What Do You Feel?
A Study of Aesthetic Response in Haiku
After researching the aesthetics of Japanese literature,
I decided to design an aesthetics research study in which
I selected two haiku that embody the descriptions of four
Japanese aesthetic terms (sabi, wabi, yugen and
aware) and test these with various readers responses to
those haiku. My purpose for doing this was to see if these
terms really articulate responses that actual readers might
For each aesthetic term, I chose one Japanese haiku and one
English language haiku. I designed the project this way to
see if readers responded to the two haiku in different ways.
None of the readers had any previous knowledge about haiku,
the haiku were shown to them individually and I had them verbalize
what they thought the scene was that each haiku depicted and
what sort of feeling or mood they thought each haiku invoked
or possessed, if any.
To begin with, I will define the Japanese aesthetic terms
that I concentrated on
during this project. Sabi is a very basic aesthetic
term that refers to the feeling of loneliness or solitude.
This term demonstrates the human need to have the space and
time to be alone every once in awhile. I chose two haiku that
I felt fit this description. The first was an extremely popular
haiku by Basho:
On a bare branch
A crow is perched
Four individuals responded to this haiku and their responses
had some similarities. One person said that the haiku was
"quiet," while another person described the setting
as being "a country evening away from the busyness of
people." Both of these responses illustrate the loneliness
or solitude of the haiku; without really articulating it,
both readers noticed the sabi, or loneliness and solitude,
that Bashos haiku depicts. Another individual responded
with the phrase "it makes me think of standing still
and watching the world go by." This response also hits
on the aesthetic term sabi because it emphasizes a certain
amount of loneliness while everything and everybody goes on
with their life.
Margaret Chula writes the English language haiku that I chose
to represent this aesthetic term sabi.
long winter night
This haiku proved to be trickier for people to pick up on
the sabi feeling behind it. Two individuals said that the
haiku made them think of "sitting at home with nothing
to do when theres a blizzard outside" (one even
pictured herself "all wrapped up, reading a book and
eating a tangerine with my cat on the floor watching me").
Images such as these clearly depict a sense of solitude and
loneliness; however, one respondent did not imagine loneliness
but, instead, thought of "having a long talk with someone."
So, she tuned into the comfort of the haiku rather than the
solitude of it.
The second Japanese aesthetic term that I chose to focus
on was wabi, which suggests the feeling that something
is just as it should be, even if other things are not. Wabi
often involves noticing nature, which has been on earth longer
that humans and will remain on earth long after we leave,
at a time when you are usually wrapped up in your own world.
I chose a haiku by Shiki to test this term.
The wind blows,
The duckweed moves,
Blooming all the while
For this haiku, one respondent said that she felt that the
duckweed was a sort of metaphor representing "confidence
issues" and the fact that "life changes but you
continue to go on with confidence." Other people described
country settings with women with "wind in their hair"
and "duckweed around a pond with calm water just
a little movement and the wind blowing but not hard."
Wabi is a difficult term to articulate or pin down,
but I think that these individuals were responding, especially
in their descriptions of the countryside, to the sense of
nature being there and taking over. Even the person who thought
of the haiku as a metaphor, was responding to the sense of
the wind pushing things but nature (or people) standing strong
The English language haiku that I chose to depict this sense
of wabi was one by Gary Hotham.
not seeing far
the ferns underside
Two respondents reflected on the fact that the fog clouds
the vision, and one individual said "theres water
on the underside of the fern; its early morning and
theres still moister everywhere." This description
of the scene dives into nature as the respondent took the
haiku one step further and noticed something that was not
directly stated, which fits into the definition of wabi
as suggesting everything as it should be. The respondent placed
the setting in the morning and then expanded on that to say
that with it being morning and all of the fog, then the fern
must have dew and moisture on it. Not everyone seemed to respond
to this sense of wabi, however. One respondent simply
said that the image was "relaxing and kind of countryish"
and another person said that it was "scary" and
reminded her of "dying because Ive seen a lot of
ferns in graveyards." So, while some people picked up
on the sense of nature continuing to be as it should, others
were influenced by previous experiences that prohibited them
from feeling this.
Yugen is another aesthetic term that I used in this
project, and it describes a sense of mystery over the universe.
Yugen also deals with noticing the vastness of the
universe in comparison to the minute nature of human existence.
Instead of using a haiku by a Japanese haiku master, I chose
a haiku by one of Bashos disciples, Hattori Ransetsu,
to illustrate this term.
harvest moon . . .
smoke goes creeping
over the water
The first individual that I asked to read this haiku picked
up on the sense of mystery right away and responded with one
sentence: "it makes me think of coming up on something
in the unknown." While the "unknown" is not
generally thought of as the universe, it does emphasize the
sense of mystery that the haiku possesses. One individual
described the haiku as having a "spooky" or "eerie"
feel to it and another said that it reminded her of Halloween
because of the harvest moon. The fourth respondent depicted
a "camping" or "hayride" setting, where
people are gathered next to a "bonfire cooking hotdogs"
while the smoke drifts "over a lake." While this
respondent did not depict a sense of mystery, she did describe
a sort of vastness with the drifting smoke over the lake.
The English language haiku by LeRoy Gorman that I chose for
this aesthetic received much of the same response.
under her arm
One individual responded that the "she" in the
haiku was "a Goddess because it has a mythical feel to
it." While this does not depict yugen, exactly,
it does suggest mystery. Two individuals chose not to respond
to this particular haiku, and a third said: "I think
of getting ready for bed and putting on my nightgown and noticing
the moon between the blinds in my room." In a subtle
way, I think the first and last individuals were responding
to a sense of yugen by noticing either a little bit of mystery
or by noticing the moon while doing an insignificant action
such as getting ready for bed.
Lastly, I chose two haiku to illustrate the aesthetic term
aware. Aware suggests the fleeting or impermanent nature
of things. It describes the feeling that nothing can be held
onto forever, and things change and should be remembered but
at the same time change is necessary and good. Shiki wrote
the Japanese haiku that I chose to demonstrate aware.
sounds of snoring
a plate and a sake bottle
set outside the mosquito net
Of the responses that I received for this haiku, nobody really
expounded on this sense of impermanence. One respondent mentioned
"somebodys passed out," while another thought
the haiku reminded her of "hicks living in a swamp"
and said, "its kind of repulsive and disgusting."
I had better luck with Caroline Gourlays haiku:
the last guest leaves
opens in the vase
One respondent articulated the feeling of aware by
stating that the haiku suggests a felling of "ending
to begin again." She said it depicts a sort of "bittersweet
happiness." Another individual said that it reminded
her of "Beauty and the Beast because of the rose"
but had a "happy feeling but sad, too, because everyone
has left." Moreover, another person said, "the rose
represents quietness and peace" because "a bunch
of people have been there and have left."
All in all, the Japanese aesthetic terms articulated much
of the responses I received from the haiku nicely. Some haiku
did not invoke the aesthetic feeling that I chose them for;
however, that could be for a number of reasons. One explanation
for this occurrence is that I did not choose haiku that represented
the aesthetic term as well as it could have. For example,
the both haiku that I chose to represent yugen may
not have been the best haiku for the job. While selecting
them, I was trying to chose haiku that illustrated the vastness
of the universe by having people close up noticing things
stretching off into the world, but focusing on this minute
aspect of yugen may have been a bad decision.
Furthermore, when I picked the two haiku for aware,
I tried to choose two that demonstrated a party being over
because I thought that my readers might relate to that better;
however, they did not seem to tune into this aspect of aware
as much as I had hoped. There were also some images that some
respondents questioned, such as sake and duckweed, which may
have hindered their responses.
On a whole, I was pleased and somewhat surprised to find
that the English language haiku represented the Japanese aesthetic
terms just as well as the Japanese haiku did; in one case
even more so. Completing this project taught me a lot about
how to teach individuals how to read and respond to haiku,
and how to chose haiku to fit specific aesthetic terms. If
I had to do the project again, I would rethink the aspects
of the aesthetic terms that I wanted to depict and choose
haiku that reflected those aspects more effectively. Overall,
I enjoyed this project and was quite surprised at the enthusiasm
that individuals demonstrated while performing the responses.