One of the aspects that made Western poetry so dreary at the turn on the twentieth century was the reliance on abstract thinking and words. Poets thought they had to write about love, truth, thoughts, and ideals in order to be a great writer. From the Japanese they learned that by using images of actual things – a grass stalk, a bird’s eye, the movement of a fly rubbing its legs together – abstract ideas could be conveyed with greater meaning and poignancy. Ezra Pound and the Imagists verbalized this idea, but more poets around the world latched onto the idea and used it.
Long before Gertrude Stein was espousing the importance of using the exact word in poetry or any writing, the Japanese had based their writing on creating images of actual things. Instead of telling the reader what to think or feel, words describing images were used as signposts. The placement of these signs caused the reader to form certain pictures almost like memory. As the signs moved from one image to another, with one word and then another, the reader created the journey to the unspoken conclusion of the poem. This process of making the reader see or imagine parts of the poem has, on one hand, made it harder for people to learn to read haiku. Still, this miracle of involving the reader in the creation of the poem has expanded our own definition and concept of poetry. No longer is poetry what someone tells us. It is the mental and emotional journey the author gives the reader.
This technique of juxtaposing images so the reader’s mind must find a way from one image to another has greatly influenced how we perceive simile and metaphor. Metaphors were and are one of the cornerstones of poetry, and yet for years scholars told us that Japanese poets did not use them. They did. They simply made their metaphors in a different way. Instead of saying “autumn dusk settles around us like a crow landing on a bare branch,” Bashō would write:
on a bare branch
a crow settled down
The simplicity and economy of the words demand that the reader goes into his mind and experiences to explore the darkness of bird and night, autumn and bareness, and even how a branch could move as the dark weight of a crow presses it down. The reader is writing the rest of the verse and making it poetry.
– Jane Reichhold