Haiku, Time, and Allegory
I have posted here before about haiku that involve a shift in time. They are my favorite kind of haiku. Shift in space is more common and in manuals for haiku composition I have observed that this kind of shift is encouraged. The idea is, for example, to start with a tightly focused observation, and then there is a shift to a larger spatial context. It is effective, readers enjoy this feeling.
The same pattern can be applied to time, though it happens more rarely in haiku. I think it is more difficult to pull off. The idea is to have a specific observation and then place that observation into a broader temporal context.
One project I am working on now is to pull together my essays and commentaries on Richard Wright’s haiku. My hope is that there is enough for a book. I have also been working on a concordance of Wright’s published haiku. In preparing the concordance I have been going through his haiku at a slow pace. I discovered that Wright has a few haiku that involve this kind of shift in temporal placement. Here is the first:
A spring sky so clear
That you feel you are seeing
Line 1 gives the seasonal reference and a minimal skyscape. When I read it I picture a cloudless sky in March or April. Lines 2 and 3 expand on the momentary experience of viewing the sky. It is an intriguing expansion of the moment into a larger temporal field. The moment of viewing the clear sky is not an isolated moment; rather it is embedded in the field of time and opens into the near future, ‘tomorrow’.
Here is a second haiku where Wright uses a temporal shift:
This still afternoon
Is full of autumn sunlight
And spring memories.
Notice that the time shift in these two haiku happens in the opposite directions. In 301 the shift is to ‘tomorrow’, but in 305 the shift is to a previous season; from autumn to spring. 301 shifts into the future, while 305 shifts into the past.
Both 301 and 305 begin with a skyscape and explicit seasonal references. 301 is spring and 305 is autumn. In 305 the shift in time is larger than the shift in 301. In 301 the shift is to a ‘tomorrow’, and in 305 the shift is to another season; from autumn to spring. But when I read 305 I don’t see ‘spring memories’ as referring necessarily to the previous spring, the spring that would be just six months away. Rather my sense is that this haiku is an allegory for beginnings and endings. Autumn is when the world is becoming colder, plants and insects are dying, and energy is withdrawing from the world. It is the season of growing yin energy.
Spring is the season of beginnings, when things start, when things are fresh. Allegorically, ‘spring’ refers to youth, starting projects, growth, optimism; it is the season of emerging yang energy.
Read as an allegory the ‘still afternoon’ is a moment of contemplation where the trajectory of one’s life is seen in overview, from its beginnings to its coming conclusion. I believe that a haiku like 305 invites an allegorical reading because there is minimal explicit imagery. Notice how in 305 no specific object is depicted; no person, no plants, no animals. The closest 305 comes to describing a specific thing in the world is ‘sunlight’. And it is ‘afternoon sunlight’, which is sunlight that is declining in sympathetic resonance with the autumn season. We are not used to allegorical interpretations of haiku, or literature in general, these days. It used to be a more common, and acceptable, way of approaching literature. Augustine in his book ‘On Christian Doctrine’ gives allegory pride of place and this had a big influence on subsequent ways of interpretation for a long time. But over the last few centuries taking an allegorical approach has lost favor in preference to a more literal approach. Perhaps we have lost something here. The human mind naturally tells stories. And the human mind will naturally take the smallest hint, such as a haiku, and weave it into a larger framework. The less specific detail in a haiku, the more likely that is to happen; but I think even in the most focused and detailed haiku the allegorical feeling and tendency will still be present. At one level you can read 305 as describing a moment someone is having in autumn while recalling something that happened last spring. That is still a time shift, and a pleasing one for the reader. At another level, that moment is a symbol, or allegory, for the way things in general appear in the world, how they emerge, and how they fade. It is the simultaneous presence of both these dimensions that makes a haiku like this both individually applicable and resonant of a universal truth. The bridge from the individual experience to the universal truth is what allegory allows us to do.