What’s good about haikus?

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Fiction often asks its readers to get through a whole list of evocative scenery to imagine before telling them anything about the situation that might induce an interest in what the fields and the flies looked like, or what color stuff was. I assume that this is fun if you are somehow more sophisticated than me, but I admit that I don’t enjoy it (yet).

I am well capable of enjoying actual disconnected scenery. But imagining is effort, so the immediate action of staring at the wall, say, seems like a better deal than having to imagine someone else’s wall to be staring at. Plus, a wall is already straining my visual-imaginative capacities, and there are probably going to be all kinds of other things, and some of them are probably going to be called exotic words to hammer in whatever kind of scenic je ne sais quoi is going to come in handy later in the book, so I’m going to have to look them up or think about it while I keep from forgetting the half-built mental panorama constructed so far. It’s a chore.

My boyfriend and I have recently got into reading haikus together. They mostly describe what things look like a bit, and then end. So you might think I would dislike them even more than the descriptive outsets of longer stories. But actually I ask to read them together every night.

I think part of it is just volume. The details of a single glance, rather than a whole landscape survey, I can take in. And combined with my own prior knowledge of the subject, it can be a rich picture. And maybe it is just that I am paying attention to them in a better way, but it seems like the details chosen to bring into focus are better. Haikus are like a three stroke drawing that captures real essence of the subject. My boyfriend also thinks there is often something clean about the images.

Some by Matsuo Bashō from our book The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass:

In the fish shop the gums of the salt-bream look cold

Early fall— The sea and the rice fields all one green.

Another year gone— hat in my hand, sandals on my feet.

More than ever I want to see in these blossoms at dawn the god’s face.

The peasant’s child, husking rice, stops and gazes at the moon.

Year after year On the monkey’s face A monkey face

In sum:

Ten words Draw on my mind Cleaner than fifty lines