Friday, 25 November 2011

Elephant No. 54: Haiku

Although the focus of this blog has been on visuals, I don't want to neglect the literary side of things. So today, I thought I'd try haiku.

When I worked for one of Canada's national museums some years ago, two colleagues and I would amuse ourselves around the holidays by making up demented Christmas-themed haiku. In the wrong hands, the normally serene haiku format lends itself surprisingly well to idiocy.

Haiku derives from a longer form of court poetry called tanka. Tanka dates from the ninth century A.D., and was structured in five-line stanzas with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure. Tanka were often written in long, linked strings, with one author taking the first three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, a second author taking the next 7 and 7 syllables, and so on. 

The first part of these poems was called the hokku or "starting verse", and usually set the tone for the rest of the poem. The authors of hokku were often greatly admired for their artistry by their fellow poets, and it is from hokku that the word "haiku" is derived.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, haiku were separated out from the longer tanka. By the nineteenth century, haiku were being written and read as stand-alone poems.

Haiku is considered both a poetic form and a way of viewing and experiencing the world. However, haiku is supposed to evoke, not only the physical world, but also something more esoteric and ephemeral. These qualities may be largely due to the influence of Basho and other seventeenth-century poets, who broke free of the rigid conventions of court poetry, opting for a lighter style rooted in their observations of the natural world.

Basho Composing a HaikuSugiyama Sanpû (1647–1732)

The earliest westerner to have written haiku was likely Hendrik Doeff, the Dutch commissioner to Nagasaki in the early nineteenth century. Although Doeff had a reasonable feel for the principles of classical haiku, the form was poorly understood in the West until well into the twentieth century.

Several Japanese poets tried to interest American and European counterparts in writing haiku. Outside of the notable efforts of poets such as Ezra Pound, however, it was not until the late 1930s that the form took hold. Even then, North American poets often ignored the concept of a 5-7-5 syllable structure, interpreting haiku as simply a form of poetry with a minimal number of very carefully chosen words.

In addition to the 5-7-5-syllable structure, there are a number of other important concepts in writing haiku:

1. Take your inspiration from the natural world. If you see something that you wish others could see or experience, it's probably a good topic for haiku.

2. Use words related to one of the four seasons. Japanese haiku include a kigo or season word. Season words usually relate to concepts such as falling leaves, cherry blossoms, cold, snow, death, warmth, decay—in other words, anything evocative of one of the seasons.

3. Include a contrast or comparison. Most haiku have one idea in the first two lines, with a quick switch to something else for the last line. Crafting two concepts that contrast but work together is said to be the hardest part of writing haiku.

4. Use sensory descriptions more than anything else, since haiku is based on the five senses.

Although Japanese haiku is based on a 5-7-5 syllable structure, the Japanese sound-based syllable is not the same as what we consider a syllable in the West. By some reckonings, a 17-syllable Japanese haiku would work out to 12 syllables in English.

Be that as it may, I'm going to use the traditional 5-7-5 line structure. And I don't think I'll even try to be esoteric or seasonal about elephants, because I'll only embarrass myself. Besides, stupid haiku is way more fun. 

So here goes:

Make an elephant
Mad and you will have trampled
Crops and huts and goats.

Elephants hate to
Wear party hats and ruffles.
It makes them ashamed.

Elephants don't do 
Ikebana, for lack of
Opposable thumbs.

Elephants trumpet 
And run mad in streets if dressed
In silly outfits.

Elephants can walk
A tightrope, but wonder why
It's necessary.

The elephant called
Dumbo could fly with big ears.
I require a jet.

Writing ridiculous haiku is relatively easy, although it can sometimes be difficult to rassle the right number of syllables into a coherent thought. Or perhaps not so coherent in my case.

Elephant Lore of the Day 
There have been many poems written about elephants over the years, many of which fall into the realm of silly but charming doggerel. One of my favourites was written by Laura Howe Richards (1850–1943). 

Laura Richards was a prolific author, writing more than 90 books, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of her mother Julia Ward Howe, writer of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Her children's nonsense poem Eletelephony has been reproduced many times over the years, and I remember learning it from my mother when I was quite small. 

Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant—
No! No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone—

(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I've got it right.)

Howe'er it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telephunk;
The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee—
(I fear I'd better drop the song
Of elephop and telephong!)

To Support Elephant Welfare

No comments:

Post a Comment