This is the second in a series of articles using specific haiku to illustrate a discussion of the haiku-writing art. As Bashō advised, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine.”
Not every haiku moment gives birth to a haiku. Perception is not synonymous with experience. Perception, regardless of the degree of sensory acuity and discerning intelligence, remains mere observation, the response to which is no more than recognition and reaction. Experience requires that one interact with the thing perceived. Memory, conscious or unconscious, and association, empathy, and imagination allow one to add to and to subtract from, to juxtapose and to superimpose other images upon a particular perception, weaving a web of relationships that endow the moment with meaningfulness. This is experience.
The poet is more than a passive receptacle for sensory impressions and intellectual recognition—he or she is an active participant in the haiku moment. Consider Raymond Roseliep’s—
he gets the furnace
The listener has been deeply moved by the triumphant vitality of Beethoven’s music. He has experienced the equivalent of a haiku moment, and his participation is both magnificent and funny. Or, if one wishes to ascend from the cellar to the celestial, there’s George Swede’s—
The August sky
jammed with stars from the hilltop
I shine back 2
One of the reasons why some haiku fail is because evidence of connection and interaction between the poet’s source and stimulus is absent-the reader lays aside the “haiku,” feeling that he or she has read a recorded observation rather than a poem.
Now, this brings us to the point of distinguishing between subject and subject matter. Subject is the external thing: that which is observed, existing of itself, apart from the observer. Subject matter, on the other hand, is the thing observed plus the observer’s uniquely personal response; it includes all the means the poet uses—word-choice, lineation, contrasts, rhythm, and so on—to communicate the poet’s experience to the reader. Subject is the stimulus that initiates the act of making a haiku, but it is subject matter that reveals the meaning of the haiku.
The great charm of the haiku form, with its austerity, brevity, and concreteness, is that the subject seemingly takes precedence over subject matter though it is necessarily the latter that evokes our emotional response. Subject is always explicitly stated; subject matter, hidden. For the poet, it requires art and effort to avoid the obvious; for the reader, art and effort to find that which is concealed.
In this haiku by Peggy Willis Lyles, the subject is “damp earth.” Even though the potter has formed it into the shape of a bowl, the earth is not yet a bowl, for it cannot be used as a bowl until it is glazed and fired. The bowl of raw clay is mere observation, but when the poet adds the words “still” and “unglazed,” it becomes a haiku because the author has provided us the means to see beyond damp earth.
One last point to be emphasized regarding subject: In the finished work of art, subject itself is of no aesthetic importance. If one turns to the art of painting, one will find that the subject of the reclining female nude has been used over and over again by a variety of painters—by Rousseau and Lautrec, by Matisse and Modigliani. Our interest and our appreciation of each painting has nothing to do with the subject of the reclining nude, but with the particular aesthetic qualities expressed by the painter.
For centuries, Chinese painting and poetry have used the subjects of moonlight, blossoms, water, and mountains; Japanese haiku are crowded with crickets, crows, frogs, and flowers. Yet we continue to enjoy the presentation of these subjects, not because they are novel, but because each poet brings us a fresh experience of a time-honored subject.
the flooded stream
a flowered branch
of wild plum 4
The subject is old. There are so many haiku about blossoms and blossom petals floating away on the spring flood, yet this haiku by Robert Spiess arouses in me a profound sense of mystery and tranquility somewhat different from other poems about the same subject. I am not tempted to ask why the branch was broken from the tree, nor how it found its way into the stream. I do not wonder where it will go-whether it will be cast ashore or carried to the sea. At the moment of reading, I experience the vision of the branch borne on the stream, and this is enough. I feel no sadness, no anxiety, no curiosity, only a deep awareness of acceptance.
In the end, it is not subject but subject matter that allows us to share the poet’s experience of the moment, that allows us to look beneath the surface of the haiku to find its deeper meanings—meanings suggested, not explicitly stated.
1 van den Heuvel, Cor, ed. The Haiku Anthology. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986, p. 186.
2 Ibid., p. 241.
3 Higginson, William J., and Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985, p. 75.
4 Spiess, Robert. The Cottage of Wild Plum. Madison, Wisconsin: Modern Haiku Press, 1991, p. 12.