Guest Editorial: Jerome Berglund

Jerome Berglund

Discontent: the icy beauty of poverty evinced through wabi

Setu Bilingual Journal’s Masters Series Part II

guest edited by Jerome Berglund

 (If you read background/context last month it is the same here, feel free to skip to introduction where new content begins!)

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 Wabi


Last month we had great fun unpacking, considering, parsing through the many facets, components, and gradations of sabi as they commonly appear – often paralleling or amplifying Autumnal associations – in Japanese originating short form poetry, and here we are enthused to set our sights upon the frequently overlapping, interrelated aesthetic or technique of wabi


It behooves us to begin by citing a crucial caveat Jane Reichhold reminded Haiku Society of America readers in Frogpond over twenty years back, speaking of sabi but no less applicable to wabi: these expressions “[have] gotten so many meanings over the innumerable years [they have] been in Japan, and now that [they] come to the English language [are] undergoing even new mutations…the Japanese have maintained for centuries that no one can really, truly comprehend what sabi is and thus, they change its definition according to their moods.

The seasonality so core to haikai philosophy in many senses can be interpreted as a reflection and concrete representation of the cyclical – in opposition to linear, beginning to end frameworks of western Abrahamic faiths – vision of eastern spiritual traditions rooted in continual sequences of life, death, rebirth. Within the dogma and practice of Zen Buddhism (Hinduism and Jainism, Norse legends arguably in different formulations too) is a process known as samsara in which the individual aspires to eventually transcend that ‘wheel’ of suffering through achieving moksha, a release of sorts not easily managed, requiring serious enlightenment, detachment from material concerns, and fulfilling of duties or dharma.

We previously plotted our seasons and their symbolic representations along dialectics or binaries, but it is just as easy and useful to observe how they equally match the intuitive, familiar depiction of a narrative plot arc, and in the horseshoe created by connecting front and back (or sin waves if one prefers to envision that way) may be perceived as a never-ending loop, matching the eternal orbits our moon circles us with, we in turn make on this blue dot revolving predictably, across an ever expanding universe, in perpetuity around the sun.   


These abstract concepts can be instrumental towards understanding wabi and differentiating it from, appreciating where a line may be drawn, it shall be detected diverging perceptibly from sabi in different instances, as we will witness shortly throughout a stunning array of poems from an impressive collection including many of the international writing community’s most capable contemporary publishing haiku and senryu poets.  

In his seminal Haiku Handbook, William J. Higginson defines and translates wabi and sabi both as ‘loneliness’, but as distinctive aspects of it, the latter as ‘patina…beauty with a sense of loneliness in time’, wabi as ‘poverty…beauty with a sense of asceticism; austere beauty’, which Reichhold clarifies as the appeal and attraction resulting from ‘living simply’. 


And indeed, one will have no difficulty grasping how ubiquitous and relatable both these feelings and realities are for us all, particularly to the traditionally destitute, nomadic haijin of antiquity, traveling on foot through harsh weather, battling elements and struggling constantly to survive yet still stubbornly clinging to the glories of their journeys, and comprehending the superiorities by specific metrics of modesty, liberty, independence, freedom such untethered lifestyles permit when various commitments and responsibilities are yielded in pursuit of other priorities. From a wandering rōnin to the American hobo, there is certainly romance in the mythology and ideal of these Romany existences, if there is also great anguish and sorrow invariable from insecurities and lack of sustaining resources, opportunity and capabilities.   


Returning to kigo and kidai, and why winter and fall often best approximate the aesthetics of poverty and rusting, it can be instructive to discern sabi in the crumbling, breakdown and fragmentation, whereas wabi follows in close succession at that terminus where nothing remains to surrender. Sabi is the gradual losing, wabi that consequential absence resulting. Sabi is the deathbed or killing field, wabi the empty chairs and tables left behind. Via the most recognizable iconography of these arts, sabi may best be distinguished in the cherry petals falling, wabi the world which succeeds them; sabi one finds in the withering of Bashō’s Fall tree branch, wabi that crow roosting upon it, and evening setting in as light dims transforming the scene to pitch blackness. In the aggregating composite dialogues juxtaposition, toriawase, cutting create in haiku, senryu, tanka conversations, there is similarly a reciprocal and cooperative relationship between these partners in space and time, for there shall not be wabi without sabi ushering it in and vice versa.  But in the progression, just as good cannot be demarcated from a vacuum, exists in many ways necessarily through its contrast with evils, emptiness and dearth, scarcity and humbleness will only be appraised in comparison to summer and prosperity, their cornucopias of activity and Epicurean voluptuousness! Without further ado, let us examine how these undercurrents naturally inform and shape exquisite verses by some of the most gifted English Language Haikuists of our day…

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.

Masters Series Part II: Wabi

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