Words & Stuff

hh: Five, Seven, Five

(22 February 1998)

Refrigerators.
Refrigerators are cold.
Refrigerators.
unknown

In Japanese, two of the character sets are syllabaries, with a single symbol for each syllable found in the language. I always figured that had something to do with the origin of haiku, the unrhymed verse form consisting of three lines, with five syllables in the first and third lines and seven syllables in the second line. In English, it's often seemed to me, pure syllable-counting (without stress patterns or rhyme) doesn't make quite as much sense. (Likewise for another Japanese verse form, the tanka, which consists of five lines with syllable counts of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 respectively.)

Also, in English the traditional semantic constraints of haiku are often ignored. For instance, traditionally the focus is often on some aspect of nature or season. Aaron Hertzmann adds, "I think that, traditionally, haiku presents an observation of the natural world and an awareness, such as a contrast in scale or time or mortality, e.g. a frog seen through the lens of a dewdrop on a blade of grass." That fits with my understanding as well.

However, haiku has recently become a somewhat popular form in English, usually without the semantic constraints, with some interesting and often entertaining results. The Alibi, Albuquerque's alternative weekly paper, has an annual haiku contest; The New York Times asked for haiku on various New York-related subjects and printed dozens of the ones it received (in its 12 October 1997 issue); and of course haiku are everywhere on the Net.

But I think my favorite result of the growing popularity of the form is the Downtown Music Gallery's haiku-reviews format. The only reviews I've seen so far in this form are Aaron's; a sampling follows.

The Michael Brecker Quartet (concert)
Dizzying mad heights
Saxophone moans and screams joy
At Iridium

Die Hard: With a Vengeance (movie)
Black and white quip, ha!
Over-the-edge cops are fun!
Fight, fight, kill, kill, kill!

Henry and June (movie)
Fascinating plot
Understandably, the first
NC-17

The English Patient (book, Michael Ondaatje)
Mysterious prose
Interwoven, fragile loves
To which I say: Eh.

A Night at the Village Vanguard, Vol II (album, Sonny Rollins)
Budda budda bum
Deh duh di' de' di' duh deh
D'-uu-uu-uu-ah!

Titanic (movie)
Ants crushed by fate's heel
Helps you forget the oh so
Painful dialogue

Jackie Brown (movie)
Pam Grier is Jackie
Samuel Jackson yaks on
Quentin takes it slow

A Streetcar Named Desire (movie)
Blanche DuBois unhinged
Brando does the acting thing
So now I've seen it.

Rashomon (movie)
Rain on the temple
Washing away faith in man
Or refreshing it

Halloween (movie)
Jamie Lee shrieks some
In the quiet slasher flick
Eventually: death.

That last line makes me think it would be fun to translate Shakespeare into haiku. Here's Hamlet, for instance:

Melancholy Dane
Sees vengeful ghost. Is he mad?
The rest is silence.

The other plays are left as exercises for the reader.


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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>