Some Useful Ideas for Those Writing Poetry
Chapter 3 Haiku.
I work in a Secondary School (although I am a Science Technician, I have helped out with poetry events) and know how much pupils in English Classes enjoy writing Haiku. I think they prefer the haiku to every other type of poem. Perhaps, this is partly because it is such a short type of poem. Pupils spend ten minutes writing one. Failure or success, they haven’t wasted much time. But then, they see, sometimes, that the poem might be deeper than they intended. This poem is often the first poem they have enjoyed. Britain is not Japan, and Poetry is not usually seen as being worthwhile here. So the pupil might have had little experience of poetry in their life. I organised for a couple of years, a Twin between the School I worked in and a Japanese School. The Japanese end of things paid for translators to translate English to Japanese and Japanese to English. So with some delay, the pupils could chat to each other. The Japanese pupils had an amazing love for their own culture and poetry. Even Primary School pupils (whose posts we sometimes saw). I organised a Japanese day in the School and pupils performed haiku. And Staff taught Japanese skills.
Also, it is easy to convince oneself that one has written something meaningful because so many famous Haiku seem vague and hard to understand. And so a beginner poet can get away with writing a poem that is also a bit vague and hard to understand, due to inexperience rather than design. The writer believes it just could be a Zen masterpiece?!
It is a poem that can seem to be the easiest to write. However, it can still hint at ideas that take the reader years to fully understand.
The Japanese wrote many types of Haiku. However, pupils in Schools enjoy writing the type where there is an initial line that describes something. The second line describes something apparently disconnected. And the final line brings these two seemingly unconnected things together. This can be quite satisfying, for the reader and for the poet.
The subjects of the first and second line could be things separated by, for example, nearness; beauty, or awareness.
A “cutting” word, or kireji, is sometimes used in Japanese haiku. This has no real meaning but serves to introduce a change in the poem’s direction. In translations this is often included as an, “Oh” or an, “Ah”.
Japanese haiku tend to have a special word or phrase that describes the season in which the poem is set. Pupils quite like taking part in this little bit of tradition. Although the Japanese have dozens of words and phrases that they use.
Many people think that anyone writing Haiku has to write one that corresponds exactly to the rules that the original Haiku were written in. I think this is not helpful.
Firstly, there are dozens of rules relating to the Haiku and you could spend months getting to know them all. You could use the exact seasonal words and phrases the Japanese did and still do. But many relate to animals and plants that do not live in Britain.
You could write a first line of five syllables, a second of seven syllables, and a final line of five syllables, as happens in Japanese haiku. But this is not helpful in English. It adds nothing to the poem. English is a very differently set out language from Japanese. If you want to write a Haiku like some eighteenth century master you admire then you must be fluent in eighteenth century Japanese and in all the nuances of the dialect that were spoken in the region that poet was brought up in. A time machine would come in helpful here.
And, Japanese and Chinese masters of Haiku often liked to throw in a few literary allusions to previous poets or to mythological works.
I spent two years at adult classes learning Japanese (spoken and written). This was mainly to be able to speak Japanese haiku as well as I could. I also looked at Japanese poets reciting traditional haiku.
Another challenge in reading haiku is the fact that Japanese is not as precise a language as English is. And some of the poets deliberately wrote their poems in a way that allowed as many shades of meaning as possible.
I am not saying that we should not try to write poems that respect the Japanese love of Culture and Haiku. What I am saying is, you can’t write a traditional haiku in English. You can write a haiku inspired poem that obeys a few of the traditional rules. It need not even be over three lines, though three lines are a good length.
It is worth remembering that the Japanese when they write about a Season are often looking forward to the next Season. By this I mean that a poem about winter can really be saying something about spring.
All my adult life I have been fascinated with haiku and have read and written haiku. I have also tried to “translate” haiku. My Japanese isn’t good enough to do a translation properly, so I read as many proper translations of a poem (by different authors) as possible. And I use a dictionary to look more closely at some of the difficult words. When I have an idea of what the poem is saying, I try to write my own “translation”. This method teaches you a lot about the poem. I have used this method for looking at poems in Ancient Greek as well as in Japanese.
For two years I studied Japanese at night classes-mainly to get some understanding of the role of Japanese language – grammar and sounds – in a haiku. I strongly recommend that you start out writing haiku similar to my description above of how haiku in Schools are written. Also, try to read as many haiku as possible. You will be dependant on translations. Try to look at different translations of the same poem-to see what translation seems to work best for you. You will find that translations vary greatly.
Haiku are written about many subjects, mostly serious subjects. Although there are a very few irreverent Haiku.
Haiku are often a bit like a Koan. A Koan is an enigmatic mind puzzle used in Zen Buddhism to shake Monks and Nuns out of their habitual thinking processes
There are many poems written about Satori. Satori is the Zen word used to describe a first glimpse of a much deeper truth: enlightenment.
In Theravada Buddhism this step is known as First Jhana. Those who achieve this first step are not meant to boast about it. But they may write a Haiku which describes something of what they experienced. The sound of dry leaves is one symbol for Satori. Another is the sound of rain.
Some haiku are about the objects used for meditation. For example, the sound of water running over large stones is meant to be conducive to achieving a state of meditation.
The final line in a Zen haiku sometimes describes things from the different perspective of the monk who has finally achieved Satori. There is a poem by M. Basho where he is describing a horse moving across a scene that is observed by his mind. The last line describes the poet as now being part of the picture. So, he sees no separation of observer and observed. It needs quite a deep state of Satori to actually realise this. But the reader can intellectually understand this. However, although it is very difficult to actually attain that state, readers can, if they allow themselves, feel that there is a great depth to the poem. That is, it makes the reader feel a deeper and truer than usual sense of reality.
When I was fourteen, I first came across haiku in a library book at my School. I didn’t understand any of them totally, but they each made me feel that hidden within the words of the poem was a deep and satisfying truth. This made me interested in Zen Buddhism.
Japanese culture and art is very different from that of the West. But that should be seen as something interesting: a new way to look at life
For instance, Japanese paintings and poetry stress asymmetry before symmetry. Whereas, western artists and gardeners love symmetry.
Symmetry is where things ether side of a central line are in balance. Japanese calligraphy can sometimes have a huge white space set against a drawing and a tiny piece of writing in a top corner.
Japanese also love the strange and the tiny. They see lichens and mosses as just as beautiful as flowers i.e. everything has its place. To see lichens as beautiful requires a big change in perspective for a Western artist or poet. It comes naturally to many Japanese and Chinese.
Haiku tend to be about important matters. If a poem is about a seemingly unimportant matter like “what a frog is thinking about”, then the poet is probably asking some deep questions about philosophy and life and all that kind of thing.
The other joy of mine when reading Zen Haiku was the fact that the poems were often about nature. They tried to see animals from the perspective of the animal, and not from the selfish view of a small minded human. Animals are not merely “failed humans” in a haiku. K. Issa is the Japanese poet best able to relate to animals in his poems. Indeed, for a Japanese poet, he often writes in quite a Western manner: he often explains a lot in his haiku, rather than leaving it for the reader to read, explore, and question.
In the dragonfly’s eyes
Another great poet worth reading is Y. Buson. Buson is said to be very difficult to translate. But still, some of his poems are stunning.
The evening breeze
Splashes water over
The heron’s legs
Perhaps the most famous haiku is one by M. Basho. The first line reads, “An old pond”. The second line deals with a subject seemingly disconnected from the first, “a frog jumping” This second line also shows that the poem was written in spring. As “a frog jumping” was a symbol for spring.
The last line describes something which is created from the joining of the first and the second happenings, “The sound of water”.
The reader may ask themselves, is this sound, this “splash” or “plop” as it has been variously translated, independent of the pond and of the frog. Or is it part of each? The last line reads in Japanese, “Misu no oto”. Here the repetition of the sound of the “o” may be a symbol for the ripples produced by the splash.
One of my favourite haiku is by H. Ransetsu:
Far above the monks-
Chanting on the misty road-
The wild geese fly
One “understanding” of this beautiful, deep, and visual poem, is that the monks are working hard to develop the Buddha nature that is in them, while all they have to do is to drop off all attachments and they will instantly be as free as the wild geese flying free above the mist. Mist might be seen as a symbol for delusion.
Monks are meant to work very hard at attaining their Buddha nature, their natural enlightenment, but they are also taught that there comes a stage where they must stop trying and just allow this state to come about. A poem, or a sound of a frog splashing into an old pond, may be the catalyst that will help initiate this change.
Another possible meaning of the poem is that the “honking” noise of the wild geese is like the chanting of the monks and both groups of creatures are searching for their Buddha nature in their own way. I have seen other explanations of the poem’s meaning in other books. Finally, it is what you, the reader, decide that is important.
Two terms which have changed over time; are described differently by different authors, and seem to be quite vague anyway are Wabi and Sabi. Wabi can mean accepting that the imperfections of life – like notches in a tea cup – have their own perfect beauty.
Sabi has been described as being about seeing beauty in things that are aged and weathered by time. Loneliness is also seen as a sign of Sabi.
And now I am going to give you a few ideas to use to get you started writing haiku. You do not need to go on a two week Creative writing Course. The intellect you have and the imagination you have will be enough to get started with. Just keep writing until the poems appear as if by magic, easily and often. Often can mean once a month or once a week.
Carry a notebook with you and write down words or phrases or ideas that you have when you are inspired. Go to places where you are more easily inspired, like a deserted seaside. Well, it works for me. Try to spend sufficient time working on building up your poem. If you can’t quite finish your haiku, then put it to one side and come back to it a week later. Read it as if it is completely new to you. Also, try reading it from the viewpoint of someone you respect who you have just shown it to. What bits would they like? Is every sentence perfect? Is every word the best word possible? Words are important!
Please trim off any excess words.
You only have three lines to complete, but take your time over them. Every haiku should be a complete thing of beauty. Perhaps you want to say something about how unfair life is. Or you want to describe how animals react to a change in the weather. In Zen, everything can be seen to have depth. Have respect for your poem. You are working hard to make it perfect. Some people write better and better as time goes on. Myself, I believe that the poems I wrote ten years ago are as good, or, depending on your opinion, as bad, as the ones I write today.
I tend to do things better if I saturate myself with the subject that I am participating in. If you want to write good poems, try reading as many different types of poems as possible. Anthologies from the library are good for getting to see as many poems from as many different poets as possible. New poets always complain that people read dead poets like Wordsworth or Dylan Thomas and not new poets like themselves. However, people have a rough idea of what they will get with the “dead poets” and new poets books tend to be very short and expensive.
Have a look at Poetry magazines and see if any takes your fancy. You might one day be sending poems to them and wanting them to publish your work. Remember that hardly any poet ever gets a book of their poems published.
A few years ago, I helped set up an Annual Vesak Buddhist Festival in Glasgow. As well as being one of the organisers, I ran a Stall which gave information about Zen. I gave out posters with haiku on them which visitors to the festival could draw an enso on. An enso is a circle which is drawn freehand with a brush and ink. A Zen master is said to be able to tell the state of someone’s mind from the circle they draw: but I was just doing it for fun. It was one of the busiest stalls there. As well as this, every hour I organised a public participation haiku reading session around a circular water feature in the Hidden Gardens. I had translations of twelve haiku which each dealt with the sound of a Bell. The circle of readers would read their haiku which was on a large piece of card. I would then ring a bell and the next reader would read from their card. People very much enjoyed taking part. This went on round and round the circle for about ten minutes. And then the event was repeated an hour later.
INTERACTING WORDS. I have developed my own version of Haiku. Some of the Zen haiku I read seem to require the reader’s mind to grasp more than one concept/idea at the same time. If the right words are used by the poet, the reader can find the words forming something new out of their joining together i.e. it is as if they melt together in the mind and form a new entity. My opinion is that this can best be replicated in English by using a very short number of words to make up a new kind of poem. The reader is to hold each of the words in their mind – at the same time – until they form into a new concept/idea.
Indeed, I am working on ways to write Poems using as few words as possible. I know that certain Poetry Groups have done similar things before. However, I want the number of words used to be so restricted – between 4 and 8: any less than four has insufficient interactions and more than eight has too many interactions – that each word in the Poem has to interact with all of the other words in the poem, so as to create a new meaning.
These works are meant to be real poems. They are not merely puzzles or experiments. There is no definite sequence in the poem. There is no story being told sequentially downwards.
Simply think of all seven words at the same time and the Poem will come together in your brain-well, that’s the idea.
Red Poppy Ejected
Mud Fingers Poem
And now, the point of this book is that you try out these new ideas. Simply sit in a relaxed manner and imagine four or five words that you can join together to make a new idea. Then write them down as a poem as I have done above. Remember that there is no sequence to the poem. They must all be “held” in the mind at the same time.
BACKWARDS TRANSLATION USED ON A HAIKU
BACKWARDS TRANSLATION. My favourite poems are ancient and foreign. Consequently, for many years now, I have had to rely on translations of beautiful Greek, Japanese, and Chinese Poetry. I understand how inaccurate translation is and I am trying to develop a new method of “backwards translation”. I have written a Haiku in English. It is a Haiku in meaning. I don’t believe that a Haiku needs to keep to all the rules (of a Japanese haiku) when it is written in English-the languages are too different to have to restrict oneself to a particular number of syllables-which, anyway, adds nothing to the work in English. I do try to depict a season, try to keep to three lines, and I try to have a depth to the poem. By depth, I mean in the way I write about nature or about a particular Zen topic. I have found a helpful Japanese Translator on the Japan UK LIVE website (an excellent website set up to allow School pupils from Japanese and English speaking Schools to write to each other). One of the Japanese contributors kindly translated my poem into the original language i.e. who “back translated” the poem into Japanese. The finished work is an accurate Haiku in English (no loss in translation) and has a Japanese “original” which will serve the purpose of letting the reader or audience hear the language that Haiku are usually written in. Some poets (e.g. some Gaelic poets) say that you should not translate from their language into English. Whatever the faults in the translation process, if there were no translations, then many of the world’s greatest books would be unknown to most of the world. I used to make translations of poetry from languages I didn’t know by reading an exact literal translation of the poem as well as many “poetic” translations. And then trying to understand what the poet meant, before making up my own translation. For two years I studied Japanese at night Classes and for two years I studied Gaelic at night Classes. I have been involved in many cross cultural and cross language projects. I intend doing “backwards translation” with other languages and poetic forms. I recommend it to others poets to try out. I believe it is an excellent tool and helps the audience and writer to have a better understanding of the poems “original” language i.e. the language such a poem would normally be written in. The poem below was written as I sat in meditation in a local park. I saw shadows moving about around my feet and it seemed that the wind blew these about.
The Wind Blows A HAIKU (TYPE) POEM
The wind blows the shadows
So hard, that the leaves fall
From the trees
Mr M. Matsumoto then composed a haiku in Japanese based on my English haiku –
Literally- Sunlight filters through,
A disruptive wind comes,
New leaves fall
M. Matsumoto from Amaji Elementary School in Ichikawa then also gave the poem in romaji (romaji is a phonetic rendering of Japanese characters)-so it could be read phonetically by an English speaking reader, or read out at a poetry night.–
He added, In Haiku, you need to use ‘seasonal words’ [‘kigo’ in Japanese] that express the time of year. I imagined the scene as early summer, so my seasonal word is ‘wakaba’ (young leaves). With “The wind blows the shadows” I sense these are shadows cast by the light filtering through the trees – we have a word for this in Japanese which I have used – ‘komore-bi’. I took the wind as being wind strong enough to make the leaves fall. Thanks to M. Matsumoto for the (what I call) “backwards translation” and to Japan UK Live website for hosting such a valuable communication link.