December 2, 2007
Pearls of Dew: Transitional Phenomena and Haiku
A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. Albert Camus
The slow trek to rediscover the origins of a work of art has been the subject of a vast amount of theory, both aesthetic and psychological. Of the theorists in psychology who have been used to analyzed aesthetic subjects, D. W. Winnicott stands out because his writing, already poetic and suggestive, is inclusive enough to apply to culture in a broad sense. There are numerous examples of aesthetic appropriations of Winnicott to account of cultural “play.” A collection of essays entitled Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces edited by Peter L. Rudnytsky (1993) has as its subtitle Literary Uses of D. W. Winnicott. Both literary critics and psychological theorists contribute side by side without much ado about who is from which camp.
It is in the space in between that I wish to place my own essay, for it is in the interstices that a two-fold action can take place: Winnicott can be seen to illuminate a particular aspect of aesthetics and at the same time aesthetics may illuminate a particular aspect of Winnicott. For this reason, I have chosen a specialized area of aesthetics, that of haiku writing and theory. Not only is haiku the shortest, densest literary form, it also depends upon what up to now has been considered Eastern aesthetics and psychology. Most accounts of haiku rely on Eastern perspectives, whether Zen Buddhism or Japanese aesthetics, in order to explain features unique to haiku. However, the literature is scant when it comes to uses of Western psychological theory to account for the very same features. I shall show how Winnicott’s theory works with haiku, and I shall speculate that Winnicott’s theory has the potential to be “Easternized” because it can step into the space usually reserved for Eastern thought.
In the often cited essay, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” Winnicott (1971) describes an intermediary between the subject and object, between inner and outer reality:
This intermediate area of experience, unchallenged in respect of its belonging to inner or external (shared) reality, constitutes the greater part of the infant’s experience, and throughout life is retained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work. (p. 14)
Large claims about culture and imagination. If we put some pressure on the passage, it yields a precise picture. First the intermediate area of experience is “unchallenged” with respect to inner and outer. It partakes of a paradox that is nonetheless not felt as paradoxical. Winnicott admonishes us in his introduction to Playing and Reality (1971) not to try to solve the paradoxes he sets up but rather to let them be held as such:
I am drawing attention to the paradox involved in the use by the infant of what I have called the transitional object. My contribution is to ask for a paradox to be accepted and tolerated and respected, and for it not to be resolved. By flight to split-off intellectual functioning it is possible to resolve the paradox, but the price of this is the loss of the value of the paradox itself. (xii)
One cannot decided about either inner or outer because, as Winnicott puts it, the question isn’t even asked—hence the word “unchallenged.” Winnicott writes, with italics for emphasis:
Of the transitional object it can be said that it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question: “Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?” The important point is that no decision on this point is expected. The question is not formulated. (p. 12)
The second thing to note is that this intermediary area, so crucial to infancy, is “retained” throughout life, implying that there is always access to it. Though the transitional object created in this space just slips away, dissolved without trauma, something of the experience is retained in adulthood. Just after this passage, Winnicott writes, “An infant’s transitional object ordinarily becomes gradually decathected, especially as cultural interests develop.” The dissolution of the transitional object and the development of culture are connected, “retained,” and the retention constitutes “the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts.” Here I find an echo of the passage from Camus used as my epigraph: Winnicott sketches a development from infancy to the arts while Camus retraces a longing to return via the detours of art to the intense experiencing of those primary images.
Intense experiencing of these primary images retained from an intermediate area where subject and object remain unchallenged: this is very close to what haiku as a poetic form aims to do. Before I get to the more precise explications of the aesthetics of haiku, let’s take a look at a classic haiku to see how the dynamics set up in the poem fit with the psychology outlined in terms of Winnicott’s transitional phenomena.
Pearls of Dew
The Japanese haiku is seventeen syllables strung together on the bare thread of associations that attempt to capture a moment of epiphany. In the space of a breath, this slow trek through the detours of art encounters great and simple images that remain resonant. In a haiku by early modern Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), this slow trek is a journey to an original place (Mackenzie, 1984, p. 67):
tsuyu no tama
hitotsu hitotsu ni
pearls of dew
in every single one of them
I see my home
What does it mean to find a place, a home (furusato), in a pearl of dew (tsuyu no tama)? In haiku it is important to note that metaphor, allegory, symbol, and many other poetic devices are eschewed. Often called the poetry of nouns, the haiku refers to things out in the world, usually in what we would call nature. Therefore, the pearls of dew exist as things outside the poet’s subjectivity. Though they resonate with subjective meaning, they are not entirely made into symbols because they retain their materiality. To the extent that they are materially other yet at the same time part of the poet’s imagination and subjectivity, the pearls of dew inhabit a paradoxical space that the poem creates. The pearls of dew are outside the poet and outside the poem at the same time that they evoke an inner reality within the poet and within the poem.
The seemingly paradoxical space of the poem—the superimposition of inner and outer—is common in haiku, which maintains that the images in the poem are both in external reality and yet are part of inner experience, both found out there and felt in here. Indeed, the whole tradition of haiku composition—starting from its beginnings in seventeenth-century Japan right through to contemporary English—centers on just these two paradoxes: outer and inner, found and made. These couplings are so common that a poem which seems only to record some sort of external sensory experience is deemed not to be haiku at all because it lacks the “resonance” that imbues haiku with its special qualities. I shall discuss more of this detail, but for now let’s return to the instance of Issa’s pearls of dew.
Key words in Japanese haiku encode complex meanings beyond referentiality. Though not symbols of something, they point to a system of associations that are part of the discourse of haiku. In early modern Japanese, dewdrops encode the association of the world at large, “this dewdrop world,” by virtue of the similarity in the quality of transience. Many of Issa’s poems use dew to signify what might be considered a Zen state of the impermanence of things. In this haiku, those things in the transient world become the inner landscape where the poet recognizes himself through his longing for home, his birthplace or motherland. The insistence of the recognition of that place among the dewdrops is measured by repetition in the Japanese of the word “hitotsu,” each single one, as if each one were delivering the same message through the same image, over and over again. Here in the short trek of seventeen syllables we have the longest journey of all—to find one’s home, one’s origins, even from the Zen koan, one’s original face. In haiku, unlike other poetic forms, the dew never ceases to be real dew, observed and seen. At the same time, it is transmuted into something beyond mere object, out there in the world, into a connection with a subjectivity, an inner world whose subject searches for his original home.
While many haiku could be said to involve similar moves, Issa’s poem stands out because it also points to an aesthetics of haiku. The “pearls of dew” can be read as emblem of haiku poetry itself, that is, an image that conjures the poetry’s self-referentiality. Support for a meta-poetic gesture can be found both in the way in which dew is such a common reference point across so many haiku and in the way that the dew stands in for the poem, something made of the “pearls” of images and words. The poem then like the dew becomes a place where the poet recognizes himself as longing for home. The phenomenon of the dew merges with the phenomenology of writing the poem, each suffused with the subjectivity of the poet, each becoming an object that holds this subjectivity.
With this tiny poem and tiny reading of the poem, we have begun our slow trek to discovering how the detours of art work to lead us to a kind of original place where the heart first opened. In particular, we can see the operation of paradoxes that are essential to the art of haiku. Because the form is both of art and yet aims beyond it, it involves paradoxes that other art forms do not necessarily share. The aesthetics of haiku is such that paradoxes are held and maintained as part of the process of discovery, composition, and reception.
Because the topic of the psychology of haiku has not yet been articulated, it is necessary to make some somewhat artificial distinctions. There are three main aspects: 1—the composition of haiku, which involves the “finding” of the haiku, the formulation of it, and the writing and rewriting; 2—the theorizing of haiku, which involves the going discourse about haiku, whether explicitly articulated or implicitly held as normative; and 3—the reception of haiku, which involves the reading of haiku, the interpretations, evaluations, and participation in the haiku and its representation. These three aspects describe a kind of developmental trajectory of the poem as an aesthetic production. However, the actual practices of composition, theorizing, and reading are complex and interwoven. For instance, the implicit notions of what a haiku is influences what is “found” out there to be a haiku before it is even written. Theory informs practice, even when that theory is held without explicit awareness.
Learn from the Pine
The theories about haiku vary across cultures and eras. However, there are some constants such as the insistence that the object in a haiku is both concrete and yet subjective, a productive overlap of what is perceived in early literature to have been a false dichotomy from the start. The productivity of the way haiku fits between inner and outer relates to the creativity that Winnicott finds in transitional objects and phenomena, something called “primary creativity,” Ken Wright disscusses in an essay on the melding of subjective and objective key elements (Wright, 2000). For the sake of brevity, I shall break the theory into two parts: early modern Japanese and contemporary English. Haiku have changed in their contemporary flowering, but the aesthetics is most often maintained.
Any study of haiku that did not mention the name Basho would be incomplete. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is considered by most to be the first true practitioner of haiku as an independent form of poetry, detached from a literary form of linked verse called renga, which started with a capping verse called a hokku, the early name for haiku. Basho’s haiku are well-known and magisterial. Lesser known are his teachings on the theory of haiku composition and aesthetics. In characteristic poetic and Zen fashion, Basho instructs his many students about the principle of the object and subject as one (butsugaichinyo). Student Doho records and elaborates on Basho’s discourse (Shirane, 1998):
When the Master said, “As for the pine, learn from the pine; as for the bamboo, learn from the bamboo,” he meant cast aside personal desire or intention….The phrase “learn” means to enter into the object, to be emotionally moved by the essence that emerges from that object, and for that movement to become verse. Even if one clearly expresses the object, if the emotion does not emerge from the object naturally, the object and self will be divided, and that emotion will not achieve poetic truth. The effect will be verbal artifice that results from personal desire. (p. 261)
At first the advice might be taken as mimetic realism, that is, in order to learn about nature one must be in nature, as opposed to writing what are now called “desk haiku.”
The passage doesn’t stop there. It moves into a complex area of object and subject relatedness, a complex psychology of paradoxes using transitional phenomena. Letting go of the self is a common theme in Zen Buddhism, and the passage (like Basho’s haiku) is most frequently interpreted according to Zen. However, the admonition here involves the object as part of the psychology of subject, a process that aims and results in the making of another object, the poem itself. What is to be avoided, according to the passage, is an imposition of the self onto the object. Pure projection is ruled out. The implication is that the object must be allowed to remain as an object, distinct from the self. But it is not entirely separate, as we see in the next sentence, which complicates the matter. The object, once allowed to retain its objecthood, now becomes one with the self that was let go. (Or whatever is left when that self is let go). This point is so important that it is reiterated: if the object and subject remain separated, the result is “verbal artifice” that comes from purely subjective desire and projection. The object thus becomes infused with subjective qualities such as emotion. A type of merging of subject with object is to occur in true haiku, the principle of butsugaichinyo, but it does not allow for the imposition of self onto the object, for the object retains its status as object. This paradoxical quality is adequately described by the subject-object relatedness in transitional phenomena.
Furthermore, because the complex state of mind developed as a first stage in the development of haiku results in an object, the haiku itself, it can be said to create a transitional object. The stages are outlined in terms of states of mind that must precede the “discovery” of the haiku out there as objects found not created. And yet the paradox is that the haiku as poem is an act of creation. Again the other paradox of the transitional object, found yet created in the infant’s experience, can describe what is usually described in Eastern terms.
In contemporary discourse on haiku, the merging of subject and object is often taken as complete without the complexities introduced by Basho. The discourse is influenced by that of haiku artist and theorist Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who proposed a realism that he called shasei, literally “sketching from life.” This sketch of nature and what is found there is related to but not identical with the Zen notions of “is-ness” or “thus-ness” that the epiphany of a haiku reveals. The sudden awareness is often called “the haiku moment.” As Bruce Ross writes (1998):
Haiku…offers us an epiphany, a revelation. It is a mere node of emotionally charged images that record emotion felt in a given moment in a given place without explanation, without narrative, without figurative adornment. It offers revelation in and of itself. (p. 74)
Practitioners do not all believe in such a thing as a haiku moment, nor do they believe that the sketch technique produces true haiku. Nevertheless, it has been and continues to be an important feature of the discourse of contemporary haiku.
In this haiku moment, the natural world becomes one with the perceiver so that the perceiver is no longer separate. However, the merging is not absolutely complete. Rather the relation of objectivity to subjectivity is complex. As Bruce Ross writes in “The Haiku ‘Moment’ and Accuracy” (2002):
Such objectivity linked with tenderness is a difficulty for the modern Western haiku poet. First, we must avoid the “pathetic fallacy,” projecting emotions onto nonhuman nature, or so some critics would have it. Then we must be mindful of the “objective correlative,” finding external images to express our internal emotions. We also should be considerate of Husserl’s idea zu den Sachen, to return to the existential things in themselves (as opposed to the idea or abstraction, including verbal ones, of things) so that they may reveal themselves to us. So we are stuck in a mediating place between objectivity and subjectivity. (p. 147)
Sprinkled with literary and aesthetic terms that perhaps need a gloss, the passage is still clear on the complex relatedness of subject and object. In the end, Ross concludes that we are in a bind, “stuck.” Others find an impasse in this same “space” that is no space. Barnhill writes (2004):
The strict split between subject and object, subjectivity and objectivity, is not part of the East Asian tradition….A true poet has cultivated his sensibility to the point that his “subjective” feelings match the “objective” atmosphere in the scene being experienced. (pp. 9-10)
However, the Winnicottian notion of transitional phenomena and potential space is exactly that “mediating place between objectivity and subjectivity.” The difficulty perceived for the Westerner and so often resolved via East Asian and Zen notions may be addressed in part with Western psychology.
Some of the way toward the psychology of haiku is paved by theorists who explicitly recommend that the haiku artist return to the state of mind of a child. Ross ends his essay: “We must slow down, and like the little child at the street corner, we must stop, look, and listen” (p. 148). Ross elsewhere (1998) goes even farther:
One thinks of the child-like state recommended in Taoism with its emphasis on wu wei, an existential passivity, an absence of what we would call adult will, before experience of the state maintained by Zen Buddhists in their enlightened state of “no mind,” an “objective,” that is, non-willing, receptivity to the essences of things in their own right. (p. 61)
Again recourse to Eastern philosophies is taken up to explain what seems too paradoxical to any Western aesthetic. Ross goes on to write that this “child’s consciousness” is “not a common component of our aesthetic experience” (p. 69). As we know, it is a common component of Western psychology. If we return to the initial Winnicott citation, the earliest forms of creativity in infancy are “retained” as “intense experiencing” leading to culture. Winnicott opens up a space in between the Western adoption of haiku and the Eastern aesthetics it tries so hard to uphold. Because Winnicott can step in where Eastern aesthetic principles seem to reside, one may ask the question, is there an Eastern way of seeing Winnicott? The simple answer is yes; there are many who appropriate Winnicott for Eastern, particularly Buddhist, discourse. But to answer the question in full would run outside of the scope of this essay, which seeks instead to take a preliminary look at how such appropriations might be motivated. Haiku acts as a little squiggle onto which we may project another project.
The Voices of Their Mothers
Contemporary haiku by and large dispense with the syllable count that distinguishes the Japanese haiku. In English and other Western languages haiku are generally written in three short lines or one long line (with some variations). There are many “how-to” books that prescribe “rules,” but there is hardly consensus or even partial agreement on what makes a haiku a haiku. Still haiku flourish in many journals and editions. It is understood that once you see a haiku you know it. An interesting but daunting project would be to interrogate the assumptions behind contemporary practices and with them the psychological implications.
Instead, I’ll turn to a contemporary example by a well-known haiku poet, vincent tripi (Higginson, 1996, p. 78):
wrapped in seashells
the voices of their mothers
of their fathers
The poem is deceptively simple due to its minimalism, so characteristic of contemporary haiku. It follows an often used pattern called “fragment and phrase” with the fragment as one line and the phrase occupying the second two. The first image is from nature—seashells. Still the image is altered to reflect subjectivity with the word “wrapped.” A distinctly human realm is invoked alongside the natural, but it adds a mystery that is only partly solved by the next lines. What are wrapped in seashells are not mothers and fathers but their voices. We have left a literal realm of simple objects out there in the world and entered a complex subjective state. The associations become difficult to trace. One may assume that the “voices” are heard in the sounds of seashells, the sounds usually associated with the ocean. Here that natural sound is superimposed upon a psychologically rich one, that of parents.
The listening for the voices of mothers and fathers belongs as much to the poet as to the “they” one presumes to be children. Two different scenes are then superimposed: the children probably at play with seashells hearing the sounds of both ocean and their parents and then the poet watching that scene. There is a longing on the part of the poet that is not necessarily evident in the children’s play. And yet perhaps the children too share the wish to hear the reassuring voices of mothers and fathers. Another Winnicottian notion might work here: the idea of being alone in the presence of another. The children play and the poet watches. A sense of aloneness pervades the haiku even though it is not explicitly expressed. And with that aloneness comes the reassuring presence of the parents. That there is a reassurance is underlined by the otherwise odd use of the word “wrapped.” The children and vicariously the poet are comfortably “wrapped” in a soothing way, protected and watched by that Winnicottian good enough mother.
The poem enfolds many subject-object relations. The whole poem is about relatedness of people (the children, the parents, the poet) and of things (the seashells, the sounds of ocean, the sounds of voices). The poet goes the farthest in merging with the scene which could be roughly construed as the object in this case. But the children too, in their relating the seashells’ sounds to voices of mothers and fathers also participate in a “primary creativity” between inner and outer. The beauty of the scene is only matched by the beauty of the way in which it is all conveyed in three short lines with basically two images. A slow trek through the detours of art in which those two or three great and simple images first opened the heart.
Barnhill, David Landis. (Ed. and trans.). (2004). Basho’s haiku: Selected poems of Matsuo Basho. New York: State University of New York Press.
Mackenzie, Lewis (Ed. and trans.). (1984). Autumn wind haiku: Selected poems by Kobayashi Issa. New York: Kodansha International.
Ross, Bruce (Ed.). (1998). Journey to the interior: American versions of haibun. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle.
———————-. (2002). How to haiku: A writer’s guide to haiku and related forms. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle.
Rudnytsky, Peter L. (Ed.) (1993). Transitional objects and potential spaces: Literary uses of D. W. Winnicott. New York: Columbia University Press.
Shirane, Haruo. (1998). Traces of dreams: Landscape, cultural memory, and the poetry of Basho. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
tripi, vincent. (1998). wrapped in seashells. In William J. Higginson. Haiku world: An international poetry almanac. (78). New York: Kodansha International.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and Reality. New York: Routledge.
Wright, Ken. (2000). To make experience sing. In Leslie Caldwell (Ed.), Art, creativity, living. (75-96). New York: Karnac Books.