The genius of classical haiku is the transformation of ordinary natural objects into precise expressions of meaning.
Natural objects in themselves have no meaning, of course — they simply “exist.” Human beings assign them meaning — if they are conscious, sensitive, and aware. The poet is conscious, and the culture can serve to promote this exploration of mind and heart. What matters is not that everyone be a poet, but that many appreciate the specialness of the poet’s art. The prerequisite to this appreciation is essentially expressed in the given culture, and here traditional Japanese culture has facilitated this experience for poets.
The object of the haiku becomes not so much a metaphor as a vehicle. In the poem, it does not stand for something (because it has no meaning) but rather evokes emotion and meaning from the human observer. This meaning for the poet is expressed in a universalizing way, linking poet, reader, and, ultimately, the experience of nature. The reader becomes aware of oneness because the successful poet has first felt the awareness, then captured the awareness in a poem, then shared it with a mind on the brink of appreciation and self-transformation. This is the genius of haiku.
The natural objects selected in the “canon” of classical haiku poetry are most representative because their existence is rooted beyond human contrivance. Choosing objects from technology or modern times breaks the sentiment of the poem because it turns itself back on itself, rather than serving as a vehicle, rather than serving to bring nature into harmony with the reader. Thus, from
object --> meaning
we would, with modern or unnatural objects, instead get
contrivance --> object --> contrived meaning
It is the very nature, the very “coming-into-being” of the object that makes the difference.
An example of a natural object is dew. The representative poet is Issa (1763-1828). Issa is considered the sentimentalist of the three great haiku poets, the other two being Basho (the artist) and Buson (the aesthete). The life of Issa was a tragic one. He lost his mother at 3, his father remarried to a hostile woman, Issa’s stepmother, and Issa’s doting grandmother died when he was 14. In adulthood he lost his wife, and all his children died in their youth. When his little daughter died at 2 and a half years — the second or third child to die young — Issa wrote a poem with the header or prescript: “Losing a Beloved Child”:
This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop —
And yet — and yet —
The dewdrop is a consummate symbol of evanescence and impermanence. The natural object here conveys this sentiment in its very naturalness, its very beingness. Issa would have understood the Buddhist precept, the admonition to detachment from that which does not last, or at any rate, that which does not last long compared to other things — symbolized by dew.
But Issa wonders if that detachment can be possible in this most heart-wrenching situation, the death of a small child. The world is like a dew drop, we are like dew drops, but does that dispense with or thwart love and affection and its corollary sorrow? Does it shield us from emotions? More pressing, Issa wonders: Why do we feel this deep love and compassion and grief for that which will go away? For that which we know consciously (or in repression) will go away? What does nature intend of us? Is the Buddhist admonition true? Is our anguish worse than the hollow comforts of the admonition that does not understand how or what we feel? Such is the weight of Issa’s poem in provoking a whole realm of reflection.
In other poems, Issa uses the image of dew to further explore the sentiment of evanescence.
“I will have nothing more to do
With this sordid world” —
And the dew rolls away.
On the lotus leaf,
The dew of this world
From the white dew-drops,
Learn the way
To the Pure Land.
In the first poem of these latter three, even the dew recognizes the sorrow of self-consciousness and asserts its philosophy of life — only to roll away, to disappear. Our very attempt to assert our detachment, our disengagement from the “sordid world” is a vanity, for the course of nature itself will surely detach us, regardless of what we think.
For the very evanescence we apprehend is distorted, is too evanescent to disclose reality to us, to reveal to us the mysteries of existence. Perhaps even the lotus, that symbol of wisdom in Eastern tradition, cannot retain the dew in its purest form, cannot serve as a symbolic vehicle for dew.
That is why, in the third poem, Issa suggests that we must learn to not assert anything, to observe quietly, to learn the way from the evanescence we witness around us. For the way does not consist in triumphantly proclaiming that we have learned something, learned anything. Conversely, we must not proclaim that we are ignorant, that we do not know, that we have not fathomed any mysteries. We must be comfortable with this quiet insecurity, this not-knowing. No shame attaches to us as if this not-knowing as if it were a failure of diligence and intellect. Rather, it is that we cannot apprehend , we cannot reason our way into the mysteries of existence. Everything in nature shows us that.
We can explore the depths of this sentiment best in classical haiku. Issa is a good example.