Carolyn Hall wrote an article, entitled "To Tell the Truth," that appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Frogpond. In the article, Hall considered the role of fact, or truth, in haiku. She asked: Is it acceptable to bend the facts in order to produce a haiku that is truer to the emotional experience? Hall concludes: "We put our haiku out into the world in hopes of sharing our emotional response with others. And sometimes that requires fictionalizing the haiku just enough to stay true to the moment but also to communicate to our audience the full impact that experience had on us." (1)
Religious writing takes this practice a step further. To illustrate, here’s a short tale from the 18th century from the Hasidic Jewish tradition. It tells of the first meeting between a respected Jewish scholar and the founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer (also known as the Baal Shem Tov). This is the story in full from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim:
Rabbi Baer was a keen scholar, equally versed in the intricacies of the Gemara and the depths of the Kabbalah. Time and again he had heard about the Baal Shem and finally decided to go to him, in order to see for himself if his wisdom really justified his great reputation.
When he reached the master's house and stood before him, he greeted him and then – without even looking at him properly – waited for teachings to issue from his lips, that he might examine and weigh them. But the Baal Shem only told him that once he had driven through the wilderness for days and lacked bread to feed his coachman. Then a peasant happened along and sold him bread. After this, he dismissed his guest.
The following evening, the maggid [preacher] again went to the Baal Shem and thought that now surely he would hear something of his teachings. But all Rabbi Israel told him was that once, while he was on the road, he had had no hay for his horses and a farmer had come and fed the animals. The maggid did not know what to make of these stories. He was quite certain that it was useless for him to wait for this man to utter words of wisdom.
When he returned to his inn, he ordered his servant to prepare for the homeward journey; they would start as soon as the moon had scattered the clouds. Around midnight it grew light. Then a man came from the Baal Shem with the message that Rabbi Baer was to come to him that very hour. He went at once. The Baal Shem received him in his room. "Are you versed in the Kabbalah?" he asked. The maggid said he was. "Take this book, the Tree of Life. Open it and read." The maggid read. "Now think!" He thought. "Expound!" He expounded the passage which dealt with the nature of angels. "You have no true knowledge," said the Baal Shem. "Get up!" The maggid rose. The Baal Shem stood in front of him and recited the passage. Then, before the eyes of Rabbi Baer, the room went up in flame, and through the blaze he heard the surging of angels until his senses forsook him. When he awoke, the room was as it had been when he entered it. The Baal Shem stood opposite him and said: "You expounded correctly, but you have no true knowledge, because there is no soul in what you know."
Rabbi Baer went back to the inn, told his servant to go home, and stayed in Mezbizh, the town of the Baal Shem. (2)
There are two ways to understand this story: literally (the room actually did burst in flame, angels sang, etc.) or figuratively. It’s obvious that something important, indeed life-changing, happened to Rabbi Dov Baer the day he met the Baal Shem Tov. What happened in their meeting? Instead of the imagery of flames and angels the author(s) of the story could have said something like "the two argued into the night," or "the Baal Shem’s cogent arguments finally persuaded the rabbi," or "the magnetic personality of the Baal Shem won him over," or whatever. But the story does not hew to a realist narrative; instead, it resorts to the fantastical in order to better – that is, more truthfully – convey the impact the encounter had on Rabbi Baer.
Indeed, Dov Baer must have felt that the world as he knew it went up in smoke. The story above is true to that experience, and stirs the reader appropriately.
There is a lesson here for we haiku poets. Bending the facts but still staying within the realist tradition can certainly lead to a more impactful haiku. Taking the next step – resorting to the fantastical – is sometimes called for. This approach is a specialty of religious and mythic writing. And it can be a potent tool for haiku poets, too.
Shoved off the stairs –
falling I become
Ban'ya Natsuishi (3)
(1) Carolyn Hall, "To Tell the Truth," Frogpond, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3 (Fall 2005), 57-58.
(2) Martin Buber, ed., Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters, tr. Olga Marx (New York: Schocken, 1947), 99-100.
(3) Ban’ya Natsuishi, A Future Waterfall (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2004), 8.