Hail, Herbs and Turnips: Haiku and its Models in the Natural World by Thomas Hemstege
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(this article, tr. here by David Cobb, was first published in Vierteljahresschrift der Deutschen Haiku-Gesellschaft, 
Vol. 16 No. 60, March 2003)
The sole problem in art is achieving a balance between subjective and objective.
                                                                                                             Piet Mondrian
their  scent is for those
who broke them from their tree,
the plum blossoms
In the spring of 1883 the French artist Claude Monet (by now 43 years old and established in both fame and fortune) was in Normandy, where he stumbled upon a picturesque little place called Giverny, to which he was for the rest of his life to remain a captive. There the painter, who had dedicated himself since his youth to the pictorial description of nature, soon bought an estate of 15,000 square metres. The local inhabitants were outraged by the first steps taken by this new member of their community. This nature lover Monet had all the trees cut down, the smallholding entirely dug up, age-old boundary walls ripped out, and wasn’t content until the entire area lay before him fallow and bare. For he had conceived a plan: he wished to make his own garden, a creation of his own imagination, to suit his own purposes entirely. His concept was a garden like a three-dimensional sketchbook, which in course of time would provide him with real-life models for the oil paintings he wished to paint. It took him decades to carry this project out. A greenhouse was built, and a house for his head gardener and a number of assistants to live in. Seeds, bulbs and tubers were assembled from far and near, much also cultivated on the spot, for in those days there were no profitable garden centres to supply the amateur.  With his inward eye Monet already saw open stretches of water in which his blossoms would be reflected, so he went to the local authorities and persuaded them to let him divert the local stream into his property and there dam it up to make a huge pond.  Monet had seen coloured woodcuts and become familiar with the curvaceous bridges of Far Eastern lands, and that was something he wanted to paint, so he had a famous Japanese bridge built for him, even if it fitted into the landscape of Northern France like a thumb in your eye.
The countless pictures which Monet produced in his garden, right up until his old age and death, have meanwhile become icons of twentieth century art and are now as familiar as the Mona Lisa. The artist’s method of working is an interesting one. Having been attracted to a particular natural landscape, his first step is to brutally destroy it. Subsequently he replaces it with an artificial landscape, one that is entirely dominated by his own will and whose appearance is calculated to provide just those images that the painter intends to paint in oils. The third step is when Monet uses the artificial world he has fashioned according to his heart’s desire, in order to represent the life of nature convincingly in two dimensions. Most of us who have seen his paintings down to the present day feel that he succeeded in doing this, and are deeply impressed by their originality.
I have great respect for this uncommonly industrious painter, who energetically put his ideas into practice and who succeeded in harmonising new scientific discoveries with the creative powers of the artist. As we are here concerned with the undoubtedly complex relationship between art and nature, Monet, with his drastic and consistent way of going about things, offers himself as a model. His attitude – that of a man raised in a lower middle class family, educated in Paris and quickly making his mark there – is typical of the towndweller. The kind who doesn’t subordinate himself to nature, but shapes it to his own desires, even subjects it to force and observes it analytically in whatever form it appears.
Two decades earlier, one of Monet’s colleagues, also French, approached nature in a very different way. A description has come down to us from Guy de Maupassant of how this painter worked: “In a large empty room a huge, dirty, greasy man was using a kitchen knife to press chunks of white paint onto a large, completely empty canvas. From time to time he would go to the window, press his face against the glass and look out into a storm.  The sea was so close, as if it yearned to break against the house, which was already feeling the welter of its foam and noise. The dirty water beat against the window panes like hail and dripped down the walls …”  The artist who worked in this way to create a whole series of seascapes of unprecedented intensity was Gustave Courbet. Some days earlier he had even tried to stand out in the midst of the storm while he painted, but again and again the wind had blown his easel away and the rain had washed his paints off the canvas. The realistic method employed by this son of a peasant family was largely self-taught; he spent all his life in a studio in his home town of Ornans, and experienced great difficulty in getting his work exhibited in the capital, Paris. Not least because he followed his socialist convictions in a reckless way which finally had him put away in prison for six months. It’s not surprising that these dingy, roughly painted sea pictures, in which nature assaults the viewer like an elemental force beyond human control, are not so well known to the general public as the bright, sunlight-flooded, artistically composed garden paintings of the Impressionist, Monet. Another picture by Courbet, called ‘The Origins of the World’, did however cause a stir 130 years after it was painted, when it was exhibited for the first time, for it depicts the lower parts of a female body with the legs splayed apart. Both pictures – ‘The Wave’ and ‘The Origins of the World’ – hang side by side in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Now I should like to present a third way in which artists might approach nature. In 1959, the painter and poet Henri Michaux, a Frenchman once more, wrote the following lines which are contained in a longish poem called “Calm among the breakers”:
the window’s pulse stirs
the illuminating pulse of early morning
a shooting range in the head
silent drumfire of the photons
white lightning flashes
prolonged flashes
uninterrupted flashes
immeasurable feeling of being surrounded
violet gusts
gusts over the birds
Michaux was trying to bridge the gap between the human world and nature by ‘embodying’ himself in nature in the literal sense of the word, by taking natural substances which alter our everyday sensual perceptions. In a series of carefully planned experiments (at the age of 60, mind you!) he traced the mysterious relationships between art and drugs, focussing his attention on mescaline, a drug that is extracted from a certain kind of cactus. Many users, especially of hallucinogenic drugs, report a markedly changed perception of nature, if they experience the intoxicated state in the open air, and they make a special point of saying that their reaction to colours and smells is intensified to an almost unbearable extent. Indoors, intoxication may lead to hallucinations which bear the imprint of various vegetable and organic structures. Someone under the influence of drugs may even experience his body as a detached natural object, a stranger, continually changing shape or disappearing altogether. Images and experiences of nature of this kind, though induced in an artificial way and experienced within the mind, are just as valid models for artistic representations of nature as Monet’s water lilies and Courbet’s waves.
first light of dawn
even the moon pauses
when the cherry blooms
Now we move on from pictorial artists to poets.
Amongst ourselves, the answer to the question, what is a haiku, runs often enough something like this: the shortest poem in the world. When I hear this sort of definition I have to tell you the hair creeps on the back of my neck, for no form of artistic expression can be described in terms of a superlative of quantity (unless of course one is after an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.) An extension usually follows: haiku is a kind of nature poem. These explanations are seldom questioned. But what on earth, in this third millennium of our era, does ‘nature poem’ mean? What does ‘nature’ mean to a Japanese haiku poet? And to a German haiku poet? Where, when and how does he experience it, and above all, how does he employ natural examples in order to express his artistic ideas? From ancient times, in all civilisations, it has been a matter of duty as well as choice for theologists, philosophers, scientists and artists to reflect on the relationship between man and nature. As ‘nature poets’ I think it behoves us to do the same.
A simple interpretation of the word ‘Nature’ might be: that part of our world which was created without human involvement and which has not been altered by human intervention. It seems plain enough, now in the twenty-first century, that according to this definition little if any nature is left.
Let us now turn our attention to what Japanese poets of the classical period chose as material for their nature poetry.
Leafing through the ancient almanacs (saijiki) of season words (kigo) one gets a clear idea how the Japanese poets arranged the phenomena of the natural world. To be precise, first of all inanimate things such as season and weather, then animate ones like human affairs, animals and plants. But where exactly did the tanka poets of the tenth, twelfth or fifteenth centuries come in contact with nature? Almost entirely in a narrow urban enclave of their capital city, Kyoto, especially in the case of women, who were shut up in courtly palaces and the like. They spent their days among natural things that lacked the power to move themselves about, such as cherry trees, chrysanthemums, roses and morning breezes, things that were available to them in the immediate vicinity, that is, in home, garden and backyard. But these trees and flowers were in no way part of life in the wild, they were carefully selected objects arranged in a garden designed according to aesthetic principles.  It was the daily task of landscape architects and gardeners to ensure that the beholder saw a view that conformed to the lunar calendar and created the appropriate mood. The lucky person who, one misty morning in early autumn, came across a dew-pearled shiny red maple leaf lying on a dark green mossy stone, could not be sure whether it had been plucked and blown there by the morning breeze, or whether a  gardener had dutifully put it in its place.  Those natural things that were mobile gave  aristocrats the chance to play merry little games with them in the garden, such as capturing glow-worms, or their blue-blooded sleep was disturbed by violent mosquito bites.  But most animal life preferred to keep its distance from the city, so that for example we find very few references by tanka poets to bears or wolves.
Mountains lay around the city within easy reach, it is true, but expeditions to them were an exception and for safety sake carried through only after thorough preparations, almost as if a new continent was about to be discovered.  So it is not surprising that migratory birds, above all the crane, received a lot of attention from poets – they were after all symbols of boundless mobility between the world inhabited by humans and those parts the human never reached
wherever one looks
horsetails cover
the temple ruins                          Chiyo-ni
Woe betide those nature poets who left the artificial surroundings of the capital behind and, for example, were banished to distant provinces. There nature offered them  ‘absolutely nothing charming hereabouts’, the trees in the forests were ‘terrifying’, the effect of mountains on them was ‘ugly and repellant’, in fact the whole inclination to write poetry was lost. These provinces were by no means uninhabited or abandoned by man; simply, the nature there had not been ‘civilised’, only opened up to cultivation in a boorish, useful sort of way, or just left as wilderness. And nature, when not organised in an aesthetic manner, was considered to be ‘awfully desolate’ and did not inspire people to sing about it. Nothing was left to the exiled tanka poet but to search longingly through his memories of nature as it existed in the town environment and shed a tear.
This way of seeing nature was carried over from tanka poetry into haiku poetry which developed from it. Haiku did introduce two important changes, though; firstly, the rules governing the poetics of haiku were less complicated and the use of poetic diction yielded to everyday colloquial speech, so that a poet of the seventeenth or nineteenth centuries no longer needed to be familiar with classical Chinese. Secondly, it was no longer exclusively the aristocrats at court who devoted themselves to poetry, but above all middle class people and clerics living in the cities: liquor traders, school teachers, residents in temples, whorehouse owners, and printers. Yet the forms of nature which surrounded and inspired these poets remained as ever urban, whether in the old imperial city of Kyoto or in the new town of Edo. The lonely willow rustled its leaves in the artisans’ quarter, mirrored in the old pond was the traffic of the evening rush hour, and anyone who wanted to get a place to view the famous cherry blossoms had to fight for it, like holiday makers looking for a vacant spot on a Mediterranean beach today. The haiku poet too found his thoughts and feelings reflected only in cultivated plants and animals; the wilder it was, the less it was tamed by human hand, the more dubious nature became. 
The idealised picture of the haiku poet as a wanderer (tabihito) confirms this very clearly.
Precisely because he left the urban world of his own free will and ventured into the apparently undisturbed wild of the surrounding farmlands, he was in a position to glorify cultivated nature by contrasting it with the wilderness.  Melancholy overcame the wanderer arriving at some abandoned, overgrown habitation, for there was no gardener to take the foliage in hand. Even when the wandering poet might manage to sing endearingly about a shepherd’s purse growing by the wayside, he would turn away from the uninhabited moorland in horror. No, hereabouts there really was no natural thing to charm the eye.
Even the greatly respected Bashō spent the greater part of his life in the metropolitan environment of Edo, and the journeys he undertook in his last years were rather more like the tours of a pop star than a lonely hike. Disciples and admirers accompanied him from place to place and he would stay the nights looked after by officials or by well-to-do patrons. However, Bashō took a decisive step which pointed haiku in a new direction: unlike the courtly tanka poets, who for the most part quoted and made variations upon native or Chinese lyrics, Bashō did actually visit the places which feature in his poems.
We are thus faced with two kinds of Japanese haiku: on the one hand, poems that refer to those things in nature which the human hand can manipulate, and these are generally things in the urban environment; and on the other hand, haiku which refer to things which are beyond human control – the sun, the moon and stars, winter and summer, storm and drought. Here the poet’s view detaches itself from the human world and operates on a plane removed from human influence. (Though the fact that this situation has been changed radically in our times needs to be mentioned.)
day after day
I forgot to forget myself –
a deer in spring
On our expedition through the dense thicket where art and nature mingle, we come to another aspect of Japanese lyrical poetry which is essentially different from what we are used to in Western poetry.  Ask anyone here casually, ‘Can you tell me what a poem is?’, and the answer may well be, ‘Something that rhymes.’ The comparable answer in Japan is usually, ‘Something that has to do with nature.’ It’s interesting, that the first answer characterizes poetry in a formal manner, while the second refers to content.
This aspect of content is of great importance in Japanese poetics. For, with the exception of folksongs and simple love songs, there is nothing in traditional Japanese lyric poetry that doesn’t make an explicit and necessary reference to nature. The poet was compelled, whatever he wanted to say, to express it in terms of natural things. Love sickness, a death wish, experience of the world, joy and sorrow, desire, envy, divine inspiration, loneliness and drunken companionship – for everything, absolutely everything that could move a person to poetic feelings, something from the world of animate or inanimate things had to be found as a medium that would express it artistically in words.
We are all familiar with the range of European lyrical forms, forms that are clearly distinguished from one another not only in form, but also in content. Our poets can choose between analytical, narrative or emotional lyricism, they can choose also between the epigram, the sonnet, the ballad, the ode and even free forms.
The decisive problem facing a Japanese poet was not, then, having to compress what he had to say into 31 or 17 syllables, but being obliged to express himself in natural images. The only alternative he had was to write in a foreign language, Chinese. This changed in modern times, after the general public had access to Western poetry. This is the reason why, in the early days, so many senryu were published anonymously; they were regarded as inferior at best, simply because they lacked any reference to nature. As this first rule of lyric poetry was so taken for granted in Japan, I doubt very much whether it plunged many poets into despair, but it surely had a great influence on the way nature came to be seen and expressed in linguistic images.
I can’t resist a fascinating, playful thought: just imagine your favourite poet, maybe Pindar or Martial, Shakespeare or Goethe, even Rilke maybe, being obliged to present his ideas in poems using only images such as the moon and cherry blossom, cabbages and turnips, cats and crickets …   
This narrow restriction of Japanese lyric poetry to subject matter taken from nature led, in my opinion, almost unavoidably to the development in Japan of an extremely important literary genre called zuhitsu, which one might translate as ‘miscellaneous thoughts’. Here, in more or less clearly connected short sections, we find experiences, thoughts, observations, quotations and poems arranged alongside each other. In addition, this restrictiveness is one of the basic reasons why in course of time Japanese tanka and haiku have accumulated like sands on a seashore.
I’d like to raise a point which, during the time the West has been trying to come to terms with Japanese haiku, has seldom been considered at all, and if at all, then not considered enough. At first reading you will probably be astonished by it, but: Japanese haiku aren’t  nature poems at all. This statement calls for explanation. Japanese poems are concerned with the four seasons of the year, they are therefore ‘season poems’.  Putting it more broadly, we can put it like this: Japanese haiku are ‘time poems’ whose subject matter is time, the passage of time, the past, the present and the future. And the poet illustrates this process of becoming and passing away within a shorter or longer period of time by relating them to things in the natural world, either alive and dead.
This is the background against which are set the endless misunderstandings whenever Japanese and Western devotees of haiku start to talk to each other. The Japanese side insists that it’s only possible to call a poem a haiku if it contains a recognisable ‘season word’ (kigo). Consequently, all the peoples of the earth, from Alaska to Patagonia, ought to draw up extensive lists of particular plants and animals which in their region might represent a certain time of year, a certain month, a certain week and even a particular day. This requirement is at best vaguely understood by the Western side and rejected as being irrelevant to non-Japanese haiku.
If one regards haiku as being nature poetry pure and simple, this narrow way of attaching natural objects to particular points of time, or periods of time, and laying down that these relationships must always be observed, does appear unnecessary and unreasonable. The sparrow, for example, can be seen in towns at any time of year, not just in spring, the daisy blooms in our front gardens from April to September, and the oak tree stands rooted next to the bus stop day after day, month after month, year after year, regardless of the season in which a poem is set. But as the Japanese haiku is essentially a ‘time poem’, it has – above all because of its brevity – necessarily to work with codified words and expressions, so that the reader knows, without undue reflection, whereabouts in the annual round he ought to set the action or description which the poem presents.
Let’s take the word ‘ebb’ as an example. Without making it the symbol of any particular time of year it has, like ‘flood’, served throughout the ages as an image of eternal coming and going, rise and fall, of the endless rhythms of time, over which the human race has not the least control. But Japanese haiku poets have decided that the kigo ‘ebb’ belongs in the third month of the lunar calendar, that month when the spring tides make the tidal process most obvious, and when the sea ebbs out towards the horizon farther than at any other time. Anyone who reads a Japanese haiku with the word ‘ebb’ in it, and imagines a summer holiday scene with sunshade, bathing trunks and ice-cream van, is not in a position to appreciate it correctly. In its intended context, ‘ebb’ does mean bright sunshine, but also woolly jumper, thick stockings, a chilly breeze and the awakening of spring.
Often enough Japanese haiku poets take this game with temporal symbols too far, by matching an object that belongs quite definitely in one time frame, with a situation that contradicts it. We’d probably all be happy if fleas bit us only in the sixth month, as the kigo ‘nomi’ prescribes. If a flea pops up in a haiku that otherwise suggests the seventh month (= first month of autumn) the initiated reader knows immediately that the atmosphere of summer has continued unduly long and well into autumn. It is only because of the prescriptive use of kigo that Japanese haiku can pinpoint the moment when they occur or take place, and in such a differentiated way. This use of symbols depends, however, first of all on the receiver recognising that it functions as a code word at all, and then on its particular meaning in that code. In Japanese haiku, a flea simply isn’t just an obnoxious little pest that torments human beings, but simultaneously – and just as importantly – an indicator of a particular period of time. This flea jumps up and down , chirruping alternately, ‘I am a flea’ and ‘I am the sixth month’.
Humans negotiate their three-dimensional world in a fairly sure and familiar manner, for with their physical senses they are aware of height, breadth and depth. But as we lack a sense that would enable us to experience time directly, this dimension remains abstract and mysterious to us. Although time is so essential to us, we can’t actually put a finger on it, we experience no more than that things are in the present or the past. And we conclude, from our recollections of what happened in the past, what is likely to happen next, even though the future always remains uncertain. Time is a succession of Now and Now and Now, and with the very next Now the previous one is past, beyond recall.
How on earth can such a strange process be represented graphically and lyrically in a ‘time poem’? In the end, only by finding a way of forming the series Just – Now – Soon into a sequence. In Japanese haiku, poets work primarily with contrasts between movement and rest, in order to make the passage of time intelligible. Just now the cuckoo called over there, now he is calling here; yesterday the leaf was still hanging on its twig, now it’s lying on the ground; last time we looked out of the window the sky was blue, now it’s clouding over. Often, time as a fleeting thing is the theme when a continual  sequence of happenings is represented, contrary to all experience, as something that has been arrested.
having watched the full moon
back in the house again
nothing left to say                      Chiyo-ni
The essential difference between a Japanese and a Western haiku lies in the completely different experience of nature and above all, transforming this into a means of artistic expression. To overcome this difference would be an arduous task, and all I can do here is put forward a few ideas and draw attention to a few differing viewpoints.
To express themselves in an appropriate lyrical manner, Japanese haiku poets make use of animate and inanimate nature in an extremely skilful way. When any thought or feeling they have within themselves has deepened into an intensely experienced mood, they resort to nature. You could say that they begin by conceiving the picture that will afterwards be realised with the help of nature. Now begins an interesting game, the actual creative process of the wordsmith. For the object is to find something in nature that will  accurately reflect that particular mood of the moment, a leaf, a cloud or a lark that can represent the poet’s inner world. For this to be happen without being forced, a great sensitivity to nature is required, as also long practice in looking around outside without being determined to find something. Only in this uncertain interaction between human mood and nature that is seen, touched, smelt or heard does the poet arrive bit by bit at the proto-haiku, from which a finished haiku is made. When the artist reaches this point where inner feeling and external observation coincide his real poetic craft comes into play: now he must gradually capture the natural picture in the most accurate words, applying his thoughts and feelings throughout the process in a corrective way.
This kind of search for artistic expression is an extremely complex process and one that is difficult to describe. It is dependent on a mature cultural environment. All the same, I’d  like, in a way that accords with European logic, to put it in a nutshell like this: when the Japanese haiku poet knows what he wants to say, he looks around for some natural object that reflects his thoughts and feelings. Nature responds to his imagination by providing the image he awaits. With this aid the poet is able to represent his inner world, but not nature itself. As we saw before, the nature he ‘consults’ is generally not wild, but much more likely to be within surroundings that have been tamed by man. In other words, a Japanese haiku is produced in a similar way to a waterlily painting by Claude Monet.
To show how Westerners typically treat nature, I’ll quote from a short poem by Paul Ernst, published in 1898:
I lie in the sprucewood,
On smooth needles.
The smell of resin.
Dead calm.
This is the first version (later revised) of a poem by the German naturalist, which he (as poet) composed while impressed by a German translation of a Chinese poem. There are plenty of other examples of this common attitude of European poets towards nature. This is one who has left his little private room, where he’s been working hard on elegies and aphorisms, to seek inspiration from animate and inanimate nature. He makes his way out into nature in the search for new thoughts, new subjects; and when he finds them, lets them sink in, listens to what’s going on inside him, and then describes his feelings as reactions to nature. The starting point for the European haiku poet is this, that an exact description of an external natural phenomenon, and the sensation in the human mind which this evokes, can lead to an accurate artistic representation of the natural object.
He thinks always in terms of ‘Nature and Me’, remains throughout a prisoner of nature. He sits in the grass and thinks, ‘What is it that the grasshopper, the wind, the linden tree are trying to say to me?’ This way of perceiving things resembles the way in which the realist Courbet worked, as somewhere between squall and spray he tried to paint the authentic face of the sea.
This is a good moment to make clear the difference between a haiku and a senryu in Japan. For only a senryu is in fact a description of the external natural world, without reference to time, without deep natural symbolism, without solemn mood. A senryu simply says, look, here’s something I saw out there, something I experienced, don’t you think it’s curious?
a soon as it falls
it’s nothing more than water –
the red dew-drop
The following view seems to me to apply especially to haiku poetry in the West:
One rule that is put forward again and again and is supposed to produce a good haiku, a rule that above all we in the West are expected to respect (worship, I even dare to say), runs like this: a haiku must begin with an actual experience of nature, and must first be perceived with one of the human senses, and then expressed in seventeen syllables to make a poem. This requirement is not just silly, but also dangerous. For on the one hand it suggests the idea that every time someone goes into the park to feed the pigeons, he is experiencing an epiphany through nature; on the other hand, it denies the most important element of artistic creativity, which is the power of the imagination.
If we looked at the millions of haiku which have been written around the world until now and gave our honest opinion, would we feel they truly resulted from a spontaneous, deeply felt experience of nature – how many would be left? When, at any place on earth,  a group of haijin sit together having as their common theme, ‘Broom on the heath’, do you think they have all at one time or another had a meaningful encounter with broom? When six people huddle together over a renku whose next verse for one reason or another demands the mention of a chameleon, do you imagine any one of them has ever felt the sticky tongue of this reptile on their skin? Sure enough, the great master Bashō would at one time or another have taken a walk around a pond, but it’s possible there wasn’t even a single frog in it, and Bashō simply imagined, ‘What, if …?’
Let me make my position clear. Careful attention to nature is in my view the basis of creativity in art, when such is its theme. However, the demand that every good haiku must have its origins in a real-life experience, this leads us into a mystification of the haiku poet and his work which violates artistic potential. A good haiku, one that is deeply felt on the basis of imaginative power alone and without direct contact with nature, is just as good as a good haiku over which wind and rain have washed.
And now in the twenty-first century it seems to me that the form has other possibilities of development, through concentrated internalisation of nature, much as Michaux went out of his way to achieve. Much as, for example, I enjoy the violet-blue petunias in my window box  (newly acquired from Wal-Mart on the Feldstrasse complete with bar code) I don’t recognise it as a piece of nature, and it doesn’t give me grounds to produce a deeply meaningful haiku. Any thoughts or feelings which might arise from recognising this, though unconnected with the actual plants, might lead to one.
Creaking phrases, false images, incongruous sounds, sentimental, kitschy descriptions of nature lacking in substance, will go on for ever being churned out in the seventeen-syllable form. But if our aim is to take hold of the German language haiku as a unique art form, we must really spend a lot less time talking about numbers of syllables and punctuation, and much more about how, in this digital twenty-first century, the content of haiku can make animate and inanimate nature its theme.
I’d like to end with a picture created for us by Hartwig Hossenfelder:
back from holiday –
on the carpet in my room
one dead butterfly