WHAT IS A HAIKU?
This is the story of a style born of poetic contests in the Imperial court during the Japanese Middle Ages.
The Goncourt brothers introduced the ‟haiku” to the western world in the 19th century.
The incredible success at being able to transpose the ‟haiku” into other languages quickly made us forget that it is one of the classic traditions demonstrating the genius of the Japanese people.
This brief poem of seventeen syllables, including an allusion to the seasons, is a phenomenon which arouses questions going far beyond the cultural scope from which it originates.
The vogue of ‟haiku” written in English, Breton, French or Flemish often make us think in an irresistible way of those curious onlookers who, faced with an abstract painting, burst out laughing ‟I can do this any day!”
Some Westerners have contributed to our knowledge of the authenticity of ‟haiku” through their translations, such as Maurice Coyaud and more importantly René Sieffert, the latter having translated the works of Bashô, the master of the genre. Other translators endeavoured to study what became this poetic form when it was used in another language, along with all the mistakes and the misunderstandings which are thus generated, and here we think of Etiemble’s works.
But what do the Japanese think about this surge of enthusiasm for ‟haiku”? Many standpoints are available on the subject. First of all there is surprise and amusement, then sometimes a certain amount of emotion, as testified by an academic in the columns of the newspaper Mainichi: ‟Throughout the world there are people who compose poems in their own language that they call ‛haiku’ in imitation of the Japanese ‛haiku’. The term ‛haiku’’ is even listed in recent American and British dictionaries. We also notice poets from all over of America composing ‛haiku’’ verging on the melancholic. As is the present craze for ‛haiku’ in Japan, it would appear that a similar phenomenon exists elsewhere. It is quite a pleasing and moving idea that the Japanese ‛haiku’ may serve as links of friendship between people who know neither Japanese nor Japan.”
Turning from amazement to action, in a reaction inspired by their legendary practical mind, the Japanese started organising international contests of ‟‛haiku’ in foreign languages”, such as the 5th Festival of culture in 1990 in the town of Matsuyama in the province of Ehime.
Beyond the numerous questionings which can be expressed about ‛haiku’ from western sensitivity, beyond formula as brilliant as certain poetic writings such as: ‟astonishment of emotion”, ‟living herbarium of immutable truths”, ‟quest for flash of inspiration”, what is a ‟haiku”?
First of all it is a social practice. It is a style born of poetic conjunctures (uta-awase) which took place at the Imperial Court during the Japanese Middle Ages. During these literary contests, collective creations called ‟renga” (linked verses) were developed and the ‟haiku” originated from these. Bashô himself led ‟haiku” discussion groups during which he compared his experience with those of others and discussed his technique with his students. Any cultural activity, all the more if poetic, is a social activity in Japan. Within Japan today the ‟haiku” has schools, students, reviews (recently numbering eight hundred), trends, contests and millions of followers.
In ‟haiku” clubs, during monthly meetings, each member’s poems are the subject of debates, discussions, comments and a vote, bearing witness of authentic ‟literary democracy”. Everything is organized in a competitive manner, each composer aiming for absolute perfection. Other characteristics anchor the ‟haiku” much more in the specificity of a culture and reveal that it is said to be the epiphenomenon of more profound realities, more essential in the sight of fundamental considerations of the history of mankind.
The classical ‟haiku”, as it has been presented to us, is organized on a seventeen syllable rhythm. This is not due to chance.
In fact, the most ancient of all known Japanese poems, ‟the katauta”, were based on this rhythm at the beginning of our era. They reproduced the breathing mode on which oral literature was then built, before the introduction of a transcription using Chinese characters. These rhythmical expressions, balanced in a ‟question/answer” format, had a strong religious connotation. We also find such rhythmical expressions later in the poetry contests of the Middle Ages. The fact the ‟haiku” first of all appears as a poetic act must not make us forget that the Japanese have for a long time been connected with poetry, from which preoccupations about their relationship with the invisible world were not missing. Historic events prove this.
Some of the great names in Japanese history did not deign to attend poetic sessions and compose poems before a battle in order to gain the gods’ favours. However, Akechi Mitsuhide, who went on to assassinate the infamous general Oda Nobunaga in 1582, took part in a ‟renga” competition the day before his crime. Fujitani Mitsue, a philosopher of the 18th century, declared in a poetic art treaty that we should break the shackles of the words which held the gods captive. Thus, the gods are present in the instance of ‟the inversion of words” (logo), a phenomenon which consists of reversing the word or syllable order to reinforce or conceal the meaning of it. The gods of Shinto are thus compared to ‟the spirit of words” (Kodota ma).
Many poems in the popular tradition are considered as a magic formula where this ‘spirit of words’ becomes free by the recitation of such poems. Used for therapeutic purposes, these songs to the rhythm of thirty one syllables (seventeen syllables plus fourteen) still remind us of the relationship between magic and poetry, while other traditional civilisations claimed that all poetry is medicine. The seasonal reference any ‘haiku’ should contain is the sign that his author is ‟in harmony with nature”. This means that a compulsion to allude to a season in a poem is a kind of explicit recognition of the relative place of Humans in the Universe, where human events do not only concern human beings.
Over the centuries, the Japanese have listed, then classified, all the signs and all the characteristic moments of each season, and compiled glossaries which increase in importance with the passing of time.
These glossaries which contain more than 5,000 words pertaining to ‟seasons”, are what amateurs refer to before creating a ‟haiku” poem. These poetic almanacs (known as ‟saijiki”) are a real treasure of Japanese sensitivity. According to Inoue Teruo, a Japanese poet, they are a ‟very detailed collection of dates and customs commemorative of our people”. These poetic almanacs are the medium of a creation of which the ‟haiku” are only the visible result. They explain and illustrate fifteen thousand ‟haiku” of known authors and are a reference for any new writing. The discovery and study of these almanacs give a different perspective to the practice of ‟haiku” and enable a Japanese interpretation of the world.
Through the ‟seasonal vocabulary” compiled in these almanacs, we can witness a permanent recreation of the universe by the Japanese people. It is because of this that the ‟haiku” is much more than a literary event.
Because of its history and what it is nowadays in Japan, the ‟haiku” originates in ethno-poetry rather than poetry as envisaged by the western world.
An interesting exercise for anyone wanting to create a ‟haiku” or any other kind of poetry, is to practice what Dr Lefebure calls ‟Streaming Mixing”.
Creating a ‟haiku” under the influence of the phosphene:
Do a first phosphene.
Mix an image which symbolises and summarizes the subject of your study within this phosphene. During the presence of the phosphene, you will generally come across two or three ideas that are quite different from the first one.
Choose the clearest of them and mix this second image within a second phosphene.
During this, four or five new ideas will appear, in general.
Again choose the clearest of them and from it, make up a theme that you will mix with a third phosphene.
Then ten or twelve new ideas will appear and so on…
The flood of ideas is like a river flowing into the sea which is born from a small spring but never stops to get wider thanks to its tributaries.
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Thank you for your indulgence and for your consideration of the many hours spent translating all our pages and, more particularly, all the testimonies we share with you so that you may become aware of the impact that Phosphenism can have on those who practice it.
Wishing you the best with your practice of Phosphenism.
Daniel Stiennon (Dr. LEFEBURE School Director, France)