Being Specific and Vague

by Susumu Takiguchi

One of what look to me to be the most common but seldom-mentioned mistakes which non-Japanese haiku poets tend to make is to confuse vagueness with yugen and similar Japanese aesthetic values. In this article, I will leave what yugen means to each reader’s research but roughly speaking, it signifies something of indescribable profundity which may or may not exist behind or beneath apparent representations, be they suibokuga (brush and ink drawings), style of waka, or Noh play. Other similar aesthetic values include such familiar concepts of haiku-writing as resonance or reverberation (yojo in Japanese).

Somehow some poets have at some point allowed themselves to be misled either by bad teachers or textbooks or even by themselves into believing that haiku must not be too clear, too specific or too straightforward, while the opposite is the case. Haku must be clear, specific and straightforward. Even so, good haiku can be more than what it says in so many words for various reasons, moving the reader profoundly and transporting him/her into deeper realms of understanding, appreciation and experience. One such reason is yugen.

This is hardly surprising if one thinks about the shortness of haiku. The proportion of what the haiku author wants to say to the reader is far greater than what he/she can actually put that in words, inevitably producing surplus of hidden parts, which can help create yugen and/or yojo consequently.

Granted, yugen is a difficult subject to understand, let alone materialise, but it is not completely impossible, like haiku spirit itself, for non-Japanese people to come close to it, or even touch it, feel it, savour it, and with luck engender it, if only they approach it in the right way.

Let us see how the confusion between vagueness, which is bad, and yugen, which is good, happens by examining a few rules and conventions which have come to be formed in the haiku-writing of non-Japanese people.


This convention, which is the best of poor translations of the Japanese toriawase, seems to have done slightly more harm than good. In particular, it is fair to say that it has contributed greatly to the contagion of vagueness in haiku. ‘Combination’ would have been a better English word to choose as toriawase means mixing or joining two or more things together to form a single whole, while juxtaposition (juxta- meaning near or aside) tends to be used in haiku as meaning placing or arranging two things (seldom more than two) side by side for contrast (i.e., difference rather than similarity).

The word toriawase is still used in modern Japanese, especially in cooking where it means for the cook to work out the best combination of ingredients to produce the most delicious food, or of different bits of food (fish, meat, vegetables or garnish) to do the moritsuke (serving) of a dish of food. It may therefore be that the quickest way for non-Japanese haijin to learn what toriawase means is to visit a Japanese restaurant for the next meal.

Juxtaposition as an English word may not restrict the number of things juxtaposed, but the going haiku convention means that only two things are used in a single haiku most of the time, perhaps for the simple reason that physically, the brevity of haiku will not allow for more than two. More plausibly, people tend to prefer the ‘contrast effect’ to ‘harmony effect’ of toriawase, and to put two things side by side would normally give greater contrast than three or more which would lose focus, while the Japanese haijin tend to try to achieve the ‘harmony effect’ in the final product. Awase in toriawase means to put things together for congruous harmony. And these things are normally related things, ‘related’ for a wide-ranging reasons.

To achieve contrast, non-Japanese poets tend to choose ‘unrelated’ things. I see too many haiku poems with two components which are not only unrelated but have nothing to do with each other whatsoever. As a result, they become too vague at best and too unintelligible at worst to be called haiku, or anything for that matter. Haiku teachers avoid correcting this mistake because the ‘juxtaposition theory’ is something they have long preached and cannot disown it now. All I can say is, “Everybody, students and teachers alike, be brave!”

Toriawase is an old notion in Japanese haikai. Its most famous and staunch advocate is Morikawa Kyoriku (1656-1715). As a leading disciple of Basho, he emphasised the importance of toriawase after the master’s death. He made the most of Basho’s own poems and quotations which other disciples attributed to the master to prove his point. Among them is the one about spring rain and a wasps’ nest:

harusame ya/hachi no su tsutou/yane no mori

spring rain…
through a wasps’ nest
a leak in the roof

– translation by Susumu Takiguchi

Kyoriku asserts that the spring rain and the wasps’ nest are a good example of toriawase, which brings ‘life’ into this hokku. Without proper context, they are unrelated but in Basho’s capable hands they get connected by the rain water, which thus connects nature (heaven) and Basho himself (a human). Basho recommended good toriawase but cautioned against thoughtless and wanton indulgence in this device. Kyoriku and his followers used toriawase excessively and uncritically, making poems thus composed rather monotonous and boring, which is a cautionary tale for haiku poets of today who merrily indulge in careless and excessive use of juxtaposition.

We should all learn some lessons from Kyoriku’s experience. I cannot stress this point enough here because a significant part of the haiku submissions I go through are those by people who have swallowed the juxtaposition teaching hook, line and sinker (or by these teachers themselves).

Use of pronoun

I do not concur with using a pronoun in haiku, except for “I”. However, everybody seems to be doing it. More surprisingly, no one seems to see any problem in doing so. The reason may be just that, “everybody is doing it”. Every time I come across (which is all too often) “he”, “your”, or “them” used in people’s haiku, I need to ask the inevitable question, “Who is he?”, “Whose?”, or “Who are they?” as no one would be able to know or even hazard a guess what person or persons the author is talking about.

Sometimes, one can vaguely imagine what is going on from the context or the scene and situation set out in a haiku poem but even in that case one cannot come to any clear and definite answer and left in the dark. Perhaps a pronoun is used also because it helps to make haiku concise, tight and slim, which is true. It is simple to say only “she” instead of “my ex-girl friend’s mother who is called Mary”. Also, in extremely rare instances the use of a pronoun does work, or at least does not create problems, if the reader is helped to tell whom the author is talking about from the carefully and aptly constructed context and from skilfully-chosen words, or if the reference happens to be more than obvious: my second divorce…/for him it’s the third/or fourth. (Most probably, the author is a woman and “him” is the man she is divorcing. But who knows nowadays?)

The Japanese use far fewer pronouns than the Western counterparts both in conversation and in writing, and do so far less frequently too. This is partly because modern Japanese grammar was hurriedly created after the fashion of Western grammar with a result that the use of pronouns still sounds odd and foreign, leading the Japanese to dislike and avoid it. It is also because the Japanese tend to omit the subject or possessive case in their conversation and writing anyway, including pronouns. No wonder the use of pronouns in non-Japanese haiku sound very odd to them.  By contrast, for English-speaking people, for example, the use of pronouns is an integral part of their grammar and English is not English without them. This explains the unquestioned and widespread habit of using pronouns in English haiku. I must point out that I am not objecting to the use of pronouns themselves. What I object to is the use of them without first presenting whom or what specifically they are referring to. Perhaps people dislike non-use of pronouns because it would make their haiku too long. But I suspect they dislike it because by using actual people or specific things it would make their haiku too clear-cut, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination, thus losing what they mistakenly regard as yugen.

Now, in the context of the theme of this article it may well be that people seem to be, as has already been pointed out, using pronouns without presenting the “nouns proper” (specific people or things) first, in their futile effort to create yugen or some such Japanese aesthetic values in their haiku. This is because they have heard that haiku should have this blurred, grey, obscure area which is merely hinted at or suggested but not expressly, clearly and specifically defined or identified. This may be termed as “beauty of ambiguity”. Well, they cannot normally create yugen by this false method. Yugen is not something to be “created” anyway. It emerges. Or, it doesn’t.

As for “I”, it can be said that if “the subject” is not clearly mentioned in haiku it is normally assumed that the subject is the author him/herself. However, even then it is often much better to mention “I” in terms of flow, rhythm, balance, clarity etc., rather than leaving it out altogether. In reality, the opposite is the case as there are inhibitions among people about using “I”, because they are terrified to break another rule: “Self” must not enter into your haiku, which in fact is a different matter altogether.

Another justification for using pronouns in haiku may be that it is precisely the vagueness they would create that the author is after, because it will allow the reader to use his/her imagination to enjoy different possibilities rather than being “told” categorically by the author. This, they are taught, is a characteristic of good haiku. My counter-argument would be that such a route is a wrong one for any haiku poet to take, and that it is no more than a poor excuse or laziness with which people are neglecting true efforts to arrive at yugen in the difficult but right and orthodox way.

Astute observers may have noticed that “pronoun haiku poems” have seldom, if ever, been selected for the best ten in any of the three categories of World Haiku Review. My friendly advice would therefore be: Take heed and try sometimes to use a proper noun instead of a pronoun, and see if you can tell the difference. At least try not to send submissions which have obscure pronouns with no specific people or things mentioned first. I had to take up this issue because it seems to me that the problem is too wide-spread and increasingly getting worse.

I believe that “pro” in pronoun means “for” or “on behalf of” rather than “before”. If that’s the case, then it follows that a pronoun must have a specific person or thing mentioned first, on behalf of which it works as a pronoun. Without that “thing” demonstrated first one would not have the foggiest idea what the pronoun is referring to.

Show, don’t tell

This gospel has been taught so strongly, so widely, and so repeatedly that no one raises any question about it now. It has become a law. To be fair, it has largely done a lot of good but it has had its bad side effects as well. It is good so long as what it teaches is that the author must not impose his or her will in haiku on the reader as to how it should be interpreted, or what any bits of it mean or should mean.

In other words, once a haiku is composed and made public, the author should respect the freedom of what may be termed the ‘literary sovereignty’ of the reader to interpret, imagine or appreciate in any way he/she pleases. If the author’s definitive instructions or interpretations constitute parts of haiku then it would be a violation of such sovereignty. It would be like a dead man effectively controlling living others in his will. Which is to say, as soon as a haiku leaves the hand of the author he/she will lose his/her sovereignty over it except for being the creator of it and ultimately, the creator’s name itself would be redundant.

Where I have some concern is that many poets have turned zealots for this ‘Show, don’t tell’ gospel and often overdo it, producing inexplicable and unintelligible haiku. In them, they ‘show’ all sorts of incongruous things which do not form any corresponding line or coherence to create meanings, emotions, observations or narratives, which should really be the bridge between the author and the reader. Also, this gospel is often abused as it gives people a convenient excuse to be lazy as creators of a poem, because all they think they should do is pick things and simply ‘show’ them, without what should be there in any haiku, i.e. their deep perception, ability to construct the structure of their work, careful choice of words and phrases, and above all something, or anything, they are keen to convey to (i.e. ‘tell’) the reader without ‘telling’ it in so many words. (The last point is the most important.) The result is churning out not-quite-haiku poems one after another, a hotchpotch of incongruous words and phrases. It is like, but much worse than, fashion models with plenty of things to ‘show’ but perhaps ‘telling’ nothing coming from inside. Perhaps, their inside is empty.

The word ‘tell’ has many meanings and usages. One is to give order (which should be obeyed) or strong advice (which is difficult to turn down): A traffic sign telling motorists to stop; my doctor told me to eat more vegetables; the policeman told him to drop the knife; I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.

It has to be in this particular meaning and usage that the “show, don’t tell” doctrine is thought to apply. If that is the case, it is extremely important for us to make sure that the doctrine will not infringe upon some other meanings/usages of ‘tell’ which are not only necessary but desirable for haiku. Among them, the most important is to “give information”. There are too many haiku which do not give necessary and sufficient information because of the misinterpretation of “don’t tell”.

The “show, don’t tell” doctrine has been an important literary guideline in the West for some time. It is therefore quite natural and easy that native speakers of Western languages should adapt it to haiku-writing, especially when teaching materials on haiku from Japan have been few and far between. However, like other adaptations it has not been without problems. If Anton Chekhov was really the creator of the doctrine it must be a good one. But haiku is not prose or drama.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared as the editorial for the August (Summer) 2017 edition of World Haiku Review and appears here with the author’s permission. It has been altered slightly.

Susumu Takiguchi is a Japanese poet, artist, and essayist who has lived in England since 1971. He began to write haiku “seriously” while researching Basho as lecturer in Japanese Language and Civilisation at the University of Aston in Birmingham. His haigo (nom-de-plume) is Ryuseki, which means “stream and stone” (or more mysteriously, “floating stone”).

Susumu is a member of the Japan Classical Haiku Association, the Haiku Society of America, and other haiku organisations. He served as vice-president of the British Haiku Society and in 1998 founded the World Haiku Club. He is managing editor of the World Haiku Review.