Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 5

Haiku as a purely Japanese form

Within certain limitations and with some effort, almost anybody can write haiku. But the result, in my opinion, is not really haiku unless done in Japanese by someone at least moderately fluent in that language. Haiku written in English and English translations of Japanese works are not equivalent to Japanese haiku for a number of reasons:

First, the Japanese language doesn’t use articles (i.e., “a,” “the,” “an.”) English sounds peculiar when articles are omitted, but each article in a haiku uses up a syllable without much to show for it. To keep within the seventeen syllable budget, the writer may either leave out “a” or “the,” which can sound odd, or find a way around the need for an article (such as using the plural form of a noun). Or the writer can simply cut the Gordian Knot and abandon the 5/7/5 rule. Providing titles for your haiku also makes it easier to adhere to the 5/7/5 rule–you can set the scene in the title and free up some syllables for other poetic effects. See the information in Part 2 regarding titles.

Second, Japanese has written words (ideograms) that are distinct from its spoken words. Each spoken word and its ideogram can have more than one meaning. Japanese poets often use a double-meaning ideogram to incorporate two shades of content in a haiku1. Some of these secondary meanings interact with other words or concepts in the poem. Similarly, the spoken form of the word may have two (or more) meanings, both (all) of which are relevant to the poet’s intention. Because the English written word and spoken word are essentially the same, English doesn’t permit as great a scope for intentional artistic ambiguity. .

For example, Bashó’s poem:

Akikaze no
Yarido no kuchi ya

The autumn wind
Through the opening of a sliding door–
A piercing voice.

As Makoto Ueda2 points out, yari (“sliding”) can also mean “spear,” a word that is reflected in “piercing,” in the third line. Additionally, kuchi (“opening”) also has the meaning “mouth,” which is reflected in “voice” in the third line.3

Third, the Japanese language, because of its different word order, creates special opportunities for deliberate ambiguities, a poetic tool. Also, Japanese sentence structure often facilitates putting the word with greatest impact last. (On the other hand, sometimes English word order can better serve the same purpose.) But the chance of either of these tricks surviving translation effectively is small.

Fourth, the syllabication of Japanese words is different. It may take more syllables to express certain concepts in English, again making it difficult, if not impossible, to translate a Japanese haiku into English, or vice versa, and stay within the traditional 5/7/5 budget. For this reason, Japanese haiku are sometimes translated into a twenty syllable form where the tenth and twentieth syllables rhyme. This, in my opinion, is an excellent compromise, if the translator is up to it.

If you only speak English, all is not lost. Next time, we’ll take up the twenty syllable haiku in greater depth.

1 Every word in Japanese is close to so many other words in sound that there’s little humor in making a pun–when every word has a hundred puns, puns are less than the dime-a-dozen word tricks that they are in English. Puns, per se, are not used. The sound of words is important, however, and one can find examples of assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia in Japanese haiku.

2Makoto, Ueda, Matsuo Bashó, Kodansha International, 1982.

3Makoto omits mentioning that sliding doors sometimes howl when wind passes through or across the gap, causing the door to resonate like a whistle or other musical instrument. Note the word “voice.” in line 3.

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