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.

Snow Country: the novel and haiku (June 30: 1-2)

I recently read the Japanese modern classic novel Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, which I recommend without reservation to anyone who likes both novels and haiku. Here’s why:

“Kawabata has been put, I think rightly, in a literary line that can be traced back to seventeenth-century haiku masters. Haiku are tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms. Thus the classical haiku characteristically fuses motion and stillness. Similarly Kawabata relies very heavily on a mingling of the senses. In Snow Country we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of the sound of running water, or, in a somewhat more elaborate figure, the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly becomes a woman’s feet. …

“The haiku manner presents a great challenge to the novelist. The manner is notable for its terseness and austerity, so that his novel must rather be like a series of brief flashes in a void.”

— Edward G. Seidensticker, from the introduction to his translation of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

I was totally fascinated by the idea of a novel inspired by haiku — two literary forms that on the surface could not possibly be more different. The novel, as it happens, is actually my favorite literary form; I just can’t write them (and believe me I’ve tried) because my attention span is not nearly long enough, which is why I write haiku instead. And much as I love the challenge of trying to recreate an experience and an insight in the few lines of a haiku, I frequently find myself frustrated by the tininess of its canvas — hence all my haiku sequences and narratives.

I love Seidensticker’s definition of haiku (another one to add to the collection on my mantelpiece) as “tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms.”

I was also really interested in Seidensticker’s further description of haiku as a fusion of “motion and stillness.” Something to think about. Does he mean literally motion and stillness, or something more like concrete images, an engagement with the physical world, vs. abstract insight or internal activity? That he then goes to equate this with “a mingling of the senses” confuses the issue further for me — does this imply that mixing senses creates a kind of movement in the poem and in the novel?

There is certainly not much literal movement in the novel; all that happens in it is that a pretentious, self-involved guy from Tokyo goes several times over several years to a mountain resort to visit a particular young geisha with whom he is — not exactly in love, but in fascination. There are only a few other characters who are named or described in any detail, and most of the book consists of conversations between the two main characters, detailed descriptions of their surroundings, and the thoughts of the male protagonist (the viewpoint is third-person limited, so we don’t get to find out what the geisha is thinking).

“Brief flashes in a void” — this is an excellent description of the overall impression the novel gives. There are the mountains, the snow, a fairly incoherent relationship between two people, all these things seeming blank and quiet, a canvas on which appear sudden splatters of awareness much like the condensed expression of awareness of a haiku, powerful, vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, feelings. They seem to be drawing the man from Tokyo forward, toward some kind of decision or personal change — though what kind, we’re not in the end quite sure. Here’s an example:

“From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back. The dark needles blocked out the sky, and the stillness seemed to be singing quietly. The trunk against which Shimamura leaned was the oldest of all. For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god.”

— Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, p. 30 (Perigee Books edition)

Here are the mixture of senses — sight, sound, touch — that Seidensticker refers to, and also the fusion of motion and stillness — this is a static picture of some trees and yet they are described in terms of active movement — they “threw up their trunks,” the needles “blocked out the sky,” they are ready, most shockingly, to be used as “a terrible weapon for some god.” There is both beauty and harshness and cruelty in this scene, as there is in the relationship between the two main characters.

There are several passages that you can easily imagine a classical haiku poet seizing on as material, like this one:

“Before a white wall, shaded by eaves, a little girl in ‘mountain trousers’ and an orange-red flannel kimono, clearly brand-new, was bouncing a rubber ball. For Shimamura, there was autumn in the little scene.”

— Kawabata, p. 109

(mountain autumn
in her new red kimono
she bounces a ball

— MLA)

or this one:

“[A building is on fire.] At the edge of the garden, withering chrysanthemums were silhouetted against the light from the inn — or the starlight. For an instant he almost thought it was the light from the fire.”

— Kawabata, p. 163

(chrysanthemums
withering in the light
from the stars

— MLA)

The final pages of the novel, the content of which I won’t discuss here because I hate spoilers, are a tour de force of sense-mixing, of powerful incongruities, of stillness and motion fused in the purest way imaginable. And the final line, just to give you a sense of how haiku-like Kawabata can be, is: “the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.” There are some modern haiku poets (and I might be one of them) for whom that would be a perfect, complete one-line haiku.

Don’t you want to go read it now instead of reading my long, boring treatise on it? Or did you stop reading my treatise a long time ago and go buy it or score it from the library? Either way, good for you.

Postscript: Via a link to “possibly related posts” at the bottom of this entry I discovered the following closely related essay by an Indian writer — she discusses both Snow Country and another Kawabata novel. Very interesting perspective.

1986

I wish you’d come see
the cat. She no longer sleeps
on the guest room bed.

This was published in my high school literary magazine, after they rejected (with actual incredulous laughter) the haiku I really liked, which I can no longer find. It featured an upturned teapot, but I can’t remember anything else about it. Just for the record, my English teacher liked it too. I feel I must say this defensively even twenty-four years after the fact. Note to self: raise this issue in next therapy session.

I remember being extremely preoccupied with counting 5-7-5 syllables when I wrote haiku in high school (and for some time beyond). Partly this was because schoolteachers tend to place a lot of emphasis on this “requirement” of haiku (I have a post about this coming up), partly it was because I had then (and still must combat now) a tendency to take rules and limits very, very seriously. I still like writing (informal) sonnets, villanelles, all sorts of poetic forms with set structures: genuine free verse seems worryingly infinite in possibility to me. If I do write free verse, I tend to place some kind of loose metrical constraints on it, just so my choice of words is narrower.

That’s pretty much where I am right now with poetry in general and haiku in particular — not tight, not loose. There are haiku “requirements” I find pleasing and like to work with: the “one-breath” idea; the idea of a “kigo” or seasonal word (but my interpretation of this is looser than the Japanese idea); the idea of a “kireji” or cutting word (but for me this means more like a word that is a hinge that holds the parts of the haiku together, or a strong, vivid word that focuses the haiku’s image); the Zen idea of a fleeting image, a glimpse, something that can be grasped all at once and doesn’t need to be analyzed. Not all my haiku have to have all these elements, but I find it helpful to keep these things in mind when I’m writing haiku, and to the extent that I’m successful in incorporating them into my haiku, the more successful I tend to feel the haiku is.

Of course, modern English haiku don’t have strict syllabic requirements, but sometimes I still like to count 5-7-5, or at least 17, just for fun, or as a challenge to myself. Though I read recently that 12 syllables is more like the ideal for an English haiku (what this is based on I have no idea), so I might play around with that for a while and see how it works.

And then again I might experiment with truly minimalist haiku: two or three words. The interesting thing about my attempting such brevity is that (as you can see from this commentary) my natural tendency is to write long. I think of haiku as a way to force myself to identify the heart of my message, to discard the extraneous verbiage that clutters my arguments and muddies my images.