Guest Editorial: Jerome Berglund

Jerome Berglund

Urban Decay: Micropoetry in the tradition of Sabi

Setu Bilingual Journal’s Masters Series Part I

guest edited by Jerome Berglund


Disclaimer: this series has been curated by someone relatively new to the discipline of haikai, described by certain authorities as a ‘pretentious arsehole’ who ‘needs to read more’ theory, has incensed some for irresponsibly ‘throwing around Japanese terms’. While unrepentant, I highly encourage readers to seek out more qualified, accredited sources who have discussed these topics, ideas and concepts more knowledgeably in greater detail and depth across the vast body of criticism related to Asian poetics, much of which is available online, and more in print, through resources such as the Haiku Foundation, Graceguts, in essays and commentary about the pages of fine publications like Frogpond, Ribbons, Presence, Seashores, and Modern Haiku—not to mention the informative monthly mailings which represent one valuable benefit of membership (available domestically and internationally) to the Haiku Society of America. The perspectives and opinions, conclusions and assertions espoused herein are my own, just one enthusiastic novice haijin and aspiring scholar, admittedly possessing a limited exposure to the troves of classical verses out there, a fraction of which have made the journey to my own from their native language I am not fluent in. A grain of salt is recommended, nay always imperative.  



Digging Deeper and Extrapolating

It is a widely held belief that English language haikai, as it is commonly understood by the general public, and was first widely practiced in North America and elsewhere, has placed too much emphasis on the counting of syllables (conversely, widespread flagrant disregard for metric targets and parameter components in modern applications is a ‘whole ‘nother can of worms’ worth reconsidering elsewhere) and not enough time studying, understanding, employing key aesthetic, philosophic, thematic principles which in their native iterations have come to define and proved critical tenets to Japanese short form poetry foundations, from the antediluvian waka to our contemporary senryu and gendai experimentalism, tanshi

Just as without seasonality and some manner of cutting mechanism a poem cannot be considered to have met the optimal criteria for a haiku, a dearth of certain key ingredients in a piece’s spicing will weaken its impact and success exemplifying the rich and storied tradition, and hamper understood acceptance into specific archetypal frameworks.

Throughout the course of our first two showcases in Setu’s master series we will highlight some especially laudable voices and talents in the international ELH community whose oeuvres have demonstrated these aesthetics and techniques in edifying and instructive manners, including both highly experienced, renowned legends, as well as impressive emerging figures who excitingly have recently been making noteworthy waves splashing across the old pond.

To understand our first two topics wabi and sabi (often discussed together in concert as wabi-sabi, but worth thoughtfully examining and treating separately to better appreciate the nuances of each and distinguish between) it will be beneficial to consider the idea of dialectics and how they relate to binaries in kigo/kidai, tone, and setting of Eastern poems.

Hegel argues that tensions from opposing forces, constant tug of war between distant poles, are what keep different systems animated and help them persist and endure. In many senses this can explain haikai’s constant thriving and durability, evolving and changing shape almost cyclically across centuries and even over the course of single generations. You can readily discern these conflicting dualities across the landscape and history, and they are not dissimilar to some of the most famous ones outlined by anthropologists and theologians. 

Buffs in Olympian mythology may recall the commonly described Apollo-Dionysus dialectic. Intriguingly, that plays out not at all dissimilarly to one between the styles and techniques of Bashō and Issa (serious-ribald), Shiki and Buson (concrete/experienced-abstract/imaginative), and between the modes of haiku and senryu, tanka and kyoka generally. And if we examine structures fastidiously it is not absurd to determine that the core seasons and underpinning aesthetics of Japanese poetry can each be correspondingly plotted, occupy a clear and specific, recognizable space along that same continuum.

The Japanese conceptualize five seasons in a year, and can also envision some subjects and settings to occupy a seasonless space. On an axis one may very reasonably determine Summer and Winter to reside furthest apart in this arrangement, I also find it useful to place the fifth season of new years and the no season category toward the less weighted, neutral center.

Summer           Spring              New Year Seasonless              Fall                  Winter

There are multiple techniques and aesthetics which through widespread practice have been carefully established if somewhat vaguely defined, that are considered integral to the art and philosophies of Eastern versification. These, one discovers, may be conceived to coincide fascinatingly and strikingly at times with analogous overarching seasons.

On the Spring/Summer side the approaches and feelings of karumi (lightness, levity) and shasei (sketches from life, the everyday prosaic) cotton quite marvelously to this framing. Passing the mysterious yûgen and dreaming room open-endedness in the center which might match with those other categories, we arrive at the opposite extreme where we will examine this month’s subject sabi (rusting) and its close comrade wabi (poverty), which align with intriguing clarity to autumn and winter, one may defend contending.

Like the four noble truths of Buddhism, a more conversant expert could – surely has – lecture for hours, spend ten pages defining each of these Japanese terms more expansively and correctly; I encourage you to seek out the Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson and peruse a short, sweet glossary Jane Reichhold compiled if you have not yet had the enlightening opportunity to explore these concepts methodically…

The Masters of Sabi


So what is sabi, and how may we isolate and differentiate its unique character from often coinciding instances of wabi? Are these ideas best understood as techniques which may be applied, or should we deem them aesthetics? When discussing and juxtaposing between and within poems containing elements of very different approaches, can overlaps exist as on a Venn diagram or are certain aspects (karumi and wabi, yûgen and shasei) diametrically opposed and by their natures incompatible, mutually exclusive, of differing viscosities which in unison would be destined to clash and separate, like oil and water?

Wikipedia notes that “in linguistics, a circular definition is a description of the meaning of a lexeme that is constructed using one or more synonymous lexemes that are all defined in terms of each other.” Each of these notions has, over hundreds of years of prolific usage across multiple mediums (from architecture to visual arts, tea ceremonies and flower arrangement), accumulated a variety of definitions, some of which vary widely and may be more or less helpful to poetic applications. Perhaps the most constructive way to integrate their je ne sais quoi, innumerable translations and facets into a collective picture, create a mosaic of disparate fragments and assemble a comprehensive overview of the patterns and commonalities, is by thoughtfully reflecting upon some poignant examples.

Sabi is certainly not confinable to the season of Fall, nor wabi to Winter or karumi to Spring.  In this and the showcase to follow we have sought out many examples of work in which the kigo (seasonal words) and kidai (seasonal topics) of these aesthetics and feelings run parallel, but you will certainly have little difficulty finding, readily encounter no shortage of opposite tendencies evincing levity in Winter (e.g. lighthearted holiday poems), poverty and aging in Spring and Summer (lifeless desert scenes, heat waves or bleak toil).  

We’re fortunate to have enlisted the aid of some of our day’s most sensational and accomplished poets from around the world who have over the course of their writing and publishing careers demonstrated particular penchants for exemplifying these sensibility and subtle vibrations. By conscientiously examining the tools, methods, iconography and building blocks expertly deployed we shall swiftly gain a deeper understanding of sabi which I hope will reinforce readers’ appreciations and improve their personal practice applying these concepts across own Eastern influenced writing and artwork….

Jerome Berglund has published book reviews and essays on poetry and poetics in Fireflies’ Light, Frogpond, Haiku Canada, Hooghly Review, the Mamba, North of Oxford, Setu, Valley Voices, also frequently exhibits poetry, short stories, plays, and fine art photography in print magazines, online journals, and anthologies.

Poets in Urban Decay: Masters of Sabi

Bryan Rickert
Kimberly A. Horning
JL Huffman
Stephen J. DeGuire
Arvinder Kaur
John Hawkhead
Susan Burch
Kathy Watts
Adele Evershed

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