Art of Haiku: Conveying a vivid message in 17 syllables

12 Sep

“The summer grasses—

Of brave soldiers’ dreams

The aftermath.”  

– Bashō 

(Translated by Donald Keen)

 

DSCN3463

夏草や兵どもが夢の跡  

– 松尾芭蕉

natsukusa ya

tsuwamonodomo ga

yume no ato

Haiku is a very short  form of Japanese poetry characterized by its simplicity, openness, and depth.  There are certain rules associated with writing haiku, although they are more flexible in modern haiku: Use 17 syllables; arrange syllables in three lines (5-7-5); use kigo (seasonal word) to refer to the season of the year.

This haiku was written by one of the greatest haiku poets of the Edo period, Matsuo Bashō  (1644-1694).  In 1689 Bashō visited Hiraizumi (a city in Iwate prefecture today) where  a Japanese noble family, Fujiwara, ruled the Tōhoku region (Northeastern region) from the 11th to the 12th centuries.  Hiraizumi was also where a Japanese folk hero, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, was forced to commit suicide in 1189.  By the time Bashō visited Hiraizumi, Fujiwara family had been long gone, their dream of creating a Buddhist Pure Land on earth destroyed by other noble family.

“The summer grasses—

Of brave soldiers’ dreams

The aftermath.”  

The haiku could be interpreted as the following: “Brave soldiers once dreamed of glory in this land. But now there is no one but summer grasses. Everything disappeared as a dream.”  Basho was born into a samurai family, so he understood the sufferings and the sacrifices of samurai soldiers and their families.  Perhaps he wrote this to pray for those who died as a result of wars that lasted hundreds of years leading up to the Edo period.

It’s not easy to understand haiku, because they’re so short.  We don’t know how Basho felt in Hiraizumi as he didn’t describe an experience.  He merely referred to it.  Haiku talk about what is, and you, the reader, are reminded of an experience.  In this sense everyone may experience haiku differently.

What kind of experience does Bashō’s haiku remind you of?  As for me it brings back the memories of the soldiers whom I’ve met in my life, including my grandfather who served during WWII and many American veterans I’ve cared for as a hospice music therapist over the years.  And I’m reminded of the intense feelings they shared with me about their experiences with wars.

Only in 17 syllables Bashō conveyed a vivid message.  That is the art of Haiku.

Reference

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8 Responses to “Art of Haiku: Conveying a vivid message in 17 syllables”

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