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A sense of occasion

9 Dec 10 | Re: What we can learn from haiku

Most people know that a haiku has seventeen syllables. Slightly fewer people know that, traditionally, a haiku almost always mentions one of the seasons. But this is important to realise, since I’ve found that if you follow that simple haiku rule, you don’t often go far wrong. Here are two:

Dark night glows yellow
From the street-lit snowy roads
Electric winter

Making your way down
A country lane in the spring
You might get bee-stung

Not too bad, hey? Or at least adequate. In any case, haiku aren’t like western poetry where you try to write the best one it’s possible to write. When you write a haiku, you’re mainly just joining in the great haiku-writing tradition. That’s the main thing.

(The second one is a rare, though not unique, example of a haiku-acrostic.)

Now, I have been thinking about why the Japanese would have a form of poetry that almost always mentions a season, and what this mention does for the poems concerned. I’m assuming that season names in Japanese are only one syllable long, so it’s less of a constraint on the native poets, but even still, if you’re giving even one seventeenth of your poem over to a convention then you need to make sure it earns its keep.

I’ve concluded that seasons have a particular power in poetry because they are both time-bound and timeless at once. The invocation of a season calls up an image of a particular moment in time, often the cusp where one season becomes another, which is hard to define in reality but can appear instantly in the imagination. Yet because the seasons go in a cycle, the name of a season also tells us that the moments described are like others that have happened and will happen again. In playing this dual role, the word takes the poet’s specific experience and makes it universal - which is arguably what all poetry sets out to do.

Do we find equivalent techniques in western poetry? Well, the cycle of nature is a strong theme in the Mexican Octavio Paz and the Catalan Salvador Espriu, to name two. But I am more interested in the technique of invoking a moment, a moment that’s both specific and universal. In this, I’m put in mind of the famous Ronan Keating-inspiring Neruda poem Me gustas cuando callas (I like you when you are silent). Here the moment isn’t the name of a season, but a ‘when’ clause, which has a similar function - it invokes a particular event that occurs repeatedly, though not regularly in this case. Like the name of a season, it makes you think instantly of a change of state: the moment when a person falls silent, like summer turning to autumn. Also like the name of a season, it takes a fleeting moment that everyone will have experienced and exhibits it for careful consideration. I expect a search for ‘when’ clauses in other works would prove fruitful. Sting’s When We Dance springs to mind for some reason, but there must be better ones than that.

I’m planning to come back to this topic, but I will sign off for the moment with another season-based haiku, adapted from a famous English writer:

Shall I compare thee
To a summer’s day? Thou art
More lovely, and more.

Not too bad, hey?

Posted by ZICO RYAN at 18:20

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