The versatile haiku |

Haiku, famous for being the world’s shortest poetic form, has an amazing ability to open up and reveal worlds within.

The spiritual life of an octopus, a woman who returns from seeing flowers and undresses in the privacy of her bedroom, the distant, almost supernatural quacking of ducks at twilight… what do they have in common?

Not much, we might think, but curiously there is room for all of them in the haiku, the world’s shortest poetic form:

Octopus jars…
brief dreams under
the summer moon

Takotsubo ya hakanaki yume o natsu no tsuki

I go out of myself
flower kimono, dropping
the ribbons and bows.

Hanagoromo nugu ya matsuwaru himo iroiro

The sea darkens
the quacking of the ducks
they are slightly white.

Umi kurete kamo no koe honoka ni shiroshi

The first poem is from Matsuo Bashō (1644–94), the most celebrated of all haikus poets. Octopus jars are ceramic jars that take advantage of the habit that octopuses have for getting into small spaces. Fishermen lower these jars to the bottom of the sea during the day, bringing them out just before dawn. The octopus settles down to spend the night in the darkness of the jar, which rests on the seabed, dreaming innocently, or so the poet imagines. At dawn, when they lift him up, his brief sleep (for summer nights are short) ends. Our life, your life, is nothing but a dream. But the moon, a symbol of illumination and eternity, has touched her.

The second poem is by Sugita Hisajo (1890-1946), one of the leading poets of the 20th century, and a woman. The protagonist, after returning from a walk to see the flowers in spring, takes off her kimono; the garment has a seasonal flower pattern. The kimonos do not have zippers or buttons, but are fastened with fabric strings. Under the kimono itself an underkimono is worn, and under this a simple petticoat, so that a woman dressed in a formal kimono is wrapped in cords, ropes, and bows, of cotton and silk, of various colors and shapes. Like a package. As she opens, those strings and ribbons are released, moved and fall, and create a rainbow of colors.

The third poem is also by Bashō. Night falls on the sea, and with it the calls of wild ducks, calling to one another, seem to take shape and color, pale against the darkness, and blend with the last remnants of light. Synesthesia, that mixture of the senses, also appears in other poems by Bashō. (The English translation of these poems is by the author of the article, and his translation into Spanish is based on it)

the lives of others

Haiku has other tonalities, besides that ethereal, almost surreal quality of these poems about everyday objects. The realism of the following three poems is often considered one of the quintessential tones of haikus:

what a pleasure to cross
a summer river,
sandals in hand

Natsukawa o kosu ureshisa yo te ni zōri

The snow
already melted in the town,
that is filled with children.

Yuki tokete mura ippai no kodomo kana

A chicken
hides in the grass
of the summer.

Natsukusa ni niwatori ichiwa kakurekeri

I sometimes wonder what the inhabitants of a distant galaxy who were watching us would think if a new planet suddenly appeared in their sight, close to Earth, covered with pieces of paper flapping in the cosmic breeze. After recovering those poems, thanks to a technology unimaginable to us, those rescued relics would become part of the priceless heritage of their own world, a beautiful proof of another place and another time.

The above three poems are the work of, respectively, Yosa Buson (1716-1784), the greatest haikus poet after Bashō, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), a highly regarded pre-modern poet, and Fukuda Haritsu (1865-1944). , a relatively little-known modern poet and follower of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). Reading them, those observers from another galaxy could almost taste what it would have been like to live on Earth, in the past. They might imagine the coolness of a stream in summer, the sudden excitement of children coming out to play when the winter snows begin to melt, or the mischief of the chicken hiding from its owner. They could feel that they were getting closer and closer to the feelings that Earthlings would have had… some of which might even have been, eons before, their own ancestors. This is a way of saying that these poems have the flavor of a life well lived, and bring us closer to the lives of others, as well as making us reflect on our own.

stuff everywhere

Since we have traveled to the far future, let me return to the remote past of our own planet.

What we call haiku today was not originally the independent form it is now. Many of the verses that are famous today as haikus were originally the first link in a chain of verses (haikai no renga). It was Matsuo Bashō and his followers who carried the informal chain verse to the height of artistic perfection in the 17th century, and by the late Edo period (1603-1868) chain verse had become extremely popular. This led, paradoxically, to a devaluation of the art which, along with the fashion for all things Western at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912), threatened for a time to end not only chained verse but that first verse as well. , the hokku, who had achieved semi-independence from the chained. It was Masaoka Shiki’s passion, determination and brilliance that saved him from this grim fate. Shiki provided the theory and practice that led to the birth of modern haiku.

Shiki recorded the beginnings of his own infatuation with haiku with charming simplicity and humor in the diary, which he wrote while ill, Bokuju itteki (A drop of ink). Recalling his days as a college student, when he moved from the dormitory to a house where he would live alone, he describes how his obsession with haiku led him to fail the course. His desk used to be cluttered with haiku books and novels, but when he came up with an exam he would put it in order and start with his notes: “The exams became meaningless except for a flood of poetry. Bewitched by the haiku goddess, nothing could save me. I failed the final exams of 1892… [y] I dropped out of college forever.”

As Shiki became attached to the form, he began to make certain rules for himself, and later teach them to others. The most important was dedicated observation of our surroundings. In the 1899 essay “Zuimon zuitō” (Random Questions and Answers), his instructions for beginning poets, he wrote: “Look for your material in all that surrounds you… if you see a dandelion, write about it; if there is fog, write about the fog. Materials for poems abound around you.”

Shiki’s method, which came to be called Shasei (life sketch), was based on observation of an unusually intense kind, something we now call “mindfulness,” or “mindfulness.” mindfulness). When practiced devoutly it led the practitioner into a kind of silent creative ecstasy. As Shiki explains in “Haikai hogukago” (Haikus Bin): “The writer takes his raw materials from nature, refines them, and makes them part of his own imagination. In this sense we could consider him a second Creator”.

expansion and generosity

Mindfulness goes perfectly with a form as minimalist as the haiku. It also makes possible, paradoxically, multiple interpretations. The abundance of possible interpretations, none of which cancels out the others, makes us feel (for a while, at least… if I may use the expression) that the universe itself is generous. In this sense, the short haiku, which normally does not exceed seventeen syllables, is a truly versatile form.

To illustrate this point I want to leave you with a very personal reading of the octopus poem, the first one I mentioned.

Octopus jars…
brief dreams under
the summer moon

As a child I lived on the coast in a small port town in Connecticut; Lobstermen used to set their traps in the waters in front of our house, and in exchange for letting them use our driveway to park their truck, they used to give us lobsters that had lost their claws and therefore couldn’t sell. Many years later, when I first read Bashō’s poem about octopuses, I imagined the octopus jar, which I had never seen before, as a lobster trap, and every time I read that poem I think of the place where I grew up.

The poem effortlessly expands to include me and the house I grew up in, next to that octopus in Japan’s inland sea, hundreds of years ago, not forgetting the moon, lighting, eternity itself. Instead of being reduced to a tiny point of observation, a feeling of expansion and generosity is created, while the words bring back memories of places and times.

What makes us different from octopuses? Nothing. In Bashō’s poem we meet the octopus, and it turns out to be ourselves.

Translated poems:

Octopus Pot and Ephemeral Dreams in the Summer Moon Matsuo Basho

Kume Sugita

Sea Kurete Duck Koe Faintly White Basho Matsuo

The joy of crossing Natsukawa

Issa Kobayashi Issa Kobayashi

A chicken hidden in summer grass Fukuda Taguri

(Article translated into Spanish from the original in English. Translations ©2022, Janine Beichman. Header image © Pixta.)

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