Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth

Perhaps this is what Guy Debord and the Letterists were trying to achieve with dérive, purposefully using an incorrect map to artistically navigate a city – to arrive at a destination, other than the one desired, but that might prove to be of equal or greater artistic value than the intended original. If it has a literary equivalent, then it happened to me when I was reading a book about Arvo Pärt (Oxford Studies of Composers: Arvo Pärt by Paul Hillier), and learning about all the things I had expected to from such a book: his biography, music theory, minimalism. What I hadn’t expected to read was:

The sound is clear
And reaches the Big Dipper-
Someone pounding cloth.

Simply stunning.

The contrast in scales between the galactic and the solitary human, and the percussive linking of the two into the ending of perfect abruptness, floored me, and I sat silently for a couple of minutes trying to digest those three simple lines.

This particular haiku was written by Matsuo Bashō, master of the form, and the translation is by Ueda. I tried to find a link to it online and came across this alternative version instead:

so clear the sound
echoes to the Big Dipper
the fulling block

It’s elegant, yes, but I feel it lacks the power of the Ueda version. The first two lines seem virtually interchangeable, but it’s in that last line, in the final three words, that the difference lies. Three words, such fine tolerances, but actually, the margins are even finer than that; I think it’s a single word that has it.

Someone.

You or I, him or her, one person who could be any one of us, performing a task so mundane and, because of that, universal, so that it opens communication to the universe, to the entire history of humanity. Take away the human actor, and it reduces to a remote observation of dispassionate significance.

And so it was that I set out to learn about one man and his music, and ended up learning about writing, and a great deal more besides.

Note: a fulling block is a wooden mallet that was used to beat the cloth to help dry and soften it.

3 thoughts on “Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth

  1. Hi Andrew – thanks for the visit and comments. You raise some pertinent issues in this article and I couldn’t agree with you more. I also prefer the Ueda translation. One of the most crucial techniques in haiku is the use of ‘kireji’ or ‘cut’ to compare and contrast. It can take place in the second line, but is often more powerful when it comes at the end. I think the best haiku are like a zen parable, forcing us away from logical thought and into a contemplative state. I hope this helps.
    May the haiku be with you,
    Marcus

    • Thanks for your thoughts Marcus; it was particularly interesting to learn about the concept of ‘kireji’. I’ve actually ordered the book by Makoto Ueda, so I’m looking forward to learning more about how haiku work and what they mean. I think their brevity can sometimes fool us into thinking that they must be simple, but as you say, like a Zen parable or an aphorism, they can be contemplated and debated for centuries.

  2. Pingback: The Many Surprising Sides of Poetry | Thoughts at Intervals

Leave a Reply