The ‘miniature’ poetic forms of Japan and their influence [Archives:2004/715/Education]

February 26 2004

By Dr Anil K Prasad, Associate Professor & Head,
Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Ibb University,
Email: [email protected]

“Only Haiku warms me in the nights of winter”)Abdunasser Mujjalli ( A Yemeni poet who lives in the U.S.A)

Poetry is characterized by compression, perspicacity, and a sudden revelation of reality and in most cases expresses “intimations of something more than itself”. The 'miniature' Japanese poetic forms abound in these features. They are what Wallace Stevens said of poetry: “Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush”.
'For a thousand years the most popular form of Japanese poetry was the tanka(= short poem: tan =short; ka, a variant of ku = verse) It remained in this prime position until the development of the haiku in the sixteenth century'. Consisting of 31 syllables the Tanka was written in strict syllables of “5-7-5-7-7” arranged in five lines. Like haiku, it expresses one mood, one event, one image or one idea. Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (660? -708?) and Ariwara Narihara (825-880) were famous for using this form. The Tale of Genji (1010), a detailed and fascinating picture of the Japanese court life ('may be considered an important novel in world literature') abounds in tanka written by different characters. Ishikawa Takuboku (died in 1912 at the age of 26) was perhaps the most popular tanka poet of all time. The following two examples may illustrate 'the compressed essence of a universal experience' in them:

Your hair has turned white
While your heart stayed
Knotted against me.
I shall never
Loosen it now. (Hitomaro)

I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today. (Narihira)

Although tanka belongs to the classical period in Japanese literature, it is interesting to see its influence in the present day “New World”, so much so that there is a Tanka Society of America presided by Michael Dylan Welch, who edits its newsletter regularly.
The haiku (also called hokku), a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, arranged in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, 'evolved from the earlier form known as the renga and was used extensively by Zen Buddhist monks in the 15th and 16th centuries'. Haiku and Zen Buddhism are closely related. The poet experiences an “illumination” or “an awareness of the inner spirit of the object he views”. Here are haiku from Basho (1644-1694), perhaps the greatest of haiku poets:

On a withered

A crow has

Nightfall in

Clouds come from time to time –
And bring to men chance to rest
From looking at the moon.

Basho said, “He who creates three to five haiku during a life time is a haiku poet. He who attains to ten is a master”. Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and in the late 19th C, Masaoka Shiki are the most famous haiku poets of Japan. Masaoka Shiki is the creator of modern form of tanka and haiku.
Like many haiku, the following poem by Shiki, “sets forth a sense of where, what and when. Concentrating his attention on the phenomenon, the poet nevertheless conveys an emotion through the images, stirring the reader's imagination to supply the emotion that completes the experience”:

River in summer:
There is a bridge, but my horse
Walks through water.

Buson advised other poets to ” Use the colloquial language to transcend colloquialism” because he believed that in haiku “one must talk poetry”. Like Buson, Issa used simple, unadorned language to deal with the moments of loneliness, and the awakening of one's conscience:

Bloosoms on the pear –
and a woman in the moonlight
reads a letter there. (Buson)

Somehow it seems wrong:
to take one's noonday nap and hear
a rice-planting song. (Issa)

Commenting on this form, David Priebe (see Haiku Headlines: 2001; courtesy: Poet Sept. 2002, Chennai) writes:
Haiku and senryu are miniature poems, which give expression to sudden or subtle moments of curious awareness and insight into the nature of passing time. With their origins, perfection and popularity in Japan for more than three hundred years, the poetic formula is now practiced by poets worldwide. In English haiku and senryu are composed ideally in three phrases of 5-7-5 syllables, although slight variations quite often suffice to be effective. There is a pause after either the first and the second phrase that serves to pivot the ying/yang experience. The expression is achieved with phrases that suggest rather than narrate in the sentences, allowing the reader's imagination to rhapsodise and make the connections. Both haiku and senryu depend on contrasting yet complementary images expressed in the present tense. The difference is that haiku illustrate physical principles and phenomena; they are objective and treat of natural and seasonal situations condensed into what/where/when. Whereas senryu illustrate social and psychological principles and phenomena; they are more concerned with who/what situations that may be humorous, satirical, pathetic or ironic. Quite often, however, haiku/senryu are hybrid with traits that are interwoven. Whether pure or mixed, haiku/senryu are parsimoniously expressed so that the conclusion comes off as strategically effective as the punch line of a joke.
The influence of the haiku can be seen in this “little poem” of Ezra Pound:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

And in some more poems. “Many of them are jokes, and good ones When one first reads these little poems of Pound's, one thinks how frail and slight they are, but finds that they last a life-time”(Fraser (1953: 261). The Modern writer and His World):

Phidon neither purged me, nor touched me
But I remembered the name of his fever medicine, and died.

O fan of white silk,
Clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside

Besides Pound, the writers of the Beat Generation (Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), the Harlem Renaissance (Richard Wright, who wrote Haiku: This Other World, published posthumously in 1998), e e cummings, Williams, Stevens, Gary Snyder, the Ecuadorian poet and diplomat, Jorge Carrera Andrade (1903-1978) and the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, were also deeply influenced by the irrationality, the intuitive insight, the sense of beyond, the feeling of exaltation, the simplicity of meditation, the experience of sudden enlightenment and the ceaseless interplay of the temporal and the timeless revealed through these 'miniature' Japanese forms – perhaps the greatest aesthetic achievement in lyric poetry.