The Pleasure of Haiku

What a short life cherry blossoms have! The miserable April rain and wind blew them off, and now fresh green willows are whispering with azaleas on the water of the castle moat. Here comes early summer. In the blue sky, carp are swimming. Wonderful weather! It will soon rain. Everything is changing in this world, but still how small we remain. As long as we are alive, we have to recognize the transience of our life, then we experience a moment that something attracts us, and when we see changing nature, when we watch people, maybe, sometimes, we want to express that feeling or impression. It is that moment when we can compose a haiku. Then what is haiku? The following is a definition quoted from 'Shiki and Matsuyama', published in 1986 by Matsuyama Municipal Shiki Memorial Museum:

Haiku is a poetic form which takes nature in each season as its theme and expresses inspiration derived from nature. Since the natural world transforms itself swiftly and since inspiration is fleeting, they must be caught in words quick, short and precise. The traditional rules for haiku are that each verse uses seven or eight words, a total of only seventeen rhythmical syllables (5-7- 5), including a season word. In diction haiku values simple words over obscure and difficult ones.

When we know different cultures, we come to think about ourselves further. That's the amazement and pleasure of personal encounters. In order to help you understand and enjoy haiku I'd like to show you examples of English translation of traditional Japanese haiku.

MATSUO BASHO (松尾芭蕉 1644 - 1694) was a leading haiku master and is know throughout the world. He composed that famous haiku:

古池や蛙とび込む水の音

furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

A frog jumped into an old pond of mossy water making a little sound. The momentary action and the lingering sound remindd us of the wonder of a moment and eternity.

In this haiku, 'ya ' is a technical haiku-cutting word (kireji 切れ字). It does not have specific meaning but it is used to arrange the Japanese syllable and express subtle or sometimes deep feelings and an exclamation or an interjection.

Translation examples:

old pond.....
a frog leaps in
water's sound

- translated by William J. Higginson

Into the old pond
a frog jumped
with a splash

- translated by Kimiyo Tanaka

MASAOKA SHIKI (正岡子規 1867 - 1902) is a modern great poet who was born in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture. His enthusiasm to innovate traditional haiku caused the eruption which was the birth of modern literature in Ehime. Although he was in the agony of spinal tuberculoses, he always had much curiosity and humor. He said haiku is a sketch with simple, plain words. He read almost all traditional haiku written by famous haiku poets and did extensive research on them. And then He criticized Basho and he thought Buson's haiku was ideal.

YOSA BUSON (与謝蕪村1716 - 1783) was an artist and wrote very picturesque haiku.

方八里雨雲よせぬ牡丹かな

ho hachiri
amagumo yosenu
botan kana

The peony is one of the most beautiful, dignified and gorgeous flowers in Japan.

Translation:

on all sides,
the peony wards off
rain clouds

- translated by Kimiyo Tanaka

Shiki wrote a series of critical essays on the state of haiku and advocated haiku as a real picture or sketch of reality.

His theory and basis of the haiku revolution are written in the essay 'Haikai Taiyo'. Haiku was sometimes considered to have been just a play on words or reason and it was ranked as a No 2 literature. Shiki rejected this idea and he advocated "Haiku is literature". Since then haiku has belonged among the most important literature in Japanese culture.

Shiki composed many haiku, about 23,000.

いちはつの一輪白し春の暮

ichihatsu no
ichirin shiroshi
haruno kure

Translation:

An iris
whiter at twilight
in spring

- translated by Kimiyo Tanaka

余命いくばくかある夜短し

yomei
ikubakuka aru
yo mijikashi

Translation:

My remaining days
are numbered
a brief night

- translated by Kimiyo Tanaka

English translations of Japanese haiku, haiku in English, haiku in other languages, and traditional Japanese haiku, are not all the same. Each has its own expression. According to Shiki we should not put so deep meaning in haiku. We should use simple words and discribe the situation clearly as we see it.

The interpretation of haiku depends on the readers. When it comes to international haiku, we should understand the background culture of the poet. When we are exposed to the diverse impression and feeling, we'd like to think haiku is a pipe of common languages between different cultures and then we can share the pleasure of haiku and we will promote mutual understanding and further interest in haiku.