Walden by Haiku

Walden by Haiku

Ian Marshall
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46ndtd
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  • Book Info
    Walden by Haiku
    Book Description:

    In this intriguing literary experiment, Ian Marshall presents a collection of nearly three hundred haiku that he extracted from Henry David Thoreau's Walden and documents the underlying similarities between Thoreau's prose and the art of haiku. Although Thoreau would never have encountered the Japanese haiku tradition, the way in which the most important ideas in Walden find expression in the most haikulike language suggests that Thoreau at Walden Pond and the haiku master Basho at his "old pond" might have drunk at the same well. Walden and the tradition of haiku share an aesthetic that embodies ideas in natural images, dissolves boundaries between self and world, emphasizes simplicity, and honors both solitude and humble, familiar objects. Marshall examines each of these aesthetic principles and offers a relevant collection of "found" haiku. In the second part of the book, he explains his process of finding the haiku in the text, breaking down each chapter of Walden to highlight the imagery and poetic language embedded in the most powerful passages. Marshall's exploration not only provides a fresh perspective on haiku, but also sheds new light on Thoreau's much-studied text and lays the foundation for a clearer understanding of the aesthetics of American nature writing.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3615-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction: To Be Content with Less
    (pp. xiii-xxx)

    The Poet stands by a pond, looking, listening. He lingers long and long, sees the seasons change, thinks of our lives in nature, finds contact, connection. He hears the sound of water and visualizes the jump of a frog, sees the surface of the pond dimple and imagines the busy lives of fish. Swallows skim the surface, a loon cackles. The pond freezes over, melts, ice drifts to the shore, conifers lean over the pond. The Poet watches, he listens. And he wonders about the depth of the pond, wonders what it all means. Are these phenomena of life representative...

  5. PART ONE. Walden by Haiku
    • Economy
      (pp. 3-7)

      What better point to initiate a discussion of haiku aesthetics than “economy”? If haiku is the essence of poetry, economy is the essence of haiku. Make do with less, make less count for more, make every word count. In haiku the concept of hosomi, usually translated as “spareness” or “slenderness” or “underemphasis,” is roughly equivalent to Thoreau’s economy. The spareness and slenderness are readily apparent in a poetic form featuring such economy of expression—so few words, such simple words, so little explanation. Whatever else may be going on that is not immediately apparent, a haiku looks slight on the...

    • Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
      (pp. 8-11)

      Clearly what Thoreau lived for has a whole lot in common with what haiku tries to convey. Actually, the first two chapters of Walden, “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” are lighter in haiku moments, at least on a per-page basis, than the rest of the book. That’s not surprising, really, since it is in these opening chapters that Thoreau lays out much of his theory and philosophy of life, and statements of theory and philosophy are antithetical to the concrete language and outward-looking nature of haiku. But Thoreau’s statements of philosophy serve not only to...

    • Reading
      (pp. 12-16)

      Given the topic of this chapter, it may be pertinent to note what other readers have made of the connection between Thoreau and haiku, for both practitioners and critics of haiku have certainly sensed a connection. R. H. Blyth first popularized haiku in North America with his four-volume study Haiku (the source of the Beats’ discovery of haiku). His presentation of “Eastern Culture” in the first volume features frequent quotes from Thoreau that help convey what Blyth saw as the Zen underpinnings of haiku.² Robert Spiess, the former editor of the journal Modern Haiku, continued the tradition in his “Speculations”...

    • Sounds
      (pp. 17-22)

      Interesting—“Sounds” 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 more or less philosophical, living in the mind as much as he is living...

    • Solitude
      (pp. 23-27)

      Another of the defining characteristics of haiku is sabi, which roughly translates as “aloneness” or, as Sam Hamill has called it, “existential Zen loneliness” (169). In the sort of paradoxical turn that we might expect of haiku aesthetics, sabi is tied in with the idea of compassion, a kind of sensitivity called aware. It constitutes a recognition that we’re all alone together—not that we’re all together really, but that we share our aloneness, or, rather, that our aloneness is something we have in common with all living things. We are all subject to time, united in ephemerality—or, more...

    • Visitors
      (pp. 28-30)

      The railroad men strolling to the pond on a Sunday—I think of another of Blyth’s thirteen Zen qualities that he says are evident in haiku. Blyth speaks of freedom as a trait of haiku. He defines it, however, not as freedom to do something, but as freedom from something. Freedom from convention, traditions, and expectations, whether they are societal conventions and traditions (regarding which, see “Economy”) or artistic ones. Those railroad men are free from their jobs for a day—but Thoreau also mentions their clean white shirts, which perhaps is part of the celebratory nature of the workers’...

    • The Bean-Field
      (pp. 31-35)

      I said earlier that few readers would find much of the Blythian ideal of Zen “non-intellectuality” in Thoreau, and those of us who teach Walden can attest that undergraduates certainly find Thoreau’s sentences and style and vocabulary—in truth, his whole philosophy of life—intellectually challenging enough. And yet I wonder if it is not precisely in the direction of non-intellectuality that Thoreau is heading. In “The Bean-Field” he celebrates physical being—being physical—putting books and human society aside to go work in the field to tend to his beans.

      And as I write this, I’ve just become aware...

    • The Village
      (pp. 36-41)

      In my introduction I spoke of the emphasis on solitude as a motif in both nature writing and haiku. Perhaps a chapter dedicated to the goings-on of “The Village” might be an appropriate place to qualify that claim somewhat. Recently ecocritics have sought to correct the impression that nature writing’s sole narrative is about the lone male’s quest to discover himself through the agency of remote wilderness—a narrative template that is typically traced back to Thoreau’s influence. See, for example, David Taylor’s lively essay “Giving Up on Language: Or Why I Quit Reading Thoreau” for a complaint against the...

    • The Ponds
      (pp. 42-47)

      Haiku is traditionally viewed as being built out of pure image. Blyth called this tendency “materiality,” meaning that haiku focuses on the physical world in concrete language, not on ideas expressed in abstract language, and that it looks at the natural world on its own terms rather than as symbol. But clearly the ponds here are symbolic of something—or of a variety of things. There’s something below the surface, which reminds me of Koji Kawamoto’s discussion of haiku aesthetics in his study, The Poetics of Japanese Verse. Kawamoto says that haiku contain a “base” section—the primary image—and...

    • Baker Farm
      (pp. 48-50)

      In Kawamoto’s study of haiku aesthetics, he notes that much of the appeal of a haiku—because it is a poem, after all, and not just an expression of a Zen psyche—stems from some “rhetorical anomaly,” or distinctiveness in the expression, usually found in the base section (127). The rhetorical anomaly can come in the form of pun, paradox, repetition, hyperbole, something striking in the haiku’s sound or its image, or some disruption of syntax or expectation—in short, something in the language, some deviation from language’s denotative function, that catches our notice. One flaw evident in much contemporary...

    • Higher Laws
      (pp. 51-53)

      Perhaps a chapter that is entitled “Higher Laws” and that opens with a yearning to devour a woodchuck raw is a good place to discuss the trait of haiku aesthetics that Blyth describes as “non-morality.” The reference is to haiku’s tendency to avoid judgment and preconception according to any moral code, so that something like a fly settling on dung is as noteworthy as a magnificent sunset—even more so, in fact, since haiku is more likely to focus on the common than the spectacular. Thoreau makes the point that he finds in himself both “an instinct toward a higher,...

    • Brute Neighbors
      (pp. 54-56)

      Thoreau asks, “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?” (225). What is Walden but a collection of objects beheld—and wondered at? What is the nature of this world? The smoothness of water, the call of a loon, the dive of a loon below the surface, ants in a battle, clouds, a loaf of bread—Walden is full of wonder at such things and full of delight in what Blyth called “materiality.” It is consistent with the spirit of haiku to behold, as Emerson puts it, “the miraculous in the common” (“Nature” 44). And in gathering...

    • House-Warming
      (pp. 57-60)

      One of the rhetorical anomalies that catches the attention in Japanese haiku is the use of sound devices—rhyme is avoided, but alliteration and assonance are frequently employed. These are often lost in translation, of course, but in the best contemporary English-language haiku, there is clearly an attention to sound and rhythm. I will not attempt to defend the rhythms of the Thoreauvian haiku I have extracted from Walden, since in truth much of the time what I have done is winnow images from longer sentences, thereby losing the original rhythms. In fact, one could make a case that the...

    • Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors
      (pp. 61-65)

      Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau singled out for criticism Thoreau’s indulgence in paradox, “a habit of antagonism” and “a trick of rhetoric,” Emerson called it, “of substituting for the obvious word and thought its diametrical opposite” (“Thoreau” 973). It’s a fair charge, I suppose, highlighting Thoreau’s strain of contrariety. It’s why Hawthorne once called Thoreau “the most unmalleable fellow alive—the most tedious, tiresome, and intolerable—the narrowest and most notional” (117). Thoreau himself ma point of saying, early on in Walden, “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believeakes in my soul to be bad, and if...

    • Winter Animals
      (pp. 66-69)

      One of the subtle mysteries of haiku is how something so slight—a breath’s worth of image, expressed in language that is marked by simplicity and karumi, or “lightness”—can at the same time suggest dimensions of meaning worth meditating upon. How does a haiku manage to be both light and heavy?

      Let me offer a couple of examples from “Winter Animals,” first “squirrels on snow crust / in fits and starts / a leaf blown by the wind.” Karumi is evident in the familiar phrases “fits and starts” and “blown by the wind”—these convey a lightness of language...

    • The Pond in Winter
      (pp. 70-76)

      “The Pond in Winter” is the chapter I usually choose to show students the transcendental method of deriving spiritual lessons from natural facts. It’s the place where Thoreau is most meticulous about gathering data, and where the spiritual as well as physical depths of the pond, the book’s central symbol, are plumbed.

      But this brings us again to metaphor, central to Thoreau’s transcendentalist philosophy and to his style—but generally considered taboo in haiku. Actually, it’s not quite accurate to say metaphor is alien to haiku, since of course part of the yūgen of any haiku is likely to arise...

    • Spring
      (pp. 77-83)

      In “Spring” Thoreau makes the case for living in the present. “We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it” (314). Thoreau’s attempt to capture the presentness of each moment, at the same time framing each moment within the context of seasonal change, is right out of the book of haiku. “Haiku,” said Bashō, “is simply what is happening in this place at this moment” (qtd. in Kennedy and Gioia 104). Note that Walden...

    • Conclusion
      (pp. 84-96)

      Now that I’ve offered a haiku version of Thoreau’s “Conclusion,” perhaps it is time for mine. What results from a reading of Walden by haiku? How does a discovery of Walden’s inner haiku contribute to our understanding of Thoreau’s accomplishment? What conclusions might be drawn from this literary thought experiment?

      The answers might begin with the observation that a great work of literature like Walden always seems capable of rewarding a fresh look from a new angle, and that is part of the appeal of a classic. But a reading by haiku seems particularly well suited to the themes of...

  6. PART TWO. Sources and Commentary
    • Introduction
      (pp. 99-101)

      In each paragraph-length entry below I reproduce the haiku presented in part 1, followed first by the original source passage in Walden from which the haiku was extracted, and then by a note offering some quick critical commentary on the phrasing or content of the haiku or the passage it came from. In part 1, I presented the haiku derived from each chapter of Walden and then a principle of haiku aesthetics that seemed pertinent to the subject or a theme of that chapter. To some extent I relied on haiku’s structural pattern of juxtaposition there, typically allowing (or requiring)...

    • Economy
      (pp. 102-106)

      farms, houses, barns, cattle— / easily acquired / hard to get rid of “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of” (5). This may be a little too moralistic and explanatory for a good haiku, but that’s a neat paradox in lines two and three. And this haiku captures Thoreau’s wabi sensibility, his sense that material poverty (or simplicity) is a necessary precondition for spiritual richness.

      serfs of the soil / digging their graves / as soon as...

    • Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
      (pp. 107-110)

      the landscape retained / its yield carried off / without a wheel-barrow “I found thus that I had been a rich man without any damage to my poverty. But I retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow . . . I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only” (82). The context is that Thoreau is describing his near purchase of a farm. When the deal falls through, he considers...

    • Reading
      (pp. 111-113)

      Iliad on the table / my house to finish / my beans to hoe “I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then. Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible” (99–100). Haiku, they say, is built on nouns. I like how the haiku found here simply lists nouns (Iliad, table, house, beans), and yet they manage to convey the message.

      reading books of travel / I ask where...

    • Sounds
      (pp. 114-123)

      much published, little printed / the rays which stream / through the shutters “But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages . . . 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” (111). Here is another perfectly chosen image to reflect an abstract concept. I read it like this: The world...

    • Solitude
      (pp. 124-129)

      a delicious evening / the whole body / one sense “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore” (129). Here is the sense of oneness—the interpenetration of self and world. Thoreau expresses, too, grateful—no, absolutely delighted—acceptance of the world, and a claim (“the whole body is one sense”?) that convinces via intuition rather than intellect.

      over the water / note of the whippoorwill / borne on the rippling wind “The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whippoorwill is borne on the...

    • Visitors
      (pp. 130-133)

      three chairs in my house / not much room to utter / the big thoughts in big words “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society . . . One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its...

    • The Bean-Field
      (pp. 134-141)

      beans / impatient to be hoed / attach me to the earth “Meanwhile my beans, the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted, were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest had grown considerably before the latest were in the ground; indeed they were not easily to be put off. What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus” (154)....

    • The Village
      (pp. 142-145)

      village gossip / the rustle of leaves / the peeping of frogs “Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs” (167). Thoreau here juxtaposes the human and the natural, with an interesting tension. Ordinarily the comparison of human discourse to the peeping of frogs would seem insulting, but this is Thoreau, and he...

    • The Ponds
      (pp. 146-156)

      huckleberries / to know the flavor / ask the partridge “The fruits do not yield their true flavor to the purchaser of them, nor to him who raises them for market. There is but one way to obtain it, yet few take that way. If you would know the flavor of huckleberries, ask the cow-boy or the partridge” (173). Lots of Japanese haiku are about the mountain cuckoo, in part, I have to think, because Japanese poets love the sound of the word hototogisu. For Thoreau, perhaps “huckleberry” is as key a word.

      huckleberries / the bloom rubbed off /...

    • Baker Farm
      (pp. 157-161)

      cedar trees beyond Flint’s Pond / hoary blue berries / spiring higher and higher “Sometimes I rambled to pine groves, standing like temples, or like fleets at sea, full-rigged, with wavy boughs, and rippling with light, so soft and green and shady that the Druids would have forsaken their oaks to worship in them; or to the cedar wood beyond Flint’s Pond, where the trees, covered with hoary blue berries, spiring higher and higher, are fit to stand before Valhalla, and the creeping juniper covers the ground with wreaths full of fruit” (201). This opening sentence of the chapter goes...

    • Higher Laws
      (pp. 162-166)

      an impulse to eat woodchuck /not for my hunger / but for his wildness “As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented” (210). This is the opening sentence of the chapter, and again Thoreau begins with a startling image—all the more startling to read of...

    • Brute Neighbors
      (pp. 167-171)

      keeping house / keeping bright / the devil’s door-knobs “Why will men worry themselves so? He that does not eat need not work . . . And O, the housekeeping! to keep “bright the devil’s door-knobs, and scour his tubs this bright day! Better not keep a house” (223). This harks back to the lessons of “Economy” (make do with less) and wabi (cherish the value of material poverty). Note the pivot (kake kotoba ) in line two. We initially read the first two lines as being parallel, so that keeping house is akin to keeping bright, which suggests that...

    • House-Warming
      (pp. 172-178)

      a-graping / to the river meadows / beauty and fragrance and food“In October I went a-graping to the river meadows, and loaded myself with clusters more precious for their beauty and fragrance than for food” (238). I have changed the sense of this, I suppose, by suggesting that the “beauty and fragrance and food” are of equal value in Thoreau’s assessment of the grapes; the original creates a hierarchy of values with food below beauty and fragrance. I love the verb a-graping. This is another chapter-opening haiku moment, and again the passage opens with a seasonal indicator.

      cranberries in meadow...

    • Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors
      (pp. 179-186)

      evenings by my fireside / snow whirls wildly / without “I weathered some merry snow storms, and spent some cheerful winter evenings by my fire-side, while the snow whirled wildly without, and even the hooting of the owl was hushed” (256). Once again, a chapter opens with a strong image. The alliteration of the w’s suggests heavy wind.

      my path through deep snow / oak leaves lodged in my tracks / melting them deeper “The elements, however, abetted me in making a path through the deepest snow in the woods, for when I had once gone through the wind blew...

    • Winter Animals
      (pp. 187-194)

      Walden frozen / overhung by pines /bristling with icicles “When the ponds were firmly frozen, they afforded not only new and shorter routes to many points, but new views from their surfaces of the familiar landscapes around them . . . Walden, being like the rest usually bare of snow, or with only shallow and interrupted drifts on it, was my yard, where I could walk freely when the snow was nearly two feet deep on a level elsewhere and the villagers were confined to their streets. There, far from the village street, and except at very long intervals, from...

    • The Pond in Winter
      (pp. 195-201)

      a still winter night / some question / has been put to me “After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question has been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where?” (282). Again, Thoreau begins with a provocative chapter-opening line. The rhetorical anomaly here is in figuring out the equivalency of a still winter night and some ineffable question. Whatever the nature of that connection is, there is beauty in it. But the two parts of the haiku don’t resolve— they simply continue...

    • Spring
      (pp. 202-212)

      after a cold night / my axe on the ice / resounding “One pleasant morning after a cold night, February 24th, 1850, having gone to Flint’s Pond to spend the day, I noticed with surprise, that when I struck the ice with the head of the axe, it resounded like a gong for many rods around, or as if I had struck on a tight drum-head” (301). Isolating the word resounding in line three allows the word itself to resound—it evokes sound, and it suggests a small thing creating an unexpectedly large result, but it also perhaps takes on...

    • Conclusion
      (pp. 213-226)

      the wild goose / breakfast in Canada / lunch on the Ohio “The wild goose is more of a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Ohio, and plumes himself for the night in a southern bayou” (320). Thoreau’s strain of contrariety, his love of paradox, is evident here as he takes an emblem of the wild and heralds it as exemplar of the cosmopolitan, giving our human frame of reference a little shake-up.

      bison keeping pace / with the seasons / going to greener grass Continuing from above: “Even the bison, to...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 227-230)
  8. Works Cited
    (pp. 231-234)
  9. Index
    (pp. 235-239)