Poetry. Esoteric rubbish memorised by the pious, right? Well, not exactly. We’re delving into what makes it great, sans the pretence. First up, the haiku
In long-ago Japan, it was a popular pastime for two people to compose a tanka; a five-line poem where one person would write the first three lines and the other would cap them off in the final two lines. Sounds like fun. What a shame this kind of literary parlour game no longer seems to exist.
Eventually, the three-line verse took on a life of its own and became the zenith of Japanese poetry – the haiku.
The first line of a traditional haiku contains five syllables; the second line seven, the third line five. That’s it – three lines, a total of seventeen syllables. An aspect of nature, usually from a seasonal perspective, is accompanied by an emotional response and sometimes an insight into life and its meaning.
It’s usually written in the present tense and rhyme is not at all necessary. Oh, and it’s meant to be said in one breath.
It’s quite a lot to take in for such a short piece of writing.
Consider this famous haiku from the great master Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694):
Into the old pond
A frog suddenly plunges.
The sound of water.
The silence of the garden pond is shattered when the frog jumps in. The poet hears the sound of water, rather than the sound of the frog jumping into it. A fine distinction perhaps, but an important one. This haiku clearly reflects Bashō’s abiding interest in Zen Buddhism.
There are plenty of elements of Zen Buddhism pervading haiku. Simplicity is one, and responsiveness and connectivity to nature is another. In the example above, the frog and the water are united, giving the poet pause for contemplation.
Bashō is credited with elevating haiku to one of the finest of Japanese arts. His simple descriptions have both clarity and a kind of eternity. In the following haiku, the bird’s startled reaction to the evening’s sudden storm is a comment on the constancy of nature’s capriciousness:
A quick lightning flash!
Travelling through the blackness
The night heron calls.
Check out this haiku from another master, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), where he delights in the joy of children playing outside again now that spring has arrived:
Snow having melted,
The whole village is brimful
Of happy children.
In an elegant piece of philosophy, Yosa Buson (1716-1784) compares the solidity of a brass bell with the fragility of a butterfly:
On the temple bell
Something rests in quiet sleep.
Look, a butterfly!
Ochi Etsujin (c.1656-1739) captures both the passing of time and a son’s love for, and protectiveness of, his ageing parents:
The year is going.
I have kept from my parents
My grey hairs hidden.
Haiku is the art of expressing much in few words.
These days, the rules about haiku composition are less stringent, so for example, the poem might contain more than seventeen syllables. This has as much to do with the way different languages are structured as it does with a natural evolution of an art form.
However, the essence of the haiku form has been kept intact, namely to distil an experience of nature into a three-line poem. Brevity is key, so the skill is to capture the very essence of the subject.
There are countless haiku out there for you to discover. And why not have a crack at writing your own haiku? It concentrates the mind and makes you feel all Zenny. It may also take you out of your comfort zone. But that’s good, right?
Here’s an old favourite of mine from Buson – an exhortation to do the washing up after dinner:
At freezing midnight
Hear that rat go rummaging…
Dirty kitchen dishes.
Can’t be clearer than that!
(Note: apart from the last haiku, all translations were by Daniel C Buchanan, 1973.)