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Friday, 4 April 2008

One man's meat is another man's Haiku...


The accompanying image is from an fM.R.I. scan (the f stands for functional). It shows a human brain. The fM.R.I's. rather remarkable ability to highlight active areas of the brain so that they are clearly differentiated from the more quiescent ones derives from the fact that oxygenated haemoglobin is diamagnetic - i.e, it slightly repels a magnetic force - while deoxygenated blood is paramagnetic - i.e. itself becomes slightly magnetic. Looking at an M.R.I. image, it can clearly be seen which areas stand out as active and which are the quiescent ones. By scanning a subject while he or she is reading a book, for example, the scan will reveal which specific areas of the brain were involved in that process.

A few weeks ago I came across the results of some studies which set me thinking and have resulted in this post. The studies compared the brain activity in Asian (Chinese) and Western (Canadian) subjects when reading. The two groups were scanned as they read and the two sets of scans produced very different results: those areas of the brain that were shown to be active when the Asian subjects were reading were not the same as those involved when the Canadians read. This has been attributed to the fact that in the West, language is alphabetic (or ideophonic), while Asian languages are ideographic. In the case of the Western reader, the activity is a sequential one, the letters must be read and then broken down into phonemes which then have to be matched to a known meaning. The reading (or recognizing) of the letters is a visual activity, whilst the matching of the phonemes must be done to a meaning that has been learnt by listening to the speech of others. In other words, the matching is from a visual area of the brain to an aural one. Initially there is nothing in the structure of the brain that would allow this to happen, so when a (western) child is learning to read, physical connections must be laid down between the two areas. In the case of the Asian child learning to read, however, the activity is more akin to the parallel processing of a computer, for the brain must grab meaning from a pictogram, and almost simultaneously determine the sound of it.

It will be seen that something happens in the first case, i.e. when a Western person is learning to read, that does not happen in the second: the structure of the brain is significantly modified - or if it is happening in both instances (likely) it is happening in different ways. And as in the case of reading, so it is with other speech and language skills: their acquisition permanently modifies, subtly or distinctly, the way in which the brain is structured, and that modification predisposes us to favour - to be able to fully comprehend or be moved by - certain forms and patterns of the spoken and written word.

I have long had this fanciful image of two archipeligoes; the islands in one are composed of words, those in the other are meanings. Between the words on the one hand and the meanings on the other there exists a network of narrow shipping lanes in which we writers, would-be writers,. lovers of poetry and others, move and have our being. Truth and beauty - and therefore poetry - inhabit the shallows between the lanes, visible, touchable at times, but ultimately elusive. They make their ways to and from the islands under their own steam and by their own routes. For us the connections between the islands are real, but never fixed or certain - and certainly never exclusive, never one-to-one and never immutable.

I have, I say, long held that image, but reading the results of these studies, I begin to get the notion - and here I risk exposing my ignorance - that this image of mine applies only - or mainly - to those of us in the western world for whom reading involves mastering an alphabet. It would seem that for the Chinese subjects of these studies the connections between my two archipeligoes are less fluid by far; the shallows play no part in the analogy, the lanes are firm, dry paths, the word-islands are mirror images of their meanings, the ideogram incorporates the visual experience to which it relates.

Having possibly exposed my ignorance, I am now going to risk my head above the parapet by daring to compare a triplet of my poor attempts at Haiku with three from recognised masters - or rather, two masters and a mistress. I have chosen Haiku as being both a convenient form of Japanese poetry and the one most familiar to most western people, though my interest is not in its brevity, but in what might lie behind it. I am hooked on the idea that something is going on in oriental poetry (and in Japanese poetry particularly) that we cannot fully comprehend. I am tempted to make the analogy of a colourblind person looking at a Matisse painting - but the thought raises the analogy with Chinese and Japanese painting, and that is a whole new subject that I will not get into now. Many poetry lovers will say they miss the the compression, the musicality of the rhythms and the assonance when confronted with a Haiku. To me they have often seemed little more than acute observations - and, indeed, Buson, a pupil of Basho, criticised the master for favouring unusual observations. But I slightly digress, I think, so here goes... my Haiku first:

Disappearing birds.
Silent woodlands. Silent homes.
Disappearing words.

Even in the fields
the city street is sounding like
a noisy neighbour

Wind and rain all day
hitting the magnolia.
That day it flowered.

And now a Haiku from the pen of Suzuki Masajo, a twentieth century poet:

Spring loneliness -
it falls short of the surf
this stone I toss

From Basho, seventeenth century, and probably the best known of all haiku writers:

The temple bell dies away
The scent of flowers in the evening
Is still tolling the bell.

And from Buson Yosa, eighteenth century:

The air shimmers.
Whitish flight
Of an unknown insect.

You will have no difficulty, I warrant, spotting the difference in quality between the first set and the second, but to me there is a deeper, more fundamental difference. I remarked just recently in a comment to a post from Jim Murdoch on minimal poetry, Less is more or less (part one) (24/03/08) that I had embarked upon a cull of my Haiku scripts. Of the three used here, two were the only survivors of that cull. By definition, therefore, they are the two that pleased me most - or perhaps, displeased me least. The third Haiku I have written since, so I have not abandoned the form which Jim brilliantly refers to as a Haiku approximation. That, surely, is exactly what it is. The clue is, I think, that when I come to compare my efforts with, say the Basho, I do not just see a great gap yawning between them; I see two different animals, a familiar life form and a very unfamiliar one. It would be no different were I to take another Japanese form; say tanka (rendered in English as a 35-syllable form) or Senryu (like Haiku, but using irony instead of a seasonal word). What would be different would be taking the example, say, of a sonnet. I might reasonably expect to be able to write a sonnet of sorts. It might not prove to be a very good sonnet, but it should still qualify as a sonnet.

Visiting Sorlil's Blog recently (thoroughly recommended, by the way) I was reminded that April (the cruelest month) is poetry month, for the duration of which, some unwise souls take on the challenge of writing a poem day. I, impetuous as always, laid a promise that I would try - no more than that! - but said it would probably be Haiku (approximations, of course) all the way. I do not think I could find the time for more than that - I know, I know, three lines take twice as long as thirty! But this, for me, is just the discipline of getting something down that perhaps I might be able to work on later.

In Less is more or less (part one), Jim also suggests that maybe Haiku is impossible for the Western (he says "English") mind, but goes on: That doesn’t mean some very nice poetry can't be produced using that structure and adds, I think realistically, but perhaps haiku is not the best name for it. By all means let us borrow the structure. If someone finds it will work for them they would be foolish not to, but to my mind Haiku is not about 5-7-5 or any other format or formula. It is about experiencing. It is about experiencing the walk between the islands along paths that may not even exist in our western world - or in our western minds, perhaps. It is about sights and smells, about sounds and feelings and about an intangible that belongs somewhere in Eastern philosophy.

12 comments:

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

It's a post that would leave space to a lot of comments, but I feel a bit adequate only with this one:
The Haiku, I have always sensed, is a sort of "token" given to an event or a breath in an event.
And yes, the connection with an image is much more immediate and unreserved than in the western world.
The haiku is a gentle fist brandishing the fusion between inner and outer world.
I will re-read


I will re-read carefully the note on the different brains at work.
Very stimulating.
Best wishes, Davide

Jim Murdoch said...

Very enjoyable post, Dave. It's hard enough to imagine how another person thinks let alone someone from the other side of the world. I've heard a similar discussion comparing Eastern (microtonal) and Western music arguing that the Orientals literally hear differently to those in the west. The nearest I get get to it is trying to understand how people can sit through opera and actually enjoy the experience; I simply don't have the ear for it.

Of your three poems I like the first one the best. The third is the one that appears to embrace the haiku spirit but I enjoyed the first the most. And by a long chalk.

Dave King said...

Tomasso,
my thanks for your thoughts. Very much appreciated. I enjoyed your reference to Haiku as a breath in an event. A Haiku-like way of putting it, I thought. It surely also does have something to do with a fusion between outer and inner worlds. Both of those remarks could, I think, be applied to Oriental - and especially Japanese - poetry in general. I had not meant to focus too exclusively on Haiku.

Dave King said...

Jim,
I take your point about the gulf that exists between almost any two people thinking. Even when friends agree with us it is difficult to know how they got there. I realised something like this early on in my teaching career when it suddenly dawned on me that some of my young charges were not learning to read by the method I was using to teach them! We make so many unwarranted assumptions.

As to my three haiku, my feelings coincide exactly with yours. I, too, prefer the first, but thought the third was possibly closest to the feel of "the real thing". Thanks for a helpful response.

Conda V. Douglas said...

What struck me first was that gorgeous piece of abstract art work: the MRI of the brain. Beautiful.

This, like Jim Murdoch's posts on minimal poetry (truly minimal)on his blog The Truth About Lies, is fascinating on many different levels. I agree with tommaso, much to comment upon.

Andrew Weil, of Integrative Health fame, has said that schizophrenia is perhaps better understood as an individual who refuses to sign the usual reality contract. In other words, we all learn to agree that a chair is, well, a chair, and what a chair is. The mentally ill don't agree. Interesting way of looking at it, hmm?

And good luck with your poem a day, I hope to see some posted here, Dave!

Sorlil said...

hi dave, enjoyed reading your post and I really like your first haiku - encompasses so much more than the words on the page.

Dave King said...

Conda,
Many thanks for your observations.
Yes, I agree with you about the abstract beauty of the brain scan. It is not abstract, of course, and yet it has an abstract beauty which man has given it with his scan. (Guess we could discuss that at great length, too!)
As to a chair being a chair, I have never been convinced - almost from my earliest memories - that what I see when I look at a chair is what you see. WE actually don't see a chair; we "see" corners, straight lines, curves, wriggly bits, darks and lights, and we "see" them all with different parts of the brain, which same brain then assembles them into what is supposed to be "out there". Plenty of scope for variation there, I should have thought. Same with colours; what you see when you look at a clear sky, you have learnt to call blue. Me too, but there is no way of knowing that we are seeing the same thing. I have never "seen" your blue, nor you mine. Actually, of course, colours are not out there any more than sound is. They are all figments of the individual brain: sounds are variations in air pressures and colours variations in
light wavelengths. We learn to agree, but we cannot know.

I am struggling with the poem a day, even though I have only signed up to produce Haiku.

Dave King said...

Sorlil
Many thanks for the feedback. "Encompasses so much more than the words on the page" is a really nice compliment which I very much appreciate.
There seems to be general agreement in preferring my first one, even though it is probably the furthest from the spirit of the Haiku. Which maybe lends weight to the belief that in English it is not a Haiku anyway.
Thanks again

swiss said...

wow, but that's an interesting post. i like your archipelago image. going to have a think....

Dave King said...

Hi Swiss, and welcome.
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I have had a decko at your blog and was duly impressed. I am off now for another look-see.

Ken Armstrong said...

I knew that shipping lane you refer to Dave... I'm out there on a little raft, waving frantically over at the meaning side.

I greatly admire your posting here - and have been trailing over here from Jim's place for a little while now.

I noted with genuine alarm (around the time of the first of Jim's double-post on the subject) that you were binning most of your Haiku .

Binning is fine - but please don't ever throw that bin away. :)

Dave King said...

Hi Ken, and very welcome.
Nice to know you have been visiting and have found something to bring you back again. I like the style of your comments: refreshing, amusing and encouraging. Thanks for that. I definitely will keep the bin! One problem I find writing Haiku is that it is even more difficult to evaluate what you have done. Thanks again for the feedback.