About four years ago I had to prepare an English lesson on writing poetry. Children like collecting words about, real scenes and real moments in their lives and recalling their own feelings and imaginings. It is always an exciting process.
I decided to try writing Haikus with them. Haikus are nice and short. They are concentrated pieces of writing. A haiku enables a writer to focus on a mood, a feeling, an object,a scene a moment in time. Every word counts.
The weekend before I had to do the lesson, I was in a bookshop in Kingston upon Thames. I think it was Waterstones in The Bentalls Centre, on the top floor. There, in the poetry section, was a book called, Haiku Inspirations by Tom Lowenstein. Tom had been a teacher too and began to explore eastern religions, and philosophies. Studying these ideas had introduced him to Chinese and Japanese art and poetry. He found Japanese Haikus an aid to Zen meditation and also Zen meditation to be a good source of inspiration for writing his own Haikus. Haikus can introduce imagery, paradoxes and comparisons to children and get them to focus on a tight structure. The book has beautiful, evocative Japanese illustrations and designs. Also it has some beautiful photography . It was just the book for me.
Haikus are made up of very few words. Each word must have its place and be essential to the meaning. They are made of only three lines and have seventeen syllables. The lines go, five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables. There should be a kigo which is a word that suggests a season.Also a haiku should contain a kireji which means a cutting word. A word which brings a statement to an end. The paradox with or contrast to the first statement should then be written. Some writers believed in breaking the rules. Rules have to be broken to progress, adapt and develop.I think, especially in translation, the number of syllables does not have to be exact. The meaning and effect are prime importance.
Chinese and Japanese writing is symbolic. It is picture writing. To translate it into English can never be exact in the purity and essence of the words.
Here is a poem translated from the Japanese. It was written by, Takarai Kikaku, who lived between 1661 and 1707
In the middle of a town
A single butterfly
The first line is sparse and exact, one word. We know what twilight is. We have experienced it but where is this twilight? The countryside, a beach, a coastal scene, they have their particular twilights and give us different experiences. This haiku is set in a town.
The second line begins with , in. It takes us into the interior, it creates an entering of the town. The word, middle, is used which is not the same as using the word, centre. It’s not as exact, so we are left with a vague sensation of where we are exactly. The word , the, is a determiner making us focus on the object, middle. The, is used again determining the word, town. The line if it was written like this, In middle town, might be more precise in the sense of the Zen way of thinking because each word is full of the meaning of the poets intention but it would be awkward and not flow well in English. The line sounds better with the determiners. It has a smoother feel and feels more satisfying to say which is probably just as important.
The last line creates a surprising contrast with the twilight in the middle of a town. Like stars, twilight would not necessarily be noticed with the lights of the shops and street lamps. A single butterfly would be different. Wherever the butterfly was,it would be noticed. It’s bright natural beauty standing out, highlighted against it's background. It starts with the indefinite article, A, which emphasises the word, single. This is a reinforcement of the butterfly’s singularity. The butterfly is natural, bright and beautiful in itself . It is not the man made, garish beauty of the middle of a busy town. Butterflys do not belong in the dusty dirty noisy middle of a town at twilight when revellers are coming out. Is this a paradox between the man made, man inhabited, middle of a town and a beautiful natural butterfly,each existing at the same time?