The Past in the Present
Those of us who have a long-standing interest in English Language Haiku often have a personal collection of favorites. I have a group of ‘top ten’. I’ve noticed over the years that this clutch of Haiku favorites shifts as I make room for new Haiku that I am reading. Yet there are a few that seem to lodge themselves in the top tier of my favorites and have stayed there over many years.
One of my favorites is a Haiku by Charles Walker:
Still and silent dawn
The aroma of wood smoke
Other times and places
(Haiku and High Timber, page 65)
Ever since I have read it, this Haiku has stayed with me. I find it particularly attractive and exemplary.
The syllable count is 5-7-6, for an overall count of 18 syllables. This is well within the bounds of traditional Haiku. The long Line 3 does not feel overextended. The lineation is clear; there are no run-ons. Each line depicts an element of the Haiku.
The structure of this Haiku is of the list type. That is to say that this Haiku is not a single sentence type of Haiku, nor is it a two-part Haiku centered on, or pivoting around, a juxtaposition. Grammatically, each line is a phrase; notice the absence of any verb. Each line is an item and the three lines together form a collage that creates a coherent whole.
Line 2 depicts the temporal setting: Still and silent dawn. This tells us the time of day, but Line 1 also is a seasonal indicator. A ‘silent dawn’ is not likely to be Spring or Summer because dawn in those seasons is likely to be accompanied by bird calls and perhaps the movements of trees in a seasonal breeze. Spring and summer both contain activity in the morning hours. Both fall and winter are possible candidates for the season as depicted in Line 1.
Line 2 narrows the focus both in terms of time and space: ‘The aroma of wood smoke’. First, in terms of space Line 2 brings our attention from the general setting of dawn to the specific act that is happening; wood smoke from a fire and its aroma. Notice also the adding of the sense of smell to the Haiku in Line 2. Line 2 contains both visual and olfactory elements. In addition, the season is now likely confirmed as fall as camping in Winter season is more rare than camping in the Fall season. With Line 2 I tend to think of the month as either October or November.
Line 3 expands the sensation of both time and place; it is both a temporal and spatial shift. The combining of both temporal and spatial expansion in a single line is done elegantly, smoothly; and it is one of the reasons why I place this Haiku in my ‘top ten’ Haiku. In lesser hands line three might have been a comment about the sky, an expansion of the visual setting. For example, ‘Beneath the clear sky’, or ‘A few autumn clouds’, or ‘Bare oak tree branches’, etc. Or, perhaps a more modern approach, might have added something personal such as, ‘The taste of coffee’, or ‘Vanishing dreams’, etc. Another possibility would be to add a detail to the scene: ‘The distant mountains’, or ‘Oak tree shadows’, etc.
All of these possibilities work and no doubt the reader can think of additional possibilities. And they would have rounded out the Haiku in a pleasant way.
The key to the beauty of this Haiku is the sudden expansion that Line 3 offers by placing the morning scene into a broad spatial and temporal field. Line 3 also offers us an observation of what is going on in the interior of the implied person who is present. In Lines 1 and 2 we have a Haiku that is painting a picture, a landscape. But in Line 3 the person appears and we enter into the subjectivity of the person who is by the fire. It is the subjectivity of the person that functions as the gate to the expansion of the temporal and spatial moment.
In Line 3 we interact with the person in the Haiku; the person is recalling ‘other times and places’. This takes the Haiku scene beyond the present moment, from the isolated now, into the larger dimensions of time and space. This Haiku demonstrates how our moments are not a series of separated snapshots; rather they are woven into the fabric of the past, emerge from the past. The now is not a finger snap; it is a vast field that incorporates previous experience in both time and in space.
This kind of temporal and spatial shift is what makes this Haiku sparkle. Spatial shifting in Line 3 is found in many Haiku; it is an effective technique. Temporal shift in Line 3 is more rare, but I have observed it in, for example, some Haiku by Edith Shiffert. Combining a temporal and spatial shift, and using subjectivity as the gate to this shift, is, I think, rare. At least I have not often encountered it. And to accomplish this shift with such elegance; well, Walker has really done a fine job here.
There is a quiet, contemplative, and relaxed feeling about this Haiku. This Haiku illuminates the nature of the 'now'. We have a tendency to shrink our understanding of the present down to a single moment; to isolate the now as if it is disconnected, as if it stands alone. This Haiku opens up the now into its larger dimensions. It guides us easily to ‘other times and places’.