One doesn’t have to read very far into Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams to see how often Bashō rewrote “reality,” and even changed the attribution of renga verses for the sake of greater artistic effect (if Bashō felt like it, as he seemed to do on occasion, someone else was the author of your verse, not you). He was no slave to “reality.” Buson, as we know, wrote about stepping on his dead wife’s comb when she was still alive. They were both after a higher authenticity, a literary authenticity that would outlast whatever really happened. Here I think of Wallace Stegner, who said, “It is often necessary for a writer to distort the particulars of experience in order to see them better,” and John Irving, who said “The correct detail is rarely exactly what happened; the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have.”

        In transcribing experience, the poet therefore takes a “position” on the experience. The poet chooses to focus on this, not that. The subject is seen from here, at this time of day, in this way—the way a photograph is taken from this vantage point, with this lens, with these exposure settings that reflect the photographer’s choices and skills. As Ansel Adams once said, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” It is not just an experience itself, somehow disembodied, but the poet’s experience, the photographer’s vision. The author plays a part in creating authenticity. I think it is the reader’s job, too, to be sensitive to what the poet’s experience is in the poem, and not for the reader to assume or insist that his or her own perspective should change or colour the poet’s. As John Ruskin once said, “Be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours.”

“Without . . . rushes of feeling, private and untrammeled, there can’t be creativity. And yet, inspiration and energy and even genius are rarely enough to make ‘art’: for [writing] is also a craft, and craft must be learned, whether by accident or design.” (94)

I love to quote E. E. Cummings, who said “since feeling is first.” He meant, of course, that the emotion of writing should have prime regard—for both the writer and reader. But he did not say emotion should be the only regard. Likewise, beyond the rushes of feeling that give rise to creativity—those spontaneous overflows of powerful emotion—something else is necessary to make art. Oates would not have us fly off into a netherworld of idealized beauty and transcendence. Writing is hard work. Butt in the chair. Fingers on the keyboard. Go. Revise. Repeat. Repeat again. Inspiration meets craft, moving the private to the public.

        Near the beginning of The Faith of a Writer, Oates noted the importance of reading, to read widely. That’s a step to take. Another step is to learn craft. Do we know our grammar? Do we really know what a syllable is? Can we avoid dangling modifiers or subject-verb disagreements? Professional writers have this under control. Do we know style, and styles? Do we catch ourselves in our habits? Can we control objectivity and subjectivity in our writing? Do we know how to avoid passive voice, or how to restructure a sentence to put words in the strongest points of emphasis? Do we have an ear for the sound of words, the beauty they make as they riffle and rifle into our ears? Can we control alliteration and assonance and consonance, and know when—and when not—to employ metaphor and simile? Do we understand the difference? The seasoned writer knows these matters of craft, often by deliberate study, or at least accidental learning, and the respected and professional writer does not make amateur mistakes. What kind of writer do we want to be?

“Is there any moral to be drawn from this compendium, any general proposition? If so, it’s a simple one: Read widely, read enthusiastically, be guided by instinct and not design. For if you read, you need not become a writer; but if you hope to become a writer, you must read.” (110)

Near the end of her book, Joyce Carol Oates returns to the same advice with which she began: Read widely. It is the only way to be able to write widely, too.

“The most accomplished art may be to disguise ‘art’ altogether.” (115)

The seeming artlessness of haiku is legend. Here Roland Barthes comes to mind again: “haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.” Haiku poets themselves are not deceived (and deceit is not really the relevant term), but casual readers might think that these little “gems” of observation are dashed off and easy to create. But we who write haiku know better. As Thomas Mann once put it, “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than for other people.”

“The goal for the writer is to fully realize his or her material: to discover the ideal balance between fluidity of narration and background exposition, description, and amplification.” (121)

Oates is addressing fiction more than poetry here, but many of the same ideas apply—to fully realize our material. Images, moments, impressions, emotion. Do we do the best that’s possible with them? Do we strike the right tone? Provide enough information, and not too much? Does the poem have depth through allusion or overtone? Is the wording fluid and natural and beautiful? Has the poem found its ideal form, organic or otherwise? Has each poem found its own internal balance? She refers also to Ernest Hemingway’s admiration for “grace under pressure.” She says that “grace is what we might call fluidity, smoothness, ‘inevitability’ of narration, and pressure is the need to keep the story as tightly crafted, as pared to the essentials, as possible” (121). Surely haiku, too, has the same goal in full realization.

“It’s at the juncture of private vision and the wish to create a communal, public vision that art and craft merge.” (126)

Many haiku poets, or those with a bent toward open form and Zen, are of the persuasion that process is all that matters in poetry. I’m of a different persuasion, or at least slightly different. I feel that good process yields good product, and that a point arises in each writer’s craft where he or she must shift from emphasizing process to emphasizing product. This is how something gets done, how a poem or a novel comes to a conclusion and reaches finality. The audience is clarified, the ideas are refined, the spelling is corrected, the piece reaches a point of completion. As Yeats said, “A successful poem will come shut with a click, like a closing box.” This conclusion is both intuitive and strived for.

        The point here is that “art” can be seen as private, whereas “craft” is public. “Art” respects the self, and “craft” respects the audience. In terms of poetry, including haiku, art and craft come together at some point, and it’s the writer’s duty (with an editor’s help, perhaps) to merge the two—moving, as Oates says, from private vision to a public communal vision. This migration might be considered, even, as a move from the selfish to the selfless. In moving from private vision (initial experience or impression) to public vision, haiku go through a process of crafting and revision, transforming the particular into the universal, and of becoming fit for consumption. They need not lose the author’s distinctive voice or personality in the slightest, and should not become merely “packaged,” but they should, I believe, take the audience into account, and respect the role the audience plays in receiving any work of art. There are plenty of artists who please themselves, and trust that their work will find its audience, and that approach has its role to play in haiku, too, but in many cases a poem can be improved by giving the audience some consideration—that’s something that matters. If we do not have some inkling of the potential public vision of and for our poems—so long as we avoid proselytization and overreaching—they cannot achieve the successful transfer of energy that Charles Olson would have our best poems achieve.

        At the very end of The Faith of a Writer, Joyce Carol Oates notes the following, a point that extends the preceding thoughts on process and product: “In movies, as in art, it isn’t what goes in, but what comes out, that matters. Your process of, for instance, acting, or writing, is not important, only what it leads you to matters. And the process, mysteriously, would seem to have little to do with that final product” (150). Indeed, with haiku, as with other writing, it hardly matters where the poem came from. What matters is where it goes, who it touches, and how. This is the faith not just of fiction writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, but the faith of haiku writers, too.