Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Haiku Example - modern

Modern haijin (haiku poets) feel little obligation to stick with the formality of lines and syllables, but retain the insistence upon a caesura and a seasonal reference. Well written modern form haiku do not need either punctuation or capitalization because the structure of the poem is such that it is plain where the breaks occur and what kind they are. This is why so many haiku appear to have been written by people under the influence of e. e. cummings. However, Japanese has no capital letters and no punctuation marks, Japanese uses verbal symbols such as 'ka' for a question mark and 'kana' for an exclamation. Because the punctuation must be written out is another reason why English-language haiku are longer than the Japanese; English can use punctuation and capitals, thereby packing more into a sentence than the equivalent Japanese sentence. Ergo, those who strive to match the Japanese aesthetic also pare down their verses.

tattered green and white
hanging on the line

~M. Kei

In the poem above, there is no need for punctuation marks at the end of the first and second lines, the phrasing is obvious. At first glance this poem might seem to lack a reference to nature and the seasons, but it is definitely there. The words 'stars' invokes the stars in the heavens and it is only as the rest of poem is read is it realized that the stars are terrestrial ones. The haiku does not explain exactly what those stars are, but that they are hanging on the line implies a patchwork quilt. The tatters in turn tell us more about the quilt itself -- an old, well loved quilt. As for why it is hanging on the line, that too is obvious for anyone familiar with the rhythms of the country life: It's spring cleaning time. Old quilts are washed and hung to air them out at the end of a winter season. Thus the poem has an extremely strong seasonal reference and though the object is a manmade one, the freshness of the spring air pervades the poem. The long lasting and much loved quilt pairs well with the endless cycle of the seasons and the happy feeling that people get when spring finally arrives. Even the choice of the quilt's colors, green and white, invoke the sense of spring.

All this may seem terribly contrived, but it isn't. The poem also features something I regard as being a distinguishly feature of the genre of haiku, something that gives it real merit in my eyes: Reality. The scene as written actually happened. The quilt was made by my mother (now deceased) for my daughter when she was a baby. That baby is now a high school graduate. The quilt is worn and tattered from being loved to death and has been washed and hung on the line every year. This poem was written a couple of years ago but has now acquired a special poignancy; after my mother passed away at Thanksgiving of 2005 my daughter folded up the quilt and put it away to save it as a special keepsake of her grandmother.

When a poet is deeply in tune to the nuances of a lived life, poetry is the natural result.

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