Conversation Pieces

Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy
as this in which chance finds you today.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 11.


The haiku lover must have been shocked by my remark in the first episodes of this essay, about haiku verse being wafer thin. After all, most adepts are on the trail of ‘deep spirituality’, searching for meaning and all that sort of thing. My claim is that in the haiku there is mostly pseudo-depth, its coincidences are shallow.

However, let me now dig a little deeper into the status of haiku poetry. This last episode concerns the second aspect of its formalism, after having first analyzed its obligatory verse form with the five-seven-five syllables, distributed over three lines.

If this genre, based on associated impressions, may not produce ‘deep’ meaning, it does indeed have an incredible extension – both time wise as well textually. Perhaps this remark may appease my critics, though I must warn them: To be extensive is not the same as being full of ‘deep’ or ‘spiritual’ meaning.

The haiku code implies a historical extension demanding of the poet that he is immensely well versed in the Japanese literary tradition. Time and again fat volumes with anthologies have been published – they determine its history.

This may be best illustrated with an interpretation of one of Japan’s famous texts which dates from around 1000 A.D. Its given title Pillow Book refers to a lady in waiting at the Japanese imperial court who, before laying down her head, would note her observations and experiences, this in a hilarious disorder which does make its reading rather attractive.



Shōnagon’s diary


Her name was Sei Shōnagon. And quite a lady she was. She had various high-class lovers and was constantly criticizing people for not conforming to the intricate code of the court, more specifically the Japanese code of colours for dressing; the colours of the sorts of paper on which various kinds of haiku should be written; the colour of leaves to which, in certain seasons, the trees had to conform… – and not to forget the special times for special rites. Ethically she is rather finicky, however in the context of this essay her criticism of other people’s writings is of prime interest.

“I hate people from whose letters it becomes clear that they are flouting the rules of etiquette, whether it is in their manner of addressing others or in their over-polite manner of writing to people who do not deserve this, simply because of their social standing.”



Illustration 17th century: Shōnagon behind the screen


One thing, again of interest here, is Shōnagon being ‘deeply shocked’ when she hears someone talk in terms of ‘I’ while His Majesty the Emperor is present. In a culture demanding of the haiku that thing meets thing, thus leaving out the poet’s Ego, this seems to be a crucial statement. One is referred to this essay’s first episode.

In a haiku the implication of past poetry is all important, this obligatory reference to former verse as pre-condition and as criterion for the judgement on its ‘quality’. In parentheses one may add that this fact already disqualifies most of our Western haiku devotees from reading their beloved poetry properly. Whereas they vainly seek ‘depth’ in the sheer play of words meeting words, the Japanese insider could at least ‘enjoy’ such historical referencing.

The requisite sedimentation of a haiku in the bed of past poetry also explains the fierce competitive aspect of the writing of those verse. Basho, in his Narrow Road into the Interior, frequently writes a haiku merely to answer someone else’s verse, and indeed in an endeavour to outdo him. This must make one seriously doubt the claim of haiku ideology as to its exclusion of ‘Ego’.

The same applies to Basho’s repeated declaration during his travels that, with the spyglass of a famous writers’ haiku’s in hand, he is looking at certain ‘eternal’ places or shrines which he claims to be “eternalised by those poems.” Pre-meditation, then, seems to be the keyword. Words these are, not things… While studying The Narrow Path, one sometimes feels that one is reading a travel guidebook camouflaged as poetry – and vice versa.




Now back to Shōnagon. Correspondence at the court, but also in all higher echelons of Japanese society, took on the form of exchanging historically coded poems. Even in love affairs the correspondence consists of an exchange of haiku’s – or more generally of poems – and was bound to strict rules. A man, after bedding a woman in her own room, is expected to write her a poem immediately after his homecoming and then have it brought to his lady by messenger. If he failed to do so, this meant the end of their affair.

Then we have the intense poetic competition in which whole reputations are at stake. This becomes very clear in a passage in Shōnagon’s diary:

“I was studying the letter, written down in a gracious hand on heavy blue paper. There was nothing to worry me. I opened it and read:

for you it is flower time
sitting in the Council hall
under a curtain of brocade.

Under it he had written: ‘How does this strophe end?’

I was at my wit’s end. I simply had to prove that I knew the next lines of this poem…”

All this now turns out to be even more complicated than I first made out. The poem referred to in this case is of Chinese origin – not Japanese. Shōnagon is not only expected to be well versed in Japanese poetic history, but to know from memory a lot of Chinese verse as well. In the editor’s notes to the Pillow Book it is said that ‘this popular Chinese poem by Po Chü-I was completely outside the scope of women’. Yet – and of course – Shōnagon knows it and even answers to it in phonetic Japanese. Otherwise the challenge would surely not have been mentioned in the diary of this modest as well as vain woman.

Further on, she claims to be “shocked by the fact that Noritsimu” – her then amant – has “absolutely not understood the pointe of this poem.” She even tries to help him out by writing a poem-answer for him, however even while he uses it he simply refuses to read her verse. More generally she remarks on the writing poetry as correspondence, that “it is better not to answer, than to answer in an unsatisfactory manner.”

So it is all about that famous Japanese habit of ‘loosing face’ – the quintessence of each shame culture.

In a few places Shōnagon cannot suppress her urge to tell of the high praise she gets for her poetry from both her Empress and from His Majesty the Emperor himself. They express admiration for her historical wit and for the poetic references implied. Sometimes the Empress even demands of her to read her verse publicly, poems for which Shōnagon has been praised already by others and which where originally private, but which she has personally manoeuvred into publicity by little, devious ways. She even mentions the fact that her literary feats make her “worthy of being appointed to the Bureau of Palace servants.” Poetic conversation, then, thus honoured by being incorporated in bureaucracy.

Haiku literature turns out to be quite literally an anthology of conversation pieces.


The history of the haiku is, methinks, one of intense formalised shallowness. For sure, my sources date from along time ago. Yet, we know that the basic features of society are sediments that remain unchanged for ages. Perhaps, in modern Japan the historical intensity of the haiku has been lost. Nevertheless, both out there and over here we find this false belief in its ‘spiritual’ depth.

The haiku is intrinsically ‘Japanese’. The connection between its meaning and the written ‘characters’ is simply indispensable. Thus, all translations of the haiku in other languages are senseless as well as useless. Translation of a haiku is a travesty.

As the haiku’s forced form and its historical referencing are dominant over the content, we have come to the ultimate paradox of this essay: A Westerner reading a haiku is not reading a haiku. He is essentially disqualified as a reader. The same, incidentally, applies to the Japanese who do not bathe any more in the pond in which traditional haiku is swimming.

The haiku has become a plaything for latter-day would-be mystics with their empty, shallow Self swooning in ‘deep’ things – a cheap and easy path to what I consider to be the illusion of inner depth. It fits so well into the Postmodern Church of Art with its New Religion of Music and Images. Haiku poetry is part and parcel of its Scripture.


Just to indicate that a short, ‘haiku-like’ poem may sometimes produce real depth, I reproduce a little couplet by the Dutch painter-poet Willem Hussem. Its two lines could have been the motto above this whole essay.

From a painter one may expect a fondness for the notion of ‘things meeting things’, without words and ideas interfering. What else does a painter do, but make things meet his brush and paint in order to produce a canvas, another thing!

This image of this insect writing on water I added to his verse.




Almost untranslatable is the beautiful Dutch word for these little animals! Yet, I try:

schrijvende torren
de wolken in het water lezen spiegelschrift


writer insects
clouds under water reading mirror words

We know from Western painting that an element of the pictor doctus, the learned painter, resides in most of our artists. So, even in between paint and things ideas intervene. As they do in Hussem’s small verse, which is what gives them a real depth.

[No’s 1/3 were published earlier on this blog.]

Sierksma, December 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.

2 thoughts on “ON HAIKU [4]”

    1. Sir – I love conversation, ‘societal’ or what not. The issue I raised, however, is the forced manner of Japanese poetic conversation; and of course my claim that a Westerner without a grasp of the Japanese language is fooling himself when he is enjoying haiku in translation.


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