There is a famous anecdote of the legendary haiku poet Basho (1644-1694). One of his disciples showed Basho his fellow’s haiku. This disciple exclaimed that the piece depicted the scene very well. Responding to this, however, Basho made a striking remark:
‘If you explain everything well (in haiku), what will remain behind?’
This comment means haiku should always, in a sense, be imperfect. Haiku poets should leave space for the readers’ imagination to be freely inspired and activated. Being imperfect does not mean being sloppy or half-hearted. Haiku poets always meticulously revise and polish their works. As such, it might be said that haiku should be imperfect in a perfect way. Though this seems a contradictory statement, this is what I feel when I make haiku.
Due to its shortness and imperfectness, haiku sometimes gets close to being almost absent.
A Kochia tree —
This piece is a haiku made by a famous haiku poet, Kyoshi Takahama (1874-1959). It represents almost nothing. However, at times, the closer haiku gets to absence, the more it expresses something beyond humans. Some even say haiku can represent the whole cosmos because of this feature. Interestingly, I often hear haiku poets complain, ‘the form of haiku is too long to write!’ There may be a desire in Haiku poets to erase their own presence as much as possible.
Daisetsu Suzuki, the prominent Zen Buddhism practitioner and scholar, especially appraised haiku among many literary genres. He claims that works of haiku are generated from the poet’s intuition, and they intentionally stay at the level of intuition. According to him, this results in approaching the ‘Cosmic Unconscious’. In other words, in my opinion, it means that haiku always stays at the level of objects and never delves into logical thoughts. This characteristic of haiku is similar to Zen.
Haiku is secular and sublime at the same time, just like Zen. Some haiku poets confess that haiku is a kind of diary. Each tiny form of haiku encapsulates a moment of our daily life. Below is my haiku as such:
“I’d like to go to that high place,”
she says —
and beach sandals are so soft.
This short piece still gives me the vividness of that moment: full of bright sunshine, comfortable wind, the softness of the sand, and the faint sound of the wave. That comment of hers (she is my wife) must have been immediately blown away by the wind breezing on the beach. But on hearing it, I picked up one fragment of the comment and embedded it into my haiku. ‘That high place’ was nothing special; merely a small dune on the beach. Nonetheless, it must have provided us with beautiful scenery of the blue horizon and comfortable wind.
What each haiku catches is evanescent, but what haiku makes us feel can become universal and even eternal. Haiku is always paradoxical; brief and immense; worldly and heavenly; ephemeral and inﬁnite. This is the fascination of haiku.