The haiku — the three-line Japanese poem with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern — is a familiar form. Children write haiku. There are political haiku. There are football haiku. Most of these are not haiku but senryuu, a type of verse with the same formal restrictions as haiku but with a wider variety of themes. Where haiku must reflect a single seasonally-specific moment in nature, senryuu are often topical and satirical, with no references to nature at all.
A number of North American poets have tackled the haiku, most notably the Imagists (particularly Pound) towards the beginning of the century and the Beats (particularly Kerouac and Ginsberg), but also (more loosely) writers like Richard Wright and (more loosely) Etheridge Knight. It’s a difficult form to really get the hang of in another language.
Or at least that’s what I think. The first great haiku master, Basho, wrote in the sixteenth century, and the form has kicked around since. Writers like Kakio Tomizawa, the twentieth century poet whose poem appears on my tag, were bending the formal restrictions of the haiku to reflect personal and aesthetic ideologies, but that whole level of context is lost to me. I will never speak Japanese well enough to appreciate Basho in the original; I will never fully understand the cultural history in which Tomizawa writes.
It’s a real problem with translation. I know just enough his life and religion to scrape through Rumi, but my knowledge of Japan is largely confined to science fiction, anime, and Kurosawa movies. I don’t understand something as simple as the Japanese beverage business; despite my fascination with Suntory Coffee Boss, I have no idea whether the Stalinist-styled advertising is suffused with irony (to go along with Mr. Boss’ sweet, sweet coffee). I can’t even read the ads. How, then, to take something more historically resonant (if not necessarily more culturally complex) like a humanist haiku poet? The poetic forms of previous centuries have largely died away in the English-speaking world; I’m not sure I could name a serious poet besides Elizabeth Bishop or John Ashbery who’s written a sestina in the last forty years.
Context is important. But the meaning and beauty of a poem like this:
Dream of a winter butterfly.
A drop of melted snow
In the Karakorams.
is there waiting to be unpacked even if I don’t understand it all at once. I just need to keep reading and feeling out the words. Or, to put it another way, if you’re going to bandwagon-hop (thanks, Graham) on something based on short poems, nothing you’ve written is either of the appropriate length or worth sharing, and you decide that Gwendolyn Brooks’ "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till" (which you think is, pound for pound, one of the most moving poems in the English language) isn’t appropriate, steal from something you find beautiful. The larger senses will come, some of them at least. Making jazz swing in seventeen syllables ain’t no square poet’s job.