…without any thought of what has been and what will be,

on the attack, till everything lies behind you.


Is the haiku poet, then, the literary samurai who has emptied himself of ‘ego’, thus fully prepared for battle and open to all things that may come his way, not knowing what they will be? A porous vessel, as it were.

The ‘thought’ which the haiku is said to be ‘all about’ consists of impressions, involving their association. One might say that such immediate union is residing on this side of metaphor, while also dwelling on the other side of metonymy.

An example by Basho:

In the sea-surf edge
mingling with bright small shells ..
Bush-clover petals

The ideal of haiku implies that, in it, things collide with things, obliterating as it were the words in which this big bang is uttered – extinguishing with them the speaking ego. According to haiku’s ideology, it is not the ‘I’ expressing itself through the poem; it is ‘things’ speaking out, using the haiku as their vessel of communication.

Haikuïsm is trying to make thing touch thing, this without the intermediary of conceptual ideas. Precisely as Carlos Williams would have it. Which of course is impossible: Man is a linguistic animal, a being existing from as well as inside its own projections. Why not say: living his projections…

Whatever impresses us has always already gone through the sieve of our prejudice. We cannot but live our one and only Gestalt life. Exactly this is the meaning of the notion of ‘existence’: To be inside the world, however at the same time being out of it.

There is always something as ‘foreground’ against which many other things are ‘in the background’. Whatever becomes foreground and what background, has ‘always already’ been determined by our upbringing and education. That is: by our own ‘background’.

William Carlos Williams is one amongst many who are weary of these semantic chains in which we are exiled from a paradise of innocent perception.

Back to haiku, a poetic endeavour that is Paradox Per Se. Trying to fix the unfixable entity of a unique and fleeting impression into a verse form prescribed to its very utmost is asking for trouble. If any type of poetry might at least approach the unreachable, it would be the Free Verse which Modernity invented. Writing a haiku is more like fucking an exciting woman who suddenly turned up, while keeping on your monk’s habit.

Could it be then, that instead of opening oneself up to things, like the samurai opens up to his enemy, it is in fact a matter of releasing oneself to the meandering of the inner, subconscious streams in order to be ready to have the ‘right words’ meet those unforeseen things? Putting it differently: Things without their words are empty. Words without their things are vain.

An indication of the paradisaical desire of the haikuïst is the custom amongst Japanese poets to change their names. A kind of ultimate realism, which considers a name as determining the named, also considering a name change as a kind of uncanny, semantic metamorphosis. Nomen est omen.

Such name-changing is the complete counter-point of the Western use of pseudonyms. Here the use of a name different from one’s own has quite often a commercial objective – a good sounding name, combined with a nice picture of someone good looking, makes an author better saleable. Another use of pseudonym has been to cloak one’s real identity when writing obscene stuff. Or just to hide the criminal which you are.

Not so in Japan. When, on the eve of their departure, Basho’s travelling mate and fellow haikuïst Sogoro is actually wrapping himself in a new monk’s habit and shaves his head, he also takes on a new name: Soro. Now, a monk’s habit did make travelling much safer in these dangerous times. However, this dressing up and name changing goes much deeper.

Western nominalism – which considers a name as ‘just a name’, indifferent to the thing it names, so it could have been any other name – is a stranger in Japan. Over here in the West, the last ironical vestige of mediaeval nominalism can be found in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

Tristram’s father deplores his son’s name – The Sad One – and demands of his friends who tell him that someone’s name does not really matter: “Would you, then, have christened your son Judas…?” Case dismissed! Japan can appreciate father Shandy, as it believes in a true metamorphosis through words, in the make-over of identity by logo-magic, just like two things meeting in a haiku are believed to change one another.

The Asian tradition of using ‘characters’ instead of our own abstract Latin or Cyrillic letters is, methinks, critical here. The early Scholastics phrased the principle in this manner: “Nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses.” This we also find in the ideogramic way of seeing, so praised by Ezra Pound, which is thoroughly Asian and especially indicated by the use of such ‘characters’.




Japanese ‘characters’ originate in pictograms, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and have developed only half-way towards a more abstract language. They are often ambivalent, having plural meaning. The use of such an ideogram in a haiku, however, seems to rid its reader from the superfluous meanings, because the amount of syllables of the intended wording is indicated by its position in the Haiku. Then again, through association, the meaning thus excluded does enter the mind again. The dialectics of our Gestalt brain – nothing more, nothing less. So, one might conclude, there are lots of ‘ideas’ scattered amongst all these word-things…

The term ‘ideogram’ is indeed quite confusing. My Van Dale’s Etymological Dictionary defines a ideogram as ‘image writing’, the ‘ideo-‘ however referring to … ‘idea’. This also has come top us via the Greek and has a hermaphroditic origin, referring to both visual representation of an image as well as a concept.

However, the suggestion that the Japanese and Chinese ‘characters’ concern real images is misleading. They are a little bit like images, especially when you compare them to our letter alphabet. But precisely because the origin of ‘characters’ lies in their iconic representation of things, there are always too few of them in any language. Hence these multiple meanings of most of the ideograms. Hence also phonetics as an awkward entity in any ‘character’ language. Which one of the multiple meanings is actually expressed by a ‘character’ is context dependent – for example, the context its placement in a haiku.


In the Interbellum of the 20th century Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Bataille and Bellmer their war against ‘logic’, or as I like to call it – against normalism. In their perspective The Logical = The Normal = the Norm, another word for a set-square which forces life’s energy into miserable ‘normality’.

Transgressing these limits, at least desiring to do so, they looked for help from the Asiatic corner. Not to end up smiling in one’s sleep, like Master Greene phrased it in The End of the Affair: “A moderate brief civil servant smile.”

One of their weapons was the word as an image, rather like in the haiku. I shall return to this in On Haiku [3] – Paradox of the Obscene, analyzing the question as to whether the proper weapon in this guerrilla is not simply the image itself.

Sierksma November/December 2016

[Also read the No.s 1, 3 and 4 of this series On Haiku]


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. The reader, interested in my writings on aesthetics, literature, and sociology, may want to open Academia.edu, where various pieces are published.

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