Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Basho's haiku: "Noon doze"

Noon doze,
Wall cool against
My feet

(by Basho)

Yet another translated poem from me, this time from the East. This is only three lines, and is so, so short. This is a haiku.

Most of us probably know something about haikus, that they are a Japanese poetical form, usually rendered (for people reading or writing in English, at least) in 17 syllables, cut into three lines of 5-7-5. But did you know, or were aware, that this form of haiku was actually established only in the 19th century in Japan?

That’s why the haiku (excuse me, but I still have to use this term for it) here doesn’t seem to follow this fixed-syllable ruling, does it? This piece was actually written in the 17th century, and back then it was called a hokku. However, the English translation of this and other pieces collected in a Penguin Classics still stand as haikus, so that they are more palatable to Western reading tastes, I gather.

A bit about the poet:
He is Basho Matsuo, born 1644, died 1694. He was, and, today, is still, considered the greatest master of this genre. Actually, his name Basho was some nickname, for banana, not his real one, which was Kinsaku when very young and, older, Matsuo Munefusa. But the literary world, especially in the West, know him as a single-word entity (like Madonna). Like most of his countrymen in his days he wanted to be a samurai. A bit unusual, but he started writing haikus (or known then as haikai) because his master Sengin also wrote them, taking up another name, Sobo. He later traveled all over Japan, and wrote his haikus. He seemed to have attracted, or collected, quite a lot of students.

Back to the haiku (or hokku):
I don’t know how the actual Japanese of it sounds like. But I can give a good guess, that it could sound as profound and enthralling as the noh number I was listening to on Bjork’s soundtrack for Drawing Restraint 9, a musical set in Japan. The English translation, by Julien Stryk, should be very close to the original, I shouldn’t wonder.

The first line has so lengthy vowels, drawing out, so lazily, the mid-day snooze. The “n” sounds give a luxuriance in this context, and the voiced “z” gives us the impression of drawn breathing and perhaps some light snoring. They are both stressed words, so you’d read them without haste. This is a hokku, not an actual haiku, I repeat. However it follows some of the rules of the latter (thanks to the Western translator), of having a pause or some punctuation to indicate what would be introduced or revealed next. So, there is such a punctuation, but a comma, at the end of this first line. The next line also has a slow delivery, with two long-drawn vowels in stressed words. And, incidentally, the long vowel in “cool” echoes “noon”, but not very exactly, because normally you seldom take these things into consideration in haikus. Things speed up a little after those two words, with a faster delivery from “against” (unstress-stress), and from a western linguistic point of view of line-endings, there is a run-on here. The last line echoes the last word of the previous line and has also the same beat structure. The latter part of the haiku gives you an impression of someone waking up and feeling the sensation of a cool wall against his feet, doesn’t it?

This haiku still sounds as fresh as the day, the minute, it was written centuries ago. Such an everyday occurrence, so seemingly insignificant, has been turned into a moment of beauty, in visual and sound. Posted by Picasa

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Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i'm so glad you wrote about haiku. i love the form - its compactness which makes the reader bring to it the material to fill in the gaps. this is a particularly nice haiku - and as you say as meaningful today as when it was written.

wish you could have been at the haiku workshop we had at the last litfest ... we must organise a haiku writing workshop along the same lines (i kept my notes)

meanwhile, here's an anonymous haiku that makes me smile:

At the sushi bar,
Noticing the goldfish bowl
Empty today.

12:05 PM, July 25, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hahaha, I think people at the office at work (after lunch) will be now craving for a little nice snooze...

12:55 PM, July 25, 2006  
Anonymous kyels said...

Haiku ... Thank you for sharing!


1:18 PM, July 25, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Sharon, I like your haiku: we probably know where the goldfish've gone!
Haiku writing workshop: sounds exciting.

DI: you were having your siesta this noon?

kyels: you'r welcome, and thank you for dropping by. Hope to see you more, next time.

1:50 PM, July 25, 2006  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Hey Leon, I think it's great that you've decided to discuss haiku too. Interesting choice -- very very different from the usual Basho (seasons and all that). I can't honestly say that I care for this particular one much, but it is intriguing in that sense.

I like the contemporary haiku of Sonia Sanchez (although she frequently breaks the syllable form). Have written some of my own too, along modern themes.

12:23 AM, July 26, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Short and sweet, this haiku in our modern times speaks to me of lazy weekends or holidays when one can enjoy a nice, quiet doze. I love the consciousness of feeling the cool wall...with nothing else to do, leaving all the cares of the world behind.

Leon, thanks for sharing. I didn't have any siesta because I don't usually have them...but it's kinda popular now in Japan, as a short 'power nap', not of this long, lazing kind.

12:34 AM, July 26, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Sharanya, that's the reason why I chose this poems against the usual ones about seasons and all that. This one is more perennial, and can be transposed into our present time, as that's how DI also sees it. I would love to read some of Sonia's pieces, and yours as well. Sharon, maybe we should all organise a haiku reading, some sort of Annual PuisiPoesy Haiku Fest, ha ha!!

9:40 AM, July 26, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i was surprised to learn from haiku master Kyoji Kobayashi that the japanese are not rigid about having 17 syllables ... and we shouldn't get too hung up about it

he also said that japanese is far more concentrated than english and can convey more ideas in 17 syllables

he also said that he thinks some of the best haiku writing may in future come from outside japan

8:54 AM, July 27, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

The best haiku might be from other than Japan? Maybe from here, from our group, perhaps? That's not wishful thinking; our Sharanya has written some.

9:16 AM, July 27, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

How about a Puisi Poesy Haiku Slam! -- a haiku workshop sounds great.

Am always in awe of the 'is'-ness of haiku. Thanks for this, Leon.

9:58 AM, July 27, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

you can't "slam" haiku it's too gentle a form

you set a topic

go for a wander in a beautiful place to collect inspiration

set a time limit for writing

each contribute a haiku - others comment on it

finally vote for their favourites

apparently this is the way it is done in japan

if we want to do it maybe we could also ask along our friend from the japan foundation?

11:23 AM, July 27, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Perhaps there can be another way to express haiku. I would be very interested to know how the essence of haiku is preserved in contexts so different from the Japanese culture and language. How is it innovated?

The gentle naturalism of haiku fits well into my idea of Japan: Harujuku doesn't figure much of it; my first connection would be Mount Fujiyama and the flash of shinkanshen, lonely coast and foggy forest paths.

In the natural world too, there is much violence. Found in the ritualistic mating of praying mantes; found in the urban rat race. Haiku from the dark side.

At the sushi bar,
dancing shrimps
in my throat.

12:19 PM, July 27, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Or is that simply Mount Fuji, omit -yama?

12:53 PM, July 27, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hahaha, I think we could have a poetry writing network in the making here, especially since Sharanya, Sharon, Leon writes and now Machinist just joined the club...

I'll be the novice, learning and making my inane comments. *wink*

11:00 PM, July 27, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i think urban haiku would be great - and why not?! machinist - you wrote that haiku? it's really good! (though short of syllables)

8:01 AM, July 28, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

MM - I really like your haiku. Your omitting of verbs gives it a standing-still moment, very Zen.

DI - I suspect you can write haiku.

I can see a lot of enthusiasm for this form. Yes, Sharon, why not urban haiku?

We should do it!!!

11:52 AM, July 28, 2006  
Blogger Spot said...

Now that was interesting. Am only familiar with the 5-7-5 form, though as Sharon says, that rule doesn't seem to be adhered to very strictly.

I love haiku in whatever number of syllables, as long as that compact form is kept to.

It's the zen-ness of it all. Like drinking tea in a shady garden one afternoon when a soul-numbing epiphany shakes the very core of your being, yet the only outwardly visible reaction you make is -


3:10 PM, July 28, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Spot, what an apt and lovely description of a haiku!

4:40 PM, July 28, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Yes, i did write the haiku. Not sure what others say about breaking the 5-7-5 rule but I'd do it if the haiku can be more concise, and (prompted by this post, thanks to Leon), you can read it with extra stress over the words to compensate for the shorter form.

That said, my understanding of haiku is still very limited.

I'm glad you liked it. Will we see one from you, DI? :-)

Couldn't resist not to google for Sonia Sanchez. Very engaging material! I have yet to find any of her haiku but 'under a soprano sky' can really get under your skin!

i hear a pulse wandering somewhere
on vague embankments.
O are my hands breathing? I cannot smell the nerves.
i saw the sun
ripening green stones for fields.
O have my eyes run down? i cannot taste my birth.

I'm not sure what it means but I love how this verse just make rojak of the senses!

10:28 PM, July 28, 2006  
Blogger Alan Summers said...

That's still one of my favourite Basho haiku!

If anyone is still why non-Japanese haiku (plural of haiku is the same, haiku) then check out:

haikutec's blog

Why not 5-7-5: FORMS IN ENGLISH HAIKU by Keiko Imaoka

12:32 AM, November 03, 2006  
Blogger Alan Summers said...

Thanks for your reply!

If there's any ideas I can add to any event over there, drop me a line.

It's hard to get people interested in poetry as there is so much competition with T.V. computer games video and dvds just for starters! :-)

Do you have a university that might be interested in creating a fun programme of events including not just haiku, but a poetry slam, and maybe poetry and music combined?

all my very best,


8:42 PM, November 03, 2006  
Anonymous Leonnie Lim said...

Haiku or hokku are essentially more centred towards nature, religion and the many aspects of Japanese beauty and aesthetic principles.

I have read the Japanese versions of Basho's works, and apparently the form of hokku follows the syllable rule, although compared to the contemporary form of haiku, hokku employs more usage of complex double-meaning words, and a lot more of literary techniques.

Basho was well-known for his mastery of intelligent poetic techniques, some of which include similes, puns, compound words and imagery. There is one, however, which is my favourite. Known as "sense-switching", it is
is used to confuse the reader's senses and as a result brings a kind of harmony between them...

For example(almost accurate literal translation):

Old pond,
A frog jumps into
The sound of water.

There is a change between one sense to another. Here it changes from sight to hearing.

Nowadays haiku is written more freely than in the era where Basho lived. The syllable rule is not as strict, and many Western influences have added to the 'hotpot'.

But I must say, haiku is a very interesting form of poetry. I tend to spend my time trying to write some as well!

3:22 PM, February 05, 2011  

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