Feature Articles

ANATOMY OF A HAIKU by Gabriel Rosenstock

(Poetry Ireland News November/December 2004)

It is only by tasting and re-tasting good haiku that we can begin to read between the lines and experience their multi-layered effect. Pure haiku arises from subtle levels,Gabriel Rosenstock mantra-like, and can have mantra-like effects. Despite the form's on-the-page brevity, it's a curious fact that the authour of the longest poem in the english language, Sri Aurobindo, prophesised that the poetry of the future would be mantric.

I was in Kochin, now called Kochi, in Kerala, Southern India, and was up at five o'clock to catch an early-morning flight. Opening a window, the first glimer of dawn coincided with the muezzin's call to prayer. Here is the haiku that came from that experience:

Allah akbar!
first light over Kochi
trembling waves

One doesn't like to read to much into anything but for the sake of elucidation how many strands are at work here? Firstly the muezzin cries out the God is Great. The emerging light of dawn is linked with this statement, physically and metaphysically. Already,sound and sight are weaving something new in my brain, a moment hitherto unexperienced ... the invisible muezzin, his nameless voice.

Syllabically, this haiku amounts to thirteen syllables, the second line being the longest; this is more or less the favoured make-up of today's free-style haiku. Apart from Arabic, it is in plain enough language. It describes a moment in time and space. Time o day often replaces the previous requirment of a seasonal reference. It is reasonably euphonious, I hope, without being over-musical. So far so good with our rudimentary analysis. The 'trembling waves' ... what might they be? 'Trembling waves' most obviously refer to waves on the sea. And Kochi after all, is a port city. A typical device which a haikuist often draws upon without intentionality, is to introduce a complementary image which resonates with the first, though not nessecarily with an obvious association. (Many authours believe that such a device is is, indeed essential: see The Poetics of Japanese Verse, Koji Kawamoto, University of Tokyo Press 2000). 'Waves' could also refer to sound waves, the voice of the muezzin. Or 'waves' might also refer to waves of light, light waves of the dawn. The waves of creation itself? Echoes of the Big Bang? Now now, lets get a hold of oursleves here! Yes one can explain, in a logical or intuitive manner, in hindsight, things which were mysteriously and seamlessly one at the time of the haiku moment, or its compossision in words. But isn't the Big Bang going a wee bit too far? Not really. Doesn't Astronomy and cosmic physics teach us that compression leads, ultimatley, to unbelievable expansion? And what is haiku but comprssion par excellence? (And if I am overstating my case, it's simply as an anecdote to the reaction of those who see nothing at all in a haiku.). And 'trembling'? 'Trembling' could suggest something of the fear of God, God's greatness, suggested in the haunting voice that cuts through the early morning stillness. But, as it was written at the start of 2004, is there not the possibilitythat - subconciously at least - 'trembling' also suggest the pathological fear of Muslim culture whoch has become part of our world's neurosis today? Or is 'trembling waves' nothing more than the pathetic fallacy, a much-used device in Gaelic poetry? Is it the "I" that trembles? Before what? itself? Before the power of monotheism? If so, what spurs this trembling? Fear? Loathing? Alienation? Ineffable admiration and awe?

I give these possible manings - and allow for more - with the express intention of showing that a real haiku - as opposed to a pseudo haiku - is not a slight thing at all. Much bad writing over the years has imprinted haiku in popular imagination as nothig more than an amusing squib. We know it can be more than that, much more. It's up to the reader to complete the jigsaw with his or her iwn understanding and experience of what is real. Of course, I was not mentalizing these various levels and interpretations when the actual event happened. I was drawn into the web of sound, into tendrils of light, dissapering in their interstices.

Gabriel Rosenstock's recent titles include Krishnamurphy Ambaist (Coisciem) and olann Mo Mhiuil as an nGainseis (Clo lar- Chonnachta).i

  • WIS Single Visit Application Form
  • Writers in Libraries Application Form
  • Writers in Residence Application Form
pixel design