A Haiku Primer
All the long day—
yet not long enough for the skylark
I find myself moved, changed even, by haiku centuries old, from a culture not my own. Haiku remind me to take time to look up at the Moon, to listen to the rain as it falls: to take bread to the ducks on the canal. It tells stories in just a handful of words.
I have published a few haiku. From time to time, I am asked how to write one. Yesterday, I answered such a request by e-mail: tonight, I thought to post my answer here—that, and a few haiku from the masters.
Haiku in Japan employ anywhere from 12 to 20 "on," which early translators mistakenly thought was the equivalent of the English "syllable." It was decided that the ideal English haiku should contain 17 syllables arranged on three lines (5 syllables, first line; 7, second line; 5, third line: for 5-7-5). Apparently, however, what "on" actually means is something closer to "sound." A syllable can contain multiple sounds (think, for example, of the word "impossible": four syllables, but nine sounds (first syllable, 2 sounds; second syllable, 3 sounds; third syllable, 1 sound; and fourth syllable, 3 sounds: for a total of nine sounds to make four syllables that together form one word). An English haiku adhering to the old rules of seventeen syllables might, therefore, contain many more sounds than seventeen, and thus be considered "wordy" by Japanese standards. Modern translators of haiku from Japanese all seem to agree that the range for English syllables in a haiku is somewhere between 7 and 12.
The norm of printing English haiku on three separate lines is still common, though that was never done in Japan, where haiku have always been printed on one line. That is sometimes seen today in modern English haiku, and I expect a day will come when haiku everywhere are printed on one line, to more-closely match the Japanese.
The rules for haiku boil down to two: brevity, and the interplay of contrasting images, usually from nature (though in modern haiku, both in Japan and around the world, urban and industrial images are also used, which I find interesting because it means the art form is dynamic and evolving).
Naturally, there are examples from Japanese masters that break all these rules.
To those interested in studying the haiku, I recommend William J. Higginson's book
The Haiku Handbook. Higginson was an accomplished poet himself, and editor of various haiku magazines. His book provides a fascinating history of the haiku, as well as discussions on how to write it in English. Much of what I know about haiku, I learned from that book.
Higginson writes in his introduction to The Haiku Handbook that the primary purpose of reading and writing haiku is "in sharing moments of our lives that have moved us, pieces of experience that we offer or share as gifts."
In Japan, there are four haiku masters:
- Matsuo Bashō (1644 - 94); he invented the haiku.
- Yosa Buson (1716 - 84)
- Kobayashi Issa (1763 - 1828)
- Masaoka Shiki (1867 - 1902)
Here are three haiku from each master:
The legs of the crane
have become short
in the summer rains.
I sit here
making the coolness
my dwelling place.
The grasses of the garden—
and lie where they fall.
Some of these require a moment's thought. How is it, for example, that the legs of the crane have become short? The answer lies in the summer rains—which have swelled the brooks and deepened the marshes where the long-legged cranes wade. Summer, though not mentioned, is also present in the second haiku—and the heat of it is the reason that Basho declares the comforting shade he has found to be his new dwelling place.
The third haiku of Basho presents an image of fall—that word is, in fact, repeated twice: the dry grasses have been blown down, or trampled down, and they will not rise again. The images in this haiku take on additional meaning, however, because Basho wrote that he saw the fallen grasses on the graves of soldiers—Basho was standing in a battlefield from a conflict a century past, hence the word fall used twice: the grasses have fallen, and the soldiers have fallen.
Having cut the peony,
I felt dejected
in the late cherry blossoms.
Years of my old age;
the summer rains
falling down the rain-pipe.
In the first haiku of Buson's, the poet cuts a beautiful flower, but having done that makes him sad; in like fashion, how often do we end something, and are sad when it has ended: when we have finished a book, perhaps, or after we have waved good-bye to someone. In the second haiku, spring herself is personified, and we see, and almost smell, those last cherry blossoms with the poet. In the third, Buson has written a carpe diem haiku—looking back on the years of his life, they seem to have passed as quickly as rain pouring down a rain-pipe; this haiku also speaks to the feeling common among older people that time speeds up—the years begin to rush by, faster and faster.
A withering wind—
seated in the falling dusk
a street minstrel.
Visiting the graves,
the old dog
leads the way.
As if nothing had happened,
and the willow.
Issa's haiku are filled with compassion. In the first one, in that bitter wind, the street minstrel—not singing, not dancing: so cold; does he have anywhere to go? The second haiku is a heartbreak: animals remember the people they love, and who loved them; the old dog leads the way to graves it likely visits often. The third haiku is about those days that follow someone's death—when the world, it seems, should have stopped: but, instead, it goes on as if nothing has happened.
A dog sleeping
at the door of an empty house,
leaves of the willow-trees scattering.
The tree cut,
dawn breaks early
at my little window
I do not know
what bird it was—
but the spray of plum-bossom!
The first haiku of Shiki is filled with pathos—where are the dog's people? What has happened to them? What will become of the dog? The second haiku is about unintended consequences, illustrated by cutting down a tree—but now the morning light is let in! The third haiku is pure joy: a sudden shower of blossoms falls on the poet, or on the picnicking poet and a friend—but what was the bird that, in sudden flight, shook the blossoms free?
This brief discussion of haiku has made me love it even more. The shade of the haiku will be my dwelling place for whatever years may come.
Shimabara no Komoriuta
Today I listened to a traditional Japanese piece, Shimabara no Komoriuta. It is haunting and beautiful. The version I listened to features the great flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, with Shinichi Yuize playing the koto (from the album CBS Masterworks—Dinner Classics: The Japanese Album):
I photographed "In His Hand a Poppy," the flowers above, in 2007 on Temple Square, in Salt Lake City. The title is from a haiku by Issa:
Making his way through the crowd,
in his hand