Continuity and haiku
by Owen Bullock
It might be useful, and perhaps comforting, to look at the topic of continuity in haiku. When I think of continuity, I think of keeping life going, of qualities such as resolve, steadiness and endurance. I hope the following haiku will reflect such aspects of life. This essay is aimed at the beginner rather than the experienced practitioner, but my main hope, aside from suggesting astute ways in which poets work, is to open up discussion around the topic.
In haiku, things are themselves. Many haiku, like other forms of poetry, reflect the continuity of the natural world and our relation to it and to each other as creatures of this earth. The dictionary definition of continuity leans towards some kind of logical sequence. This classic from Issa exemplifies such a tendency:
the turnip puller
points the way
with a turnip
The turnip puller uses what is at hand to signal a response; he is at one with nature and with his occupation. Though most translations give ‘the way’, I tend to remember the second line as ‘points out the road’, which is somewhat erroneous but, for me, removes more recent, religious overtones of ‘the way’: ‘the road’ focuses the journey. One can symbolise all one likes – making this an archetypal haiku – or just witness the event and smile at the turnip puller and his rugged good sense.
the dog’s howl
Ernest Berry 1
In nature, one thing leads to another: something more immediate occurs. The dog reacts to the noise and asserts itself, and its identity is asserted for us.
the neighbour’s dog barks
one too many times
Graham Nunn 2
A senryu such as this makes me want to borrow the word ‘continuance’ (for continuity) from the legal fraternity. This animal has gone too far; the human has, perhaps, been patient, but he has his own reactions, his own sense of self-preservation to uphold.
the statue mimer’s
coat-tails sometimes flap –
the autumn wind
Tsunehiko Hoshino 3
The statue-mime parallels reality in more ways than one. The flapping of the coat-tails gives us an extra dimension, as if time from another era were entering our time (or a feeling that time and space, as dependable realities, could depart from us altogether). Any philosophical undertones are set to rest by the autumn wind being the autumn wind.
Here is another very balanced haiku which asserts the continuity of life much more than the reference to smoking might initially convey:
in the draughty porch
during the committal
glow of cigarettes
David Cobb 4
Since we are looking first and foremost at death in this haiku, we must confront the issue of lung cancer and the cigarette’s part in that. We seem to learn little from health warnings and even at a funeral there are some who can’t wait to get out for a puff – will this offend those present? We wonder if it would offend the dead. But perhaps the person who passed away was also a smoker. Did they regret their habit, or were they as unrepentant as the person in the porch? Taken as a purely visual phenomenon, without judgment, the cigarettes are little lights. They might be lights to death, or life, but nevertheless, they glow, and could be interpreted as a kind of tribute, something which endures, even if it’s only human folly. Compare with:
news of his death
the cigarette smoke rises
DeVar Dahl 5
The smoke is more obviously a tribute or sign than in the previous piece. One might think of the smoke issuing from the Vatican when the cardinals have made their choice for the next Pope. The stillness of the day lends the scene some extra quality, as if the natural world, too, pauses to consider. The phrasing ‘straight up’ has other connotations. He might have been a very ‘straight up’ kind of guy; or the opposite, so that only in death is a perception of him straightforward – there are many possible interpretations.
In the next haiku, one wonders if the fog matches or creates the air of uncertainty surrounding the one who is waiting (and writing):
In the fog
for a friend to come out of the fog
I keep waiting.
Ogiwara Seisensui 6
Haiku frequently use a parallel of image and idea from which we can derive an allegory for life. The fog is literal and physical; but it could also be metaphorical, adding depth to the poem. Is waiting a good state of mind to be in? It seems euphemistic here for some reticence to take life by the scruff of the neck and live it to the full. Though the fog dictates, the waiting is not necessarily unpleasant.
The word ‘I’ can be problematic in poetry, and worth avoiding at times, but it’s a concept that reappears, like an image in water, in the puzzle that is life, and as each person tries to grasp their own identity:
Dropping stone after stone
into the lake – I keep
George Swede 7
This activity – the dropping of stones – reasserts self-image and existence. The face in the water is only part of the picture. The image is, after all, just a reflection. The writer could be puzzled or frustrated; the reappearance of the concept of the self might seem like an inescapable demand.
Though conjunctions occur readily in haiku, this haiku may be concerned more with disjunction:
and a stone
in the moonlit night
nestle against one another.
Ogiwara Seisensui 8
The stone is a stone as well as a stone in the moonlight. Is there one stone or two, one in the light and the other in the shade? It is analogous to Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu’s notorious conundrum of whether a horse can be a white horse at the same time as being a horse. It seems obvious, but is a question, I suppose, of attribution in language – perhaps Chuang Tzu should also be described as an early language theorist. In Seisensui’s situation, all we know for sure is that there is at least one stone in the moonlight, and that somehow the stone or stones create a sense of togetherness, which can’t be broken (much like a stone).
packed rugby stadium
on the crossbars
Giles Fabre 9
Again, the world of people and the world of nature are balanced rather than disconnected. Humanity has its sport, the gulls have their habits and sometimes they overlap quite directly.
a steady breeze
the last child
DeVar Dahl 10
Time goes on, children grow up and leave home. This can be a period of great satisfaction (as I’ve recently found myself). The steady breeze suggests a quiet feeling of a job well done. It is not a time of mourning (the word ‘steady’ seems to forbid that reading). On the other hand, the breeze could be a reassuring force in the midst of strong emotion.
In the creating of parallels in haiku, there is an accord between images and experiences. Once again, we find each thing being itself in nature:
In the setting sun
cocks are engaged in a duel:
touch-me-nots in bloom.
Iida Dakotsu 11
It can be difficult for us to accept that cocks attack each other, but the poet is aware that that scenario is as much part of the natural order of things as the flowers blooming. Birds need a pecking order and anyone who has raised chickens will know that, once a young male has reached a certain age, a challenge occurs – the flock needs to know who is boss. There’s another element at work here, too. Touch-me-nots droop inwardly when disturbed, but are capable of opening again soon afterwards. When we consider that this flower is of the impatiens family which symbolises motherly love, the sense of dichotomy across the sexes and of diversity of characteristics in nature is enhanced.
In our human world, the over-complexity of life sometimes makes a mockery of the word ‘natural’: our behaviours can be much more barbaric than that of the fighting cock, and humanity seems lost. The next poet restores a primal power:
Into the evening sun
with all my strength
I chase a horse.
Ozaki Hosai 12
A sense of oneness pervades the haiku. The level of effort on the part of the man matches the horse’s nature; the horse and human are joined by this action. We enjoy the vigour of the event, as well as the epitome of muscular energy that the horse and, occasionally, man may symbolise.
This next haiku is a very different scenario, but is also one of like to like:
The small boy
tosses all the crumbs
to the smallest duck
Basem Farid 13
It speaks for itself. The boy gives all he has to what he recognises.
in the village
the madman who knows nobody
is known to all
John Gonzalez 14
The key word here is ‘madman’, since it’s the term that compartmentalised thinking has created. Such a label separates us as people. But, sometimes, often during grief or tragedy, the labels are forgotten. Who is most forgiving? When friends have fallen by the wayside, one can imagine an interesting and possibly challenging chat with the local ‘madman’.
This haiku is a classic portrait of a different kind of poverty:
only on the molehills snow
Martin Lucas 15
The existence of mountains is paralleled by molehills – they are merely smaller. They show, at every level, that nature is consistent in its shapes and patterns, it makes ‘sense’.
An aura of connection is implicit in this haiku:
from the sapling
to the weathered oak,
a spider’s strand
Michael Dylan Welch 16
The sublime and determined continuity of nature is shown clearly through the spider’s strand; its endurance is a necessary part of the scheme of nature.
Like the art of puppetry, the following haiku says something about how we live.
after the crash
the doll’s eyes
Michael Gunton 17
I read this haiku as referring to an economic crisis. The doll’s look of alarm is analogous to humanity’s shock and displacement during such times, and the impression of the violence of the crash is reinforced by the doll’s eyes being jammed open. Alternatively, the poem could be written following a car crash. We still get a sense of shock that way, but perhaps rather less depth. I suspect the poet was well aware of the need to leave both interpretations open.
Artistic endeavour, in general, tends to re-establish the bond with nature:
after lunch he adds
John Bird 18
This poem is quirky, and alludes to the legend of a stork bringing babies. Here, the artist is ‘master’ of life and brings the stork. In some ways, the next haiku isn’t so very different:
year’s end . . .
the bedding piled up
in the motel
Bruce Ross 19
Labour seems endless compared to the fluency of art in the previous haiku, but there’s also a sense of acceptance here; the year’s end is somehow beautifully ordinary. Lastly, we encounter yet another activity which suggests a perpetual element to life:
Into a cracked vase
an old woman arranges
the rose buds.
Zdravko Kurnik 20
The word ‘buds’ is important, ‘roses’ alone would not suffice. There is a life force in this action which overtops the sense of decay indicated by the cracked vase and the woman’s advanced years. The vase is beautiful because it is flawed and because the old woman’s activity endears it, and her, to us; she is still creating things of beauty, and a cracked vase may yet see the flowering of roses.
Life goes on, then. We do and must continue. So what is continuity, in terms of the aspects these haiku have exemplified? Well, I think each of the qualities mentioned in the introduction (resolve, steadiness, endurance) have been prevalent, as well as persistence, variety, community and consistency. There’s logic, too, of an implicit kind and even our existence may possess the same urgency as nature, despite our contradictions and in the midst of uncertainty and suffering.
1: The New Haiku, ed. by John Barlow and Martin Lucas (Snapshots, 2002), p30.
2: Kokako 4 (2006), p9.
3: The New Haiku, p85.
4: The Iron Book of British Haiku, ed. by David Cobb and Martin Lucas (Iron, 1998), p27.
5: A New Resonance 3 – Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, ed. by Jim Kacian and Dee Evetts (Red Moon, 2001), p42.
6: Modern Japanese Haiku – An Anthology, ed. by Makoto Ueda (University of Toronto Press, 1976), p79.
7: Haiku Moment – An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku, ed. by Bruce Ross (Tuttle, 1993), p250.
8: Modern Japanese Haiku, p 81.
9: The New Haiku, p58.
10: A New Resonance 3, p40.
11: Modern Japanese Haiku, p113.
12: Ibid., p122.
13: The New Haiku, p62.
14: The Iron Book of British Haiku, p40.
15: The New Haiku, p101.
16: South by South East Vol. 9, No: 2 (2002), p27.
17: The Iron Book of British Haiku, p46.
18: World Haiku Review Vol. 6, No: 4 (2008).
20: Haiku Zbornik (2008), p38.
Editor’s note: Owen Bullock was born and bred in Cornwall and has lived in New Zealand since 1989. He has won awards for his poetry and is widely published in New Zealand and overseas. He has been an editor of several magazines, including Poetry NZ and Kokako. Owen has published poetry, haiku, fiction and non-fiction. From 2015 he has lived in Canberra, Australia, where he is undertaking a PhD in creative writing. Read more at Owen’s Showcase page.