by Alan Summers
Haiku is perhaps more so a symbiotic type of poetry than most other genres, as its very origins – via hokku – relied on a second verse to complete an internal couplet in a much longer multi-poet multi-poem and linking form (renga, and later renku).1 We could say that haiku is a relationship of mutual benefit or dependence; that haiku is one organism and the reader at large (individuals and groups of individuals) is the second organism. There are the three kinds of relationships in symbiosis 2: Mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism, and it could be said that haiku are dominantly in the first category. Is the reader so vital and able to influence the dynamics and innovation of haiku that it remains current to society and, if so, how?
My thoughts are that the writer (collective or singular) needs to be open to co-operation with the reader as co-poet, and allow them to fill the space, be the space, and proactively fill in the spaces: As haiku evolved from Japanese verses that started a longer poem – where each verse was written by a different person – each verse has its own information, and also withholds certain information, such as an indirect link to the previous link.
So as haiku are standalone poems, that second (linking) verse is the reader themselves; they are the connecting actions. As haiku are open poems that allow the reader to compose their own insight that’s why haiku can often appear incomplete, or at least not replete with the full facts, or stuffed with description or opinion.
How to let the reader *be* in haiku
While suggestions lie in the text they are deliberately not spelt out because as readers we are surely proficient enough to work some things out for ourselves: We all have to be solvers from childhood onwards. Good haiku avoid authorial direction as a haiku is not the single voice of the writer, but of the reader-to-be also. There is usually enough to get our imagination and emotions activated as a reader to complete the story as a co-author, as a partner of equal standing to the writer. If the whole story is revealed, and dictated, to the reader, what is left for us but to be merely random bystanders, rather than participants? On one level there may be a beginning, middle and end to a haiku poem but that ending is hopefully open so we, “The Reader”, can make our own conclusions, and our own signature on it as a reader/co-author.
The trick with haiku is to turn the story into poem, and not just any poem, but one that avoids a definitive, one and only choice of interpretation narrative for the reader. Should haiku leave nothing to the reader, to refuse us the opportunity for our own interpretations, dreams, and imagination so that we are engineered into obsequiously taking a narrower route into and out of the poem? We are not reading/telling/writing a story or tale for a child who is in their early development, where they require a certain amount of logical narrative progression and conclusion. We want to trick the brain into learning and discovering new ways to grow and react, to innovate and evolve as human beings and as readers.
Haiku is currently more about the spirit and degree of resonance evoked in the mind of the reader rather than the accomplishment of having fitted it all into a precise form.
– Stephen Gill, quoted in Conjuring Haiku from the Concrete Sea of Matsuyama by Shaun McKenna, Japan Times, May 2016
We tend to want to over-explain rather than create a simple attempt to tell: Instead we must edit ourselves so we hint, and to let the reader explain to us.
– Alan Summers, from historic Facebook conversations
Haiku is often the art of implication, tension, and resonance: We bring in something lateral, something “off screen” to let the reader join up at least some of the dots, complete the incomplete, and add their own take, interpretation, and breakdown of the poem, adding their own “ending”.
The reader is the ending.
– Alan Summers, from historic Facebook conversations
English-language haiku are not statements or mere descriptions and reports: We need to avoid directing or controlling the reader. It’s the reader who should be in command, and not the original author/poet as can be the case in other poetry where the poet may command the reader. A haiku poet can want the reverse, for the reader to be in control, taking their meanings and comprehension, and life experiences to the poem. We, “The Reader”, are also units of intellect, and we will inform those haiku poems, directly, or in other ways. If we use, as poets, the horizontal and vertical axis of haiku 3 we can assist and enable the reader to see through the poem to themselves: We surely want the reader to see back to themselves?
Here are two haiku, one that’s shut off (written especially for this feature), and then one that allows space for the reader to enter:
the blue lobster
This could be problematic for someone scratching their head wondering what the heck is a ‘ghost sun’ and/or about lobsters that are blue and then turn red.
It probably requires an extensive numbert of footnotes and explanations thus making an immediate understanding impossible. See footnotes 4 & 5.
And one that successfully allows space:
room by room by room
my mother disappears
– Alan Summers 6
Haiku can work best if we pick something universal that touches every single human yet remains or helps create a reader’s own personal and private experience. Whereas we don’t all eat lobster, we all deal with loss, from parents to other family members, to friends, and eventually ourselves. No one escapes the common experience be it death itself, or a debilitating illness such as dementia.
Even if the reader veers away from the intended point of the poem, and the original event witnessed and experienced by the poet, haiku are not poems for the reader to compulsorily be ordered to follow the one way or not at all. But of course the poet, the originator of the poem, can tease the reader along and so both writer and reader grow and evolve in symbiosis.
…lesser poets might end up writing epigrammatic, didactic, or moralist three-liners, lacking what has been termed as ‘haiku spirit’.
– Ram Krishna Singh, from Writing Haiku and Tanka: Its Impact, 2015
Haiku certainly have their own genre and are not quips, idioms, ditties, epithets, axioms, platitudes, directives, statements, proverbs, caveats, homilies or hypotheses, proselytism, or persuasive arguments. As Ram Krishna Singh says about didactic verse / poetry, such poems set out to teach something to someone else other than the poet/originator themselves. Haiku give readers choices of interpretation and of adding their own internal dialogue of poetry.
Perhaps we need to unlearn in order to progress – and this is where the reader is vital: Allow the reader to remove the author. If so, a haiku will begin to form, and as a mutual benefit, where the poet grows through the reader, and readership, in turn each reader becomes stronger.
1: Link and Shift A Practical Guide to Renku Composition by Tadashi Shôkan Kondô and William J. Higginson.
2: symbiosis (ˌsɪmbɪˈəʊsɪs; ˌsɪmbaɪˈəʊsɪs)
1. (Biology) a close and usually obligatory association of two organisms of different species that live together, often to their mutual benefit
2. (Sociology) a similar relationship between interdependent persons or groups
[C19: via New Latin from Greek: a living together; see symbiont]
“Symbiōsis,” in turn, traces to “symbios” (“living together”), a combination of syn-, meaning “with,” and bios, meaning “life.”
Two organisms that live together in symbiosis may have one of three kinds of relationships: mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism. The mutualism shown by the rhinoceros and the tickbird benefits both. Riding on the rhino’s back, the tickbird eats its fill of the ticks that bother the rhino while the rhino gets warning calls from the bird when it senses danger. In commensalism, one member benefits and the other is unaffected. Certain barnacles attach themselves to whales, gaining a safe home and transportation to food-rich waters. But the whales are generally unaffected by the barnacles’ presence.
3: As proposed by Haruo Shirane: The horizontal axis represents that aspect of the poet’s consciousness that addresses the present and speaks to his contemporaries; while the vertical axis is the poet’s link to a historical, cultural, and literary past. Read the full essay, Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson & Modern Haiku Myths.
See also: More than One Fold in the Paper: Kire, kigo, and the vertical axis of meaning in haiku by Alan Summers.
5: I’ve learnt slowly that our various fellow fauna (and even flora) species can perhaps feel pain on some level. Many of us have seen lobsters whether on television or movies, or in a restaurant, where someone picks one from a fish tank to be boiled alive. “Although it can sound like lobsters are screaming in agony when they are boiled alive the sound is actually air trapped in the stomach being released and forced through the mouth. Lobsters do not have vocal chords.” Scientists discover why lobsters turn red when boiled by Sarah Knapton, Science Editor, The Telegraph April 2015.
This is a made-up haiku for this piece, but nonetheless it’s something that tugs at my conscience. But I worry when I feel I need to ‘over-explain’ that it’s not working, at least as a stand-alone haiku. Perhaps involving a prose account around the subject/topic/issue of lobsters turning a different colour when boiled might work better – it might work better in a haibun (prose + haiku).
You can test how many layers of meaning you can get, or can’t. But there is a loose seasonal aspect, perhaps not strong enough to be close to a Japanese kigo season reference, but in fact, checking, it’s definitely not a Japanese kigo appearing in a Japanese almanac, but it is a topic as lobsters are eaten in autumn, in Japan, and in earlier times the lobster taurine was “helpful in battling the summer fatigue at the beginning of autumn”.
Although not exclusively a summer topic elsewhere, that season does play a prominent part in hunting down lobsters in parts of the US for instance. Regarding boiling lobsters alive: “Boiling lobsters is banned in some parts of the world such as the Italian town of Reggio Emilia Italy where anyone caught can be fined £325. The council adopted an animal rights bylaw which said that boiling the crustaceans was “useless torture”. It has also been illegal in New Zealand since 1999.”
6: house clearance haiku by Alan Summers. First published Blithe Spirit 26.1 (March 2016), winner of a Touchstone Award 2016, The Haiku Foundation.
Extract from Touchstone Judges’ comments: “When I read haiku, I’m looking for an unexpected view on the well-known. I’m curious to learn about an open secret (after Robert Spiess). I’m looking for a simple (but not banal) and lucid language that expresses something extraordinary within the ordinary, something which I never read before in that way as well as something that is of beauty beyond time. ‘house clearance’ represents the pure power of haiku. Layers of meaning ascending from deeper layers of the mind (‘room by room by room’) in relation to existential truth (‘my mother disappears’). Perhaps one finds a human contradiction: memories can only get preserved vividly after “clearance.”
This article appears here with the author’s permission. It has been slightly amended from its original publication at the new British Haiku Society website.
Alan Summers, president of the United Haiku and Tanka Society, is a Japan Times award-winning writer; author of forthcoming Writing Poetry: the haiku way, and was featured by NHK World of Japan.
Alan has previously been a founding co-editor at Haijinx (haiku with humor) and Bones journal for contemporary haiku. His book of modern haiku, Does Fish-God Know, was published in 2012.
He now lives in the commuter town of Chippenham so he can be closer to London and certain other spots in southern England where he will start popping up as Call of the Page goes on the road, as well as by sea, air, and rail. Read more on his blogs: Area 17 and Call of the Page.