Haiku and Me


[Warning: this post has essentially nothing to do with photography.]

I have for quite a long time had a sporadic interest in haiku poetry; an interest which seems to lie dormant for years only to emerge again. I am in such a period of interest now as I have been reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by that most famous of all ancient haiku poets, Matsuo Basho (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa).

I occasionally try my own hand at haiku and it is helpful to know that there is more of an “anything goes” attitude about it that I had once thought.  That silences some of my own self-criticism about my attempts. Nobody else besides the extremely reassuring Fashion Queen has ever read my haiku but I’m thinking I’ll post a few of my attempts on this blog which has me squirming a bit about it’s reception. (Trust me, I’m a much better photographer than I am a poet.) So, before posting any of my haiku I feel compelled to set the stage with a little background.

Writings about what haiku is and how the Japanese form is best translated into English abound and contain much disagreement.  A useful but overly simplistic summary of the traditional form is that a haiku poem consists of 17 syllables in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 syllables each. In terms of subject matter, haiku contains the juxtaposition (ahem) of two thoughts or images that are different yet related, a seasonal reference, and a subject related to nature (often with only indirect reference to humans).

Suffice it to say that every aspect of the above simplistic description is either not entirely correct, or less strictly adhered to in modern haiku and some translations of the traditional poems. It is also the case that even the ancient poets such as Basho did not always strictly follow the “rules”.

Why does this matter to me? First because taking a looser attitude toward the actual rules allows me to not get hung up on form when I’m trying to appreciate haiku that does not toe the well-defined line. This is certainly the case in The Narrow Road to the Deep North as Yuasa’s translations typically contain four lines and more than 17 syllables. Not only that, but Basho talks a lot about himself and his friend in the included poems in violation of the scant reference to humans idea. It also matters to me because if any of the haiku I post seems to stray from the “true” form, I hope readers will assume I did it on purpose!

With that preamble, I’ll present a haiku in my next post.

6 thoughts on “Haiku and Me”

  1. I took 2 semesters of high school Spanish, one semester in college and a course at the local community college years later; I couldn’t put together even a sentence now if you asked. However, when I am in Mexico, I get the general idea of menus and situations when exposed to the language. Emersion or context is the way I operate. I’m no poet and never tried Haiku (or any other ryme since grade school under duress). Good luck with the effort.
    Japanese to Yank, Historic to Present Day, Rap style to Jap form?

    1. O.K. Steve. (Or should I say Esteban?) I’m trying to figure out the connection between haiku and Spanish class, but have failed. Lo siento, pero no lo conozco! Where we in the same Spanish class with Inez Villapando in high school?

  2. Que lastima, no sabe Villapondo. Senora Jones se mi profesora. I apologize for dashing off the Spanish references. Just supporting you in trying to use a Japanese language poetry form for expression in English and because of that, not being bound by Japanese language rules. I’m never sure how much can be translated from one language to another, but the use of this form of juxtaposition also appeals to me.

    1. Oh, I get it. Brooks Jensen, editor of Lenswork magazine told me recently that while he does not speak Japanese, he does his own haiku translations from Japanese using a Japanese-English dictionary. given the huge differences between the two languages, that seems a daunting task. Perhaps I should give it a try one of these days, just for the mental exercise.

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