5-7-5. I learned the rule of haiku syllables in elementary school. Five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third. Likely you learned this lesson, too.
As I’ve been reading and writing haiku in the past few years, I’ve had an aversion to haiku that disobeys the 5-7-5 rule. Isn’t 5-7-5 the most important thing?
Well, I’ve overcome my aversion—with the help of Harold Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki.
I’ve mentioned this book before. When I finished reading it, I immediately began rereading it. It’s a short book, under 200 pages, with lots of white space (haiku don’t take up too much room)—a quick read.
In this book, Henderson describes the characteristics of haiku and offers history and translations from the earliest haiku to Bashō to Buson to Issa and Shiki, along with their contemporaries. Included with his translations are the original Japanese verses with a literal translation to English and any contextual notes needed to understand the poem.
The author is humble in his descriptions and translations. He begins by reminding us of the Italian “traduttore, traditore” and its implication that any translator is probably a traitor. He emphasizes the need to create the effect of the original haiku, but that one can only recreate the effect on oneself, thus there are multiple ways to create an effect (and sometimes it is impossible), so multiple translations may be “correct.”
Henderson chooses to translate haiku from which he feels he can capture the effect of the original without too much explanation. As he says “I have a very strong belief that too much explanation can take the pleasure out of any poetry.” He attempts to be as literal in his translation as possible, while recognizing the necessary adjustments for such dissimilar languages as Japanese and English.
Characteristics of haiku
Henderson describes a haiku as a very short poem, with special characteristics, but primarily meant to evoke emotion. Yes, in Japanese haiku have 17 syllables, but there’s a little more to it than that.
- High moments – Haiku can be happy, sad, deep, shallow, religious or whatever, but haiku are records of “high moments.” Haiku should capture the peaks that are higher than the surrounding plains of life.
- Condensed language – Haiku often omit words that are not needed to understand the poem, but that would be used in a grammatically correct sentence. (He cautions care here: condensing to excess can result in an unintelligible puzzle.) Season words and cut words are two conventions used to eliminate unnecessary words.
- Season words – Kigo, or season words, are used as a common reference. They put the poem in a setting immediately. The reference may be the actual word (spring, fall, etc.) or may be a reference that is attached to a particular season, for example, cherry blossoms, which occur in spring.
Henderson adds, “It may be noted in passing that the use of ki is probably at the base of a charge that has been advanced that haiku are more concerned with nature than with human affairs. Such a statement is ridiculous. Haiku are more concerned with human emotions than human acts, and natural phenomena are used to reflect human emotions, but that is all.”
- Cut words – Kireji, or “cut words,” are specific Japanese words that divide the poem in two parts that are to be equated or compared. There is no real equivalent in English, so Henderson uses punctuation to indicate kireji in his translations.
- Power of suggestion – Due to their length, haiku depend on the power of suggestion. They often give a clear picture of something that is the starting place for an emotion or train of thought. The outline is drawn, but the reader fills it in.
Henderson says, “…in order to really understand a good haiku, one has to read it over many times. It is not that the picture is hazy in any way, for if the author has done his work properly, the picture is quite clear. The point is that good haiku are full of overtones.”
In particular, it may be difficult to find the connection from the natural image to the human emotion—thus the need for multiple readings.
A sampling of Henderson’s translations
Henderson takes us on an historical field trip from Bashō to Shiki. I’ve included a few examples here that I either like or that illustrate some of his points.
I should note first that Henderson rhymes many of his translations in the first and third lines. Haiku in Japanese do not typically rhyme, but he justifies this choice as a structural framework and a way to make sure the short lines are not mistaken for prose.
I found the rhyming a bit irritating at first, but then it grew on me, and I’ve been experimenting with similar rhyme in my haiku since I read the book. There is something quaint about it when done well. The more I try rhyming my haiku, the more I admire Henderson’s translations.
Henderson starts with the earliest haiku or precursors to haiku. He makes it very clear that a haiku must evoke human emotion. A 17-syllable poem that is primarily a joke or a trick or is just clever is not of the highest form and may not even be haiku.
This seems to be found early on (15th-16th century) especially. For example, Sōkan’s verse:
If to the moon
one puts a handle—what
a splendid fan!
It may be a clever image, but there is no depth of emotion.
Another example Henderson offers of not-haiku or bad haiku is Teitoku’s verse (which takes place on new year’s day):
This morning, how
year of the cow!
Bashō (one of the greats) referred to this type of verse—clever more than poetic—as “Teitoku’s slobber.”
(Now, at this point in the book I was getting the uncomfortable feeling of having written a lot of not-haiku. Hmmm.)
Things started to improve with Sōin of the Danrin School (17th century). For example:
Dewdrops, limpid, small—
and such a lack of judgment shown
in where they fall!
Still clever and somewhat thin, but moving more towards layered meanings.
Bashō is the most famous poet of the Edo period (1603-1867) and a well known teacher. There is a tale of Bashō and a young student. The student made the following haiku:
Take off their wings,
and they are pepper pods!
Bashō corrected him, saying that was not a haiku, this was a haiku:
Red pepper pods!
Add wings to them,
and they are dragonflies!
His most famous haiku:
and a frog jump-in
A couple more of Bashō’s work.
Spring too, very soon!
They are setting the scene for it—
plum tree and moon.
with no man traveling on it,
autumn darkness falls.
I appreciated Henderson’s offering of several possible versions of Ransetsu’s famous haiku.
On the plum tree
one blossom, one blossomworth
As on the plums
blossom by blossom, so too
spring warmness comes.
On the plum is glowing
one blossom; now one blossom strong,
warmth too is growing.
On the plum, forlorn,
one blossom; one frail blossomworth
of warmth has just been born.
As Henderson says, all versions are “right,” and all are probably “wrong,” since they give only one point of view.
With Onitsura, Henderson offers a good example of a haiku with many overtones and possible interpretations.
On top of skeletons
they put a gala dress, and then—
the flower viewing!
One could read this as a cynical look at the revelers who put on their best clothes for the cherry-viewing festival. Perhaps Onitsura is suggesting a comparison of the shortness of human life to that of the cherry blossom. Another interpretation is that the naked trees are getting dressed with spring blossoms. (Also, a reinforcement that haiku need to be read multiple times—I did not get both interpretations without explanation.)
Chiyo is one of the best known female haiku writers. Here are two translations of a haiku she wrote after the death of her little son.
The dragonfly hunter—
today, what place has he
got to, I wonder…
Curtis Hidden Page’s translation:
I wonder in what fields today
He chases dragonflies in play.
My little boy—who ran away.
Interesting to see how both translators chose to rhyme the haiku. I found the Henderson translation more poignant, perhaps partially due to the triple rhyme and more literal feel of Page’s.
Buson is considered the next great haiku writer to come after Bashō.
A mountain pheasant,
treading on its tail, the springtime’s
There apparently is no agreement on the correct reading of this haiku. Who/what is stepping on the tail—the pheasant or the sun? But it does offer a comparison of the colorful tail to the sunset, and Henderson suspects Buson accomplished what he wanted.
The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel…
That one gives me shivers.
Henderson posits Issa as one of the most beloved haiku writers.
What a red moon!
And whose is it,
This simple haiku makes a comparison of the moon to a toy, but also has overtones of economic theory, Henderson points out.
and the village is overflowing—
And some of his haiku have little surprises in the last lines. If you read just the first two lines of the haiku above, an image begins to form, but the third line creates an entirely different image. And another in the same vein…
Thanks to cherry bloom,
in its shadow utter strangers—
there are none!
Henderson ends with Shiki (who apparently was a precocious upstart) and his contemporaries.
plum blossoms start to fall
upon the lute.
In the winter river,
thrown away, a dog’s
Quite a range Shiki had.
If you have any interest in haiku, I’d recommend this book. I have not read too many other books that explain and/or translate haiku, but this one seemed to clarify some of the conceptions and misconceptions I had.
In stark contrast to John Gardner (the last review I wrote was of Gardner’s The Art of Fiction), Harold Henderson is a humble writer and translator, offering his own educated opinions and translations, while remaining entirely open to the possibility that there is another and possibly a better way.
Harold Henderson was an encouraging teacher and enhanced my understanding of haiku. By reading his translations, I grew to understand that precise syllable count was perhaps the least important aspect of haiku. I now know haiku goes well beyond 5-7-5. And, strangely, I felt better after reading this book.