restricted access Emily Dickinson and Japanese Aesthetics

This essay addresses the ideas of brevity and ma in Dickinson’s poetry and Japanese culture. In both, brevity reflects intuitive insight; ma expresses the aesthetics of absence. Brevity is the essence of haiku, but it may be hasty to connect haiku with Dickinson simply because of the shortness of their forms. Instead, both haiku and Dickinson’s poems characterize brevity as instantaneous understanding. In Japanese culture and Dickinson’s poems, brevity is often expressed as the transient, fleeting quality of scent. For example, the Japanese art of koh-do retains fragrance through memory, the transformation of the real into the imagination, the presence of absence. Brevity is often expressed through absence: spatial emptiness in the visual arts and techniques like ellipsis and compression in poetry. In this sense, brevity is related to ma. To give meaning to ma or the emptiness of space lies at the center of all Japanese arts, cultural pursuits, and even the martial arts. Dickinson’s ma is most evident in her use of absence: for example, the blank spaces caused by the compression of language and the dash. As in Japanese culture, which encourages its participants to engage in experiencing ma, Dickinson’s poetry invites readers to participate by filling in the blank spaces in her poems. As in Japanese culture, especially in the case of haiku, Dickinson’s ideas of brevity and ma are found in the leap from the description of the real world to the imaginative, the very art of poetry.