The World in a Haiku

Silent the old town
the scent of flowers
floating
And evening bell
-Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), translated by Jane Reichhold

Haiku condenses. Haiku magnifies. If haiku speaks of a flower, it doesn’t compare the poet to a flower or the world to a flower. It says, the world is a flower. The world is in the flower petal. The details are refined by the poet’s imagination, who pours the whole experience into seventeen syllables. Haiku is the essence.

Discontented
Violets have dyed
The hills also
-Shiba Sonome (17th century), translated by Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri.

Of all the poetry forms, haiku has been the one that most intrigued me. I remember reading the compilation of Matsuo Bashō’s poems as a teenager and marveling how precisely the 17th century Japanese poet conjured up the scene for me. I too heard the frog jump into the water and I too felt the slippery green moss on the rough stones of the old pond. I too was a Zen monk in that instance.

Old temple pond
A frog jumps in
A splash

Haiku’s roots are in the medieval Japanese court’s poetical gatherings when the literatis shared verses and completed their rivals’ stanzas, although arguably the origins of such a form are even older. Bashō was the one who elevated the form of linked verse into a standalone poem, then called hokku. Only in the 19th century was hokku renamed haiku by another celebrated poet, Masaoka Shiki. Yet, it struck me recently that haiku has much in common with the avant-garde of the 20th century when painters like Kazimir Malevich and poets like Velemir Khlebnikov sought to refine art to the absolute, to the essence, stripping away the unnecessary and inessential.

A pittance is all I need!
a crust of bread
a drop of milk
And this sky
these clouds!
-Velemir Khlebnikov, 1916, my own translation

In haiku the focus is on the absolute–the beauty is in small details, the longing resides in the sound of the tolling bell, the feeling of time slipping away in the frost on chrysanthemum leaves.

Morning snow
where can I throw away
the tea leaves?
-Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), translated by Lenore Mayhew

Haiku can seem dainty, but the impression is mostly reinforced by translations that strip away the complex semantics and visual structure of the Japanese language. The characters in Japanese are usually comprised of several elements that have their own inherent meaning. So, a character for the color burgundy is 葡萄色. The first two characters in it stand for “grape” budou, but here they are read as “ebi”, which means “shrimp.” The third character means “color.” At once the word suggests the purple of ripe grapes and the vermillion red of a cooked shrimp shell. The color itself is between burgundy and purple. Then Japanese is full of homonyms. Matsu means pine as well as to wait. The characters for pine and waiting are different, but in the context of a poem mentioning pine also implies waiting, longing.

Yet, even with the limitations that all translations–transformations–bring, haiku retains its effect.

See the heavy leaf
on the silent windless day
falls of its own will.
-Nozawa Bonchō (1640-1714)

We admire nature, but the haiku poets look at nature in a more intense way than most of us do. They feel its slightest movements and changes in a dramatic way. This idea might seem surprising, considering how introspective and serene the world of many haiku seems, but look closer. Haiku is complex. More so than it may appear at first glance.

I got drunk, a sleep.
And wept on the dream.
Wild cherry blossoms.
-Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902)

Just like Malevich’s Black Square (1915) is not simply a geometric shape colored in a dark pigment, but a representation of a quintessence as the artist saw it. Underneath it, it conceals a colorful and complex design.

Not yet spring
Ice is still upon the rocks
Yet kisses are bitter
-Chiyo-ni, translated by Jane Reichhold

Against the mystery of life, its complexity, our inability to grasp it, haiku is one way to make sense of what we can observe. And a chance to get closer to beauty. Even as the poets speak of the evanescent and the transient, they allow us to get close to the real and the permanent.

Extra: Those Women who Write Haiku by Jane Reichhold explores the writing of Japanese female poets, like Chiyo-ni and Shiba Sonome mentioned in this article. It’s available as a free download and is much recommended. If you read in French, please take a look at Du rouge aux lèvres : Haïjins japonaises, Anthologie by Dominique Chipot, Makoto Kemmoku, etc. The original Japanese is shown alongside the French translation.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin: 1st and 2nd images. 3rd image, Suprematist works by Malevich, Petrograd, 1915.

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39 Comments

  • Karen A: Thank you for a beautiful post! Recently I bought a book, “I am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan”. Landays are folk poems often sung aloud with a set structure – 22 syllables with 9 in the first line, 13 in the second.

    This book is filled with landays by – or reinterpreted by – women.

    Having set structures to work within, such as in haiku or landay, can yield such stunning and expansive works! March 11, 2019 at 8:08am Reply

    • José: I’m looking into it. I also have a friend from Afghanistan who might like it. March 12, 2019 at 1:42am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, perfect! I’m going to search for it. Thank you so much, Karen. March 12, 2019 at 6:05am Reply

      • Karen A: It’s funny, I was trying to remember how I heard of the book – thought it might have been here on BdJ, but could not find it!

        I enjoyed reading and learning more about the landays and hope others do, too. March 12, 2019 at 6:29am Reply

        • Victoria: I remember reading that poets in Afghanistan was one of the most important art forms, cutting across social barriers, class divides, etc. and I can believe it, because it’s the case across the whole region. I was always impressed by my Iranian and Pakistani friends who could quote whole poems by heart. Some of them they learned at school, but the majority they’ve picked up from their family and friends. March 12, 2019 at 7:10am Reply

  • Klaas Backx: Wonderful post! Linking haiku to avant garde makes so much sense. Stripping all superfluous weight to come to the essence of the matter, be it in poetry, music, painting, photography or contemporay dance for that matter…..

    That first haiku is a thing of wonder. It stops time….. March 11, 2019 at 11:12am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you liked it. That first haiku is one of my favorites! March 12, 2019 at 6:04am Reply

  • Becky: Thank you for explaining the related imagery of Japanese characters. If schools would provide an example like you just did, then perhaps more people would understand the deeper layers of meaning behind a haiku. I would love to read a book with various haikus, and then see an explanation of the original Japanese characters – especially if you were the author! March 11, 2019 at 11:38am Reply

    • Victoria: Japanese language is fascinating, and these short poems can contain so many layers. There are whole books devoted to the subject, but I wish there were more in English. March 12, 2019 at 6:04am Reply

  • Christine Funt: Victoria, thank for this information on haiku. I want to investigate more. March 11, 2019 at 2:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a subject that can be explored in so many different ways. March 12, 2019 at 6:03am Reply

  • Annie: What a beautiful post to start my week! Thank you. March 11, 2019 at 4:34pm Reply

  • José: I enjoyed it very much, especially your linking of haiku and the early 20th century art movements. Fascinating! Your blog continues to thrill and delight, Victoria. Keep up the good work. March 12, 2019 at 1:41am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much for your kind words! March 12, 2019 at 6:01am Reply

  • Irene CHEN: Since this is about Haiku, have you heard of Floraiku? They have quite interesting concept for fragrance. https://us.floraiku.com/ March 12, 2019 at 2:02am Reply

    • Victoria: Interesting! Thank you. March 12, 2019 at 6:00am Reply

    • Karen A: Their web site is beautifully done! Love the picture that emerges when you choose a fragrance. Bottles and haikus are so pretty, plus tester set is offered! Have you tried any of their fragrances, Irene? March 12, 2019 at 6:35am Reply

      • Irene CHEN: Yes, I did, Karen!! I accidently discovered this sales counter in a department store just last weekend, I was immediately attracted by the display and unique bottles, thought it was a Japanese brand. I tested several scents and I really liked some of them so I got the sample set which contains their first 11 fragrances, it’s absolutely worth trying. March 12, 2019 at 10:37pm Reply

        • Victoria: Which of the perfumes is your favorite? March 13, 2019 at 3:52am Reply

          • Irene CHEN: Hi Victoria, for the moment, I like “sleeping on the roof”,”I see the clouds go by”, and “flowers turn pupple”(this three phrases can be a haiku? lol), they may not be sophisticated fragrance, but I appreciate the cleaniness and serenity.
            And btw, I want to tell you I enjoy your writings so much, and your blog is just like a perfumes bible for me. March 13, 2019 at 4:54am Reply

            • Irene CHEN: typo “flowers turn purple” March 13, 2019 at 5:02am Reply

            • Victoria: Clean and serene sound like the best of recommendations. 🙂 Thank you so much.

              And thank you for your kind words. I’m so happy to hear this. March 13, 2019 at 6:28am Reply

  • maja: Your words,
    a world they paint.
    Dissolved in beauty, I surrender.

    🙂 March 12, 2019 at 7:09am Reply

    • Victoria: So beautiful! 🙂 March 12, 2019 at 10:10am Reply

      • maja: I wrote it as a response to your wonderful post. 🙂 March 12, 2019 at 11:55am Reply

        • Victoria: I enjoyed it very much, thank you! You’re a multitalented person. March 13, 2019 at 3:50am Reply

    • Gabriela: Lovely! Made my day.
      Victoria, thank you for such a beautiful post, you open windows to the world. March 12, 2019 at 4:17pm Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you so much, Gabriela! March 13, 2019 at 3:52am Reply

  • Monika: I don’t “get” haiku. Reading your post made me think I just might if I learned Japanese… 🙂 March 12, 2019 at 3:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Or maybe it simply doesn’t speak to you, and that’s ok too. We would have a rather dull world if all of us responded to the same thing. March 13, 2019 at 3:52am Reply

  • Fazal: Haiku poets come across as adults who retained childlike curiosity about the world. This form of poetry appears to reflect how children communicate; sentences of few words, comprising of the simplest vocabulary. March 14, 2019 at 7:55am Reply

    • Victoria: A quote by Picasso comes to mind, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” March 14, 2019 at 8:10am Reply

      • Fazal: You know how children are amazed by things adults find ordinary and how children often notice small details that adults miss whether in people or in the environment. Artists such as painters, writers, and haiku poets are quite a lot like children, only in adult bodies. March 14, 2019 at 6:46pm Reply

        • Victoria: You put it so well. Creative people are often highly observant and curious. And it makes sense, since if one pays attention, one often finds connections among things that at first seem nothing to do with each other. Art is often about making such links evident. March 15, 2019 at 8:47am Reply

  • Aurora: Haikus are so whimsical and they seem to always contain a surprise. Nature seems to be the great theme running through them. Thank you Victoria. March 17, 2019 at 6:24am Reply

    • Victoria: Very much so–nature, changes of seasons, weather, wind, colors. March 17, 2019 at 9:41am Reply

  • Caitlenn: Wonderful sharing, something we can all do more of … and better. Thank you, yet again, for reaching out to build your community, Victoria! I had no idea you shared another interest of mine. This haiku by Bashō lets me close my eyes and center my soul in the depths of nature … no matter where or when I am:

    Seek on high bare trails
    Sky-reflecting violets…
    Mountain-top jewels May 17, 2019 at 2:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. This is a gem. May 18, 2019 at 10:09am Reply

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