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Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2

Walden by Haiku
by Ian Marshall
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


What if I were a university professor and published a book comparing Mary Shelley's writing and thoughts with those of Matsuo Bashō, then used snippets of her brilliant book, Frankenstein, with a few added words of my own, saying my book serves as "a primer on haiku," to provide fresh insights into Frankenstein and ecocriticism; "and to demonstrate the pertinence of haiku aesthetics as a theoretical basis for understanding the nature-writing tradition in English"; that writing the book was an experience that taught me to grow as a poet, and to see a comparison between the thought processes and visions of Bashō and Shelley? Would you buy into it?

In the "Introduction" to Walden by Haiku, Ian Marshall speaks of his threefold purpose in writing the book: "to offer a primer on haiku, to provide fresh insights into Walden, and to demonstrate the pertinence of haiku aesthetics as a theoretical basis for understanding the nature-writing tradition in English. . . ."

An excerpt from "Sounds" where Marshall refers to Chapter 4 of Thoreau's Walden, "Sounds":

much published, little printed
          the rays which stream
                    through the shutters

a broad margin
          from sunrise till noon
                    my doorway

a traveller's wagon
          the distant highway
                    corn growing in the night

it was morning, and lo,
          now it is evening
                    incessant good fortune

Interesting—"Sound" has, according to my findings, the most haiku moments of any chapter so far (twenty-four), more than any other until we get to the last two, "Spring" and "Conclusion" (with thirty-one and twenty-nine respectively). The last two chapters, perhaps, indicate where Thoreau is heading: more and more in touch with nature, with less and less ego-consciousness intervening. But then why so many haiku moments here in "Sounds," relatively early in the narrative? They demonstrate, I think, an important shift. Thus far Thoreau has been far more or less philosophical, living in the mind as much as he is living by the pond. Here he makes the break with tradition—the tradition of intellectualism and rational justification for why he chose the radical path of going to the woods to live. Now it's time for pure being. One of the Zen qualities that H.R. Blyth identifies as essential to haiku is this sort of "non-intellectuality," the movement away from conceptualizing the world to perceiving it. (Chapter 4, Marshall)

Commenting further on this chapter, Marshall says:

Tellingly, it is in this chapter, right after he has been preoccupied with "Reading," that Thoreau gives us his declaration, which could fit comfortably in any statement of haiku aesthetics: "We are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor . . . What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society . . . compared with the discipline of looking always to what has to be seen?" To that we might add, apropos of this chapter, "and listening always to what has to be heard." Note how the passive construction here ("at what is to be seen") takes the emphasis off the perceiver and places it on the thing perceived: "not what I see" but "what is to be seen," with an implied erasure, for the moment at least, of the first person. One of haiku's first principles is that it looks outward at the natural world, not inward at the self. Here in "Sounds" is where Walden's shift to outward things is most dramatically marked.

In Section two of the book, entitled "Sources and Commentary," Ian Marshall presents the source for each haiku in the original prose portion from Walden, followed by a brief commentary on the individual haiku.

much published, a little printed/ the rays which stream/ through the shutters

Marshall quotes here the section of Chapter 4 of Walden, "Sounds," where using snippets of Thoreau's words, he extracted the above poem, the first of several Marshall pieced together from "Sounds":

But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language[s] . . . we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed.

Regarding this poem he pieced together from Thoreau's world, Marshall writes:

Here is another perfectly chosen image to reflect an abstract concept. I read it like this: The world is full of things to notice, as bountiful as sunlight. But only a little bit gets noticed or written about—about as much sunlight as it makes through the shutters. We live our lives with shutters down, and not much of the world gets through. What is a haiku, what is an image but a bit of attention paid to a piece of sunlight we happen to catch?

Writes Marshall in the book's "Introduction," before giving a trio of justifications for the haiku he'd written using Thoreau's words with some of his own, in his book, to teach and justify the use of Japanese haiku aesthetics in the composition of English language haiku:

. . . I contend that the haiku moments are latent in the text [Walden], waiting to be "found" or unearthed or brought to our attention, and I contend that haiku aesthetics can help us better understand what is going on in Walden . . . I suggest that a whole vein of American-nature writing tradition may be similarly compatible with the aesthetics of haiku, and so literary ecocritics might find a long-standing body of aesthetic theory useful in reading and understanding their subject.

The question of what I owe Thoreau by way of credit or apology has also troubled my conscience more than a few times during the process of redacting Walden to a series of haiku. But beyond any crisis of conscience I experienced, those questions raise, I think, some interesting theoretical issues concerning the source of these haiku. Did I write them or did Thoreau? When I claim to have found these haiku in the text, does that mean they were somehow present there in the text, or is the finding more a product of my own imposition of the haiku form onto Thoreau's unsuspecting text? Are the haiku taken from the text really a product of my own mind, prepared to see the haiku in Walden only because I happen to have been reading lots of haiku journals?

Marshall then discourses on some essential questions about literature and the perception of meaning:

1. An author's intent: "I'm tempted to reject the first possibility for the source of the haiku, author's intent—out of hand . . . since the days of New Criticism we have learned to consider such a claim the 'intentional fallacy,' recognizing that we can never have access to an author's intent."

2. Is it found in the author's text? "Obviously Thoreau, being unaware of the haiku tradition [was he?], could not be deliberately fashioning haiku-like language or looking at the world in some manner implicitly informed by the way of haiku. True enough. But in trying to see the world as it is, to come to know it through direct experience, to inquire into the meaning and value of natural fact, to wonder what it means to 'live deliberately,' Thoreau indeed had to have in mind (some of) these intentions and to have pursued them deliberately, in a way that suggests some convergent evolution between Thoreau at Walden and the writer of haiku."

3. Is it the creation of the reader? "I admit that the found haiku presented here [with the addition of words added by Marshall] are at least in part the product of my own imagination. I found haiku in Thoreau's prose precisely because I went looking for them and because I was prepared to see them from my reading—just as Thoreau had to prepare his mind's eye to find arrowheads."

Opines Marshall, "My purpose here, then, is threefold: to offer a primer on haiku, to provide fresh insights into Walden, and to demonstrate the pertinence of haiku aesthetics as a theoretical basis for understanding the nature-writing tradition in English."

Reading each chapter of the book's first section, I saw theories and comments from a professor who sincerely loves haiku but uses too many words to discuss Japanese aesthetics and their relationship to the composition of modern haiku. His knowledge of Thoreau's Walden is scholarly, as is to be expected from a university professor of English. His knowledge of haiku composition and aesthetics, however, is sometimes shaky, sounding more like ruminations than the actuality of what he writes in his desire for his book to serve as a haiku primer.

much published, little printed          (7)
          the rays which stream          (4)
                    through the shutters   (4)

His use of syllables and meter differs from traditional English language haiku, not using the S/L/S schematic indigenous to haiku. Nor do they look or resemble the haiku of Bashō, whom Marshall feels is a kindred spirit to Thoreau. Marshall's poem, instead, is what is referred to as experimental, free verse haiku poetry. Marshall also, in his book, doesn't seem to know the difference between a haiku and a senryu.

sending home
each nail
a single blow

As Kai Hasegawa, one of Japan's greatest haiku critics regarding English language haiku, said to me recently during an interview:

Kigo (words that express the seasons), which carry out important functions in haiku, were born from the soil of the idea I mentioned previously, that "humans are a part of nature."
The seasons are born from the revolution of the earth around the sun, and the first function of kigo is related to this. By including kigo in haiku, the rhythm of the earth's revolution is incorporated within the haiku.

The second function is that kigo bring an expansive world into haiku. Words are all products of the imagination, but kigo, in particular, are crystallizations formed by the imagination. We are able, for example, to roam freely within the universe contained within the kigo "hana" [flowers, especially cherry blossoms].

samazama no / koto omoidasu / sakura kana

calling to mind
   all manner of things
cherry blossoms

Writes Lee Gurga in Haiku: A Poet's Guide, "Season is the soul of haiku, as simple as that."

Posits Marshall:

But even if this project bends the subjective branch of reader - response theory . . . , I would still hope that there is something of interest here to all readers in offering a fresh look at a much-studied classic.

Walden by Haiku is a delightful read regarding the poetry he's written using some of Thoreau's words and his insight into Walden and Thoreau's outlook towards life. His conceptualization of haiku aesthetics, however, does not serve as a primer for haiku, lacking thorough research and reliance on scanty references. An English professor, YES. A poet? YES! A gifted writer? YES! A man qualified to write a primer on haiku and haiku aesthetics? NO! Ian Marshall has two books published by the University of Virginia Press that have garnered great reviews, including: Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail and Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need.

As for Walden by Haiku, Ian Marshall wrote an entire textbook to say very little about haiku composition and aesthetics and its comparison with Thoreau who did not write haiku. The book gave me insight into the eco-critical thinking of Thoreau and was an enjoyable read. He is a good poet and Simply Haiku featured a page of his haiku in our Autumn 2005 issue.

Walden in Haiku is not an appropriate place to send anyone to learn about haiku. Or for that matter, about Thoreau and his writing of Walden.


Walden by Haiku
by Ian Marshall
The University of Washington Press
Hardbound, 239 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-8203-3288-8