It is often difficult for Westerners to fully appreciate the technical sophistication of Japanese Haiku, either from a technical or thematic point of view. The obvious obstacles in translating Haiku into English combined with cultural differences and linguistic eccentricities such as slang or puns, make the translation of haiku even more formidable than it would otherwise be.
Settling on a single English translation of any particular haiku can prove troublesome; however, the brevity of the form, combined with its visceral impact — when executed with skill — allows for an impact of poetic vision which, while based in the same elements as Western poetry: metaphor, assonance, dissonance, rhyme, theme, and imagery — demonstrates an intense compression of poetic language and a refinement of prosody which is slightly more calculated and reserved than much of Western poetry.
A good case in point is the poetry of Basho Matsuo whose work is often considered by Western critics and observers as the highest representation of Japanese haiku. By and large, the intricacies of Basho’s writings in the haiku form are only understood with effort by Western readers. By examining one of his famous haiku, it is possible to take note of those aspects of Basho’s writings which are intrinsic to the aesthetic power of his work and also which may be slightly beyond easy appraisal for many readers.
The following example of haiku reveals many techniques in diction, imagery, and prosody (or meter); although in translation, the specific notable qualities may be different than in the original work, the translated work retains the “spirit” of the original and allows for at least a cursory examination of how poetic techniques thrive under the haiku form. The poem: The first soft snow! Enough to bend the leaves?Of the jonquil low. The most readily apparent quality of the poem is its imagery.
No-one could miss the grand images of falling snow upon a gracefully bending flower. This juxtaposition of seasonal imagery: snow for winter and the jonquil for spring (or summer) functions at many levels, among them, bringing a great range to the poem which in actuality is quite brief, and also by bringing a violent, but wholly balanced, conflict between the images of snow and spring, a conflict which extends to the reader and involves the reader at a deeply symbolic level.
By not naming any individual struggle, complaint, or lament — Basho allow the reader to project onto the archetypal symbols of snow and spring, their own subjective responses to the imagery which stimulates a sense of coming change, transition, or even loss. Another key aspect of the imagery of the poem is what might be termed the gesture of the imagery. Just as in a work of sculpture or a painting, the attitude and “pose” of the i,images in Basho’s poem are as important as the images themselves.
To create a sense of indelible gesture, Basho’s verb “bends” succeeds with great capacity and also conveys a sense of one force bowing gracefully to another, as though the conflict between spring and winter, life and death, warm and cold, are pulled altogether under the image of the gently bending flower which accepts the change of seasons (and its own eventual death in winter) with a delicate bow.
Read this way, the image of the jonquil in the poem is anthropomorphisized at leat to the extant that it invites the reader to project themselves into the scene of the poem and most likely view the jonquil as a symbol for themselves or for humanity in the face of changing nature. Because the jonquil bows to the snow, the transmitted meaning of the images in gesture is that man and nature are one.
In order to convey this profound message, Basho made use of a sort of figurative language which is not precisely metaphor or simile, but nonetheless connects the image of the jonquil to the image of humanity. The sound of the poem is also important to the transmission of meaning and the prosody of the poem, like its imagery and figurative language, is also a bit outside of typical Western techniques in verse. Spoken aloud, Basho’s haiku forwards the idea of an enlightened exclamation, a spontaneous “ejaculation” of wonder and insight.
There is reflectiveness in the poem, despite its brevity, indicated by the alliteration of “soft snow” and the pointing out of it being “the first” snow. This alliteration is carried out to the word “leaves” connecting the images of snow and tree-flowers by diction and assonance. Meanwhile, the abbreviated prosody of haiku allows for a conversational tone of delivery, as though a magnificent insight into nature of one’s own being — both in fact — is being communicated in universal terms through the use of ordinary conversation.
By using relatively pedestrian language along with intense archetypal imagery, Basho imbues the haiku form with a great breadth and profundity that its short form and controlled meter and theme might in other hands not allow to be attained with such grace or precision. The word “low” which closes the poem, and also in translation rhymes with the word “snow,” indicates a harmonious connection to nature and also an acknowledgment of the unknowable mystery of nature.
It is as though in the face of the “snow” of heaven or of the cosmic breadth of the universe, the jonquil simply bows low with respect and is then taken into the protective embrace of nature. That this insight is delivered with the easy, controlled and conversational idiom of haiku demonstrates a plastic connection of the cosmic and personal, the profound and trivial, the poetic and ordinary, which is a paradigm which seems intrinsic to the haiku form itself.