Between the Lines, an essay by Beth Vieira

in the country IIIn the Country II, Z.Z. Wei


Between the Lines, an essay by Beth Vieira

[previously published in Notes from the Gean, 13 (June 2012), 24-30.]

Sometimes what happens between the lines stands out as much what happens in them.  Haiku may not differ from other poetry in this regard, but its brevity and lack of completion heighten the effect of having to read between the lines.   Other features of haiku work to enhance these effects; they often go by the Japanese words kire and maKire refers to the idea of “cutting” between parts of the poem so that there is a juxtaposition of separate elements brought into relation not by something explicitly stated but by a space between them.  That space in Japanese was usually filled with a sound called a particle, and in English it is often filled with a mark of punctuation such as a dash or an ellipsis.  Often it is simply left blank.  The more metaphorically blank space in the poem, called ma, creates an interval of in-betweenness where the aesthetic effects can occur.1

Though so much more could be said about the Japanese terms, especially ma, they can lead to mystifications and misunderstandings that happen when foreign words and concepts are borrowed by radically different cultures.  As I have argued in an essay entitled “Pearls of Dew: Transitional Phenomena and Haiku,” there are ways to be aware and respectful of the Japanese origins of haiku and yet still find useful terms that are more suitable to Western culture.2  In particular, I’ve chosen the field of psychology with its emphasis on the workings of subjectivity. Since reading between the lines implies the interaction of one person coming to an understanding of something unstated by another, I want to use the term “intersubjective” to describe some of the effects of the interaction between writer and reader.

“Intersubjectivity” is a term that has emerged in psychology and philosophy to describe what happens when two subjectivities meet and interact.  The emphasis is not on each subjectivity individually, but rather on something in between, whether a merging or a third that created out of the two.  It is also a general theory that subjectivity is always already intersubjectivity in the sense that we remain open and related to others.  Both components counter earlier theories that take subjectivity as self-enclosed and independent, and thus, more often than not, subjectivity creates objects out of other subjects.

Not all haiku work with intersubjective effects.  As Randy Brooks pointed out in a lucid essay in Frogpond, you can create a taxonomy of different kinds of haiku.3  His four categories–objective, subjective, transactional, and literary–describe poems that clearly wouldn’t have obvious intersubjective effects, but his category of the transactional haiku overlaps with intersubjectivity.  Brooks emphasizes the social construction of reality and the social function of haiku in transactional haiku “as a call and response process of creative collaboration between the writer and the reader.”  Later on he goes even farther and calls the reader “a co-creative, collaborative partner.”

Brooks treats the interaction between the two as if it is happening before his eyes.  The poem itself seems to dissolve from a written thing to a vehicle of connection between two people.  This might be the fictional space we enter as we immerse ourselves in the poem, but we are always reading between the lines, not talking and not writing.  A strong intersubjective effect might make the fiction of merging feel more powerful so as to create the sense that co-creation is the activity, but the cause of that effect is the poem itself, which was designed to leave room for the reader to step in and have the experience of being the creator of the poem.

Though the terms describe similar phenomena, “intersubjective” effects occur more broadly but since “transactional” is part of taxonomy, it is a particular type of poem.  In fact, intersubjective effects are possible with the other three types of poems in Brooks’s taxonomy so that even a poem that uses literary allusion could evoke an interaction between reader and writer through shared readings of other texts.

Although the term “transactional” seems to celebrate collaboration, it still keeps the idea of separate and independent subjectivities in place. The poem becomes a kind of commodity that the two exchange.  With intersubjective effects, the space between the lines comes into focus along with the lines themselves to exert enough pressure to temporarily dissolve the boundaries between the subjectivities.

To see this more clearly, we need to look at some examples.   There are many ways writers create intersubjective effects.  Usually, it is by leaving something out that the reader has to fill in.  It can be as literal as missing words or as figurative as missing persons.


Bad Grammar


naki haha ya umi miru tabi ni miru tabi ni

dead | mother | (emphasis particle) | ocean | see | time | (link particle) | see | time | (link particle)

departed mother–
every time I see the ocean
every time I see…

This striking haiku by Issa dares to start with the words “dead mother,” but the psychological effects are produced in what follows that.  The repetition found in “miru tabi ni miru tabi ni” conveys the poignancy of his loss and longing. The grammar doesn’t end. Instead, it trails off. Most translators don’t know what to do with “bad grammar” so they drop the second miru, “see” and just have tabi, “time.”
For instance, Robert Hass’s translation reads:4

Mother I never knew,
every time I see the ocean,
every time–

While in a way Hass tries to show the grammar breaking off by repeating “every time” and following it with a dash, “every time” comes to a resting point slightly more comfortable than if he included the second “I see.”  In fact, repeating “every time” just feels like emphasis of the previous line instead of what it is in Japanese, which is the start of a whole new iteration, one started but broken off.

A break in grammatical construction is a trope called anacoluthon.  It occurs all over literature to convey powerful mental states.  Just as he fills in the story of Issa’s mother, Hass wants to complete Issa’s sentence, in a sense registering the discomfort produced by the breakdown in grammar, which he nevertheless tries to erase.

Though the topic sets the tone, it’s the repetition and syntax that structure the experience of expectation and failure for the reader.  The intersubjective effects are not located in a sense of sympathy that might be generated by the words “dead mother.”  Rather the intersubjective effects are found in the reader joining Issa in his attempt and inability to repeat his sentence.

Issa’s poem literally leaves a space open that the reader steps into, participating in the poem and to some extent in the experience.  The exact content of that experience cannot be specified.   In other words, it will depend on the reader whether the intersubjective effect is being overcome with grief or feeling futility in longing or even sensing some dejection in loss.

In fact, if the exact content were specified too concretely, we wouldn’t have an intersubjective effect at all.  We’d just have another meaning to be gathered from the poem.  It would become a kind of object (a feeling or sense or emotion) for our attention but with our subjectivity pushed away as separate no matter how sympathetic.
Richard Gilbert calls attention to “bad grammar” when he writes that “acts of ‘misreading as meaning’ are abetted by absent syntactic elements.”5 “Misreading as meaning” is the way he describes the productive process of reading and re-reading that is forced with haiku in part due to its brevity and resistance to singular meaning.  He adds that the style of “missing syntactic elements and semantic language gaps in haiku form has been described as katakoto: ‘fragmentary or “broken” language’ (lit. “baby talk”), coined by Tsubouchi Neten.”  To keep the broken language from becoming nonsense requires reading between the lines and the willingness to allow intersubjective experience to unfold.

The example that leads up to Gilbert’s discussion is the well-known haiku by Nicholas Virgilio from 1963:

out of the water…
   out of itself

Since Gilbert takes pains to fill in the missing elements in this poem to show how it works, I won’t add my own reading.  I cite it instead to point out another kind of “bad grammar” that haiku in both Japanese and English play with.  It is what I’ll call “recursive” for lack of a better term.  It’s when there’s a kind of repetition that refers to itself, even loops back on itself.

Another famous example of this kind of haiku is a poem by Jim Kacian:

the river
the river makes
of the moon

The first river is actually the last river in the sense that it is the product of the activity of what the second river does with the moon.  To put it first in the poem is to set up syntactical expectations that are then frustrated and have to be revised when we get to the end of the poem.  In this sense, the poem can be said to be recursive, to loop back upon itself.  But there’s a challenge with this poem because even when you figure out the differences between the two rivers, the placement of them in line with each other is so powerful that it overrides the ability to keep them separate.  It’s as if the poem is a Möbius strip that sends us back to the beginning each time we think we’ve reached the end.

The intersubjective effects in this case do not occur in the realm of emotions strictly speaking, but rather they play with another subjective field, that of sensory impressions and the ability to distinguish appearances from reality.  The poem’s recursive structure challenges that ability and even calls it into question, leaving behind a state of wonder and even bewilderment.  Is the appearance of a river that the river makes of the moon less a river than the river in which it appears?   The poem verges on the philosophical yet does so quietly because the images promote a sense of tranquility. That tranquility is somewhat disturbed by the grammatical force of breaking down usual expectations to create something that also breaks with common sense.

Gilbert notes the success of this poem by referring to all the translations in an article on Kacian’s work where he cites a similar poem that is even a stronger example of “bad grammar.” This poem was not published in the usual sense but was placed in New Zealand, written in stone:6

clouds seen
through clouds
seen through

This haiku has recursive qualities, but it also shares the sense that Issa’s poem has of trailing off, breaking syntax for effect.  Here, though we might feel the pull of the lack of closure, we may not want to step in all the way because we might get caught between the lines in potentially endless repetition that stretches out before us, like a river that ends with the moon.


Making a Scene

Haiku is too brief a form to be called narrative, but some haiku set up scenes that seem to imply more than the snippet of what they are able to say.  The brevity and incompleteness invite the reader into the scene with a challenge to understand what’s represented and to place it in a larger implied narrative.  Often the poem begins with the trope of in medias res for dramatic heightening and tension.

An example of making a scene with these effects is by Raquel D. Bailey:7

her finger curls
on the trigger …
      just a shooting star

Though we don’t know enough about what is happening to know why a woman has a gun ready, the description of the finger curling on the trigger brings us so far into the scene that we feel intersubjective effects ranging from fear to relief.  Because we are drawn in so closely to the specific details of a larger and presumably ongoing scene, we may experience a partial identification with the woman in her close call with pulling the trigger or we may instead take on the reassuring stance provided in the last line.

In another haiku by the same poet, a similar close-up implies an unspecified yet alluring scene:

hunger moon –
the scent of whiskey
   on his finger tips

The strong effect of displacement of the scent from the mouth to the finger tips is unsettling and picks up on latent meanings of the word “hunger” in the seasonal reference. We sense that a desire has been unleashed and is running out of control without the possibility of being satiated.

Both poems make a scene.  In the first, we wonder more about what led up to what we see while in the second the emphasis is more on what might happen next.   We not only have to read between the lines. We also have to read beyond them.

With one foot given a toe-hold in such detailed depictions and the other foot reaching out to blank space, the reader’s stance is shaky and gives rise to vertiginous feelings that are highlighted by the content of a gun and alcohol.  The unsteady feeling involved when asked to make a scene doesn’t have to be as overtly dramatic, as we can see in a poem by Lee Gurga:8

exploring the cave…
    my son’s flashlight beam
        disappears ahead

The effect of worrying about what will happen next is not only produced by leaving the scene incomplete. It is made more palpable because it is a father’s concern about his own son.  This detail does specify the impact, but the poem stops short of closing down too tightly. There is room enough for the reader to enter the scene and make it happen just beyond the poem.  If the poem had centered on a father’s response to seeing his son apparently disappear, it would have presented us with the subjectivity of a worried father in a way that wouldn’t have involved our participation in what I have been calling intersubjectivity.

Many examples of haiku shift our attention to subjectivity as an object of consideration rather than actively engaging us in mutual recognition of another subject.   They tend to be too explicit about the kind of impact they want to have by attempting to write it in advance. They don’t leave enough space to read between the lines.  To leave it open-ended might seem to take a risk, but haiku with its brevity and incompleteness already involves some degree of risk.  The more open the poem the more powerful the intersubjective effects.  That openness might already be present in between the lines with a juxtaposition that requires that there is a transfer of poetic interrelationship to an intersubjective one.


1 For a succinct discussion of the two terms, see “Haiku Cosmos 2: Cutting Through Time and Space—Kire & Ma,” which is an interview with Hasegawa Kai in Richard Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective (Winchester, VA:  Red Moon Press, 2008), 76-83.
2 The essay appears in a journal called fort da (Fall, 2009), which is part of a professional psychological association, so it’s far more accessible via the internet at the following site:
3 “Haiku Poetics:  Objective, Subjective, Transactional and Literary Theories,” Frogpond 34.2 (Spring/Summer, 2011).  While I had intersubjectivity in mind before I read Brooks’s essay, I think his account of the “transactional” haiku is provocative, and it’s the first account I’ve read of this kind of interaction.
4  The Essential Haiku:  Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa (Hopewell, NJ:  The Ecco Press, 1994), 189.
Poems of Consciousness, 40.
6  “Global Haiku and the Work of Jim Kacian,” which can be found at the following internet site:
7 Simply Haiku (Autumn 2009).
8  Cor van den Heuvel, ed., The Haiku Anthology (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1999), 56.


Review by Pamela O’Shaughnessy

Beth’s article on the art and psychology of haiku brings into focus the thing that makes haiku the most difficult poetry to write – it has an infinite center, a void that the reader must fill. This void is situated where the poet is not, between her or his fragments. The wholeness will be found here, when the reader’s understanding crosses, and while crossing, illuminates the interior space the poet has made between the boundaries set by a few simple words. The concept of “intersubjectivity” Beth discusses seems to me to mean both a crossing and also a swelling in metaphysical size, one might say, of this center as the two “subjects” of poet and reader come into relationship with each other. Concrete, rigid words, which are the congealed real, are compelled to melt again into their free nonverbal state, in a way the reader can apprehend. I think this is the essence of poetry.

Western poets have made much of the “rules” of haiku. Yes, the rules are strict. But they have almost nothing to do with the poem itself. The form is the form, the easy part. The substance is the space between the words, as this article emphasizes so gently and thoroughly. Another group of Western poets has thrown out the rules. That doesn’t work either, if the space isn’t lit up for us to enter and make our connection. Jim Kacian’s “bad grammar” recursive poems, though, do seem to be advancing the haiku in the west, following Issa into ever-riskier places where the reader’s head swims in a perpetual non-linear lake of space.



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