Small Demon
Oct 272009
 

Haiku in translation often require a fairly extensive set of notes or even scholarly apparatus in order for the reader to “get” the insight payoff that is the point of the form. For instance,  in this poem by Kikaku (1661 – 1707)

At a grass hut
I eat smartweed –
I’m that kind of firefly

the Western reader really needs the note provided by the editors of The Classic Tradition of Haiku: “Tade is smartweed, knotweed, or knotgrass. Thorny and stinging, it is spurned by insects, except for summer fireflies. Kikaku, who was a rich doctor’s spoiled son, debauched with heavy drinking and whoremongering, here likens himself to the brilliant firefly that stays up all night enjoying the bitterness and dangers of overindulgence and promiscuity. The poem refers to the proverb “some prefer nettles. . . ”

Another poem by Kikaku, though, comes across the spatial, temporal, and cultural distance without any additional information:

“It’s my snow”
I think
And the weight on my hat lightens

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about haiku lately because I’ve been writing short poems. My old teacher Donald Justice once told me he thought I was best with longer forms, but when I’m busy or preoccupied as I have been lately I resort to short poems. And what I’m looking for in a short poem is the condensed essence of the lyric or the joke — a setup and a pay off. A lot of Western haiku read like translations in need of notes, not because there is a cultural obscurity but because the poet hasn’t understood the need for the snap at the end of the whip. Sometimes this fault is excused, I think, as subtlety, but I don’t buy it. a successful haiku (or haiku-like poem) performs a delicate balancing act between closure and openness, between wit and mystery.

  One Response to “Haiku”

  1. I hadn’t heard the haiku’s final volta described as a whip snap. That fits nicely. Glad you’re writing, be it long or short. Ever try haibun?

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