Haiku; the attention of whore of poetry

November 11, 2017

Haiku is one of the most well known forms of poetry. Most people know that it originated in Japan, but Haiku is only one of many forms of Japanese poetry.

The language itself is the source of one major distinction in Japanese poetry. Western poetry focuses mainly on rhyme and meter, but in Japanese a consonant is always attached to a vowel. There’s no way to write a consonant all on its’ own. Because of this, rhyming words is so easy that it adds no extra meaning or emphasis in a poem. Instead, Japanese poetry focuses on specific patterns of syllables per line and the theme or feeling of the poem.

 

Besides the strict syllable count Japanese poetry is also guided by thematic rules. Seasons have inspired many poets to write about the optimism of new life in spring and the inevitability of death that comes with winter.

 

Since its early history poetry has been an important form of expression. In 900 A.D during the Heian period of Japanese history a person’s attractiveness was 90% based on their ability write spontaneous and well composed poems, the other 10% came from their calligraphy skills. Genji, Japan’s most famous fictionally playboy, and Casanova’s only real competition, used his good looks and poetry skills to seduce more than 13 women in the course of the book, including his stepmother.

 

Genji wrote in a poetry form known as Waka which has a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable line count and has been used since the Heian. After this period Japan was ruled by warlords and poetry lost its influence. But, during the Edo Period (1603-1868), poetry became popular again and new styles were even invented including renga and haiku.

 

Renga was developed a bit before the Edo Period but it remained a popular form for many Edo poets. The word means ‘linked verse’ and several poets would gather to write them. As it developed renga became a kind of game with each poet writing a stanza to fit the one before. The rules of Japanese poetry are strict so it was not as easy as it sounds. Here is an abridged example from The Three Poets at Minase by Sogi, Shohaku, and Socho.

 

Snow yet remaining (5)

The mountain slopes are misty (7)

An evening in spring (5)

 

Far away the water flows (7)

Past the plum scented village (7)

 

The moon! does it still  (5)

Over fog enshrouded fields (7)

Linger in the sky? (5)

 

Meadows carped in frost (7)

Autumn has drawn to a close (7)

 

One of the many rules of renga is that if a season is mentioned it must be mentioned in the following stanza, but not necessarily be named. The first stanza is set in early spring but the second stanza pulls us full into the season by mentioning the blossoming plum tree. In the second stanza the moon and fog are used as symbols for autumn and in the last stanza snow tells us that it is winter. The poem continues but this small section demonstrates the goal of renga, for every stanza to flow into the next keeping continuity throughout.

 

The previous poem dealt with seasons as a theme, one of the most popular for Japanese poets, even today. Spring and fall are the favorite seasons. In books and compilations, poems about spring and fall make up the largest portion. Autumn tends to be the most popular of the two partly because of its connection with the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence.

 

Buddhist thought exerted a great deal of influence on the thinking of poets and their poems. The impermanence of life is one of the most common themes and is often tied to fall as the leaves change color and eventually winter comes. One of the most recognizable poems for Japanese people anyone who enjoys Japanese poetry, deals with this topic. Frog by Basho.

 

 

 

Furuike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

 

An old pond

A frog jumps in

 

The sound of water

 

 

 

 

 

Basho is considered by many scholars to be the greatest and most influential Japanese poet. His poems are layered with meaning and symbolism that take several readings to fully understand. If we imagine an old pond its surface is still and there might even be algae growing around the edges. Who knows how long it has been this way silent and undisturbed. Then suddenly a frog jumps into the water and everything has changes. The once still surface is full of ripples and the sound of the splash echoes. Even the old pond can cannot stay the same forever.

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