The haiku is a part of Japanese cultural life, aesthetic experience, and philosophical expression. As Lafcadio Hearn noted, “Poetry in Japan is universal as air. It is felt by everybody.” The haiku poem traditionally consists of three lines, arranged so that there are five, seven, and five syllables in the triplet. Although the “rules” governing its construction are not absolute, it has many conventions that contribute to its effectiveness. Generally, it has a central image, often from the natural world, frequently expressed as a part of a seasonal reference, and a “cutting word,” or exclamation that states or implies the poet’s reaction to what he sees. It is the ultimate compression of poetic energy and often draws its strength from the unusual juxtaposition of image and idea.
It is very difficult to translate haiku into English without losing or distorting some of the qualities that make it so uniquely interesting. English syllables are longer than Japanese jion (symbol sounds); some Japanese characters have no English equivalent, particularly since each separate “syllable” of a Japanese “word” may have additional levels of meaning; a literal rendering may miss the point while a more creative one may remake the poem so that the translator is a traitor to the original. As an example of the problems involved, one might consider the haiku Issa wrote about the temptations and disappointments of his visits to his hometown. The Japanese characters can be literally transcribed as follows:
Furosato yayoru mo sawaru mobara-no-hana
Old village:come-near also touch alsothorn’s-flowers
The poem has been translated in at least four versions:
At my home everythingI touch is a bramble. (Asataro Miyamori)
Everything I touchwith tenderness alaspricks like a bramble. (Peter Beilenson)
The place where I was born:all I come to—all I touch—blossoms of the thorn. (Harold Henderson)
My old village calls—each time I come near,thorns in the blossom. (Leon Lewis)
Bash’s almost prophetic power and Buson’s exceptional craftsmanship and control may be captured fairly effectively in English, but it is Issa’s attitude toward his own life and the world that makes him perhaps the most completely understandable of the great Japanese poets. His rueful, gentle irony, turning on his own experiences, is his vehicle for conveying a warmly human outlook that is no less profound for its inclusive humor. Like his fellow masters of the haiku form, Issa was very closely attuned to the natural world, but for him, it had an immediacy and familiarity that balanced the cosmic dimensions of the universal phenomena that he observed. Recognizing human fragility, he developed a strong sense of identification with the smaller, weaker creatures of the world. His sympathetic response is combined with a sharp eye for their individual attributes and for subtle demonstrations of virtue and strength amid trying circumstances. Although Issa was interested in most of the standard measures of social success (family, property, recognition), his inability to accept dogma (religious or philosophical) or to overlook economic inequity led him to a position as a semipermanent outsider no matter how successful he might be.
Observer of natural phenomena
Typically, Issa depicts himself as an observer in the midst of an extraordinary field of natural phenomena. Like the Western Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, he uses his own reactions as a measuring device and records the instinctive responses of his poetic sensibility. There is a fusion of stance and subject, and the world of business and commerce occurs only as an intrusion, spoiling the landscape. What matters is an eternal realm of continuing artistic revelation, the permanent focus of humankind’s contemplation: “From my tiny roof/ smooth . . . soft . . ./ still-white snow/ melts in melody.” The poet is involved in the...
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