Auld Lang Syne

Friday, July 8, 2011

Haiku, a grumble and then growth

I used to avoid haiku. Really, I avoided it like some kind of bacterium I didn't want to infect me. Frankly these little three-liners got on my last nerve. Too sappy was my usual comment. They seemed like little emotional bundles I'd rather not read.

I actually went to a haiku workshop of sorts five years ago, given by a man who was supposedly "the" haiku guy in the US, Bob Somebody-or-Other. I bought his book (as one ought to do at a writing event) and listened to his talk about what makes a good haiku. For me it was like listening to someone tell what makes a good chickpea salad (don't get me started on that one!). I came away from the experience convinced that haiku were best left to the Japanese unless Western writers were willing to commit to the NATURE and INTENT of the form. I read and then gave away (donated) Bob's book. I did not want to give it space on my bookshelves.

"Well, WOW," you must be thinking, "How negative!" Guilty as charged. I was indeed negative about this poetic form. I vowed not to write any, keeping my writing time to more "important" kinds of poems. Well, as is the case with any extreme position, I needed to get a grip and figure out what about the haiku might work for me, whether I might indeed come to appreciate (although maybe not actually embrace) these little poems. I needed a bit of an attitude adjustment. That's when (by FATE's ironic turn) I found and bought a book of Japanese death poetry. I bought it because I was fascinated and intrigued, not by the haiku therein, but by the notion that people actually took the time and had the impetus to write a poem as life was slipping away. By the way, this is always a good condition (fascination/ intrigue) for me to be in for buying books that turn out to be gems. I wanted to know more about writing death poems. The trade-off: haiku. It was there and it was good and I needed to revisit my previously dug-in position.

As a result of reading the book, I have a new respect for haiku. I enjoy it in its pure (read pure as Eastern) forms. However I still have a bit of a grumble. My "point of irk," if you can call it that is that many English speakers/writers do not GET the point of a haiku: to make comments on human condition through observance of nature, and to show an element of surprise connection or a volta of sorts in the third line. What I see mostly in English language haiku is simply a thought or observation cut into the 5-7-5 syllable format of three lines. This was not the intent of the form in ancient times. By the way, written in English, it is written in 3 lines, whereas in Japanese it may be a single line. And there are other elements of haiku that are often ignored or changed by Western writers:

  • Rather than counting syllables, the Japanese haiku counts sounds. 
  • Haiku requires a natural setting. It is designed to suggest a single season, however the poet makes that happen. It could be done in a direct manner, using a symbolic word for the season such as ice for winter, blossom or plum or bamboo for spring.
  • Haiku should also have a bridge in the final line or a somewhat vaguely linked thought, a leap if you will that makes the reader think beyond the written words or to consider an outcome or result that is beyond the poem itself. This may seem disconnected or disparate, but if done well, it is far from that.
Here are a couple of haiku (yes the same in plural as in singular) that show the bridge thought:

The blossom falls soft,
drifts down to her waiting hand.
Doves drop from the trees.

In this poem (haiku) we see a natural setting wherein the woman or girl is in the springtime of her life (blossom) but that is about to change (falls, waiting hand). In line three, the change is shown and the hint is that this change may not be positive.  We see the loss implied in line 3. It leads the reader to consider that doves drop, They do not fly but drop. Her spring (her virginity) is dead, her life as a maiden (young girl) is over. Dropping is a sign of ending, while drifting is a sign of leisure and languor. The dove is a symbol of her once peaceful life and uncomplicated existence. Trees are a symbol of long life. Girlhood is brief, agedness is long.

The cherry opens,
showing its womb filled with seed.
Laughter of children.

This is clearly a birth/motherhood poem. Cherries are symbols of fecundity, speak of a blooming/fruiting season. The opening of the cherry exposing its contents (the seed) speaks to the process of birth, something that is needed to be able to bring the seed to fruition. The bridge is a positive one: after this rending of the womb, there are the pleasures of children and their easy play.

OK... so now let's talk about what YOU think of as haiku... I'm waiting to hear from you.

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