As a haiku poet I start with the Chinese poets studied by Basho, Ch’an or Zen poets for whom the discipline of attention was a key part of their poetic. Attention was a process leading the poet to a perception of an impersonal universal condition.
From the Heights
by Li Shang-yin (813-858) translated by Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, Tiger Bark Press, 2013.
I drag my heavy heart
up to these dazzling heights,
this beautiful, beautiful sunset!
And then the onrushing night.
This trope of a view from the mountain top was ancient even in the 9th century. It is not cozy, perhaps a little frightening. To base one’s practice of haiku on these models means dispensing with much of the modern “tradition” of haiku.
I find support for this kind of “attention” in the writings of Simone Weil, who called it “an impersonal form of attention.” Such an act of attention is not the province solely of the intellectual or the mystic; manual or physical labor may give access to it, she argues.
I’m reminded of Basho’s many haiku about tea farmers and fishers and washerwomen — and who cannot think of the essential nobility of many of Degas’s working class subjects?
In her essay “What is Sacred in Every Human Being?” she writes:
Passage into the impersonal only comes about by attention of rare quality, and is only possible in solitude. Not only actual solitude, but moral solitude. It is never accomplished by those who think themselves members of a collective, as part of an ‘us.’
(translated by Eric O. Springsted in Simone Weil: Late Philosophical Writings (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015,108)
The language of “impersonality” may offend our democratic sensibility, but it should not. Impersonal attention is not limited to artists, as we’ve noted. It is at the root of “what is sacred in every human being.”
The solitude Weil speaks of reminds me of Basho’s distinction between solitude and loneliness. To adapt her categories: Actual solitude is lonely, moral solitude is creative and self-sustaining. Moral solitude embraces one’s fellow human being whoever and wherever they might be; it even embraces the dead in the universal sacred family.
And it may embrace everything that is: say, the mourning dove.
Exploring this word “impersonal” helped me make it among the “key words” in my haiku word bag.
the impersonal wording
of the mourning dove