x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Perfectly formed

The president of the European Council is publishing a book of haiku – a testament to the form's continuting popularity.

The Japanese poet, Basho, right, frequently celebrated the uncertainties and discoveries of travel in his haiku.
The Japanese poet, Basho, right, frequently celebrated the uncertainties and discoveries of travel in his haiku.

Never mind sushi, sumo and skyscrapers. There is one other Japanese export that is infinitely more subtle but no less celebrated - the art of saying a lot in a very small space. Small but perfectly formed, the humble haiku poem has long been revered as one of the more accessible symbols of Japanese culture. Key to its universal appeal is no doubt its tiny size: it typically consists of just 17 syllables, often with a reference to the seasons thrown in for good measure (an autumn leaf or maybe a cherry blossom).

Happily inhabiting the more diminutive end of the Japanese literary spectrum, a haiku often takes only seconds rather than years to read - unlike historically weighty tomes such as the Tale of Genji. But its brevity is deceptive - beneath its blink-and-you-miss-it surface lurks a complex mastery of language and symbolism, not to mention mathematics, with the best haikus evoking an image or sense that lingers long after the poem is read.

Testimony to its universal appeal is its most recent fan, Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, who will this month publish a book of carefully composed haiku poems. The politician's longstanding love of the Japanese poetry form (written in Flemish no less) has not only prompted the catchy alias Haiku Herman but also highlights how far the modern-day micro-poet has come since the early days.

Forget political plotting. One of the most common activities of early Japanese courtly life was a less predictable hobby: playing poetry games. As early as the ninth century, Japan's courtiers began to wile away the hours composing poetry in the form of "tankas" consisting of 5-7-5-7-7 syllable lines. During games of what could unacademically be dubbed "tanka tennis", a vast chain of poetry segments was often created by different courtiers to form one endless poem.

In such a climate, the birth of the haiku took place. The most important part of a tanka (and perhaps the most memorable, given the length of some of them) were the opening lines. Eventually, it became common for the opening section, which later became the haiku, to be written and read as an individual poem. Among its most famous earlier masters was Basho, widely regarded as the 17th century father of the form.

The golden rule of the original haiku was reference to the seasons, a reflection of Japan's spiritual attachment to nature, symbolising the passing of time and the transience of life. Such seasonal references, known as kijo, took an eclectic array of forms but always enabled the reader to guess the setting: from the croaking of frogs (spring) and wild orange blossoms (summer) to ripe pears (autumn) and oysters (winter).

The other prerequisite for haiku purists was a structure hinged on a verbal pause, often obtained in Japanese using a split verb, and in English translations frequently marked by punctuation. Throw into the mix the fact that in Japanese, haiku are written in a single vertical line, compared to its English counterpart's three lines (of 5-7-5 syllables), and it is clear that the translation of a haiku is an art form in itself. But it was not only the Japanese who were seduced by its compact appeal. Perhaps fittingly for Haiku Herman, the first westerner believed to have penned haiku was his fellow Dutchman Hendrik Doeff, a trading post commissioner in early 19th century Japan.

From Ezra Pound to Octavio Paz, countless literary figures have since been influenced and seduced by the pithy and poetic haiku. Today, its popularity lives on in Japan and internationally, with numerous haiku afficionados across the globe, from Slovenia to Santiago. Some of the more imaginative, modern interpretations may provoke disdain among purists, however. There is Fleur-de-Lisa, a North Carolina group that sings a cappella haiku. Meanwhile, an internet service (www.tinywords.com) delivers daily haiku fixes to mobile phones.

Further evidence of its popularity can be found in this month's World Haiku Festival. The 10th annual celebration of all things haiku-related (previous locations include India and Oxford), this month's event is set in Japan's southern city of Nagasaki. Whether Van Rompuy manages to take time out from his hectic political schedule to pen a few lines with fellow poetry lovers in Japan remains to be seen.

But there is no doubt that, regardless of his presence, the appeal of the most diminutive member of the poetry family is destined to live on.