Tuesday, February 13, 2007



Matsuo Basho’s “The Narrow Road of the Interior” in The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces Edited by Maynard Mack
(W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 1997)


“The Tradition of the Haiku” by Octavio Paz in Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature
(New York: Harcourt, 1987)


“Cities” series of poems in NOT EVEN DOGS by Ernesto Priego
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, 2006)

From Syllables to Words: The Road to Hay(na)ku

The haiku is a centuries old poetic form that has influenced writers across the world and through time. Its succinctness and brevity have allowed it to capture moments or snippets of life that may have otherwise gone by unnoticed: this is where its permanence and timelessness lie. In the 21st century a particular kind of poetry emerged and, like the haiku, it presented a set form in which it was to be written. This form received the name Hay(na)ku. Just as Basho’s The Narrow Road of the Interior allows readers to understand the spirit and soul of haiku, so too can these same readers delve into a deeper understanding of hay(na)ku through Ernesto Priego’s “Cities”: a series of ten poems with an accompanying photograph of each (unnamed) city. The similarities and differences between both poetic forms go beyond a graphic representation on a page and make them what they are: the embodiment of their times.

It was not until the 1890’s that the term haiku arose after this type of poetry had been written for centuries (Zimmerman). The origin of the haiku can be traced back to the classic Japanese poem: tanka or waka. The tanka consists of five verses divided into two stanzas, one of them of three lines and the other of two. With the tanka came the renga which is a succession of tankas written collaboratively by various poets. In the sixteenth century some renga practitioners began “to write in a witty, satirical, and colloquial vein. This type was called haikai no renga” (Paz 251). What the haikai featured was an introductory stanza that set the tone for the entire poem. Many of these introductions “set the scene by including a reference to the location and season” (Zimmerman), this introductory stanza is called hokku.

The haiku was born as a combination of both the hokku and the haikai. The birth of the haiku occurred at a point in time when Japan was moving away from its historic isolation. Japan began to interact with other nations “when feudalism was weakening [and] merchants and trade were strengthening” (Zimmerman) during the seventeenth century. This meant that the popular language used in haiku also represented a moving away from the “severe and aristocratic aesthetic” (Paz 251-52) of the traditional renga.

The origin of the hay(na)ku is in some respects similar to that of the haiku and in many others it is markedly different. The hay(na)ku was created and “inaugurated on the Web on June 12th, 2003” by poet Eileen Tabios. Like any other literary form or genre it owes its origin to works that have come before it. Eileen Tabios created the form with “inspiration from Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, and meditations on the Filipino transcolonial and diasporic experience” (Zimmerman). The traditional hay(na)ku form consists of a tercet (3 lines) and six words: one in the first line, two in the second and three in the last. The hay(na)ku can be left as a single stanza (like haiku) or it can be linked to other stanzas to create longer poems.

Both poetic forms have been adopted and adapted by writers of many cultures and languages. The voyage of the haiku has been a long one, it has taken centuries for it to be read, understood and studied by people outside of Japan. The approximations that were made were through translation and adaptations of existing works of haiku:

In 1955 a Japanese friend, Eikichi Hayashiya, […] proposed that […] the Two of undertake a joint translation of Oku no Hosomichi. Early in 1956 we handed our version over to the publishing department of the National University of Mexico, and in April of the following year our little volume appeared. It was received with the usual indifference even though, to pique critics’ curiosity, we had emphasized in our forward that our translation of this famous diary was the first one into a Western language. (Paz 247)

What Octavio Paz illustrates is just how arduous has been the journey of the haiku into, not only the general public’s consciousness, but to that of people more intimately connected to poetry. It is a little known fact that not until the second half of the twentieth century was Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road of the Interior translated, not to English, but to the Spanish language.

The spread of hay(na)ku is markedly different to that of the haiku; time, language, and geography have all been overcome. Hay(na)ku was born at a time when globalization goes hand in hand with communication and has thus been interpreted in many languages. The spread of Hay(na)ku throughout the world in a little over three years is comparable to that of the haiku over hundreds of years. Each one represents not only their origin but their overall spirit.

Humanity is witnessing the battle between the computer and television. We now have the ability to tap into vast resources of information and entertainment in mere seconds thanks to the internet and television; this is reflected in the arts. The hay(na)ku is young, vibrant, fast-moving, showing a rather quick adaptability, just like the internet era that it was born in:

the fly
in my smoothie

Jean Vengua ponders on what poetry is and how she can describe the indescribable. The question is direct and, as the title of the poem, it flows naturally into the hay(na)ku itself. She takes a familiar (and annoying) universal image (the fly) and a common drink in many countries: the smoothie. What Vengua does is ponder a timeless question and reflects on it in a unique way, almost tongue and cheek.

In haiku there are also many questions answered and sometimes the question itself isn’t necessarily revealed. This sort of writing leads to a reflective exercise on the part of the reader. What is seen as common or quotidian can, and does, have the potential to change the notions and ideas that a person may have at some point:

An old quiet pond—
Frog splashes into water,
Breaking the silence

Basho also takes common images from everyday life and reflects on what they mean to him. The lack of a title allows the reader to interpret the haiku in many different ways and according to his or her ideas and impulses. The reader must take a step back and actually reflect and give shape to the idea that germinates in his or her mind. The haiku is slow, patient, reserved, with a hint of equanimity, akin to Japanese society during its time as an isolated nation.

Japan slowly opened up to the world at a time when the printed word was a fairly new phenomenon; Basho took advantage of the incipient literacy at the time and became well known (Mack et al. 2108). Poetry nowadays can be easily accessed at any time from basically any place in the world through the internet. If the eras that saw the development of both of these forms are complete opposites there is still and inherent commonality that bridges them to one another as Robert Bly has noted:

As we know from the Japanese experience of the haiku, as well as the experience of many brief poems in the Western tradition, poetry can be presented in fifteen words, or in ten words. Length or meter or rhyme have nothing to do with it. (qtd. in Guth and Rico 28)

Bly touches on an important aspect in both forms: length. The haiku is stripped of any verbosity in order to honestly capture that which it is trying to explain or portray. An image or feeling, for example, has to fit into seventeen syllables. In hay(na)ku the overall length of a poem is malleable but each stanza has a set number of words that are allowed:

The count, obviously, is always in mind. There’s no room to spew out a string of words before counting, because the counting has to start now. One is always thinking about whether the word will fit into the line, and if not, what will happen if you unpack the word, and take it apart, piece by piece. (Vengua)

The hay(na)ku like the haiku also has to be thought out and not merely written as a spur-of-the-moment type of literature. Even though the hay(na)ku is dynamic it does not mean that it is sloppy or unplanned. These shared features between both forms allow for a sense of permanence and poignancy. These same features are noticeable in the words of Matsuo Basho and Ernesto Priego: the former in haiku and the latter in hay(na)ku.

Both Basho and Priego have traveled and have left a memory of that which they experienced. Basho wrote The Narrow Road of the Interior in 1689 “when Basho embarked on his most ambitious journey […] to the far corners of northern Japan” (Mack 2110). Priego’s “Cities” were posted individually and then together in September of 2005 on his blog neverneutral.blogspot.com which is his main writing outlet [later published in NOT EVEN DOGS]. Priego traveled to many cities around the world and left his impressions of such cities in the form of hay(na)ku poetry.

Traveling and poetry, as evinced in both poets, go hand in hand even though traveling is sometimes something that is not easily done. Basho’s main limitation was the lack of technology and not having appropriate transportation for parts of his journey. Priego’s limitation is the ubiquity of technology which he overcomes by moving beyond flawed mass information and the apathy of wanting to see the world beyond a computer screen. Just as the haiku spread with the advent of technology and trade, the hay(na)ku must move beyond technology and manifest itself beyond a server or CPU:

The French poem is wrong: to travel is not “to die a little,” but to practice the art of saying good-bye so that, our burden that much lighter, we may learn to receive. Detachments are apprenticeships. (Paz 248)

In both cases travel is of the utmost importance; to and from the other. The “detachment” that Paz writes of is the moving away from everyday life and exploring that which is beyond. Once the poet begins his travels there is little that he will not learn from or take away in the form of inspiration.

The sense of loss and remembrance permeates through both works as seen in this haiku written when Basho is in the middle of a courtyard and sees leaves scattered throughout:

To sweep your courtyard
of willow leaves, and then depart:
that would be my wish!

The poet wants to clear the courtyard of leaves because he knows that new ones will continue to fall in an endless cycle. The leaves have fallen, they are the past and new memories will arrive, one must always allow for the past to live and not overtake what is to come. This, Ernesto, in Second City, understands perfectly:

the dead
leaves under me

I walk
that hurt me:

Priego, unlike Basho, arrives at a city covered in leaves and in memories. Someone else has departed with the wish of sweeping the leaves but the city is overbearing with passing memories. Priego, at the end of the hay(na)ku goes even farther to illustrate this internalized sense of loss:
of rooms
inside my dream

covered with
your faded paper,

of memory;
of coming back.

The 21st century poet comes to realize as does the 17th century bard that that memory and that wish are always of coming back. Their wish is of returning and giving to time the ability to leave its indelible mark on them.

Both poetic forms give the poets the ability to filter their ideas and feelings as these ideas become too overwhelming or impressive on their minds. Their weight is in the carefully selected and meticulously arranged syllables and words. In both cases the language is fairly simple to understand yet the intricacies that they imply go beyond simply reading a string of straightforward words. When Basho and his companion Sora arrive at Takadachi, Basho is so moved by the nothing that remains of Yasuhira’s castle that he can only weep and transcribe Sora’s words as his own:

A dream of warriors,
and after dreaming is done,
the summer grasses.

Ah, the white hair:
vision of Kanefusa
in deutzia flowers

The warriors have become a memory and their feats and lives are now the base for the summer grasses that grow over them. The cycle alluded to before is now evident here and all they can witness is the graying of hairs and the passing of time.

Priego comes to realize just how much has changed and what time has taken with it in his home city:
were here
before I could

what cities
do to people.

used to
play baseball in

now condos
with tennis courts [.]

Priego’s thoughts seem to echo those of Basho and Sora, the cornfields are now condos that have been built over his memories. It’s as if he were reproaching the city for allowing him to understand and comprehend that what cities do to people is make them change, forget, move on even they don’t necessarily want to. Change is the only constant in a city.

It comes as no surprise then that both poets knowing how life, cities, countries and cultures change that they choose to write poetry firmly cemented on form. They can vary their poems any way that they wish but the basic structure will be the undercurrent to anything that they write. Haiku and hay(na)ku were created in completely different eras and their development and diffusion are opposite of each other but their essence is similar. They allow those that read and write haiku to learn to take a step back and view the world in a different way. Those that intend to do the same with hay(na)ku can learn to interpret and give form to their world while allowing their world to give form to them.

Works Cited
Basho, Matsuo. “The Narrow Road of the Interior.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Mack, Maynard, New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1997. (2112-2134)

Guth, Hans P., Gabrielle L. Rico. Discovering Poetry. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Paz, Octavio. “The Tradition of the Haiku.” Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Harcourt, 1987.

Priego, Ernesto. September 2005. Never Neutral. 27 May 2006.

Vengua, Jean. Interview. Poetry at Ariadnes Web. 27 May 2006.

Zimmerman, Joan. 2005. Poetry at Ariadnes Web. 27 May 2006.


Mario Esaúl Mireles (Leon, Mexico 1978) is currently an online student at Ellis College and will be completing his B.A. in English this year. Translation and literature are his passions and have led him to write and translate for various publications and organizations.He has been working on translating essays by Mexicali writer Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, and Chilean poet Hugo Vera Miranda. He lives with his wife Alina and daughter Ximena in Mexicali, Mexico and works in Southern California.


At 2:29 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Other views on NOT EVEN DOGS are offered by Leny M. Strobel in GR #4 at: http://galatearesurrection4.blogspot.com/2006/11/not-even-dogs-by-ernesto-priego.html

and by Allen Bramhall in GR #3 at: http://galatearesurrection3.blogspot.com/2006/08/not-even-dogs-by-ernesto-priego.html

At 4:26 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Thanks for your thoughts on the hay(na)ku. Speaking of the internet's involvement in this form's origination and popularization, one should note the Flips Listserve (for those interested in Filipino literature) whose members also aided in the conceptualization and spread of hay(na)ku.


At 12:53 AM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Another view on NOT EVEN DOGS is offered by John Bloomberg-Rissman in GR #7 at:



Post a Comment

<< Home