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Fascinating overview of the evolution of haiku with many annotated examples
on 25 July 2016
During a sleepless night, feeling the need for something restful and soothing to read, I decided to investigate haiku. Most of my knowledge so far had come from my daughter learning about it in primary school and from seeing friends write and share their own haiku on social media, often accompanied by photographs of what had inspired it.
I've always thought there is a poetry gene, and that I lack it, but that haiku is a sufficiently accessible form of poetry that anyone might try writing it. The form also seems to mesh well with the current vogue for mindfulness, which encourages us to live for the moment and take more notice of tiny details of whatever is around us.
What better time, then, to find out more about haiku, not only to become a more informed reader, but also possibly to equip myself to try writing it. A quick search online threw up this Dover Classic as an e-book for just 49p for a quick read, as estimated by my Kindle, so it seemed just the ticket. It was worth 49p even for just the cover, a soothing Hokusai style painting of a classic Japanese scene.
The book is comprised of two parts, firstly a fascinating introduction to the history of this distinctive form of poetry in five – seven – five syllable form. I hadn't realised that haiku had also at one point been a popular activity for groups of poets to play a kind of tag game, working together to write an epic length string of them. It had also been a popular comic form - the format certainly lends itself well to one-liner punchlines.
The introduction also included interesting snippets about the nature of Japanese language, for example there are 10 vowel sound, and and that the words for poem is the same as the word for song. Fascinating stuff. The rest of the book consists of a series of haikuks from throughout their history, citing the work of leading haiku poets. Often the length of the footnotes outstrips the length of the haiku poetry, but the footnotes are well worth reading. Although the not essential to the understanding of the poems, they provide more insight into Japanese life and culture, including Zen Buddhists philosophy, and the reason why certain iconic images such as peonies and cherry blossom occur so often.
It was slightly frustrating to be reading the Kindle version, simply because the footnotes appear at the end of each poet's section and therefore only after you've seen all of the poems. I found myself scrolling back and forth quite a lot in order to match the footnote to the poem.
However, the total effect of the book was so enjoyable and memorable that I am going to buy the paperback version to keep on my poetry shelf for rereading.
This book would be interesting to any fan of Japanese culture and art, or who would like to know more about the haiku format and and its place in the history of poetry, or who is keen on mindfulness, or who would like to feel empowered to write their own haiku. By the end of the book, I certainly felt more confident about having a go myself – so that sleepless night was actually pretty fruitful after all.
(This review also appears on my bookblog.)