The aesthetics of subtraction can also be found in the haiku, the world’s shortest form of poem. The haiku uses only 17 syllables, in the order of 5-7-5.
There are two important elements in haiku: rhythm (accentuated by “切れ (cut)”), and a mandatory word that suggests a specific season (季語). The first augments the effect of expansion by packaging the 17 syllables into short, crisp three chunks that are connected by brief pauses (“ma”). The second functions as a restriction (you are required to chose one specific moment in a certain season), from which a big leap and potential emerge. Those two elements collectively help the world’s shortest form of poem to stir limitless imagination in readers.
The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.
(Translation: Donald Keene)
This is one of the most famous haikus by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).
Although a haiku has three parts, the connotation is usually divided into two groups. This particular piece by Basho is divided into 5 and 7-5, and there is a pause between the first 5 and the second 5-7.
The first line (5 syllables) only tell you the existence of an old pond, which is immediately “cut” by verbal punctuation “ya.” It invites a pause equivalent to a 1/4 rest (in a musical term). You may wonder, “what about the old pond?” But because you are already “cut,” you’d move on the next line, still wondering.
The second line (7 syllables) has the seasonal word and the main character “frog.” Frog is a seasonal word for spring, because it’s when it comes back to our world after hibernation. Due to its humid climate, there are a variety of frog species in Japan from big to small. The frog in this haiku is believed to be a small one. It is revealed that the small frog jumps into the water.
The third line (5 syllables) tells us that the author heard a splash made by the frog, when it jumped in the water. That is all in the 17 syllables. It gives no further description, leaving abundant room for the readers to picture the scene relying only on their own imagination. You are next to a small pond, probably abandoned or forgotten. There’s no one around, and you are surrounded by utter silence. You start losing the sense of time dissolving in isolated nature. But suddenly, here comes a small frog that makes a small sound by jumping into the water. Although it is a very small sound, you can hear it so clearly because of the tranquility that reigns around the scene where nothing else moves. What a solitude! This is the vastness of nature.
In this haiku, the absence of description or explanation on what’s going on stirs our imagination. Our brain works hard to put together a complete picture, filling the voids created around the 17 syllables. The small sound made by a small frog especially stirs our inspiration. Our senses are fully aroused and concentrated in order to capture the reverberation from the pianissimo. And by focusing on the faint sound, you start feeling the overwhelming presence of silence and tranquility. It is the boundlessness of nature.
Just like ikebana, a haiku’s shortness is very carefully formulated in order to reveal the essential elements by eliminating any excess frills. It is an eye-opening reminder that we don’t need everything to be explained in detail in order to understand the world we live in. We have our own abilities to get closer to it, and the act of subtraction helps the process to discover true beauty.