Japanese Haiku: Reading Between the Lines

Stephen Henry Gill takes us on a haiku journey.

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To watch Ronaldo or Messi weaving a path through another team's defence before unleashing some unstoppable shot into the net's far corner: how might we sum this up?

'Poetry in motion'?

Poetry has the rhythm, the cadences, the sheer length with which to describe that sequence of shimmies, feints and accelerations and its crowning cannonball strike.

Poetry is like video. Let's just sit back, then, and run the whole thing through again.

foot swooshing air
missing the ball completely
Jimmy fakes a fall
(Giovanni Malito)

Now that's more like you and me: a snapshot of someone making a meal of something Ronaldo or Messi might have turned into a sustained poetic sequence, if not a goal. Such an objective 3-line word-sketch, phrased in the present tense, is called a haiku'. But no rhyming, please! This is an oriental form, originating in Japan in the Middle Ages. Traditionally, there should be a seasonal reference in there somewhere, and, as you'll see, in contemporary soccer haiku, there often still is. foot swooshing April air' would have had the traditionalists applaud.
Haiku is like still photography.

my shoe is flying
through the autumn sky
lunchtime soccer
(Hisashi Miyazaki)

There's now a great number of people around the world, unwilling or perhaps unable to compose anything much longer. They succumb to the charms of haiku, eventually becoming habitual haikuists'. An offbeat type of attention is one of the traits of such haiku poets. When recorded objectively, seemingly insignificant details begin to reflect the light of poetic truth and beauty. Perhaps it is this sort of thing which is at the heart of Zen. Who needs length or rhyme or rhythm when you are beginning to see the world in a grain of sand?

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a ball in springtime
making its way down river
slowly to the sea
(David Burleigh)

What you may have noticed already is that haiku ask of the reader an input of imagination. Unlike many longer forms of poetry, the writer does not spell everything out. How Japanese this is! Japan, the Land of the Understatement, of reading-between-the-lines. To leave all interpretation to the reader; to be non-judgemental about things this will, no doubt, be unfamiliar ground for most soccer fans, who are more often than not quite proud of their own convictions and like to broadcast them!
What might we find, then, in between the lines of a classic soccer haiku, I wonder.

the World Cup from afar
born this night,
cicada chirping
(Reiko Hayahara)

Having taken the best part of five years to hatch from the soil beneath a tree, the cicada is supposed to live for just one day, a hot summer one, during which it will belt out its staccato song from high up on the bole. Whilst the drama of a live World Cup match (France '98) unfolds on TV screens around the world, another tiny drama is just beginning in the dark outside the haiku poet's living room: reaching her ears, a descant grating sound, similar to that of a clockwork toy nearing the state of being fully wound. This breaks the TV spell she shares with one hundred million others and alerts her to the poignancy of another little performer trying to express itself. The contrast thus set up in the reader's mind is intriguing, beguiling: a little cameo pointing to the riddle of life? Now, try reading that haiku again. To the extent you allow your imagination to work through it, a haiku will grow on you.

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between goalposts
the lovers smile
(Leslie Giddens)

Today, these little verbal snapshots, these do-it-yourself, share-it-with-others mementoes, are being written and read right across the globe in Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian, Arabic, Gaelic, German. And, with the World Cup being staged in the Far East for the first time, one of Japan's greatest contributions to world culture is surely going to be further popularized.

Beware, though: not everything in three lines is haiku! The term 'haiku' possibly will be abused, but if you can set up a memorable image in something approaching 17 syllables, then maybe you are a poet after all. At least in haiku terms.

Your offbeat mind records for others things they might have missed. In a world where time is at a premium and pithiness is a virtue, let's welcome what might become the Century of Haiku and see it gets off to a scoring start!

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