On spring and haiku

Spring is generally a very joyful time of the year and is celebrated throughout the world with festivals and feasts. It is a time of cultivation and growth and so the joy is traditionally sourced from the arrival of food and of coming out of the darkness of winter. Strangely enough, it is the time of year I find myself most thinking about death, which may sound depressing but actually I believe is a healthy part of a positive outlook on the world. To explain myself better, I want to go on a little journey through some philosophy and poetry.

As many philosophers have argued, our sense of self and the derivation of our ethics is bound inextricably to the phenomenological confrontation with the Other. We understand ourselves because of the absolute separateness of the consciousness staring back at us. I see a similarity in the role of death, or rather, I feel that death is the ultimate Other whose gaze back at us is all that inflates our experience with value. It punctuates existence with a full stop and a contrast that is necessary to understand the purpose of our otherwise endless being.

This alterity is present in spring just as death is present in spring; what we truly love about it is its contrast to the bleak and hard conditions that counterpoise the other side of the year. Poetry was appropriately one of the first mediums in which these themes were connected and related, back in Greek classics. But I think it took the Japanese form of the haiku to perfect the complex dichotomy. Modern haiku has become quite rigid since it was imported into North America and is often defined as having to be about nature and being an observation in the present. Traditionally though, these rules were not present and the haiku was more focused around constructing a ‘moment’, be it in the past or even fictional. The minimalism of the form does not contain the imagery but rather, it allows it to breathe and come to life in the reader’s mind.

Even on the smallest islands,
they are tilling the fields,
skylarks singing.

-Kobayashi Issa

I use this as an example of both a classic haiku and one that contains the duality of life and death that I think underlines spring. The first line sets up the idea that the theme of this haiku affects everyone, even in the far corners of the world. The second line contains the complexity because it both references everyone’s shared need to survive but also the association of tilling and harvesting carry heavy connotations of death and the cyclical nature of life. The final line shines contrast on that idea with a bright seasonal image. See what you make of this one:

Half of the minnows
within this sunlit shallow
are not really there

-J.W. Hackett

Western thought has long been dominated by the idea of binary dualities; things that can either be one thing or another, that are in conflict between two opposing ideologies. However, of Eastern origin, haiku is not dominated by this thinking and has a much more fluid exploration of seemingly oppositional themes. Loving spring is not a repulsion of the other seasons but an understanding that they are necessarily entwined within each other. They form a balance.