Dissecting Haiku


A lot of hidden meaning and wordplay get lost in translation from Japanese to other languages. In this post, I want to explore the subtleties that Japanese haiku have to offer. It is my hope that any insight gleaned will help you understand the nature of haiku and help you write better ones.

Let’s begin with an early poem of Matsuo Bashō, in the school of Teimon.

“Foam on the wave’s crest-
blossoms of snow?
the water’s out-of-season flower?”

The elaborate wordplay is typical. Literally, Nami no hana to yuki mo ya mizu no kaeribana. The Japanese idiom for a cresting wave is nami no hana, which means “blossom of the wave.” In the last phrase of the poem, mizu no kaeribana, “water’s out-of-season flower”, kaeribana means “unseasonal flower”, but kaeri means “returning,” and so the incoming wave is also evoked. The punning makes many haiku, this one included, impossible to translate, and it was the style of writing, “a parlor game,” poet Sam Hamill calls it, popular in Bashō’s youth (and he was very good at it).

Another of Matsuo’s

“Smell of sake
off the waves-
the wine cup moon”

Tsuki, “moon,” can also mean “wine cup.” A literal translation: “Blue sea’s wave / sake smell / today’s moon (wine cup).” More wordplay, but even early there were these accuracies of perception, the rice-wine smell of the sea, the wave blue because the moon is full.

More Bashō

“This road-
no one goes down it,
autumn evening.”

The word for road is michi, and Bashō wrote it in kanji, using the Chinese character, tao, rather than the Japanese phonetic signs for the two syllables. The poem may first of all be an evocation of the loneliness of this particular road, but Bashō’s use of the ideogram suggests, as Rōshi Robert Aitken has observed, that he also had in mind this other meaning. The Japanese also speak of haiku no michi, the way of the haiku poet, which suggests at least one other level of meaning.

So, as we can see, wordplay and dual meanings are essential to haiku. The Japanese, though, have one more advantage at this than English haikaishi (haiku poets), and that is their system of writing and it’s interchangeability with Chinese characters. As Chinese poetry was important to the learned in ancient Japan, this particular type of wordplay was very witty. In English, though, we can use culturally accepted and known foreign words, perhaps, for a similar effect (Zeitgeist, as one possibilty). It may never have quite the same effect, but may play an important role of advancing English-language haiku and making it even more similar to the original style and sensibilities. As a haiku ‘purist’, this is my aim. Not for prestige or anything like that, simply for my love of the art.

I hope you have enjoyed this read and I hoped it helped. Thank you for your time.


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