Saturday, February 04, 2012

On Love and Barley...

On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho

A few days ago, I picked up the book shown to the right of this text. Given my fondness for haiku, how could I not? Basho was the pen name, if you will, of Matsuo Kinsaku who is known as the first great haiku poet. He lived in Japan in the latter half of the 1600s and is credited with, almost alone, reinvigorating the haiku form.

To quote the man on the subject of the lightness that belongs in haiku, "In my view a good poem is one in which the form of the verse, and the joining of its two parts, seem light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed."

And his work is light, often quiet, sometimes fanciful. Always beautiful. I don't read Japanese - although haiku is one poetry form that could drive me to learn.

The works are translated by Lucien Stryk and, in English, the translator has chosen not to concern himself with syllable count. This seems right to me. The intent is to convey the sense and beauty of the original poem - unlikely to be possible while tying oneself to English's syllable structure. No more than one could translate a sonnet, trying to maintain its specific rhyming structure, from English to Japanese and still have a poem.

Many of the works struck me, but the following just tickled my funny bone:

No hat, and cold
rain falling –

I come from Ireland. It rains there, a lot. I can hear the exasperation in the final word.

The title of the book comes from the following:

Girl cat, so
thin on love
and barley.

The notes inform the reader that "Left-over barley and rice are still the staple diet of Japanese dogs and cats."

I feel for the poor girl cat.


  1. I'm glad it was translated into expression and not syllable count. The two you chose have such wealth of meaning to them. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Glad you enjoyed those two, Laura. The books contains real beauty.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Those are beautiful.

    I get annoyed when people post just anything with a 5-7-5 syllable count and call it a haiku, as if that structure were the only element in the art form.

    1. It's possible, Tim, that some of my own efforts fall into the "just structure" trap, but the law of averages ensures I will get a few good ones.

      Basho blew right through the law of averages without stopping. I found myself just sitting with the book, surrounded by quiet.

  3. I have the same book, in fact I have it right here. I can't say that I care for the way Lucien Stryk has handled them. One the other hand I absolutely adore the way Alan Jackson, a fellow Scottish poet (though ane frae Embra, of a' places!) handles the one you quoted above:

    Nae hat, an' a cauld rain fallin'.
    Dearie me!

    As for 5-7-5, what people tend to forget is that 17 syllables of English contain about 30% more information that 17 syllables of Japanese (if Japanese can actually be said to have syllables as we know them). 4-6-4 is good, as is 3-5-3, if you can get away with it. These days the 'mono no aware' is as important as adherence to a form, and many people write to good effect whilst abandoning form, it seems, altogether.

    John Cooper Clarke said "Expressing oneself in seventeen syllables is very diffic."

    You might like to visit 'the zen space'

    Marie Marshall

    1. Marie, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I love that delicious rendering of the haiku by Alan Jackson. I can hear it so clearly.

      Am I correct in thinking 'Embra' might be Edinburgh? I've been away from the British Isles for a while and my ear isn't as tuned as once it was.

      Regarding form and structure, I take your point. But, for me, the form matters also in the constraint it imposes. Working within it contributes to the art and craft of the work. It cannot be the sole focus, else all you get is craft and "the posy of a ring" as Shakespeare said.

      But the forms exist and I believe 'mono no aware' wedded to the form gives both art and craft their proper weight. This is not to say people cannot write to good effect without form. I've seen many examples of haiku flow by in the Twitter stream that are not 5-7-5 nor 4-6-4 nor 3-5-3, yet they are beautiful. And are, recognizably, haiku.

      Thank you for the pointer to 'the zen space'. It's beautiful. Much art and craft well wedded there.

      So Marie, are you as small as you website name would suggest? :-)

  4. I love that first haiku also.

    1. As do I, including the Scottish version of it.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

  5. What a lovely approach to the form. I can appreciate dispatching metrics, especially after reading the Italian masters. Languages don't flow into each other like that.

  6. Thanks, John. I agree, languages are difficult when it comes to artfully and craftily arranged words. This is why I am in awe of those who translate same - I would not dare to contemplate such a task.

  7. Kevin I suddenly remembered I hadn't visited your blog for a while, and so over I came and what a treat this article is! I love the quote ""In my view a good poem is one in which the form of the verse, and the joining of its two parts, seem light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed."

    Haiku is a lovely form and you do so well at it, I should practice more. ^_^ Thank you for sharing and as always I find your post to be most interesting and stimulating, always food for thought in them.

    1. Hi Helen, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I am fond of Haiku and love the challenge the form presents. I'm very pleased some of them hit the mark.

      The goal is well encapsulated in the quote you mention. It remains a worthy target, in any form of writing.

  8. Cool! I love Haiku. Have you seen that Avatar: The Last Airbender episode where Soka participates in a Haiku contest. It's priceless!


    1. Hello Jai, good to read you again. Glad you enjoyed this post.

      No, I haven't seen that episode, but I'll go looking for it. Thanks for the pointer.