Haiku and the Comedy of Life

a zig and a zag

the little white  butterfly

is bigger than life

Juxtaposition is the essence of haiku. The two sections are asymmetrical — not only is one section shorter by more than half, the role played by the shorter one is to orient our view of the longer one. This instability of temporal structure gives the haiku a kind of stutter, as compared say to the block-like structure of the sonnet (and even the sonnet has that weird crack towards the end). The haiku is both short and strangely universal.

The inner logic of haiku depends on how the single line expands the relevance of the narrative section. That expansion can defy easy explanation. I’m still wondering if the sudden expansion suggested by the final line actually springs from the image of the wild flitting about of this creature rich in legend. The grand associations of the butterfly, starting with the Greek “psyche” as soul/butterfly, can easily swallow the finite thing itself. This haiku endeavors to tie whatever associations may cling to the word “butterfly” to its flight pattern, size, and color.

Basho’s art of haiku derived from his study of the classics of his time — ancient Chinese poems and the classic text Zhuangzi as well as Medieval Japanese Buddhist poetry– but also the richness of the modern/contemporary Japanese language. In short, the form is identified as a tension: both traditional and modern, the tone often referred to as comic.

Whatever the various elements caught in suspension, the energy of the structure and the shifting focus of the lines may communicate something of the mystery innate in our perceptions of things. That mystery is well conveyed by the idea of irrepressible “yes” to mortal life.

One comment

  1. And yet haiku’s ‘yes’ seems paradoxically transcendent. Perhaps that’s its power.


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