Sunday, September 10, 2006

Not so new writing: The Alchemy of Haiku by Alison Williams

The Alchemy of Haiku
[Originally published in Blithe Spirit Vol.13 No.4 Dec 2003.]

Alchemy is much misunderstood and, it must be admitted, much of the reason for this lies with alchemists themselves. There is a long tradition amongst them of obscurity and indirectness, of anything but plain speaking. Some might say of deliberate obfuscation. They claim that their work is derived from basic truths and that it is a practical art rather than a theoretical philosophy, and yet they seem unable to state plainly what the truths are, or what the practice consists of in such a way that others can emulate their skill.

This is the first point of similarity between alchemists and writers of haiku. I would like to suggest that there are two further aspects of these subjects that bear comparison. A particular kind of symbolism and, perhaps, the goal of the practitioner.

Alchemical symbolism is dependent on a world view which was taken for granted in medieval times, but which has been widely discredited by the modern materialist and scientific orthodoxy. There are three interrelated aspects of this world view. One is that the world of matter is transient, and that there is an eternal reality beyond the natural world. The second is that symbolism is not of a merely metaphorical nature but is concerned with discerning real correspondences or equivalence, in the light of which seemingly very different things can be recognised as sharing essential qualities. The third is that these essential qualities are graduated from the lowest to the highest and are capable of transmutation.

The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistos [1], the nearest thing to a straight¬forward statement of alchemical principles that exists, begins, ‘In truth, certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below.’

dawn -
the rising mist
turns to gold

To the medieval world view it is obvious that the sun and gold share qualities and that these qualities also have their counterpart in the human body and soul. Today these correspondences, if they are noted at all, are seen as either archaic poetic fancy or as coincidental. Thus a BBC science web site [2] recently noted: ‘Mars, the Roman god of war, has always had a special fascination for us. Indeed, there is even a slight connection as both blood and Mars owe their red colour to iron and oxygen.’

R. H. Blyth [3] denied that haiku was symbolic: ‘… it is necessary to state with some vehemence that haiku is not symbolic, that is, not a portrayal of natural phenomena with some meaning behind them... There is no separation between the thing and its meaning... One thing is not used to imply another thing. ‘I would suggest that what he is denying here is that haiku is symbolic in the limited, metaphorical sense. If there is a symbolism in haiku, and surely there is, it is of the kind that seeks to discern the shared essential qualities in natural phenomena and in the human being’s inward experience.

a chained bike
up to its hubs
in yellow leaves

Perhaps the most common misapprehension about alchemists is that they are concerned with the transmutation of lead into gold as a means to wealth. It is true that, throughout the history of alchemy, there have been those ‘charcoal burners’ who wanted only to discover a formula to get rich quick. This was not the concern of the alchemist who was inclined to devote a lifetime to his work and to have more in common with a hermit or monk than with seekers after worldly riches.

The true goal of the alchemist depends upon an understanding of the concept of correspondence discussed above. In this context the physical transformation of lead into gold can only be achieved in parallel with a corresponding transformation of the alchemist himself

Is our goal to discover the formula for writing the golden haiku? Or is there some other goal which, if diligently sought, will transmute our leaden efforts into something of a higher grade?

[1] Titus Burckhardt. Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul. Fons Vitae, 1997. Translated from the German by William Stoddart. (First published by Walter-Verlag Olten und Freiburg im Breisgau, 1960) p196


[3] RH Blyth. A History of Haiku. Volume 1. The Hokuseido Press, 1963. ppl3-14


Anonymous said...

Wandering the net
I came upon
"Haiku Lessons"


Nick Sherwood said...

Just came across your thoughts, Alison. Exciting ideas which chime with the direction I am taking in writing haiku. This is worth discussing further-I live just down the line!