Two Sides of the Same Petal

November 2001

WHCessay – Florence Vilén

Two sides of the same petal

Florence Vilén
An aspect of the art of haiku is to say again the same thing that has already been said before, so many times. Cherries blossom, leaves fall, the moon shines, the wind is cold, snow hides the landscape ever and again. Some themes may become so hackneyed that an experienced reader is tempted to sigh about clichés. Yet, handling them well is the essence of haiku. A comparison of different haiku on the same theme can be highly rewarding.
Of course, there are many ways of reading a given text. To some readers, the personal associations aroused by a certain theme is the most important thing. Their own emotion and experience will complement whatever is written.  Readers like me, however, will expect the poet to present a scene which is complete in itself. I think that the more attention we give to the way a haiku is written, the deeper our understanding will grow.
Let us look at versions of the theme “white flower and moon”. It is a very poetical subject, which means that there is always an inherent risk of losing truth to an expectation of how this experience should feel. One haiku on this theme is by Lenard D. Moore (I quote it from the anthology, Haiku Moment, p 141, but the index tells us it was first published in 1986): the moonlit breeze
……..slowly falling one by one:
…………..white dogwood peta

Another is by O. Mabson Southard (I quote from the 3rd edition of The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van den Heuvel, the most comprehensive collection of North American haiku;  this haiku, the index informs us, was first published in 1971:

….Down to dark leaf-mold
……….the falling dogwood-petal
…………….carries its moonlight

Both haiku describe the same scene. They use the same external form: three lines, each one containing the standard amount of syllables in haiku, 5 in the first and the third line, 7 in the second line. (This is falling out of favour because English has so many short words; it is more popular in other European languages.) Also both poets have used the same visual effect of indentation: the lines begin at a different distance from the left-hand margin. This draws attention to the fact that this is a shaped text, not just jotted-down prose. Thus, the same external form.
What about the contents? Several words are used by both poets, although not always in the same form: moonlight, falling, dogwood and petals. Any reader would have an idea of moon and falling petals. Some (like me) may never have seen an American dogwood (not a very pleasant name, by the way, for a plant, is it?) which means looking it up, on the Internet or in some reference book. A good reference where Western haiku is concerned is  Haiku World, by William Higginson. The author wants to make the Japanese tradition of kigo – season words –  as alive in the West as it is in Japan, and so he has created long lists with discussions of the included items. There is quite a lot of useful information in his book about various types of dogwood, their botanical names, times of blossoming etc.
Now, looking at the two haiku, what is the difference between them? And what is the effect on the reader? In the first poem there is a breeze. We are also told the colour of the flower and how the petals fall, viz. slowly. This is a fine sketch, good for keeping a memory of the scene alive.
The second poem reworks the impression by means of language. We are not told that the flowers are white or that there is a moon. We are given the opportunity to deduce this from the expression that the petal “carries its moonlight”. This is less obvious. Also it is more interesting, isn’t it?
There is a contrast in colour, too, between the petal and the darkness of the mould. The movement is given a goal, as the petal does not simply fall in the breeze. It falls to its given place, the soil where petals and leaves will eventually turn into new fertile soil. Thus, we are given a hint of a cycle of life where death and dissolution have their proper place.
Also, the flower is active. It does not only fall, passively obeying an outside influence, as that of the wind in the first poem. It actively carries its white colour.
There is a fine use of alliteration, the first letter of a stressed word being repeated: down, dark, dogwood. In other important words, the “l”-sound recurs inside the words. The first line has heavy stresses on most syllables. This tends to emphasize the importance of the movement downwards to the darkness which is characterized as leaf-mould.

The first haiku is easy to grasp. The second asks for more co-operation from the reader but, I think, truly rewards the effort (which is certainly not always the case with convoluted language.)
So, my subjective conclusion is that Moore’s haiku is a pleasant image, while Southard’s haiku is a skilled poem, using language to increase the sense of true and deep meaning.

In contemporary English haiku, there is a marked preference for brevity, cutting out everything that is not absolutely necessary. Sometimes it is called “minimalism”; personally I think of it as “the lean haiku”. It may work well, but there is always the risk that the flow of natural rhythm will be lost. On the other hand, when well handled this approach may intensify the subject and  emotion.
Now we will look at the same scene described in different styles. The first one is by Betty Drevniok (in the anthology, Haiku Moment, p 44, from a collection 1986-1987):

Full moon at midnight:
holding between both hands
the white peony blossom

The second, by Margaret Chula, was printed in the June issue, November 6, 2001, The Heron’s Nest (also online):

carrying moonlight
into the house –
white peony

The first haiku contains slightly more than the maximum of syllables generally accepted in haiku. It describes the scene clearly, with an emphasis on the act of holding the flower firmly and a mention of the particular time at night. We are made to see the similarity between the full moon and the white peony. There is alliteration in the first line: moon and midnight, and in the second: holding and hands. There is also assonance: the same vowels in stressed syllables, in holding and in both. Various o-sounds dominate: full, moon, holding, blossom…
The second poem has no fixed amount of syllables; actually, the second line will be the briefest in terms of reading. It has a movement: from outdoors to indoors. Also, by the choice of a single word we are given the essence of the image, viz. the surprise of the moon taking over the white flower. (By chance, this is the same phrase as the one that Southard used so well.) We are given no particulars about the form or size of either. This is a deliberate omission which draws all our attention to the whiteness of both, and to the way the flower reflects moonlight in darkness. By skilled use of language, this haiku emphasizes the association of moon and peony.

I find comfort in the clarity of the first haiku, but I find real aesthetic pleasure in the intensity of the second. Not only is every word necessary; if one should omit any word, the haiku would not work. Also, each word is necessary in its very place. If the words should be shuffled around the result would be a rather banal verse, which I will not spell out.
Some readers prefer transparency of language in haiku, which means that nothing in the way the words are used should draw attention to itself, away from the presented scene. Should we not  be happy, though,  to use all the possibilities of language while keeping in mind that a reader must be given a fair chance to see what it all is about?  One reason for the recent popularity of haiku in Western languages might be a feeling that modern poetry has become far too difficult, a set of jigsaw puzzles in words. A good haiku should be accessible to anybody who is interested enough to read it. Clarity, however, does not equal banality. Where the water is clear one can see far into its depth. If it is muddled, not even the water can be seen.



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