Skip to content

re:Virals 129

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     Al golpe del oro solar
     estalla en astillas el vidrio del mar.

     The solar gold clash
     smashes into splinters the sea’s glass.
          — José Juan Tablada, El jarro de flores (1922) 
          (Translation from the Spanish by Danny Blackwell)

Dan Schwerin wants room to manouevre:

This feels overstated. Very little ma or space for my taste.

Lynne Rees also gets claustrophobic:

The English feels overstated. (I know it’s translated quite faithfully from the Spanish but I don’t really know how that comes across to native speakers.)

But everything is explained here, the words explicitly directing me. And this reponse isn’t because of any expectations of haiku. I’d have the same response if this was presented as a short poem, or even part of a poem.

I don’t need solar and gold.
I don’t need smashes and splinters. But I do like ‘splinters the sea’s glass.’

But these comments apart, for me the three lines don’t rise above vivid description, a scene captured/remembered. There’s no space for me within the poem and no poetic closure that allows me to travel further and reflect and expand on it through my own experience. It is what it is. An end in itself.

Clayton Beach reads Tablada within his historical context:

This is one where the musicality of the original is lost in translation and the poem suffers as a result. “Al golpe del oro solar” has a nice alliteration to it with the repeated o’s and the ol/el/ol. It’s a very spacious and sensuous line in the way it rolls off the tongue. “At the strike of the sun’s gold” might capture the falling cadence of it a bit better. Reminds me almost of Tennyson’s eagle (“like a thunderbolt, he falls”). In the second line, “estalla en astillas” also has a sonic resonance that is lost in English. If I’m reading it correctly there’s a slight cut through disjunctive syntax between lines one and two that has been smoothed over in English.

This poem comes from 1922, Tablada was the first non-Japanese to write a collection comprised entirely of haiku, and thus beats Kerouac by several decades in terms of being the first prolific writer of haiku outside of the native language.

Thus, Tablada wrote this without the aid of Blyth, without the nearly 100 years of haiku theory and trial and error that others now benefits from in terms of having a template to draw from; trail blazing is never as clean as driving on paved streets.

I think there’s also a touch of chauvinism in too harsh of a critique of this poem, in terms of the line of thought that “that’s not the way we do haiku.” It’s interesting to me to see differing interpretations of the form in other languages, as English language haiku orthodoxy can get so self-righteous at times as to attack the legitimacy of contemporary haiku in Japanese, it isn’t surprising that this poem would raise some hackles with its unconventional approach.

Nevertheless, if I find Tablada interesting, but not always fully satisfying, I still have to give credit where it is due. I think it’s better poetry than any of the hokku Pound, Lowell or Cummings were doing up to that point, though I still think Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” poems are as good as early non-Japanese haiku gets. English language haiku would take another, what, 60-70 years to have the courage of playing with the language and breaking the mold this much while still calling the results haiku?

Ajaya Mahala finds magic here:

I somehow see the magic, the observation, though limited to sensory perception of one kind—that is, visual—gives us a lot of gladdening items to fill the visual platter: flying fish; the splintered, golden surface of the sea; movement; clash . . . Too many objects do not clutter, rather they effectively render a slice of life in the turbulent sea.

Alan Summers takes the bait:

Okay, I’ll bite.
I didn’t like this at first, but in a historical
context it deserves its place.

Danny said in his email to me:
“I’m interested to see what people’s reactions are to this rather
unorthodox Latin-American haiku.”

In the context of its time, and he did have haiku in his first but lost
novel China Boat, I don’t see this as an unorthodox attempt at haiku.

In the early 20th Century a lot of attempts were titles followed by a
duostich or couplet. I quite like an alternative first line of ‘a bruise
of sun.’

Haiku continues to warp and weft, morph and twist, evolve, add and drop
approaches and variations etc. . . . etc. . . .

The author was perhaps the first to add haiku to a novel, before Jack
Kerouac, as it was written in 1902. Sadly the only manuscript was
destroyed. He is an early pioneer, and deserves his place in the history
of haiku outside Japan.

Of course I don’t see this as a haiku, but an early attempt. It feels too
‘complete,’ but lacking in that intangible fullness that an incomplete
haiku poem can achieve.

It doesn’t gather the power of The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop or The Fish by
Mary Oliver, because it doesn’t continue on its journey of fishiness and
the sun smashed against the hard surface of the water. It does resonate a
little for me, but I wonder if it could have become an untitled tercet


a bruise of sun
smashes into splinters . . .
the sea is glass

It still feels clunky, and is still a one-image poem, can it include the
title somehow?


flying fish:
a bruise of sun smashes
into splinters

It still feels awkward and ‘dated,’ which even hokku and other early haikai
verses by Basho; Buson; Chiyo-ni; and Issa never do.

It is worthy of its place in history, both in general/global development,
as well as by a Hispanic author, reminding us that haiku is not just
Japanese or English.

Daniel-san defends himself:

As is my wont, I find myself adding a word or two on my translation.
Obviously I have taken certain liberties in order to generate in the English version a rhyme, and thereby create a similar effect to the one that a Spanish-speaker would get when reading “solar” and “mar,” at the end of each line. As the poem includes the word “glass” alongside a reference to the beating/hitting of the sun, I chose the word “smash,” which may not be the closest word in the literal sense, but I think is a fair trade for the payoff of having a rhyme and getting an idea of the cadence in the original. And I think, overall, the rhythm of the poem is relatively unaltered in terms of the beats, so to speak.
Clayton felt that the alliteration was lost in the line “Al golpe del oro solar” and, while that may be true, I think that the musicality of “estalla en astillas” is well-matched with the equally sibilant “smashes into splinters” in my translation, the two phrases also maintaining more or less the rhythmic beats. (Although I admittedly have zero objectivity and welcome the criticism nevertheless.)
I’ve consulted other translations of Hispanic haiku with rhymes (which are common) and find that the more literal renditions completely miss the musicality, which at times, in Tablada for example, appear to be more of an active compositional motivating factor at times than content, which, as the comments above prove, led some poets to create poems that some would consider have superfluous elements, as a result of going for something more, let’s say, “poetic.”
Anyone wanting to know more, would do well to consult Ty Hadmann’s poet profile of Tablada in the Haiku Foundation archives. And also Charles Trumbull’s One Hundred Bridges.

As this week’s winner, Alan gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
re:Virals 129:

     nil by mouth—
     peeling and dicing
     the moon
— Helen Buckingham, water on the moon (2010) 

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. I don’t like the translation because it is too literal and this obstructs our understanding of what the writer intended. “Golpe” is a hit, strike or blow, and “el oro solar”sees the sun’s impact as literally gold, the weight of which metal strikes the sea glass and smashes it to smithereens.

    Spanish does not use the article the same as we do. “el vidrio del mar” is better translated as “sea glass” – we simply do not say “the sea’s glass” in English, we say sea glass.

    José Juan Tablada invites the reader to see how the solid gold of sunlight actually strikes the sea glass and smashes it into splinters. It is not difficult to imagine how the intense rays of the sun create a multitude of reflections on the sea glass. He juxtaposes this with flying fish, which is truly amazing – just imagine how the ebb and flow of the sea waves create this image all in motion.
    This is a truly beautiful poem in which the beauty of the language sings the sonidos of the sea in the s sounds and the double use of ll.

    1. Martha, re:

      “. . .we simply do not say “the sea’s glass” in English, we say sea glass.”
      In English, when we say ‘sea glass’, we mean literal glass which as been worn to smoothness by being in the sea for quite some time.
      I’m pretty certain that sea glass isn’t intended. ‘The sea’s glass’ is more likely to point to a dead-calm sea, to its glassy and mirror-like surface.
      I’m not going to comment on the haiku, just on the image I get. (I have seen flying fish in such conditions.) As the fish break surface, suddenly and at great speed but in succession, they catch the bright sunlight as do the ‘splinters’ of water falling from them. The sound of all those fast- beating fins shedding water is actually a splintering sound in my experience, but not loud, more like very thin glass shattering in the distance. (If the fish are flying over you, your face will be sprinkled with minuscule drops of water!) But with the ‘clash’ of the reflected bright sunlight, here, what I get is not only something that hurts the eyes but also (as indicated in your ‘metallic’) something that also surprises the ear, something like a cymbal clash. I think the poet is combining sound and sight in this image.
      – Lorin

      1. ps. to Danny: so, as a common reader who at least gets a clear though complex image from this, I wonder why both ‘clash’ and ‘smashes’? (ok, they rhyme, but, apart from that?) ‘Smashes’ seems an unnecessary overload and out of place, ‘not true’, while ‘splinters’ and ‘clash’ do work well for me.
        Bear with me: I don’t understand Spanish. 🙂 Not beyond ‘Señora’, anyway.

        1. I used both “clash” and “smash” because he uses a word to refer to the collision/hitting of the two elements (golpe) and then uses the verb smash (estalla) so I’m being faithful to that. To be honest most people with a normative view of haiku do’s and don’ts (and unfamiliar with the rather unique development of hispanoamerican haiku) would have a lot of issues with the original and I’ve tried not to smoothe any of that down for fear of turning this smashing haiku into sea glass. lol.

  2. “This poem comes from 1922, Tablada was the first non-Japanese to write a collection comprised entirely of haiku, and thus beats Kerouac by several decades in terms of being the first prolific writer of haiku outside of the native language.”

    In 2015 I wrote a long (probably over-long) piece called ‘Haiku and the Great War’, published at Haiku NewZ and subsequently in Juxta 2. If you’re interested, you may read the piece here:

    However, the few paragraphs I would like to draw your attention to concern Paul-Louis Couchoud, a French doctor (1879-1959):

    Couchoud almost single-handedly drove interest in haiku – and carefully spread the ‘virus’ throughout Europe. He visited Japan in 1903-4 and fell in love with the culture, beginning to write haiku and translating Japanese poets, particularly Buson, into French. In 1905 Couchoud and two friends published a limited-edition collection of 72 haiku, ‘Au Fil de l’Eau’ (‘Going with the Flow’), which they wrote while on a canal holiday…

    Couchoud defined haiku as “a brief amazement’, like a musical note whose harmonies linger with the reader. Couchoud’s ‘Au Fil de l’eau’ is believed to be the first volume of haiku written in a European language, although the first haiku known to have been written by a European was considerably earlier, penned by Dutchman Hendrik Doeff, who lived in Japan between 1799 and 1813 and who composed [at least] the two haiku that have come down to us through the years in Japanese…

    So Couchoud’s collection containing his own, original haiku pre-dates Tablard’s by some years.

    1. Thanks Sandra! Deeply appreciated.
      Massive shame, even if it was later, is what was in China Boat, and was he influenced by Paul-Louis Couchoud. I do believe the Dutch and French were first with haiku, and certainly the French were years ahead of the rest of the world.
      Susana Benet:
      The Development of French Haiku in the First Half of the 20th Century:
      Historical Perspectives by Bertrand Agostini:
      warm regards,

  3. .
    A little more about José Juan Tablada (in Spanish) which mentions the lost manuscript of Nao de China (China Boat) which contained ‘haiku’ and might have been completed by 1913? Which makes sense as he was persona non grata in Mexico and went to the USA in 1914.
    Tablada escribió dos novelas: La nao de China, cuyo ma- nuscrito terminado le fue robado de su casa por unos falsos zapatistas en 1913:
    Ty Hadman thinks the author might have had the idea of a novel with haiku from Shiki, but I wonder if it was from Natsume Sōseki? Does anyone know?

Comments are closed.

Back To Top