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In the Air of Perfume

The haiku originated from another style of 9th century Japanese poetry called renga, which was popular between the 9th and 12th centuries. Renga—a collaboration between at least two authors but often times many more—begins with a 3-line stanza called a hokku which is followed by a chain of stanzas written by other poets. The hokku is created by an honored individual, and follows a 5-7-5 structure of mōra, units of sound which determine stress or sound, very similar although not entirely the same as syllables. This in turn morphed into the modern day haiku.

Haiku, and indeed much of Japanese literature, did not make its way to the mainstream West until the early 20th century. Some inevitably failed to see the highly restrictive form of haiku as effective poetry. Takamishi Ninomiya writes in The Poetry of Living Japan, “Facility in expression must mean shallowness of thought ... How can a more consecutive thought be given vent in such short forms?" (p. 2). He goes on to counter this quote with one from T.S. Eliot, "no vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job." It was just another form, after all.

If one had to explain the essence of haiku, the meaning of the word hokku sheds light on what it is. Imagist poet Yone Noguchi wrote, "Hokku means literally a single utterance or the utterance of a single verse; that utterance should be like a "moth light playing on reality's dusk," or "an art hung, as a web, in the air of perfume," swinging soft in music of a moment" (The Spirit of Japanese Poetry, p. 39). The Imagist poets immediately took to and celebrated the form for its simplicity and visual descriptions. It soon became popular all around the world.

Despite its rise in popularity, the brevity of haiku still deceives a lazy reader. Consider one of the most well-known haiku by Matsuo Basho, translated by Alan Watts:

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:

Haiku from Basho often resemble koans, or riddles without answers, but an attentive reader still gleans much. There is the transformation of the pond from stillness to splashing, the connection between the frog and the water, the implied ear that hears “the sound of water,” and the collision of the senses which communicates a sense of presence. It entertains in its utter simplicity, while simultaneously conveying the sense of the inexplicable. 

Matsuo Basho was one of the four Japanese master haiku poets known as "the Great Four," alongside Masaoka Shiki, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa.

By Thad Higa

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