Beyond the Subjective in Haiku
by Robert Epstein, Haiku Author & Psychologist
I would readily acknowledge that writing haiku is a means of self-expression, yet this isn’t synonymous with the subjective. The primary motivation isn’t fundamentally ego-based; that is, I’m not primarily interested in my personal experience, odd as this may sound to contemporary readers. I write haiku to see beyond my subjective vantage point. While I may begin with the subjective, I seek the universal.
The subjective is little more than the springboard for stumbling onto revelations of truth in nature that stimulate self-transcendence. For the same reason, I read haiku to discover the universal. If I were only interested in the subjective, I would have lost interest in reading/writing haiku decades ago.
If, for example, I have the misfortune of walking under a balcony when a flower pot is accidentally knocked over and it splits my head open, this painful objective reality isn’t a personal narrative that I can construct in the nanosecond before I lapse into unconsciousness. There’s nothing subjective here, because there is an objective reality that exists independent of my subjective experience.
Like the flower pot, I, as the author of a haiku, exist independently of the reader, though spiritually speaking we’re related. The poem I’ve written has something I wish to communicate. However, in a skillfully written poem, it will leave room for readers to enter into it and discover their own layers of meaning.
If I wish to shake off all the theorizing and conceptualizing that dazzles or befuddles the ego, I go back to the source, that is, Basho, the father of haiku.
old pond ––
a frog jumps in
the sound of water
Bashoʼs subjective self gets out of the way for this timeless poem. If ever the universal has shone through in a haiku poem, this is it. I could have chosen any of Bashoʼs poems to illustrate the universal, not the subjective, because this is the very heart of Bashoʼs way of haiku. Letʼs remember what Basho writes explicitly for future generations (2):
Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you
want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise, you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one or when you have plunged deep into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering. However well-phrased your poetry is, if your feeling isn’t natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry isn’t poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.
Are haiku to be written and judged subjectively, as Mike Spikes insists in his essay in Frogpond (45:2, Summer 2022)? More than a few unwitting readers and writers will almost certainly respond with a resounding or unqualified “yes.” I fear that such a response reflects just how much the skin-encapsulated ego––Alan Wattsʼs phrase–– via postmodern political activism has come to dominate not only many individual psyches, but a notable segment of society. (1). This over-emphasis on the subjective distresses me.
I lament Professor Spikesʼs scholarly view to anchor haiku in the subjective which is the very antithesis of what Basho taught nearly four hundred years ago.
Spikesʼs foray into the work of David Bleich, Subjective Criticism (1978) leaves me unconvinced – and not just because he omitted any critical reviews of this literary theory that would help unwitting readers evaluate for themselves its limitations as applied to haiku. After all, a theory is not a fact, and not even literary.
As for the shattered flower pot and my head wound, Spikes appears to overlook this detail: the real, as in the natural world, which is the essence of haiku.
“Learn from the pine about the pine.” Basho didn’t say, as Spikes seems to be saying: “Learn from your sense of your subjective self, and create a poetic narrative from that place, calling it a haiku.”
Because Basho was passionate and sincere, I take his advice seriously and go directly to the pine. In my following haiku, originally published in moonset, 6:1, 2010, this is what I discover:
in pine shade
for a while I forget this life will end
Is there a personal element to what I realize? Yes. Is that all there is? To the contrary, I encounter the sacred truth of Buddhaʼs core teaching that everything is impermanent. None of us live forever. While we long for immortality, it doesn’t exist except, perhaps, in the Eternal Now. Does the reader have any intimacy with this? The personal meets the universal in this very moment; the subjective melts into the Whole beyond thought, image, and ideal.
I dare say that Basho understood the depth of this, which is why he could give such eloquent expression to the ineffable. The ineffable is at the very heart of haiku and the focus of enduring––as opposed to flash-in-the-pan poetry.
Have haiku poetics veered so far away from nature and the universal that some enshrine the subjective in their place? If so, this is sad for haiku readers. I want no part of this subjective overhaul, nor do I believe most poets or readers do.
I don’t propose, though, that the subjective should be ignored, suppressed or extinguished. This would be misguided.
However, based on how much Spikes emphasizes the subjective in his haiku poetics, I infer that he’s unfamiliar with the field of transpersonal psychology. (3). Transpersonal psychology has been recognized for about fifty years and has made significant contributions to the understanding of Mind and consciousness.
Although an extended discussion of transpersonal psychology is beyond the scope of this brief essay, it draws significantly from Buddhism, since the latter reflects a sophisticated understanding of consciousness. Categories like subjective and objective reflect a superficial understanding of the nature of consciousness.
Transpersonal psychology––as evidenced in the decades-long work of Ken Wilbur, Roger Walsh, Frances Vaughan, and John Welwood, among others–– studies states of mind that see beyond personal distinctions to the no-boundary or Unity consciousness (oneness). As Wilber observes in an excerpt from The Spectrum of Consciousness, that appears in Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Dimensions of Psychology (1980):
. . . [the subjectively-oriented individual] is identified with his ego, his self-image. His total organism is split into a disembodied “psyche,” the ghost in the machine, and a “soma,” “poor brother ass”––a fact which he betrays by saying not “I am a body,” but “I have a body.” He feels that he exists in his body and not as a body. This level [of ego-consciousness] is identified almost exclusively with a mental picture of manʼs total psychophysical organism, and therefore his intellectual and symbolical processes predominate. (77)
Welwood, an important figure in the development of transpersonal psychology, remarks in an essay that appears in The Meeting of the Ways: East/West Explorations in Psychology:
This overemphasizing and solidification of thoughts to the exclusion of
the open spaces within the mind-environment leads to a personal identification with the thought process. The troublesome equation, I = my thoughts about reality, can lead to a narrowed “self-sense” and as anxiety that is connected with defending these thoughts as oneʼs territory. The familiar tendency is to assume that one is the originator and possessor of oneʼs thoughts, rather than seeing them as ephemeral phenomena in the larger environment of Mind. (33)
In contrast, the level of Mind or no-boundary as embodied in Bashoʼs enlightened haiku poetry, transcends notions of self and other, objective and subjective. Wilber continues:
The perennial psychology declares all dualism to be not so much unreal as illusory. . . . Cutting the world into seer and seen, only apparently and not actually divides the world, for the world always remains indistinct from itself. Dualism, in other words, is illusory: it appears to exist but remains devoid of reality. . . (78)
That is, Big Mind (as opposed to small mind) is the latter quality of consciousness that Zen Buddhists dating back centuries have dedicated themselves to. Basho, through his own studies of Zen, absorbed the transpersonal or no-boundary level of consciousness, that informs his haiku.
To revert to a previous level of consciousness as Spikes and others advocate, strikes me as misguided regression. It would be akin to humans reverting to the limited language of toddlers, poetically-speaking.
Drawing from Yoel Hoffmannʼs anthology, Japanese Death Poems (1986), I’d like to quote a moon-inspired poem by Masahide, a contemporary of Basho, who praised it:
Now that my storehouse has burned down, nothing conceals the moon
Only a poet as visionary as Masahide could write a poem as transcendent as this. Is the heart of his insight subjective? I think not. In the face of great adversity, Masahide realized a moment of enlightenment (which the moon in Buddhism embodies) and he shared this satori with the world. The poem itself, holding the infinite wisdom of emptiness and non-attachment, is an enduring act of compassion. I stand in awe of this extraordinary poem and never tire of rereading it.
No amount of theorizing about the centrality of the subjective will bring a poet or reader to the realization of impermanence, a vital and sacred truth. A nature-based or reality- based poem, however, has this potential. I protest the conceptual acrobatics that would undo centuries of insight and revelation for the self-inflation—indeed, narcissism—that some critics darken the well with.
Haiku is a distinctive form of poetry precisely because Basho and others rooted their haiku in the understanding of the transience of life and death, a key manifestation of objective reality. They infused this understanding with aesthetic qualities of wabi, sabi, mono no aware, yugen, and karumi. These qualities have given their poetry freshness and vitality. Truth is far more compelling than that which is subjective.
Donʼt settle for what is novel or catchy in the fleeting moment. Take flight with those insights that circle above the fading corridors of time. You will find them in nature, not in the realm of conceptual thought or artifice. The finest haiku are visionary and far-reaching, even if their subject matter superficially appears to be ordinary or mundane.
Eric W. Amann, writing in The Wordless Poem (1969), minces no words when he observes:
“In haiku, leave things just as they are” – in other words, keep your rationalizing, moralizing mind out of the poem, do not clutter up the poem with your own thoughts, feelings and explanations, but show all things in their uniqueness, their own particular state of being, their ʻsuchness’. (16)
Key to the literary theory of Bleich, that Spikes is of the notion of, is resymbolization, an abstruse one that’s contrary to haiku prior to the gendai movement. Of symbolism in haiku, Amann unequivocally states:
This attempt to extract some symbolic significance from haiku is a typically Western effort to find the abstract meaning behind the concrete, to discover the spiritual hiding in the physical. As we have already seen, however, this is quite foreign to the haiku poets themselves. As Shiki has said of Bashoʼs [old pond] poem: “The meaning is just what it says, it has no other, no special meaning.” (17)
I’ll conclude with a poignant, contemporary poem by Poet Debbi Antebi that appears in The Heronʼs Nest, 20, 2018. It has all the markings of a subjective poem but, in actuality, it’s true to Bashoʼs haiku spirit, being grounded in nature without conceptual acrobatics or resymbolization. It allows the subjective to merge with the universal:
learning to eat around bruises winter apples
Beyond theory, thought, and symbolism, may we all learn to write haiku with joy, love, and compassion around the bruised apples of this fleeting world of life and death.
- It’s worth noting that, around the same time that Bleich was publishing his work that placed the subjective at the center of literary theory, cultural historian, Christopher Lasch, published his incisive critique of narcissism, which has only increased exponentially in the decades since the bookʼs publication. See The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in the Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979).
- Quoted in: https://blogs.harvard.edu/sulaymanibnqiddees/2015/02/28/basho-on-poetry/.
- For those interested in learning more about transpersonal psychology, see: K. Wilbur, No-Boundary; R. Walsh and F. Vaughan, ed., Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Dimensions of Psychology; and F. Vaughan, The Inward Arc; and J. Welwood, Toward a Psychology of Awakening.