The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience: Learning Haiku from James P. Carse

First published in Presence #58, July 2017, pages 84 to 90. Originally written in November of 2014, with minor updates since initial publicaton. See also “The ‘Ordinary’ Haiku Poet” and “Taking the Ordinary Seriously.”       +     +     +

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” —Albert Einstein

“There is no language of the holy. The sacred lies in the ordinary.” —Deng Ming-Dao

“The great mystery of the world is not what is invisible, but what is visible.” —Oscar Wilde

What haiku poet could resist a book titled Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience, at least for its subtitle? Its author, James P. Carse, may be better known for his marvelous book Finite and Infinite Games and other books, but Breakfast at the Victory (New York: HarperCollins, 1994) has much to say to haiku poets. While the book focuses on a traditional mysticism that is deeply philosophical, extending from the ancient Greeks through medieval Christianity, it also embraces a more contemporary and broader sense of transcendent union with the infinite absolute, or perhaps God. Yet this philosophy connects to haiku because, as Carse says, quoting Aristotle, “Philosophy begins in wonder” (95), and what can dwell more in wonder than haiku? Yet the connection does not stop there, as Carse reminds us: “If philosophy begins in wonder it also ends in wonder” (97). In any case, as the author says in his preface, “All experience, to borrow an expression from the mystics, is bounded by the boundless. Every step on our journey adds to what we know but it also reveals there is no end to knowing. This book is an invitation to see how extraordinary the ordinary is when we rediscover it by the way of the mystical” (xi).

        Of course, haiku poets have been heeding this invitation for as long as they’ve been writing poetry. The haiku poem dwells in the mystical, in the suchness of life, employing the building blocks of everyday experience through their seasonal unfolding. We who write haiku are often attracted to haiku, I believe, because of the mystical essences that this poetry reveals—or celebrates. The word “mystical” means the concealed or hidden, yet haiku unhides the hidden in ways that can be profoundly emotional. Haiku is a way of connecting to the concealed, of cracking through the veneer of surface existence to the very “why” of life—even if what we connect to still retains some degree of what the Japanese call “yūgen,” or the mysterious. “If God exists beyond all the heavens,” Carse writes, “then God must be hidden in what is closest and most familiar to us” (11), also noting that “we love what we can never finally know” (26). Haiku poetry is thereby an approach to infinity, an approach to God, an approach to the inaccessible through the utterly accessible essences of everyday existence.

        The “Victory” in the book’s title is the Victory Luncheonette, located in Manhattan’s East Village, a greasy-spoon as nondescript and ordinary as any other diner on the continent. “It was nothing in particular that made me a regular at the Victory” (1), Carse explains, but a regular he became—and indeed, as with haiku, perhaps the very regularity of existence is key to understanding its mysticism. There the author learned to appreciate the common and everyday. “The reason I didn’t [at first] see the mysticism in the Victory is that in the ordinary sense there was nothing to see,” Carse says (4), emphasizing that “It was the nothing that made it mystical” (6). Throughout Breakfast at the Victory, James P. Carse flirts with haiku sensibilities that can help us understand the art, if not the craft, of this elusive poetry, as the following quotations suggest. “If we are looking for the mystical,” Carse notes, “we need go no further . . . than the most ordinary of our ordinary experiences” and that “Mystical vision is seeing how extraordinary the ordinary is” (15).

“Mystics often distinguish between the ego and the soul, or the ego and the self.” (11)

If haiku is supposedly “egoless,” that’s different from references to the self in haiku. Asserting one’s ego is miles away from the mere mention of one’s self in a poem. Haiku may seek to avoid the ego, but ego is not the soul, nor the self. As I’ve said elsewhere, one can refer to the self in haiku just as objectively and egolessly as one would refer to a chair. Or as Donald Revell put it in The Art of Attention: A Poet's Eye (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2007, 125), the ‘I’ in poems is a transparent eyeball, the better to see through with.

“If the standard picture is that we are pushing back the walls of ignorance, the mystical view is that the ignorance must be there first, else there is nothing to push. The mind does not come to life until it meets what it cannot comprehend.” (29–30)

Here I think of Paul Valéry, who once said, “The advantage of the incomprehensible is that it never loses its freshness.” This comment recognizes the value of “strangeness” in poetry, and, for better or worse, perhaps also the urge to “make it new.” A related comment comes from Mark Strand in his book The Weather of Words (New York: Knopf, 2000): “It is the oddity of our poems, their idiosyncrasy, their lapses in to a necessary awkwardness, their ultimate frailty, that charms and satisfies” (12). The point with haiku, I think, is that it’s a means of grappling with the ineffable, even if we’re not aware of the angel we’re fighting. But by dwelling on the first fresh snowfall that rimes a willow’s bare twigs on a crisp morning, we are getting at something beyond the snow that teases us with meaning. Through haiku, this is where haiku poets come to life, not just in the sense of meeting life, but in coming alive.

“Learn what you can, then learn how to leave your learning behind you for it can hide you from the ceaseless change in and around you.” (30)

Ah, great thoughts find their expression in many cultures. We all know that Bashō said to learn the rules and then forget them. What I like in Carse’s spin on the matter is the sense that maintaining a beginner’s mind enables you to be more deeply aware of changes in life—changes in your emotions, changes in others, and of course the changes of season. Haiku is about these changes, the ephemeral and the evanescent, and how they pass us by if we don’t take the moment to notice. Here Carse invokes the Tao, which “nourishes infinite worlds, yet it doesn’t hold on to them” and Rumi, who implores us to “find our place in placelessness” (30–31). Later he notes that “It is not what we don’t know but what we do know that limits us” (62).

“The highest achievement of the spiritual life is within the full embrace of the ordinary” (40).

This is why we write of the aspen’s last golden leaf, ice forming in the birdbath, a newborn calf licked dry by its mother. We are not writing with the goal of reaching any kind of high achievement, however. We are writing simply because we are attracted to what lies in front of that high achievement. And in the process, haiku poetry is both formal and organic. As Carse notes, “we need a discipline that undoes our attachment to a discipline” (40), and surely we can find that in haiku.

        Carse describes his wife’s death from illness, and her question, before she died: “You know what I have learned about myself, about life, from these months of illness, especially now that I know I won’t survive it?” Her answer was “Nothing . . . Not a goddamn thing” (49). Carse says, in response, “So this is what it comes to. Nothing” (50), and “Her life in that lucid moment meant nothing else other than what it was. I felt the effortlessness in her” (50) and “the moment was what it was only because she was not holding on to it” (51). Indeed, perhaps haiku moments are best apprehended not in terms of trying to catch them, preserve them, and hold on to them, but in noticing them, writing them down, and then, by that act, releasing them.

“It is the unspeakable that accounts for the teaching” and “What we see in Socrates is not a developed philosophy but an engaged receptivity, an active listening.” (69) “We know we have met such a teacher when we come away amazed not at what the teacher was thinking but at what we are thinking. We will forget what the teacher is saying because we are listening to a source deeper than the teachings themselves.” (70)

Bashō said not to seek the masters, but to seek what they sought. When we do this, Carse says, it becomes “one of those precious moments in the exercise of any art or sport or profession when you know your skill and training are at maximum use” (71). The chapter in which these words appear is titled “A Higher Ignorance.” To begin it, Carse quotes Dov Baer, the “Maggid of Metzrich,” as saying “I will teach you the best way to say Torah: not sensing yourself at all. . . . As soon as you begin to hear your own words, you should stop” (53). In this way, we can be our own teachers too, finding beginner’s mind in an effortlessness that is not conscious of itself, seeking a source beyond the masters, and perhaps even beyond what the master sought.

“The hiss and thunder of the boat’s mastery of these great waves, the creaking of ropes in their hardwood blocks, the high moan of the wind in the sails and rigging, all this intensified and became more real than I was to myself. It is what I would later learn to call direct perception, the noninterference of a self-absorbed ego.” (77–78)

Perception is the central tool of the haiku poet’s trade. Carse’s nuance in describing it as a noninterference of the ego is surely what Bashō meant by “learning of the pine from the pine” and “of the bamboo from the bamboo.” Such interpenetration results, as Carse indicates, in reality becoming “more real” than we feel ourselves to be. We become eyeless, earless, even senseless—in the best possible way—when we perceive without a perception of perceiving. When we can do this in haiku, and report our perceptions without interference, we enter into what R. H. Blyth called “our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short . . . our Buddha nature. It is a way in which the cold winter rain, the swallows of evening, even the very day in its hotness, and the length of the night become truly alive, share in our humanity, speak their own silent and expressive language” (Haiku, Volume 1, page 243). Haiku is a way of meeting life.

“Can it be that the creative lies not in the acquired abilities of the ego but in the freedom to let the ego float off like so much woodsy refuse?” (148)

This quotation is from the book’s chapter on poetry, titled “Like a Random Bear.” It extends the earlier thought of perceiving without ego, of become “senseless” in our sensitivity to the world through our five senses. Here Carse suggests that “creativity is not doing something, it is looking through whatever we do with the eye of the sleepless watcher” (149–150) and says “True creativity stands aside so each word, each form, can emerge with its own energy. True creativity leaves the question of its origin unresolved” (150). Carse notes that “learning the techniques of poetry does not by itself make great poetry” and that “Just as the poet has to let the ego step aside, technique too must be abandoned at just the right moment, allowing the poetic to enter on its own terms” (152). With good poetry, Carse says, “One of the first clues [to its success] is the transparency of the writing,” where “the technique does not draw attention to itself as technique” (152). He reminds us that, in the best writing, poetic or otherwise, the “words so often point away from themselves,” and that they “mirror these realities with such clarity that we don’t notice the mirror itself” (152)—a point akin to the “wordlessness” sought after in many haiku. Carse refers to Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods” in ways that might apply to all poems, or perhaps at least all haiku: “The poem has the character of a Zen koan, a word or phrase that speaks but says nothing. An effective koan in unforgettable, and yet uninterpretable—or, the same thing, endlessly interpretable” (154). True creativity, it seems to me, not only arises from the mystical, but creates the mystical also.

“Then where is the poetry in these lines? Certainly not in the intention of the poet, for he has backed away from telling us what he is saying—by saying no more than the words. Certainly not in the words, for they point away from themselves. Certainly not in the realities at which the words point, for those realities vanish into the outer dark. It must therefore lie between us and the poet, between us and the words. For that reason, the poetry that keeps us speaking and listening to the words is a poetry the words will never perfectly contain. The poetry is timeless, inexhaustible, the poem is not.” (154)

Indeed, haiku is a container for the uncontainable. It will always be inadequate for what it is pointing to, always partial and incomplete. This does not mean it is inferior or unsuccessful. Rather, it may gain greater measures of superiority and successfulness by its very incompleteness, its seeming inadequacy. Haiku embraces an inability to catch everything, and trusts readers to catch what they can, and to add more that the poem can’t. The point here is that the best effects of the best poems lie in the relationship of reader to poet, or to the words. If haiku are what Ogiwara Seisensui called “unfinished” poems, then it is no wonder that a haiku becomes what we bring to the poem as readers, how we as readers “finish” each haiku. We do this from where we stand in relation to the poem, by what we bring to the poem in terms of emotion, natural and cultural awareness, a sense of history and poetics, indeed all our life experiences. Perhaps this relationship is more profound with haiku than with longer poetry because of how brief haiku is, how little it points to. Yet we can celebrate haiku to the extent that it points at all. A successful haiku gives us a place to start. By not ending, haiku invites timelessness and inexhaustibility. And the poem does this not just through its words but through its silences. As Carse notes, “just as there is no language that is exclusively our own, there is no silence that is not a shared silence” (163). Earlier, too, Carse said that “it is the perfect silence that makes language possible” (22) and that the names of things (language) do not “come from the things, but from the silence that precedes the act of naming” (24). What we are after with our poems is essence (hon-i in Japanese), not necessarily the facts of experience, but the substance and feeling behind those facts. Here I think of Krishnamurti, who said, “the essence lies in the pauses.” As Carse points out, “getting the facts straight is a very different activity from that of finding a story that can be ‘faithful’ to the facts” (172). In this way, haiku poems become doors to reality by being doors to ourselves, and what could be more mystical—and transcendent—than that? As Henry Miller once put it, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” This attention we pay to life comes with responsibility. In her poem “Sometimes,” Mary Oliver explains: “Instructions for living a life: / Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.”

        Ultimately, as Carse concludes, “there is something more important than getting it right: not knowing exactly what getting it right is.” He adds that “indeed, not knowing is that path. Knowing that we don’t know is not only a higher ignorance, it is the basis for all our hope” (185). Or as Lucille Clifton once put it, “Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.” Wherever we may go on our haiku path—our path to haiku, our path in haiku, perhaps even our path through haiku, and beyond it—not knowing where we’re going is itself the path, as is simply not knowing. Carse refers to this as “a different kind of power,” like water’s “patient indifference to its path” (146–147). It’s the open power of the beginner’s mind. Indeed, perhaps the haiku path simmers down to a Taoist understanding of the path of water—the watercourse way: “Because it did not care where it went, it always had somewhere to go” (147). As Carse said at the beginning, “Every step on our journey adds to what we know but it also reveals there is no end to knowing” (xi). Where are we going with our haiku, and where can we go? Everywhere.