“The Neutron Star”
For more than two years, I’ve admired the string of embassies lining Massachusetts Avenue while riding the bus to campus. Yet, it wasn’t until Monday that I was able to set foot in one of these compounds. Thanks to David Keplinger and his many friends in poetry, I paid a recent visit to the Japanese Embassy with other MFA students currently working on translation projects. The subject of our visit was a poetic form I—and many of my classmates—have had limited experience with, haiku.
At some point in grade school, most young students are introduced to haiku. I can remember in fourth grade how my teacher, Mrs. Diffley, used the form to explain syllables. We read haiku while she tapped out syllables, showing us the 5-7-5 pattern as a series of beats on the table in front of her. We emulated her. As a ten-year-old, I remember feeling my way through the pieces of my favorite words.
After that auspicious beginning, I went on a long haiku hiatus, and don’t believe I tried any of these poems until, as an adult, I used the form for notes on wedding gifts.
To John and Frances,
Your love holds a bounty like
this stainless steel tray.
My experience with haiku has deepened considerably in recent months, first, due to the series of haiku, “rain barrel variations,” in Jan Wagner’s recent collection, The Art of Topiary. David Keplinger, the translator of Wagner’s collection, has discussed the challenges of translating into this rigid syllabic structure, and in his seminar we began to study the form. We read poems from some of the original Japanese masters—Bashō, Kobayashi Issa—and examined how expansive seventeen syllables can become.
Don’t weep, insects –
Lovers, stars themselves,
– Kobayashi Issa
To develop our haiku acumen, Keplinger brought us to meet his friend, Matthew Levitas, the Cultural Affairs Coordinator at the Japan Information and Culture Center. Levitas is an expert in Japanese poetry and shared his boundless knowledge of haiku at the Japanese Embassy on Monday.
After circling the room and sharing our experience with the form—ranging from elementary school lessons to serious study while living in Japan—Levitas explained the elements of haiku that give these poems their efficient potency. In the short space, the haiku poet has little room to establish setting. Many use kigo, a word or phrase that points to the season of the poem, as a way to ground the reader in the poem’s world—blossom, spring, milky way, autumn, when that band of light is most visible in the Japanese sky. To maximize effect, many haiku use kakekotoba, or “pivot words,” a form of wordplay that yields multiple meanings. As Levitas explained, use of kakekotoba can provide “two or three poems in one.”
But perhaps the most affecting aspect of haiku is the architecture of the three lines, the jo-ha-kyū, introduction – intensification – quick finish.
Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.
– Natsume Soseki
In this way, three lines become a complete arc, seventeen syllables an expansive opening, not a closed proscriptive pattern. Perhaps Keplinger put it best when reflecting on how the form has persisted through centuries, calling haiku “this little neutron star, almost invisible, infinitely dense.”
Image: Jeremy Thomas
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.