the art of haiku

...matters of theart

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Suggestion in haïku through the work of Svetlana Marisova

The dictionary defines suggestion as an act of advising, inspiring, evoking, thinking of something without formulating it. It is therefore about causing a person to think something without expressing it, or, in the words of Victor Hugo, "making in the minds of others a small incision where you put an idea of yourself". In the field of haiku, this process is considered by most authors as one of the most important elements of haiku. Thus, in the presentation of the book Haiku, an anthology of short Japanese poem we read : "The haïku poetic form is the shortest in the world. As an art of  ellipse and suggestion, as a poem of the instant revealed, it seeks to awaken in us an awareness of life as a miracle." With the ellipse, it is one of the most fundamental aspects of haiku . For some authors, there's even no good haiku without suggestion. For instance, Dominique Chipot considers it as cement without which haïku "disintegrate into the depths of thought."  Dominique Chipot raises the question of suggestion in an interview given to the Journal des Grandes Ecoles, in France.

"Haiku is distinguished by its evocative power and by suggestion. It does not express a thought or a direct sense, it seeks the imaginary world of the reader. It is characterized by a withdrawal of the author who does not try to get on stage in his work. Haiku is like an inverted funnel, the share of small everyday things that will lead the reader to a wide range of feelings and senses. "Haiku is the art of transcending the mundane (...) We tend to pay attention not only to external rules but what really defines the haiku is its internal rules, secret rules. Haiku must not say everything, the ellipsis must invite the reader to unfold the world that the author was careful to withdraw. The key message of the haiku is therefore not necessarily expressed. This is a poem where silence is as important as words. In this, the haiku is a typical embodiment of Japanese culture in which exchanges are implicit and the silence of great value. (...) The haiku must first seek to suggest the direction and keep some mystery. The perfect haïku is the one who confront the ephemeral to the eternal, the place where opposites are going to connect. "

Is suggestion the soul of haiku? Can we concieve a haiku without it? Is it necessary? And what processes can give it full force? To this last question, a brief analysis of the writing of the talented New Zealand haijin, Svetlana Marisova give some answers.

The difficulty - and the beauty - of haiku, is its ability to say much in few words. The art of haiku is  for the author to search for processes and ways that will allow him to purify, to prune, to simplify the haïku by eliminating repetitions, redundancies, clumsinesses, and keeping only what's essential. This is to help him not to say everything. The haijin beginners often tend to fall into this first mistake by succumbing to the temptation to say everything and by piling up words and images in 17 syllables.  With practice, the haiku poets will learn to get rid of the superfluous and with a variety of processes (removal of determinants and repetitions, use of the ellipse, precise choice of words ...) but also by using suggestion. But does that mean that suggestion is a must?

Some have insisted that the haiku should not contain any hidden meaning or double meaning. They quote a remark made ​​by Shiki about Bashô's old mare, "The meaning of this verse is exactly what it expresses, it has no other meaning, no special meaning "or they repeat Bashô himself who defined haiku as "just what happens in such a place, at a particular time. "

Take for example this haiku of Issa (1763-1828) :

at the bathhouse
from one head to another
a butterfly flutters

We must avoid interpreting or reasoning too much. A scholar may study the complete life of the author and find in this particular haïku hidden messages, metaphors, keys that are needed to explain to readers about what Issa really wanted to express through this haiku, a haïku which became for him as complex  and mysterious as a puzzle. But it is not. Issa says nothing else than what he says. His haiku is not a puzzle to solve. However, it does not say everything, just the main thing.

There are some haiku that don’t seem to suggest anything, or at least not deliberately, but tend instead to show things as they are, by favoring the obvious, the simple, the pure description and to leave very little possibility of interpretation to the reader. These haiku are not necessarily of lesser value. Authors choose to go straight to the heart and senses of the reader rather than to his intellect. The ability of deduction, imagination, are not particularly called upon. This does not mean that the readers can not set in a particular haiku a part of their own imagination or that they can't visualize things that are not there, but simply that the author chose to depict the scene as it is, that there are no hidden messages, symbols or ideas cleverly encrypted in it. The strength of these haiku is in their simplicity, in their truth without artifice, in their obviousness.

Conversely, many haiku poets offer a less accessible writing, a more hermetic, "poetic" one.

For example, this haiku by Fuyuno Niji (1943-2002):

Double-flowered cherry -
the corner of the corridor
looks like a cocoon

We will not venture to establish any relationships between the qualitative superiority of one another, each type of haïku style housing real gems. These haiku are similar to Western contemporary poetry and are conspicuous by their evocative power. However, this approach can lead to the creation of abstruse, hermetic haikus, unable to produce any emotion. The haijin must also be wary of this pitfall, by taking care not to make his poems too inaccessible. André Duhaime, when talking about the main "rules" of haiku, gives this advice "Never use obscure allusions : the real haiku is intuitive, it is not intellectual or abstract."

Anyway, whatever the degree of complexity or accessibility of their haiku, most authors resort to suggestion. For this, they rely on the collective memory and common cultural references of the readers to the multiple meanings of the words they use and to their connotations, but especially to the process of juxtaposition.
The Japanese haiku poets use the term yugen , defined as "the art of suggesting a state without describing it. The yugen enhances the power to evoke, rather than the power to state things directly. It is based on the idea of highlighting the "real beauty" by the suggestiveness. Just a few words, a few brush strokes, to suggest what was not said or shown, and so generate an avalanche of thoughts and feelings "

There are many ways to suggest ideas, images or emotions that are not expressed in a haiku. The first is to play on the multiple meanings of words, to use words or expressions that carry a variety of senses, or even just because they strongly connotate and provide hints, innuendo or evocations. The haijin, disposing of a wide variety of similar words chooses one word over another not only because it expresses better what he means but sometimes because it allows to say more, to imply, to generate more varied images and ideas, because the word he chooses gives more depth to his haiku thanks to the connotations it carries.

Another method consists in placing historical, artistic or cultural references in his haïku, to pick from a collective cultural heritage. This could be a part of a song, a saying, a proverb or a famous speech, a reference to a historical character or personality, in a word, any element of a given culture.

Similarly, the kigo or season word can play a similar role when well used.  "Japanese poets are very attached to the season word, which, for the Japanese, has a strong power of suggestion." explains Dominique Chipot. With a huge repertoire of season words, the Japanese can easily suggest emotions and ideas to their readers. Alain Kervern even adds in «Why do the non-Japanese  write haiku?» that "Japanese is a language of ambiguity. As soon as you combine a phrase with words, you create ambiguity. This gives the japanese haikus a dimension that can not be found in other languages. " Outside Japan, however, haiku poets can also use highly evocative season words that will allow them to drag emotions, memories, images that can strengthen their haiku.
Each author of haiku, whatever his country and his culture of origin and / or adoption, has a considerable number of season words that allow him to easily land a setting and locate the haiku in the time where it was created. For example, if an author of haiku speaks of the "harvest festival", any French reader will know immediately what time of year he is refering to and will share clear images, impressions and feelings. Working on kigo is a good way to suggest to readers. "The reference to the season, even if not explicitly, says Dominique Chipot, should highlight the contrast between the shortness of the moment captured in haiku and the eternal cycle of time. It is certainly not an intellectual artifice or an aesthetic game, which is often too common in the West, where the use of the season word becomes trivial: when it is a mere "weather report " without interest that is being added." The careful selection of kigo is then crucial in the art of haiku. As such, if some kigo "talk" to all mankind, others will be specific to a country, region, city, culture or folklore and will place a note of nostalgia, of exoticism or originality in the haiku.

There are many other ways to suggest.We will mainly focus on the process of juxtaposition that is perhaps the "tool" that offers the most prospects. The juxtaposition is the poetic process of placing side by side two words or phrases seemingly without any semantic links. "Something has to be expressed in A, and then another thing happens in B. All the energy and vitality of haiku depends on how the reader moves from point A to point B "(Alain Kervern). This juxtaposition will be accompanied by a kireji, a pause, a void in the haiku (materialized or not a punctuation mark or an exclamation). The kireji is this small incision Hugo mentioned, this cut which runs the suggestion. This notch, this tiny space between the lines, this small sign of the author which is more subtle than a wink or a nod .

Among the authors of contemporary haiku, it is one that is characterized precisely by its use of suggestion and juxtaposition and deserves special attention. Svetlana Marisova  is a haijin of Russian origins who emigrated very young to New Zealand. She runs as a webmaster and a publisher the site Simply Haiku with Robert D. Wilson, Sasa Vazic and Ted van Zutphen. She has also published a number of haiku of a rare strength and beauty. Here's how Robert D. Wilson, her mentor, presents her work, from the following haiku :

dérivant - / le fardeau de mon ombre / sur une éphémère

floating downstream -
the burden of my shadow
on a mayfly

«Marisova’s short poem is an activity (process)-biased haiku, in line with Basho’s teachings. It’s not object-biased, or subjective. Marisova makes good use of yugen, hinting at and suggesting, versus "telling all." Likewise, the poet uses ma (dreaming room). These two aesthetic styles play an important role in bringing to surface the unsaid. It is the un-said’s dance with the said combined with a haiku to make room for multiple interpretations. Marisova makes excellent use of the Japanese styles (aesthetic tools) that transforms haiku into a medium that says much with little, with its ability to suggest, hint at, coupled with a proper understanding of kigo.»

Wrote the artist (1617-1691) Tosa Mituoki in regards to painting, which applies to haiku as well:

“Do not fill up the whole picture with lines; also apply colors with a light touch. Some imperfection in design is desirable. You should not fill in more than a third of the background. Just as you would if you were writing poetry, take care to hold something back. The viewer, too, must bring something into it. If one includes some empty space along with an image, then the mind will fill it in.”

Consider this another haiku:

swan song ...
the limb-loosening rush
of dark feathers

chant du cygne ... / l'élan aux membres relâchés / des plumes sombres

For Robert D Wilson, this use of the juxtaposition by Svetlana Marisova is creative because it allows readers to interpret a mystery. In this particular haiku, for example, what justifies this «rush» ? Is this a white swan attacked by a black-feathered predator? Is the swan a rare black swan, and if so, what is the cause of her rush? And why this «swan song»? Will it die? If so, why is it that its members are released? Etc.. Here a single interpretation is impossible. Without necessarily any hidden message (only knowledge of the life of the author and her work could help to decrypt), there is indeed a mystery, and this is made possible by the juxtaposition of elements that complete or oppose one another, by an excellent control of what Wilson calls "the aesthetic tools."

Here are some other haiku:

autumn rain -
the colour of birdsong

pluie d'automne - / la couleur des chants d'oiseaux / maculée

morphine ...
again my dreams

morphine ... / une fois encore mes rêves / submergés

pearl diving ...
haiku and tumours
from the depths

plongée aux perles ... / les haïku et les tumeurs / des profondeurs

in the wind
what might have been ...
sleepless moon

dans le vent / ce qui aurait peu être ... / lune sans sommeil

the universe
suddenly personal ...
newborn child

l'univers / soudain personnel ... / nouveau-né

Translation amputates here twice the original haiku since it reveals my own interpretation of the poems and it is - by the very fact that it is a translation - unfaithful (a fortiori from the English language which can be so concise and so convenient). Nevertheless, we get an idea of Marisova's specific style, which proceeds by juxtaposition of images, hints, suggestion and conciseness. This is probably what I like the most in her writing, this permanent mystery, those blurred lines, this suffering and this beauty, these words that talk about the pain, the ephemeral, the wonder and the emergency.

twilight -
the chrysalis

crépuscule -
la chrysalide
prenant forme

the colour
of the blackbird's song ...
winter warmth

la couleur
dans le chant du merle ...
chaleur hivernale

this raindrop
clinging to a leaf
all day long

cette goutte d'eau
s'accrochant à une feuille
le jour durant

This last one is particularly moving. Svetlana Marisova is indeed about to have a surgery operation in Russia, due to a brain tumor. Her recent poems are marked by great sadness, a deep attachment to life, an emergency, an unquenchable thirst for images and for love. However, even a reader who does not know the situation of the author can feel the sadness and the courage in this poem. He will vaguely feel that the author does not just describe the image of a drop of water clinging to a leaf. He will be understand that the haïku is talking about fight, courage, strength and he will be affected in the deepest part of himself  by this apparently trivial image.

juicy apple
and at the core
half a worm

une pomme juteuse
et au coeur
la moitié d'un ver

blinded with tears ...
winter smoke

prenant congé
aveuglée par les larmes ...
fumée hivernale

cold morning ...
reality drifts back
as a dream

matin froid …
la réalité reflue
comme un rêve

dancing alone
in the twilight
a shadow

dansant seule
dans le crépuscule
une ombre

winter chill ...
some bird singing
her heart out

froid e l'hiver ...
quelque oiseau chantant
de tout son coeur

dormant seed,
why must you sprout
so early?

graine endormie
pourquoi dois-tu germer
si tôt ?

wintry sky ...
these dark tumours
draining light

ciel hivernal ...
ces tumeurs noires
drainant la lumière

these dark ages ...
sand waders gathering
before dawn

ces âges sombres ...
les échassiers se rassemblent
avant l'aube

I conclude with my interpretation of this last haiku. One could imagine those plovers as some creatures of the night which came, like vultures, to take advantage of this moment of rest and of this weakness. I have felt something else : in this dark period in which the author is about to face the disease, her friends gather around her to say goodbye and wish her good luck. Then comes the dawn, the time of departure and of deep sadness. I see there a moving meeting, a last farewell. In a dark and difficult moment, the birds come close to each other and unite to resist the approaching threat. Yet ,the very last word of the haiku is "dawn". No doubt that many readers will find a lot of hope in this same haiku. That's the magic of suggestion, which allows each one to make the poem his and to put part of himself in it.

Rarely putting herself on stage (or when she does, very discreetly), Svetlana Marisova knows how to leave room for the readers, how to share with them. If her haiku are so full of energy and emotion, it's probably because they carry with them as much mystery and, at the same time, as much universality.

Vincent Hoarau

A translation by Vincent Hoarau of his article originally published in the October-December 2011 issue of Gong, journal of  L'Association Francophone de Haiku.

Reprinted with permission