In the Eye of the Beholder: Haiku interpretation

by Michael Dylan Welch

The Japanese poet Seisensui has described haiku as an “unfinished” poem, not in the sense that it’s incomplete or inadequate, but in how it requires the reader to complete the poem in his or her heart and mind. Those who dwell in the writing and reading of haiku know this. Such a responsibility seems to be more true with haiku than any other kind of poetry. This is partly what I believe Czesław Miłosz meant when he described haiku as “extra-literary”, not just to anticipate the seasonal reference and the effect of the two-part juxtapositional structure but for readers to enter into the poem so deeply that they experience what the poet experienced and profoundly share the poet’s emotions.

As such, haiku writers can gain extra meanings and reverberations through a careful cultivation of ambiguity — even while too much ambiguity can be unhelpful and confusing. One risk that haiku poems therefore take is that a reader may apprehend a poem in a way that differs greatly from the poet’s intent. Or, if the poet claims to have no particular intent, or not care if the poem is interpreted in multiple ways, the poem may suffer from having too many possible meanings, or even conflicting meanings.

Consider the following poem by Mary Ellen Rooney, published in the 2011 Haiku Society of America members’ anthology, In Pine Shade (page 38):

                theatre dark
                the child releases fireflies
                from her jar


At first glance this poem feels magical and joyful. How wonderful that a child should wish to share her joy at seeing fireflies by releasing them into a dark space where many people are present, such as in a theatre. However, another reader might be appalled at the child’s seeming selfishness or short-sightedness for releasing the fireflies in an enclosed human space where surely they will die. How thoughtless! After their brief show for the superficial and unnatural benefit of human observers, the fireflies will undoubtedly not be able to find their way outside where they could thrive, and live out their typical year of life.

So is the poem delightful or offensive? Whimsical or distasteful? These are perhaps extreme ways to interpret the poem, and one way to appreciate the experience might be through the possibility that the poet intended both meanings. Or, if the poet did not intend both meanings, which one was her intent? Or, since haiku is often in the eye of the beholder, what is the reader’s preference? Does the chosen interpretation therefore reveal more about the reader than it does about the writer?

Yet another intent might be that the theatre is not real, but just a metaphor, and that the child is releasing the fireflies back into the wild where the darkness is equated to being as dark as the inside of a theatre. But most likely that’s a stretch. I remember William J. Higginson reminding me that words in haiku always denotate before they connotate. In other words, the standard dictionary meaning has to work first before any secondary or metaphorical meanings might possibly come to play. Or as Alan Shapiro once said in Rattle, “I’ve adapted the principle of our legal system, of presuming innocent until proven guilty, to this: That we should presume that details in a poem are literal until proved figurative”. But even without the idea of “theatre” merely as metaphor, which of the other two meanings was the intent? And could it be that one or the other meaning was not even anticipated at all? And if so, as a result, does the poem stumble?

Haiku observers have often said that ambiguity is useful in haiku, enabling reverberations and oscillations of meaning to give the poem energy. So ambiguity can be good — I like to call it perpetrated ambiguity. But I would say not too much. One wants to control ambiguity so that one can prevent misreadings. This is part of the process of taking a poem from private significance to public clarity, to anticipate how the words might be received by people with different cultural perspectives, geographical locations, or personal histories — or simply to anticipate how particular words might have different meanings than what you might wish them to mean. And by “meaning” I also mean “effect”, which can be emotional and experiential. Creating meaning is a skill that takes practice, it seems to me, but is well worth cultivating.

Yet the reader has a responsibility too, to go to where the poet is, and not always expect the poem to explain itself with so much obviousness that it loses its engagement. I’ll cite an example from my own history of commenting on haiku, and how I initially missed the poet’s clearly intended meaning. On a Facebook discussion page I once offered commentary on the following poem by Robert Seretny originally published in Frogpond 34:1, Winter 2011:

                downgraded hurricane
                combers hiss
                back to the sea

I’m now a little embarrassed by my hasty commentary, but I’ll share it here as a way, I hope, to be instructive. I had originally written the following, where my first sentence is utterly incorrect, meaning that everything thereafter went in a wrong direction: Combers means, of course, beachcombers. Hiss is an unusual choice of words. But the point is that now that the hurricane is downgraded, the beach won’t be as ripe for beachcombing, so no wonder the beachcombers are hissing! The clue to understanding the word “hiss” lies in the word “downgraded”. Perhaps the beachcombers were initially disgruntled that a hurricane was going to keep them from their habit. So maybe they should be happy that the hurricane was downgraded. But perhaps they are now upset that there wasn’t a hurricane because now the beach won’t be nearly as interesting to go beachcombing at if there’s not such a powerful storm. That, to me, explains “hiss”. The poem strikes me as very carefully crafted.

Well, it was even more well-crafted than I realised. I should have paid more attention to the word “hiss”, because it doesn’t make sense that beachcombers would need to “hiss” at anything. I was simply trying too hard to explain “hiss”, and missed the poem’s real meaning. Indeed, “combers” is a word for waves that have reached their peak and have broken into foam, thus sounding like hissing. I don’t know how I missed or did not discover this meaning, but the word “combers” is not common where I live, or at least not to me. So much for my initial thought that “of course” combers means beachcombers. Still, I appreciated this poem despite my misreading of it (some poetry critics take misreading as a positive, mind you, and as a source of potential creativity — in The Anxiety of Influence Harold Bloom talks about what he calls “misprision”, or situations where writers deliberately or accidentally misinterpret prior works in order to make new or innovative works). I now feel certain that beachcombers were not intended at all, but the poem still portrays the waves after the hurricane in a sympathetic and arresting way.

Whatever one does with haiku, it is worthwhile both as a writer and as a reader to pay close attention to one’s writing and reading, and for readers to spend more time with a poem if any element might be puzzling. We might well find a great deal of beauty that goes beyond just the eye of the beholder.

Postscript: As an addendum to the preceding short essay, I’d like to share some Facebook commentary made on one of my poems on 17 January 2021, for which I’m grateful. It appeared on the Triveni: World Haiku Utsav page, initially posted by Ashish Narain Haiku:

the weight
of the trillium
I shouldn’t have picked

Michael Dylan Welch     

A deceptively simple ku by a poet I greatly respect. It’s only when one realises that Trillium symbolises the Christian holy trinity and a sense of conscientiousness that the beauty of the poem really comes out. Some legends also say that picking up white trillium from a mountainside brings about rain. The flower is the official flower of the province of Ontario and the state of Ohio, and is found in plenty in the Appalachian mountains in North America. Michael therefore cleverly uses the flower to both ground the ku in a particular geography and layer the poem to allow for multiple interpretations.

Observe how the poem combines two ideas (picking a trillium, weight) into a single sentence without a strong kire and avoids the common phrase and fragment structure. Michael also uses two “the” in the ku, something we are advised to avoid. This shows that a good poet often steps out of the “rules” to create beauty that is still true to the spirit of haiku.

Some of the comments in response included the following (lightly edited here):

Kala Ramesh: “Nice interpretation.”

Neena Singh: “Loved your comments which made the ku more interesting.”

Vijay Prasad: “The great ones have, once in a while, been trying new things, expanding and moving outside their ‘comfort zone.’ I have read its playing ‘one’s edge’ that is often required. It implies a willingness to go to the place where the familiar begins to crumble; where comfort is challenged. Rules are for guidance but not to choke creativity.”

Richa Sharma: “Rules by masters were probably framed for future art to reinvent itself further and further. Maybe, we cannot have new art forms without a spirit of experimentation that is a sign of the mind’s ever widening horizon of creativity.”

Vijay Prasad: “Rules are never fully born. Ever growing, ever taking birth.”

I don’t see my poem as being any kind of experimentation, nor as breaking any particular rules. I offered the following commentary:

Thank you for posting my poem and for all the comments on it. I appreciate how this haiku has inspired various interpretations, which I think is one of the strengths of all haiku. For my part, I should say that I had no intention to invoke the holy trinity, though perhaps that’s an unavoidable overtone to the trillium flower. I was also not aware that the trillium is the official flower of either Ontario or Ohio, but was just writing about the trilliums of the Pacific Northwest (Washington state, where I live, plus British Columbia and Oregon). I certainly hadn’t intended the Appalachians, though it’s fine for readers to picture whichever locale makes sense for them regarding trilliums.

The main thing I would point out, though, not yet mentioned by anyone, is that picking trillium flowers essentially kills the plant, so not a good thing to do. For this reason, it is actually illegal to pick them. This is true in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, and apparently certain places elsewhere. So that’s part of the “weight” of my picking a trillium when I shouldn’t have, both in terms of the fact that it’s illegal and because it kills the plant. That’s the weight I bear in this poem.

I should also point out that because Japanese haiku sometimes have the kireji (cutting word) at the end of the poem, it’s perfectly normal for haiku to have just one part (as with this poem), even though having two parts is more common. One is not necessarily better than the other — but both methods still have to be done right. We should have no hesitation in writing one-part haiku, though being careful to imply something that’s outside the poem (the “juxtaposition” is with something unstated rather than stated). More of a concern is having three-part haiku, which I would say should nearly always be avoided. But having just one part is not breaking any rule.

I would also question the suggestion to avoid having “the” (or other articles) twice in haiku. If anyone is saying we should avoid this, I would disagree, and strongly. There’s nothing wrong with more than one article in a haiku, whether repeating the same article or not. We can use articles as frequently as necessary to help direct attention and emphasis. They can sometimes be omitted (that is, they are unnecessary, rather than being avoided) in the poem’s shortest fragment, as in the first line of the following example, but articles can still be used more than once, and effectively so, as done here in the second and third lines:

tulip festival —
the colours of all the cars
in the parking lot

For me, all three of these articles are essential, and all three need to be “the” rather than “a/an”. So, I don’t see myself as stepping outside any rules at all by using “the” twice in my trillium poem. I encourage everyone to rethink that supposed “rule” — even while being careful with articles.

Bottom line is that this poem is about it being illegal to pick trilliums in certain places, but even if one does not know this (or that picking the flowers kills the plant), I hope the poem still works as a tug on the conscience for picking a flower instead of letting it thrive in its natural state. Again, thanks for all the comments.

I don’t expect readers to know that picking trillium flowers apparently kills the plant or that it is illegal to pick these flowers in some locations, even though that’s what first inspired this poem. Instead, I hope the poem emphasises respect for nature and not destroying it for selfish motives.

Editor’s note: This essay was first published in Blithe Spirit 30:4, November 2020 and appears here with the permission of the author and with a new postscript. See also Misreading Haiku by the same author.

Michael Dylan Welch has been investigating haiku since 1976. He is a director for the Haiku North America conference, founder and president of the Tanka Society of America, co-founder of the American Haiku Archives, and founder/director of the Seabeck Haiku Getaway and National Haiku Writing Month. His haiku, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies in at least 22 languages. Michael lives in Sammamish, Washington, where he enjoys racquetball, skiing, travel, and reading. He maintains the Graceguts website where you can read more of his work.