“One might say: the plentitudinous idiocy of the divine, its infinite reserve, is shown in the idiotic happening of creation of the gift of being at all, and its infinite promise.” God and the Between, 306. This passage among many in Desmond’s writing provides dialectical context for the Chinese notion tzu-jan.

Robert D. Wilson

Here’s a hokku from Robert D. Wilson’s Facebook page for March 4, 2014.

rainfall . . .

a young boy drawing


This being an extremely concise poem, much is left out: where the boy is, for example; we assume he is inside, perhaps because it is raining. How does he react to being inside because of the rain? Perhaps he draws, that being an inside activity for a boy or girl for that matter. {It doesn’t matter that he’s a boy; does it?} As in many hokku, so much is left out that the subject matter seems at first formless, too vague to be interesting, compelling, or aesthetically absorbing.

But because of the “form” of the hokku, there’s a pattern, an overlap, hinted at or assumed: the rain is somehow “like” the boy drawing circles. It is also, more obviously unlike: hence the sense of formlessness. These two bits do not cohere. Yet the promise of coherence sustains an act of attention, and we are patient with the hints, waiting to see more, feel more.

Indeed, much of life is formless. A boy plays inside because it is raining. This in itself does not sustain our interest. But when we see those circles he is drawing, something happens to us. There’s a flow between the two parts, or we feel there is.

Is it accidental, a formless sort of flow, or do the two parts, overlapping this way — asymmetrical of course, for there is no sense of close comparison, point-by-point or even logical — make a kind of sense?

Is there is a kind of hierarchy: The rain outside, the circles inside?

Circles are ideal forms, rain falling is anything but. The boy responds as an animale metaphysicum: an animal gifted with an imagination of ideal forms.

Is the hokku itself such a form? The hokku is not a circle: it doesn’t snap closed on its matter. Rather it opens it to interpretation; indeed, it sponsors heuristic activity. It is not a geometrical proof, but it sponsors finesse, a sense of the material world as coherent beyond numeracy or other forms of certainty.

Put it this way: The reader comes under its spell: we hear the tattoo of the rain, we see the endlessness of each circle drawn by the boy. We become the boy, half-listening to the rain, half concentrating on our drawing. But these are no “halves,” there is a creative tension between the two acts, the rain and the drawing of circles: the difference is as dynamic as any comparisons, and perhaps in direct ratio: the more formless the rain, the more formful those drawings.

As to the parts of the hokku (I like Wilson’s use of ellipses to indicate the cut), just somehow they make a whole image, the sound and the silence, but an open image, open to the transcendence of form in the midst of the falling rain.

Mark Brager’s Singular Black Bird: the Art of Hokku

For the ancients, excellence is another word for virtue. Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Apply this to poetry and you see that a poem comes about because of habits of perception and expression, and these habits are acquired by repetition, practice. Poets practice poetry.

The name haiku sticks to lots of different kinds of verse. We need a taxonomy of haiku. Looking at the world-wide phenomenon of haiku-in-English, it seems that there are basically two practices of haiku: one that goes back to the Japanese form, and one that departs from this form. It “seems” this way from the look of the poems on the page. The more traditional haiku, which I shall call hokku, look like what we have been taught a Japanese haiku looks like. The other kind – let’s call it ku — doesn’t. I have already discussed a number of “ku” as found in volume 8 of NOON. I shall be posting more pieces on such “ku” at

Hokku reflect traditional practices that have roots in Chinese Taoist culture (see Pipei Qiu, Basho and the Tao). The practice of Taoism is very complex but not impossible today. There is a vivid scholarly debate on just what beliefs Taoism entails; see especially now Brook Ziporyn (Ironies of Oneness and Difference, SUNY 2012). The central belief is that of the Tao as “Mother,” the fertile void. Modern interpretations of “Mother” as Nothingness need revamping, according to Ziporyn; Taoism is not to be confused with modern nihilism. Nothing is a relative matter; the Taoist is a relativist. Well, it’s complicated, and eventually Taoist coherence is ironic, according to Ziporyn.

The practices that promote hokku may be seen in Mark Brager’s piece; I found it on the Simply Haiku Winter 2013 website: Brager is a featured poet there.

pale blossoms . . .

the first of many


The way this hokku taps into the fertile void is not as simple as it looks. Essential to the fertile void is finitude: this is nicely touched upon in the “kigo” “pale blossoms.” The paleness suggests the finitude of the blossoms: they are almost beyond the pale of the life that they express. The two-line base of the hokku reaches into the contemplative sources of understanding. Within the strictures of temporal existence, pale things, seen in their abundance, almost make one forget finitude, almost give one the feeling of oceanic infinity. This joy is sourced in the fertile void. It has no other ground.

The irony of the poem is that the reference in the base is not to the multitude of pale blossoms but to another multitude, this time one less endearing, perhaps, and certainly marked by difference: blackbirds!

The swerve caused by “blackbirds” reframes the image that had been aborning in the reader’s mind. We now know from Ziporyn that this kind of irony is essential to Taoism. That is, the kind of coherence Taoism trains us to “see” is ironic. It is not Confucian; it is not “ideological.” It depends on a further, transcendent source of truth, the truth we can never possess but in our best moments may feel truthful to. Hokku is truthful or mindful of such ironic truth.

And out of this irony stands the singular, the first blackbird. That’s rather astonishing!

But without the firm establishment of the community of creatures under the sign of the fertile void, the poetic image is no sign but a sort of echo of a subject, perhaps of the poet, perhaps of a persona the poet assumes when being a poet. At least for the hokku community – and self-awareness regarding these roots is limited by circumstances– community is rooted in practice, the practice of the Tao.

Jim Kacian’s one-line Ku in NOON 8

JIM KACIAN: at the end of the sordid life a beautiful illness

The recent edition of NOON/journal of the short poem (ed Philip Rowland) — — is packed with a variety of fascinating things.

Jim Kacian’s one-line “ku” goes like this:

at the end of the sordid life a beautiful illness
Poems this short are easily dismissed. Once we decide to read it as “a thing” — that is, that sort of paradox of repetition and identity — and start to identify the kinds of things this particular thing draws on for its identity, the poem at least becomes a challenge. If the variety of kinds include literary kinds, the made thing — the original Greek idea of poem is as something made — becomes a literary thing. How “valid” a literary thing is another question.

On inspection, Kacian’s ku is, at the lower end of analysis, a kind of sentence. It lacks a verb, but it looks and feels like a sentence: it has a beginning and an end and parts that can be understood grammatically. I suppose we could call it a fragment but not a very fragmented one.

In terms of semantics, this sentence fragment flows in a direction: from the idea of end to a particular end. The fragment has the direction of a sentence. It performs a tension and a resolution.

As in many “lines” of poetry, there is a pause in the middle, between “life” and “some”: so this sentence fragment may be called “balanced” in the sense of having two parts. It feels like a “line” of verse (perhaps most vividly to English readers whose basic expectation is of the iambic pentameter with its central caesura).

It is further balanced by a parallel within the two parts: two qualifiers, “sordid” and “beautiful”; and on inspection, these parallel qualifiers contrast. This is another identifying feature of this made thing, this poem.

And we haven’t talked about “meaning” yet. Taking all these remarks together, we may say this: the whole is about a particular kind of life, the whole of it. It is a single line. This reminds us of a literary genre: the epitaph. The epitaph is one of the oldest forms of writing; as the name suggests, epitaphs were written in stone; they marked the passing of a life, bringing it back to mind: re-minding us of it.

Kacian’s epitaph is a special kind of literary epitaph: a fictional one; moreover, an epitaph about an unnamed person. Perhaps this person is “everyman.” Perhaps this ku is a kind of universal epitaph.

That is at the outer reach of analysis. How well does it suggest a human life in general? We are not told what made it “sordid”; on reflection, we gather the ending of it was rather a release from something unpleasant. Perhaps this has something universal about it. Death as beautiful.

But a beautiful illness? That is a kind of paradox — a figure of speech. One of the great masters of brevity in English, Alexander Pope, was deformed, bent by spinal disease, in constant pain (as the biographers say): “this long disease my life.” So the leaving of it may have been the release we can imagine.

Kacian’s ku, on this reading, participates in many different orders of understanding. That is, it “repeats” these traits, it draws them from a very large source of ways of making words mean something. Is the central paradox — the contrast between sordid life and beautiful life-ending disease — enough to stamp this set of repetitions with the “non-identical return” of unique singularity we call art?

This is a matter of judgment and this is not the place to make that judgment. One threat to the “success” of this ku as “art” is the slight sense of false concreteness in the phrase “the sordid life.” The word “the” opens some questions not resolved by the poem. The return to this set of “kinds” of meaning, however complex and nicely proportioned, may lack something of the singular identity that makes for the greatest art. This ku may stand slightly to one side of the line between rhetoric and the poetry of finite singularity.

Haiku as Symbol: Roots of a Theory

Maybe the two parts of haiku have a symbolic relationship. Etymologically, a symbol is a throwing together of unlikenesses; ” it is the sign of a being- with”: in Greek, sun-ballein and sun-ousia, “sun” meaning with. Sunousia in Greek also refers to sexual intercourse. Is the energy holding the haiku parts together erotic? Eros in Greek is a being born of over-fullness and lack, absence. The flow of haiku is, one would like to say, erotic?

The Art of Haiku: Jamie Edgecombe

Jamie Edgecombe writes well in several genres. He writes especially well about life in the “between”: the muddled reality we all call home and which defeats rational reduction to certain laws and patterns.

When he turns to haiku, he explores the thresholds of meaning afforded by the form. The traditional haiku has a “cut”; this “cut” or pause represents the end of a segment which provides a general, one may say “metaphysical” point of view, as opposed to the situation or narrative of the two-line base.

The reaction to this “metaphysical” tradition, now itself “common sense,” says that the “cut” is disposable and in any case it is not a “qualitative” or “categorical” shift of perspective. I suppose the collapse of haiku — with its inbuilt tension between the “heavenly Tao” and the dusty earth — in our time is another evidence of the death of God.

Edgecombe, with his almost preternatural sensitivity to margins, thresholds, borders, seams (he’s also a painter), sent me a haiku the other day that resonates with our contemporary reality.


two pages at a time

these blue hills.

Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is himself a liminal figure, recognized as a modernist who incorporated haiku into prose fiction. Edgecombe’s haiku is unpunctuated, but one feels the “cut” after the second line: these blue hills. In part because the tradition allows that space to the “kigo” or seasonal word, and the lovely phrase “these blue hills” may feel endowed with a certain weather.

So the base is “Soseki / two pages at a time.” Why “two pages at a time”? Does that mean reading Soseki is slow going? One can ONLY read TWO pages at a time? Or is Edgecombe allowing us to see a between as we read: two pages at a time because on one page, this, and on another that. AND, two because not one: multiplicity but just this number, as certain as can be.

Taoist poetics would release us from such certainties of perspective and such doubles of this/that by transcending them.The blueness of the hills — the uncountable hills all merging into a specific but unnamable blue: quite an image, bordering on the sacred through a transcending immediacy.