The Stone Lantern

Monday, July 10, 2006

les langues et le haiku (English version)

A few days ago, I wrote that I wanted to address a question that came up during the June 20 talk I gave at the Japan Information and Culture Center, in Washington. The question was as follows: Do the particularities of a given language beget haiku characteristic of that language?

This question of course merits an in depth analysis but given that I’m writing a blog here, I’m going to offer a more limited response. Still, I hope to stimulate thinking on the matter.

When I lived in Japan, I was intrigued by haiku with a certain measure of ambiguity. Not all Japanese haiku are ambiguous but I was particularly fascinated by those that -- because of the way they were written – were ambiguous. Here’s an example, a haiku composed by Shuoshi (1892-1981) :

Hagi sakeri asama o noboru kumo midare

bush clover in bloom -
climbing Mount Asama
clouds scattering

Well, what is climbing Mount Asama ? The poet? The clouds? It isn’t a question of translation, but interpretation. A Japanese acquaintance explained to me that of course it was the clouds which were climbing and dispersing, because the verb noboru (to climb) is conjugated in such a way that it becomes the adjective to the word « clouds ». But another Japanese acquaintance said, “No, I think it is the author of the haiku who is climbing and he arrives at the summit and sees the clouds scattering quickly above him.”

I like writing haiku in English with this same kind of ambiguity – I find it amusing and refreshing. But the reaction of people is not always positive. I have the feeling that in English, this kind of haiku with ambiguity is seen as less advanced, less developed, compared to a nice, solid, “real” haiku with those famous two contrasting images and which wake you up by their clarity and their honesty.

Is this a linguistic difference? I would say so. Japanese is full of ambiguity and this ambiguity is seen in Japan rather positively. A haiku that incorporates a certain degree of ambiguity is considered pleasant in Japan. By contrast, American English is direct and active. It’s a source of pride, and we like seeing it in our prose and in our haiku.

I’ve only offered a small example. As I wrote at the outset, a blog is not exactly a doctoral dissertation. But I’d love hearing your views on the matter.


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