With an Open Mind (/Map) (Posted in Haiku Matters 13 May 2013)

Peutinger Map (Part of)

Map-making has been traced back to the earliest of times. Maps help us orient, know our location, what other places there are, how to get there, what landmarks to look out for, depict how places are interconnected. They also help us with perspective-taking: we can picture our place as seen from someone else’s viewpoint, and vice versa. Although maps often turned out to be distorted or inadequate – the ‘flat earth’, for instance – and were replaced by improved ones, they were always part of our shared search for certainty.

Think of the time when maps had to be redrawn to incorporate scientific rather than theological notions of the earth. Reluctantly, we realized we were no longer the unique children of God, at the top of creation, living on an earth at the center of the universe, but tiny dots drifting along in a vast cosmos. The invention of the telescope allowed us to look beyond our narrow confines, revealing our common and humble origin and place in the world. Isn’t there a semblance here to what the internet and social media are doing today: making us realize that, rather than being solipsistic, only children, we are members of a large family sharing similar talents, creative ideas, concerns, ambitions?

Our need for map-making also extends to reading, as well as writing, haiku. While, as readers, we bring along our personal, familial, local, ideological baggage and while we open our hearts as well, we also need a map for finding our bearings in the haiku world, for becoming aware of the various ways this poetic form appears in; to stay with the metaphor, for knowing the position of other ‘planets’ or ‘stellar systems’ and their orbits and gravitational pulls.

Here is an instance of cartography in the haiku universe. In his essay in Frogpond, “Haiku as a Rhetorical Art. Haiku Poetics: Objective, Subjective, Transactional and Literary Theories”, Randy Brooks, following the Aristotelian tradition, considers the relationship between the basic elements of communication in writing – which he lists as reality, writer, reader, and language – and expands on a number of writing theories: the objective, subjective, transactional, and literary. If you bear with me, I’ll try to summarize them in one paragraph (the brevity here does them injustice – I urge you to follow up the link for the full map). But before I do, I’d like to quote Brooks’ caveat:

“…there is no ‘one way’ to write haiku, no single haiku poetic or haiku tradition to guide the writing and reception of haiku as a literary art. There is no final list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ that will codify the art of reading and writing haiku… On the broader level of haiku as a literary genre, we should embrace the observation that there are several ways, a multitude of traditions, a variety of haiku poetic theories. ”

For the purposes of this post, I’d emphasize that there is no ‘one way’ to read, analyze, or enjoy haiku either. There are the various ‘continents’, ‘planets’ in various orbits on the maps, and once we are aware of them, we can keep our direction or change it, if we wish to, more easily.

According to Brooks, the objective way of writing haiku involves perceiving and reporting nature in plain, objective words that convey direct sensory perception to the reader. The reader ‘steps into’ the writer’s perspective and reads the poem as intended. The subjective way emphasizes the inner, subjective world of the writer, expecting from the reader the role of a fan being interested in and understanding of the writer’s intended meaning; being inspired also to explore her own subjective experience. In transactional haiku poetics, reality is constructed and shared along a common language continuum between writer and reader. The reader is a socially aware partner in the creation of meaning. In literary poetics, writer and reader understand they inhabit a fictional world and use liberally the tools of fiction and poetry. The reader remains seated in the haiku audience, judging the literary merits of the artifact. Brooks notes a further poetical category in which some poems fit, that of disjunction, where one of the key elements of communication are intentionally omitted. For instance, the writer may be a software program, producing poems in some cases without even recording them, entirely unconcerned as to the existence of a reader.

All approaches, the latter excepted, require a certain degree of position and attitude from the reader as well as the writer. It may be that the transactional approach is the one which gives the reader the most say, the most ‘power’ vis-à-vis the writer. Through the cut, the season word, the juxtaposition of images, the disjunction, the reader, responding to the tension(s) created by the writer, contributes to the meaning of the poem, using her own experience, imagination, associations, gut response… In such a scenario, the writer may think she wrote a good enough haiku, but a reader’s reading may make it an exceptional one! Unfortunately, the reverse may be the case, too.

The Crab Nebula

Besides Brooks’ classification scheme, other haiku taxonomies have been developed. For instance, in his essay in Simply Haiku, “An Analysis of Haiku in 12-dimensional Space”, Charles Trumbull discusses a taxonomy of 12 independent dimensions, including: haiku ideology/aesthetics/poetics (Japanese vs. Western); haiku point of view (objective vs. subjective); haiku audience (to be shared vs. self-expression).

Basically, such taxonomies conceive of any haiku/poet as occupying a point in a multi-dimensional space or ‘cloud’ where the dimensions are fundamental, independent variables on which each particular haiku/poet is classified. The distribution of haiku matter in this cloud may be unequal, with sets of haiku/poets forming denser ‘galactic systems’ (FB Communities?) and with sparse matter in the inter-galactic space.

I have brought these two essays here for two reasons: first, to illustrate the importance of having a map – as a reader as well as a writer – to see where one is or where one is heading, especially if one reads poems from different traditions several times a day; and second, to remind us of the many varieties of haiku and of writers and readers.

Understanding the varieties of haiku traditions, experiences, forms, histories, and of our own assumptions only helps us be more open to them, navigate the haiku territories, and accept others’ as well as our own position in them. Also, the map-making may help us identify uncharted territories to be discovered and enjoyed in the haiku cosmos. Let’s boldly go… Or?

Let us know your take in this. How do you ‘read,’ place haiku, if at all? Your favorite maps, cool places to hang out?

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Brooks, Randy: “Haiku as a Rhetorical Art. Haiku Poetics: Objective, Subjective, Transactional and Literary Theories” (Frogpond 34.2, 2011 on the HSA site),

Trumbull, Charles, “An Analysis of Haiku in 12-dimensional Space” in Simply Haiku: Journal of Haiku and Related Forms, September-October 2004, vol. 2, no. 5

Interested in the idea of the “haikuverse”? See Melissa Allen’s series “Across the Haikuverse” in her blog, Red Dragonfly. Here is just one of the series

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More information about the Peutinger map here:

A copy of this map is displayed in the Augsburg Roman Museum, where about a year ago, I spent an interesting afternoon, tracing roads and countries on it (the Museum is currently closed for repairs).