Wednesday, February 15, 2012

haiku retrospective cccxviii

A lot of people don't get juxtaposition. This doesn't surprise me. Juxtaposition is not a Western way of looking at the world. We Westerners like to fill in the links, to explain everything. We don't often give people the elements of the realization and let them fill in the details for themselves.

Juxtaposition, though, is the power of haiku. It's the thing that makes haiku an art form. A good juxtaposition vibrates with power, and turns the two images into something that is bigger than both of them put together. It's a form of magic.

I wanted an example of juxtaposition, so I plucked two elements from my environment and typed them in:

gold-tinged leaves
the drone of the saw
goes on and on

I noticed the saw first, because it's been droning on and on all morning. Someone is cutting up a down tree for firewood. It's like a giant dental drill, giving the sky a headache.

Outside my window, the leaves of one tree caught my attention. They are just starting to turn, and I wanted to capture that slight tint of gold that hints at the coming autumn color.

Okay, so I put those two images here to demonstrate juxtaposition. It's not an inspired haiku, but it is a finger exercise. I'm working on my juxtaposition muscles.

This haiku, like most of the early haiku, is also in a social context, which is this conversation. Haiku in a social context have another layer of meaning, one that often escapes the notice of haiku critics. I think this layer of meaning can actually make haiku stronger, because the haiku, in addition to being a juxtaposition of two elements of the natural world, can also be a commentary on the social interaction. Early haiku were often a compliment to the host, and other verses might be gently poke fun at someone at a gathering. Not overtly, as in the case of senryu, but through the use of something like analogy.

Now, in this context, I might have wrought more than I intended. I had no social agenda when I plucked haiku elements out of my environment. In this social milieu, however, "the drone of the saw goes on and on" has a certain edge to it. I could be commenting that the same old saws (rules and thoughts) come up again and again. I could be talking about how this discussion drones on and on. Or I could be talking about my own dogged insistence on juxtaposition, juxtaposition, juxtaposition.

Are there other ways in which my juxtaposition works?

The two elements are not causally or obviously related. A common mistake in haiku is to pull together two elements that have a so-what relationship:

spring rain
the robin drinks from a puddle
of snow melt

acid indigestion
he washes back a tums
with his beer

In these two cases, the individual elements are okay, but the pairing is predictable and so the resulting haiku make the reader yawn. Not good, unless the subject of the haiku is tedium.

You also don't want the two elements to be obvious opposites.

blazing sun
he takes another sip
of ice-cold lemonade

This is tedious in a different way.

Even though you don't want the two elements of the juxtaposition to be obviously linked, you want a resonance between the two elements. A strong juxtaposition creates an intense resonance, but doesn't cross the border into obviousness.

This resonance was totally mysterious to me until I read a lot of commentary on Japanese haiku. The resonance comes out of the words of the haiku, the way they set off associations in the brain of the reader. Resonance depends on cultural context, on people having the same sets of associations to given words.

24 October 2003

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