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Untitled -- Issa

Thanks to Raj Bandyopadhyay for suggesting today's poem
(Poem #1136) Untitled
  What good luck!
  Bitten by
  This year's mosquitoes too.
-- Issa
        (trans. Robert Hass)

Today's wry little haiku should strike a responsive chord in anyone who's
ever lived in a mosquito-infested place (i.e., everyone). I read the tone as
being one of gently amused irony rather than acid sarcasm, reinforced by
finding another of Issa's haiku (trans. L. Stryk):

        Swarms of mosquitoes
        but without them
        it's a little lonely.

embedded in a fascinating essay on Issa as entomologist (see links).

Needless to say, I loved the poem - indeed, the more I read it, the more
impressed I am at how concise and expressive it manages to be (though haiku are
often like that - they tend to grow on me, especially if they make a good
initial impression).

Haiku translation raises a number of issues, some of which apply to any
translation effort (you *have* all read 'Le Ton Beau de Marot', have you
not?), but a few of which are unique to the ultracondensed form. One obvious
one is whether to follow the letter or the spirit of the seventeen syllable
constraint (and any serious writer of English haiku, I think, invariably
chooses the former - seventeen syllables are simply a very different
constraint in English and in Japanese). A less obvious decision (indeed,
something I'd never even thought of on my own) is the three-line format. But
why 'decision'? Surely, one would think, poetry translation should preserve
the line breaks of the original. Not so:

    the three-line rule is not really a classical rule (in the Japanese
    sense). It is merely a Western invention to accommodate seventeen
    syllables.
       -- [broken link] http://www.haikai.info/articles/swede.definition.html

Not to be confused with 'true' English haiku are senryu[1], haiku-like poems
which adhere to the literal structure of a haiku while ignoring the
(numerous) poetic guidelines of the form. Porter's "Japanese Jokes"
[Poem #188] remains the best example of the genre I've seen.

[1] yes, I know this is not a complete definition of the form. However,
'senryu' is still the most appropriate word I've found to describe the
vastly popular unconstrained 5/7/5 English poem.

martin

Links:

Biography:
  [broken link] http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Island/5022/issabio.html

A look at Issa's poetic development:
  [broken link] http://www.ahapoetry.com/haiku.htm#issa

Issa as entomologist:
  [broken link] http://www.eeb.uconn.edu/grads/rdunn/issa.htm

English Haiku:
  [broken link] http://www.haikai.info/articles/swede.definition.html

41 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Frank O'Shea said...

With the greatest respect. Is all this haiku stuff just a bit of political
correctness. "We" (whoever we are) whupped their ass in the War so let's be
nice to them now by pretending that we appreciate this twaddle. Twelve and
thirteen-year old kids write this kind of thing at school and are persuaded
by addled teachers afraid to stifle the poor little darlings' creativity
that it is poetry.

Anyway, that's what I think, but would welcome correction, even of the
political kind.

And now my email program gives me two chili symbols to indicate that I
should tone down what I have written. I tell you, this political
correctness is everywhere. What would it make of Phillip Larkin's poem
about his mom and dad?

Frank O'Shea

Martin DeMello said...

--- Frank O'Shea wrote:
> With the greatest respect. Is all this haiku stuff just a bit of political
> correctness. "We" (whoever we are) whupped their ass in the War so let's be
> nice to them now by pretending that we appreciate this twaddle.

Nope, the popularity of the haiku as an art form rests entirely on its own
merits. With due respect, can you think of *any* form of art that has achieved
an enduring (as opposed to flash-in-the-pan) popularity and critical acclaim
purely out of political correctness? Personally I'm quite taken with haiku, and
India has afaik never whupped Japan's ass in *any* war :)

Or do you mean that people praise it because they don't want to appear
insensitive by denigrating a foreign form, whether or not they truly like it?
There may be an element of overgenerosity towards translated literature,
particularly poetry (indeed, I think I've spoken of this before), but
nonetheless I believe most poetry that outlasts its generation has succeeded on
its own merits.

> Twelve and thirteen-year old kids write this kind of thing at school and are
> persuaded by addled teachers afraid to stifle the poor little darlings'
> creativity that it is poetry.
>
> Anyway, that's what I think, but would welcome correction, even of the
> political kind.

Haiku (as opposed to senryu) are actually *far* more constrained than might
appear at first glance. The 'seventeen syllables' is just the tip of a very
large iceberg. Also, while any schoolkid can write a short poem, it's hard to
write a *good* short poem.

What I personally like about haiku is the concentration of the imagery, and the
way in which each poem is a free-floating, perfectly self-contained entity.
Also, given the almost crystalline rigidity of the form's outer shell, the
haiku manages to achieve a wonderful organicness. Furthermore, they don't
spoonfeed you - they make you *think* (something else I like about a lot of
minimalist poetry). Reading a haiku is a far more active experience than
reading, say, a narrative ballad a la Kipling - the reader has to supply a lot
of context. I'd say this was related to the Zen koan, but I'm uncomfortably
aware that I'm going out on a limb every time I talk about Zen, since all my
knowledge of it is of the 'popular' sort.

Try writing a few senryu, incidentally. It's surprising how much having to
squeeze into a 5/7/5 form concentrates and sharpens your thought (though after
a while you do come to appreciate that seventeen syllables are far roomier in
English than is consonant with true minimalism).

> And now my email program gives me two chili symbols to indicate that I
> should tone down what I have written. I tell you, this political
> correctness is everywhere. What would it make of Phillip Larkin's poem
> about his mom and dad?

Eudora, right? I've heard about that 'feature' - you ought to simply turn it
off :)

martin

Kimbol Soques said...

By-the-by -- "Japanese Jokes" appears to be archived at 198 :).

kimbol

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