Tuesday, July 1, 2008

An Introduction to Haiku

Haiku (hy-koo) is a traditional Japanese verse form, notable for its compression and suggestiveness. In three lines totaling seventeen syllables measuring 5-7-5, a great haiku presents, through imagery drawn from intensely careful observation, a web of associated ideas (renso) requiring an active mind on the part of the listener. The form emerged during the 16th century and was developed by the poet Basho (1644-1694) into a refined medium of Buddhist and Taoist symbolism. "Haiku," Basho was fond of saying, "is the heart of the Man'yoshu," the first imperial anthology, compiled in the eight century. "Haiku," many modern Japanese poets are fond of saying, "began and ended with Basho." Look beyond the hyperbole of either observation, and there is a powerful element of truth. Traditionally and ideally, a haiku presents a pair of contrasting images, one suggestive of time and place, the other a vivid but fleeting observation. Working together, they evoke mood and emotion. The poet does not comment on the connection but leaves the synthesis of the two images for the reader to perceive. A haiku by Basho, considered to have written the most perfect examples of the form, illustrates this duality:

Now the swinging bridge

Is quieted with creepers

Like our tendrilled life

When Basho writes:

How reluctantly

the bee emerges from deep

within the peony

is he merely presenting a pathetical fallacy, attributing human emotion to a bee, or is he entering into the authentic experience of "beeness" as deeply as possible? Perhaps both qualities are present. His detailed observation calls for something other than metaphor; it demands literal accuracy. Is the bee inside his mind or outside? The poem moves in part because of tension raised through the underlying question of duality the Zen resolves in silence. The bee, the peony, the poet, all one idea composed of many.

In another poem, Basho finds

Delight, then sorrow,

aboard the cormorant

fishing boat

without having to describe for his audience the nooses tied around the throats of fishing birds to inhibit swallowing. He is initially delighted by their amazing skill and grace, then horrified that they cannot swallow what they catch, saddened by their captivity and exploitation, and perhaps even more deeply saddened by the fishing folk he never mentions. What remains unstated begs for a profound moral equation, although only the poet's compassion is clearly implied.

The best haiku reflect an undeniable Zen influence. It evolved from the earlier linked-verse form known as the renga and was used extensively by Zen Buddhist monks in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the next 200 years, the verse form achieved its greatest popularity and success. Elements of compassion, silence, and awareness of temporality often combine to reveal a sense of mystery. Just as often, haiku may bring a startling insight into the ordinary, as when Buson writes:

Nobly, the great priest

deposits his daily stool

in bleak winter fields

thereby reminding his audience that nobility has nothing whatever to do with palaces and embroided robes, but that true nobility is obtainable in every human endeavor.

Issa reminds the attentive listener:

A world of dew,

and within every dewdrop

a world of struggle

Haiku may be the most widely recognizable poetic form in the world. At play with the form, children quickly discover their own poetic imaginations; almost anyone can learn to make decently readable haiku in no time at all. Just as anyone can learn to write a quatrain or sonnet. The problem remains: to be great, a poem must rise on its own merit, and too much haiku is merely haiku. Haiku written in American English and attempting to borrow traditional Japanese literacy devices usually ends up smelling of the bric-a-brac shop, all fragmentary dust and mold or cheap glitter coating the ordinary, or worse, the merely cute or contrived. Great haiku cuts both ways, sometimes witty or sarcastic, sometimes making Zen like demands for that most extraordinary consciousness, no-mind or ordinary mind.

Haiku should be approached with a daily sort of reverence, as we might approach an encounter with a great spiritual teacher. It is easy to imitate; it is difficult to attain. The more deeply the reader enters into the authentic experience of the poem, the more the poem reveals. When Kikaku writes:

In the Emperor's bed,

the smell of burnt mosquitoes,

and erotic whispers

we must realize first that the burning of mosquitoes clears the air for erotic play; then we may wonder whether the "smell of burnt mosquitoes" might become a kind of erotic incense for the Emperor, a stimulant for his lust. Thus, lust, love and death are joined in primal experience. Is there a buried needle in this verse? Does Kikaku intend for us to think critically of a decadent emperor? And what does that reveal about ourselves? Revealing the relationship between these mundane activities shakes up our polite perceptions like a Zen slap in the face, a call to awaken to what actually is.

Haiku, sprung free from the opening lines of predominantly humorous "linked verse" (renga) created by multiple authors, began to articulate aesthetic qualities such as a sense of beautiful aloneness, sabishisa, and restrained elegance, furyu.

The precise and concise nature of haiku influenced the early 20th-century Anglo-American poetic movement known as imagism. The writing of haiku is still practiced by thousands of Japanese who annually publish outstanding examples in the many magazines devoted to the art. The great age of haiku spans only a little over a hundred years, and yet its poetry is a river that continues to flow. In our own age and language, wonderful haiku have been written by poets as diverse as Gary Snyder, Richard Wilbur, Lew Welch and Richard Wright, to name but a few. In addition to Basho, important haiku poets include Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Masuoka Shiki. Basho is neither the beginning nor the end. Re-encountering these poems is like the leap of Basho's famous frog, a plunge into the sound of water, each brief poem expanding in ever-widening ripples.

Bibliography: Blyth, R. H., A History of Haiku, 2 vols. (1963-64); Higginson, W. J., The Haiku Handbook (1985; repr. 1992); Reichhold, J., A Dictionary of Haiku (1991); Hamill, Sam, The Sound of Water (1995).

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