October 25: My father’s birthday, and a brief discourse on ambiguity

if my father were here —
dawn colors
over green fields

— Issa, translated by David Lanoue

It’s my father’s birthday, the first since he died in February. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that I discovered this haiku of Issa’s yesterday.

It’s also interesting to try to decide what Issa meant by “if my father were here.” First of all, is his father dead or just not present with Issa at this moment? (I happen to know, biographically, that he was dead, but not everyone who reads this haiku would know that.)

And secondly — if his father were here, then what? If his father were here he would appreciate the dawn colors? If his father were here he would tell Issa to stop mooning around writing poetry about sunrises and get a real job? If his father were here — full stop: painful (or otherwise) train of thought interrupted by sight of lovely landscape?

Maybe the meaning is more clear in the Japanese. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the haiku is meant to open the mind of the reader to thoughts of his or her father, not tell them anything in particular about Issa’s.

Overall the haiku gives the impression both of being deeply personal and also of belonging not just to Issa but to everyone who reads it. Everyone has a father and everyone has been separated from him at some point. But that experience doesn’t have the same meaning to everyone.

This ambiguity, this refusal of the poet to constrain the imaginative options of the reader, is really central to haiku. They are short. You can’t say much in them, and you’re not supposed to. If you find yourself getting frustrated while writing haiku because you can’t say enough (never happens to me, nuh-uh, no way), you need to start thinking about what you’re trying to say that doesn’t need to be said. There is a lot that doesn’t need to be said.

Haiku should be full of space, at least as full of space as words. The reader should be able to sit in them for a while, and breathe, and hear herself think.

my father’s disappointment —
the first frost
melts beneath my finger




in memoriam david allen 10/25/1939 – 2/12/2010

7 thoughts on “October 25: My father’s birthday, and a brief discourse on ambiguity

  1. Good morning, Melissa,

    My condolences to you in your missing of your father. All the dates that first year afterwards…I grieved so for my father, who died in 1983, and my mother, who died in 2004. Some of this was fatigue from the good caregiving years. Now I am learning how love endures and keeps growing. Take good care of yourself…that’s what I hear my parents saying to me.

    Blessings, Ellen

  2. Taking off from Issa:

    if our fathers were here–
    in the autumn mist
    nothing but whispers

    Still, here we are, pulling threads out of our memories, weaving in words what perhaps they would have loved to hear. But then again, perhaps they are among us.

    First off, my condolences, Melissa. I like your haiku. I suppose the frost melted before he died. Or is it still lodged in the heart?

    My father died twenty years ago, my mother five years later and my husband followed in her wake after nine months. Looking back, I feel I haven’t grieved enough or at all. I was too overwhelmed by my duty to carry on with life as they would have wanted me to do.

    Today, my grieving seems too distant to be real but I often catch it oozing out of my writing. This year, after twenty years, my last moments with my father in the ambulance cab on our way to the ER (posted in my other blog) finally gelled into an essay. For the first time, I understood him as I began to find clarity as well in most of life that I always thought ambiguous (to borrow your term). Perhaps, one grows up or grows old accepting the duality of things–I now tend to perceive the opposite poles in feelings and in the nature of things.

    And because Issa is part of this conversation, I’d like to throw in what his haiku means to me. I think it is a moment, as a haiku must be–whether in reality Issa was simply watching dawn rise, or just hit by a spasm of longing for his father or maybe both. Juxtaposed in a haiku, both complete the experience of the moment. And to me, it ends there. On a broader scale, it could be that Issa and his father used to rise at dawn to work in the ricefields, something common in Asian countries. His longing then is both for his father and his childhood both gone yet dawn remains glorious–now a source of his pain.

    Thank you again, for this space, for drawing out with your “discourses” our own thoughts that would have been languishing in the pit.


    In case you’d like to read it, here’s a link to that personal essay on my father I mentioned:


    • Wow, Alegria. What an amazing essay… I am so moved by your experience. Thanks for sharing.
      Thanks also for your haiku here and your long, thoughtful comment.
      I think you’re right that the “haiku moment” here consists of the juxtaposition of the poet’s thought of his father with his observation of the fields and the sunrise (and that was a great observation about the possibility that Issa and his father worked together in the fields at dawn, thanks for bringing that up) … I think what I was trying to get at was that in the space created by those juxtaposed things, there could be a lot of other things, things both in the poet’s mind and in the minds of his readers. And that is what really makes a great haiku, the possibilities created by that space.
      I’m still not sure exactly what is going in in the spaces in my own haiku here. I think it could take me a lifetime to figure it out. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Across the Haikuverse, no. 1 « Red Dragonfly

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