Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time Shift

Time Shift

There is a technique used by many Haiku poets where the poet takes a specific image and then shifts to a much larger context.  Or the technique can be reversed: the poet can start with a very large context and then narrow the focus down to a single object.  In Jane Reichhold’s “Writing and Enjoying Haiku” she talks about this technique:

“This is a device that was often used by the Japanese master Buson because he, being an artist, was a very visual person.  Basically what you do is to start with a wide-angle lens on the world in the first line, switch to a normal lens for the second line, and zoom in for a close-up in the end. . .

the whole sky
in a wide field of flowers
one tulip”

(Page 58)

There are many Haiku that use this kind of shift.  Two-tiered examples are also available where the Haiku has a single, focused, image and then shifts to a larger context.

I’d like to suggest that the same can happen with time.  A single moment is depicted, followed by a shift to a larger context of time.  I mentioned in a previous post that I find these time-shift Haiku particularly attractive.  Here I would like to explore how various Haiku poets have done this.

Here is an example by Charles Walker:

Still and silent dawn
The aroma of wood smoke
Other times and places

(Page 65)

Line 1 gives us a present moment in time; a still and silent dawn.  Line 2 gives us a focus on a particular; my sense is that this depicts camping, hence the aroma of wood smoke.  In Line 3 we have the time shift to ‘other times and places’.  The Haiku places the moment into a larger temporal context through the usage of Line 3.  The setting stimulates a recollection of other times, and other places.  Line 3 also gives us a larger sense of place.  Perhaps there have been other camping trips, or perhaps the quiet contemplative scene recalls other events of quiet and rest.  Line 3 is open as to content and spacious in both a temporal and geographical sense.  I particularly enjoy the way the shift is done so smoothly.  There is a wonderful elegance about this Haiku which makes it a really fine example of this kind of shift.

James Moore is another Haiku poet who uses this kind of time shift in some of his Haiku.  Here is Haiku 389:

The familiar path
Across the field disappeared
With the first light snow

(The Haiku Companion, Page 78)

Line 1 is an image of a path, perhaps through a forest, perhaps in a park.  In Line 2 we get the time shift; it is done very gently.  Line 1 shows us a path, but in Line 2 the path has disappeared.  Why?  Line 3 tells us it is because of the first light snow.  So the reader moves from a single moment of visualizing a path, to an extended moment, a process, of the path slowly disappearing during a light snow.  The shift is from a single moment to an extended moment of a process with duration.  And it is very nicely done here.

Moore is sometimes more explicit about the extended moment.  Here is 106:

Today’s snow is down
Tomorrow’s is yet to fall
I walk between them

(Page 22)

Line 1 offers us an image of a snowscape that has just happened.  The snow has finished falling and we are looking at the result.  Line 2 gives us a future; perhaps we have read the weather report or we are attuned to the kind of sky that generates a soon-to-come snowfall.  Line 3 gives us a present moment: walking through the snow.  But the present moment of Line 3 is understood by the reader to be embedded in a field of time, an extended duration, which encompasses both a past and future snowfall.  This is one of the few Haiku I have read which explicitly names the three dimensions of time: the past in Line 1, the future in Line 2, and then ties them together in the present moment in Line 3.  The shift happens from the larger context depicted in Line 1 and 2 to the present moment depicted in Line 3.  This example of time shift strongly resembles Riechhold’s example of a shift in focus from a broad angel vision to a particular object.  In Reichhold’s haiku, quoted at the beginning above, we move from a broad focus in Line 1, “the whole sky”, to a narrower, but still general, focus in Line 2, “in a wide field of flowers”, to a single object in Line 3, “one tulip”.  In Moore’s example we move from the past in Line 1, to the future in Line 2, and then to a specific act in the present in Line 3, “I walk between them”.  The two Haiku both have a three-part structure, and both end in a specific image after opening in a larger context; but Reichhold’s Haiku is embedded in space, while Moore’s Haiku is embedded in time.

Perhaps the Haiku poet who uses this technique the most frequently is Edith Shiffert.  In her collection of Haiku, “Kyoto-Dwelling” I counted 28 Haiku that use time shift.  This is out of about 372 Haiku in the collection.  That’s about 7.5 %.  They are scattered through the collection.  Sometimes the time shift is very gentle.  Here is a Haiku from the ‘April’ Chapter:

Now it is morning
the birds have come to be fed.
Last night’s faded moon!

(Page 51)

Lines 1 and 2 gives us a present image; feeding birds in the morning.  Line 1 even begins with the word ‘now’; a strong placement in the present.  Line 3 shifts the sense of time to the past, ‘Last night’.  What I sense here is perhaps a sleepless night, a night spent watching the moon in restlessness, like the birds coming to be fed.  This is an example of the juxtaposition of time.  Line 3 suddenly adds a temporal dimension to the present image.

Shiffert sometimes accomplishes this time shift by noting the cyclic nature of what she is looking at in the present.  Here’s an example from the ‘November’ Chapter:

Without any leaves
the oak stands in the coldness
again this winter

(Page 106)

Through the single word ‘again’ in Line 3 Shiffert gives us an example of time shift.  Line 1 and 2 are in the present; an image of an oak in winter.  In Line 3 we get the shift; she has seen this before, the oak has looked like this before in the past.  Thus the simple image of Lines 1 and 2 is placed in a larger temporal context.

Here is an example that resembles the three part sequence Reichhold talks about regarding spatial placement, and also used by Moore; from the ‘October’ Chapter:

A week of dark clouds
and now this clear blue sky.
Dogs stretched out, at ease.

(Page 97)

Again, we move from a larger temporal context of a week, to a generalized present through the use of ‘now’, to a specific present in Line 3.  Lines 2 and 3 use the technique of Reichhold outlines of moving from a larger visual context to a specific visual context.  So this Haiku elegantly combines both temporal and spatial shifts.

Sometimes Shiffert’s temporal shifts are given an introspective dimension.  Here is one from the ‘June’ Chapter:

Knowing life will end,
blueness of hydrangeas.
I am satisfied.

(Page 63)

This is a lovely Haiku on the theme of impermanence; life will end, but the blueness of the flowers is, even so, satisfying.  Flowers are an image of impermanence themselves, so Line 2, in the present, resonates with Shiffert’s interior contemplation on her own passing.  Line 1 is the future, Line 2 shifts to the present, and Line 3 leads us into an interior present.  In this Haiku the world of nature, seen in the flowers, and the interior introspective world of the poet, are porous to each other.  I think this is beautifully done.

Sometimes Shiffert will express a time shift by explicitly naming it; from the ‘May’ Chapter:

Just a thousand days,
or just a thousand more years –
just that, nothing more.

(Page 58)

This is a Haiku on the relativity of time, how one instant can be ten thousand years.  Or how a thousand days and a thousand years resonate with each other.  Line 3 brings us into the present, again, with the poet’s introspection.

Time shifting can be vast, covering eons, or it can be a relatively short period of time.  Here is one where the time period is brief, from the ‘October’ Chapter:

The sky this morning
completely empty and bright
from a week of rain.

(Page 97)

Lines 1 and 2 are in the present; a morning sky empty and bright.  Line 3 shifts the time to the recent past; ‘a week’ is presented for the reader’s consideration.  There is a causal connection made between the time period of Line 3 and the present moment of Lines 1 and 2.  This causal linkage places the present moment in a larger temporal context.

Haiku that use some kind of temporal shift are my favorite type of Haiku.  I have a special fondness for them.  For me there is something really sparkling and attractive about them; they unpack the present as embedded in a larger context, a context that we often forget as our mind shrinks its range to present concerns.  There is something healing about bringing that larger context back to awareness.  I find Haiku ideally suited for this kind of temporal shift and placement because of its brevity.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the brevity of a Haiku combined with an expanded sense of time is what I call ‘provocative’; I mean by ‘provocative’ that it stimulates a larger awareness and understanding of how a brief moment is a moment in a vast field, the vast field of time.

In Haiku a season can be named, by saying ‘winter’, ‘spring’, etc., or an image that is embedded in the season can be used, such as ‘frost’ for winter, or ‘crocus’ for spring.  Similarly, time shifts can be named by using temporal words such as ‘last week’, ‘eons ago’, ‘a few months ago’, etc., or an image can be used from a different period of time.  Here’s an example of my own:

The silent traffic
Crossing the polluted stream
Herds of ghost mammoths

The Haiku starts with a present image.  In Line 3 the time shift takes place by using the ‘mammoths’ image, an image from a distant past.  The stream is the constant; present in the present and present in the past. 

In closing here is another introspective Haiku from Shiffert, from the ‘December’ Chapter:

Night after night
we watch these same stars
and bit by bit we age.

(Page 112)

Line 1 gives us a sense of cycle, the daily cycle.  Line 2 shifts to a visual image, the starscape at night.  And line 3 concludes with an introspection from Shiffert.  We are watching the same stars while we age with each passing night.  The Haiku opens with a vision of vastness, then concludes with a specific comment.  In some ways it resembles the three-part structure Reichhold notes, but the concluding Line 3 is an interior image, a thoughtful observation from the poet.  The shift is from the cyclic ‘night after night’ to the present in Line 3; how the vastness of the starscape impacts the poets thoughts in that moment.  Again we see how the world of nature and the interior world of the poet are porous to each other in Shiffert’s Haiku.

The past is present in our lives, and the future is too, though in a different way.  The present moment is a confluence of all of these dimensions.  Haiku has the capacity to articulately expand our awareness of these dimensions.

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