James Doolittle

November 17, 2005

Filed under: Uncategorized, Papers — jdoolittle @ 5:04 am

In seventh grade English, I was first introduced to the Japanese style of poetry known as haiku. I was to compose six “traditional” haiku in the fashion prescribed thus: three lines maintaining the traditional 5-7-5 syllabic structure while conveying a nature theme. This was a gross simplification of haiku poetry, but I doubt that in seventh grade I would have been capable of composing a poem with not only the above parameters, but also containing the idea of something unchanging and of something impermanent. A concept, for instance, like time—in all things it decays, and yet itself is never diminished. In the seventh grade I suspect that, while I might have been able to grasp that or a like concept, I would not have been able to convey it in just seventeen syllables. In addition to the need for a notion of such philosophical depth to make a proper haiku, I would need to demonstrate it through imagery implicit of the idea rather than using the language of telling. Moreover, I would need to include a word or coupling of words indicative of a season; an example for fall could be “grey tides,” or perhaps, “brown leaves.” The poetic form of the haiku is said to follow these guidelines while incorporating spontaneity of the moment, though the Friends World East Asia Center Area Studies class was told by lecturer Steve Wolfe that this is not the case. In fact quite the opposite, Wolfe told us, is true.

While Steve Wolfe spent a bit of time reviewing the history of the haiku, as well as instructing Friends World Students on the specific parameters of a haiku, mentioned above, he focused mostly on Western trans-literary interpretation. The poetic form of the haiku, Steve Wolfe explained, comes from an evolution of Japanese poetic forms. Before Haiku, there was haikai a poetic form with five-line verses of 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic measure. Similar to its later evolution, this poem was often used as a way to convey concepts inherent in nature and philosophy. Each verse was part of a longer, more epic poem while the haiku maintains its context, historically, in the midst of travel-journals by famous poet-writers in the 17th Century. Basho, the man whose grave-site we later visited, composed his most famous poems in the company of his students and peers. In his book, the title to which commonly translated as “The Narrow Path to the Interior,” Basho incorporates many of his haikus into a documentation of his travels over Daimonji-yama and other mountains, incorporating haiku in the way of refining his theses on nature along the way. As he died in the late 17th century, over three hundred years of interpretation and translations of his poetry have succeeded him. While he wrote,

natsu-kusa ya
tsuwamono domo ga
yume no ato

which translates, word-for-word, literally to,

summer grass(es)
dream(s) of ruin(s)1, 2

writers have taken liberties to such extents as changing “summer grass” to “spring flowers” and “warriors… ruin(s)” to “twice ten thousand arriors slain (Hidden)”. One author from 1955, though he or she leaves his or her name anonymous, writes in all capitals,


While this last haiku clearly misses the subtle points of the poetry form, one classmate selected this as her favorite, stating that it makes clear the complete absurdity of translating haiku. The poem is written in a foreign language, the word order of which is reverse from English, and yet translators attempt to grasp the beauty and imagery used in such sparseness; the piece above takes no such course, and even makes a mockery of the whole poetry form in its abuse not only of capitalization but also of dramatization. No where in the Japanese version of the poem above is the word “grand” or “conquest”, though the translator makes this a key aspect of the poem. To such added adjectives, Steve Wolfe drew great focus, claiming them anti-haiku in spirit. Haiku relies primarily on nouns and verbs. Such dramatic adjectives would go against the spirit of haiku since, rather than expressing the explicit, a haiku gives subtle hints to a greater meaning, leaving the reader to create more in between the lines than exists in the words chosen for the poem.

While some translations can be quite grandiose, even flower at times, there are translations that capture the sparseness of the language. In these cases, translators pay little head to form rules involving syllables; naturally, a word in Japanese cannot perfectly relate in syllabic structure to a word in English. Two examples of the sparse poem stand out amongst others especially: Hiroaki Sato’s interpretation, “Summer grass: where the wariors used to dream” and Kenneth Rexroth’s, “Summer grass/ Where warriors dream.” The two poems are practically identical save for two words–”used to.” Sato’s peom puts the dreams of the warriors into the past, whereas Rexroth’s poem leaves the dream of the warriors lingering in the future. The word for dream used by Basho, “yume,” is not in its past form, however, some would argue that, since he was overlooking ruins, remains, tombstones, or aftermath of a battle, the dreams of the warrior would have to be in the past. I would, however, argue Rexroth’s poem a better capturing of the spirit of this and general haiku; while Sato may be right as to the possibility of when a warrior dreams, Rexroth’s present-tense interpretation allows the reader to consider warriors of today dreaming, and the ghosts of warriors past dreaming, providing the reader with the essential unchanging aspect of haiku. Because he also used the word “warrior” instead of the modernization, “soldier,” his line also calls to reference change: warriors no longer exist in today’s world, and while the modern military man or woman might call himself or herself a warrior, his or her title is that of a private, sergeant, lieutenant, general, etc., not a warrior. The term is antiquated and reminds the reader of what is past, and what has changed.

Given the parameters with which Steve Wolfe presented us, I think that a “good” haiku should have more focus placed on a concise meaning, rather than on the line-by-line syllabic breakdown. Basho’s work is probably second in fame to Buson’s, though both poets have a secure place in Japanese and haiku history. Standing at his grave site, I could not help but imagine Basho sitting at his favorite temple (the temple in which he was buried) working with students on his latest poem. Not far from a 60’s beat, this poet wandered up and over the mountain on the northwestern border of Kyoto only to journey back again at his own will and pace. In his time, Basho offered many haiku, and of his own, I remember one from my seventh grade class:

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!3

Though I criticize writers for following the exact 5-7-5 measure of haiku, I cannot help but feel nostalgic reverence for this poem; its traditions resonate within me, and despite my then-English class, I will always have a soft spot for that which reminds me of my seventh grade days.

1 Japanese nouns are taken as pluralized or singular based on the context in which they are used. In the instance of haiku, this issue is complex; since there is no context to ascertain the plural or singular state of a given noun, nouns can be translated into either singular or plural states.
2 The term, ato, in Japanese can be interpreted into marker, tombstone, aftermath, destiny, and many other words surrounding death and decay; the term “ruin” is popularized by poet Cid Corman, and I believe it to be the most accurate interpretation for this poem, given its context. On this subject, there is much debate as to whether or not Basho used this word with so many meanings to intentionally force readers to consider many meanings, instead of only one.

3Unfortunately, I cannot recall the translator’s name who left this haiku in my seventh grade literature textbook. I remember this form of the poem especially because of an assignment to memorize the poem in its measure.