October 23, 2010

An Autumn Haiku Lesson

The four most prominent "masters" of haiku in the Japanese tradition are Bashô (1644-94) Buson (1716-83), Issa (1763-1828) and  Shiki (1867-1902).

Here are a few by Issa on autumn to start this lesson.

autumn wind--
singing in the duckweed
how many insects?

autumn begins–
lying down, looking at
snowy mountains

sleeping mat--
the autumn gale blowing
the soles of my feet

evening cicada--
a last loud song
to autumn


Bashô, Buson and Issa worked in haikai short for haikai no renga which was a popular style of Japanese linked verse originating in the sixteenth century.

Shiki actually coined the term "haiku" which he viewed as its own poetic genre. In English, the term haiku covers both haikai and haiku.

Unfortunately, these one-breath poems of connection are often not treated in the West as "serious" poetry.

Haiku in English are written as unrhymed three-line verse. The fragmented images are not typical of English poetry.For modern readers and writers, perhaps even the connecting of nature or the seasons to the human condition might seem foreign.

Does a haiku really need 17 syllables? Traditional Japanese haiku consists of seventeen onji) arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern. Onji is an obsolete Japanese word used in English-language discussion of Japanese poetry to mean the phonetic units or sounds counted in haiku, tanka and other such poetic forms.

Most Japanese words are polysyllabic. English has lots of one syllable words like fall, sky, and tree, so many haiku poets writing in English don't follow the 5-7-5 syllable rule. (17 syllables could be 17 words which would not honor the sense of haiku.)

We put haiku on the page the page in three lines. Traditional haiku in the time of Issa was two parts with a pause in between. The juxtaposition of the two images and a sense of surprise or revelation has been compared to a good joke - setup, then punchline

Haiku always contain nature and that includes human nature. The natural world and season might be invoked by the mention of a single word or image rather than the more typical Western telling. The haiku might mention a cherry blossom, rather than to say it was spring. In fact, the cherry blossom is more specific to a particular part of spring.

There is much discussion of the translation of classical haiku into English by translators such as R.H.Blyth, Lucien Stryck, Peter Beilenson and Kenneth Rexroth. I am a fan of those done by contemporary American poet Robert Hass.

It's interesting to compare different translations of the same haiku to see the process.

Translations by Robert Hass

Two by Basho

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.



Even in Kyoto --
hearing the cuckoo's cry --
I long for Kyoto.



Six by Issa

Mosquito at my ear--
does it think
I'm deaf?


New Year's morning--
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.


Even with insects--
some can sing,
some can't.


The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.


Don't kill that fly!
Look--it's wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.


Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house
casually.








Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide

1 comment:

  1. Have you read Lorraine Ellis Harr's "The Isn'ts of Haiku"?

    Her teachings were my introduction to haiku and remain my haiku guidelines.

    ReplyDelete