Say it, no ideas but in things

Words are the burden of poems, poems are made of words

William Carlos Williams, Paterson

Japan is the land of haiku, a little verse form of seventeen syllables, forced into a scheme of five-seven-five, distributed over three lines. We may call our sonnet form a strait jacket, compared to the haiku it is child’s play. Such forced feeding however, like a goose stuffed to its brim to produce foie gras, is not my first interest. What I would like to check in these episodes On Haiku is the relation between words and things.

In Aleid Swierenga’s rather redundant introduction to a Dutch translation of Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Path to the Interior – redundant, because the introduction from the English translator is preceding this second – we read: “Haiku is not so much a poem in the Western meaning of that word, as a thought.”

The meaning of this phrase hinges, of course, on what is to be understood as ‘a thought’. A reflection of things? A reflection on things? Pure abstraction, not referring to things at all? As this remains unclear her phrase is rather empty.

One might expect such irrelevant juggling of words from someone who translates the original title of Basho’s Narrow Path to the Interior as: Small Road to the Far North, thus transforming a delicate, meditative metaphor into a mere geographical reference. In 1698 Basho did indeed walk to the North of the main Japanese island. His idea, however, was to reach his own ‘interior’ by way of visiting all kinds of shrines, monasteries and famous sights. Using haiku as  his vessel.




Yet another critical remark on the side: The Dutch translator does not seem to able to read Japanese. In the colophon it says that her translation is from Sam Hamill’s English translation from the Japanese. As I do not speak or read Japanese myself, it has become impossible to check either translation. But double doubt of course affects me when I have to do with a second hand ‘second hand Rose…’

What I think I am still able to do is to analyze the notion of the haiku as ‘a thought’, specifying it into something more defined. My lead in this endeavour comes from my chosen motto by Carlos Williams, from his long poem Paterson.

Say it, no ideas but in things

Later on, my second concern will be with poetry and formalism, the way in which formalism affects the ‘quality’ of poetry. After all, my field of study has been aesthetics…

When young, I was somewhat impressed by the haiku. Growing older I discovered that this respect was merely a cover up for my own bad poetry. For an amateur or a beginner it is so much easier to at least fake a haiku and give oneself the airs of ‘a poet’, than to create real poetry.

The Dutch poet Roland Holst wrote an essay on the work of the bard, titled Divining Rod and Labour. What metaphor! The bard, he said, is the man handling the forked twig, dowsing for water which is hidden deep underground. Having performed his miracle, self-inflicted hard labour begins: Digging and digging and digging – which may end up in good poetry or in a drink of cool, clear water.

I doubt whether Seamus Heaney read this Dutch essay, most probably not. All the more reason to appraise Roland Holst’s metaphor as a universal intuition of all poets. In his great verse Digging – an ode to his forefathers who dug potatoes and sods of turf – the Irishman wrote:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

I’ll dig with it.

Now, the haiku seems to be the counter point of all this. When reading Basho on his travels into ‘the interior’, time and again you will find ‘moments of poetry’, fleeting ‘spots of time’ in which all of a sudden haiku as it were ‘comes about’. This seems the only way I can phrase this.

When Wordsworth coined this notion of Spots of Time, he was very much inside the circle of Western poetry, with its divining rods and its hard labour. Wordsworth had those flashes of wavy words during his cherished walks – then brought them home to work upon and transform them into often long verse.

Basho, and haikuïsts in general, jot down their little verse on the spot. Of course taking a bit of time – after all, they had to force such little flashes into the formal mould of the haiku. So even here we find some sort of ‘labour’, yet, the start of it is that flash of things, or merely the assumption of a poem. Certainly not, like in Roland Holst’s metaphor, the long-winded labour of speculation and conjecture.

Carlos Williams once more: Say it, no ideas but in things. Methinks, this is what the haikuïst is after. And perhaps it is this what Mrs. Swierenga’s remark on the haiku being ‘a thought’ wants to express. The haiku has not all that much semantic flesh on its bones, it is sparse with words, words that actually seem to aspire to become things.

An example from Basho’s Small Path, lines – so he says – written in an instant and at the request of someone else before leaving that man’s house: “I could not write nothing…” And why not, translated by me from the Dutch, which was translated from the English, which was translated from the Japanese…:

The first specimen of poetry
In the land’s High North:
Rice plant songs.

Could it be that the haikuïst is the Samurai of Letters! In the Hagakure – ‘The Way of the Samurai’ – it is said that what really matters ‘is how to bring things to an end’ – i.e. to their proper ending. It smells a bit of Aristotle too. And – of course – it reminds one of Nietzsche’s famous aphorism in which he claims that only the real masters of the arts know how to find such a right end: “Like the mountains at Porto Fino, there where de bay of Genoa sings its melody to its ending.”

Could it be that, when in the haiku thing is meant to meet thing, the poet has found their proper resting place in his poem? As if that, and only that haiku was meant for these things… Hagukure teaches that ”one should observe everything as someone backed up against the wall; only then will one’s negligence and one’s inattention melt away like snow before the sun.”

Yet, William Carlos Williams already knew, deep down that is:

Words are the burden of poems, poems are made of words

[To be continued with No.s 2, 3 and 4]

Sierksma, November 2016


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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