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Winter 2008, vol 6 no 4

Assimilation of the Ma Aesthetic Better Equips Western Poets to Write Haiku
by Denis M. Garrison

Amongst traditional Japanese aesthetic considerations applicable to the art of haiku writing, ma is arguably preeminent for poets working in another language, for whom much of the treasury of haiku allusions is not available. It is, of course, axiomatic that the better a poet assimilates the full panoply of traditional haiku aesthetics, the better equipped he or she will become; but for non-Japanese poets, ma has special value, I think.

While the importance, for poets who want to learn to write haiku well, of attaining some understanding of Japanese aesthetics is self-evident to many (probably, it is to most of the readers of Simply Haiku), still, there is no lack of nay-sayers. There are those (their name is Legion) who believe it is enough to write haiku in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables, or short-long-short, to have an Aha moment, to juxtapose two unlikely images, and perhaps to use a "pivot." The argument often takes the tack that "we are 21st century Westerners and Japanese aesthetics are foreign and irrelevant to writing haiku in English."

My article, "The Need for Experimentation"1, has been invoked in defense of such innovative Western poems, called "haiku," and that is fair enough. I do state there, "When an art form is adopted by a different culture than that which originated the form, it becomes the new culture's own property and it is made over in the cultural context which it has entered. There are, in every case, many from the original culture who demand adherence to their tradition, but it is futile. It is always futile to attempt to control what one has given away." I also say that, for modern Western poets who find in haiku the greatest value in its crystalline brevity and in the rigor of condensation to a lyrical minim, adherence to the traditional Japanese haiku poetics is both inappropriate and needless, since those traditional poetics are intrinsically inconsistent, even incompatible, with English poetic tradition.

However, those statements cannot be taken out of context without distorting my thesis. I had stated, a priori, that "For what haiku poets of the older Japanese tradition were seeking to accomplish with their haiku, the traditional haiku poetics are necessary and appropriate. For modern poets in Western languages who wish to emulate the same kind of poetry towards the same ends and with the same philosophic underpinnings, those same traditional haiku poetics are, likewise, necessary and appropriate. . . . Western poets who essay haiku nevertheless need to study the original traditions and understand them as well as they may, and must respect those older traditions even in the breach, because to do otherwise is to rebel out of ignorance, which is inherently wrong. If a Western poet is to write haiku, and if that poet is going to go beyond the traditional boundaries of the art form, then she or he had better know where the boundaries are. There is no merit in freedom by virtue of ignorance."

In this article, reference is made to the importance of ma for poets writing haiku in English, specifically, haiku which are meant to emulate the tenor and spirit of traditional haiku. This article does not treat those Western tercets, commonly called "haiku," which have little connection to the native form and genre beyond their brevity.

What is ma? Literally, ma is the sense of time and space, incorporating between, space, room, interval, pause, time, timing, passing, distanced, etc. More particularly, ma may be taken as the timing of space, as in the duration between two musical notes. Silence is valued as well as sound. It is said that the ma aesthetic is influential upon all varieties of Japanese art.

I am not an expert on Japanese traditional aesthetics, in general, nor in ma, specifically. It is not my intent to dissect nor analyze ma in its native context. Rather, my interest is in what may be learned from it that will better equip Western poets to write haiku. It may be helpful to review some of the English phrases that have been used to express the ma concept, for some illumination. Ma is, of course, as important in tanka as in haiku. The first important tankaist in English, arguably, is Jun Fujita, author of Tanka: Poems in Exile (Chicago, IL: McGee-Covici, 1923). Writing in his article "Japanese Cosmopolite" in Poetry Magazine (1922), Fujita referred to ma obliquely: "Where is that fine and illusive mood, big enough to illuminate the infinity of the universe, which is essential to the hokku?"

In his introduction to Jun Fujita, Tanka Pioneer2, M. Kei notes:

[...] Llewellyn Jones opened his review of Tanka: Poems in Exile for Poetry Magazine by describing Fujita as 'a young Japanese poet residing in Chicago when he is not living in the wilderness of the dunes.'
It was Jones who gave one of the most succinct and effective descriptions of the quality now known as 'dreaming room,' and thus we can mark Tanka: Poems in Exile as the foundation of the principle in English-language tanka.
'[] the important thing about these poems is not what they say in syllables that are there, but what they imply without the use of any words at all. They are poems which ask that the reader shall become a poet and complete them—rather extend them—for himself. For while each poem is as complete as the circle made by a stone thrown into still water, the circle keeps expanding in the imagination of the sympathetic reader.'

The phrase "rhetoric of omission" is used in his Introduction to Modern Japanese Tanka by Makoto Ueda, editor (Columbia University Press, 1996). Although this phrase is not widely used presently, I think it is particularly expressive of ma insofar as it strongly suggests that even silence has its rhetoric, its shape, its timing. By a rhetoric of omission, we can speak the unspeakable, capture the ineffable. By knowing what not to say, the poet loads meaning into what is said.

For several years, I have been fascinated by this particular aspect of haiku and tanka writing. My own phrase for ma is "dreaming room." While I have written bits and pieces on this subject over the years, in Modern English Tanka, Spring 20073, I wrote a tanka designed to be stereotypical of my conception of dreaming room and published an editorial by that name. In tanka circles, this editorial engendered some discussion of this particular aspect of poetics. As a result, an anthology of tanka, The Dreaming Room: Modern English Tanka in Collage and Montage Sets, edited by Michael McClintock and myself, was published by Modern English Tanka Press in 2007. So it is that the phrase "dreaming room" has acquired some currency as synonymous with ma.

I think the reason the phrase "dreaming room" has found favor is that it readily evokes the necessary participation of the reader of haiku in the completion of the haiku. By "dreaming room," I mean some empty space inside the poem which the reader can fill with his personal experience, from his unique social context. That empty space is not, as one might expect, impotent; rather, used properly, it is potent indeed. Hence, we speak also of the "multivalence" of these empty spaces in haiku and tanka. As I wrote in the editorial Dreaming Room:

There is another lens through which to look at this same technique: the concept of multivalency. "Valence" is used in biology to refer to the forces of reaction and interaction and is used in chemistry to refer to the properties of atoms by which they have the power of combination. This informs the use of the adjective, "ambivalent," which refers to confusion and uncertainty. So, we use the term "multivalency'" to refer to the property of words to react to one another, interact with one another, to be fungible and suggestive. A multivalent tanka is one with dreaming room. It is a poem which may be read in many different ways, all of them correct. It is this freedom for the reader that we refer to as making the reader a co-creator of the poem. The reader's experiential context determines the true meaning of the poem, for that reader.

This brings us full circle, back to the proposition that, amongst traditional Japanese aesthetic considerations applicable to the art of haiku writing, ma is arguably preeminent for poets working in another language. Why? Look at what Western poets lose when writing in English. The vast treasury of traditional allusions is virtually lost in cultures for whom those allusions do not resonate. The major technique of kigo, season-words, is also largely vitiated by the seasonal differences from those of Japan that apply throughout the world. In the world's briefest poems, such losses strip away a multitude of opportunities to convey much by few words. In such a context, it becomes really essential to not only make use of every word in the poem, but also of every silence in the poem. Even the spaces between words need to resonate. Ma is the aesthetic from which techniques that can accomplish such a rhetoric of omission can flow. I believe that assimilation of the ma aesthetic will indeed better equip Western poets to write haiku in English that have meaning and power.

 1 "The Need for Experimentation" was published in Ku Nouveau (Summer 2001), in World Haiku Review (August 2001), in Haiku Harvest (2006), and in my collection, Eight Shades of Blue (Modern English Tanka Press, Baltimore, MD, 2007).

2 Jun Fujita, Tanka Pioneer, ed. Denis M. Garrison; Introduction by M. Kei (Modern English Tanka Press, Baltimore, MD, 2007), pp. 19-20.

3 The editorial Dreaming Room, is available online at
and, of course, in the print edition of Modern English Tanka, Spring 2007.

Denis M. Garrison Denis M. Garrison lives by the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. His poetry is published in many print and online journals and in several anthologies. Garrison's collections of poetry now in print include Eight Shades of Blue, Hidden River, Fire Blossoms: The Birth of Haiku Noir, and Sailor in the Rain and Other Poems. He is Editor of Modern English Tanka, Ambrosia: Journal of Fine Haiku, and Modern Haiga journals and also publishes Atlas Poetica and Prune Juice: Journal of Senryu and Kyoka.