Originally filmed at the Dodge Poetry Festival, this video segment from Poetry Everywhere features the former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass reading a translation of haiku by the 18th century Japanese poet, Kubayashi Issa. A collection of eight short haiku present vivid, specific, and often funny perceptions of everyday experiences.
The full text of this poem will be available soon at the Poetry Foundation.
Haiku reminds us that even the smallest of poems can provide insight into ourselves and our world. In English, haiku are often written in three lines, but as Robert Hass's translations of Kobayashi Issa's poems demonstrate, they don't have to follow a strict 5/7/5 syllabic count. Haiku grow out of vivid, specific perceptions of everyday experiences and attempt to capture a moment of fresh perception and insight, usually in the present tense. These haiku moments, revealed through the senses, reflect a heightened awareness of the world and encourage us to live fully in the present. In their simplicity haiku can be striking, nuanced, and beautifully complex.
In Issa's haiku, "don't worry spiders/ I keep house/ casually," unadorned language—without simile, metaphor, allusion, or other figurative elements—provides an amusing snapshot of some spiders and the human they live with. As in most haiku, conjunctions and connectors, such as "because," are left out and the logic is left for readers to infer. Often, two or more meanings are possible: here, for example, "keep house" can imply keeping one's house tidy, or "keeping a house" that is welcoming for all who live there, even the spiders.
In "the snow is melting/ the village is flooded/ with children," Issa plays with the resonance of the word "flooded"—which hangs in the air long enough for the reader to connect it to both water and children. This poem illustrates how many haiku are built around the juxtaposition and precise placement of fragmentary images. In Japanese, "cutting words" mark the contrast between a human element and a natural element. In translation you can feel this break on "flooded" and enjoy—without it being stated explicitly—the contrast between a street flooded with water and one flooded with children.
Humor plays a key role in Issa's haiku. In other poems, his speaker is amused by his cat's love life, the perceptions of mosquitoes, a snail's wardrobe. Reading or hearing these poems, you can sense the poet's thinking about and responding to something in nature by applying human terms or categories. The result is a twist, or punchline of sorts, that allows you to see both images freshly. You see the effect in "under the evening moon/ the snail/ stripped to the waist." Here, specific images and a playful pause before the last line form a humorous connection between the presence of the moon and the snail's behavior.
Read a biography of the poet Robert Hass at the Poetry Foundation.
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