To say I’ve hated haiku as an art form is a gross understatement; I had never given it a moment’s thought, forget considering it poetry!
And it’s not just the kitsch that most wannabe pseudo-intellectual or insta-intoxicated Sufi/Zen oafs churn out and repeat all over Whatsapp and other digital media either.
Consider this epitome, that’s now a cliche in the haiku universe, the piece that eventually led to the coinage of the word haiku (it was originally hokku, and the hokku used to be part of a longer poem, renga; Masaoka Shiki came up with the term for standalone haiku, made popular by Basho):
an old pond
a frog jumps in
the sound of water
( furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
if you care for the original Japanese text.)
This piece by Basho has been hailed for portraying eternity in a moment, stillness, Zen and whatever the reader’s fertile or troubled mind conjures – it has over 170 official translations in English alone.
No matter how many times I read or thought it over, for the life of me, I couldn’t find any such depth in it. And so I gave up on the genre altogether as snake oil being peddled by Japanophile zealots.
(And lest you should think me an ignorant boor, you are free to peruse this:
So when I recently picked up The Classic Tradition of Haiku (there was nothing else around to read) I tried to keep a very open mind and was truly astonished by the unassuming simplicity and nothingness of it. And then it struck me!
It wasn’t haiku that I hated all these years but the over-interpretations of them! (By the way, haiku is both singular and plural.)
Haiku, rather hokku, is, what it always was, a simple rhythmic formal description of nature – nothing more, nothing less.
It is just a terse fleeting image of a transient natural phenomenon. True to its Japanese roots, it does not overdo on either sentimentality or meaning, it just states an existential fact.
And this very elemental picture, a word-image of an ephemeron in this phantasmagoria we call living on this blind plane of existence, it is this observation that is, and creates, its own meaning.
And so it is, that it is the water in the still pond that makes a sound, not the frog that eagerly jumps into it!
(And it’s not a mere play on words but the revelation of the paradoxical in the commonplace that lends the tiny haiku, barely 11-17 syllables, its unfathomable power – the recognition of truth!)
Having said that, human nature is also nature, and while Basho is synonymous with haiku to today’s western-educated youth, it is the soft sadness of Kobayashi Issa that resounded most vibrantly in me, whether it be his compassion for animals:
the crowd of children –
or this gut wrenching observation:
her row veering off,
the peasant woman plants
toward her crying child
However, if I had to pick one quintessential haiku, it would be this masterpiece by Kikaku, Basho’s flippant, though arguably best, student:
It is my snow, I think
And the weight on my hat lightens