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Defense of rules or creative innovation? A discussion of the essences of seasonal topics in Japanese haiku

Posted By admin On May 30, 2013 @ 12:59 pm In Abstracts for 2013, Literature and the Arts | Comments Disabled

Herbert Jonsson, senior lecturer

School of Languages and Media Studies

Högskolan Dalarna


Seasonal topics are important to most modern and premodern Japanese haiku. Although so-called free haiku often is composed without references to the season, most haiku composed according to more “traditional” formats make use of seasonal words or topics. These are words or short expressions that are related to the season in various ways. Much criticism about haiku is concerned with these seasonal topics. One of the aspects that is often discussed is the hon’i, the “essence” these topics are supposed to have. It is often seen as a set of specific characteristics connected to a certain topic, which have been established by tradition and knowledge of these essences are regarded as essential, not only for writing haiku poetry, but also for appreciating haiku as a reader. Using a certain seasonal topic, the remaining part of the poem should somehow express this essence to become successful.

In this paper I will investigate how the topic harusame (“spring rain”) has been used in a number of poems and compare these results with how this topic’s essence has been described by some critics. I will start looking at the arguments of a number of influential critics in the field, who demonstrate a very limited view about these essences. These will be confronted with a few studies of the seasonal topics that are more directed towards the actual usage in the poetry. Broadening the perspective in this way, I will continue with an analysis of a number of poems written around the “spring rain” topic. I will especially put focus on the works of the eighteenth-century haiku poet Yosa Buson, who wrote an unusually large number of poems on this topic. The discussion will cover earlier interpretations of some of these poems and will show how these both adhere to and turn away from the supposed limited essence of the theme. The essence as such will be shown to be much richer than what is possible to define with a set of rules.

The approach to discuss the essence of a seasonal topic as solely some sort of fixed convention, something artificially constructed by the tradition, may be understood as a consequence of the mainly semiotic theories of language and literature that have been in fashion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This extremely narrow theoretical stance has made it difficult to discuss a theory of essences from a more creative point of view. My suggestion is, however, that the search for an essence, which is carried out every time a poem is written, is an investigation in the aspects of a theme or a topic with the aim to make it vivid and give it a forceful and tangible expression. The analysis of the actual poetry will show that the search for essences is not necessarily a process of defining limits and setting up rules, but a search for ever new perspectives that may make a topic come to life, a creative search for how to “catch” a certain phenomenon rather than a process of defining right and wrong according to tradition.

Since the haiku movement basically was, and still is, an innovative movement that always tries to push forward towards yet a different perspective on the world, I will argue that rather than discussing the poetry from within limited theoretical frameworks, an investigation about the unique way in which a certain topic has been used in each poem, will make more sense. It will also be necessary to read a poem, not against the limited framework of cultural conventions, but against any possible aspect of human experience.

Article printed from NAJAKS – Nordic Association of Japanese and Korean Studies: http://www.najaks.org

URL to article: http://www.najaks.org/?p=951