Saturday, 16 June 2012

Learning to Love the Haiku

by Fay Davies

Only three small lines
And seventeen syllables.
Zero attraction.

I have always been puzzled by the haiku. As far as I'm concerned, these strange, miniature works are the warm-up exercises of the literary world – akin to mixing paints in the palette, or tuning an instrument. Surely, to write a haiku is to practice vocabulary, versification and concision – to set yourself the challenge of adhering to an unnecessarily strict pattern of syllables.

If my masterpiece failed to adequately demonstrate my point, another example may suffice.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) was the most famous Japanese poet of his time. Below is what is commonly known as the 'Frog Haiku'.

            Furu ike ya
            kawazu tobikomu
            mizu no oto

For those that are unfamiliar with Japanese, I have scoured the internet for some translations. The first is startlingly dramatic and intensely moving:
            An old silent pond...
            A frog jumps into the pond,
            splash! Silence again.

The second surpasses the first in its vitality and emotion, yet sadly does not adhere to the 5 – 7 – 5 law of the haiku:

            old pond
            frog leaping

Worryingly, this is probably one of the best known haikus in the world. A fact that, frankly, does nothing to support the continued existence of this peculiar poetic brand.
It is easy and vaguely satisfying to criticise Basho's work, but perhaps I am being too hard on the haiku. In fact, by using 'Frog Haiku' and its translations as my example, I made a serendipitous discovery. The haiku might not be so awful after all.
The reason for this is that, firstly, these examples demonstrate the futility of translation. It is near impossible to translate a poem from one language to another, because the finished product can never be the original. The translator will have to decide whether to bring across the meaning, or the tone, or countless other features, and some essence of the original will be lost. It all depends on how a translator interprets the poem. The dissimilarity of these two examples illustrates that translation is an almost arbitrary process. (Incidentally, Google Translate provides this valiant attempt: 'Fly into the sound of the water frog and old pond')
But not only are the translations different from each other; they are, in my opinion, unsatisfactory. As if flaunting their lack of authenticity, neither of them sounds like natural English. I am confident, however, that the original Japanese version must have been an excellent poem. Otherwise, Basho would not have achieved such notoriety. Perhaps my problem with 'Frog Haiku' is simply that English cannot do it justice.
My second discovery was this: that the haiku is not a set of rules, but a concept, an intention. I pointed out previously that the second translation does not adhere to the typical haiku law of 5 – 7 – 5 syllables. While this is strictly followed in Japanese, most modern haikus by English poets are flexible with the form. A number of variants have been spawned, showing that writers can create convincing poetry without being constrained by a strict template. Crucially, though, whether a haiku contains seventeen syllables or fourteen, whether it contains three lines or two, all have some vital element in common. One of the most striking properties of a haiku is that it captures an elusive and subtle fragment of thought, and conveys it with precision and simplicity.
Ezra Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro' was inspired by the haiku, and is indeed a haiku of sorts:
            The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
            Petals on a wet, black bough.

It is an imagist poem, meaning it belonged to a literary movement that favoured sharp language and precise imagery. The very economy of Pound's language creates its beauty, making the haiku an appropriate form to use. In his article 'Vorticism' in The Fortnightly Review (September 1 1914) Pound writes:[1]

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion.             [...]
The Japanese have […] understood the beauty of this sort of knowing. A Chinaman said long ago that if a man can’t say what he has to say in twelve lines he had better keep quiet.

Pound wanted to express what was almost inexpressible, to record a 'sudden emotion' in writing. For him, the only way to do this was the haiku.
The poem that I used to introduce this article is masquerading as a haiku, but truly it is not. It is merely a set of three lines attempting to follow a syllabic pattern, and it displays nothing of the condensed and unexpected beauty of a good haiku. Originally, my only knowledge of haikus came from the ones we had to write in English classes long ago. It was probably this, and my prejudice against such an unusual form, that contributed to my disdain. Yet, as I have come to realise, the beauty of the haiku lies not in its rules but in the way it is used. Haikus capture fleeting emotions and ideas that are otherwise ineffable. Themselves minute, they remain the best way to record the minutiae of our thoughts.

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