July 10: 1-5: The Technique of Yugen

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

“Another of these Japanese states of poetry which is usually defined as ‘mystery’ and ‘unknowable depth.’ … In my glossary I am brave enough to propound: ‘One could say a woman’s face half-hidden behind a fan has yûgen. The same face half-covered with pink goo while getting a facial, however, does not.’ … (Jeanne Emrich … suggests one can obtain yûgen by having something disappear, or something appear suddenly out of nowhere, or by the use of night, fog, mist, empty streets, alleys, and houses. Using the sense-switching technique can create an air of mystery because of the information from the ‘missing’ sense.)

tied to the pier
the fishy smells
of empty boats”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques



I am even more at sea with this concept than I was with wabi-sabi, because I’d never heard of it before (which seems like a major fail on my part, fascinated as I have been for some time with Japanese aesthetics). I also don’t have anything concrete to associate it with, the way I associate wabi-sabi with images of actual objects like rough pottery or weathered wood or faded jeans.

I did my usual thing and noodled around on the Internet to see if someone could give me a better idea of what this was. Good old Wikipedia explained patiently to me that:

“In the Chinese philosophical texts the term was taken from, yūgen meant ‘dim,’ ‘deep’ or ‘mysterious.’ In the criticism of Japanese waka poetry, it was used to describe the subtle profundity of things that are only vaguely suggested by the poems. …

Yugen suggests that beyond what can be said but is not an allusion to another world. It is about this world, this experience. All of these are portals to yugen:

” ‘To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds. And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo.’ — Zeami Motokiyo”

— Wikipedia, Japanese Aesthetics
(italics mine)

That definitely got me closer, especially the part about suggesting beyond that which can be said. Lately I have been having a lot of conversations about, and reading and thinking a lot about, the idea that haiku are just as much (or more) about what is not said in them as what is. The empty space outside the syllables — it has real content. I find my haiku are stronger the more willing I am to let that empty space exist and acknowledge that it is doing the same work as the actual words I write.
Urban Dictionary, of all places, got me even closer to an understanding of what yugen might be:
“Yugen is at the core of the appreciation of beauty and art in Japan. It values the power to evoke, rather than the ability to state directly. The principle of Yugen shows that real beauty exists when, through its suggestiveness, only a few words, or few brush strokes, can suggest what has not been said or shown, and hence awaken many inner thoughts and feelings.”

— Urban Dictionary, yugen (italics mine)
Okay, so now I think I might be starting to get it … though I’m still a little nervous about writing haiku based on this concept in case someone who actually understands it stumbles across them and mocks me relentlessly. But I guess I’ll have to take my chances …
afternoon sun
in the shop window
I see not-me

rising tide
the beach forgets
we were here

your face replaced
by a blank screen

looking out
the vine-covered window
hints of weather

thin blue air
from the mountain’s top
the unseen bottom

14 thoughts on “July 10: 1-5: The Technique of Yugen

  1. Hi Mel,

    Great post – the concept of ‘yugen’ makes me think immediately of the impressionist painters actually, and it sounds just as difficult, to put so much suggestion in such a short piece, because wth haiku, our canvas is pretty small!

    (& for me, the beach, window & mountain ku definitely seem to have it)

      • The post-impressionists are some of my favorites too. I was at the Chicago Art Institute a couple of months ago and discovered Vuillard. They have a gigantic landscape by him (http://www.artic.edu/artaccess/AA_Impressionist/pages/IMP_12_lg.shtml) I could have stared at all day, and some great smaller paintings too. I mean obviously I love Cezanne and Van Gogh and Rousseau but I am so familiar with them now that they don’t surprise me much any more — Vuillard for some reason was kind of a shock to my system. That landscape was ALL about what you couldn’t see in it.

        And then there’s the Fauvists…oh my God. They are not so much yugen, obviously. 🙂 BUT … Basically, I could have stayed all day in the “European Art 1900-1950” gallery. There was one Chagall I stood in front of and cried for five minutes. REALLY have to get back there.

        • Oh Man! How has Vuillard flown under my radar all this time? His paintings -his digitally reproduced computer images of paintings- grab me in the gut in the same way as paintings by Cezanne or Matisse (two of my all time favorites). I mean that in a good way, mind you, if there is a good way to be grabbed in the gut. His paintings strike me visually as sort of a mix of those two with a teeny bit of Van Gogh and maybe some Toulouse-Lautrec too.

          Anyhow, sorry for jacking your comment section. I get excited about the topic!

          • Hey, I’m the one who got sidetracked with Vuillard enthusiasm. Yeah, when I look at his stuff I’m like, He’s not more famous WHY? I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him either … it makes you realize how random reputation is …

  2. Thanks, Ash and Emma. (Down Under is representing today I see. 🙂 )

    Ash — The Impressionists are an interesting comparison, I can see what you mean there. That gives me something more concrete to attach the concept to. Glad you think I got at it in at least a few of these (and I agree with you that those are the stronger ones in this grouping).

    Emma — Thanks for the kind words, I’m flattered you like my work when yours is so strong … I meant to comment on your latest haiga when I caught it last night but found I had too many thoughts to adequately corral them late at night. 🙂 Will stop back later today I hope …

  3. Many thanks Melissa, though I’ll be the first to admit my stuff is pretty hit and miss – particularly now while Im thumping through another degree. But gawd I love the genre.

    And very cool – you’ve helped me find another Australian haiku blogger (we’re a rare breed). Ashley, Im going to add you to my Australian haiku links if thats ok with you.

  4. And, others… Gauguin (Pont-Aven & Tahiti), Caillebotte, Turner, Sisley, Manet, and Renoir, Mary Cassatt, and… this appeal for light and painting outside, the exquisite fragmented light, all an atmosphere created from “the tiny” to some firecracker.
    Haiku has that, ok. Can words be precise enough to “picture” the light sixty times per day, though? Not too sure. But, it can express the mood.
    Hum, Monet and Giverny, the Japanese bridge in his garden, the nympheas, his house in the flowers…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s