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The Art of Reading Haiku

By Harley King

Reading haiku is like viewing a photograph or a painting.  A haiku is a moment in time, isolated and held up for viewing.
How long one looks at a photograph and how much one sees depends on the viewer.  One can see only the skeleton or go further and explore the texture and surface and see meaning in the form, flesh on the skeleton.
The same is true with haiku.  We are given only the bare bones of a moment by the poet.  It is our choice as to whether we stop with the skeleton or flesh out the meaning.  Fleshing out the bare bones is the real work.  Anyone can understand the skeleton but few can create the human.  Fewer still can tell the life story of that human.  A reader of haiku is like an archeologist who creates the history of a culture from a few bones and artifacts.
One of the keys to reading haiku is understanding the limits of the form.  Haiku are very short in duration.  The moment recreated by the poet is only a few seconds long and occurs in the immediate present, but the reading and understanding can span centuries.
Haiku captures a photographic moment in seventeen syllables (jion) or less and holds it up for inspection.  There is no preaching or finger pointing.   We are simply given the immediacy of the moment.  The interpretation and understanding of that moment depends on our abilities and experiences.
When a photographer tries to isolate a moment, he takes hundreds of photos from varying angles and distances, then selects the one or two that best capture the moment.
Michael McClintock creates this same feeling of angles and distances in the following haiku:
a poppy...
a field of poppies!
the hills blowing with poppies!1
This haiku contains three photographic angles of the same object.  First, we have a poppy — a single gorgeous poppy.  Everything focuses on it.  The surrounding area is blurred.  Looking up from the poppy, we see a whole field of poppies.  We are astounded.  The photograph has shifted focus.  Our view once singular is now many.  But the haiku does not stop there; it takes us beyond the field to the hills.  It has expanded our vision, changed focus yet a third time.
 On the first reading one can quickly observe the change in focus.  We can see the poet adjusting his lens.  The reader, though, shouldn’t stop there.  
On a different level we are talking about the angles and distances in our lives.  Most of us see only ourselves.  We focus on our needs, our desires, our beauty.  The haiku starts where we are — focusing on ourselves.  Suddenly it shifts to those around us.  What surprise and joy we feel in seeing these others!  We are not alone.  But before we are allowed to become to cozy with our friends and neighbors, to become cliquish, the poem abruptly shifts focus.  The whole world is brought to rest before our eyes.  We see, feel and experience a oneness with the universe.  We are part of an organic whole touched by the wind.
Another key to reading haiku is respecting and understanding its perspective.  In fiction, the physical world is normally used to build the stage, to set the mood for the important events and characters.  The physical world plays a supporting role to the story line.  Haiku, on the other hand, places the greatest emphasis on the physical  world.  The physical world is not used to set the stage for greater things to come, but rather is of value in and of itself.
Haiku does not express emotion from the inside out by displaying the mind of a character.  Haiku builds the emotional thrust, makes the artistic statement from the outside in, from the physical world to the mind and heart of the reader.  All things begin, end and return to the physical.  A haiku by Anita Virgil illustrates this focus on the physical world.  
not seeing
the room is white
until the red apple2
This haiku brings to mind the immediacy of a still life painting.  We have a large red juicy apple in the middle of a white room.  One visualizes a canvas of white with a red apple in the middle.  The phrase, “not seeing”, opens up new vistas and carries us beyond the still life.
Too many of us move through our world so busy with private thoughts that we hardly notice the small things.  We are so absorbed in the mental world of our dreams that we forget the physical world around us.  We are so caught up in ourselves that we forget life’s true value.
What have I missed today?  What have I failed to see because I was too busy running from one meeting to another.  There is so much we don’t see — that we don’t know or comprehend.  And yet sometimes the slightest element can trigger new understandings, new breakthroughs in knowledge.
Like a good photographer or painter, the poet created a picture in our mind.  The white and red provide sharp contrast.  The image is stark — bare except for the apple and the wall.  One almost expects to see an unshaded light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a dirty child in torn clothes sitting on the edge of an unmade bed.  And yet for a moment the child overcomes her surroundings.  She sees value in the whiteness because she sees the apple.
On still another level the haiku leads us to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Too often we don’t know what paradise is until we have tasted the fruit of good and evil.  Although our eyes may be open, our innocence is lost.  Here the knowledge of the apple has made us see the whiteness of the wall, the paradise lost.
A third key to understanding haiku is an appreciation of the role of the reader.  In fiction the reader is led past the stumbling blocks, guided through the maze and handed his feelings.  Good fiction builds the world for the reader.
Haiku, on the other hand, do not take the reader inside the character or setting.  Haiku point the way and the reader must take the journey himself.  The length and depth of the journey the reader travels depends entirely on the reader.  The understanding of haiku depends on the skill of the reader in interpreting the road signs.
John Wills in the following haiku presents us with the road signs but it is up to us to read them and journey into the world they suggest.
november evening
the faintest tick of snow
upon the cornstalks3
Autumn is the pensive month — the time of year when everything is dying.  A time for taking stock of what has occurred during the past year.  A time for assessing.
In this haiku Wills establishes a pensive mood with the first line — “november evening.”  The days have grown shorter.  Darkness is abroad.  The air is cool, almost cold.  The poet has put a jacket on to keep out the cold and to protect himself from the depressing vibrations in the air.
We can see the poet deep in his own thoughts standing at the edge of his fields.  His thoughts are on the past year — the good times and the bad.  He is taking stock of the situation.  Winter’s coldness is approaching.  The poet, though, is ready; the harvest has been a good one.
In this picture we also have a feeling of serenity.  The poet is at peace with the world.  The moon is looming large and its whiteness enhances the whiteness of the snow.
Soon the hopes, dreams, frustrations and fears of the past year will be buried in the whiteness of the snow.  “The faintest tick of snow” is only a forewarning.  The haziness of late autumn will soon disappear with the coming of winter.  All of our sorrows will be buried under layers of cold snow.  Our heads will clear in the freshness of the air.
There is a feeling of melancholy, of loss, in this haiku because we can not retrieve what is past.  All the sweat and labor that went into making up the past year is gone and we have only our memories.  Time is so short.
It seems like only yesterday when we plowed the earth, planted the crop and cultivated it.  We watched over it as it grew, worrying about the weather and whether there would be too much rain or not enough.  Then we waited and watched for the corn to dry.  Can we get the harvest in before the first snow?
All that is past now.  Another year’s labor is gone.  The time has come for withdrawing, for hibernating under the snow.
Reading haiku is as much an art as writing it.  The reader needs to pause and listen to the silences, to feel the spaces between the words, and to journey to the depths of the many multi-colored worlds.
1Michael McClintock. The Haiku Anthology, Cor Van Den Heuvel, editor. Simon and Schuster, Inc. New York, 1986. p. 145.
2Anita Virgil. The Haiku Anthology, Cor Van Den Heuvel, editor. Simon and Schuster, Inc. New York, 1986. p. 269.
3John Wills. The Haiku Anthology, Cor Van Den Heuvel, editor. Simon and Schuster, Inc. New York, 1986. p. 310.
— Harley King
© 2009 by Harley King