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     what is a haiku?

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what is haiku?


Most educated occidentals have heard something about haiku, and there are excellent haiku poets, publications and general interest in many languages, as may be gathered from William Higginson’s Haiku World: An International Almanac, which “includes over 1,000 poems originally written in 25 languages by 600 poets from some 50 countries.”  But judging from the appalling amount of “haiku” that bear no resemblance to haiku in the North American mass media and the love-poems that all too often pass for haiku in Spanish (I can’t speak for other Western languages/cultures), haiku is in danger of losing its soul as it gains in popularity. In Vanatu, formerly the New Hebrides, a hodgepodge of English, Spanish, French, and local tongues – spoken by people engaged in the production and trade of trepang (dried sea cucumber) – is called by the localization of the French term for sea cucumber, bêche-de-mere (“worm of the sea;” pron.: beach-du-mar): Bislama.  Call it sea slug pidgin.  If haiku is









not to lose its distinct character and, likewise, turn into an amorphous disappointment, we must make an effort to define and keep alive the spirit of traditional haiku. (i qualify my outrageous remark in the footnotes, for i really do appreciate Creole.  My intent is to note that there are things only a vertically thick language can do) So, I hope all readers who think they know haiku, but are not fluent in Japanese, pay careful attention to the next paragraph.

In Japanese, a haiku is a one-line poem touching upon seasonal phenomena, natural or cultural of about seventeen syllabets (my term for uniformly short syllables that can be written with a single letter of a phonetic syllabary).  Aseasonal haiku do exist, but only as exceptions included with a body of properly seasoned work. Japanese do not separate their written words, but do recognize that syllabets usually sound best clumped in fives and sevens.  While 5-7-5 is the most common pattern, I doubt if it is found in even half of the haiku, for one also finds 12-5, 7-5-5, 5-5-7, 5-12 and others which, together, comprise a majority. There is, as everyone notices, no end-rhyme per se, but there is much more internal rhyme than is generally recognized, and most good poems have a crisp snap, or failing that, a sound suitable to the subject.  It is not enough to simply count syllabets. While Japanese do not recognize beat – they usually claim all their syllabets are equally stressed and equal in length (both things patently absurd) – I do.  I have found, independently of Blyth, who discovered it long before me, that Japanese haiku, even when the syllabet count exceeds the ideal (in old haiku, six and eight count clumps are fairly common) – usually have seven beats.







how translation?


In English, I find seven beats produces snappy poems of length roughly similar to the original. I generally use a three-line translation, not because it is correct – who can say what is correct given  the facts as I gave them above – or current,  but because it looks good when centered.  Unlike English, where a single horizontal line has no thingness, a single line haiku, written vertically in Japanese, looks like an objéct, a work of art suitable for hanging. This enjoyable visual experience is what I would reproduce in English. When possible, I use an AAB rhyme scheme, with Emily Dickinson vowel rhymes rather than full rhymes when possible, for I feel this best approximates the internal rhyme of the original.  Less often, I use what is almost de rigor in Brazil, ABA. But I don’t hold myself to rhyme, because traditional haiku is not that consistent, and no rhyme – or, at least, nothing obvious – often works.  In this case, the translation usually needs something else: extreme brevity (the beat compressed into few syllables), a good punch line, wording that is astonishingly apt. . 

(japanese removed for browsers that cannot take it)
kawara to mo ishi to mo sate wa namako kana
– raizan (1653-1716)
(tile-neither stone-neither, well, then, sea slug
!/?/ǿ) # 7

natural rorschach

 neither tile
nor stone: what, then
a sea slug?



As a quick perusal of this book will show, I make more than one translation of many poems (An example: paraversing a haiku about silence)  This is not just laziness or a failure of nerve (something unforgivable, for the selection and translation of haiku is a test of editing ability).   Multiple translation is often the only way to translate all the faces of a poly-faceted poem in a witty, which is to say, brief manner, when trying to squeeze all the information into one poem would kill it, and not including that information – and this is, regretfully, almost standard with haiku translation today – would constitute negligence with respect to the intent of the original.  Multiple translation is also fun.  The playful polymath Douglas F. Hofstadter built a huge book around a score or more translations of a single poem, Le Ton beau de Marot.  There is much more to this art of paraversing, as I call it, but I will not waste words on something the reader will soon discover anyway.   Let me just say that Titles, likewise, are added to supply information otherwise lost; although I must confess to playing with them when my wit so wills.  I do not think it irresponsible for it is obvious.  Using “Rorschach” to title a seventeenth century haiku fools no-one.  (The above description of haiku and translation is taken from Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! where it includes an equal volume of footnotes to elucidate and entertain.  Any one who wishes to quote is advised to read the notes in the book to get the whole picture, first.)

print from yehon haikai meiwa 10 by nakagawa ____?