• Under the Bashō

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May 28, 2014
 
When writing a haiku, do you strive for obfuscation; does it come naturally; or, do you believe that it arrives on the back of your philosophical dna paired with personal experiences? Is obfuscation an intentional technique/aesthetic of your writing?
I often refer to haiku (the words) as the “horizontal axis” while referencing the deeper meaning of haiku as the "vertical axis” — mystery, ambiguity, allusion, imagination (et al), which is hard to access and most likely provocative of an unknown amount of reader resistance (Reference to Richard Gilbert's posit).
 
How much of this resistance, if any, do you intentionally inspire? Do you write with the reader in mind? Or, do you write what you want and simply ignore the reader, leaving your finished poem on his/her shoulders?
 
I recall Basho often writing headnotes so readers would have a clue as to what the poems actually means or, at least, as to what it references.
 
Thoughts?
 
 


Michael Rehling:
I believe that Basho used headnotes for his students, not the public or general readers. I don't aim at anything. I try to share what I have seen/felt... It ends there for me.
 


Michael Rehling:
A woodcut by Jean Cocteau with these words has hung over my desk for forty years:
 
My method is simple: not to bother about poetry.
It must come of its own accord.
Merely whispering its name frightens it away.
I am trying to make a table.
You will decide, afterwards, whether to eat on it,
question it, or build a fire with it.
 
That seems to me a good approach. It keeps all 'arguments' to the bare minimum.
 
S.M. Abeles:
I strive for the midpoint between obviousness and obtuseness then let the chips fall where they may.

 


Don Baird:
I like it, Mike. Thanks for posting it. You clearly live by those words. And, you write terrific poetry as a result.

 


Michael Rehling:
And if I don't write terrific poetry there is always the heat from the fire! 
 


Don Baird@Scott: 
Thanks for sharing your thought. I often find it interesting (more than interesting) to study a poet's intention — why the poem — why is it so hard to understand — and, how much of its meaning has been shielded on purpose? 

 


Michael Rehling:
One more quote that has inspired me is from the forward of IS 5, by E.E. CUMMINGS!
 
On the assumption that my technique is either complicated or original or both, the publishers have politely requested me to write an introduction to this book.
 
At least my theory of technique, if I have one, is very far from original; nor is it complicated. I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz."Would you hit a woman with a child? - No, I'd hit her with a brick." Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.
 
If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little--somebody who is obsessed by Making. Like all obsessions, the Making obsession has disadvantages; for instance, my only interest in making money would be to make it. Fortunately, however, I should prefer to make almost anything else, including locomotives and roses.It is with roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls) that my "poems" are competing.
 
They are also competing with each other, with elephants, and with El Greco.
 
Ineluctable preoccupation with The Verb gives a poet one priceless advantage: whereas nonmakers must content themselves with the merely undeniable fact that two times two is four, he rejoices in a purely irresistible truth (to be found, in abbreviated costume, upon the title page of the present volume).
 
Michael Nickels-Wisdom:
I came across an article a few weeks ago titled "Artists Don't Make Art with Other People in Mind" <‪http://thoughtcatalog.com/.../artists-dont-make-art-with.../‬‬>, and though not everyone may feel this way, I do. Also, I think the widespread habit of abstracting a readership is problematic. Contemporary society is perhaps more diverse than ever in history. When I think of a potential readership, I think of "a reader" or "some readers", not "the reader". 
 
Don, do you mean "obfuscation" or "obscurity"? I ask because obfuscation seems by definition intentional, deliberate, while obscurity may be merely a byproduct of something else going on in the writing or reading processes and may not be deliberate. 
 
I myself do not deliberately strive for obscurity, and by extension then also not for obfuscation. It may be, though, that obscurity might arise because writers and readers may not share enough common references. In our kind of society, this may be unavoidable, unless writers restrict themselves to low cultural "common denominators", and I think that may make poems less contentful. 
 
Some of my own orientation regarding writer-reader relationship would be reflected by the old Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls back in the 1970s, summarized below. It's considered a bit stereotypical of 70s culture now, but I think there's something to it in the context of things like aesthetic experience...
 
"I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped."
 
I don't think it's always necessary that writers and readers connect over a text
Artists Don't Make Art With Other People In Mind: thoughtcatalog.com We let art guide us, though it’s more accurate to say we just follow people who are guiding themselves. 






 
Hansha Teki:
I would suggest that all poets working in any poetic genre routinely rely on some measure of ambiguity to create the poem that is bursting for expression. The alternative is to write an accompanying treatise in prose to point to the possible layers of meaning that the maker has in his/her heart/mind.
The beauty of ambiguity is that it allows the poem to become imprinted by the reader's own layers of possible meaning enriching his/her experience of the poem.
William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity goes into this with some depth.
One thing that we miss out on in reading translated versions of Basho etc. is the depth of ambiguity that run through their poems.
 


Michael Nickels-Wisdom:
Empson's book is excellent.

 
Michael Rehling:
I write, and let the reader do whatever they wish. I am, many times, amazed at what they come up, and seldom disagree with their interpretation. I accept it all as a compliment that I aroused something in another person that they enjoyed. That said, what anyone else does is kool with me too. 

 
Michael Nickels-Wisdom:
Litcrit of the modern era consists of its own literature of accompanying treatises. (Pointed out by Nathan A Scott, Jr. in "The Name and Nature of Our Period-Style", _The Broken Center: Studies in the Theological Horizons of Modern Literature_, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966, pp. 1-24). Scott shows that this is because of the "evaporation of common paradigms" in modernity
 


S.M. Abeles:
Don, I think where a poet's work falls on the obtuseness continuum can provide interesting insight into his or her personality -- whether he or she is afraid of being misunderstood, or perhaps understood. It is a particularly good signifier of one's willingness to bear risk, and in which direction. Most of our poems are going to be misses, not hits. Would we rather miss because our poem said to much, or too little? I count myself in the latter camp, but maybe stupidly: many of my better poems, I think, are not particularly difficult to process at all, for a reader of any skill.


Neelam Dadhwal:
Interesting topic. It comes naturally to me whenever it is there. There are still times when there is stress, I write unwillingly. There is no space for obfuscation then. The quality of a haiku makes interesting choices of poets to a reader. However, most of the poets try to veer in the direction popular theme and thus obfuscation must be quite artificial and inauthentic. Might just be provoking or viral in sense.

 
Don Baird:
Here is a relevant response by Kaneko Tohta (that Hansha had discovered):
 
http://www.haiku-hia.com/tohta_en.html
The Artistic Quality and Appeal of Haiku by Kaneko Tohta
www.haiku-hia.com. 
 
1970, I was very interested in the wandering poets Santoka and Issa. Although Issa is not usually considered a wandering poet, I was especially drawn to him. Even now I like him more than Basho, Buson, and Shiki. When I tried to see what drew me to him, I found an indescribable accessibility in ..... 






 
Don Baird:
"Two requirements of haiku are artistic quality and general appeal. Isn't it enough for a haiku to possess these two elements? Depending on how these two elements are joined, haiku can be compared with other forms of poetry." — Kaneko Tohta, The Artistic Quality and Appeal of Haiku; from a speech made at the Fifteenth HIA Meeting on May 26, 2004 in Tokyo.
 
"Plainly stated, I wanted to create haiku that all could understand and love by all." — (ibid) 
 
"Lately, I have been saying that haiku is folk poetry and that haiku is a national folk art. This means that it is both popular and artistic. Calling it folk art means that the whole nation loves it. They are proud of it as poetry. This shortest poetic form has great power and popularity. We feel great affection and familiarity towards it. That is what makes haiku great." —(ibid)
 
Interesting thoughts from a living haiku legend in Japan today. Thanks, Hansha, for the heads up on this one. I have not seen it before.
 
Good stuff.

 
Hansha Teki:
Sometimes apparent obfuscation may be due to reference to regional and personal mythology.
 
Here is one that alludes to local Maori mythology and a personal grief
 
fantail song . . .
still the fetal echoes
of a fatal quest
 
Can a reader, who does not know me nor know Maori mythology, find anything that resonates for them?
 
I am prepared to clarify, if needed.

 
Don Baird:
I think we see obfuscation from two primary sources: one is a natural occurrence, as you suggest — a result of cultural differences; and, the other is intentional — suggesting that using poetics such as metaphor have an automated fast-track to misunderstanding by the reader.
 
Yes, Hansha, please explain a bit more about your haiku and culture to help bring us in the loop. 
 
Add-on: as a result of the thread, I'm adding to my meager list of obfuscation sources a third influential aspect — inherent obfuscation due to the small number of words used to write haiku — putting the poem on auto pilot in regards to misunderstanding, or "reading, re-reading for meaning" (reference to Richard Gilbert's essay).

 
Hansha Teki:
Thanks for asking, Don. 
 
The fantail (represented in my display picture) is central to the story of Maui and Hine-nui-te-po and even now the fantail's giggling like twitter when heard in the dark NZ forests is a prognostication of death. I have given a link to a version of the myth. The fantail's laughter is what woke the Goddess of Death as Maui ascended through her vagina in order to win immortality for humankind. She closed her thighs clamping the obsidian teeth of her vagina around Maui cutting him in two. He found death in the birth canal.
 
About 40 years we had a son who was stillborn - death in the giving of life.
 
The fantail/fetal/fatal link between the 3 lines I had hoped would suggest that theme. 'echoes' relates the path of death to the path of birth. 
 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hine-nui-te-p%C5%8D
Hine-nui-te-pō - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
en.wikipedia.orgHine-nui-te-pō ("Great woman of night") is a goddess of night and death and the ruler of the underworld in Māori mythology. She is a daughter of Tāne. She fled to the underworld because she discovered that Tāne, whom she had married, was also her father. The red colour of sunset comes from her.
 
Richard Gilbert:
I find "obtuseness" only slightly obtuse.

 
Richard Gilbert:
There may be nothing more obtuse than a noun. Are we afraid to look too closely at them. Or may language itself require new solutions (for a variety of reasons)? Attached, a partial page with multiple references alluding to this topic, from "A.R. Ammons and the Poetics of Widening Scope," Steven P. Schneider (Fairleigh Dickinson U., 1994, p.192): 
 
Richard Gilbert:
Language and neologisms. Some might find the following obtuse: ""Buckminster Fuller spoke and wrote in a unique style and said it was important to describe the world as accurately as possible. Fuller often created long run-on sentences and used unusual compound words (omniwell-informed, intertransformative, omni-interaccommodative, omniself-regenerative) as well as terms he himself invented.... The words "down" and "up", according to Fuller, are awkward in that they refer to a planar concept of direction inconsistent with human experience. The words "in" and "out" should be used instead, he argued, because they better describe an object's relation to a gravitational center, the Earth. "I suggest to audiences that they say, 'I'm going "outstairs" and "instairs."' At first that sounds strange to them; They all laugh about it. But if they try saying in and out for a few days in fun, they find themselves beginning to realize that they are indeed going inward and outward in respect to the center of Earth, which is our Spaceship Earth. And for the first time they begin to feel real 'reality.'"
 
Fulller is certainly among the most neglected of contemporary poets. He may be the greatest neologistic poet (and thinker) of this or any era. If I were to say that poetry is fundamentally omniwell-informed, intertransformative, omni-interaccommodative, and omniself-regenerative, you might find the language obtuse -- until you realize all this time you've been going instairs and outstairs... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckminster Fuller. Buckminster Fuller - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
 
Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller (/ˈfʊlər/; July 12, 1895 – July 1, 1983)[1] was an American neo-futuristicarchitect, systems theorist, author, designer and inventor.
 
Sheila Windsor:
Fascinating, the whole thread and the latest post on Buckminster Fuller in particular. I immediately realate (a typo/slip which I'll leave alone) to going 'in' or 'out' rather than 'up' or 'down'. The rest took a few reads to 'get my head around' but yes they too make sense to me.
 
Sheila Windsor:
As for how I write, the obfuscation question: I don't intentionally obfuscate but I'm not aware of intentionally doing anything except to go within, pay attention to what's trying to come out and assist it as best I can. . . possibly later revisit and adjust it. I think that most of my poems are essentially simple. That's because I'm a simple-minded person. I do have a fondness for accurately conveying but it's not a striving, it's spontaneous, like breathing. Jean Cocteau (MIchael Rheiling's post) puts it well enough for me.

 
Michael Rehling:
Always loved 'Bucky'... If you ever heard him speak in person you never forgot it... 
 
If you want to know 'everything' about him:
http://youtu.be/06yaSLipeWg
Buckminster Fuller - Everything I know - session 01 (entire) - January 20, 1975. This is recompiled and edited version of the Bucky videos on Google Video from the website: 
 
https://conversationswithbucky.pbworks.com/w/page/1644735/Front
 
Michael Rehling:
As for 'appealing' to others. I don't know where to start, so I don't. Some people love only the the 'traditional haiku', whatever that is, and some like to 'push the envelope' and test the 'limits' of the form, whatever those limits are and defined by the many and changing Brahmans of haiku, and still others write and let others put it into their own category as they read their work. I am the later. As John Cage said: "I have nothing to say, I am saying it, and that is poetry." Nuff said, I guess???

 
Richard Gilbert:
As both a jr. high and high school student, Bucky's NYC "Town Hall" lectures left an indelible impression and remain influential in my life. Fuller was a living example of the promise of human potential -- brilliant and for a kid someone utterly encouraging of intellectual exploration, uniqueness of thought and certainly what we tend to diminish, with terms like "eccentricity."

 
Michael Rehling:
One more quote and then I am done:
 
I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones. John Cage.
 
Rita Odeh:
The first image comes naturally as I observe the creative force of nature. I think that this is the horizontal axis. Here, I start to strive with the second image. I don't keep the reader in my mind. I keep the Japanese aesthetics in my mind and try to check out which second image can create a good juxtapostion.

 


Sheila Windsor:
I'm English, Richard:
eccentricity is a valued part of the DNA

 
Don Baird:
@Rita: Yes, and for me, your concept would also be my horizontal axis - the Tao's storyline, lets say. For others, it could be something entirely different such as Chen-ou who often writes cinematic haiku ... expansive and visual of many different subjects, or Carlos Colon who has a unique and terrific style of his own. 
 
It's interesting to read Kaneko's comment about haiku being a Japanese "folk poetry." I'm trying to process a folk poetry retaining the strong posture of literature. Kaneko is a serious poet with terrific depth - so he isn't talking about shallow when he mentions the word "folk"."
 
On another line of thought:
 
Obscure
Obfuscation
Oblique
 
Three big "O" words. 
 
Ambiguity
 
A big "A" word.
 
Just pondering out loud.

 
Don Baird:
One of the things that makes poetry work well, I feel, is the imperfection of language. Incidental misunderstandings can occur which bring about new or expanded meaning(s). Intentional ambiguity is one thing; incidental ambiguity is another. I believe that incidental ambiguity happens as often if not more often than intentional ambiguity as a result of inherent, "room-for-error", written communication — language itself a culprit.

 
Michael Nickels-Wisdom:
Speaking for myself, I don't so much see these kinds of readings as misunderstandings, but as alternatives. I don't see a haiku as only an object made of words, with only an authorial intent. I think a haiku also comes alive in a reader's mind and is enacted there by the totality of that reader's personal characteristics. Apart from a reader, apart from enactment, the text can't really have a meaning.
 


Michael Nickels-Wisdom:
I see a haiku as primarily an alternative environment more than as an object.

 
Don Baird:
I see the reader reading in error, in a way, and then re-reading for meaning (referencing Gilbert's essay). I understand the idea of no mistakes; but, also believe there to be mistakes (in reading). These "mis-taken" readings bring out additional meanings. However, I understand that is what poetry is for and therefore, as you mention, there are no misunderstandings, but alternatives. 
 
Interesting points of view. I imagine that much of this would be related to the author's intent, if any.

 
Sheila Windsor:
Those 'alternative' readings often present themselves to me in my own work after, sometimes long after, writing it. I think that much art expression is like an iceberg: subliminal.

 
Michael Rehling:
Yes indeed Don and Sheila. I think that this is one of the key attributes of haiku. Because we limit ourselves to 17 syllables each of of them can 'count' for more than one meaning. That gives the reader a larger role in our poems. When you limit the number of words, you unintentionally expand the level of meanings. This is a tool you can 'use' in the creation, discover after you release it to others, or that the reader discovers on their own and the poet never even know about. I think this is one of the real attractions of haiku to the reader. They have a larger role, on many occasions, than the writer has in the interpretations available for the poem, since they are not bound by the poets inspirational triggers.
 
I also think that the growing popularity of haibun is partly due to this 'feature' of haiku. The poet can 'settle' the ambiguity, to a large extent, with the addition of the prose portion. The benefit is that this allows for a real juxtaposition between the prose and the poem, strengthening the haibun itself. 
 






 
Don Baird:
Yes, Mike! This is what I'm getting at and you've stated it so perfectly: 
 
"When you limit the number of words, you unintentionally expand the level of meanings. ...... I think this is one of the real attractions of haiku to the reader. They have a larger role, on many occasions, than the writer has in the interpretations available for the poem, since they are not bound by the poets inspirational triggers." — Mike 
 
@Sheila: I find that happening to me as well. I read one of my own haiku a few years later and see different "meanings" in it than when I wrote it. I like that aspect of haiku quite a lot — to me, most likely what I consider its most powerful/appealing attribute.
 
The incidental/accidental mis-reading or misunderstanding is triggered, in effect, by the few number of words — often just 8-11 words total, in English. This is what I'm pondering at this point in the thread and believe it to be an aesthetic of haiku that is important — if not part of the "engine" of haiku that makes it such a mighty literary genre in poetry.

 
Rita Odeh:
I think that the ambiguity you discussed here as the yugen(depth and mystery) which is the outcome of a good juxtaposition. This mystery is created when the poet doesn't say all. Thus, s/he leaves room for interpretation which depends on his experiences and background. When the verse says all it fails. When it is too much ambiguous it fails, too. There must be a balanced ambiguity.

 
Michael Nickels-Wisdom:
Also, ambiguity is a demonstration that such literary techniques are not exclusive to Japanese or even to haiku. This is something I can't stress enough.

 
Rita Odeh:
*L4: depends on the reader's experiences.
 
Michael Rehling:
So, to recap for myself... Ambiguity is an intentional technique, and an unintentional one that can be present in any poem, not just haiku. Got it, I think... 
 
Don Baird:
Great thoughts, Rita and Michael! 
 
Basho was keen on the idea of a poet only bringing to the table about 60% of what the poem might be about while allowing the reader reading-room for personal meaning and experience. In his statement, he made it clear that the reader is very involved in the determination of meaning; and, of course, therefore ... meaning will vary quite a bit based on the reader's experience in reading haiku, hence the thought, the possibility of reader error, if any. This is why Basho placed a header note for many of his poems - to be sure that when someone (primarily students) read them, that they would know what they are about. It is safe to say, that [today] many of Basho's poems would be mis-read without the history and studies that have occurred to help readers fill in the historicity. I believe this to be part of the haiku engine.

 
Sheila Windsor:
For me, ambiguity works the same way in abstract/minimalist/some concept artworks. As Rita puts it: when the poet/artist resists the temptation to control by telling all.

 
Rita Odeh:
Haiku is called the (unfinished poem) because it leaves room for interpretation. If two readers get to the same interpretation then the poem is a failure. The slight ambiguity leaves this room for the reader to finish the verse the way s/he likes and this process of getting involved makes her/him enjoy the poem. i once read that haiku is similar to a painting where the poet has to draw an image but leave a space for the reader to continue the painting.

 
Michael Rehling:
Here is an example from Basho that I love. Translation by Ueda:
 
don't they quench
even the banked charcoal?
those hissing tears
 
The headnote reads: "In sympathy for a person who has lost a young son."
 
So much of this depends on the 'headnote' to see what Basho saw, but without the explanation most would read into the scene the sadness. BTW, the juxtaposition in this one literally 'pops' with the tears on the coals. 
 
Also, is there a 'kigo' here? I think not.

 
Sheila Windsor:
Yes we would get the sentiment behind this. The headnote expands on it but isn't necessary to my appreciation of the haiku. Of course, with translation, we already have one reader's interpretation between us as reader and the writer of the original. Michael, would 'banked charcoal' / the fire suggest winter? It does to me.

 
Michael Rehling:
Indeed. What commentators, yes I know I have added another layer of meaning, say is that the 'mourner' is holding a 'hand warmer' that had coals in it, hence the 'hissing' when the tears hit the metal of the warmer. He seems to be 'suggesting' winter, but boy it is subtle isn't it?
 
Sheila Windsor:
Oh I would not have thought of a hand warmer: I pictured someone kneeling at the hearth, banking up the fire for the night (my job as a child). Does 'banked charcoal' make sense in the context of a hand warmer?

 
Michael Rehling:
To the Japanese it did, which just brings to mind the differences in language. In Japanese you can be very precise, AND open up shades of meaning with the same character.

 
Sheila Windsor:
I wonder whether something of the original was lost/changed in translation into English re "banked charcoal". We can surmise but will probably never know.

 
Don Baird:
Clearly, we (non-Japanese speaking folks) will not completely understanding the subtleties of Japanese haiku/hokku. There is an automatic misunderstanding built in the translated poem based on the translator's bias, inability to translate well, misunderstanding a Japanese character, choosing the character to mean one thing when it could be another (subjective), and so forth.
 
For Japanese haiku, obfuscation could be accidental, as I suggest, based on the translation we have or choose to read - believe in. 
 
Very interesting.




Michael Rehling:
What is likely missing is the 'context' of Japan in the 1600's. The language and the poem, presumably in Basho's own hand, have survived, as has the language itself. We do have the commentaries, but alas no commentators have survived to tell us more... Which all brings us back to our role as readers.

 
Don Baird:
And, therefore, readers, whether on purpose or not, mis-read. LOLL Full circle. 

 
Michael Rehling:
This IS what you intended with this discussion, right? 

 
Don Baird:
You bet! Perfect in every way by the most terrific folks!
 
 
Diana Ming Jeong:
I write with personal experience and sometimes I will include ideas or imagery exposed to me in books or movies. I think of the reader when I write with the initial reader always being me. I don't limit the meaning of the haiku to one thing. I allow it to take on other forms hoping the reader will invite me in to their own experiences and thoughts.
 
I wrote this one after watching the ending of Grave of the Fireflies.
 
funeral pyre -
into the autumn night,
these fireflies

 
Mps Meer:
I try to avoid creating puzzles altogether. For me writing haiku is more the sharing of meditative- or observed moments of beauty, and when I am more in a playful mindset even imagined real or surreal moments...