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Published in,
Valley Voices: A Literary Review 8:1
Mississippi Valley State University
Spring 2008, pp. 60-61.

Van Gogh’s Shoes: Thingness in Haiku

Jim Kacian

How does haiku differ from other kinds of poetry? This is a vast subject, and of course can’t really be answered—haiku is very like other kinds of poetry, at times, and at other times nothing like it at all. Which poetry it is, and which haiku, makes all the difference.

One characteristic of haiku that contrasts with other poetry is lack of story. That is, haiku are not generally in the business of trying to narrate a tale, though of course there may be a tale involved, either in the content of the poem, or in its discovery. If one is attempting to tell the story of the Trojan War, one might opt for a kind of poetry in which to tell it, but it assuredly won’t be haiku. (And so, naturally, a story, attributed to Basho: challenged by a man to include the Eight Views of Omi in a single verse (merely listing the names of the eight views would require more than 60-on), the poet produced shichikei wa kiri ni kakurete mii no kane —“ seven views / hidden in the mist— / the (temple) bell of Mii ”— returning story once again to poetry).

Haiku, as this example illustrates, are not so much opposed to narrative as beyond it—not telling tales, but encompassing them. Haiku have neither past nor future, and are not strictly narratable. As narrative fails, description takes over, bits and pieces obtrude. A description of bits and pieces is concerned with neither memory nor desire. It insists on the presence of that presented.

Of course bits and pieces may stir memory for an instant: they are signs. But they are never inclusive, and though selected, cannot aspire to conjuring the world whole in any individual poem. They are, instead, the meaningfully random, and only taken as a whole—that is, the entirety of all haiku ever written—does anything like comprehensiveness arise. The bits and pieces are not more than bits and pieces—they will remain for the duration of the poem exactly what they already are. But in accumulation they approach fractally the sum of reality, of mind. As I’ve written elsewhere, haiku, the world’s shortest poetry, agglomerates to haiku, the world’s longest poem. Read enough haiku, then, and the world will work in that special sense that literature permits.

Narrative keeps fresh the capacity for memory and desire that, in turn, freshens narrative. What bits and pieces keep fresh is something else again, something we might term sensibility. The Japanese coined special words for elements of this: sabi, for instance, and wabi, karumi, yugen. These collectively amount to a sort of nostalgia, a state which is not memory, is not desire, but requires access to them in order to work. These bits and pieces, these objects, were not considered worthy of description until they had acquired the patina of sensibility. This is considered to be revealing not only of the condition of objects, but of their owners or perceivers. There must be a sense of having been used that conveys worth. Poets are expected to spend some time in the presence of such detritus, in order to achieve tone. When the poet stops writing the stories of these objects and begins to describe them (or, as we are wont to say, permit them to speak for themselves), s/he is ready for haiku.

To make the abstract concrete: recall your favorite pair of jeans. You can’t quite throw them away, in part because they are enmeshed with your memories and desires, but also in part because they still work. You can wear them (to some places, anyway) without embarrassment and with physical and psychological comfort. Their utility has not been used up. They remain commodities in the real world sense.

But should you remove this commodity from the real world and make of it something else—an element in a painting or a poem, say—you have changed its meaning. This is precisely what Van Gogh does in his famous painting A Pair of Shoes (painted in Paris in 1886, just as the first wave of Japonisme was seizing the French avant-garde).

In this painting the shoes are immortalized not for their utility but for their affect. (Another tale: the story is told that Van Gogh bought these shoes at a flea market for use in a still life, but found them unready—only a long walk in the Parisian rain made them fit for paint.)

More generally, this commodification in haiku is an important element in its conveying of meaning. A commodity is an object worthy of exchange—that is, containing value in two minds. But it need not be the same value, and in fact in haiku objects are seen to be removed from their utility (although it was utility which created their worth) and elevated to the status of idea. This is an old conceit, here and abroad—in the west Karl Marx in Das Kapital defines commodification as a kind of transcendence; in the east, we have haiku.

The value of an object (in haiku, in Marxism) is not in its continued usefulness—that is, in its ability to contribute to the furtherance of a narrative that includes it—but rather simply as itself in its current state. Such an object has no past and no future—it simply is, and now. But haiku values this not in commercial (that is, real) terms, but on its own terms. In haiku, matter survives commodification intact, even inside the idea that has made it a commodity, where it can be grasped by a theory: not Marx's theory, but literature’s. One might say there are two kinds of commodification: the real, theorised by Marx, which raises matter into meaning and value but always the same “hard currency” meaning and value; and the abstract, theorised in literature, which raises it, oddly, yet further, into a compelling particularity (in fact, into a type of particular). That is, it re-objectifies the object. This is precisely haiku’s method.

There are western analogues, of course, most specifically suggested in the philosophy of Heidegger, and by William Carlos Williams's “No ideas but in things.” This does not suggest that there should be no ideas at all, but rather that objects be the necessary condition for ideas. This is an important extension of our understanding of haiku, in that it permits it to grow beyond a simple listing of objects to the repository of idea, and so a greater claim to inclusiveness. The best haiku, Japanese and western, arise from the “thingness” of their elements that suggests breadth of thought and possibility. It is in this “(post-)modern” sense of the object that we are to find the direction for growth in haiku. Not just knowing the difference between an object and a thing, but also the sense of things having nothing to do with the sensation of thingness. The being of things lies no more in the details of their mere physicality than does the being of humans. Objects are to be reobjectified not by an accretion of details but by their powers of allusion, the accumulation of meanings and feelings which people have found therein.

If haiku is to remain viable, it must not be a catalog poetry, but a poetry of emanation. This flies in the face of most supposed definitions of haiku as “moments keenly perceived” if we take perception to be the close noticing of attributes. Rather it must become what Wallace Stevens suggested in “The Plain Sense of Things” when he anticipates the wearing thin of meaning imbued in things, but recognizes that in reality such is inexhaustible, even if it must rebound upon ourselves: “Yet the absence of the imagination,” he continues, “had / Itself to be imagined.”

     Winchester, VA