Ringing the Bell:
Learning Haiku from Mary Ruefle

First published in Haiku Canada Review 14:2, October 2020, pages 18–25. Also published in Contemporary Haibun 16, Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2021, pages 130–138. Originally written in March, July, and August of 2020. I added the postscript in September 2020, with thanks to Maxianne Berger for her suggestions and research assistance, and it appeared with the original publication of this essay. The second postscript is more recent. Thanks also to Gary Hotham for first alerting me to Ruefle’s marvelous piece. All poems are my own, except Buson’s “Coolness— / the sound of the bell.” See also “Clear as a Bell.”

                a chime of bells

                across the snowy field—

                           the horse’s breath

                                 Frogpond 18:4, Winter 1995

In the Spring 2019 issue of Sewanee Review, poet Mary Ruefle offers numerous comments on tone in poetry, particularly haiku—equating haiku to the sound of a bell, distinct from an orchestra of sounds that may emanate from longer poems or prose. In Hell’s Bells: Notes on Tone” (pages 206 to 225), she writes that “Bells are so constructed as to give one fundamental tone when struck. . . . No poetic form embodies the bell so much as the haiku. The haiku is the most bell-like thing in language I know. Haiku simply strike the present passing moment, stilling it in such a way that we pay attention.”

                cathedral bells . . .

                the chestnut vendors

                steaming cart

                                 Shiki Internet Haiku Contest, 1997 Runner-Up; Sand Hill Review Vol. IV, Spring 2003

Indeed, the sound of a bell is a fitting metaphor for what a good haiku does, which is to offer clarity and focus—a single note struck with precision and confidence. And as I’ve said elsewhere, haiku are assertive, saying “this is so,” or simply “this is.” Ruefle expands on this idea:

A haiku gives us what it is, nothing more or less; that’s why Roland Barthes was obsessed with them. “The haiku sets a bell ringing,” he said, and he even uses the word tintinnabulation in speaking of haiku. For him, they had a purity that exceeded anything intellectual or emotional, they simply said, “That’s it!” “Clearly,” he said, “the bell is anti-interpretation.” I love the word “clearly” being used in regard to a bell. Of course he also spoke less clearly, and said that haiku granted “aeration to the space of discourse,” and I can’t help thinking of golf shoes with spikes on their soles, putting little holes in the grass as the golfer walks; some people, you know, wear them around their lawns, to aerate the soil. To put a hole in discourse, to put a hole in meaning, to open a space, a breathing space filled with nothing but oxygen; Barthes finds haiku “oxygenating,” and he turns to them, as I do, when he needs to be oxygenated.

                ringing church bell—

                moonlight dimmed

                by a gentle snowfall

                                 Geppo XXIX:5, September–October 2004

Yes, haiku is a breath of fresh air. We can be nourished by many kinds of food, and water is essential to life, but air is the most fundamental sustenance of all. Haiku, accordingly, is the most primal of poetries, an expression of words that says yes to life.

                distant dinner bell—

                one more time

                through the labyrinth

                                 Matrix #107, Fall 2017

More Ruefle:

“That has taken place” is the philosophy of haiku, and all haiku appear to have actually happened. I suppose we can’t be sure, but the idea of “inventing” a haiku for the sake of writing one—something we do all the time with poems—is absurd. A haiku is traditionally prompted by something seen or heard. A haiku, according to Barthes, “notes a tiny element of real, present, concomitant life.” And a notation is always a protestation of the Void, even as it partakes of it.

Ruefle says the idea of “inventing” a haiku is absurd, but on that point I would disagree. The reason lies in her prior statement that all haiku appear to have actually happened—and that we “can’t be sure” anyway. Whether the event or focus of each haiku truly happened or not is secondary, and unprovable, but it’s paramount to construct them in such a way that they seem plausible and even reliable. The reader needs to believe that each poem’s event happened, and also be brought to care about what is presented. The extent of this goal could easily lead one to imagine that “inventing” haiku is antithetical to haiku, but that’s the power of haiku itself, to seem that even their “invention” is not possible. Such is the strength of haiku that are indeed invented—as most haiku are, at least partially.

                temple blossoms . . .

                the deep tones

                of wind bells

                                 Brussels Sprout 10:3, September 1993

At the very least, we may wonder if Barthes (and Ruefle) are unaware of the extent that haiku were routinely made up and revised by the great Japanese masters. In The Spring of My Life, Sam Hamill’s translation of Issa’s Oraga Haru (Boston: Shambhala, 1997), Hamill gives an example and says that “Issa was not the least bit reluctant to engage his imagination to manipulate circumstances to benefit his work” (xv). In Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998), Haruo Shirane has also written how Bashō routinely changed the facts to suit his needs in writing the Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Road to the Interior. More specifically, in his essay “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashō, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths” (Modern Haiku 31:1, Winter–Spring 2000), Shirane wrote that Bashō “often rewrote his poetry: he would change the gender, the place, the time, the situation. The only thing that mattered was the effectiveness of the poetry, not whether it was faithful to the original experience” (52). Ruefle comes around to this understanding, that the effect of the poem matters more than the source. After quoting haiku by Yaha and Bashō, she writes:

And as all these moments will pass, will die, they reveal “the extent to which the haiku is an action (of writing) between life and death.” The haikuity of a bell! Goodbye discourse, words, meaning! Imagine the sound of a temple bell.

What she’s driving at is that the poem moves beyond meaning to be transcendent, like the utter absorption of listening a rung bell. It’s pre-cognitive, post-cognitive, anti-cognitive, all feeling, all sensation, all identification.

                noon rain


                        church bells

                                Cicada VI:3 (#20), July 1994

Ruefle again:

Once I had a brief fantasy: what if the earth was devoid of all poetic forms except the haiku, and every single living person wrote them, and as a result the world would be full of the world. I came to my senses—the world is already full of the world, and what a great, great loss it would be, to lose the literary voices of all the writers I’ve ever loved.

As such, there’s room in poetry for the full orchestra. And yet. And yet the haiku is that primordial sound, the belle of the literary ball, that fundamental resonance and tone that rings the essence of each experience, each image, each sensory awareness. Haiku is the bellwether of poetry.

                dinner bell—

                her husband comes

                as fast as the cat

                                 Ёrshik: Journal of Senryu and Kyoka, July 2013

Mary Ruefle’s conclusion:

I believe the beginning of the universe—what scientists call the Big Bang—was but the striking of a tremendous bell, and its vibrations have been spreading ever since, and every voice that has ever lived, is living, or will live, is part of this vibration, this struck tone, which is expanding just as the universe is expanding, and as it expands, it cools.


        the sound of the bell

        as it leaves the bell

You see, we can speak of the haikuity of the universe, for the whole unfathomable, unmeasurable universe, however infinite and long-lasting it seems to us, is merely a haiku, about which we can only say: That’s it.

Indeed, a well-rung haiku stills the passing moment, drawing us to attention, invoking the entire universe in the nothingness of its distinct and diminishing sound, in the everythingness of its cooling and calming presence. Yes. And yet perhaps more. As Christian Wiman once said, “A good poem can freeze experience even as it releases and enlarges it, the words utterly intact but ramifying, like a bell that troubles the air long after its sound has stopped.” Again yes.

                distant church bells . . .

                a sparrows breath

                          lost in the holly berries

                                 Frogpond 20:3, December 1997

Postscript: Bells and Whistles

A point worth noting here is that Mary Ruefle may quote the Barthes translation correctly, but that the translator may not always represent Barthes verbatim. The phrases Ruefle quotes from Roland Barthes appear in The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (1978–1979 and 1979–1980), translated by Kate Briggs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011; original French version, Éditions du Seuil, 2003).

        Haiku is discussed in the lectures of 6 January through 24 February 1979. Specifically, in these lectures, Barthes’ analogy for haiku is that of the ding of a pinball machine when it “tilts.” This sound draws the player’s attention to indicate that the machine has been tilted to one side, at least a little, which is considered an unfair way to play, usually halting the play. Although Barthes referred to the tilt sound, what’s relevant is how this sound gains the player’s attention, which is an apt metaphor for haiku, halting our flow of time to be present in the moment. Elsewhere in these lectures, where haiku is discussed in depth through the course of more than 100 pages, each time Barthes interjects “tilt,” he implies a bell, ringing the haiku moment.

        While Ruefle’s emphasis on haiku as a bell remains sound, the Barthes antecedent could benefit from clearer representation. Specifically, consider the passage where Ruefle says “‘Clearly,’ he said, ‘the bell is anti-interpretation.’ I love the word ‘clearly’ being used in regard to a bell.” What she quotes from Barthes is Kate Briggs’ translation, page 422. Aside from Barthes using the word “tilt” in both notes and lecture, what he actually wrote in his lecture notes is “évidemment” (“obviously”), and what he said in the class voice recording is “naturellement” (“naturally”). “Clearly” was the translator’s choice, and lovely relative to the notion of haiku being like a bell, also her choice. Likewise, consider this quote from Ruefle: “‘The haiku sets a bell ringing,’ he said, and he even uses the word tintinnabulation in speaking of haiku.” Where he wrote tintinnabulation in his notes, what he actually said in class was “sonnerie,” or “ring,” often said of bells, not “tintinnabulation,” and here is where he referred to the “tilt” bell of a pinball machine (in the translation, described in an endnote on page 422, referring to page 78; the metaphor of “tilt” is mentioned only in this endnote, though it’s more prominent in Barthes’ original text, even being the title for one section of his lectures). In French, in the transcription of his actual lecture (page 127 of the Éditions du Seuil publication), Barthes explains, “le haïku est quelque chose qui fait tilt, comme on dit quand on joue dans les cafés, la machine fait tilt. Eh bien, le haïku fait tilt. C’est un son, le tilt.” This may be translated as “haiku is something that tilts, as we say when playing in cafés, the machine tilts. Well, the haiku tilts. It’s a sound, the tilt.” Shortly after, he says, “Et peut-être que le haïku . . . c’est une sorte de tilt aussi. C’est une sorte de sonnerie, de son de cloche très bref, unique et cristallin qui dit : je viens d’être touché par quelque chose. Voilà ce que ça veut dire, le haïku.” This may be translated as “And maybe haiku . . . is kind of a tilt too. It’s a kind of ringing, a very brief, unique, and crystalline bell sound that says: something has just touched me. This is what haiku means.”

        A full essay would be most welcome on Roland Barthes’ extensive discussion of haiku as presented in The Preparation of the Novel and other lectures, especially his notion of haiku as a tilt or bell sound.

Postscript: Haiku Ring You

The finest haiku not only ring like a bell, they can ring each reader—and so can other experiences. This effect results from looking carefully, of seeing, of paying attention, and of writing about it. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard says, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” It seems to me that the best haiku strike us in exactly this way. Dillard also says, “I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.” This is the realm of haiku.

—3 July 2024