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Haiku Renaissance2010.07.06

    Haiku is a Japanese word that is understood and used widely in English and other foreign languages. Words such as Zen, kaizen, sushi, and tsunami have also come into common use. But Haiku has a following in many countries outside of Japan, among people who not only read but also write Haiku.


    And there are Haiku poets in high places. Herman Van Rompuy, former prime minister of Belgium, and now the president of the European Union, is also a published Haiku poet. In April of 2010 he published a book of 48 of his own Haiku written over the past six years, written in Dutch, and translated into English, French, German and Latin. Van Rompuy said that politicians like poets, need “a sense balance, a desire for simplicity and harmony, the feeling of being part of something larger.”


    Japanese Haiku follow certain conventions, such as the 5-7-5 seventeen syllable rule, and the use of transition syllables (kireji) for rhythm and pauses, neither of which can be rendered well in English. Seasonal and cultural references in Japanese Haiku are tied very much to local flora, fauna, and functions, adding another hurdle to the translation process. Robert Frost went so far as to say, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

    It is interesting however to see what can also be gained in good translation. Perhaps the world’s most famous Haiku is the Frog Haiku by Matsuo Basho (1644~94). Here is just one of ten translations of Basho’s poem by famous scholars and writers on Zen and Haiku, by Robert Aitken, featured at:


    Furu ike ya
    kawazu tombikomu
    mizu no oto
    The old pond;
    a frog jumps in -
    the sound of the water


    The poet’s ear opens our eyes to the profound significance of life in the moment. How many of life’s significant moments do we miss because we are too preoccupied with ourselves, our possessions, and our concerns?

    To really appreciate Haiku however, you should study the poet as well as the poem. Haiku is written in experience and insight, not in isolation. The appeal is in the simplicity and directness of course, but also in the shared experience which resonates in the words.


    An even better way to engage with Basho is through his book, Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no Hoso Michi), based on a journey he took in 1689 for about 156 days, covering more than a thousand miles on foot. A journey that took great courage and determination, immortalized in prose and poetry. Many travelers in and to Japan attempt to follow in Basho’s footsteps to gain even a glimpse of what he saw and why.


    Haiku in English need not follow the exact form of the Japanese verse or subject matter, but without certain guidelines it easily turns to trivia. Search the Internet and you can find sports haiku, political haiku, computer haiku, even telemarketing haiku. Surely there is more to the art form than slogans, catch phrases, and Twitter bursts. Even a little discipline can make a big difference. Understanding the genre, choosing a season, contrasting images, and sensory descriptions can bring an experience to life in a few words.


    The quest is not for pretty phrases, but for authenticity. Good poetry, whether original or in translation, makes that intuitively evident. Good poetry makes you pause, opens your mind and cleanses your senses. In its simple and direct form, Haiku is highly accessible.

    To help bridge the gap and make not only Haiku, but other forms of poetry even more accessible, I have started a new page on my website dedicated to that purpose, starting with the character for the key word in Basho’s poem: Frog (蛙).


    The page will feature information, interviews, and video on how to enjoy poetry from a unique perspective with brush calligraphy: Join the Haiku Renaissance, and learn how the brush can give voice to the poem.


    William Reed


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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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