Jun 22, 2011

Haiku, Basho, Sentence Structure

How Many Pedants Does It Take To Screw in a Light Bulb?

As I mentioned a while back, I’m not usually a fan of haiku, though I do prefer sensory language the way haiku lovers apparently do. What makes imagery resonate is a very subjective matter, perhaps even more so in haiku than other forms. The poem below, by Basho, works for me, and I think it’s because the syntax is a little unusual, a little jolting.  (By the way, I found this haiku in the magazine American Poet, Spring 2011, where poet Aimee Nezhukumatahil discusses haibun, in which haiku plays a role).

Since Basho was writing in 17th century Japanese, I won’t fuss over the line breaks in order to arrive at the prescribed 5-7-5 syllable count or the line structure. Here is how it might look in English: 

Taken in my hand
it would melt, my tears are so
warm—this autumnal frost.

A more natural (and pedestrian?) English syntax might go like this: 

My tears are so warm
this autumnal frost would melt,
taken in my hand.
This autumnal frost would melt,
taken in my hand,
my tears are so warm.

 Those aren't bad, and they retain the physicality of language in the other version; but I feel that holding back “this autumnal frost” and making it the conclusion adds a tension and drama that I’d miss now that I’ve seen it Basho’s way, or the way of his translator.

Whatever else this amounts to, it’s an example of the kinds of structural decisions a writer labors over. And we see the ways those choices can change the power of a sentence by arranging the placement of what’s powerful. It's really a matter of the old subject-verb-object lesson:  Who does what to whom? In the first version, "this autumnal frost" achieves power by coming last, by being built up to, and by playing against expectation. In the other versions, it's somewhat buried, made equal to the tears, the hand, the melting.

Modern cop shows ask, “Who’s the perp? Who’s the doer and who’s the victim that got done to?” Maybe poems aren't all that different. So if I’m being a pedant, a soul-crunching counter of words, a nerd, at least I’m not alone.

A pedant, a nerd, and a geek walk into a bar . . . .



Brenda's Arizona said...

Will I be in trouble for posting my favorite haiku? It has a dirty word, and you are welcome to delete it, Banjomyn...

right away she's like
oh oh i don't even know
the motherfucker

(Haiku overheard on a bus

Banjo52 said...

Fun! Where to get a good haiku? Why, the bus, of course.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, tricky. Does one of them have a duck on his head?

Banjo52 said...

No, but all three have webbed feet and can't keep up.

RuneE said...

I wonder what the pedant, the nerd, and the geek would have done if the met a blond in the bar and had to change the light bulb ...

You made a powerful point and illustrated it well, too.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Oh, I get it now. I actually went back and studied the photos, looking for a duck on one of the bird's heads. Yikes.
It is part of the joke, right?

Banjoymyn, will you doing limericks soon? I know a couple really filthy ones...

Banjo52 said...

RunE, thanks. They'd probably have found a way to get the blond to change the bulb?

Brenda, you're just gonna have to get serious now. Take out your pencil. (btw, I made the same mistake with AH's quip. Since you've confessed, I will too.).

Jeff M said...

only the nightly porch
a flaming bag
of dog shit sings

Brenda's Arizona said...

Jeff, does that count as a haiku? It seems to be lacking a few syllables, but it certainly is NOT lacking in imagery.

One of my colleagues, the library night manager, leaves his 'nightly event report' in haikus. It is a gas- sometimes/often/always you have to read between the syllables to know what really happened in the reading room. Drives the boss crazy, reading haiku reports. All the more reason to encourage him to keep it up! Of course, he is in the Masters program at Arizona State... He has a future.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, nice story! M.A. in creative writing?

Banjo52 said...

Jeff, is that Bukowski?

Birdman said...

Some funny comments today

Brenda's Arizona said...

I remember this haiku that covers your last line... I hope I get extra credit for inclusiveness?

"A horse and Sarah
Jessica Parker walk in
to a bar and the"

Banjo52 said...

Birdman, no argument here. Must be that longest day of the year biz--which like the moon landing, is a lie, a mirage, and a Communist conspiracy.

Brenda, that haiku might be profound, falling into the universe as it does at the end, and dividing that 3-name Jessica woman (NOT my favorite actress) into two lines.

Jeff M said...

Banjo ---
All originals, unless i attribute. You should know that! Haha.

Yeah, probably not traditional haiku, but so what, you know...?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I don't like haiku. eh

That nest of sparrows snuggled within my patio eve; they've all grown up and now she's on her second group of fledglings. <-is that correct? Thats two litters in three months. Is she going to keep coming back?

you should hear those babies when they feed.

article on Edward Hopper

jeff m said...

heck, that should be "on" not "only." duh.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Jeff, it's still a bag of poo. On/Only...
You have me laughing 'til my sides ache!

PA, your hatchings make a perfect haiku, ya know?

Kelly said...

...very interesting post. I love the feeling that hits me from the first translation...probably because of the break in flow. (Also...lovely photos of the Song Sparrow!)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post to be sure.

bandit said...

Most EL haiku poets have abandoned strict syllable count due to the nature of JP phonics - Our (EL) counts would appear enormously burdensome if translated direct to JP.

Haiku, having sprung from the ancient practice of haikai-no-renga (wikipedia), can benefit from a "good turn of phrase", i.e., inversion of line structure, to benefit dramatic emphasis, or, in the case of collaborative linked poetry, provide diversity of meter and phrasing.


As for translation, Basho's The Narrow Road To The Far North was translated haibun, prose poetry with accompanying "haiku", in the form of quatrains, creating a wonderful effect of meter, sense and prosody.

Banjo52 said...

Bandit, a wealth of good stuff! Thank you. I'd never heard of haibun prior to the article I mentioned.

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