We think we know haiku. It's the short-short form of poetry based on seventeen syllables in a 5/7/5 line length, usually an observation of nature. It's poetry of the moment, dashed off quickly, not serious writing.
Wrong. Haiku is so much more—which is only one of the surprises in this beautiful small volume of haiku from one of Japan's most renowned poets, Momoko Kuroda, translated with insightful commentary by Abigail Friedman, a career U.S. diplomat who studied with Kuroda when Friedman lived in Japan.
Like the haiku it centers on, I Wait for the Moon cannot be summed up in simple terms. The hundred poems Friedman chooses take readers on a journey through life, writing, Japan, and the evolution of one woman's resonant writing voice.
Haiku, it turns out, are limited to 17 units, not syllables: the units are 17 sounds of Japanese Kanji, the pictorial letterforms. The line lengths are not a prescribed 5/7/5; rather they are signaled by grammatical breaks or kireji, the word that signals a "cut" or turn, a surprise in the haiku.
The point of delving into haiku form is not to mess with reader's heads, but to show the intricacy in those seventeen beats, details that make this form of poetry far more challenging and meaningful than most people realize.
Take this early Kuroda haiku:
underground passage/ there's a wind rushing by—/ the calendar seller
Simply a powerful observation of a moment, it seems, until Friedman comments:
As is so often the case with haiku, it is the unstated which completes the poem. We must divine the sound of calendar pages fluttering and flapping in the wind, drawing Momoko's attention to the calendar stall. Here, everything is in motion—the poet walking through the passageway, the wind, the pages of the calendars, and time itself (the calendar being a symbol of tempus fugit).
Friedman shows Kuroda's decades-long evolution from a classical poet of haiku, based on reporting or observation, to a poet whose haiku are deeply reflective. The changes in the poet's writing voice were sharpened by the events of March 11, 2011, when the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan struck the country's northern coast, followed by a devastating tsunami and the man-made devastation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant went into meltdown.
deep beneath the sea/ upon those in deepest sleep/ cherry blossoms fall
Momoko believes the triple disaster changed not only the lives of the victims, but everyone's lives. She felt that she needed to achieve a 'self-revolution.' She set about contributing to the revival and rebuilding effort through her role as a haiku selector [she was asked to encourage locals to write haiku about the events]. ... Momoko urged contributors to write about their painful experiences. (Specifying such a request was particularly necessary as the cultural norm in Japan would be for victims to try not to burden others with their pain.) She embraced the idea that haiku did not have to be about the blessings of nature. She confessed regret and shame at having failed to heed early critics of nuclear power, and she took a public stand along with other artists against nuclear power. Looking back, Momoko believes that the events of March 11, 2011, forced a transformation within her, altering her perspective on life and nature, as well as haiku.
the early rising bamboo partridge calls to those no longer alive
I Wait for the Moon is haiku at its richest, an exploration of life and our lives through the voice of a justifiably revered poet and her insightful student. The book itself honors the poetic form; it is carefully crafted and beautiful in its details, inviting readers to savor the words—and wisdom within.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Momoko Kuroda is one of Japan's most well-known haiku poets. She has published six collections of haiku and authored or co-authored another twenty-three prose works. She has received the Best Modern Woman Haiku Poet Award as well as the Dakotsu Prize, Japan's most prestigious haiku award (she was the first poet to be awarded the prize). A haiku selector for the Nihon Keizai Shimbun's weekly Sunday haiku column, she also appears on NHK television and serves on the jury of national and regional haiku contests. Until her retirement she held a senior management position at the Hakuhodo advertising agency in Tokyo.
Abigail Friedman is a U.S. diplomat and prize-winning haiku poet who has lived and worked in Japan. Her haiku and writings on haiku have been published worldwide. She is author of The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan. Visit the Asia Foundation website & the publisher's website.
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