What Do You Feel? A Study of Aesthetic Response in Haiku

Posted: August 15, 2007 in Essay on Haiku, Literary Essay

fter researching the aesthetics of Japanese literature, I decided to design an aesthetics research study in which I selected two haiku that embody the descriptions of four Japanese aesthetic terms (sabi, wabi, yugen and aware) and test these with various readers responses to those haiku. My purpose for doing this was to see if these terms really articulate responses that actual readers might feel.

For each aesthetic term, I chose one Japanese haiku and one English language haiku. I designed the project this way to see if readers responded to the two haiku in different ways. None of the readers had any previous knowledge about haiku, the haiku were shown to them individually and I had them verbalize what they thought the scene was that each haiku depicted and what sort of feeling or mood they thought each haiku invoked or possessed, if any.

To begin with, I will define the Japanese aesthetic terms that I concentrated on
during this project. Sabi is a very basic aesthetic term that refers to the feeling of loneliness or solitude. This term demonstrates the human need to have the space and time to be alone every once in awhile. I chose two haiku that I felt fit this description. The first was an extremely popular haiku by Basho:

On a bare branch
A crow is perched—
Autumn evening.

Four individuals responded to this haiku and their responses had some similarities. One person said that the haiku was “quiet,” while another person described the setting as being “a country evening away from the busyness of people.” Both of these responses illustrate the loneliness or solitude of the haiku; without really articulating it, both readers noticed the sabi, or loneliness and solitude, that Basho’s haiku depicts. Another individual responded with the phrase “it makes me think of standing still and watching the world go by.” This response also hits on the aesthetic term sabi because it emphasizes a certain amount of loneliness while everything and everybody goes on with their life.

Margaret Chula writes the English language haiku that I chose to represent this aesthetic term sabi.

long winter night
tangerine peels
piling up

This haiku proved to be trickier for people to pick up on the sabi feeling behind it. Two individuals said that the haiku made them think of “sitting at home with nothing to do when there’s a blizzard outside” (one even pictured herself “all wrapped up, reading a book and eating a tangerine with my cat on the floor watching me”). Images such as these clearly depict a sense of solitude and loneliness; however, one respondent did not imagine loneliness but, instead, thought of “having a long talk with someone.” So, she tuned into the comfort of the haiku rather than the solitude of it.

The second Japanese aesthetic term that I chose to focus on was wabi, which suggests the feeling that something is just as it should be, even if other things are not. Wabi often involves noticing nature, which has been on earth longer that humans and will remain on earth long after we leave, at a time when you are usually wrapped up in your own world. I chose a haiku by Shiki to test this term.

The wind blows,
The duckweed moves,
Blooming all the while

For this haiku, one respondent said that she felt that the duckweed was a sort of metaphor representing “confidence issues” and the fact that “life changes but you continue to go on with confidence.” Other people described country settings with women with “wind in their hair” and “duckweed around a pond with calm water – just a little movement – and the wind blowing but not hard.” Wabi is a difficult term to articulate or pin down, but I think that these individuals were responding, especially in their descriptions of the countryside, to the sense of nature being there and taking over. Even the person who thought of the haiku as a metaphor, was responding to the sense of the wind pushing things but nature (or people) standing strong and enduring.
The English language haiku that I chose to depict this sense of wabi was one by Gary Hotham.

morning fog
not seeing far
the fern’s underside

Two respondents reflected on the fact that the fog clouds the vision, and one individual said “there’s water on the underside of the fern; it’s early morning and there’s still moister everywhere.” This description of the scene dives into nature as the respondent took the haiku one step further and noticed something that was not directly stated, which fits into the definition of wabi as suggesting everything as it should be. The respondent placed the setting in the morning and then expanded on that to say that with it being morning and all of the fog, then the fern must have dew and moisture on it. Not everyone seemed to respond to this sense of wabi, however. One respondent simply said that the image was “relaxing and kind of countryish” and another person said that it was “scary” and reminded her of “dying because I’ve seen a lot of ferns in graveyards.” So, while some people picked up on the sense of nature continuing to be as it should, others were influenced by previous experiences that prohibited them from feeling this.

Yugen is another aesthetic term that I used in this project, and it describes a sense of mystery over the universe. Yugen also deals with noticing the vastness of the universe in comparison to the minute nature of human existence. Instead of using a haiku by a Japanese haiku master, I chose a haiku by one of Basho’s disciples, Hattori Ransetsu, to illustrate this term.

harvest moon . . .
smoke goes creeping
over the water

The first individual that I asked to read this haiku picked up on the sense of mystery right away and responded with one sentence: “it makes me think of coming up on something in the unknown.” While the “unknown” is not generally thought of as the universe, it does emphasize the sense of mystery that the haiku possesses. One individual described the haiku as having a “spooky” or “eerie” feel to it and another said that it reminded her of Halloween because of the harvest moon. The fourth respondent depicted a “camping” or “hayride” setting, where people are gathered next to a “bonfire cooking hotdogs” while the smoke drifts “over a lake.” While this respondent did not depict a sense of mystery, she did describe a sort of vastness with the drifting smoke over the lake. The English language haiku by LeRoy Gorman that I chose for this aesthetic received much of the same response.

she dresses
under her arm
the moon

One individual responded that the “she” in the haiku was “a Goddess because it has a mythical feel to it.” While this does not depict yugen, exactly, it does suggest mystery. Two individuals chose not to respond to this particular haiku, and a third said: “I think of getting ready for bed and putting on my nightgown and noticing the moon between the blinds in my room.” In a subtle way, I think the first and last individuals were responding to a sense of yugen by noticing either a little bit of mystery or by noticing the moon while doing an insignificant action such as getting ready for bed.

Lastly, I chose two haiku to illustrate the aesthetic term aware. Aware suggests the fleeting or impermanent nature of things. It describes the feeling that nothing can be held onto forever, and things change and should be remembered but at the same time change is necessary and good. Shiki wrote the Japanese haiku that I chose to demonstrate aware.

sounds of snoring—
a plate and a sake bottle
set outside the mosquito net

Of the responses that I received for this haiku, nobody really expounded on this sense of impermanence. One respondent mentioned “somebody’s passed out,” while another thought the haiku reminded her of “hicks living in a swamp” and said, “it’s kind of repulsive and disgusting.” I had better luck with Caroline Gourlay’s haiku:

the last guest leaves—
a rose
opens in the vase

One respondent articulated the feeling of aware by stating that the haiku suggests a felling of “ending to begin again.” She said it depicts a sort of “bittersweet happiness.” Another individual said that it reminded her of “Beauty and the Beast because of the rose” but had a “happy feeling but sad, too, because everyone has left.” Moreover, another person said, “the rose represents quietness and peace” because “a bunch of people have been there and have left.”

All in all, the Japanese aesthetic terms articulated much of the responses I received from the haiku nicely. Some haiku did not invoke the aesthetic feeling that I chose them for; however, that could be for a number of reasons. One explanation for this occurrence is that I did not choose haiku that represented the aesthetic term as well as it could have. For example, the both haiku that I chose to represent yugen may not have been the best haiku for the job. While selecting them, I was trying to chose haiku that illustrated the vastness of the universe by having people close up noticing things stretching off into the world, but focusing on this minute aspect of yugen may have been a bad decision.

Furthermore, when I picked the two haiku for aware, I tried to choose two that demonstrated a party being over because I thought that my readers might relate to that better; however, they did not seem to tune into this aspect of aware as much as I had hoped. There were also some images that some respondents questioned, such as sake and duckweed, which may have hindered their responses.

On a whole, I was pleased and somewhat surprised to find that the English language haiku represented the Japanese aesthetic terms just as well as the Japanese haiku did; in one case even more so. Completing this project taught me a lot about how to teach individuals how to read and respond to haiku, and how to chose haiku to fit specific aesthetic terms. If I had to do the project again, I would rethink the aspects of the aesthetic terms that I wanted to depict and choose haiku that reflected those aspects more effectively. Overall, I enjoyed this project and was quite surprised at the enthusiasm that individuals demonstrated while performing the responses.

——————————————————————-

—Kristin Boryca
-Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2000
-Link source: http://www.millikin.edu/haiku/studentessays/BorycaOnAesthetics.html

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