Haiku should be just
small stones dropping down a well
with a small splash
- James Kirkup (8)
Haiku or the complexity of subtlety
As a big fan of etymology, I was captivated by this book's introduction. It is renga, a form of collaborative poetry. Poets, in groups or by themselves, improvised connecting stanzas in order to create long poems. To sum up, by the 16th century, haikai-no-renga, a sort of "comic linked verse", was hipper than black glasses and courier bags today, all in contrast to the formality of the "language of the gods" of the time.a clear and detailed recount of the history of haiku. The present enthralling subject we are tediously discussing here—I suggest a considerable amount of coffee in your system or ignoring these couple of paragraphs—has its origin in 12th-century
According to this book, "haikai became a little more than a display of wit and scatology" (7). Not what you were expecting, I assume. Nonetheless, everything changed when Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) appeared on stage and elevated haikai to a dignified level; luckily, also keeping a subtle humor and the element of surprise intact. At that time, the opening 5-7-5 stanza of renga, called hokku, contained what is known as kigo, a seasonal word. Another requirement was that it had to be something complete, an entity on its own. (Modern Japanese haiku does not strictly follow this tradition; I wouldn't know, I haven't read anything yet.) Subsequently, hokku began to appear as an independent poem. However, it wasn't until the late 19th century that humanity became acquainted with the term "haiku", thanks to the arrival of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). "Hai in haikai means 'unusual' and ku denotes strophe, lines, stanza, verse" (8). The fact that you might know how to ask for directions to the nearest library or to order at a restaurant doesn't seem to be such a great deal, all of a sudden. Moving on.
After the enlightening introduction of this book, I found some explanations about syllables and sounds and other scholarly amusing details. I prefer focusing on another side of its beauty. Because in such a brief piece of writing exists an entire universe. A story, a picture, a truly evocative image, sheer wit and humor, dichotomies represented by diverse aspects of human nature, the act of giving voice to seemingly minor details of everyday life; all open to interpretation. I have read a couple of books about haiku before but it wasn't until this moment that I began to see a more complete panorama. For instance, a haiku poem includes specific words and images that assist the reader in order to understand the story: what, where and especially when, the most reminiscent part.
This anthology consists of several haiku written by poets from the 15th century until the beginning of the 20th century. Each translation is followed by the initials of the translator (they are listed at the beginning of the book). So, regarding structure and organization, this book is flawless. Bowers' footnotes are unbelievably helpful; lifesavers, dear reader. They include insightful remarks about the context in which some of the finest haiku were written. If you read something like...
kochira muke / ware mo sabishiki / aki no kureWill you turn toward me?I am lonely too,this autumn evening.
...and then go to the note, you could find a less sentimental or existential origin for such poignant lines by Bashō. Even so, we have the liberty to assimilate them as we need them to be.
On another note, and as seen in the quote above, these haiku are written in English and also rōmaji (nope, there was nothing I could do to know more). Some of the most famous haiku have multiple translations below, so you can take pleasure in comparing a same idea and the different ways of expressing it. Different shades of unadulterated beauty.
The book opens with Iio Sōgi (1421-1502).
mono goto ni / oi wa kokoro no / ato mo nashieverything that washas vanished from my aged heartleaving not a trace
A moving depiction of a man being led towards the end.
Then, Sōchō (1448-1532). Actually, a renga that began with Sōgi.
Sōgi: nao nani nare ya / hito no koishikiSōchō: kimi o okite / akazu mo tareo / omou ranWhat could be the cause of it –that I should feel such love again?While I still have you,why think of anyone else?Why this discontent?
Two different translations were included about that one. All equally stunning.
When thinking about haiku poetry, one immediately remember the great four: Bashō, Buson, Issa and Shiki. However, this book pays also attention to women and their sometimes playful, sometimes heartbreaking verses. (One feels the need of praising a book that acknowledges the work of women writers. Alarming.)
Shōfū-ni (1669-1758), a lament for Basho's death.
haikai no / sode mo Bashō mo / kareno kanaBoth the haikai sleeve and the plantain withered in the field
Takeda [Tome] Ukō-ni (1687-1743)
waga ko nara / tomo ni wa yaraji / yoru no yukiIf my child, I wouldn't let him go with you in tonight's snow.
Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775)
tsuki mo mite / ware wa kono yo o / kashiku o kanaI've seen the moonI sign my letter to the world“Respectfully yours”
A deathbed verse conveying a sense of quietness and gratitude, surrounded by a slightly eerie mist of sorrow?
somekanete / kata yama momiji / kata omoiNo autumn colors tint that side of the mountain: a one-sided love
A haunting line.
After quoting a vast number of writers, the book ends with the reformer. The last haiku master.
yomei / ikubaku ka aru / yo mijikashihow much longeris my life?a brief night . . .
The magnificence of simplicity
Centuries have gone by, a world that has changed too many times. And yet, certain things will never cease to be a cause of disquiet in ourselves. All things that I have seen inside the pages of this book. A book made of time and contemplation.
A tormented childhood, infinite existential doubts and voids that cannot be filled, worldly aspirations, death of the beloved, desirable solitude and overpowering isolation, the inexorable passing of time, the monotony of work, work that vainly tries to suppress the ordinary sense of emptiness; the comforting beauty of nature which eventually portrays a much needed haven for wandering souls. Nature. Out there, on the grass. Where the ravishing camellias bloom. There, on the land of the rising sun. On our land under the same sky.
A cherry blossom, a dewy chrysanthemum, a blue heron flying by, a hill whitened by the presence of the moon, a pond. A disconnection. Thoughts, crushing. The silence of the mundane, everywhere. As the person reaches a longed-for clarity to face the world again. Waiting for such a time. Waiting for that moment.
Nothing will disturb the silent tranquility of that moment.