Friday, January 15, 2010

The Unfinished Line

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the haiku opening in yesterday’s post. Since then it has rattled around in my head all day like one of those unnameable tunes you half hear on the radio. Oh, I don’t mean that specific haiku quoted yesterday, but the form in general, that short, sketchy kind of observation that works its way into a one-breath expression of a momentary image or occurrence. It is a type of poetry I have been interested in for a long time and have to say that it is a form of writing that requires time, patience and willingness to be an active reader. For my part, the number of times I’ve read a haiku poem and instantly gotten from it something more than a pretty picture or simple image is rare. I just don’t think it’s that easy, or if it is, then I venture to say that the ‘haiku’ is not really haiku.

Many of us have seen in picture books, if not museums, examples of Japanese brush painting where the composition is full of empty space and unfinished lines. Those spaces and dwindling lines are meant to be there for the purpose of giving the viewer an opportunity to participate actively in the painting, to fill out lines and spaces with not brush, but imagination. That in turn gives the painting greater potential for moving or affecting the viewer. The same is true of the haiku poem’s brevity and unfinished thoughts. The individual reader can make of those short lines something more specific, filled out through active imagination. Therein lies the dynamic of the haiku.

‘old pond • a frog jumps in • splash!’ is one of Japan’s most famous haiku poems, and is taught to grade school children for reasons I have never understood. Not that the poem is lacking in anything, but just the opposite in that it is especially difficult to extract meaning from. I doubt that the poet had children in mind when he sketched out these brief lines. I have thought about this particular poem for years and am still not certain I understand what the writer was expressing.

I have tried my hand at writing haiku, though never in English. I am more attracted to the original length of seventeen Japanese syllables. As an example, the frog haiku above is a total of seventeen syllables in Japanese. For me that is part of the puzzle, though exceptions to this count are not especially rare. Real masters of the form can twist this rule on occasion without detraction.

Without any pretense at skill or deep meaning, three of my own haiku in English translation are below. To be quite honest, the English presented difficulties equal to the Japanese.

In New Year’s chill Gazing at a hazy moon

the quince tree shivers I listen to snores

her leaves bleeding red from the next room

In cold winter wind

leaves dance and whirl

on the road home

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America