Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy Haiku New Year

Approaching new year, I was reading some seasonal Haiku and was inspired by the fact that in Japan it is traditional for boy to be given kites to fly on New Years Day. So I bought my son (and myself, truth be told) some new kites for the new year.

He reminded me I had actually bought him a kite for Epiphany last year - but we had not been successful in flying it, and it had languished in the garage.

I bought two kites, and imagined that he would prefer the tricky stunt kite variety. Instead, actually, he spent hours flying the traditional single-string kite I had bought (while I struggled to get the other aloft even for a few seconds). I was rewarded with his effusive thanks for giving him such a wonderful day! His delight recalled to mind my own happy days with a simple kite as a child. And it made me think about rituals.

Researching a little more into Japanese New Year traditions (since 1873, and the Meiji Restoration, celebrated on January 1 of the Gregorian calendar) there are a number of other traditions, which now I see make sense of various seasonal haiku I have read. Japanese celebrate many "firsts" of the New Year, such as "first sun" (hatsuhi), or "first sunrise" , "first laughter" (waraizome) and "first dream" (hatsuyume).
Other traditional rituals of new year in Japan include sending postcards (nengajo) addressed and handwritten calligraphically. Otoshidama refers to the custom of giving money to children, in small decorated envelopes called "pochibukuro". Mandarin oranges are also traditionally given away to spread happiness all around, as well as sticky rice cakes called "mochi". Bells are rung at midnight in Buddhist temples all around Japan, as a ritual eradication of sins of the previous year, ringing a total of 108 times each symbolic of the ridding of the 108 human sins in Buddhist theology.

Starting the New Year with a smile is considered a good sign. Well, my son was laughing with sheer delight flying the kite today. So no wonder Japanese traditionally fly kites (takoage) with their sons, and play shuttlecock (hanetsuki) with their daughters on New Year Day!

A print by Woodblock Print master Ando Hiroshige - Kite Flying, from his 100 Famous Views of Edo

Knowing all this then, helps underscore the humour in some of the poems of the third of the acknowledged "great" Haiku master's: Kobayashi Issa.

New Year’s Day— 
that I’m still on this journey 

in the New Year's sun...
my trashy hut.

a shiny-new year 
has come again... 
for my lice
First Month— 
recording the cash spent 
on sake

you’ve wrecked 
my year’s first dream! 
cawing crow

a beggar receives 
alms, the year’s first 

New Year’s kite— 
out of green leaves 
then back in

a trendy kite soars— 
a beggar’s hut

catching the kite’s tail
with his mouth... 

(Translations by David Lanoue)

All these thoughts inspire my own poetic reflection on the day.

Playing out the string,
and baiting the wind to bite:
joy of kite flying

Flutter of ribbon - kite tail 
Draws all eyes upward

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Milky Way over Sado Island

Nichiren going into exile on the island of Sado - Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The previous post on astronomical imagery, prompted the topic for this one.
ara-umi ya / sado ni yokotau /amanogawa
# 559 JR (but note she appears to have mistakenly placed this poem in summer 1689, whereas the reference to amanogawa - the Milky Way (Heaven's river) is generally an autumn seasonal reference)
cf # 409 BH - DLB
I first encountered this poem in the collection by Sam Hamill, where the translation was:
How wild the sea is,
and over Sado Island
the River of Heaven
Nice, but I didn't mark it as a favourite. I actually skipped over and highlighted the next poem in his book
Later, in the introduction to his book Basho's Haiku by David Landis Barnhill, I met it again:
Stormy sea-
stretching out over Sado,
Heaven's River
A quite similar translation, but what totally transformed the poem for me was the following commentary:
"Basho was standing on the western shores of Japan looking out upon the night sea. He was pausing on his long journey to the "deep north" of Japan, and he could hear the crashing of the waves. Miles beyond lay Sado Island. Sado was known as a place of riches, where gold was being mined. But even more it was known as a place where numerous people, including the Emperor Juntoku, the Buddhist leader Nichiren, and the great medieval No dramatist Zeami, had endured the endorsed solitude of exile. The poem begins with an exclamation of the violence and vastness of the water, the cutting word ya functioning somewhat like an exclamation point. then our consciousness is brought to a focus on the melancholy island, small in the cold sweep of ocean. The island lies in contrast to the ocean that surrounds it, yet it harbors centuries of the emotional storm of exile. Then our consciousness is pulled up and out across the sky, as Heaven's River (the Milky Way) reaches from horizon to horizon. As a metaphorical river, it flows in eternal tranquility above the storms of the sea and of human life, sparkling with a scattered brightness more pure than gold. Basho, the island, and everything on earth seem to be alone yet together under the stream of stars. Over the storm is silence; above the movement is a stillness that somehow suggests the flow of a river and of time; and piercing the darkness is the shimmering but faint light of stars."

Wow! With this contextual background, suddenly the poem speaks to me, captivates me, in a way closer to how the original readers of Basho's Journey to the Deep North must have known, enjoying the range of subtle  resonances. After reading this, I did internet searches of Sado Island, and found pictures of the island

Ono-game rock on Sado Island
photos of the sea and waves around Sado (taken by a monk!), 

Waves around Sado Island
and woodblock prints 

The priest Nichiren going into exile on Sado island, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

which show something of the significance of Sado Island to the Japanese. Indeed, it encouraged me to try my own translation, trying to capture more of the "backstory":
The sea is rough, but
over all, even Sado,
flows Heaven's River
Some additional translations of this poem can be found here.

This has been an experience that brings home the importance of taking time with reading Haiku. The temptation for a modern reader is, with such brief works, to skip from one to the next in the anthology, looking for that one which "grabs" you. But even in Basho's day, the works were almost always set in a context that helped frame the experience. For instance, much of Basho's work is preserved in his travel journals. There we read his prose (Haibun) preceding the poems almost as an introduction and commentary. 

So the lesson for me today is when reading translated Japanese Haiku (or translations from any other language) it is important for a haiku apprentice to spend time - not only exploring other translated versions of the poem, but also researching context and connotations.

Another aspect of Haiku culture that we English-speakers lack, is the culture of "group" appreciation of haiku. There certainly are Haiku groups in English speaking countries, but most people first experience haiku alone with a book. In Basho's time, and today, publishing Haiku was very much a public event, and people gathered to read and discuss the works of famous poets. In such groupings, different people could be counted to on pick up various references to ancient poems, to connotations of landscape etc and bring them to the attention of the group, so enhancing everyone's enjoyment. 

In the absence of local Haiku appreciation groups, the Internet could be a wonderful resource for haiku apprentices, to share insights into poems, old and new. Sadly, I am not aware of blogs or websites in English where Haiku is discussed in such a way. If any reader could direct me to such sites, I would greatly welcome their advice. Alternatively, depending on whether this blog itself garners much of a readership, I may try and modify the structure of the site to include a discussion forum.  

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Friday, December 28, 2012

Haiku Astronomy

Haiku poets of the past were frequently amateur astronomers. References abound in the works of the masters, to hashizukiyo - starry nights; ama-no-gawa - the milky way; and to tsuki - the moon, in all manner of phases; and tsukimi, the popular moon-viewing outings. These seasonal references usually speak in haiku of autumn.

Who can be surprised that the master haiku poets were so sensitive to the moon and stars - universally they speak to the human spirit, and even in an age of science and exploration, the enchantment of astronomy is enhanced, not lessened, by the discoveries made concerning the moon, the planets and the stars. My own bookshelf is lined with astronomy texts and picture books. Our household possesses several telescopes, and my youngest son, after viewing the moons of Jupiter with me through a small telescope several years ago, still aspires to become a professional astronomer.

Astronomy is not only poetry, it is also spirituality, and the heavens literally adorn the myths and symbols of all religions. So aspiring poets - especially haiku poets - have every reason to look skyward for inspiration. Or inward, to the poetic memory - perhaps resonating through ancestral heritage, from times when our forebears sat around campfires and looked upward - truly looked, truly saw the cosmic theatre unfolding over them.

A little over a week ago, the world lost a great soul - Sir Patrick Moore. With his rotund frame and trademark monocle, and with his moonlike beaming face and greeting, for two generations he was the face of popular astronomy in the English speaking world. I had been faintly acquainted with the works of Sir Patrick for years, through books on amateur and popular astronomy. However in recent years the enthusiasm of my son, and glossy magazines such as BBC "The Sky at Night" - the title of his monthly TV astronomy program, hosted almost without a single break for over 50 years - brought him as a regular visitor into our household. And a very welcome visitor he was. The jovial uncle my children never had. Always interesting, always enthusiastic, always encouraging, always humble before other people's knowledge. He seemed virtually a force of nature itself, a tree in the ancient forest, a star in the heavens. My son wept when I had to break the news to him that Sir Patrick had passed away. I composed this poem in his honour:

Light across the dark
Turns eyes and minds to the sky;
Vale Sir Patrick

Tonight my son and I watched the latest episode of Sky at Night, which was recorded and hosted by Sir Patrick only a few days before he died. His manner was so unafflicated, his delight and enthusiasm unfailing. As he spoke to the camera, promising the topics of next month's program, I could not help but be moved and recall another poem of Basho:

Nothing in the song
Of cicadas suggests they
Are about to die

yagate shinu / keshiki wa miezu / semi no koe
(# 663 JR)

(It is summer now, where I live, and cicada song is almost an anthem of the season. In Japan, the songs of insects are highly prized and considered beautiful, and insects are even kept in cages, the same way some in the West keep birds like canaries, for their singing. For this reason, although my translation is based on Sam Hamill, but I have chosen to use "song" for "koe", where he has used "cry")

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

I too am a Wanderer, a Plodder

I'm a wanderer
So now call me by that name;
First winter shower

(My translation and rewriting of Basho:

Tabibito to / waga na yobare n / hatsu shigure

(# 327 JR)

Also accessible in Japanese and Romanized forms from Wikisource)

Written in 1687 at the start of one of his walking tours (poetic pilgrimages, really) this poem opens his travel journal,  "Knapsack Journey".

Obviously the season is winter, the "hatsu shigure" being a standard winter seasonal reference. But in the context, the shower of rain might be seen,  by a Western reader anyway,  to almost represent baptism - the traditional ceremony for bestowing a name on a child. For Basho it seems he senses a new and different life about to commence and so calls for himself a new name.

This therefore seems to be a particularly appropriate poem to begin my training journey with: my name too is wanderer! (Actually, it is Strider).

Translation of poetry is notoriously difficult. Translating a haiku from Japanese to English is an even more difficult task (some commentators say impossible). The structure of Japanese is totally unlike English, and even in everyday speaking much is left to context and the interpretation of the listener. So translating a poetic form which is even more deliberately  abbreviated and suggestive than normal language is obviously going to be a very personal matter. But having a variety of translations can be very instructive to the haiku apprentice, since they highlight some of the subtle variations in tone and meaning which a master haiku poet can capture. I suggest haiku apprentices obtain,  or at least try and access,  several  versions of English translations of the Japanese masters, and even a Japanese dictionary to see the different possible translations of the words chosen by the master poets. There are books in English which give both the Japanese script and its romanization which are invaluable to the serious apprentice. There are also free online sites.

Returning to our poem, in the translation by Lucien Stryk,  for "tabibito to" he chooses instead of "wandering" or "travelling" the phrase "I plod on", which is a delightful choice of words with another fresh and suggestive set of connotations that speaks particularly to me at this time. For quite apart from the coincidental near echo of "plod" and "blog", my keeping a blog might seem to be a rather plodding approach to learning haiku. Wonderful! In fact, that seems how we best learn anything worthwhile and valuable in life - "the way of the child": taking the hand of a parent and plodding was how I learned to walk, after all.

In fact plodding was also literally Basho's way to learn what he valued most: Haiku, Zen, and indeed Living. Rambling through the world. He is renowned for his travels, and in his own day his travel journals were popular sensations among Japanese readers - mixing the erudite and suggestive prose "Haiban" description of his journeying, with Haiku called up from the situations or settings. For Basho, his destination was secondary; his primary goal was the journey. His travelling was learning - learning how life is. Life is not truly known from comfortable armchairs and warm fireplaces (or from Google Earth, as some might explore the world today), but from actual physical engagement - like feeling the cold rain of early winter on your face, soaking through your clothes, into your boots.

If I am not yet at the winter of my own life, I am certainly in late summer or the early autumn. The coldness stings, and reminds this traveller to check his priorities. I am inspired by this poem and by my own memories to make this poetic response:

The child lifts his hands
and squeals with joy as he flies
over the puddles

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Haiku Apprentice

What is Haiku and Why do I Care?

Haiku is one of the most recognizable and popular poetic forms around the world.

It originated in Japan from a pedigree of courtly refinement, and its precursors took shape as early as the 8th century.  Educated members of the Japanese Imperial Court entertained themselves and each other, as well as demonstrated their refinements, through their engaging in artistic and literary pursuits, especially poetry. The traditional forms of "waka" and literary games of "renga" - with their opening verse or "hokku" - were transformed by the 17th century poet Bashō into stand-alone poems that have ever since been recognized as literary jewels. The name "haiku" was actually invented and applied to the works of Bashō and following, by an early 20th century Japanese poet and literary critic, Shiki.

The classic characteristics of "traditional" haiku in Japanese are:
  • they are written in 17 'on' (the Japanese equivalent of English syllables), with 3 phrases structured into 5-7-5 on.
  • there is a juxtaposition of elements or ideas in the poem, separated by a "kireji" or "cutting word".
  • the poem is identifiably set at a particular time of year, through the inclusion of characteristic "seasonal references" or "kigo".
Although it originated in Japan centuries ago, the format has been adapted and transplanted by people all around the world as a form matching their poetic needs and desires.

Haiku in English

There have been numerous attempts by English-speaking enthusiasts, poets, and even literary and poetic associations, to define how "Haiku" should be written in English.

Poetry in English-speaking countries has become increasingly professionalized, and self-proclaimed occupational "Poets" would have us believe they possess special skills or insights for capturing and recording such encounters.

Notwithstanding these efforts, in English "Haiku" has become extremely popular among what I would like to call "personal poets". That is, among people who are thoughtful in their encounters with the world around them, and who recognize - or simply feel - the need to crystallize those encounters in emotive language that can be recalled in the future, and even shared with other mindful people. 

Such "personal poets" are free to explore the poetic impulse that Bashō turned into haiku, and find the English form that can catch and hold that impulse for them. 

In my opinion, literary structures exist solely to assist people express their ideas, not to bind them. Since haiku is not a native poetic form in English, we have more freedom to experiment. 

In some cases poets have found the discipline of a syllabic structure such as 5-7-5 eminently suited to their needs, and have written beautiful and profound records of their poetic encounters. Others have preferred not to be restricted to a particular syllabic count, but retained the triple-phrasal movement for their poems. And still others have written brief poems to record their encounters in the world, simply in a single line (which actually matches the written appearance of Japanese haiku, since these are written vertically in Japanese characters in a single line).

It seems to me that the "fact" of writing "Haiku" in English derives solely from the intent of the poet. If we are wanting to write "a Haiku" type of poem, then so we are. But it doesn't really matter what we call it, since the important thing is the quality of our poem. Did we capture the experience? How well? How lyrically? (or how brutally? or how comically?) With what connotations and allusions? With whom will we share it? Ourself alone, or with others?

Poetry and Mindful Living


Poetry is a natural manifestation of mindful living - the thoughtful encounter between humans: with their hopes, desires and loves; and the cosmos, in all its manifestations. Poetry is therefore part of human nature. To be "a poet" is the birthright of every thinking and feeling human person, not the exclusive profession of a self-proclaimed elite.

Haiku, as such a brief and immediate form of poetry, is particularly suitable for fostering a continual, yet deep appreciation of life in all manifestations. 

Such, at least, is the opinion of many people who have had the pleasure of encountering masterful Haiku poems - translations from Japanese, or original haiku by native English poets.  And such is power of these works to delight and enchant, that many who take the time to truly enter the works of a Haiku poet, find themselves also desiring to capture and record their own experiences in the haiku form.

A Haiku Apprenticeship

That, indeed, has been my experience. Over the past 9 months I have been making the determined effort to write at least 1 haiku each day. And by continually reading the works of the acknowledged masters of the art (in translation) I find myself inspired, indeed enlightened.

The purpose of this blog is to apprentice myself to such master Haiku poets, taking the time to record my reactions to some of their works, and imbibe, as it were, their techniques. It is not to promote my own poems, which will in general remain entirely private, but to make those private poems better - in my own mind.

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice