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The multiple interpretations of simple words and phrases used in modern haiku give the reader a more participatory role in their reading; instead of being literature alone, the haiku that inspires varied meanings becomes art and involves the reader in its interpretation.
Another instance of these multiple interpretations contributing to a deeper understanding of the haiku is seen in the aggregate definition of "mountain village." The term can be personified as "either the unbearable loneliness of a life lived in seclusion or the bliss of living at one's ease from the maddening crowd," (Kawamoto 714). These choices of interpretation allow the haiku to take on its own meaning, above nature, above literal interpretations of the words, and to resonate more deeply with the reader.
It is this concept of "blending" interpretations of haiku, Hiraga says, that allows the haiku to take on a deeper meaning than its literal interpretation may allow. For example, in the spring haiku, Hiraga says, the underlying blend of the departure of the traveler, the end of spring, and the sadness of the fish and birds all combine to create the idea that "the departure is fused with the end phase of spring, leading us to interpret the sadness of farewell as identical to the sadness of that season's fading" (Hiraga 470).
These multiple interpretations, different levels of meaning and "blending" of interpretations all combine to create a deeper and more meaningful verse, as opposed to simply accepting the first type of interpretation only, that of the literal meaning of the words. Hiraga notes that haiku are "rich in cultural implications" (Hiraga 478) and that the blending technique of interpretation can lead to new and more significant levels of discerning the meaning of a selection.
It should be noted that the basic simplicity of haiku's format and its structural restrictions "require the form itself to participate in giving images, concepts, and feelings" (Hiroga 479). If the only method of interpretation was the literal sense, that is to say that if the only subjects encompassed by haiku really were nature subjects, the genre would not have held the interest of writers and readers for so many centuries. The layers of meaning are what give haiku its timelessness, and the applicability of a word that may mean one thing literally to another thing psychically and emotionally is a vital part of haiku. The ability of the reader to assign different meanings to the literal words enhances the experience of haiku significantly; one author noted that "setting one idea (or word picture) on top of another" (Kawamoto 710). This layering contributes to interpretation and the meaning of a verse to an individual significantly more than taking each verse as a literal, limited thought.
With this concept of interpretation on many levels in mind, we can begin to examine the influences of haiku on Japanese thought and vice versa. The influence of the genre on Zen Buddhism and the effects of Buddhism on the development of haiku has already been mentioned. This influence is one that captures the reciprocal relationship in Japanese thought between the literary expression in haiku and the culture itself.
Buddhism's emphasis on the need to see reality in a manner as unclouded as possible lends credence to the need to define and consider as many interpretations of a haiku as possible. As one Buddhist scholar noted, "any reality we perceive is a reality that is interpreted through language," (Ueda 1). This lens of interpretation -- the first step of language-puts us, in the view of Zen Buddhism, one layer away from "reality" to begin with. The Buddhist emphasis on seeing things as they are and on discerning the true meaning of a thing coincides with haiku's multiple interpretations and the blending of these interpretations.
It is these interpretations that lead us back to the question of whether or not a haiku, as defined, must only be on its face about nature. That question requires that we define nature as well, and that is where the nature of haiku must be considered. Haiku, as demonstrated above, may be interpreted on many levels-literally, as understood in lore and myth, as a direct metaphor or allegory for another thing, and by using a blend of these interpretive methods. This variety of interpretations results in the definition of nature becoming very, very flexible -- the nature of man? Of beast? Of seasons, or emotions, or of the physical world (like DNA or engineering)?
An interpretation that is in tune with the Japanese culture and thought process of finding the reality which fits ones own reality best, of determining and finding extraneous realities, will incorporate these multiple meanings of "nature" as well. In an interpretation fitting with Japanese thought, the reader determines what it is that he is seeking, and applies his own parameters to the verse. Individual interpretations are not only possible but welcome, and it is these multiple interpretations, influenced so heavily by the Japanese emphasis on sparsity and function, that have given haiku its enduring appeal.
In haiku, one is permitted to play freely with indeterminacy, secure in the knowledge that, sooner or later, any poem can be reduced to topics sanctioned by centuries of tradition." (Kawamoto 721). With this statement, Kawamoto flips the traditional interpretation methods of haiku around onto the form itself-there are many ways to interpret a haiku, the quote says, and thus any haiku may be construed to have nature of some form or another as its topic. A discussion of civil engineering may be construed as a discussion of man's nature, or of the human desire to build, and as such it becomes a similar topic to the tendency of man to be sad when a season ends, as in the Basho verses above.
The essential nature of Japanese culture and, by extension, has strong roots in finding a deft, effective method of doing things-whether it be finding one's own truth in the spiritual sphere, planning an urban center so that millions of people can occupy a relatively small space, or in the creative world, in haiku and its related forms. This cultural emphasis on self-interpretation results in the subject matter of haiku becoming almost any topic, because an individual can interpret that topic to be related to nature, and as such, the form stretches to encompass any literal subject.
Our modern deviation from nature, in the form of urban landscapes, rushed lifestyles, an emphasis on "doing" as opposed to "being," and a lack of appreciation for tradition can all be at least partially remedied by applying the concepts discussed in this essay to our own lives. Deep examination, careful consideration of the meaning of words and actions, and awareness of a situation will all help to slow the pace of life to a more bearable, and enjoyable, rate. Haiku and Japanese culture can help us to do this by emphasizing the need to interpret things for oneself.
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Gardels, Nathan. "The haiku and the double helix," in NPQ, Fall 2004, pp. 2-3.
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Hiraga, Masako. "Blending and an interpretation of haiku: a cognitive approach," in Poetics Today 20:3, 1999, pp. 461-481.
Kawamoto, Koji. "The use and disuse of tradition in Basho's haiku and imagist poetry," in Poetics Today 20:3, 1999, pp.…[continue]
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