Haiku and the Art of Fiction

From the author’s book, The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, Foster City, California: Press Here, 2001, edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. This essay was originally published in Frogpond XIV:4, Winter 1991. See the Press Here page for this book. See additional essays from The Nick of Time on the Further Reading page, and see also the book’s introduction.       +

by Paul O. Williams


For a long time I have felt there is a strong kinship between the writing of haiku and the writing of fiction, though until recently I never really inquired into this relationship. But the longer I have looked at it, the more intriguing it seems.

In a sense all haiku are based on heightened moments, and the earnest writer of haiku works to perceive such moments often and distinctly, and discards the haiku that come from some lesser source, such as verbal trickery or adroit metaphor.

Similarly, the fiction writer strives to make the scenes in which his or her action moves heightened, sharp, and distinct. Each one must be crisp in thought, ideally somehow blooming in the mind, as though everything were glowing.

In fact, it is in the making of scenes, through penetrating perception and deft selection, that I find a remarkable similarity between the training offered by haiku and the skills of the novelist. This has made me feel that the work I have attempted in haiku has made me a better writer of fiction. Perhaps this is a personal matter, and not general, but I feel it applies to others as well.

As a child I listened to a great deal of radio drama, and because of this, dialog has always been natural for me. But dialog has to occur somewhere, and the nature of that somewhere is vital to the success of the envisioning, both for the writer and the reader. It is haiku essence and fictional underpinning.

Poetry in Western styles is not of enormous help to the writer of fiction, because it is always sliding around the objective view, trying to reach its essences through metaphor, through brilliant and precise example, and the remarkable discoveries of implied comparison.

Of course these techniques have a place in fiction, too, but as a writer of fiction I find myself asking frequently, “What, accurately, was this like? What was the sound of the rain? How exactly did it sound? Are my perceptions genuine or borrowed? What impression does a single footfall in the dry grape leaves give?” The primary job in this process of discovery is one of perceiving. Even when one is pretty sure what will happen in a scene, one may spend a very long time realizing that scene in the mind.

This reminds me greatly of working on a haiku. As we all know, good haiku flow out on the page when we have experienced something precisely—when we have first seen something, and then seen through its masks of cliché, and of our presumptions, and of its own surfaces, to something inside it. Even a round rock in a stream bed has a heart, a being, quietly resonating what it is, in darkness, in dryness, in sunlight with water flowing over it. Before we can say it, we must see it, and of course I mean really see it. It must resonate for us.

Hemingway, with his simplicity and directness, may be more easily amenable to translation into haiku than some others, like the voluble Faulkner, but even so, who can forget Ike McCaslin, as a boy tracking the great bear, seeing a fresh paw print and then watching it fill up with swamp water—or being in under the bear, rescuing his unwise little dog, and noticing a swollen tick on the bear’s leg as the great beast towered over him?

Henry James, in his justly famous essay of 1888, “The Art of Fiction,” on which I will base a number of comparisons, says that “art is essentially selection . . .” and what could possibly be more selective than the haiku? James continues, saying that the guide of selection is “to be typical, to be inclusive.” This is also true of haiku to a remarkable degree. Most haiku extend themselves easily in readers’ minds, and yet a key to their success in saying something more general (which is not, by the way, absolutely necessary to their success) is having seen something very specific very clearly and rendered it precisely, but with overtones.

This leads us directly to another similarity between haiku and most fiction—what I shall call the sense of the impending. “Call me Ishmael,” Melville writes in opening Moby Dick, and immediately we want to know why. If the author is successful, and he is in Moby Dick, he immediately sets up a sense of tension, and he holds it throughout the story. Of course, many haiku resolve tension, but seldom entirely. Like ongoing fiction, haiku must resonate, so they must be written in ways that resonate. They must intend to resonate. They must hint at more, gain power from implication, both on a literal level—the level in which we explore in our minds what might be meant in the scene—and on a level of implication—the “so what” level, in which we ask ourselves why we should care that a fly with an intensely green thorax is sitting on one’s hand, gleaming in the sun, as one sows turnip seed.

Does that have a meaning? Must it have a meaning? It has a resonance in any case, just as it happened to me, and struck me, as a pencil might a wine glass, as radiant with meaning. Good fiction is full of such radiations, and I feel that a good part of their similarity with haiku is the fact that they are often so incipiently metaphoric. They cry out to be metaphoric, but by withholding the metaphor, the writer achieves the tension of the unresolved. We wish to understand in some more abstract sense why what is going on is so meaningful—and we are denied this explanation. So we pursue it in our minds, and in this intensity, this resonance, the poem blooms, as does the scene in the novel or short story.

There is in this resonance a sense of anticipation, of the unfinished, of that which is ongoing. When Basho_ says that haiku is what is going on at this particular moment, I think he implies this ongoing sense. While fiction may be written as history, it is told as the onrush of present moments, each of which is experienced as it vanishes into the past, and about which no one cares unless attention is called to something sig­nificant. This significant thing tends to be a fact or a set of facts, some actuality, not an abstraction.

In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James writes, “Catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet. In proportion as in what she offers us we see life without rearrangement do we feel that we are touching the truth; in proportion as we see it with rearrangement do we feel we are being put off with a substitute, a compromise and convention.”

Again, this is true of good fiction and good haiku, but in a sense not so much of much good English poetry, because there the brilliance of the rearrangement can have such an incredible value.

I realize that one can easily stretch this general comparison too far, but I do submit that it is in the details precisely seen that the reality of a fictional scene flashes into life. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, she writes in passing, “The girl had shrimps in her bamboo basket. They were covered with Spanish moss. She beat the moss down impatiently, and muttered to herself sullenly.” Are the shrimps just props? No. Without such perceived details the whole passage would ghost off into an interchange of disembodied voices. The basket is bamboo. The shrimps are clearly seen. They are covered with Spanish moss, which the girl beats down. There is a haiku in that basket of moss-covered shrimp, a little burst of suchness. Once stated, it hangs in the atmosphere of the story, with its sense of impending, its resonance, and lifts the human action into a context of reality. Ultimately, the story absolutely cannot do without it and other perceptions like it, and I feel this is so because of the quality they share with haiku.

Perhaps the Jamesian sense of fiction shares more with haiku than does that of some other novelists, say Robert Louis Stevenson or James Jones, but at any rate a strong similarity does exist. James knew the value of moments and how they functioned. He writes, “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative—much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius—it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” Does that sound to you like the job of the haiku poet? It does to me. Buson steps on his dead wife’s comb and feels a dual piercing. In James’s The Portrait of a Lady, the nefarious Gilbert Osmond tells Madame Merle her decorative cup on the mantle is cracked, and we feel some of the same chill. Both are insignificant events on the surface, but both resound with implications. The poem, the significance, lies in the unspoken part. James writes, “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience. . . .” He certainly could have been writing about the haiku poet.

Haiku, it seems to me, is indeed manipulative of experience, largely through fiercely disciplined selection, but it is an attempt to avoid manipulation. It says, in a thousand ways, “this is the way things are.” This is how the fly wrings its hands and feet, and how it makes me feel, says Issa. The eye, having read through two thousand haiku, is relieved by two persimmons, Shiki notes. Virginia Brady Young notices the hawk gliding over the lake and the rower dipping the oars into the water. The parallel leaps into her mind, but what she gives us is the experience. [See Waterfall (Fulton, Missouri: Timberline Press, 1982), page 15.] Charles Dickson writes, “new silo / drought withers / the corn,” and we have the combination of action through hope and denial of its fulfillment, but told us through concrete perceptions alone. [Modern Haiku (Autumn 1989), page 57.] Carolyn Talmadge writes, “after she died . . . / the gentle hooting / of a wood owl” [An anthology of Haiku by people of the United States and Canada (New York: Japan Airlines, 1988), n.p.], and we feel the unstated grief simply by what the griever heard.

In Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” two women, old friends, and old adversaries for the same man, recall a tense time long afterward in a Roman restaurant, as dusk settles over the city’s seven hills. She writes, “Some vases of faded flowers were carried away, and brought back replenished,” and in that objective sentence the whole complex anguish of the interchange is caught—by a very haiku-like observation placed carefully in that context. We catch it all, the note of the owl, the faded flowers replaced, if we take James’s advice to novelists, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”

The multifold world contains, or embodies, rhythms we feel within ourselves, and so respond to, and for the writer of haiku and the writer of fiction who are able to perceive its elements clearly, with the intricate and mysterious freight of feelings it bears on its currents, it provides an endless supply of wonder and material for perception. I am not certain that writing fiction will make one a better haiku poet, but I am virtually sure that a study of haiku will teach the novelist precision, insight, and the instant depth that this marvelous short poetic form so focuses on. There is an unusual but natural marriage between the forms that any author might well explore.