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One moment in time: The hidden wonderment of Japanese short-form poetry

Quality short-form writing is generally acknowledged in literary circles as an exceptionally difficult discipline and an art form of itself. There’s many an artisan coffee drunk at book circle deliberations on the best short story ever told, and fisty-cuffs at dawn should some illiterate ignoramus belittle your favoured novella.

By David Jacklin

Sunday 12 May 2019, 03:00PM

Photo: Milan Popovic / Unsplash

Photo: Milan Popovic / Unsplash

There’s great skill and wisdom in saying in 50 words what others deliberate in 500. In George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing, two were dedicated to prevent the amateur scribe from waffling on: never use a long word where a short one will do; and if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

But the skinniest of examples in this discipline is perhaps the most misunderstood. So I’d like to dedicate the lion’s share of this column to the humble haiku.

The haiku is a form of Japanese poetry, characterised by its length of 17 syllables across three phrases. Here’s perhaps the most famous example by the originator of this style, Basho Matsuo (1644-1694):

An old silent pond...
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

Most are amused by the supposed simplicity of the haiku poem. Indeed, the form is simple. But the skill of creating what is considered a great haiku is far from it. Basho himself expressed its hidden complexities by claiming, “He who creates three to five haiku poems during a lifetime is a haiku poet. He who attains to ten is a master.”

Before a poet can compose what is considered a haiku, they must understand a profound unity between themselves and their surrounding environment. It’s a spiritual discipline which has within it a number of uncodified rules. When the haiku poem is considered with understanding of these, it sheds an illuminating and complex light on its apparent simplicity.

The most basic rule of the haiku is that it should be of 17 syllables in length in the native tongue of the author. There’s something engaging in trying to reach perfection with a limited number of syllables. But why 17? The length is thought to be the same as what was believed in ancient Japan to be the dura­tion of a single breath, or event of ‘ah-ness’ or wonder. In Zen philosophy, be­ing in the moment, the observer within one breath could reveal the universe and glimpse enlightenment.

The haiku poem is a transmission, a direct experience of a passing moment. Words which define the experience and the experience itself are one. In this state the author and the environment are a unified whole, in which the poet wishes to convey no sense of time.

It traditionally has a seasonal ele­ment or reference, called the kigo. Often these are direct in terms of explicit refer­ence to the season, but in many of the fa­mous poems this is defined by metonym, expressing something closely associated with that time of year.

Blossoms on the pear tree,
lighten by the moonlight, and there
a woman is reading a letter.

– Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

To make the experience meaning­ful and alive, the poem often includes a ‘where, what and when’ element including the viewer’s harmony with the place where the event happened, the felt object and the seasonal word. The art is in expressing how the three elements exist as one moment, as parts of the whole.

Adding to this shortest of poetry forms’ complexity is the kireji, or ‘cutting word’. The kireji can be used to provide structure to the poem between two objects or elements, but is often used at the end phrase to cut into the stream of thought and transmit a profound awareness that arises within the captured moment.

First autumn morning
the mirror I stare into
shows my father’s face. 

Zest Real Estate

– Murakami Kijo (1865-1938)

The finest poems are said to express the concept of hon-i, or ‘the heart of things’. In essence a spirit that underlies the basis of the moment and our experi­ence with it. Uejima Onitsura (1661- 1738), a Japanese haiku poet of the Edo period, described hon-i as, “When I think occasionally about an excellent verse, I find no artistic touch in its phrasing, or display of colourfulness in its air; only the verse flows out effortlessly; yet pro­found in the heart that expressed it.”

The Thief
left it behind.
The moon at the window.

– Ryokan (1758-1831)

In more recent times the haiku has been adapted to express modern themes and human foibles, often with humour and more than a touch of cynicism. These adaptations are known as senryu. Senryu have the same structure, but as a much more playful form don’t hold the seasonal or spiritual elements.

Class reunion
Where we all compete to see
Which one looks youngest.

– Anon

The observant wife
In the beautiful woman
Finds some small defect.

– Anon

Haiku and senryu continue to be popular in both the East and the West, with established societies, published works and international competitions. Their diminutive size masks the skill and perception needed to produce a heavyweight verse.

There’s something altogether magical about this poetry’s simplicity. Holding small moments in time, captured, suspended, for each reader to experience and remind themselves of the joy in this fleeting life.

Today’s fading light
Tomorrow hides in shadows
Such magic and loss.

– David Jacklin




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