The Haiku Moment: The Reader’s Emotional Hole


Michael Dylan Welch also has written an essay that tries to give intellectual cover to the “haiku moment.” In a piece titled “Haiku as History: The Ultimate Short Story” he takes Francis Bacon’s ideas about history, poesy and philosophy and argues that haiku is “a an objective record of history” and by writing in the present tense one can “keep the poem immediate and accessible.” He goes on to qualify that even writing in the present moment means that one is “nevertheless writing from memory.”

So where does haiku fit in Bacon’s trilogy of ideas? Since haiku springs from “intuition” rather than from “reason”, that excludes it from being put under Bacon’s definition of philosophy, and since it generally “does not  spring from imagination or present imaginary content but from remembered reality,” then it isn’t poesy, so he places it into the category of history without going much into the reason why except for it being something that comes from memory of one’s past. He then caps this by adding  “even if the memory is of a very recent moment, haiku is a poetry of the past—powerful emotion, as Wordsworth put it, recollected in tranquility.”

It’s a little strange to see Wordsworth’s famous quote about poetry here because Bacon, when it came to learning, had nothing to say about poesy “but to ascribe unto it that which is due, for the expressing of affections, passions, corruptions, and customs, we are beholding to poets more than to the philosophers’ works” (Advancement of Learning).  Bacon believes that poesy is a “feigned history” and this quote shows that he believes it is “feigned” because it is about “affections” and “passions”, and yet Welch is telling us that haiku is powerful emotion.

I do find myself in agreement here with the idea of poetry being something that comes from memory, which is something that is being hinted at with the quote from Wordsworth. For the Greeks, the muses of poetry came from the mating of the god head Zeus with the personification of memory Mnemosyne. Even T.S. Eliot, in the passage from “Tradition and Individual Talent” where he attacks Wordsworth, describes the poetic process as, “it is a concentration, a new thing resulting from concentration, of a very great number of experiences,” which the poet carries in his memory. My own experience with writing poetry and haiku is the same, my memory is very active when I sit down to do it.

I also find myself agreeing with the idea that haiku is about emotions as well, but this message starts to get jumbled as we move through the essay. Welch writes about haiku in the present moment:

“Yet, as we know, haiku is also in the present. We craft the poem to convey a sense of the present moment—specific moments written as if in the present. And readers apprehend the poem by recalling their own memories, and the poem can remind them of what they have experienced and already know but perhaps haven’t really noticed. In the present moment of being read, the poem enables the reader to experience the poet’s initial intuitive response to sensory perception by objectively depicting that perception (the best haiku usually present the image that causes an emotional response, not the emotion itself). In this manner, the experience of life is imparted from writer to reader. With a haiku poem, personal and intimate knowledge is profoundly imparted from one person to another.”

First, one has to wonder how well you have expressed emotions when you simply write a present tense version of it. The problem with this idea is the fact that different verb tenses imply deeper emotional states in the speaker, especially those that filter experience through the lense of time. It is an implausiable argument to make that you want to write about emotions while you state that they always must be in the present. The way our language works automatically makes that suspicious.

And secondly, one has to wonder how haiku could ever possibly be powerful emotion when the best haiku don’t present “the emotion itself.” I do agree with the idea that haiku without the writer’s emotion presented would “impart” the “experience of life” to the reader, which is what descriptive writing does, but I don’t understand how not having the emotion itself stated would “profoundly impart personal and intimate knowledge” to the reader. Isn’t our personal and intimate profound knowledge about things our emotional responses to them?

This idea about present tense non emotional haiku being an deeply emotive force gets restated later:

“Haiku is a poetry where we share something with others—not just the surface knowledge (facts) of some experience, but also the deeper intuitions and realizations of dwelling in the here and now. Thus haiku is a poetic means of sharing a deep kind of knowledge.”

How can the writer share “deeper intuitions and realizations” and haiku be “a poetic means of sharing a deep kind of knowledge” when the writer can’t write what their emotions are? Take Robert Burns’ famous “my love is a red, red, rose” which is a snatch of poetry where the emotion is written out. What if he had only written “a red, red rose”? Wouldn’t that mean he was just giving us “the surface knowledge (facts) of some experience?” And doesn’t connecting the metaphor share something deep and personal about Robert Burns? And by understanding Burns’ emotions don’t I find a deeper knowledge about life?

To be honest about it, this is why the haiku moment has always been problematic for me, because it never quite matches up with the rhetoric those who write it use when explaining it.

The fallacy of the haiku moment is that it forgets we are people who, although having different experiences in the world about us, all have the same range of emotions within us. The fallacy is based on the wrong idea of believing that the reader can feel an emotion when the writer hasn’t written one. That by creating an emotional hole for the reader to fill in they will naturally fill it in themselves. You can’t argue about how profound and sharing a haiku is that hasn’t got an ounce of emotional weight in it because when we come down to it emotions are all we have to share. And by seeing emotions in others we feel ours and understand them more, which is the way we learn and better ourselves.

I can’t end this essay without taking on Francis Bacon’s deriding of poesy as something that gets in the way of learning. I will simply quote William Blake:

“a Tear is an intellectual thing”

Then again, it isn’t surprising that the “father” of empiricism with his “dismal steel” and “reasonings like vast serpents” wouldn’t grasp this.


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