Meaning in Haiku
Often when I receive haiku submissions for the journal I edit I reject them because I feel that they lack meaning. They don't speak to me. What exactly am I saying? What does "meaning" mean? What meaning do I expect from a haiku?
This question comes up again and again in haiku discussions. While Lee Gurga and Scott Metz were discussing work to be included in Haiku 21, the major new anthology of modern American Haiku" conference in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in 2010 that he is especially keen to find meaning in haiku. "For a long time my ideal has been haiku that convey a real experience transparently but that also have several other levels of meaning, metaphorical or symbolic or whatever, available to the reader. This is what I believe adds richness to haiku and makes them worth keeping as part of the poetic canon."
Trying to pin down "meaning" in haiku is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. One could delve into historical haiku and its predecessors. One could go deeply into semiology—the study of all kinds of signs, textual, verbal, social, etc. I'll try to steer a middle course. I'll start with a compressed version of what the online Encarta World English Dictionary has to say about meaning and its partial synonyms: mean•ing is defined as "1. what a word, sign, or symbol means; 2. what somebody intends to express; 3. what something signifies or indicates; and 4. psychological or moral sense, purpose, or significance."
Significantly, these definitions all objectify the notion of "meaning": it is the target of some sort of effort at communication; the referent of a word, sign, or symbol; the "what" that somebody intends to express or indicate, the purpose of an utterance. Well, then, if any utterance has some meaning, what is it that I'm missing in those haiku submissions that don't speak to me? Can there be such a thing as a haiku completely without communicative purpose? How about computer-generated random haiku? Consider this verse generated specially for me on the randomhaiku Web site:
behind the gravel,
Brazil plundered happily.
Monkey stops peeking.
This bit of doggerel may be random, but is it really devoid of all meaning? After all, some person invested a lot of gray matter in selecting a lexicon from which the computer could choose words, worked out some form of grammar and syntax to make sure that prepositions precede nouns and participles work grammatically, and devised rules and algorithms to limit the syllable count to 5–7–5.
I would go one step further and say that it is almost impossible for a human who is confronted by a text not to impute meaning, even to what was created as nonsense. In that randomly generated haiku, maybe "plundered" is not a past tense verb but a past participle, so the line could be interpreted as "Brazil was plundered happily," thus making it a heavily ironic, politically correct post-colonialist sentiment—or maybe it is suggesting that Brazil welcomed the European settlers. Then "the gravel" might be the fringes of the beaches after the Portuguese landed. The "monkey" who has stopped peeking might represent the indigenous population whose curiosity is satiated . . . and so on.
Nonsense aside, there is an important point here: when we read or hear something, we immediately assume it is a communication and expect meaning; if meaning is not readily apparent, we search for it and, if need be, provide it. Most likely we start by looking for first-level meaning—straightforward description, like prose—and then for deeper meaning, perhaps allusion, metaphor, or symbol.
So then, for the sake of argument, let's say that any scrap of writing has some meaning. Haiku such as the random one we just saw unquestionably exist, even if we have trouble teasing meaning out of them. Probably my problem is that a given submission to the journal may not have enough meaning or the right kind of meaning to satisfy me.
. . .