Saturday, October 22, 2005

Haiku Guest Lecture

Yesterday I visited Deborah Ayer's class on writing to talk about haiku. It was a great privilege to be in a class with such obviously bright and talented students. I hope I did some good; I rather felt like I left everyone slightly confused. If I had to do it again I would try and say about half as much, and try and let the students talk four times as much.

What did I want the students to understand, exactly?

Haiku is actually quite an amazing poetic form. I know people go around calling things haiku that are not, that are more or less short expressions intended to be funny or absurd (especially in a way that feigns wisdom in a fortune-cookie sort of way): "computer haiku" are a good example. I like these, I think they're funny, but they're not haiku. Why is that? The answer is a bit more complex than you might think.

Haiku can be funny. In fact, haiku (especially in the old days, when it was called haikai in Japan--say, from around the 15th-19th centuries) were very amusing indeed, especially in contrast to the other poetry that people wrote normally. Haiku is meant to convey a stunning moment of insight or surprise, the sort of moment that makes you say, "wow! I never realized that before, but now that you mention it, yes!" in a pleasurable way. Like jokes do. Haiku are like jokes in that both they create an unexpected shock of recognition. On the other hand, haiku are poems (unlike jokes) because they take great care with language.

Of course, not all haiku are actually laughable--sometimes the shock of recognition is one of pathos or wonder. But they all use the same basic principle, which is:

Haiku work by juxtaposing one thing with another. Typically that other thing is incongruous in some way. The incongruity is what makes them a bit shocking. We looked at a famous haiku by Bashô (this translation is by David Landis Barnhill's Bashô's Haiku:

fleas, lice,
a horse peeing
by my pillow

nomi shirami uma no shirosuru makura moto

which is clearly shocking, in the sense that it has quite vivid and earthy imagery that brings together the worlds of ordinary life (evoking the gritty realities of travel) with elegance (the pillow, redolent of a romantic ideal). Somewhat more subtle is the most famous haiku of all, Bashô's:

old pond--
a frog jumps in
sound of water

furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

This, we saw, was not only nice and insightful in its own right, but also was shocking (or at least surprising) because it defied an expectation with its original readers. Since the time of the first imperial poetry anthology, Collection of ancient and modern poems (Kokinwakashû, 10th c) whose preface stated something along the lines of "everything in the world has its song--birds sing, frogs croak, people write poetry," people expected that when poets were writing about frogs, especially noisy frogs, they'd refer to the frog's call. In that sense, Bashô's poem ambushes the reader--this 17th c reader goes along, imagining a pond, visualizing a frog, expecting something along the lines of "a chorus of song!" "peals of croaking!" and instead, he or she just gets a PLOP! as the frog jumps out of convention and into the deep waters of a moment of insight.

Haiku use various techniques to transcend the narrow confines of their form. This brings us back to the point I made above, about juxtaposition. The basic form of haiku is A - B. In the first place there's a topic, and then there's a comment on that topic. I was impressed to see how quickly Professor Ayer's students picked up on this. An example that we talked about is Arakida Moritake's :

A fallen leaf
Flew back to its branch!
No, it was a butterfly.

(Translation by H. R. Blyth; we read a different one, I believe.)

This is actually a fairly wordy version; the basic idea is that the speaker sees what he thinks is a blossom falling from the branch of a tree; he concludes it simply with the word "butterfly" (none of the commentary of "no it was" etc. is in the original.) There's an A part (the butterfly) and a B part (blossom falling). These don't have to be in any particular order. What matters is the tension between them--there should be a certain analogousness to them, but at the same time, a noticeable difference. What makes them interesting is the balance. In one way it's like a high wire act--there's a careful equilibrium between the two elements, and you're taking some risk in bringing them together. In another way, it's like electricity--you have to bring two objects close together enough that a charge can jump between them even though they don't actually touch.

The trick. The trick is, how do you do this in English? You don't have all of the rich literary history that the Japanese haiku poets had in making these tiny little poems reverberate with all the echoes of the universe. (Don't believe that they do? Keep reading! It's amazing!) There were some good ones in the textbook; some others that I read in class were from Jim Kacian's A Glimpse of Red

1. W.F. Owen

pet store
nose prints
both sides

flea market--
seeing my old shirt
on her new husband

lifting the hammer
the old carpenter's hand
stops shaking

2. Tom Painting

a dry leaf
scratches along the sidewalk
All Soul's Day

3. Ken Jones

Well-thumbed public map
"You are here"
no longer there

4. Christopher Herold

we lower a kayak
into the sound

just a trickle
seeping between river stones
summer twilight

All of these isolate a single experience, a single moment, and describe what makes that moment intensely meaningful. Of all of them, Christopher Herold's are the most similar to Japanese haiku--you clearly see the A and B structure, and he also does some nice things with ambiguity (punning on "sound" in the first case, and recasting the image of water as one of light in the second) which would have pleased the classical Japanese haiku poets very much. But all of them are successful.

P. S.

Some notes on pre-modern Japanese poetic forms:

a. Waka. Classical Japanese poetry. 31 syllables, 5-7-5-7-7 rhythm, confined to elegant words and situations. This structure:


if o is a syllable.

See Thomas McAuley's excellent site about waka for more information.

b. Renga (linked verse). Medieval form, composed collaboratively in sequences, often 100 verses long. 5-7-5. 7-7. 5-7-5. 7-7. etc. Basically you break apart the waka, and give the pieces to different people to compose, and weave them all together in a constantly varying sequence.

Poet A composes


Poet B composes


Poet C composes