Subjective Touches

Extracted from an interview first published in Notes from the Gean 3:3, December 2011.

I have recently smelled an uptick of haiku that combine an image with a “thought” of the author. In fact, it’s already become a bit of haiku cliché. Pick your image and then add “so much / still to say” or “all the words / we never said” or a hundred variations. At the October 2011 Seabeck Haiku Getaway, where John Stevenson was our featured guest, he and I had a conversation about this very topic. When I mentioned to John how I was a bit weary of this sort of formula in haiku, he immediately concurred and said he was glad it wasn’t just him who felt that way. Still, the right touch of subjectivity can be wonderful in haiku, provided that at least some part of the poem offers a clear and objective sensory image. John himself is masterful at doing this, although I’d be hard-pressed to describe why his approach succeeds where other attempts don’t. Somehow he adds just the right subjective seasoning. Take a look at the following pair of poems by John, both from his most recent book, Live Again:


my doctor

takes off his glasses . . .

cold for May


someone must be first

to turn away—

moon viewing


The first poem is all image, all objective description. But what implications! We can imagine all sorts of sobering diagnoses that would cause John’s doctor to remove his glasses. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the doctor is about to say something serious, but it does take a sensitive poet to stop there, to dwell in that weighty moment. But what really makes the poem fly is the unexpected shift in the third line. The unusual coldness for May tells us all we need to know about the seriousness of the diagnosis. Perhaps this third line is slightly subjective, requiring comparative knowledge on the poet’s part to know that this May is colder than usual, but it works perfectly well given the intensity of the image that precedes it.

        In contrast, the second poem adds a deliberately stronger touch of subjectivity. The poet is thinking about an idea while viewing the moon. The poem is overtly self-conscious, even if only slightly. Yet still something is implied—the moon’s extreme beauty that makes it hard for anyone to turn away. That’s the trick, I think. Even when the poet uses subjectivity, the poem must still leave something unsaid, something that creates that vacuum in the poem to draw the reader in.

        In The Book of Tea, though not speaking of haiku, Kakuzo Okakura said “In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up to the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.” If a haiku does not create some sort of vacuum by what is left out, what is there to draw the reader in? This, to me, is the true art of haiku, whether the poem includes subjective touches or not.