I’ve never understood the ‘point’ behind haiku in English. Conceptually, I can grasp the idea that it’s just another form of poetry with its own rules – in this case, the restricting yourself to 17 syllables. (I’m referring to the looser form of haiku in English that isn’t necessarily associated with seasons and metaphors.) What I don’t get is how one can definitively count ’17 syllables’ for the purposes of haiku. I consider that in English the number of syllables in any given word can be ‘variable’ depending on what dialect of English it’s spoken in, unlike other tonal languages such as Japanese where the number of syllables for any character is fixed. What, then, is the bleeping point of haiku with this straitjacket if not just an exercise in control – and in showing off?
That is, until I read an excellent essay The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield (exclusive to Amazon Kindle readers as a Kindle Single) which explains the essence of haiku through the life and work of Matsuo Bashō. I highly recommend this as a read if you like haiku / poetry, or even if you don’t because Hirshfield does such a good job of demonstrating how haiku is tied to higher concepts of Zen Buddhism and how the beauty of much of haiku gets lost in translation.
There’s one Bashō haiku that particularly stood out for me in its ingenuity.
looking exactly like
blue flag iris: blue flag iris
inside the water’s shadow
kakitsubata nitari ya nitari mizu no kage
I’ll let Hirshfield explain how ingenious this poem is in her own words:
The main point in the original Japanese is the poem’s mirroring construction: the two identical words at the haiku’s center replicate both visually and in sound what is being described. In Japanese, which is written vertically the visual onomotopoeia [sic] is even more clear; a small “cutting-word”, ya, creates the slim line of water dividing the flower stem’s two apparently equal stems.
That’s just brilliant, innit?! I desperately want to look at the original Japanese version now to see how magical this looks. (I’ve tried searching online for this, without success. I’d appreciate it if someone can post a link in the comments section if you do find it.)
I have an incredibly love-hate relationship with poetry in general. When it’s done right and is clever – like the example above – I can appreciate it and enjoy it. I also think that a poem should, in its own way, tell a story; perhaps that’s why The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is by far my most favourite poem. (The other reason being this poem is a major plot point in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.)
What really turns me off from poetry sometimes is the sense of entitlement that poets and poetry lovers have, as if prose is somehow ‘easier’ to write or ‘worse’ at expressing thoughts and feelings. Good longform prose is hard to write and edit, just as clever poetry isn’t easy to write. Well-written poetry can be used to communicate complex feelings of a poet, but sometimes, poetry is merely used as a shortcut to writing less and yet still pretending that makes it better than prose that runs into a similar number of lines.