thoughts on music, design and literature

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"Haikus Are Easy...."

Recently spotted on a t-shirt:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don't make sense
Refrigerator


I find this brilliantly, brilliantly funny. And I thought I'd mention it as an intro to a topic that I've been researching recently: haiku.

We all know haiku to be these efficient little poems with a rigid structure of three lines in 5, 7, and 5 syllables. And we all intuitively understand the form to be a reflection of the greater Japanese aesthetic: simple, clean, and unassuming.

But the beauty of the haiku is that it manages to convey great power in just a few choice words (and often even greater power in the silences between those words--i.e. 'ma,' the Japanese concept of space and interval.) And one thing that Westerners may not understand is that for the most part, traditional haiku are all based on seasons. In fact, haikus often have a kigo, or a 'season-word,' that immediately signifies what the season is. For example, Hattori Ransetsu's famous haiku:

ume ichirin
ichirin hodo no
atatakasa


The translation is:

one plum blossom
brings us just one more
step to the warmth


In this case, the kigo is the word 'ume,' which means 'plum blossom.' Like with the much-celebrated cherry blossom ('sakura'), the sight of a plum blossom on a tree was one of the first signifiers of the coming of spring. And so an informed reader would instantly know what season Mr. Hattori was writing about.

Japanese poetry is full of these seasonal words. A sampling:

tsuki (moon): autumn, because of the long nights
hototogisu (cuckoo): summer, when the cuckoo is most often spotted
yuki (snow): winter, for obvious reasons

It's actually quite a wonderful thing....to convey that much meaning with such modest means. Really admirable.

This will be my last post for a couple weeks....I'll be exploring the Galapagos Islands, taking a little break and doing a little world-exploring. It's good for gaining perspective on life.

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