Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Haikus - Life in Three Verses

If we ventured to explain the difference between prose and poetry, we could say that poetry is the quintessence of prose; poetry is prose filtered and rid of the inessential, in order to obtain purity of forms, meanings, and feelings. Now, filter poetry through the fine sand and gravel layers of an alembic, and the few, rare distilled drops of ether that fall into the ampoule are haikus.

A poem does not have to be perfect; a haiku does. A poem can be lenghty, a haiku must not; traditional haikus develop in three lines of five, seven, and five syllable respectively, for a total number of seventeen syllables; this was possible for the composition of the traditional Japanese haikus, but the English language has almost never adopted this tradition. My personal interpretation of this is a much lower sense of perfection the western world has always had compared to the Japanese traditional approach to any life quests.
Yet, a haiku must be made of three verses (two, exceptionally) and, in the simplest form, it must express the Meaning of Life.

Many of us enjoy composing haikus, just like poems, from daily or nightly impressions, dreams, facts of life, or personal experiences. Yet, these short compositions rarely are true haikus. Most of the time they are too complicated, forceful, and do not abide by the simplicity that defines haikus. Very often, just as it happens for most poems, they fail to offer a meaning of life that is universal and applicable, either by analogy, metaphor, simile, opposition, or whatnot to the life of each and every living or non-living being in the universe.
Following are some examples of the most beautiful haikus made by Japanese traditional haiku poets:

In the cicada's cry
no sign can foretell
how soon it must die.
- Basho - 

Blowing from the west
fallen leaves gather
in the east.
- Buson -

I kill an ant
and realize my three children
have been watching.
- Kato Shuson -

Over the wintry
forests,  winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.
- Soseki -

Even with insects -
some can sing,
some can't. 
- Issa -

Now, famous haikus by western poets and writers:

I went in the woods 
to meditate -
it was too cold.
- Jack Kerouac -

Everyone stands alone on the heart of the earth
pierced by a ray of sun;
and suddenly, it is evening. 
- Salvatore Quasimodo -

Among twenty snowy mountains,
the only moving thing
was the eye of the blackbird.
- Wallace Stevens -

Missing a kick 
at the icebox door
It closed anyway  
- Jack Kerouac -

Composing haikus is an exercise any of us can do. As we walk down a street or a nature path, while sitting on a couch or bench, in winter or fall, a haiku can be found anywhere at anytime. Yet, discovering it becomes possible only if we rid ourselves of the unessential, if we seek perfection and the universal idea behind each smaller fragment of reality, ultimately understanding that only through the particular can we access the universal.



  1. The limerick has merit
    The tweet, too.
    the Haiku is hard

  2. Hi Jay! It's been FOREVER!!! I hope you are well and happy. I've never been one for poetry---though I respect it a great deal. Beautiful words. :)

  3. Jacopo, you don't have the MOST famous one, and probably the most important one. First the Japanese: Furu ike ya
    kawazu tobikomu
    mizu no oto

    Ah, the translation: Old pond/ frog jumps/ and now the last line. VERY difficult. Literally "sound of water," because Japanese has no article. To me, best translation ever, was "PLOP"

  4. My favorite haiku is from Basho:

    A cicada shell;
    It sang itself
    Utterly away.

    Trying to write the quintessential haiku is impossible indeed. "Trying too hard"—I think that's part of the problem. Clearing one's mind, clearing one's life, that's a start.