Haiku are short. Their brevity is part of their appeal. And part of that appeal is that they naturally give rise to discussion and comment. A few years ago I began to think of the commentarial literature on haiku as in some ways comparable to the tradition of Midrash found in Judaism.
Midrash consist of commentaries on Jewish scripture by noted Rabbis. These comments have been collected and often stand next to each other in Midrashic collections. Often these comments do not agree with each other; instead various opinions and rulings on the meaning of a verse from scripture are offered. And these various opinions are used to stimulate further engagement on the verse by those reading the commentaries.
I first felt this connection with Midrash when reading Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary by Makoto Ueda. In this work Ueda has collected a significant number of Basho’s ‘hokku’ (Ueda uses the term that Basho would have used). Following the hokku, Ueda lists short commentaries by various Japanese authors or scholars; typically there will be somewhere between five and ten comments.
The layout is as follows: first a translation of the hokku. Second, the Japanese in romaji. Third, directly underneath the romaji, a literal English translation of each Japanese word. Fourth, a brief ‘Note’ explaining any cultural items that the reader might not be familiar with. These first four items are at the top of the page. Fifth, filling the bulk of the page, and sometimes going over to the next page, a list of comments with attributions.
I began to make the comparison to Midrash because not all of these comments agree with each other. Most often the disagreement is over what the hokku emphasizes, though sometimes the evaluation of the worth of the hokku will differ. But Ueda makes no attempt to reconcile these various opinions and comments. He simply lets them stand, allowing the reader to enter into different dimensions of observation that the hokku has brought forth in the minds of various readers.
I am not suggesting that Ueda was thinking of Midrash when he collected these comments. Rather, I am noting what I think of as a cross-cultural similarity. More likely, Ueda was thinking of collections of koan found in the Zen tradition such as The Blue Cliff Record. These collections begin with a brief, pithy, story of an ancient Chinese Zen Master interacting with a student. There follows a question, or koan, about the incident. In The Blue Cliff Record the koan question is followed by comments from various Zen Masters, most of which are cryptic. There is some resemblance here in that the different comments are left as they are without an attempt to reconcile them. But because the comments in The Blue Cliff Record are often obscure, they seem to serve a different purpose than the ones found in Midrash or in Ueda’s collection of commentaries on Basho, as neither of these cultivate obscurantism. Again, I doubt that Ueda had familiarity with Midrash and it might seem inappropriate to make this kind of cross-cultural comparison. I can only say that this is where my mind was lead and I found the comparison personally illuminating; perhaps others will as well.
Midrash developed systematized approaches to commentary consisting of various levels of analysis; the literal, the prophetic, the historical, the analogical, etc. Haiku commentary, at least the little that I have read, have not developed these kinds of analytical schemes. Commentaries on haiku seem to be more spontaneous and off-the-cuff. A good example is The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki by Robert Aitken. In this collection Aitken collects brief, single page, comments on Japanese haiku he enjoyed and admired. His comments, for the most part, consist of instructive lessons. Here is an example:
The Voice of the Spider
kumo nan to/ oto won an to naku / aki no kaze
With what sound,
with what voice, oh spider
the autumn wind.
This verse is not an in-joke like “The Bagworm,” which I quoted some time back, but a profound question in an altogether different dimension. Spiders do have a voice, a way of communicating with each other. “What is it?” Basho asks. “I want to hear it.” He is the ultimate environmentalist. Without a trace of anthropocentrism, he still feels alien, and he wants to enlarge himself to include the spider world. “Me too,” the earnest entomologist would murmur.
Aitken was an American Zen Master who taught for many decades in Hawaii. He knew R. H. Blyth; they were interred together in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during W. W. II. As a Zen teacher, Aitken uses haiku as an occasion to offer a moral, or homiletic, observation that is consistent with his purpose to impart the Buddhadharma to his students. Because Aitken’s purposes are homiletic, we do not find any poetic analysis. For example, the fact that line 2 is a long count line is not mentioned, because it is not part of the context that Aitken is speaking from.
I enjoy reading Aitken’s commentaries and the commentaries found in Ueda’s collection. But what I want to suggest here is that commentary is a central part of the haiku tradition and it is a signal that haiku is sinking roots in our culture that there is slowly developing a tradition of English language haiku commentary. In The Haiku Apprentice by Abigail Friedman, the author describes her apprenticeship with a haiku teacher while she was a resident in Japan. Friedman describes how the haiku sensei will read a haiku and then give a talk about it. My sense is that these talks are often storytelling, with some formal observations also being made.
This aspect of storytelling, of using haiku as an occasion for commentary, is, I think, one of the things that make haiku so appealing. Because of their brevity, haiku invite us to fill in, or expand, the observation, and to consider the meaning of what is being offered to us.
There are other collections of haiku commentary emerging in English. Haiku Mind by Patrician Donegan is a good example. And Blyth’s work often contain commentary that could become part of a Midrashic style collection.
I think this is all to the good. And perhaps we can develop, Midrash style, different approaches to commentary. For example, one approach would be formal which might include the syllable count, the overall structure (single sentence, juxtaposition, list), and poetic devices such as alliteration, metaphor, simile, etc. Another approach might be sociological and biographical, discussing the author’s place in society and how this impacts their haiku (e.g. Edith Shiffert as a woman and Richard Wright as a black man). Another level of commentary might be to use the haiku as an occasion for storytelling and/or offering some kind of life lesson. This is the approach taken by Aitken and Donegan. Explicitly religious interpretations, sometimes offered by Blyth and Donegan, are also an approach which can offer us some insight.
This seems to be happening on its own, as a natural outpouring of interest in haiku. These elaborations enrich our understanding, lead us to dimensions of the haiku we may not have considered, and help us to comprehend the power that words have for our hearts and minds. I look forward to seeing more of this kind of writing.