How I Haiku

BashoMatsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Since posting a number of blogs that mention and, indeed, highlight haiku – one of the most popular Japanese forms of poetry – I’ve received feedback inviting me to describe how  I haiku. It’s no easy task, as going back to 1958 no less an authority than Harold G. Henderson, who authored “An Introduction to Haiku”, wrote in despair about translating the sixth poem (shown below among others) of Matsuo Basho, the most famous of all Japanese poets of haiku. “I wish that some genius could find the proper English for this haiku. I myself have not been able to do so after twenty-five years of trying……”
I’m no genius, but I gave it my best shot 16 years later in 1974 with the opening line: Grasses summer-ripe.

To my mind, the true haiku operates  at two levels, as it were, and much of the effect is lost in translation. However, in order to salvage something of the original three-line syllabic verse (17 syllables arranged 5, 7, 5) most of the 10 poems I’ve chosen from Basho’s collection have been translated using the same number of syllables.

On the other hand, some of those poems would have become too verbose and unwieldy had I stuck to the traditional Japanese formula. I’ve therefore rendered them with brevity, my substitute for form being rhyme and half-rhyme. Examples below are found in the second, seventh and ninth poems.

To be quite honest, I’ve injected the longer forms of the remaining seven poems with medial and internal rhymes or assonance – albeit as unobtrusively as possible but with un-Japanese metric accents, without which the English rendering would in my opinion have been pallid and prosaic.

Henderson’s bête noire that is the sixth poem, and perhaps the equally if not more difficult  fifth one because it can mean so many different things, are in startling contrast to the tenth and last one, with which Basho bowed out of this world at the age of only fifty.

The famous “crow” poem,
which was the forerunner
in exploiting the “principle
of internal comparison.”

On a blighted bough
a crow lights for a shakedown –
fall of autumn night. [1679]


Spring, all hail!
A nameless hill
In morning-veil. [1685]

Harvest Moon
Now and then the clouds
unload men of a burden –
looking at the moon.

Thus begins the Fall:
the ocean and the rice-field –
both the selfsame green. [1688]
So begins all art:
remote inland, a sing-song
midst the rice-planting. [1689]

Grasses summer-ripe:
the pipedreams of old warriors –
all that’s left to them.

How still!
A rock-drill –
The locust’s shrill.

Blows the autumn wind:
behind yet stays a greenness –
husk of the chestnut. [1691]

Lightning gleam:
Into the gloom
a heron’s scream. [1694]

Travel-sickness dreams:
on drought-struck fields they still go
wandering about.

Copyright © 2015 Azim Lewis Mayadas

2 thoughts on “How I Haiku

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