How Haiku Will Save Us From Twitter

A drawing of Japanese poet Basho

Raffi’s musings on the creative propensity of language and Dylan’s reflections on Eastern language and literature settled nicely alongside my previous theme of art and emotion to animate a new tangent at the confluence of haiku, cliché, and digital media.

The essential purpose of haiku is to employ a lexicon sufficiently distinct or novel that it evokes an otherwise inarticulable emotion. For example, here is a haiku (one of my favorites) by the renowned medieval Japanese poet Bashō which executes what can only be described as a literary coup de main:

if I took it in hand,
it would melt in my hot tears—
heavy autumn frost.1

The poem (in this translation by Sam Hamill) masterfully combines an inverted pronoun-antecedent pair (‘it’ and ‘frost’) with a rich noun (‘tears’) and intimating modifier (‘hot’) to express a breathtakingly poignant emotion. In these three lines Bashō shrewdly conveys an emotional kernel which, despite its clarity, would be a challenge for anyone else to articulate. Though their styles may diverge in other respects, every author of haiku from medieval Japan to the beat poets pursues this clarity of expression.

Haiku at its best is the radical inversion of cliché. Clichéd phrases, whatever their original intent, become abbreviated cyphers for more complex expression, encoding familiar concepts in succinct, commonly understood patterns. For example, in the previous paragraph I wrote the adverb “breathtakingly”, an undeniably clichéd word. The word is used metaphorically so often that it no longer causes the reader to think of actually taking a breath. Instead the word’s meaning is emergent—that is, we know to interpret it as an expression of surprise or awe because we have seen it in that context many times before.

Both haiku and cliché, then, are compressed modes of language, but the latter is oriented toward the common and the former toward the uncommon.

Compressed modes are worth some thought because their effect is increasingly important in the age of digital media. Modern digital media has altered the way writers think about succinctness in two ways. First, production and distribution of information is vastly easier—typing, editing, formatting, publishing, and storing have all become nearly trivial chores. Second, because of the prodigious quantity of information readers now encounter, the ability to express common and uncommon ideas both rapidly and briefly has become more valuable. Though one could extend a blog post indefinitely at little cost, most bloggers feel the pressure of brevity (as Polonius puts it, the “soul of wit”) more keenly than print journalists feel the pressure of column inches.

While Shakespeare lauds succinctness, three centuries later Ray Bradbury quipped that digression, rather, is the soul of wit. And so for many of our generation the question seems urgent: What has Twitter stripped from us? What intellectual sacrifice do we make in reading microblogs instead of the New York Times Magazine? As our formerly long attention spans dissapate, what societal virtues must also perish?

We should take a hint from Bashō. Brevity is only a problem when coupled with laziness. To express common ideas, we have clichés. For uncommon ideas, though we cannot all be master poets, a thoughtful writer does not need too much cleverness to find a more laconic form.

1 Sam Hamill, trans., Narrow Road To The Interior And Other Writings of Matsuo Bashō (Boston: Shambhala Classics, 1998) 56.

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2 Responses to How Haiku Will Save Us From Twitter

  1. Pingback: How to Wait for the Bus (and Why) | Like Them that Dream

  2. Pingback: How to Wait for the Bus (and Why)

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