An MRI Of the Haiku Moment


An MRI Of the Haiku Moment

Back in the old days, the editors who controlled what haiku got into print told you that you had to write it in the present tense because that was what the Japanese did, and since not many people knew any better, no one every challenged them about it. Now, with the information saturated lives we all live on the internet, it is not as easy anymore because the truth that the Japanese never “just” wrote haiku in the present tense is there for all to see. So, now you need to write out a theory as to why you should write in the present tense.

Which is what Jim Kacian did with the speech he gave at the International Haiku North America Conference 2009 titled “Haiku as Anti-Story.” You have to give Kacian credit, it’s not an easy thing to come up with a theory for the very audacious act of telling the world that the present tense will always be the way to great poetry. You need to bring out all the bells and whistles you’ve got, a few personal anecdotes, a bear you once crossed paths with, a metaphor or two, a visit to your doctor, an MIR result, something from a famous philologist and, of course, a straw man to make to your argument work.

The straw man Kacian set up is pretty ingenious because of its simplicity.  Since present tense haiku really don’t move in time, then all you have to is prove how the rest of the writing in the world does. Since stories have beginnings, middles and ends, Kacian uses them as a starting point:

“Story unfolds in time, like music or film, but unlike, say, painting. Story is therefore an inductive art — it depends on piling up sufficient quantities of data to make its resolution plausible (unless of course it’s working to confound expectations, which is the same thing but inverted). It takes time to lay up this information, and time is one thing story has in abundance.”

It’s easy enough to understand this as the linear sequence of telling a story in an act of time. Now, he gives us a metaphor for it:

“So let us have before us some clean metaphor of story: think of it as a process with a definite shape evolving in time: a snake.”

His metaphor is clear enough, but defining the opposite anti-story leads into some murky waters:

“Anti-story is not the opposite of this process. Anti-story is the absence of it. In other words, don’t think of a snake and then a no-snake. Think, instead, of a snake — and then cut right across it. An anti-snake.  Anti-story is this action, the anti-process of story. It is not cumulative but instantaneous, not inductive but intuitive. It could not exist without the story. Still it is not the story, but rather the lightning strike across it, that defines it.”

Anti-story as a “lightening strike” is extremely vague, but if we take a trip with Kacian to his doctor’s office we are finally able to understand that “anti-story” is an MRI scan:

“But this isn’t the only information my doctor will want: she will also want to take some tests which are the equivalent of anti-story: an MRI, for instance, a cross-section image of, say, my kidney, one cell wide.  When you look at that image will it look like a kidney? Not as it looks from outside, not as it looks in a narrative. But such an image provides a different kind of information that might prove helpful in determining its health. The means to this kind of information is that lightning stroke across the linear, biological reality.”

Aha! Now anyone who has been interested in haiku since the the 1990s can understand what he is explaining, it is the “haiku moment,” the “snapshot that catches a moment in time.” The lightening flash of awareness that is always written in the present tense.

(Just to clear any doubts if Kacian is arguing about “the haiku moment,” let’s take a look how the man who coined it, Kenneth Yasuda presented it in his book “The Japanese Haiku” (pgs. 24-25): “The nature of a haiku moment is anti-temporal……in which there is no sense of time…..the haiku moment results, then, in a new insight or vision.” Which is the argument that Kacian is making verbatim.)

He adds this about how this is beneficial to haiku:

“To return to literary terms, then, and to approach haiku: anti-story intersects story at 90º to its flow, yielding a cross-section of its content that surrenders one dimension (time) to gain another (depth). And, I contend, this is what the very best haiku have always done.

So, haiku, by surrendering “time,” done by only writing in the present tense, gives “depth” like an MRI can do to a kidney. Just like the “lightning stroke” that happens when you are in an MRI machine and they shut the door and you hear the click of the x-ray machine. Oh, wait a minute, we are confusing the two here, aren’t we?

Of course, as any one who has had both x-rays and MRI scans done can tell, the x-ray machine flashes and takes a picture while the MRI machine whirls, makes noises, moves around and then scans you, repeating it again and again. Which means that Kacian has done what I believe to be is a first in the history of explaining a theory of poetry, he has disproved the idea he is promoting by the very metaphor he uses. MRI machines scan you, which means they act through time, which means, as he has put it, they “pile up sufficient quantities of data” and, “it takes time to lay up this information.” So, just like “a story” an MRI piles up information to make these great 3D scans of your kidney.

And wouldn’t the same be true in writing haiku as well? That by using all verb tenses (i.e. attributes of time) a writer would be able to add depth to the experiences they are writing about? Arguing that you can only write in present tense shows the exact opposite, for wouldn’t that be a rather shallow approach to haiku?

Kacian may think that present tense haiku can escape time, but when he starts writing about them he proves you can’t. When talking about James W. Hackett’s haiku he posits:

“The first line, or the context line, establishes the first image — “A bitter morning”.  Stop for a moment and consider that phrase — “a bitter morning.” It could lead anywhere, and the typographical pause is meant to allow us the time and space to do just that. The poet then adds his own selected idea, the unforgettable image of huddled birds. That’s it. It’s that pause that allows the reader or listener to stop the flow, to remove himself from the narrative, to move outside of time.”

It is impossible to believe that the reader has been able “to move outside of time” when you talk about a pause that “is meant to allow us the time and space to do just that.” The whole passage above is an utter contradiction. Even when you think about the image of “a bitter morning” the adjective itself implies that there are other mornings that have different qualities about them, which means they are in a time narrative story line.

I won’t move on to talking about the other haiku that Kacian talks about, but if you take the time to look at them you’ll see that he refers them in same moving through time reference as above because that is what the human condition is all about: we are always surrounded by time. And this is the straw man that he strung up for this idea about haiku as a anti-story: that we can escape time.

It was more than a little strange to see Kacian weave in something from Mikhail Bakhtin while arguing that haiku can move outside of time. Bakhtin came up with the idea of the “chronotope” (literally meaning”space-time) and argued that space and time are inseparable and that literature made time “take on flesh.” As he wrote in “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes Towards a Historical Poetics”:

“But any and every literary image is chronotopic. Language, as a treasure-house of images, is fundamentally chronotopic.  Also chronotopic is the internal form of a word, that is, the mediating marker with whose help the root meanings of spatial categories are carried  over into temporal relationships (in the broadest sense)” (p. 251).

Literature is a chronotopic because images have spatial categories that extend into temporal relationships, which is how James Hackett’s “a bitter morning” moves through time by implying other experiences of it being something else besides bitter.

Of all the silliness that got said in this speech, the thing Kacian was completely right about was the how “the single most identifiable characteristic of haiku is the kire — not 5-7-5, not three lines — the kire, the cut, which not only identifies relationship (and all haiku are about relationship).” The “cut” is an important literary device and it is the thing which grants haiku the potential for great poetry because it gives the writer the ability to make unlimited relationships between the two parts of the haiku, not only for sparking unwritten meanings on both sides of the break, but also musically as well, because it allows the writer to play the two parts off each other for sound as well. It is a powerful tool for creating poetry.

The problem with Kacian is that he, like so many others before him, mistake their style as being the only style that haiku could ever be. He understands the form well enough, but then uses the knowledge of it to control and demand that others write in ways that conform to what his natural talents are. In fact, in an article Kacian penned called “Haiku Content” he openly tells you that unless you follow his style you can’t write a haiku:

“Haiku must contain a moment of insight. Haiku is not the only form in which such moments are essential — it might even be argued that all poetry is essentially the recording of such insights, and that this is the characteristic which unites haiku with these other forms — but without such a moment, there is no haiku.”

All I will say in response is that it is pretty safe to assume that someone who has botched a metaphor as badly as done in this speech simply has little talent for making them.

Given how closely Jim Kacian is following Kenneth Yasuda, I’m not so sure how much he has fallen into the we are now free of the Japanese ideas about haiku (after having argued for so long that we must follow them) crowd, but by not mentioning Yasuda’s name at all in the speech, one has to wonder if he isn’t hiding his roots here. Regardless, there still is the problem of the established literary standards in our own language. If English language haiku wants its own space as a serious form of poetry, the acknowledged leaders of it have to write well about how it works a poetry. Rather than prove how deep and profound it is, this explanation of the poetry in the “haiku moment” moves the opposite and proves how shallow and self aggrandizing it all is.


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