Thursday, April 9, 2020

A to Z Joy: Haiku

Bashō (standing), woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, late 19th century.
Bashō (standing), woodblock print by
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, late 19th century.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-jpd-01518)
I decided on this subject for H in part because April is Poetry Month. But also because the simple form of the haiku brings me joy. From profound to silly and everything in between, the 17 syllables--arranged in three lines of 5, 7, and 5--are accessible to almost everyone. Grade schoolers write them, esteemed poets write them. They are a fine introduction to poetry for the averse. (The verse averse, haha.)

Dating back to 17th century Japan, the form was originally restricted to an objective observation of nature. But the haiku master Basho took it to a new level as he traveled across Japan writing about his experiences. He brought haiku to the people, helping establish it as the most popular form of poetry in Japan.

Here is one of his earliest:

On a withered branch
A crow has alighted;
Nightfall in autumn.

Even for such short poems, the issue of translation into a different language seems to complicate things. Here are three translations of the same haiku:

Moonlight slants through
The vast bamboo grove:
A cuckoo cries
(trans. Blyth)

From moon wreathed
bamboo grove,
cuckoo song.
(trans. Stryck)

Moonlight slanting
through all this long bamboo grove
and nightingale song.
(trans. Beilenson)

It's interesting that the translators don't necessarily stick to the 5-7-5 format. Maybe that's a translator's prerogative.

Goodbye for now! See you tomorrow, I hope!

Blogging A to Z
That's how I spend my free time
April is the month.


  1. Haikus are the extent of my poetry prowess. They have "rules" and that makes it easier for me to work with. I hadn't thought about the translation issue before--very interesting!

    1. I hadn't either, and I was surprised that they deviated from the standard form.

  2. I've always liked Haiku's an dI enjoyed writing them when we had to do them for English at school. But I'm not good at poetry, so haven't revisited since really.

    1. I know what you mean. Poetry is one of those things that is much more difficult than it seems!

  3. I love seeing the examples of different ways to translate. Fascinating!
    Black and White (Words and Pictures)

    1. I enjoyed reading the translations, as well! I had no idea they would vary so much.