“I’m losing confidence in words.” Charles Foster declares in the opening lines of his July, 2021 essay “Against Nature Writing”. Foster, who is a Fellow of Green Templeton College and author of more than twenty books including Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, uses this essay as a way to ponder the limitations of the written word when talking about the natural world.
“There’s a wood near us, I can’t see the wood for the words”, Foster states. He explains that the words we use carry with them our personal and cultural histories. “When I think I’ve described wood, I’m really describing the creaking architecture of my own mind.” There is a divide between the “words” and the actual experience. When we use words, we evoke our past and fall back on our existing knowledge. This knowledge is then colored by our thoughts and perceptions. Therefore, language is limited.
Foster’s basic argument in this essay is that words can never truly convey the truth of the natural world. Because of this limitation, Foster wonders if we just give up writing about nature. Should we allow this form of expression to dissolve into the mist because it is confined in its ability to convey the truth? Foster, as a person who makes his living writing about nature, hopes this is not the case and thus seeks to find a way to balance the restrictions of language with the expansiveness of the natural world.
Foster thus proposes three possible responses to this dilemma.
- “Throw language away and strive for the direct, unmediated experience of reality spoken of by the mystics.” This approach seems extremely difficult as removing ourselves from the written word might mean the removal of ourselves from our cultures and communities.
- Recognize that “our cognition and our language are so inextricably entangled that we just have to live with the entanglement.” This approach seems to recognize that no matter what is written, it will always fall short of the truth.
- “Acknowledge that we can’t free ourselves from language–that language is a part of the web and weave of human perception and understanding–and try to use language in a way that subverts its colonial tendencies.” Foster leans towards this response in the hopes that he can keep writing and sharing the beauty of experiences with others.
Foster continues by explaining that there are strategies that can be used to help create an experience for the reader that embodies this third response. First is to defer to the natural world and imitate its processes with onomatopoeia. For example, “Rain should hissssssssssss. Boughs should creeeeeeeeak”.
Next is to change the classical writer’s advice from “Show, don’t tell” to “Make us hear, don’t tell.” Foster’s argument here is that our visual sense is so entwined with our thought processes that we will immediately apply our own mental constructs to a visual scene. However, the sense of sound is less wrapped in the conceptual thought process, and therefore a better option for trying to communicate about the natural world.
Another strategy is to avoid metaphor and simile. Foster says, “Nothing in the universe is sufficiently like anything else”. Metaphors and similes can be thought of as just a way to demonstrate our intelligence, or verbal wordplay that has the potential to be terribly misleading.
We should be “unapologetically but cannily anthropomorphic”, Foster continues. By doing this we are acknowledging the consciousness that exists outside ourselves. All beings in nature should be recognized for their potential personhood. Trees, mountains, and rats are included in this vision.
Finally, when talking about nature we should use short blunt words. The complex and fancy words of the Romance languages, Foster states, are layered in cultural influences and often need footnotes in order for the average reader to grasp their historical meaning. The short blunt words are “from the belly” of language. This simplicity, which is rooted in oral storytelling traditions, has the potential to lead to paradox. This idea of paradox is at the root of good writing, and at the root of reality.
With these strategies in mind, Foster continues with a theological exploration of words and their ability to create. Remember, “And then God said, let there be light”. Foster then proposes that perhaps the true conflict lies in the difference between “words” and “language”. Words, he proposes, have the ability to stand for something. They can deepen our understanding. Language, on the other hand, brings the author along with it. Another way to say this is that the author’s ego is wrapped up in the language, and a word can stand alone.
So, with this new revelation, what is Foster’s idea on how to move forward?
Foster proclaims “Poetry can show the way. By allowing words to stand for themselves, poetry can escape many of the charges . . . leveled against language by using language against itself.” Poetry, and likewise the poet, has the ability to use words in ways that go beyond the cultural confines of language and move into a space that taps into the expansiveness of nature.
It is at this point that we diverge from Foster’s essay, and move into a contemplation of haiku as a poetic form that meets this need.
The new question then becomes, can writing haiku be the way that we can use words to convey the truth about the natural world?
This, I guess, depends on how you see the haiku. At its most basic form, the haiku is a short verse that captures a moment in time usually connected to the natural world. By using simple language, and presenting objects rather than describing them, the poet seeks to provide a juxtaposition that encourages the reader to make some insightful interpretation on the moment. Charles Turnball points out that, “Good haiku avoid subjectivity; intrusion of the poet’s ego, views, or values; and displays of intellect, wit and facility with words.”(2) If we reflect back on Foster’s strategies for mitigating the limitation of language, it seems that the haiku meets his criteria around using basic words and removing the writer’s ego from the process.
In The Wild Horse of Haiku, Terri Glass explores the history of haiku and provides varying views about its form and function. Glass acknowledges that the debates about what constitutes a haiku have existed ever since Basho began working with hokku: the beginning verse of the renga. For example, Buson, Issa, and Shiki, all had slightly different angles on writing haiku, although all were inspired by Basho. And while various versions of these conversations continue today, a piece of advice originally written by Basho still rings true: “However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural- if the objects and yourself is separate- then your poetry is not poetry but merely subjective counterfeit.”(2) In this statement, I can almost hear Foster’s contemplation on languages’ inability to convey the true meaning of nature. Because if the melting of self into object, which in this case is the natural world, is forced, contrived, or wrapped up in the cultural expectation of colonialist language, then you will never be able to truly talk about nature.
Glass shares that the haiku moment, or that specific point in time where the haiku emerges, is the space where the heart and mind connect. She states that Allen Ginsberg described this moment as “little jumps of freedom into eternity”. This jump is the place that allows the words of the haiku to communicate the truth about nature; it is the bridge that allows the human to write about nature. This is where we can find solace in the words that we use to communicate. We can see them starting to hold the truth of existence.
So perhaps it is haiku that can provide an answer to the question about the limitations of language. But before we jump to that conclusion, we should reflect on Hasegawa Kai’s comment to Glass about modern haiku. Kai states that “There are many haiku poets who are bound up by fixed ideas about things. But, there are also many who are not. The latter are the one who will seek out the right way from among the various opinions.” Kai also explains that “I’m not following anyone’s theory, and I don’t write haiku to prove my own ideas. Haiku theory is always in pursuit of haiku, not the reverse.” I think Kai’s statement is vitally important as we ponder the limitations, and the potential, of the written word. Getting caught up in theory, whether it is haiku, narrative essay, or sonnet, has the ability to limit our personal experience. Our ego can easily creep into our writing and we can miss what is right in front of us. We can become so worried about the rhyme and structure that we miss the cricket as it floats by.
On a branch floating downriver a cricket, singing. -Kobayashi Issa/translated by Jane Hirshfield
- Charles Foster’s essay “Against Nature Writing” can be found at the Emergence Magazine website. Foster’s Books include: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, The Sacred Journey: The Ancient Practices, and Being a Human: Adventures in Forty Thousand Years of Consciousness.
- Terri Glass is the author of the ebook The Wild Horse of Haiku: beauty in a changing form. This book can be found on Amazon.
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