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Sailing 14: What kind of sword do you carry?

Started by Peter Yovu, March 06, 2011, 01:20:09 AM

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Peter Yovu

Over on Periplum, David Lanoue has been presenting a series of "Seashell Games" which, as he says, originally "involved a beauty contest of two shells, viewed side-by-side. Basho extended this format to haiku, placing two haiku side-by-side and determining the winner. The important thing wasn't so much who won or lost, but rather the comments of the judge (Basho), who revealed his concepts about what constitutes a fine haiku". (Italics mine).

In the fourth installment, David provides comments Basho made about two poems he (Basho) judged: "The first poem suggests. . . that the poet is well versed. . . in the skill of giving birth to vigorous language.(Also mine). It ranks thousands of leagues above the second poem. Therefore, if invited to come and look at such a happy product, the writer of the [second] poem should withdraw his wooden sword and flee".

For good or ill, elements of Basho's poetics have been cited countless times in support of, or to criticize, current (English language) attempts at writing haiku. However, "the skill of giving birth to vigorous language" does not strike me as an element which one encounters with any regularity in discussions or criticism of English language haiku, or of translations. Some, I include myself, might add that while "plain language" is often seen, praised, and promoted, "vigorous language" is not. Do you agree with this?

To the extent that may be true, would you say, for example, that notions of haiku being "a wordless poem" contribute to a lack of vigor, or even to feelings that language itself somehow gets in the way?  

I don't intend this to be a referendum on Basho's poetics, but as always, we'll find out which way the wind blows. Nonetheless, along with such poetic elements as "lightness" and "going to the pine to learn from the pine", how do you feel about including "the skill of giving birth to vigorous language" in your critical toolkit, and in your considerations of what constitutes a fine haiku? What kind of sword do you carry?

As with previous Sailings, I invite participants to give examples of poems which you feel exemplify, advance or challenge the subject we are exploring. And in this instance, I would also like to invite those who know Japanese to perhaps speak to ways in which Basho himself used "vigorous language".

And I encourage you to check out Periplum. The fourth Seashell Game gives Basho's full statement regarding the "winning" haiku and the haiku whose author evidently wielded a wooden sword.  

Chris Patchel

"Vigorous" is a pretty vigorous word. I can't see Basho using it in a poem. The words and images he did use in most of the poems we're familiar with (old pond, bare branches, warrior's dreams) are plain indeed, but he certainly used them to vigorous effect.

Whatever he means by "vigorous use of language" it can't be about bejeweled language that draws undue attention to itself. His poetic language has a restrained vigor.

But maybe Basho isn't the best example of what you're looking for and getting at.


Hello, Peter,

I should know better than to jump in here with my little, non-intellectual brain, but here goes anyway.


having great energy
powerful in effect

Isn't that what all good writing, regardless of genre, should be?

Isn't that what we aim for?

Plain-spokenness is a lot more vigorous than fancied-up language -- which means haiku should be among the most vigorous forms of poetry out there.

I'm all for vigorous language.  Would any writer want his/her words to be wan, weak, lazy, lethargic, and powerless?


PS, I'm a pacifist, but if I had a sword, it would be a dagger, as befits a lady.   8)  ;D
"Nature inspires me. I am only a messenger."  ~Kitaro

Peter Yovu

Yes, I think it's useful to bring in what "vigorous" means, though I'm sure some will also have a feeling sense of it which is not easy to define. Speaking of which, I hope that readers will not feel these "Sailings" are only, or especially, intellectual exercises. One way to avoid that, should you choose, is simply to present a poem which for you exemplifies "vigorous language"-- or one which does not. In the past, typically, I had kicked things off with some examples, but I was wary in this instance of pre-determining a tone. So I remain hopeful that someone will bring in a poem or two for discussion.

So cat, can you show us how, for you, "plain-spokenness is. . . vigorous". . .?

And what are some other ways a haiku may use "vigorous language"?

At some point I'd like to offer a poem by Michael McClintock (not his very vigorous "poppy" poem) whose
insistent sounds may belie how we read it. A teaser, yes. . .

snowbird a/k/a Merrill Ann Gonzales

This concept comes to mind in a problem I was having with a bush...pretty plain language there.  But this bush was so hard to describe and I was at a loss for a word to describe it's many passages created by the tangle of branches and the many hiding places for the birds all winter.  (See how many words it takes to try to explain what that bush was!)  One day on the way home it came to me: 
bushmaze.   Now there is no such word.  But in one word it holds all the elements three lines of description took to explain.   
     I don't look for fancy words...I love the pot and rake and trowel... but I do love a word that holds the truth or the essence of something.   

snowbird a/k/a Merrill Ann Gonzales

Here's a simple haiku from"paper moon" haiku "Writing for Self Discovery" Grades 9 and 10 put out by School of the Arts Rochester, New York.  It's such a simple haiku:   

early spring
the Sunday paper
freckled with snow   
     Brittany Robinson   

This holds the essence of that early spring day... with the added humor of "freckled" like the little girl dashing for the paper in the light snow.   

Chris Patchel

Quotecan you show us how, for you, "plain-spokenness is. . . vigorous". . .?

Though not a haiku, William Carlos Williams' red wheelbarrow comes quickly to mind as a vigorous use of language using the plainest of words and images.

Gabi Greve

QuoteAnd in this instance, I would also like to invite those who know Japanese to perhaps speak to ways in which Basho himself used
"vigorous language".

Good morning from Japan !

My first question is this: vigorous language
What did Basho really say? (in Japanese, I mean).
Could David provide a rendering of the original expression, please.)

I find this for "vigorous" in my online yahoo dict:
1 [形] 1 〈人・行為などが〉活力[活気]にあふれた,元気いっぱいの;精力的[積極的]な;〈人が〉じょうぶ[健康]な,たくましい

2 〈人・性格・文体などが〉迫力ある,強い,力強い

3 〈実施などが〉強力な,強制的な.

4 〈植物が〉よく育つ


Gabi Greve

蚤虱 ( のみしらみ ) 馬の 尿 ( ばり ) する枕もと
nomi shirami uma no bari suru makuramoto

fleas and lice
and a horse pissing
next to my pillow

Matsuo Basho
(Tr. Gabi Greve)

certainly a vivid description of a night in a cheap lodging. But the words are all rather plain and simple.

for other translations and more haiku on pissing, check in here

Is that the kind of "vigorous language" you are thinking of?
(just got off my makuramoto without all these attributes above  :) )


Chris Patchel

There are a myriad haiku that strike me as vigorous use of plain language for one reason or another:

a box of nails
on the shelf of the shed
the cold

pig and i spring rain

as well as many gendai examples which are extreme in every way (and which don't float my sailboat):

twenty billion light years of perjury      your blood type is "B"

I picture that one being screamed out at a poetry slam.

Gael Bage

I guess this one of mine is pretty vigorous, my sword tends to come out in defense of the helpless.

what noise
does a piglet make
when it's teeth are cut
with pliers
Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance
- Carl Sandburg


Oh my goodness, Peter,

There isn't enough space here to list all the haiku I love for their plain and vigorous language . . .

all the flowers cropped
they come so silently
the black-tailed deer
          ~Winona Baker

endless day --
a train whistle widens
in the cold air
           ~Raffael de Gruttola

     twilit pasture --
voices of frogs fill
     the forgotten bucket
          ~Ross Figgins

wet snow --
another color or two
on the sycamore bough
          ~William J. Higginson

Tea fragrance
from an empty cup . . .
the thin winter moon
          ~Peggy Willis Lyles

Simple, unadorned language, masterfully combined into concrete images of evocative sensory detail.  Robust, dynamic, and vigorous!

"Nature inspires me. I am only a messenger."  ~Kitaro

Gabi Greve

Poet left  wrote

toriyagebaba ga migi no te nari no momiji kana

this red maple leaf (looks like) the right hand of a midwife

each word taken by itself is rather simple every-day language.
But they show us a fresh,  "vigorous image".

How like it is to
A midwife's right hand--
Crimson maple leaf!

Tr. Ueda

By the way, Chibi san

toriyage baba : this is either a mis-spelling or an old version of toriage baba 取り上げ婆   ... tori ageru -  taking out and lifting up .. what a midwife does with a newborn baby. baba here could refere to any woman of this profession, does not have to be an old one. But in the Edo period, most elderly woman tended to the younger ones, because they had more experience.


Peter Yovu

early spring
the Sunday paper
freckled with snow
    Britanny Robinson

If you were to ask me, personally, what it's like to feel vigorous, I suppose I would say it's a feeling of energy and aliveness in my body—a kind of vitality. So maybe it's in the "body" of a poem that we experience "vigorous language"— not so much the vocabulary, but the rhythms and sounds that propel it.

Does Merrill's example use this kind of language? I think so. I could probably devote a lot of words to describe why I think so, but maybe it will suffice to say that I find the rhythm compelling— or propelling. Here it is with the accented syllables uppercase:

the SUNday PAper
FRECKled with SNOW

There's something forceful about this, a series of trochees dynamically altered in the last line. I suspect the young person who wrote this had been reading a lot of poetry and took this kind of rhythm in, probably unconsciously—that is to say, into her body, where it was available to her when needed.

Another way the poem uses vigorous language is in the metaphor "freckled with snow". Some would argue that this is language calling attention to itself and should be eliminated. But how much would be lost without it, and anyway, even to say "spotted" or "flecked" or "speckled" with snow is to use a metaphor. "Freckled" seems just right for a youthful poem such as this, and I would say that it is vigorous in the sense that it breaks through the pavement of all the rules that get laid down. So that speaks to how word choice-- what and how words mean-- can bring aliveness to a poem. Sound and sense together.

Gabi Greve



no autumn reddening for me -
come look!
oak branch dew

(Tr. David Lanoue)

This haiku struck me because of the unusual use of language in line 3

in line 1, who is the ME ? the author in his garden ?
and then in line 3,
just three words dumped at the reader , bang bang bang ...,  that is something quite unusual !
(for me that reads like an example of vigorous use of words).

Now I wonder about the Japanese and indeed, here things are quite different.


momijinu to
kite miyo kashi no
eda no tsuyu

"I haven't crimsoned.
Come and look!" So says the dew
On an oak branch.

(Tr. Makoto Ueda)

Now things are different,  the words are not used in unnatural language, but rather plain Japanese. (I am not talking about the image now, just the use of words as language).
The use of direct speach in not unusual in haiku, the fact that the dew is doing the talking might be something of a surprise.
So in the Japanese, indeed, I do not find the use of "vigorous language".

Translating is a difficult job. Should we stick to the original as much as possible?
Should we paraverse it to fit a certain purpose or point we are trying to make?
Should we give various possible versions, as Robin Gill usually does?

Greetings from a very frosty morning in Japan


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