Less – Is Still Less

JULY 200

Less – is still less
Florence Vilen
Stockholm, SW
A well-chosen detail — instead of a general term or a vague image — may be what makes a haiku stand out in the fierce competition for a reader’s interest. The point then, is to notice small, even minute things and make them important. Some minutiae may be easily recognized once observed, but there are writers who like to deal with more elusive subjects.

Thus, Geraldine C. Little observes:

……. Full winter moon:
……. the icicle
……. the icicle’s shadow

(A kigo purist would delete the word “winter”, as the season already is implied by the mention of frozen water.) This poem is certainly an example of reduction: the shadow at night from an icicle. Could a poet go still further on this path?

The answer is yes.

The absence of details will become the essence. Visibility is heavily reduced in quite a number of haiku. For instance, consider this poem by L. A. Davidson:

…..in a blizzard
………the city becoming
………these few blocks

The same the winter weather conditions deteriorate drastically for George Ralph during the passage of the haiku itself; first the field of view is limited to the trees, then they, too, disappear. The haiku itself becomes a change, a movement in time although not in place:

…….midday blizzard
…….not seeing beyond the pines
…….not seeing the pines

Space is reduced to a shrinking, chaotic movement where landmarks in the scenery disappear one after another. In Japanese tradition, there may be a stronger sense of the presence of the writer. Bashô describes how it rained on the day when he passed through the control station at the Barrier and all the mountains were hidden in the clouds. Then he sums it up:

…….in the misty rain
…….Mount Fuji is veiled all day –
…….how intriguing!

We also find Issa’s disappointment when he has come to a famous scenic viewpoint, even paying to see through a kind of binoculars – but then, there is nothing but fog:
…….All I saw
…….Through the perspective glass
…….- Threepenny worth of mist!

(Western punctuation marks correspond to the kireji, the cutting words, of Japanese; these “markers” help to give dramatic strength to the text. Contemporary English-language haiku writers tend to eschew this, sometimes at their own loss.)

Lee Gurga shows a similar scene in the Western hemisphere:

…….scenic overlook
…….the whole Mississippi valley
…….hidden in mist

Hashin, a contemporary of Shiki’s, overstates the complete loss of the entire landscape:

…….Both earth and sky
…….are gone and only snow
…….keeps falling

We can guess at sadness and loss of more than the directions with John Brandi, stuck with nowhere to go:

…….No backward
…….No forward
………in the autumn rain

Where space is gone time, too, will dissolve. Lequita Vance also uses a double negative in her description of the weather:

…….this heavy fog
………no morning
………no evening

The absence of space and of time has found a proper place in such haiku. The visible or understandable world is denied; although we may feel that its existence is paradoxically affirmed through this negation. The weather conditions themselves might be annoying, but the very act of expressing them, of shaping them in the form of a haiku, succeeds in making also such an experience of value to the writer and to the observant reader. Nothingness is turned from a negative entity into a positive one when we participate in observations made by others in the world of nature all around us. We may even smile at the tricks it plays on our preconceptions. And of course, we are free to apply this image to human conditions as well. A good haiku is many-layered.


Geraldine C. Little, quoted from the anthology The Haiku Moment, edited by Bruce Ross 1993, p 123
L. A. Davidson, quoted from The Haiku Moment, p 32
George Ralph, quoted from The Haiku Moment, p 176
Bashô quoted from Bashô and his interpreters, by Makoto Ueda, 1992, p102
Issa translated by Lewis Mackensie, The Autumn Wind, 1957, from the introduction, nr 37
Lee Gurga, quoted from The Haiku Anthology; Haiku and Senryu in English, edited by Cor van den Heuvel, 3rd edition 1999,  p 56)
Hashin, the text in Harold G. Henderson, An introduction to haiku, p185, the final haiku of the book; the translation is mine
John Brandi, quoted from The Haiku Moment, p 21
Lequita Vance, quoted from The Haiku Moment, p 277



This entry was posted in Haiku, Vol 2-2 July 2002 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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