Like other haiku groups, Watersmeet members had to rely on the internet for our May gathering, and scheduled a Zoom meeting for Friday 22 May.
Lorraine Haig initiated the topic for discussion some weeks beforehand, sending us articles on the topic of yugen, and inviting us to research and contribute further findings on this elusive term. Email exchanges followed, sharing more thoughts on the subject and links to relevant articles. We prepared for our meeting by looking for haiku that we felt expressed the aesthetic of yugen. These could be haiku written by ourselves or by others. Those able to take part in our Zoom discussion were Lorraine Haig, Ron Moss, Ross Coward, Lyn Reeves and (briefly) Jane Williams.
Ron mentioned that yugen is something that he aims to express in his brush paintings, an element of many of his haiga, and that the following words describing the symbols for yugen, from an article by David Anderson, ‘Yugen – a spiritual feeling too deep for words’ held particular resonance for him.
The Chinese characters for Yugen are Yuu [幽] (a mountain with the radical for thread on each side of the center line), meaning: 1.) to confine to a room, 2.) faint, dim, indistinct, hazy, weak (this is the same yuu used for yuurei (spirit, ghost, apparition) and yuukai (land of the dead); and gen [玄] (a thread with a lid radical over it–which is actually its own radical), meaning dark, mysterious.
After the meeting, Jane emailed us with her thoughts, which aptly summarise the conclusions we drew from our readings of this untranslatable aesthetic of Japanese art and poetry.
I had to leave the zoom meeting as my internet was dropping in and out, faces freezing etc and I didn’t want to waste everyone else’s time. But it was lovely to briefly see the animated faces of Lyn, Ron, Ross and Lorraine. And three of us sporting haircuts! A sign of regeneration, perhaps 🙂
From the links Lyn gave us, two of the many quotes that left an impression with me: ‘Reading about yugen will give the reader an idea but not the reality of it. Just like reading about food will give you an idea, but your stomach will still be empty’ and that yugen is ‘More subtle than just a riddle.’
I enjoyed reading a conversation on a haiku foundation forum from last year where Alan Summers raises the question of the concept of yugen changing over time through cultural and social contexts:
Alan Summers – “The initial concept of Yugen indicated aristocratic elegance and grace, as in the example quoted of a picture of aristocratic ladies watching a tree full of cherry blossoms. This is quite unlike the Yugen we perceive today. Our Yugen is more inspired by Basho where Yugen is a single petaled plum blossom in icy field. It is worthwhile to note that then Japan was observing a power transfer from aristocracy to warrior class hence the samurai values of beauty in nothingness were gaining popularity than aristocratic values of elegant beauty. Also, there was the emergence of Zen which travelled from India via China whose core value is emptiness. Is it possible the Yugen we imagine today is different from the initial Yugen? One thing which is common in the definitions of Yugen from both historical periods is that Yugen is something which is beautiful, but we can’t put a finger on what makes it beautiful.”
In general, I reckon there’s a kind of unforced mystery in the seeming simplicity of some of the haiku I love most, not a riddle to be solved but a mystery to acknowledge being part of. Maybe yugen is more of an awareness and tuning-in to this mystery (a close relation of the ‘aha’ moment?) than a writing technique/tool. It reminds me how not being (self) conscious about the ‘deep and meaningful’ nature of life is often when it reveals itself just so. Numinous.
birdsong pulls you
Owen Bullock (from River’s Edge, Recent Work Press, 2016)
And in closing, here are two recent ones from me –
the world reaches me JW
gardener at work
oh the wildness
of his dreadlocks JW
— Jane Williams
While it is evident that yugen is a difficult concept to define, the editorial in World Haiku Review, Summer 2017, by Sasumi Takiguchi, reprinted in New Zealand Poetry Society’s haiku blog, gives an interesting take on what yugen is not. One of the observations the writer makes is: Yugen is not something to be “created” anyway. It emerges. Or, it doesn’t. You can read this informative article here.
Our next meeting will be a winter ginko – who knows whether we will be able to get together, taking the required social-distancing measures, or if we will be sharing our solitary ginko experiences by email as we did in March. However it might take place, it will be a delight to share haiku with each other again. – Lyn Reeves