Saying It in 17 Syllables
A fallen petal
Flies back to its branch:
Ah! a butterfly!
What a delicate picture captured in just a few words! In fact, in Japanese, it is in just 17 syllables. Yes, ever the masters of miniaturization, the Japanese celebrate their land and people in what is known as the haiku, a three-line, nonrhyming form of poetry.
Originally, haiku was part of a 31-syllable, five-line verse form called waka or tanka. By the Middle Ages, aspiring poets were fond of using waka in a sort of literary game: one giving the first three lines and another matching them with two more. In time, the opening three-line form became popular on its own, and thus was born the haiku.
To Construct a “Haiku”
Haiku is a lesson in brevity. The first and last lines are five syllables in length and the middle one is seven. Traditionally, each haiku contains the name of a season or a word to convey the time of the year. “Snow” makes one think of winter, “frog” or “blossom” calls out spring, while the word “heat” can plunge the reader right into the middle of a sweltering summer day. Yes, the expert “haikuist” can recreate the mood in just a syllable or two.
In front of the door
Old bamboo blinds hanging.
Can you visualize the old farmhouse? Barley grain is left out front to dry. Over the door are hung bamboo blinds, much faded by the sun of bygone harvests.
Called by some ‘the poetry of sensation,’ a well-composed haiku can make the reader feel the setting.
Snail, my little man
Slowly, ah, very slowly
Climb up Mount Fuji.
Just imagine that scene. Towering over 12,000 feet [3,700 m] above sea level, Mount Fuji rises abruptly, and the surrounding foothills pale into nothing. To reach her top is no mean feat, and puny man must climb just like a snail, ever so slowly. You can almost feel the aching limbs!
Haiku poets, like Issa Kobayashi of the early 19th century, saw humor in everyday life, albeit somewhat on the dark side. This is reflected in his haiku:
The change of clothes
But the same lice of my journeying.
These haiku examples all carry the traditional references to nature and season. They enhance the reader’s feeling for the flora and fauna, the seasonal changes, the delicate scenery, and a host of other details about the land and its people. Without describing his own sentiments, the poet arouses the reader’s feelings by his masterful choice of a few words. What a beautiful use of the gift of language!
Teaching With “Haiku”
The simplicity of haiku makes it a ready introduction to poetry for anyone. Some teachers feel that haiku is a beneficial first step into creative writing. Also, the delicate treatment of nature and the seasons causes the student to be more conscious of the world around him. And taking such a close look at the beauty of creation can move one to a deeper appreciation of the Creator.
A kindergarten teacher in Osaka, Japan, had some rewarding experiences in teaching haiku to her young pupils. Little ones aged three to five learned about a hundred haiku in a school year. The result was that these children were observed to be “more appreciative of nature and considerate towards animals.” A happy result in this age of frenetic entertainment dominated by fantasy!
It might be noted here that some professionals feel that to excel in haiku, they must get into the religious aspects, such as Zen Buddhism and meditation. However, the general public in Japan learns haiku simply as a part of Japanese literature, and that is what it will always be for them.
“Haiku” Goes Abroad
Though born, bred, and cultivated in Japan, haiku has gained a wide reputation as the world’s shortest poetic form. In the late 1950’s, a growing interest in haiku developed in the West, especially in the United States, where there are several English-language haiku publications. A teacher in California, for example, found to her delight that her pupils grasped the basics of haiku quickly. This is one student’s first poem:
From the mountain
Slowly goes to the stars.
Not a bad effort for a young child!
Making its way to the Third World, haiku is also being composed in Africa. The Senegalese have proved to be sensitive poets. Here is an example of their work:
The folds in the riverbed
Under the blazing sun.
How poignantly this haiku expresses the intensity of the African sun. There, people live close to nature and consciously feel its power and beauty. They make excellent “haikuists.”
Of course, when it comes to translating haiku from Japanese into any other language, the problem of form presents itself. Whereas the five-seven-five form in Japanese is tidy and trim, the same syllable combination can prove to be quite a mouthful in another language. Thus, some teachers advocate ignoring the syllable count or even writing in just two lines. Others favor retaining the three-line form, making the middle one slightly longer. Here is a prize-winning non-Japanese haiku, perfect in form and content:
A bitter morning:
Sparrows sitting together
Without any necks.
It tells us that it is a cold morning in winter. Sparrows huddle together, perhaps on a telephone wire, each with its neck tucked in its feathery shoulders to keep warm. The whole picture conveyed in a single breath-length!
That is where the growing attraction of haiku lies—the challenge of expressing the beauty of nature, capturing the minute details of a scene and stirring the emotions of the reader in just three lines and 17 syllables. You will find them all in the haiku.
By Awake! correspondent in Japan
g89 1/8 pp. 12-14 Saying It in 17 Syllables