On October 20, celebrations of the International Francophone Day of Haiku were held in the two important Canadian locations, Perkins and Montreal. Angèle Lux organized the Perkins event at the old parsonage of Saint Antoine de Padoue Catholic Church. As well as being an expert and author of haiku in French and English, she is also a distinguished painter.
In order to address haiku, let us go back to poetry more broadly. European poetry has for the most part been manifest in use of rhythm and rhyme. Rhyme is clear enough, but rhythm is a bit more complicated. Thus, a line of poetry may have a pattern of syllables of the form short-short-long, short-long, long-long, long-short, etc., or a mixture of these. Take this extract from Shakespear’s Julius Caesar. “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard/ It seems to me most strange that men should fear,/ Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it will come.”
Julius Caesar is an example of a story poem, a type that also includes epics. A more contemporary example is Robert W. Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. “There are strange things done in the midnight sun/By the men who moil for gold;/ The Arctic trails have their secret tales /That would make your blood run cold.”
Sonnets are a form of 14 lines ending in a rhyming couplet. Take Shakespear’s sonnet beginning “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” ends in “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Blank verse has rhythm but not rhyme. Take William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis: “To him who in the love of Nature holds/Communion with her viable forms, she speaks/A various language; for his gayer hours/She has a voice of gladness and a smile.”
Let us look at two popular types, the couplet and the limerick. Dorothy Parker was noted for her couplets, such as “Boys don’t make passes/ At girls who wear glasses.” And “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test/than read a poem by Edgar J. Guest.”
The limerick takes the following form:
“A wonderful bird is the pelican;/Its beak can hold more than its belly can./ It can hold in its beak enough for a week,/And I don’t know how the hell ‘e can.” And There was an old man from Nantucket/Who kept all his dough in a bucket./His daughter, named Nan, ran away with a man,/And as for the bucket, Nan tuck it.”
Most of these forms are found in other European languages, and some have even been translated. Take Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky. “’T was brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:/ All mimsy were the borogoves,/And the mome raths outgrabe.” This poem has been translated into French and German, more than once. Here is a bit of one French version: “Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux/se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave. ”
Free verse is another form, without necessary rhyme or rhythm. Take this e.e. cummings’ suggestive take on driving a new car: “she being Brand-new; and you know consequently a little stiff i was careful of her and. . .”
If you want to see the full poems above, check Google.
One could go on about types of English poetry and equivalents in other European languages. However, transferability is not universally possible. For example, the psalms of the Hebrew Bible take repetition of the initial letter of a line as the form. We would have difficulty with poetry in that form in English or other European languages. However, the Japanese haiku has made the leap. The Bulletin’s editor emeritus Fred Ryan has authored a collection of playful haiku called Haiku’ku, available from the Bulletin.
When Lux described haiku, it became clear that it is the poetry of no: no sentences, no titles, no adverbs, no metaphors, no descriptions of emotions, and few if any adjectives. The typical form has 17 syllables in three lines, five, seven and five, using two images, ordinarily the first and third as one image and the second as the other. Sometimes a line is shorter but not longer.
A haiku presents a fugitive scene in a tiny detail, here and now. It is usually related to nature. It speaks of simple things in a simple style with simple words. Emotions are evoked through concrete images. Lux illustrated with an example of her own:
Sous son nez d’enfant
La trace d’un limace
Matin de grand froid
Our rendering is not a complete translation, as we attempt to preserve the haiku form :
under a child’s nose
a slug’s track found on a leaf
morning of deep cold
The careful observer might note that Lux has violated the rules, as we have three images, not two.
It was not just exposition at the session in Perkins. Lux encouraged us to produce haiku and to criticise one another. Back to the grand “no”: Sorry, you’ve made a sentence. And so it went for the rest of the session.