This misunderstood form of poetry can bring us from mellow contemplation to destruction in seconds.
Is there a more misunderstood form of poetry than true haiku? People think: five syllables in the first line, seven in the middle, and five in the third, and you’re done! As though a haiku is a poem in the same way that pig-latin is a language.
Just don’t say that to a Samurai, though. Because a haiku is actually a challenge which almost nobody is up for. Can the poet capture something infinite within the bounds of so minimal a structure? Can he record a snapshot of a moment so precisely that the reader has, effectively, experienced the same micro-event? (Incidentally, in translation, it’s near impossible to reproduce the syllable count that the original Japanese uses, so translators try to reproduce the brevity, rather than the specific form.)
So if it doesn’t have to do with syllable count, what is a haiku? The best definition I’ve found is “a one-breath poem that discovers connection.” I’ve picked three of my favorites on which to test that definition. I want to know not only what the connection is, but why it matters. What does the poet’s discovery add to my perspective of our shared world?
From time to time
The clouds give rest
To the moon beholders.
The cloud cover that comes and goes, obscuring the moon, isn’t the focus here, just the backdrop to the people who are looking at the moon. They themselves are something of a surprise. You don’t know who needs rest, or rest from what kind of work, till the last line sinks in. It’s enough to make you wonder about the nature of the work being done. Basho has made a connection between contemplation and exertion that’s unusual. The unbroken light of the moon, even on just a literal level, would be exhausting to stare at for longer than five minutes, so the darkness the clouds bring is welcome, even valuable. Light and darkness are not at odds here–they both facilitate the same goal: appreciation of, and immersion in, the moonlight. The same could be said, of course, for work and rest. Each gives value to the other, each on its own would become oppressive very quickly.
Nothing in the cry
Of cicadas suggests
They are about to die.
A lot of haiku call a specific season to mind. Here, we know it’s got to be late autumn, the first frost just around the corner. But the cicadas don’t know that. They’re singing just as loudly as they did when they crawled out of their old exoskeletons, and unfolded their damp wings. Again, Basho keeps the surprise for the end. We weren’t thinking about anything but their noisiness and liveliness, till he hit us with the reminder of their impending death. Suddenly, the ideas life and death are vying for the same space in our mind. I don’t think that Basho wants to say that their brevity of life makes their cry more special. What he actually contrasts is the cicada’s innocence with our own knowledge. It’s enough to make you wonder whether you’re just as ignorant as the cicadas, with no hint in your own life that you too, might be about to die.
A vine of arrowroot
Touches the cheek of a woodcutter.
Gigantic columns of clouds.
There are two images here, the vine and the clouds, with the woodcutter right in the center — not the woodcutter, actually, but his cheek. The touch is so gentle, so localized, that you feel it yourself. The poet feels that touch and notices towering clouds in the same moment. Each is all the more surprising for the juxtaposition. Remember, it isn’t the vine that’s in focus here, remember, but the sensation of touch.The touch becomes infinitely smaller, the clouds, more gargantuan. By their connection, the characteristic of each is emphasized in a way that you’d never have noticed, if the image had been left by itself.
Just a day or two reading haiku like these has already affected how I see the world. It’s making me just a bit more aware of my surroundings, and my mental state, especially as it exists the present moment. I wasn’t expecting that! I’m enjoying my new haiku vision very much, let me tell you. I hope I don’t lose it.