For those who’ve never written poetry before, the Japanese form of haiku—three line poems with syllables traditionally arranged in a 5-7-5 form—seems like the easiest way to begin. Right? Wrong.
So discovered Jake Friedler, a comparative literature major from Danville, CA. Last summer, he spent eight weeks traveling around Japan, following the path of haiku master Matsuo Bashō as laid out in his book, Narrow Road to the Interior. Friedler can personally attest to the fact that the 3-line poems are, in fact, devilishly difficult.
“When you read enough of them you start to get this vibe of how they work. They’re pretty devoid of a subject—you read it without imagining the writer in the context or the scene,” he explained as we sipped green tea at a hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant in London’s Chinatown. He now drinks green tea every day. “It’s really different from English writing.”
It’s hard to imagine sentences without subjects, let alone poetry without a subject. The Western tradition of poetry is rooted in the personality of the writer, from the sonnets of Milton and Shakespeare to the lyrical poetry of Wordsworth and agonizing self-consciousness of Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock. But the Japanese language itself is structured such that this is possible. Devoid of the writer’s projections, haiku focuses on something else entirely.
“It’s focused on moments,” said Friedler. “It’s been reused in a lot of ways, but the way I think it’s best used and the way it historically was used is solely about a passing moment, usually encountered in nature. A fleeting moment where you don’t really know how to grab onto it so you write it down.”
Despite haiku’s typically natural subject matter, many of Friedler’s haikus in Japan had modern elements as well. He doesn’t always follow the 5-7-5 format, mostly because more can be said with fewer syllables in English (many English haikus abandon the template). His first haiku of the trip was written during his first week in Japan on the subway. It was—
against the vending machine.
apple tea drops – thunk!
“It’s a really simple moment, it has onomatopoeia—and in haiku if you can work in onomatopoeia, it’s points,” said Friedler, who is currently working on a book in the haibun (haiku literature) style of Narrow Road, combining his own haiku with prose detailing his travel experiences. “My whole trip was about how we can apply the art of haiku to a world that looks very different from Bashō’s.”
In his own time, Bashō’s books were used as travel guides; Friedler was mimicking an activity popular for centuries amongst a range of social classes, from wealthy travelers to poor aspiring haiku poets. Pilgrims would read Narrow Road and re-do the path Bashō took in the year 1689. Over 156 days, Bashō walked to over 70 uta-makura (literally translated as poem pillows), places that have been made famous by their constant reference in Japanese poetry before Bashō’s time. Most are mountains, rivers, Shinto shrines, and Buddhist temples.
Friedler was initially exposed to Bashō’s book in The Poet Re-making the World, the IHUM course he took freshman fall (apparently IHUM wasn’t an entire waste of time). He took Japanese all of sophomore year to prepare for his trip.
“I was reading a lot about the art of haiku—what it means, how it was developed—and I was realizing that I know nothing. Haiku is kind of like a religion. A lot of haiku masters are also Zen priests,” he said. “Bashō studied under other haiku writers for 20 years before he ever published anything—that’s how exalted it is.”
Friedler, however, was new to poetry in general, much less haiku as a form. The only creative writing he’d done on his own was little books written in middle school, which he describes as “blatant rip-offs of Harry Potter.” To better understand the spirit of haiku, Friedler attempted to meditate in the style of Zen priests almost every day when he was in Japan.
“The whole aim is to face a wall, put your feet on your thighs—it’s really painful, by the way—hold it for periods of 40 minutes, and not think about anything.” The first time Friedler managed to meditate successfully was in the shadow of Bashō’s statue in the garden where his hut once stood in Tokyo. He further committed to the trip by buzzing his hair, mirroring a decision made by Bashō’s travel companion, Sora.
While traveling to the 16 towns on his itinerary, Friedler began to notice the effortlessness with which the Japanese juggle old and new. “They are caught between these places of intense history and tradition and nature and poetry, and complete Westernized, tech, knowledgized, post-modern—the way we live in America,” he said. “I really struggled with trying to imagine how haiku and other elements of traditional Japanese aesthetics could still be relevant to such an industrialized and Westernized culture. But talking to people there, art forms like haiku and poets like Bashō certainly still hold a very important place in their cultural imagination.”
Since returning from Japan, Friedler has only written a few haiku. “You can’t do emotion with haiku,” he said. “It’s a very limited use. I tried to force more urban or modern situations into it and they just don’t come to me in the same way that they would when I was out hiking.”
Even so, Friedler is sure he will write haiku for the rest of his life. “While traveling in Japan, the art of haiku actually helped me come to terms with learning how to properly appreciate and savor the incredible moments I was experiencing,” he said. “The elegance of haiku and the way haiku poets have sought to embody certain moments in such a simple manner—without even necessarily introducing a subject!—it still just blows my mind.”