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Occupying Liminal Spaces

Minding the Gap in Haiku

By Geoffrey Philp Published 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 4 min read

In his groundbreaking work, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor, advanced an idea central to his philosophy of freedom and finding meaning and purpose: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In this space, it is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” (Frankl). Like a threshold, that liminal space Frankl describes is the territory of haiku—a betwixt and between world brimming with potential. But in our mad rush towards whatever beckons, we often fail to notice the moments where life undergoes subtle changes amid the noise and commotion of the world.

One of the first poets to recognize the pause and possibility in hokku-no-renga, Matsuo Bashō captured these threshold moments in his haiku. The magic and meaning loaded in the traditionally structured syllables mimic the nature of these liminal events. In their brevity, seasonal references, rhythm, juxtaposition of images, and kireji or “cutting words, Bashō's haiku capture fleeting moments, offer contemplation of nature, and thoughtful reflections on nature's deeper cycles.

Written later in his life, around the 1680s, Bashō's renowned haiku "On a withered branch/ A crow has alighted; / Dusk in autumn (“Kare eda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure”) describes the autumnal mood through the imagery of a lone crow perched on a barren branch as dusk covers the landscape. In this haiku, Bashō juxtaposes two images (a withered branch and a crow), uses the cutting word keri, and makes a seasonal reference, Aki (dusk). In the English translation, the kireji "keri" is not directly translated but is implied through the enjambment and punctuation of the poem, particularly the colon (:) at the end of the second line, which creates a pause and emphasis similar to the original Japanese cutting word. The haiku also reflects the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi--another concept that embodies liminality--which finds beauty in simplicity, imperfection, and the transient aspect of everything.

In another of Bashō ‘s famous haiku, we see a similar pattern of juxtaposition of images, a seasonal reference, and kireji:

An old silent pond...

a frog jumps into the pond,

splash! Silence again.

furu ike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

The haiku juxtaposes images with the still, silent pond, contrasting the sudden movement and sound of the frog jumping in. It employs kireji, using the word "ya" (や) after "furu ike" (古池) to create a pause or separation between the two parts of the haiku. In the English translation, the ellipsis establishes a pause and separation between the two images. The haiku also contains a seasonal reference, as frogs are associated with spring in Japanese literature. This should not be surprising. Haiku has deep roots in Shinto, which emphasizes a sense of place and the cyclical aspect of nature.

Within nature's cycles of creation and entropy, the foolishness of human yearnings for lasting control is often a frequent subject in Bashō’s haiku:

Summer grasses:

all that remains of great soldiers’

imperial dreams.

natsukusa ya

tsuwamonodomo ga

yume no ato

In this haiku, Bashō incorporates several vital elements. First, he directly mentions "summer grasses" (natsukusa), providing a seasonal reference (kigo) to summer. Next, he juxtaposes the grass's ephemeral nature with the soldiers' grand ambitions, contrasting nature's fleeting existence and the unfulfilled dreams of human endeavors. Finally, Bashō employs the kireji "ya" (や) after "natsukusa,"—a colon is used in the English translation--which creates a pause and emphasis on the first line, setting up the contrast with the rest of the poem and adding to its overall impact.

Steeped in natural imagery, this poem shifts our historical perspective, prompting a reevaluation of ego and ambitions. Using the conceit of the summer grasses, Bashō highlights the transient glory of warriors whose bold dreams and brutal battles leave little lasting trace. No matter how great their triumphs, warriors, like the grass that covers old battlefields, ultimately yield to nature's power and the passage of time, living on only in memories. The soldiers represent the human desire to achieve lasting glory, while the image of the grass asserts the supremacy of nature's cycles in erasing those dreams over time.

Like an intake of breath before exhaling words, the brief sound units of haiku and “cutting words” signify a pause for more expanded experiences. Haiku in English typically consists of a fragment and a phrase using enjambment, question marks, colons, em-dashes, and ellipses functioning as the kireji—signaling the pause. The break afforded by this intake reveals a liminal moment so the reader may linger over the subtle meanings at play. Haiku opens our awareness to those edge spaces that escape sidelong glances—a sacred space where poets distill beauty and meaning. The break between the haiku's two images echoes the gap between perception and response, which contains infinite possibilities. In this open meditative space, we choose how to respond.

Liminality undergirds haiku. Like the “Varada Mudra” in Buddhism, the kireji or cutting words between the images holds contradictions. Haiku poets like Bashō find meaning in life's overlooked details. They create significance from seemingly disparate moments, revealing intricate patterns and mysteries. And in laying bare these spaces in between, haiku invites reflection on change as the only constant binding humanity to the natural world across time.

Here are links to a few of my haiku, haibun, and essays on Vocal:


"Winter Moon": https://vocal.media/poets/winter-moon

"Snapshots of my Family": https://vocal.media/poets/snapshots-of-my-family


"The Persistence of Green": https://vocal.media/poets/the-persistence-of-green

"An Island Escapade": https://vocal.media/poets/an-island-escapade

"Ten Days in Turkey": https://vocal.media/poets/ten-days-in-turkey

"Ten Days in Israel": https://vocal.media/poets/ten-days-in-israel

"New Eyes, Old Fears": https://vocal.media/poets/new-eyes-old-fears


"Zen and the Art of Haiku": https://vocal.media/poets/zen-and-the-art-of-haiku

"Writing Haiku": https://vocal.media/poets/writing-haiku-l05b0z2z


Baldwin, Emma. "Analysis of ‘The World of Dew’ by Kobayashi Issa." Poem Analysis. https://poemanalysis.com/kobayashi-issa/the-world-of-dew-is-yes/. Accessed 23 Feb. 2024.

Bowles, David, translator. "Summer Grass" by Matsuo Bashō. 15 July 2013. https://davidbowles.us/poetry/translations/summer-grass-by-matsuo-basho/. Accessed 18 Feb. 2024.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 2006. Kindle Edition.

"Haiku Poems: How to Write a Haiku." Writers.com, https://writers.com/how-to-write-a-haiku-poem. Accessed 18 Feb. 2024.

"On a Withered Branch Summary." eNotes.com. https://www.enotes.com/topics/withered-branch. Accessed 18 Feb. 2024.

Words: 1005

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About the Creator

Geoffrey Philp

I am a Jamaican writer. I write poems (haiku & haibun), stories & essays about climate change, Marcus Garvey, music icons such as Bob Marley, and the craft of writing. For more info, visit my webpage: https://www.geoffreyphilp.com/

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (1)

  • D. ALEXANDRA PORTER2 months ago

    Insightful! Skillfully Written! Have you ever read Ruth Ozeki's A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING? It is an excellent fictional study of liminality. Best wishes!

Geoffrey Philp Written by Geoffrey Philp

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