Friday, January 22, 2010

Reader's Diary #569- Kenneth Yasuda: The Japanese Haiku

As someone who prefers his poems concise, I've long been attracted to haiku, though have never really given it the attention it deserved.

Actually, I've felt sorry for the haiku. It seems to be so misunderstood and abused by elementary school teachers who want a quick poetry lesson for the kids who've mastered syllables.

Fortunately Yasuda sheds some light on the topic. Where did the 5-7-5 come from? The Japanese didn't just pick those numbers at random. (And for all those who would say that the 5-7-5 is just an English approximation, Yasuda seems to think it is the best approximation.) 17 syllables, according to Yasuda is the average number of syllables that can be uttered in one breath, or in the Zen-like "haiku moment" the poet has experienced. Plus, the 5-7-5 arrangement adds a harmonious symmetry. Suggesting possibilities of haiku is English, Yasuda also recommends rhyming the first and last lines-- an impossibility in Japanese, but since the tool is available to English poets, could further tighten the symmetry.

Such discussions of technique make up the first half of Japanese Haiku and really made me appreciate the work and thought that should go into a real and good haiku. In the second half, Yasuda explores the history of the form, how it came to be, why the seasonal element is so crucial, why obviously metaphorical language is not recommended, and other points of interest. What I found particularly encouraging is that us westerners weren't the first ones to abuse the form. The haiku went through many troubled periods at the hands of the Japanese themselves, often because people took the short length for granted-- 17 syllables, who can't fire off one of those?

Occasionally I found Yasuda too rigid and critical, especially at the beginning of the book when he seemed to have it out for western imagist poets, showing for instance why a particular Basho haiku is superior to William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow" poem and another time suggesting that Ezra Pound's "Metro" poem doesn't succeed. However, towards the end of the book, either he had lightened up or I came to appreciate the man's enthusiasm for and almost protective stance over the haiku.

Here's one the I wrote and worked on during the course of the book:

Slapping at insects-
The lake orange red purple
Fish, flies stop biting

It's not perfect, I know. I think it's too much of a story for the "haiku moment" Yasuda speaks of. There's a definite moment of understanding, but perhaps it's at the end of too long a narrative. Plus, it seems a little choppy. Essentially I have three moments: the onslaught of bugs, the sunset, the tranquility. As for Yasuda's suggestion of adding rhyme, I didn't as such, but I have added -ing words in the 5th and 7th line, though crossing over the poem instead of both at the end. I liked the idea of beginning and ending with similar words, thinking it might tighten up the whole passage of time issue. I've also gone for alliteration in the final line, trying to show a connection between me bothering the fish and the flies bothering me. Plus the "f" sound makes me think of air being released and energy subsiding. Finally, I played with punctuation in the second line, finding that the commas broke up the smoothness of a sunset transition. Anyway, here are much better haiku, taken from Yasuda's book:

Gentle Willow
Angry, I came home
And found within my garden
A willow-tree


Golden Maple Spray
City folk are they;
In the home-bound train they hold
Golden maple sprays.

- Meisetsu

The Galaxy
Wild the rolling sea!
Over which to Sado Isle
Lies the Galaxy.

- Basho


Liz in Ink said...

Thanks, John, for this. I spent last April writing a haiku a day and it got harder and harder the more I understood!

Diane Mayr said...

I haven't seen this book, but I will definitely look for it. I'm particularly disturbed by the suggestion of the use of end rhyme. The first thing that came to mind is trite and sing-songy. The examples you showed us from the book didn't change my mind!

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Yes, thanks for this post! I enjoyed your haiku and your discussion of it. I love your idea of starting and ending with similar words. I have been neglecting haiku lately and need to get back into it. Here is a challenge for me.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

That's quite fascinating. I had no idea of the whole philosophy behind the haiku, other than the 5-7-5 form.

Now I want to read and write more haikus. Look out, world.

Unknown said...

I love haiku, and know next to nothing about it (other than being one of those students in a classroom told to write something in 5-7-5; I wonder where those went? probably away, for the good of all) I'll have to pick this up, although I will admit already to feeling shocked at someone dissing WCW.

Mary Lee said...

Welcome back, John! It's been awhile.

Interesting thoughts on haiku. I'm with Diane -- not convinced about the rhymes.

madelyn said...

I love the short form, too. Even though it's structured, it seems less intimidating, somehow, knowing you just have those three lines. I love how people have used it for everything from nature to politics to humor (see the SPAM haiku archive...)
best, Madelyn

Dale said...

I only really knew the 5-7-5 rule as well. Thanks for the extra insight.