Metaphor is central to all poetry, including haiku. In haiku, metaphors are juxtaposed in a way that reveals previously unarticulated associations. A reader is able to understand these associations via certain innate linguistic processes that all people possess. That is, we are able to generalize automatically and unconsciously from a specific event, as seen in a haiku, to a general principle of being. We can do this because metaphor is not merely a literary device, but an integral part of our way of understanding the world.
The premise that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (Lakoff and Johnson 4) has been articulated in different ways by various writers associated with haiku — though perhaps only obliquely, perhaps even unintentionally. The Web site of the Haiku Society of America, for instance, defines haiku as “a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.” Virtually all other writers and scholars of haiku take this connection between a specific state of nature and a general human condition as a starting point. What has not been clearly articulated is how this connection works.
The HSA definition further says that “the most common technique [for writing haiku] is juxtaposing two images or ideas,” and that in haiku “metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently.” The authors of the definition finally suggest that “a discussion of what might be called ‘deep metaphor’ or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of a definition.” As others have pointed out, this definition begs the question of “deep metaphor,” which is never explained, and is not, as far as I can tell, an established literary term. So the issue of metaphor, deep or otherwise, is an open concern. It has been approached in recent years by several writers, including Jane Reichhold at her AHA Poetry Web site, Richard Gilbert in a Simply Haiku interview in 2005, and Haruo Shirane in an essay in Modern Haiku 31.1 (2000). More recently, Ludmila Balabanova, in Modern Haiku 39.3 (2008), helpfully suggests that “most confusion regarding the use of metaphor in haiku arises from the complicated definitions and multiple aspects of ‘metaphor,’” which “extend from the small space between the simile and the allegory in the narrow literary sense to the broadest of understandings.” She invokes the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, pointing out that “the metaphoric system exists deeply in our being and independently from concrete language,” but she still sees metaphor — in haiku or in other poetry — as a literary device, rather than inherent part of our epistemological makeup.
Perhaps Bruce Ross’s is the most articulate voice on the subject. In a 2007 essay in Modern Haiku, he coined the term “absolute metaphor” “to describe haiku constructed upon an organic or existential relationship between the parts of a haiku.” He elaborates:
Haiku may be regarded as a relation of the particular with the universal. Whereas most poetry is dependant on metaphor, with the affective force of the imaginative comparison determining its success, haiku, in its uniqueness, is constructed upon an “absolute metaphor” of the natural particular and the universal. (Modern Haiku 38.3)
Ross’s essay goes a long way toward providing an understanding of the role of metaphor in haiku. He correctly points out that the very structure of traditional haiku lends itself toward drawing parallels between the human and nonhuman worlds. He reminds us that in haiku “imagery and content are concretized to a bare suggestive minimum,” which necessitates a highly active engagement with the poem. Ross concludes that a haiku is an epiphany, and that “the absolute metaphor in haiku includes the presentation of a state of wholeness in which the particular
leads to the absolute and first things.”
What I would like to investigate in this essay are the linguistic mechanisms that would explain how “deep metaphor” or “absolute metaphor” come to make meaning for readers. My working premise is that, as George Lakoff and Mark Turner put it, “metaphor suffuses our thoughts, no matter what we are thinking about” (xi). By placing metaphor at the center of the epistemological conversation and not treating it simply as a troublesome literary device, I hope to show its centrality to haiku and thereby illuminate haiku’s importance and usefulness, not
just to literature, but to the human condition in general.
The origins of the word “metaphor” are Greek: meta (beyond, across, over) and phoreo (to carry, bring, bear). A metaphor is a figure of speech in which the qualities of one thing are carried over to another. Traditionally, we have thought of metaphor in terms of linguistically-based images. For instance:
Your writings are a sea
full of misspellings and
(William Carlos Williams)
This is an image because we can visualize what is being described. We do this in one of two ways: we can “see” an ocean of paper — the writings — or we can “see” a sea in which are swirling the imperfect collected writings. Either way, the qualities of water in the ocean are carried over to the writings, giving the reader an impression of vastness and confusion. This is the basic “imagism” approach to metaphor: a matter of extraordinary language, of “figures of speech,” and we could explain a great deal about haiku simply by looking carefully at how these images interact. Yet this approach is not, ultimately, satisfactory, because it doesn’t explain non-imagistic metaphors. In order to do that, I will refer to some recent research and theory on metaphor by the linguists Lakoff, Johnson, and Turner.
To talk about metaphor is to talk about both language and thought. Take “a figure of speech in which the qualities of one thing are carried over to another.” That definition is itself two metaphors put together. The first involves the use of “figure,” which suggests that language has a form; the second, implied in “carried,” suggests that this form can be moved from one thing to another. Moved? What is actually being moved? “Metaphor” is a metaphor. Lakoff and Turner:
A metaphor, after all, is not a linguistic expression. It is a mapping from one conceptual domain to another, and as such it has a three-part structure: two endpoints (the source and target schemas) and a bridge between them (the detailed mapping). (203)
Even that definition is a metaphor based on the structural attributes of points and connections of a bridge. What is being “moved” here is thought.
Metaphor is a cognitive process. The work of Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By suggests that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action” (3). Lakoff and Johnson’s premise is that “human thought processes are largely metaphorical,” and that “metaphors as linguistic expressions are possible precisely because there are metaphors in a person’s conceptual system” (6). Thus a metaphor is never simply an image, and each metaphor implies a concept that undergirds and supports it.
In More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor, Lakoff and Turner extend the work begun by Lakoff and Johnson and apply it directly to the reading of poems. Lakoff and Turner reiterate the distinction between the linguistic and the conceptual. Metaphors are “not just in the words,” they maintain: “Metaphorical understanding is not a matter of mere word play; it is endemically conceptual in its nature” (50). It is therefore important to “make a distinction between basic conceptual metaphors, which are cognitive in nature, and particular linguistic expressions of these conceptual metaphors” (50). This is essential because although a writer may use a unique bit of “word play” to create an unusual linguistic metaphor, the concept underlying the metaphor may be a commonplace notion.
Basic conceptual metaphors operate in automatic ways, are “widely conventionalized in language” (50), and have a great number of linguistic expressions which depend upon them. For instance, Lakoff and Turner list under “Very General Metaphors” “purposes are destinations,” (“going ahead with our plans,” “getting sidetracked”), “states are locations” (“He arrived at knowledge”), and “events are actions” (“the ball flew out of the stadium,” “the boulder resisted all our efforts
to move it”). What a poet does is manipulate the linguistic expressions of the “relatively small number of existing basic metaphors” (51).This can be done in three ways:
The first is simply to versify them in automatic ways; this results in a lot of lame, feeble and trite verse. The second is to deploy them masterfully, combining them, extending them, and crystallizing them in strong images.... The third stance is to attempt to step outside the ordinary ways we think metaphorically and either to offer new modes of metaphorical thought or to make the use of our conventional basic metaphors less automatic by employing them in unusual ways, or otherwise to destabilize them and thus reveal their inadequacies for making sense of reality. (51–52)
Conceptual metaphors are not, therefore, the “creations” of poets. Poets “extend, compose and compress” conceptual metaphors within the parameters of language, and our reading of and ability to engage with poems depends on how we interpret and understand these manipulations as we read. Thus there is always a kind of playful tension between the conceptual metaphor and its linguistic expression. In reading, this tension is highlighted, as readers compare their understandings and uses of the conceptual metaphor to the linguistic expression it has been given by the poet.
The expressive power of a metaphor — its power to evoke connections within the reader — is dependent on its ability to broadly structure understanding. Lakoff and Turner call this structuring ability “metaphorical mapping” (63). They use the metaphor “life is a journey” as an example:
Our understanding of life as a journey uses our knowledge about journeys. All journeys involve travelers, paths traveled, places where we start, and places where we have been.... To understand life as journey is to have in mind, consciously or more likely unconsciously, a correspondence between a traveler and a person living the life, the road traveled and the “course” of a lifetime, a starting point and the time of birth, and so on. (60–61)
The “skeletal structure” that a reader creates from this metaphor is “rich enough to distinguish journeys from other kinds of activities, but not so rich as to rule out any particular kind of journey” (61). In other words, depending on the specific circumstances of the metaphor, the reader can see the journey as more or less purposeful, can see the journeyer as more or less having a destination — can, in short, determine the type of journey being described. (In this essay, I will reproduce Lakoff, Johnson, and Turner’s typology by using all upper case to identify a conceptual metaphor.)
We will call knowledge structured in such a skeletal form a “schema,” and we will use the term “slots” for elements of a schema that are to be filled in. Thus, a JOURNEY schema has a slot for TRAVELER that can be filled by any particular person whom we understand to be on a journey. Indeed the very concept of a traveler can be defined only relative to the concept of a journey. Understanding that someone is a traveler is understanding that he fills the role of TRAVELER in a JOURNEY schema. The metaphor of LIFE IS A JOURNEY is thus a mapping of the structure of the JOURNEY schema onto the domain of LIFE in such away as to set up the appropriate correspondences between TRAVELER and PERSON LEADING A LIFE, between STARTING POINT and BIRTH, and so on. (61–62)
The terminology of “schema,” “slot,” and “skeletal structure” is all a good deal less rigid than it sounds. In fact, this is quite a flexible system of analysis. A journey schema has a slot for “traveler” that can be filled “by any particular person whom we understand to be on a journey,” so that the reader’s transaction is based on her ability to recognize a range of possible “travelers,” and select among them. The reader’s response is also subject to emendations from additional information encountered while reading, so that the “traveler” is never a fixed entity in a static
landscape, but a fluid and adaptable construct.
Essential to Lakoff, Johnson, and Turner’s position is that metaphor “happens” not on the page but in the mind of the reader. It is the reader who recognizes the connections between the source domain and the target domain, and fills in the slots necessary for coherence between the two, the reader who creates the map of the metaphor and initiates the necessary connections. With this as a given, it might seem amazing that any two people could understand a given metaphor to mean even roughly the same thing. Yet, given a vast variety of experience, culture and background, most readers to come to similar conclusions about the meaning of (for instance) the proverb “Blind blames the ditch.” Why? Lakoff and Turner suggest that
there exists a single generic-level metaphor, GENERIC IS SPECIFIC, which maps a single specific level schema onto an indefinitely large number of parallel specific level schemas that all have the same generic level structure as the source domain schema. This metaphor ... restricts source and target domains only by requiring that the source be a specific level schema and the target be a generic level schema.... GENERIC IS SPECIFIC maps specific level schemas onto the generic level schemas they contain. These are the fewest restriction possible for a metaphorical mapping, resulting in a metaphorical mapping of extreme generality. (162–63)
The upshot of all this is that readers are consistently able to “understand a whole category of situations in terms one particular situation” (165). “Blind blames the ditch” has no immediate or obvious specific level target schema; therefore the target becomes the generic level schema of the source domain. This ability to “shift up” to the generic level is “common in conceptual systems throughout the world” (166), and accounts for much of the way we understand written metaphor.
Virtually every haiku will use the conceptual metaphor EVENTS ARE ACTIONS, which works in conjunction with a specific metaphor that structures an event as the result of an action, and thereby creates an agent which causes the event, which in turn lets us imagine a reason for something happening. Haiku, therefore, are dependent on the ability of readers to recognize familiar conceptual metaphors, and to shift up from the specific level to the general level. In other words, they engage the reader by making a specific linguistic reference to an already-established general concept. They do this by invoking, through the use of concrete images, recognizable metaphoric maps.
In order to illustrate how this process works, I have chosen (more or less at random) a handful of examples from the third edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology. These haiku, some of which were originally published many years ago, have a kind of canonical status, and will certainly be familiar to most readers.
into the blinding sun ...
the funeral procession’s
Nicholas Virgilio’s haiku opens with the commonplace image “blinding sun,” which suggests, on one level, the inability to see clearly, but also connotes an extreme state of mind. In conjunction with common specific-level metaphors of sight and blindness (“He was blinded by her charms,” “She was blind to her own faults”), GENERIC IS SPECIFIC allows us to understand that to be “sun blind” means to be unable to see things because of an overwhelming sensation. Virgilio amends the commonplace phrase (which nonetheless has a complex metaphorical subtext) with the preposition “into,” which suspends the full meaning until the next line. The way that the speaker is traveling “into” this powerful sensation maps a journey of significant intensity. The “blinding sun” is a specific experience that a reader automatically shifts up toward a general concept: we know it’s never just about this sun on this day, but the category of all intense experiences.
The next line begins to bear out this supposition. “The funeral procession” reinforces the nature of the intense experience, in this case someone’s death, and introduces the basic metaphor “death is departure.” We’re able to reconstruct the experience as something to do with the intense emotions surrounding a death: being at a funeral is like staring at the sun. The final image of “glaring headlights” echoes “the blinding sun,” but common knowledge tells us that headlights (which
are turned on even in daylight in a funeral procession) are never as bright as the sun. A metonymic pattern emerges in the final two lines: the group of mourners is represented by the procession, and the procession is represented by the headlights of the cars — an example of the conceptual metaphor EVENTS ARE ACTIONS. Through the use of GENERIC IS SPECIFIC, we can map out the poem like this: the
“small picture” of our mourning at a funeral (our glaring headlights), no matter how intense and how specifically directed, pales in comparison to the “big picture” of “the blinding sun,” which is death itself.
This switch between “big picture” and “small picture” is one of haiku’s fundamental rhetorical moves, and can be seen as well in Alan Pizzarelli’s poem:
in the shadows of the trees
by the amusement park
Common knowledge of amusement parks entails lights, noise, and movement. They are designed to amuse, to overwhelm our senses: they are large. The firefly, in contrast, is tiny, inconspicuous, and in this haiku lives “in the shadows of the trees.” Yet we know that a firefly emits light, so the map between the two images unfolds in unexpected ways as we see the firefly as distinct, yet part of the whole picture. Through GENERIC IS SPECIFIC, the light of the insect is seen as an example of the ways in which one part of the world represents the whole of the world. Yet that’s not all there is to the poem. The separateness of the firefly is also important here. That is, its light, though small, is still seen, in spite of the amusement park’s sensual overload. This poem actually works against one of our dominant conceptual metaphors, namely IMPORTANT IS BIG. In fact, we might say that one of the guiding metaphors for all haiku is IMPORTANT IS SMALL.
What brings together the whole experience of Pizzarelli’s poem is the conceptual metaphor EVENTS ARE ACTIONS, which points the reader back to the nearly invisible speaker of the poem. This haiku — and, I would argue, all haiku — are recreations of a moment in time in which an action becomes an event. That is, the action of the juxtaposition of the firefly and the amusement park is the poem-as- event, recorded in writing, and re-experienced by the reader. A haiku is an action — ephemeral and immediate — rendered as a permanent event by the writer.
EVENTS ARE ACTIONS as a pervasive structuring metaphor is seen clearly in George Swede’s haiku:
Summer night :
in my eyes starlight
hundreds of years old
It should be noted at the outset that this poem requires a kind of uncommon knowledge to make it work, which in turn affects the way the metaphoric map unfolds. That is, if one doesn’t already know about the tremendous distances of the universe, about the speed of light and the fact that the light we see at night left the stars eons ago, then the poem will make limited sense. Swede plays off of this somewhat specialized knowledge, extending and re-shaping it to mean something different. The first line, “summer night,” is a kigo phrase that maps out a particular kind of scene. We can, by virtue of common experience, see the summer night sky, hear crickets, smell flowers in bloom, and even feel the mosquitoes on our skin. In summer, things are alive and growing, and our interaction with the natural world is intense. Summer is full of possibility, growth, and life. Thus, the event of a summer night becomes the action that is the sum of its parts.
The metaphoric map of next line is very carefully constructed. Swede uses the passive voice, avoiding the verb “to see” in any form; rather than seeing the starlight, it’s “in” his eyes. The sentence is also inverted, beginning with a prepositional phrase (a common haiku strategy), and ending with the subject “starlight.” Again, Swede has avoided using even the simple verb “is,” relying instead on the momentum of the inverted sentence to carry the reader forward to next line. By virtue of its calculated syntax, this middle line calls upon EVENTS ARE ACTIONS by invoking the common metaphor SEEING IS TOUCHING (“Their eyes met”), and shows how the act of seeing is both an internal and external event. We never simply see. Instead, we take the thing being seen into ourselves, where it becomes part of us. In essence, the event of the starlight in the eye is the action of seeing. The final line amends the meaning of the previous line by reminding the reader that the light we see from a star is already no longer that star, having left its source hundreds of years before arriving at our perception. Thus the final line subtly undermines the SEEING IS TOUCHING metaphor by reminding us that, in this case, the thing we touch isn’t really there any more. Swede reinforces this idea by using no verbs — nothing “happens” here, yet the perception of “nothing happening” is actually the event at the poem’s center.
My final example is from Bashô. Translators and language scholars may object at this point, citing cultural differences in the way that metaphor is used in Japanese and English. These are valid objections. What I am most interested in, however, is how the various translations recreate the same metaphoric map over and over again. We are, in a sense, rewriting Bashô as we translate — and rewriting in ways that affirm our own commonly held cognitive metaphors. To be clear: I make no claims to understand this poem in Japanese; the translations, however, are remarkably consistent.1 Here is a small sampling:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in, —
The sound of the water.
R .H . Blyth
An old pond —
Of a diving frog.
Into the ancient pond
A frog jumps
D .T . Suzuki
and a frog-jump-in
Harold G . Henderson
An old pond: a frog jumps in — the sound of water
The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of the water.
old pond ...
a frog leaps in
William J . Higginson
a frog jumps into
the sound of water
Why are translators able to make remarkably consistent sense of Bashô’s most famous poem? In the specific occasion of a frog jumping into a pond we are able to see a common human or natural condition; we recognize some truth about the effect one small part might have on the greater whole. We might say we “feel” this rather than know it, but we do know it. How?
The first metaphoric map in this poem is in the simple image “old pond,” with which each of these versions begins. A pond is characterized by stillness, as opposed to a body of water in motion, such as a stream or sea. (We could just as well make sense of a frog jumping into a churning brook, but it would be a very different poem.) We also know that a pond contains life, most of it microscopic, but some of it visible, and we further know that that life is constantly renewing itself in an ecological cycle. So the pond calls forth the sense of a natural ecosystem functioning in a quiet and calm way. Although the adjective / noun sequence is common in the first lines of haiku, the way in which “pond” is modified by “old” (or, in Suzuki’s translations, “ancient”) is very unusual. “Old” is not a typical adjective for water. “Old tree,” old house,” “old man,” yes — but how can a pond be old? This is Bashô at his best, using common words in an uncommon way to call forth new meanings. “Old” highlights the tranquility of “pond” in a way that suggests perpetuity and automatically forces the reader to understand the line metaphorically by shifting up from the specific level of “this old pond” to the generic level of all old ponds and thence to the even more general conception of any thing that is stable and continuously living.
The second line in all but Rexroth’s version has a three-part structure. “Frog” is a spring or summer kigo, which places the poem in a particular time frame. But not knowing this won’t take away from the poem’s resonance: a frog is immediately recognizable as part of the ecology of a pond, so its presence is expected in any season. “Jumps” is the only verb of the poem. We know that frogs jump, so again the action is expected. The still scene, examined in the tiniest detail, reveals one small thing happening: “a frog jumps into.” Into what? Water, of course. However,
“into” suspends the forward movement of the poem in what translates into a wonderful English-language enjambment in Reichhold’s version. For a brief moment we expect the next word to be water, but Bashô switches senses — once again modifying our expectations as he modifies the language — and qualifies water with “the sound of.” The frog jumps not into the water (visual), but into the sound of water (aural). And yet because of our common experience with things falling into water, we know that sound and sight are one: we hear the splash, but see the ripples as they extend outward and fade into the breadth of the old pond. The
second map, therefore, is found in the way in which the “jump” leads to the inevitable consequence of the “sound of water.” We resolve it by moving from the specific incident of one frog jumping into one pond to the general concept of the ways small things can make a real, if transient, impact on larger systems. The poem becomes a way of saying that even that which is old and stable can be affected by one small change, which is a version of the very general metaphor EVENTS ARE ACTIONS. Moreover, this realization allows us to “shift up” via GENERIC IS SPECIFIC, to let the frog to stand in for a person as we invoke the idea
that our own actions, however insignificant, will have an impact on our world, even if (or especially if) that impact is temporary. The fact that each version of this poem recreates this basic metaphoric map, in spite of the cultural, personal, historical, and political differences among the translators, is testament to the power of metaphor to shape thought.
We are able to make sense of this poem because it reaffirms that which we already know about frogs, ponds, jumps, and splashes. Virtually every haiku works like this: two images (rarely three) that are somehow connected — or, rather, not connected until placed in juxtaposition with one another by the poet. In the “old pond” poem, the two images — and the two maps — are contiguous. That is, they are distinct but share a common boundary and are consonant with each other: a frog, one might say, is a natural consequence of an old pond. 
Each of the haiku discussed in this essay is based on cognitive metaphors that drive ordinary thought. Poetry articulates these concepts by juxtaposing them with one another, and by re-arranging the common elements in unusual ways. A poem is a way of organizing our perceptions of the world around us. When talking about metaphor in haiku, it’s important to remember that the process of creating maps is innate in the reader, as is our ability to “shift up” from the specific to the generic. “Great poets,” Lakoff and Turner remind us, “speak to us because they use the modes of thought we all possess” (xi–xii). Haiku presents these modes of thought in a clear, condensed form. Indeed, one of the pleasures of haiku is concision: the right words, in the right order, in about eight stressed syllables (in English). Whether we call the results deep metaphor, absolute metaphor, or metaphoric maps, haiku, like other poetry, is a way of combining, extending, and crystallizing what we already know in strong images, of re-presenting the world in an innovative way. In short, haiku is a way of making manifest that which is already understood, but not so well expressed.
• • •
 I leave it to the experts (I am not a translator) to parse how well metaphor is transferred from one language to another, but suffice to say that few of the translations of this poem that I have seen fail to modify “pond” with an adjective that indicates old age, and all of them have the same essential metaphoric map. See <http://www.bopsecrets.org/gateway/passages/basho-frog.htm> for thirty different versions of the “old pond” poem.
 I would like to acknowledge Hasegawa Kai’s excellent re-reading of Bashô’s poem. Relying on historical evidence, he suggests that Bashô’s inspiration for the poem came not from a pond, but from hearing frogs jump into the river near his home, and that the addition of “old pond” was suggested by a student. He further suggests that the sound of the splash at the end of poem may be the river itself, and that the frog jumps into that sound, rather than causes it. Kai’s interpretation, however, will not alter the essential metaphoric map of the poem as outlined above. Even if the “sound of water” and the “jump” are co-incidental rather than consequential events, the poem still resonates with the relationship between the permanent and the transitory, between silence and sound. It doesn’t really matter what Bashô actually meant. What matters instead is how we reconstruct the
poem according to our own linguistically- and culturally-based metaphoric predilections.
Balabanova, Ludmila. “Metaphor and Haiku” in Modern Haiku 39.3 (autumn
Haiku Society of America. “Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms.” Report of the Definitions Committee, Adopted at the Annual Meeting of the Society, New York City, 18 September 2004. http://www.hsa-haiku.org/archives/
HSA_ Definitions _ 2004.html.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1980.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Turner. More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic
Metaphor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Ross, Bruce. “The Essence of Haiku” in Modern Haiku 38.3 (autumn 2007).