Haiku are easy enough to define. They are traditional Japanese poems consisting of three lines; the first line has five syllables, the second seven syllables, the final one five syllables again.

There is a little more to it. A haiku should have a kireji or ‘cutting word’ at the end of one of the three lines. This signifies a change in emphasis or tone, a juxtaposition of ideas; if placed at the end of the third line, it indicates a harmonious resolution. Haiku also traditionally contain a kigo; a word with a seasonal reference. In addition, the subject matter of a haiku is generally connected to nature; but this is surely due to the predominantly rural character of Japan until recently.

One joy of haiku is that anyone can write one. The rules are well-defined and the results can be immediately pleasing. However, as with many simple things, doing it well is extremely difficult.

Here are a few Japanese haiku from some of the acknowledged masters of the art. It was Matsuo Basho who bought the haiku back into popularity during the 17th century:

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.
Natsume Soseki

I kill an ant
and realize my three children
have been watching.
Kato Shuson

First autumn morning:
the mirror I stare into
shows my father’s face.
Murakami Kijo

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
Matsuo Bashō

The final example is perhaps the best known Japanese haiku in the West. I’ve seen it translated differently, with the final line reading merely ‘sound of water’. Perhaps the words ‘silence again’ are the translator’s attempt to reintroduce a kireji, the cutting word having evaporated somewhere on the journey away from Japanese.

Keeping the five, seven, five form when translating into another language can lead to awkwardness; you ask yourself if it should really be attempted – some translators do, some don’t. Anyway, an English syllable is not the exact equivalent of a Japanese on… incidentally, do we really want the word ‘pond’ twice?

That is not a criticism of this particular translator or any other, it’s just that the difficult balancing act of translation between literal meaning and the spirit of the writing becomes nigh on impossible for something as precisely honed and intimate as a haiku. The Japanese masters used every sound and nuance from the 17 on to produce what they wanted. A rough approximation to that meaning is the very best we can hope for if we twist and jam the thing into English.

So what is the essence of a haiku? I can only give my personal opinion. Firstly, its length dictates that it addresses something uncomplicated, very often something every-day or commonplace. It conjures a single moment, a fleeting image, a single thought or feeling. Then, the kireji will often turn that moment round to look at it from a different angle. There is an element of surprise or a feeling that something familiar has been shown in a new light. Although the thought is simple, we continue to contemplate it and let it lead our mind down different paths.

I don’t speak any Japanese, but I do think something of the spirit of the original haiku shine through in the translations above. However, it also seems to me you can only fully appreciate a haiku which has been written in a language you are very familiar with, preferably your own mother tongue. Haiku have become a popular form of poetry in the West and a great many have been written in English, but for my money the real English-language master of the form is Richard Wright.

Richard Wright, 1908-1960

Wright was an American writer and left-wing political activist, much of whose work focused on the bitter experience of African Americans and so exhibited both anger and graphic depictions of violence. In 1947 he emigrated to France, where he continued both his writing and his political career.  On the face of it, Richard Wright is an unlikely haiku writer, but in his final eighteen months, with his health failing, he discovered the form and dedicated himself to it.

Below are some examples of Wright’s haiku:

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

Heaps of black cherries
Glittering with drops of rain
In the evening sun.

An apple blossom
Trembling on a sunlit branch
From the weight of bees.

I am paying rent
For the lice in my cold room
And the moonlight also.

Leaving its nest
The sparrow sinks a second
Then opens its wings.

Whitecaps on the bay
A broken signpost banging
In the April wind.

A balmy spring wind
Reminding me of something
I cannot recall.

Amidst the flowers
A china clock is ticking
In the dead man’s room.

It is noticeable that Richard Wright conforms strictly to the structure of haiku. Other western haiku writers have been less scrupulous. Here are three of Jack Kerouac’s:

A quiet Autumn night
and these fools
Are starting to argue.

Early morning yellow flowers,
thinking about
the drunkards of Mexico.

Fiddlydee! –
Another day,
Another something-or-other.

Kerouac didn’t think ‘American Haikus’ should ‘worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop’. Perhaps that’s true, but I can’t help wishing it would pop somewhere else. Jack Kerouac was an undoubtedly talented writer and his ‘American Haikus’ are not without merit, but you have to ask yourself whether they should carry the name haiku. They sound vaguely like haiku, but they often say more about the sort of alcoholic haze Kerouac walked around in than anything else. As far as I’m concerned, calling an apple an orange doesn’t make it an orange; his ‘American haikus’ could be better described as ‘short American poems’.

The usual reason given in the West for breaking the haiku rules is that the Japanese language is so different, but I get the impression that the real reason is that many Western haiku writers just can’t be bothered. They sense the beauty of the haiku and with a cry of excitement jump into the pond like Matsuo Bashō’s frog. But, then… it’s a bit of work to fit things into the correct number of syllables; to decide where the kireji should go and what shift in emphasis it indicates; to think what season you are talking about and what word indicates that… Oh, what the hell! When you’ve got something to say, what’s the point in all that old Japanese stuff?

But the restrictions of the haiku are where its power lies. Maybe there’s nothing magical about lines of five then seven then five syllables, but that’s how a haiku is. When you follow the structure, the constraints you are working under make you think very carefully about what you’re writing; which word is just right, whether the rhythm and sounds of the words sit well together, whether it captures the moment effectively and harmoniously. In short, the rules focus your mind on the content.

It’s true that the Japanese masters did, occasionally, disregard the rules on syllables, but they were just that – masters; they knew the form so intimately they could sense where a rule could be bent or broken. What they weren’t was someone who’d read a few haiku and decided the rules didn’t apply to them.

In the end, perhaps, following the rules of haiku is just a matter of respect. Richard Wright, an African American who felt like an outsider all his life and latterly became an exile approaching his death in a foreign land, immersed himself humbly in the form of the haiku and produced remarkable results. Others, with little respect for haiku or anything else very much, write glibly about whatever comes to mind; usually about themselves.

Have we struck on a more general truth here? In Japan there is a tradition of a student copying and imitating the work of a master for many years; only when the student has become a master himself will he attempt something original.  Of course, this idea isn’t alien to the West; look at the early work of great innovative artists such as Picasso or James Joyce and you’ll find an assured mastery of the previously accepted norms.

But is this still really the case? Google, for example, the early work of Royal Academician, Tracey Emin. You’ll find yourself looking at a series of ink line-sketches which an averagely talented nine-year-old might have done – except an average nine-year-old would likely steer clear of pornographic themes.

If Tracey Emin has a talent, it’s for self-publicity, but that would appear to be enough – or rather, it would appear to be essential. Obviously there are plenty of talented artists out there, and almost certainly a handful of amazingly talented and original ones. But, being more focused on their work than displaying their genitals, they lose out time and again to Tracey and her ‘provocative’ unmade bed.

If you’ve read Life in the Bubble, you’ll know that I stand in awe of the strange phenomenon of Western civilisation. However, when people’s worries are trivial, as they mostly are now, there is a risk that their tastes and attitudes also head in that direction. We are aware that our culture is one based on consumerism and instant gratification, but I think it’s more than just that. The constant demand for something new, something titillating, something easily understood; the urge to acquire the latest shiny object – right now; the desire to make quick judgements based on emotion, to have a simple answer and someone to blame other than yourself; the reluctance to spend time thinking for yourself or to question comfortable ‘truths’; the demand to be kept safe and warm but complain loudly and self-pityingly all the while… these things are surely what mark out the spoilt child.

Infantilism is not the only characteristic of the West and most of us behave more or less like adults most of the time. However, it’s a seductive and shallowly pleasant thing to indulge in. After I finish writing this I’m going to take my son to the latest Star Wars film and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it almost as much as him. The danger is not that we delight in expertly created childish things but that they threaten to wholly take the place of more adult ones and make our thinking infantile. Worse still is if we start to think that childish pursuits are adult ones.

Even if they could, there’s little incentive for anyone in a position of authority, either government or the private sector, to do anything about this. Quite the opposite, children are easily manipulated and duped, and if they’re kept happily occupied they won’t cause trouble. No, I’m afraid Mummy and Daddy aren’t interested in helping us out of the nursery; they’re the ones providing the toys – at a price. It’s up to us, and nobody else, to grow up.

I seem to have drifted away from my original subject of haiku. But, with the temperature outside dropping and 2016 approaching in all its promise and excitement, I feel inspired to attempt a seasonal haiku myself:

In the frosty field
the call of a single crow
can find no echo.

Happy New Year.
Prospero, 2015




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