Arise from sleep, old cat, And with great yawns and stretching . . . Amble out for love. (Issa)
The poems we were exposed to in high school—those of Lord Byron, Shelly, T. S. Elliot, and even Robert Frost—left me uninspired, even when gussied-up in iambic pentameter. The failure is mine, not theirs. So it came as a surprise when I was moved by Japanese haiku poetry from readings by Jean Shepherd shortly after high school graduation, and I remain influenced by them even today.
Haiku poetry that flowered in seventeenth century Japan was rediscovered here in the coffeehouses of the beat generation. Many of you remember them from those days. For those who do not, this is a brief primer that may lead you to find your own favorites.
Poetry in any language is the expression of artistic views within artificial constraints. In English, the constraints are a repeating pattern of accented syllables (meter) and rhyming ends of designated lines. But those constraints do not work in Japanese. Japanese has no accented syllables, so meter is not possible, and all of the syllables end with vowels, so rhyming is too easy to be a constraint.
Instead, the haiku constrains the number of lines and syllables. A haiku poem consists of three lines, five syllables in the first, seven in the second, and five in the third. That’s it—seventeen syllables in all. A complete haiku poem is easy to remember, easy to slip into a pocket of your mind to be recalled in reflective moments.
How can any profound thought possibly be expressed in only seventeen syllables? Of necessity, haiku records what Wordsworth calls those “spots of time,” those brief moments of special significance that capture the bigger picture. It only suggests and depends on the reader to supply their own details. The season is usually implied, an efficient technique that conveys the weather, the foliage, the wildlife, and all of the emotions traditional to that season. The poem often concludes with a paradoxical statement, leaving the reader to work out the connection. The reader is an integral part of the poem, working along with the poet, rather than passively absorbing only the poet’s thoughts. A specific haiku poem for me can be very different for you.
Keep in mind, however, that reaction to a poem should be spontaneous, like that for a joke. If you have to explain it, even to yourself, it looses its point.
Silent the old town. The scent of flowers floating And evening bell. (Basho)
The season is summer. It is getting dark and the town’s activity has settled down. You can smell flowers coming from somewhere unseen. Then suddenly, the sound of the bell, not the sharp, cutting sound of our church bells, but the deep, sustained gong of a heavy, bronze temple bell struck by the end of a swinging log that would be heard at sundown in seventeenth century Japan when this poem was written. The low, drawn-out sound is the aural equivalent of the sweet scent of the flowers, both floating by us on the still air and both emphasizing the silence of our passive calmness, the quiet of our own minds that allows the eternal to enter. We are the town that is silent. The gong and the scent is the eternal inside us.
And that opening haiku. Is Issa humorously describing a cat? Or is he describing our minds, habitually distracted by the perfectly normal search for pleasure? (Once you know Zen, spotting the symbolism is easy.)
Ah, I intended Never, never To grow old . . . Listen! New Year’s bell! (Jokun)
(In Japan, everyone counts their age from the previous New Year’s, so on New Year’s everyone becomes one year older by count.)