The Hermeneutics of Haiku

“Three lines are enough” -Rabindranath Tagore

My second favorite1 haiku was written by some internet wag:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense
Refrigerator.

It captures not only the seeming randomness of haiku, but also the bewildering nature of poetry itself. Poetry, because of its compact expansiveness2, is a difficult art to master, but is indispensable for the reading and exegeting of the Word of God.

Poetry trains the eye to notice detail, both to delight in and inform; and not just notice, for poetry disciplines the imagination toward greater ranges of meaning. The Bible is the apex of literature, its complexity cannot be understood without a verdant attentiveness to the details. Some might want to discount these details as garnish, but the Spirit of God “does not waste His breath.”3 His details are not inert additions, but are tested in a furnace seven times (Psalms 12:5, Proverbs 30:5). To sound the depths of the Word requires a honing of skills, and reading poetry is the gym. To read the Bible without studying poetry is to play the game without practicing first.

Haiku is poetry boiled down to its smallest form. The essence of haiku is the kiru, a sort of caesura between two images or ideas that the reader must bridge. To snuggle two things together causes us treat it as a metaphor and since a metaphor isn’t math, but a mystery, we have to meditate upon its meaning, asking questions, drawing together similitudes, imagining the world in submission to the words. To practice this let us look at, what I consider to be, the greatest haiku ever written.

Not knowing
it is a famous place,
a man hoeing the field.4

The way to enter a poem is through an inquisitive delight. When confronted with a mystery we instinctively begin to ponder it, for we are designed to respond to mystery since our nature is rooted in the Divine Mystery. Yet this meditation isn’t a Sherlockean crimesolving, whose value depends upon the resolution, the meditation of the believer is one of rest and delight. Rejoice in the mystery of the Lord in whom you live and move and have your being.

For the unbeliever peace in the face of mystery is impossible, for it is a threat to rationality. In opposition to the Divine Mystery, the ancient philosophies based knowledge and the search for knowledge on the self and the rational mind (whether Plato’s anamnesis or some Cartesian Cogito). Rather than fear the Lord, the ancient maxim was “Know Thyself”, but replacing the fear of Yahweh with man as the beginning makes knowledge fearful. So you have the birth of the Skeptics and the gnostic cults and their hidden knowledge. The lesson of Oedipus is not that the truth will set you free, but that the truth will destroy you.

St. Augustine topples the ancient epistemology in two deft moves: the Si Fallor5 and the Crede. In the first expression, “If I am deceived, I am” (si fallor sum), it may seem like St. Augustine is building the same case for existence as Descartes, but he is actually shifting the foundation of certainty from the self. He shows his comedic chops, in fact, by choosing human fallibility as his totem for certainty. What Augustine goes on to show is that our certainty is derived from the eternal truth and the eternal love of the Creator. How we gain this certainty is the purpose of the second expression: “Believe so that you may understand​ (“crede, ut intelligas”6). Here he ​makes faith the avenue to knowledge.

So the true man responds to mystery -be it hooked by beauty, truth or goodness- and both quests in it and rests in it. Insert reflexive quotation of “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter…”

To return to the greatest haiku ever written, we enter into the mystery. A man who does not know the fame of the place where he labors. It is true; often we act without knowing the significance of our own actions, much less the actions of others. How limited is our knowledge, how blithe we are. There is much to gain pursuing this thought further, but there is more yet to unpack.

We can ask how a field can become famous. To ask is to answer: a battle and a battle long ago else he would know it by its battlescars, detritus and dead bodies. It is not just about the limits of our knowledge, but about time. Time is like a river flowing, and man is but a breath, whose days are a fleeting shadow. It is a poem about forgotten wars, which signals another layer of meaning. All flesh is grass, yes, but time heals and life goes on.

And more: the kiru pushes the battlefield together with the image of a man hoeing. We compare the acts of battle with that of farming. What is sown shifts, blood and seeds, death and life; these things meld together, giving us new eyes to see the world. There is an ironic inversion and the reader is challenged to see life springing from such an infamous place, of swords beaten into ploughshares. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen and unless a seed falls into the ground…

This haiku, once given the space to unfold and meditation in which to grow, accomplishes so much in such few words. This haiku guides our imaginations surely and affixes us to a bold hope, an unbelievable promise that belays dust to dust and unfurls within us a sign of the resurrection.

An inability to exist in mystery means settling into an easy answer rather than work through a hard question since a disdain of mystery makes one’s own intellect of primary importance.This is at root of all interpretive grids, little cheats to “figuring out” what is being said. With these blinders and “worldviews” the Scripture is tamed and filtered for convenience. Reading poetry is a way to encounter inscrutable humanity, to practice a submission to words and images opening us up to the possibility that we do not know everything; for without that we lose the ability to read anything that doesn’t affirm what we already believe, we lose the ability to submit to the Divine Word and instead bend it to our own understanding. Therefore let us adoring bend the knee, while we own the mystery.

Not knowing
it is a famous place,
a man hoeing the field.

Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana.

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References   [ + ]

1. I frequently use the “my second favorite” as a figure of speech meaning: “here’s a good one” and to also prompt the question, “What’s your first favorite?”
2. See Peter Leithart, https://theopolisinstitute.com/on-poetry/
3. James Jordan in his essay “Apologia on Reading the Bible”. Found here: http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/home/apologia-on-reading-the-bible/
4. By the modern master Masaoka Shiki, 1867-1902.
5. Augustine, while not using the form “dubito ergo sum”, is undoubtedly the source of Descartes’ famous expression. See De Trinitate, Book 10 Ch.10:14. The expression: “si fallor, sum” occurs in De Civitate Dei Book 11.26.
6. The more common formulation “Credo, ut intelligam” is actually from Anselm who was adapting Augustine.
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