Tones of Haiku: Yugen

by Tom Arima

First published in Woodnotes #7, Autumn 1990, pages 22–23, originally with just “Tone” rather than “Tones” in the title. See also “Tones of Haiku: Sabi” from Woodnotes #9. I recall that Woodnotes was hoping to publish more essays from Tom beyond just these two on Japanese aesthetics, but he died in 1992 at the age of 68 (Woodnotes #13 began with a memorial page for him). Tom Arima, who also used the pen name Manzen, led a small haiku group in El Cerrito, California, but I believe he was the only one of its members to participate in Haiku Poets of Northern California activities. A note in Woodnotes #4, Winter 1990, said that the group had been “meeting regularly since its inception on May 19, 1984,” that it followed “the traditional 5-7-5 haiku form with a kigo (season word),” and that they met “on the last Saturday of each month at 824 Lexington, Apt. A, El Cerrito, California, from 9 to 10:30 a.m.” I’m not sure whether they were writing in English or Japanese, but I believe in Japanese.

Haiku is intriguing, not only for its brevity and its honing in on the essentials, but also for its insight and profundity. In writing haiku, knowing its tones (or flavors) is especially helpful and rewarding. To be more conscious of these tones can enhance the quality of one’s haiku, lifting it from a purely descriptive haiku to a more penetrating one. Even a surface understanding of these tones would be beneficial and valuable to any haiku poet.

“Yugen” is one of the tones of haiku. A haiku that awakens a deep, profound, and somewhat esoteric flavor is said to have yugen. The tone of yugen is usually mysterious and deep, with a “religious” or philosophical connotation. It borders on the numinous, having a spiritual or mystic quality, leading to introspection and the meaning of life, its essence, and core.

The following haiku by Issa can be said to have yugen:

Haru no hi ya This day of spring!

Mizu sai areba Wherever there is water

Kure nokori The darkness lingers

This haiku is interesting and intriguing. It makes you wonder. Issa may have had a particular thought in mind when he wrote this haiku, or it may have been just a simple observation, but from the reader’s perspective this haiku can stimulate or awaken many deep and numinous thoughts, depending upon the sensitivity of the reader. For example:

      1. It may suggest a wonderment of why the darkness lingers, or why it wants to linger, which in turn,

      2. Suggests a tenacity for life, or,

      3. Of not wanting to depart, fade, or disappear; to hang on, to survive, or tarry as long as possible or as long as there is water.

Conversely, it could be that:

      1. It is such a wonderful day, the darkness just wants to taste and enjoy the warmth of spring, etc.

      2. Contemplating more deeply and philosophically, it may suggest the constant struggle of yin (passive, negative: darkness and cold) and yang (active, positive: sunlight and warmth suggested by spring); which in turn dissolves into suchness or oneness (which is to say, disharmony is a part of harmony, etc.), or,

      3. It may also bring into question the essence of life, its wonderment and meaning (why life? etc.).

      4. Or it could be, as mentioned before, just simply an observation which attracted his attention intuitively, without any conscious contemplation, volition, or intellection, relying solely on the sum total of his sensitivity and being at the particular moment.

Undoubtedly, there are many other thoughts that come to mind—as many, perhaps, as there are readers. This is what makes haiku so intriguing.

Another haiku, this one by Bashō, has an esoteric flavor of yugen:

Furuike ya An ancient pond

Kawazu tobikomu Suddenly a frog jumps in

Mizu no oto The sound of water . . .

This well-known haiku (along with his “crow” haiku) is often considered the turning point of Bashō’s poetry, especially in terms of the profound and esoteric quality of his haiku. This too can be just an observation, but knowing Bashō and his life, one probes deeper than this, wondering why he focused on the sound of a splash. Was it its suddenness? Just a spontaneous reaction? Certainly, in the surroundings in which the poem is said to have been composed, there must have been other things which could have gained his attention: colorful carp, flowers, leaves, bamboo, the moon. But why the sound of water?

Of course, it is enough to say Bashō. And it would suffice. His sensitivity, orientation, and his total being (which are the essential and innermost core of any haiku poet) are imbued in this haiku. Yet the sound of water is mysterious even unto itself, especially in this setting. There is a sense of buoyancy and expansion in the sound of water wherever it may be found. It epitomizes fluidity and strength and the presence of the unknown. Even though it can be intimidating, it can be soothing and comforting.

Yugen flats [sic] in this haiku, lingering and extending in the soft, velvet sound of the water, carrying one into infinity. If one listens closely to the sound of the water, one will hear it quietly intimate all of these and more.

The tone of haiku heightens the quality of haiku. Tone makes it possible to transcend the bounds of common and average haiku, lifting it into the realm of true art in haiku.

Yugen is one of the most penetrating and resonating tones of haiku. To explore and expand one’s understanding of yugen (and other tones of haiku, such as sabi, wabi, and others) is fascinating and rewarding. The study of these tones is definitely to be encouraged.