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Haiku of late U.N. Secretary-General Hammarskjold illuminated in Tokyo

Kai Falkman, author of "A String Untouched, Dag Hammarskjold's life in haiku and photographs," speaks ahead of a library talk at United Nations University in Tokyo, on Nov. 8, 2016. (Mainichi)

The art of haiku was brought into the spotlight at Tokyo's United Nations University on Nov. 8 in a library talk focusing on the works of Sweden's Dag Hammarskjold, the second U.N. Secretary-General, who died in a plane crash in 1961.

The event, commemorating the 60th anniversary of Japan's Membership to the U.N., focused on haiku introduced in the book "A String Untouched, Dag Hammarskjold's life in haiku and photographs."

In a keynote address, the book's author Kai Falkman, founder and honorary president of the Swedish Haiku Society, shed light on Hammarskjold's connection with haiku, a form of poetry he said was little known in Sweden in the 1950s when the secretary-general wrote 110 three-line poems.

Falkman explained that Harold Henderson's book "An Introduction to Haiku" was found on a table in Hammarskjold's home after his death. He said that Hammarskjold had likely come into contact with haiku through experimentation with haiku in French literary circles in the 1920s.

Hammarskjold, however, did not publish the 17-syllable poems he wrote in Swedish, instead inserting them into his private diary. It was not considered proper, Falkman, explained, for a Swedish diplomat to be a poet.

"Nobody knew about his haiku writing or poetry," he said.

The poems were brought into public view, however, with the publication of his diary in 1963 under the title "Vagmarken" (Waymarks). This was translated into English by W.H. Auden as "Markings."

Hammarskjold's early haiku, Falkman said, were about his childhood as the son of a governor brought up in Uppsala Castle. He gave an example of one that depicted Hammarskjold's love for freedom:

Boy in the forest / throwing off his Sunday best / he plays naked

Hammarskjold died en route to cease-fire negotiations in 1961. Another one of his pieces reverberates with his work as a peace negotiator:

While the shots echoed / he sought the life of words / for life's sake

Falkman pointed out that Hammarskjold didn't call his poems "haiku," but 17-syllable works that opened his mind to "memory and meaning." He said both Hammarskjold and the haiku master Matsuo Basho had the same lesson to offer through this framework: "Haiku is created within a fence of 17 syllables which is a must for liberating the freedom of the creative spirit."

"Haiku has a distance, which he sort of liked -- not to say too much and be too close to the subject but to have a certain distance to what he was writing," Falkman said.

Akito Arima, president of the Haiku International Association, also spoke at the event, agreeing that haiku poems don't need extensive elaboration.

"You can't say too much, otherwise you'll be left with nothing," he said. "If you say 70 or 80 percent of your thoughts, that's too much. Fifty to 60 percent is sufficient."

Noting that Hammarskjold had grown up in a harsh environment, Arima said he liked the following haiku by the diplomat:

In the shadow of the castle / the flowers closed / long before nightfall

The event, co-organized by the Swedish Embassy in Japan and the Haiku International Association, and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and NHK, also touched on the recent trend to couple haiku with photographs, such as in public broadcaster NHK's "Haiku Masters."

"There is another image under the things you see in a photo," Falkman said.

His book contains dozens of Hammarskjold's photographs, but here he tries not to make a direct connection with the diplomat's poetry.

"I try not to find a consistence or relationship between the haiku and the picture. This relationship should be sort of understated, not stated," he said.

Photographs taken by Hammarskjold, along with those commemorating the 60th anniversary of Japan's U.N. membership will be on display at the university until Nov. 18. (By Aaron Baldwin, Staff Writer)

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