A Luminous Presence
I only discovered Edith Shiffert recently. Since finding her I have enjoyed spending time with her poetry. She writes in two styles. The first is in free verse and it appears to me to be an approach to free verse that has much in common with Kenneth Rexroth. Shiffert’s second approach to poetry is syllabic. Her syllabic poetry is focused primarily on syllabic haiku; though there is also a single, and superb, example of a syllabic Hyakuin Renga (100 Verse Renga). It is intriguing to me that when Shiffert decided to compose Haiku she adopted the traditional 5-7-5 syllabics rather than the free verse approach to lineation. But perhaps this is not so surprising after all. I have noticed that free verse poets who turn to Haiku tend to distinguish their Haiku from their other poetic efforts by adopting the traditional syllabic structure; think of Haydn Caruth as a good example.
Here is one of Shiffert’s Haiku that I have come to really love:
I feel my spirit
glowing in a dark forest
like the last red leaves
(The Light Comes Slowly, by Edith Shiffert, page 92, the ‘December’ Chapter)
This is a richly textured Haiku using multiple layers of metaphor and simile. The Haiku begins with an opening sentence: ‘I feel my spirit’, which could have a period at the end of it as it is a simple statement. This is then followed in line 2 by the metaphor, ‘glowing in a dark forest’. Line 2 is then followed by a simile, ‘like the last red leaves’. Line 1 states the experience which is followed in Lines 2 and 3 by images that help the reader to comprehend what it means to ‘feel my spirit’.
This Haiku is completely an interior experience. Its focus is inward. When we talk about our interior lives, our emotions, our tendencies, and our spiritual experiences, we almost always rely on the tools of metaphor, simile, analogy, etc., to communicate to others those experiences. This is because we are unable to point to the interior object in the way we can point to objects in nature or objects that are human made. If someone doesn’t understand what I mean by ‘chair’ I can point to one to explain what I mean, or I can draw one. But if someone doesn’t understand what I mean by ‘love’, I can’t point to my inner state. Instead I have to illustrate this by making an analogy, metaphor, or tell a story which, hopefully will elicit the same interior reaction in the hearer and thereby bridge the gap that has appeared between us. This strategy doesn’t always work, but no one has found a better one and it is the approach we naturally rely on.
I have found Buddhist psychology helpful in placing this kind of Haiku within the tradition of Haiku in general. In traditional Buddhist psychology there are six senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind (small ‘m’ mind). The idea here is that mind perceives interior objects in the same way that the eye perceives forms and colors, in the way that the ear hears sounds. That is why we can say “I feel angry”, or “I am happy for you”; because we have the capacity to perceive mental states in the same way that we perceive rocks and clouds, in the same way that we hear birds and passing cars, in the same way that we smell incense and toast, etc. (For those who may know a little about basic Buddhist categories of analysis, the six senses and their realms of experience fall under the aggregate (skandha/khanda) of ‘perception’, not under the category of ‘feeling’. The feeling aggregate has to do with attraction, repulsion, or neither-attraction-nor-repulsion.)
In other words traditional Buddhist psychology lays a foundation for experiencing internal states on an equal footing with our experiences of the external world of forms, colors, sounds, and other sensations. If this view is adopted, then interior states, as much as exterior objects, become material for Haiku. In this way it is possible to incorporate into our Haiku our emotional responses and feelings in our encounters with nature because such interior states are part of the landscape, as much so as mountains and streams.
Shiffert’s Haiku takes a step farther into the interior of our lives. This Haiku is entirely interior; there is no exterior occasion to which the Haiku refers. In other words, this Haiku is not about our emotional responses to an exterior appearance; rather it is about the interior realm as such: It is an exploration of our interior lives.
Let’s look at this Haiku line by line.
Line 1 is ‘I feel my spirit’. This announces the topic of the Haiku, the spirit. Shiffert notes that she ‘feels’ her spirit, that is to say the presence of the spirit is known through feeling. This makes the experience a heart-centered experience. Recognizing the presence of spirit is a matter of feeling, not of analysis. It is also a personal experience, hence the use of the first person pronoun ‘I’. Yet this personalization of her experience makes it more accessible to all of us. That is one of the paradoxes about the interior; that we most clearly communicate our interior experiences to others when we personalize them, rather than talking about them in terms of abstractions and generalities. Imagine if Line 1 had read, ‘The presence of spirit’, or ‘One feels the spirit’, or ‘Know spirit by feeling’. It is the first person pronoun which allows us to also enter into Shiffert’s experience and compare it to our own.
Notice how the absence of a pronoun in the first and third rewrites I offered is actually more oppressive; they take on the tone of an argument or an adopted position/view. The second rewrite uses the abstract pronoun ‘One’; and again such usage makes Line 1 argumentative, like I am telling people how they should experience the presence of spirit. It is the use of the first person pronoun which keeps this Haiku humble and because of that humility gives the overall Haiku a tone of discovery rather than argument. And because the tone is one of discovery, the Haiku is an invitation for us to also enter into this interior realm.
Line 2, ‘glowing in a dark forest’ is a metaphor that explains to us what Shiffert means by feeling the presence of her spirit. The presence of the spirit resembles something glowing in a dark forest. I found this description just right. When I turn to the interior at times, fairly often, what I perceive is a tangled darkness; very much like a dark forest. Yet if I persist, over time, the presence of the spirit is felt. How is it felt? It resembles a glowing, interior light, understanding that light is also a metaphor. This experience of the inner light is found in many traditions. I suspect it is universal in the sense that it transcends culture; not in the sense that everyone has had this experience, but in the sense that everyone has access to the experience. I am reading this Haiku through my own Quaker Faith and Practice where the experience of the inner light is foundational for the whole tradition. I even brought this Haiku to the attention of my Meeting as I thought it so well depicted what many Quakers have described as their relationship to the inner light.
Line 3, ‘like the last red leaves’, is a simile that suggests to the reader what Shiffert understands by ‘glowing in a dark forest’. The interior glow of the spirit resembles the experience we have of seeing the last read leaves of late autumn/early winter. Line 3 gives this Haiku the traditional seasonal reference of Haiku. I find it revealing that Shiffert places this Haiku in the ‘December’ Chapter (the collection of Haiku is structured with twelve chapters, one for each month of the year). This further places the Haiku in a seasonal context.
I picture Line 3 as early December. I am walking through the woods. The leaves have all fallen. I am walking on a winding path that goes around large bounders that are here and there on the forest floor. I come around a boulder and there in a clearing stands a maple tree with red leaves; the last tree in the forest that still has its leaves. The red leaves glow, their presence is beautiful.
And this leads to another aspect of Line 3: the function of beauty. Just as the last red leaves are beautiful and attractive, so also the glow of the spirit, the inner light, is attractive. That is why, even though at times we feel like we are lost in a dark forest when we turn within, even so we persist in the interior quest. We persist because the presence of the spirit is inherently attractive.
Without explicitly saying so, Shiffert is pointing to the intimate connection between beauty and the transcendent which is the presence of the spirit in the individual. If we follow beauty to its source, which lies within, there we find the spirit glowing.
This is a masterfully constructed Haiku. Each Line draws us deeper into the interior of our own lives, and offers us, in a sense, a roadmap to that experience of spirit which Shiffert opens with. All the traditional elements of Haiku are present: the syllabic count, the seasonal reference, the clarity of lineation. At the same time, this Haiku is fresh and new in its subject matter.
This is a Haiku to savor and contemplate.