July 10: 1-5: The Technique of Yugen

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

Jane:
“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

*

Me:

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

bedtime
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

July 4: 1-16: Fireflies and Freedom

Happy Independence Day, to all the Americans out there. And to all the rest of you … enjoy your freedoms too.

In that vein …

“fireflies are indeed a fascinating topic. of course, they allow total freedom.”

— Scott Metz

1-4.

on the same wind
fireworks
and fireflies

shining
as if you weren’t there
fireflies

fireflies
spending the night
for the first time

the moon
waxing and waning
fireflies

5-8.

never to know
about fireflies
mayflies

bees
wits unsettled
by fireflies

reciting
multiplication tables
fireflies

fever dream
a thousand fireflies
breathing

9-12.

death
the consolation of
fireflies

white pebbles
imagining the afterlives
of fireflies

bitter oranges
spitting out the seeds
at fireflies

sweet jam
at the breakfast table
last night’s fireflies

13-16.

trust
a hand cupped
around a firefly

innocence
spending money
on fireflies

ignorance
looking away
from fireflies

chained men
the light from
fireflies

July 2: Lost

I’m not in the mood to write haiku today.

Well, okay, I will probably write one, because I promised myself I would write one every day for a year. But I doubt it will be anything you will want to see.

I’m feeling a little pressed for time these days, and (as usual) very bad at managing it. I write long essays on this blog and respond to comments at ridiculous length while the to-do list keeps getting longer. The to-do list of important stuff. Stuff I’m getting graded on and paid for. (And yes, I am still Western enough to consider that stuff more important than stuff I just love to do.)

So here’s a Real Poem (as opposed to, you know, those fluffy little haiku things) I wrote a while back and did some half-hearted tinkering with recently. It needs something — probably a Real Poet to take it apart and put it back together again. But we do what we can.

*

I will write a poem
about the loss
of poetry.

What do we have instead of poetry?
Slick thoughts,
Puddling on the surface of our minds:
A seamless liquid spreading over the page.

Instead of —
A lithe sleeping animal curling its back in ecstasy,
Unfurling its claws one by one,
Spiking holes in our perception.

This is not what I meant to write,
And it is not
poetry.

July 1: 1-4: The Techniques of Wabi and Sabi

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

Jane:

The Technique of Sabi


“… [T]he Japanese have maintained for centuries that no one can really, truly comprehend what sabi really is and thus, they change its definition according to their moods. Bill Higginson, in The Haiku Handbook, calls sabi – ‘(patina/loneliness) Beauty with a sense of loneliness in time, akin to, but deeper than, nostalgia.’ Suzuki maintains that sabi is ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude’ but that it can also be ‘miserable,’ ‘insignificant,’ and ‘pitiable,’ ‘asymmetry’ and ‘poverty.’ Donald Keene sees sabi as ‘an understatement hinting at great depths.’ So you see, we are rather on our own with this!

I have translated this as: sabi (SAH-BEE)- aged/loneliness – A quality of images used in poetry that expresses something aged or weathered with a hint of sadness because of being abandoned. A split-rail fence sagging with overgrown vines has sabi; a freshly painted picket fence does not.

rocky spring
lips taking a sip
from a stone mouth

coming home
flower
by flower”

[Note: In Jane’s book “Writing and Enjoying Haiku” (published later than and containing a revised version of this essay) she gives the example haiku for sabi as:

listening ears
petals fall into
the silence]


The Technique of Wabi


“The twin brother to sabi … can be defined as ‘(WAH-BEE) — poverty — Beauty judged to be the result of living simply. Frayed and faded Levis have the wabi that bleached designer jeans can never achieve.’ Thus one can argue that the above haiku samples are really more wabi than sabi – and suddenly one understands the big debate. However, I offer one more ku that I think is more wabi than sabi because it offers a scene of austere beauty and poignancy.

parting fog
on wind barren meadows
birth of a lamb”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

More on wabi and sabi:

I think that when Jane originally wrote this the concepts of wabi and sabi (or wabi-sabi, the way they’re usually conjoined and made into one concept these days) were not really familiar to Americans. Then, of course, a segment of the interior design industry got hold of it and the next thing you knew there were entire shelves of the home-decorating section at Barnes & Noble dedicated to explaining how to improve your home by bringing home junky things from garage sales (or pre-distressed knickknacks from Target), arranging them artistically on your coffee table, and telling everyone they were part of your Japanese Zen aesthetic.

I’m being facetious. Kind of. I mean, in some ways my house is Wabi-Sabi Central, if only because I don’t have any actual money to buy shiny new stuff. (Also, shiny new stuff hurts my eyes.) Lots of my furniture was retrieved off curbs on trash day. (“Oh look! Another not-completely-broken chair that doesn’t match any of my other chairs! Score!”)

I buy all my clothes at thrift stores so I never have to worry about breaking in my jeans. I like museums and antique stores because they’re full of worn-out objects that lots of other people have touched and left psychic imprints on, and I would love to bring home more of these objects — you know, like beautifully weathered old maple furniture, and frayed hundred-year-old quilts made by thrifty ladies using up their fabric scraps, and those gorgeous grayish-brown stoneware jars to store your dry goods, and — what’s that you say? That stuff all costs a fortune?

Yeah, see, that’s the problem with wabi-sabi — once everyone started thinking how great it was to have worn-out old stuff, the worn-out old stuff got really expensive. And it all started feeling a little trite and silly, this frantic rush to spend lots of money to make your house look like you were impoverished.

But that surface interior-decorating concept of wabi-sabi isn’t — I know, I know — what it’s really about. What it is about, exactly — as Jane points out — nobody exactly knows, and the Japanese, I believe, are not all that eager to explain — detailed explanations, obviously, not being very Zen. I did find a really cool essay on the subject by someone who appears to be an American tea expert (tea ceremony master? hard to tell from the site). Here are some of his or her thoughts on the matter (it’s a long and really interesting essay, so as usual I recommend reading the whole thing even though — sigh — I know nobody will):

“Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. … It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. … My favorite Japanese phrase for describing wabi-sabi is ‘natsukashii furusato,’ or an old memory of my hometown. …

“Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquillity, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. …

Sabi by itself means ‘the bloom of time.’ It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust — the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting. … An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America’s contribution to the evolution of sabi. … We seek sabi in antiques and even try to manufacture it in distressed furnishings. True sabi cannot be acquired, however. It is a gift of time. …

Wabi-sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, which was brought from China to Japan by Eisai, a twelfth-century monk. Zen, with its principles of vast emptiness and nothing holy, stresses austerity, communion with nature, and above all, reverence for everyday life as the real path to enlightenment.”

— From noble harbor, “What is Wabi-Sabi?

So. Now that we are all hopelessly confused (and have concluded that wabi-sabi and haiku have a lot in common, chiefly the complete inability of any two people to agree on a definition of them) … on to the poetry.

your roses
how few petals
remain

the steam
from the kettle
floating dreams

one petal
on the tablecloth
your name

the empty bench
the wind sweeps away
memories

I had to throw this in … this is the most wabi-sabi-ish place I’ve ever seen. It’s part of the ruins of an old hotel that are now in the middle of a state park. This structure was a fish hatchery on a trout pond. You can click on it to get a much larger, more interesting view.