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Friday, April 24, 2009

Introduction to haiku

by Patrick Trombly

Haiku is brief – deceitfully so to the casual reader. While most good poetry is efficient, Haiku is denser, even more compact than almost any other form. Its 17 syllables are meant to call forth deep and/or prolonged reflection.

Haiku is a traditional Japanese form of poetry. Japanese masters of the form included Matsuo Basho (1644-94), Taneguchi Buson (1715-83), Kobayshi Issa (1763-1827) and Masoaka Shiki (1866-1902).

Originally, it contained three meters, comprising a total of 17 on (or morae), which are nearly but not exactly equivalent, respectively, to lines and syllables in English. Because of the language differences, the 5-7-5 format is no longer universally seen as required in Western haiku. What is more important are the elements of the form that follow the poem’s function.

The function of Haiku is to make an observation in simple language, concerning the natural world – an observation that also serves as a pause, to allow our minds to make a leap to more profound reflection about ourselves, our consciousness and our relationship to the natural world that is the initial subject of the poem.

Form follows function here. The initial subject is transitory but full of meaning, building to what is referred to as satori or the “aha” moment. Typically, the poem includes a “cutting word” or “pivot word” that turns the movement of the poem in some way – on paper, generally the grammar shifts on this word; the meaning also shifts: typically the “aha moment” is introduced. Haiku also traditionally includes a seasonal word, or kigo, or at least a seasonal reference (i.e., the poem may describe a natural event that clearly evokes a particular season, e.g., snowfall or snowmelt).

As you can see, just in form alone there is much more than a 17-syllable nature poem!

Style is also important. In addition to compactness in structure, the style is also concrete. Language is simple and direct, not overtly ambiguous. According to Robert Haas, author of The Essential Haiku, the poem does not simply describe a natural event; it conveys a sense of having experienced it.

The most famous Haiku is by Basho. It has been translated countless times – our example was translated by Donald Keene:

ancient pond
a frog leaps in
the sound of water

The form is invitingly simple. We can all imagine ourselves sitting before a small pond, admiring its smooth surface, meditating in the silence of a summer afternoon. Then a single, natural act of a small animal, a frog, breaks the silence, breaks our meditation, flooding our thoughts. As D.T. Suzuki explained “not only was the totality of the environment absorbed in the sound and vanished into it, but Basho himself was altogether effaced from his consciousness.”

Beginning with Basho, Haiku is deeply influenced by Zen philosophy, particularly the notion of temporary enlightenment recognized in all things, including the small things, around us. Tranquility, peace of mind, must be first achieved so that one might glean meaning from these sources. In keeping with this Zen outlook, Haiku differs from other poetic forms in that every word conveys an experience, a meaning. Each word or phrase is its own natural formation, its own boulder on a mountain path, rather than a brick in a wall as is the case in a sonnet.

I would therefore invite participants to use the comment section more than has been the case in prior seasonal haiku blogs in this series, to explore the meaning(s) of the poem itself. I invite participants to consider themes ancient, modern and timeless.

For example, the following is influenced by Basho’s pond poem:

garden window
tree-swallow perched on bare branch –

As a 17th century Japanese Buddhist might walk deep into the woods to sit by an old pond, a 21st century Bostonian might sit in a window overlooking the garden. This may take place in late Winter or early Spring – the garden is still silent and the viewer contemplates its simplicity. But this is also a reflection on the changes to our relationship with nature since Basho’s time. We often experience it in such a suburban setting that we possess and control; this is conveyed not only by the window but the garden itself.

Suddenly a tree-swallow, one of the first migratory birds to return (seasonal reference, as is the bare branch), enters. Though we have designed and built our controlled version of nature, and framed it in our window, the immediate feature is a natural one that pre-dates our involvement – the seasonal return of a migratory bird. The silence is broken and the “aha” lesson resonates: nature is all around us, not contained by us, and transcends us. And that message is beautiful to us.

It can also be a reminder for our relationships: how much more do we appreciate the free tree-swallow that leaves us but returns to herald Spring than we might appreciate a captive in a cage?


Pat Trombly said...

I'm glad that the intro was re-posted. I'm also hoping that more people at least skim it before posting.

The gist of the the intro is that while haiku as with most poetic forms presents a snapshot, it should, though in a sense being "minimalist" in form, be a picture that is worth a thousand words.

A good part of me wants to post the following comment to many of the posts on the Spring blog as well as some of the Winter posts:

colorful moment

depicted in a jotting

- not a real poem

Neither haiku nor poetry is minimalism for minimalism's sake.

If someone asks you "what's your poem about?" there should be an answer. A representation of a moment that draws the reader into the moment is better than a representation that does not - but it should also convey some message: some message that hasn't been conveyed countless times using the same imagery.

Take "mosquito" -

summer seeker

scent of sun-touched skin

- whisper in my ear

While this captures a moment in a manner that uses literary tools (e.g., alliteration) and appeals to multiple senses, and thus draws us in, it also is "about" something - - parastic relationships.

Consider "all eyes" -

stupefied fly

tangled web of sticky strings

- wait for death

We've all reflected upon the fly caught in the spider's web but this isn't just a representation - it's also a reflection on the thoughts of a few 20th century thinkers including Sartre.

Consider "butterfly" -

plump caterpillar

wraps himself in redemption

- metamorphosis

There's more to this than the fact that "plump" works better than "sated" - how is it that a pure consumer "redeems" himself simply by transforming himself into something pleasing to the eye of an even bigger consumer? The answer could be that we're the only species capable of appreciating beauty for non-reproductive purposes.

Or "chain"

crumbling stone wall

patches of wildflowers

- buzz of bees

This is a reflection on the cycle between order and disorder, energy and entropy. See how that's different from "went for a walk and saw lovely wildflowers?" And it's got a nice twist - here the order moves faster than the disorder.

Now - whether the message conveyed in any of these is meaningful to the reader is subjective. But each conveys a meaning - if not an answer than a question or questions.

And you can feel free to disagree with the sentiments expressed in any of these - that's the point: there's something to agree with, disagree with, discuss.

Basho WASN'T just saying "ooh look at the pretty frog."

Haiku is not twitter. Poetry is not twitter. I had a lovely walk with my girlfriend in the Smithsonian botanical gardens at dusk on Sunday. You won't catch me telling you that in seventeen syllables and calling it haiku.

Don't let anyone catch you doing it either.

PS - even if you add a reference to how you lay with her until the sky was as blue as the clematis, that's a wonderful moment but it's still twitter-fodder.

Write ABOUT something. SAY something. It doesn't have to be obvious. Use the comment section to explain in greater detail what you're trying to convey, what questions you're trying to ask or answer. And it doesn't have to involve using cultural symbols - good Lord don't start writing like me. But try to say something.

Keep twitter for twitter, keep Hallmark card material for Hallmark cards, and use the poetry blog to post poetry.

Thank you.

Alan Summers said...

Hi everyone,

Pat gives out tough words but haiku is a tough discipline which is why so many poets fall by the wayside.

Of the internationally known poets who have given it a go, Seamus Heaney (albeit only one haiku) shines above the 'big names': Seamus Heaney: The pathos of thingsI have the Hallmark book of translations of Basho, and I do twitter, so let's get our elbows dirty by really getting some fine haiku here. ;-)Pat has already said this, but it's always worth repeating because we can't forget school days when we were wrongfully informed haiku is just a (17) syllable poem.

Tell that to Basho ! ;-)"A haiku is more than a mere ‘snapshot’ poem: it’s a carefully composed and distilled piece of writing that often conveys more than the number of its words on the page." Alan Summers (April 2009)
With Words

Möme said...

Well put! Let's strive to be ambitious this season, not just productive!

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Anonymous said...

I agree that the above posts are both timely and helpful. However please don't let them deter you from experimentation and joyful play with boundaries. Development comes from mistakes - even public ones (unless you are a politician of course!).

So if you as a writer make an error with a poem, don't worry about it. The next poem you write will be better, and (let's be honest) the absolute joy of writing poetry at all is the perpetual journey of self-discovery. It would be sad indeed if poetry in general and Haiku in particular went the way of philosophy, i.e. drowning in self-definition.

Sometimes too-rigid instruction can be self-defeating in the sense they can scare potential contributors away.

I suppose that what it boils down to is write the best that YOU can. I for one will read it with pleasure.

Alan Summers said...

All good points, thanks Möme and Rowan.

I think that if we approach 'doing writing' ourselves that we want to do the best we can for ourselves, and for our reading audience.

It's a responsibility, but one that every writer needs to respect.

Of course push the boundaries, as long as we strive for good writing, that's always a good idea.

Haiku (and hokku before it) have had a history of its boundaries being pushed from Basho to Hosai Ozaki and Santoka to contemporary haiku poets for today.

If you also read Japanese contemporary haiku translated into English you will see that they constantly push the boundaries.

After all haiku is a very modern poetry (its very name was coined and officially adopted in the 20th century) so don't hesitate to use modern words, even words from twitter and SMS vocab. ;-)

We're here as writers wanting the best for each other.

Let the game begin. ;-)

Area 17