Poetry Wednesday: Haiku (and a contest)

Among my most treasured possessions are three books my father brought back with him from Japan, where he taught in the American School in Tokyo some years before he met my mother.

One is a 1958 reprint of The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, which smells of soap and herbs for some reason, and the second is a miniature edition of The Tokaido Fifty Three Stations by Ichiryusai Hiroshige, with accordion pages of beautiful art and a cover held together with tiny ivory clasps.*

The third is An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern by Asatarō Miyamori, who published several marvelous translations of Japanese tales and traditions—if you’re at all interested in Japanese literary traditions, read his stuff.  He takes the time to explain things and it makes sense when he does.

This particular anthology was published in 1932 and looks it—the book is in good shape, but the jacket is shredded and the cardboard box that holds the book is a bit worse for wear.  But none of that matters.

This book holds some of the most beautiful, poignant, earthy, funny, delicate, and ultimately human poems I’ve ever read, all  in encapsulated form.

Each page—and there are well over 800—holds one or two verses written first in one of  (or a combination of) the three Japanese scripts, then printed in a form of rōmaji** and finally translated into English.

Native English-speakers might not recognize the verses as the haiku most of us wrote in school, carefully counting off seventeen syllables on our fingers and forming them into three careful lines.

That’s partially because Japanese haiku are formed of on, or sounds, rather than syllables, so the scansion isn’t quite the same.  Also, Japanese haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line while English haiku have separate lines to parallel the phrases of the Japanese form—which isn’t something that would have worried Asatarō Miyamori.

So, instead of something we might see from an American elementary school student (or someone whose poetic talent is about that level, cough, ahem)—

My cat had kittens:
White, black, grey and orange striped—
No more cats!  says Mom.

—the anthology’s verse look more like this one, by Shiki:

How terrible!  Cats’ lovemaking
Has damaged the stone-fence

This seems a good place to mention that while Asatarō Miyamori  thoroughly explained many of the cultural references and even the poet’s personal preferences for most of these haiku—why people and places are significant, why this particular poet might have used a horse instead of a crane, the ambient weather in October, etc.—he didn’t bother to say a single word about this one, which I’m sure he thought even the dimmest gaikokujin should understand.

I’m actually in awe of how much he didn’t have to explain along the way, which is a credit to his skills as a translator.  To put it mildly, Japanese haiku don’t translate well into English, because—newsflash—Japanese and English are completely different languages, stemming from several different cultures.  Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that they don’t directly translate well, so there’s a lot of room for interpretation:

I found, for example, over thirty-seven translations for one traditional and quite famous haiku,*** written by Matsuo Bashô about three hundred years ago:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

In my book, Asatarō Miyamori supplies two or three translations for this.^  This one is solely his:

The ancient pond!^^
A frog plunged—splash!

The other appears to be the standard English version  that pops up in most of the books and online sources I’ve seen, in various lines combinations. I don’t know if it’s his original work or not, but I think it’s a nice little verse:

The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water.

But the versions run the gamut from Robert Aitken’s basic word-for-word translation:

Old pond!
frog jumps in
water’s sound

To Tim Chilcott’s more lyrical interpretation:

ancient is the pond —

suddenly a frog leaps — now!

the water echoes

To the minimalist approach of James Kirkup:




And one by Alfred Marks that’s just a bit . . . off-form . . . but y’all know how I love a limerick:

There once was a curious frog
Who sat by a pond on a log
And, to see what resulted,
In the pond catapulted
With a water-noise heard round the bog.

Poetry—it is subjective.

But most traditional English haiku—not all, but this post is getting long enough—that were written by poets who wanted the verses to be recognized as haiku tend to follow a specific pattern.

Seventeen syllables, arranged in three lines:  five-seven-five:

This post is getting
Far too long for my comfort
Explain contest now?

And that, my friends, is what I’d like you to do, please.

You have until next week to choose a topic from the following list, write one English-form haiku concerning that topic (the mood is up to you), and share it in the comments or e-mail me (my contact info is in the upper left sidebar):

—An Animal or Plant
—A Person
—A food you dislike
—An everyday act

If you take me up on this, and if your haiku follows the proper form, you will be entered into a drawing to win the standard-sized mug of your choice from CafePress—or, if you prefer not to give me your postal address, the equivalent amount in a CafePress online gift certificate.^^^

As usual, I’m not judging quality, just your willingness to try it.

Did I mention that haiku means “play verse”?

Come play!


*Forgive the weird tilt of this image—I took it, so it’s a miracle there’s not a thumb in it.

**Japanese converted into Roman letters, which gives me at least a quarter-chance of correctly pronouncing anything more complicated than hai or sake.

***And a marvelous explanation by Robert Aitken of how traditional haiku can be interpreted.

^Not to mention the thought processes of Bashô himself.  This book seriously rocks.

^ya is a transitional punctuation word, more or less, which help mark out the phrases of a one-line haiku and also lend a certain impact.  English doesn’t have these words, which is why English haiku use those separate lines I mentioned, and why Asatarō Miyamori (and Robert Aitken) chose to substitute an exclamation point.  This is also why I wouldn’t be a translator for twice the going UN salary, even if I knew enough of a non-English language to apply. which I really, really don’t.

^^Your privacy is as important as mine and I promise I will never supply your information to anyone without your permission.  In fact, I can almost guarantee I’ll be unable to do so five minutes after I send it to CafePress, because I tend to spontaneously disappear addresses—even if I just had the piece of paper in my hand—about ten minutes after I receive them.  It’s a superpower.


44 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Haiku (and a contest)

    • I must say, having made the decision to give up chocolate (as soon as my current stash runs out), I will treat myself instead to dark, bittersweet bon-bons of haiku. Thanks for kicking off the withdrawal process. Tasty.

  1. Personally I love the minimalist interpretation.

    I’ll be coming back with mine. I just have to return to earth first.

    • Thanks, Averil. Been wanting to write about that loon for months. I thought it had to be a Woolfian essay (“The Death of a Loon”)*, but now I can scratch it off my “to-write” list.

      Haiku: the busy writer-housewife’s time-saving tool. Who knew?

      *I’ve seen Woolf’s essay as both “Death of a Moth” and Death of the Moth.” This is news to me. Who’s messing with this title and why?

    • John, I wouldn’t know which one to pick—the fawn is so lovely, but the starling one is my kind of haiku. Then again, the weather one is spot on . . .

    • I love this one, but I don’t think it quite keeps to the form. I assert that LOL is one syllable, not three.

    • I think this is a subjective call. I immediately saw LOL as three syllables, but if she’d used LOLcat, it would have been two.

      I was worried that she was using a food she likes, but then realized that she was using the POV of a LOLcat, which is an animal. If I’m right, this is about an everyday act as well.

      So I’m calling it good.

      Plus, she is my SIL, and therefore is ineligible for the drawing. I’ll get her a mug for her birthday. 🙂

      • For the record, LOL is three syllables. One “lolls” about. And I assert it’s “El Oh El Cats.” Maybe it’s a regional thing.

        And to edit:
        Om nom nom non gulp
        Mmm I CAN has cheezburger!
        LOL haiku

        My primary function in life is comic relief. Sadly, I’m just not that good at it 😀

        • Your primary function is to provide your nieces and nephews with a dog on a temporary basis so that their parents don’t have to provide a permanent one. And you do that very well. 😉

          I like this haiku even better—you can use my Queen of the Known Universe mug tonight, if you want.

    • Beautiful, Lisa!

      And thanks for all the tweeting about this contest! I have five e-mail entries so far on top of these here and John’s post.

  2. I’m leaving today
    on a plane
    Maybe forever?

    First time in 7 years. No kids. No husband. Just me. It’s true. I may never come home.

  3. Okay, I probably can’t enter because I’m in England, but I’m dying to tell this to someone, so why not in a haiku?

    Did it ev’ry day
    Do not do it any more
    Four days no smoking.

    • Sure you can enter! I use CafePress because they’ll mail stuff all over the world.

      And congratulations, Sarah—I know how tough is it to quit, even for four hours!

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