Essay Non-Fiction posted February 13, 2011


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A Lecture

The Japanese Aesthetic

by AlvinTEthington

Often people who stay with me find my eating habits strange. Last night, for dinner, I had a Japanese meal of turnips cooked in a seaweed stock, another kind of seaweed and a sweet potato stir-fried, peas mixed with ginger, and short-grain rice. That's not a very typical non-Asian meal. Yes, the ingredients are odd, but so is the combination. There is no main dish. Two employed seaweed. How odd for the Western idea that a meal should consist of meat, starch, and vegetables!

Yet the aesthetic of my meal was very Japanese. The use of two kinds of seaweed reflected the haiku balance of two connected lines and one line of insight. The lack a main dish reflected the idea that a haiku should have an unfinished nature.

In the West, we as humans wish to impose order upon nature. As a traditional formalist when it comes to writing Western poetry, I quite understand this. I want order and hierarchy.

Yet the Japanese idea is to live in harmony with nature, not to impose order on it. It is observatory, outward reflecting rather than inward feeling. The Japanese aesthetic sees what many in the West would call imbalance in nature and tries to reflect that "imbalance" in poetry. Perfectly ordered works seem artificial and false. To come back to the meal example, I used two bowls and one plate to serve my meal, not just plates. The Japanese sometimes go so far to as to mix dinnerware (such as if I mixed my china with my earthenware.)

The West likes order in poetry. We want to rhyme, have rhythm, and use even numbers for verses. Think of the example of the English sonnet. It has fourteen lines, a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg, and is written in iambic pentameter.

The Japanese will have none of that. Haiku and senryu generally have three lines, whereas tanka have five. Rhyming, although it is quite easy in the Japanese language to rhyme, is forbidden; the Japanese think rhyming gives a poem a finished nature. Finally, the rhythm of Japanese poetry is irregular, as is the flow of nature. Tides come in at different heights; the sun rises and sets at different times throughout the day.

Haiku reflect the aesthetic the Japanese observe in nature, which is not perfectly ordered. There is the two lines/one line split in haiku and haiku should have concrete imagery, at least in two lines. Those two lines need to be grammatically interconnected, often using what in the West is called enjambment. The two lines need to be dependent on one another to form an observation. Haiku are not three separate thoughts, though one might see that in what are termed postmodern haiku. Here is an example of a traditional haiku:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps
in water's sound


This is William J. Higginson's translation of a famous haiku by the haiku master Basho. The line of insight is in the first line; one can easily see how the third line is grammatically dependent on the second line (Note that this English translation has a syllabic count of 2/3/4; here, as occasionally happens, the middle line is not the longest; the translation also contains only nine syllables.)

This reflection of being at one with nature is also reflected in the lack of titles for haiku. Everything is a part of everything else; individuality, unlike in the West, is not valued. Often the Japanese will have parties where the whole group will write a poem and no one will know from the finished admittedly long product who wrote what stanza. The desire to be a part of rather than apart from is prevalent in the Japanese aesthetic.

When one submits haiku for publication, one usually distinguishes haiku as haiku (first line). (For instance, the above poem would be titled haiku (old pond).) This is so the editor can inform the writer which, if any, will be published. I urge members on FS to post their haiku titled as such.

One will not become rich writing haiku. However, there are two places for posting haiku I like. Neither has entry fees. One publishes haiku and the other haiga (haiku embedded in pictures.) The former pays ten dollars for a haiku and is quite competitive; it only takes at most thirty haiku a year. Haiku need no titles. There are two deadlines throughout the year (one needs to contact the site) and one must submit by snail mail--through the postal service. Entries are limited to five haiku each deadline (ten per year.) The other has a monthly haiga contest; it does not pay, but if one's work is accepted, one receives worldwide recognition as the haiga is posted on the Internet. Entries in that contest come from all over the world. The deadline for submissions is the 20th of each month except August, when no contest is held. I shall give the names of these two sites in my Shorter Poetic Forms course; I shall also give the names of these sites if one sends me a private message.

I want to thank the members of my February 2011 Shorter Poetic Forms class for giving me the details on what to put in this lecture. I greatly appreciate all my students in that class.


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