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Haiku Classic: Oct. 15, 2017

ippon no keito moete ikusa owaru


    a single cockscomb's

    burning end

    of the war


    Shuson Kato (1905-1993): Translated and commented on by Dhugal J. Lindsay

    Japanese script comes in three different flavors -- "kanji," "katakana" and "hiragana." Unlike in English, a Japanese poet can change the tone or feeling of a poem by picking which type of script to use for different words. "Kanji" are derived from Chinese characters and often come in two different forms. One form is the archaic and "busy" looking form that is still in use in Taiwan, while the second is a simplified and streamlined version of this archaic form (different from the simplified form of any given kanji that is now in use on the Chinese mainland.) Using the archaic form can give the entire poem an older or timeless feel or add weight to the words that are in the archaic script. "Katakana" are a quite angular looking set of characters that are used either in legal terminology or to express words from foreign languages in Japanese (for example, "sunglasses.") Many of these katakana words from foreign languages also have a transliterated kanji equivalent for which the "onji" (mora/syllable) count is lower. For example, bacteria could expressed as five katakana characters in five mora (ba-ku-te-ri-a) or in two kanji characters with four mora (sa-i-ki-n) with the former word feeling more technical and scientific and the kanji word seeming like an expression for the layman. "Hiragana" have a soft flowing form and this script is used to denote past, present and future tense, identify the subject and object in a sentence, make words sound more polite, etc. It can also be used to make a kanji-based word seem less formal or rigid and more approachable. In the above haiku the word "ikusa" can be written as a single kanji that means war or battle. The poet, however, has decided to use the hiragana script so as not to stress that word too much in the haiku and draw attention away from the cockscomb flower. In the translation I have written "the war" rather than "the War" or "The War" to make this distinction, even though in this poem "ikusa" is referring to the Second World War, which is usually in capitals. "Moete" means "burning" but by writing the word "ikusa" in the hiragana script, when one is first reading through the haiku it seems that it is a verb ending rather than the noun "war" and so "burning" becomes "continues to burn." Only when one reaches the end of the haiku does one realize that there is a war hidden in the haiku and even though it is hidden within the way the scripts have been used/crafted, it is very important to the meaning of the poem. I have tried to convey the same feeling in the translation by using an apostrophe ("a single cockscomb is burning/ end of the war" vs "a single cockscomb's burning end/ [end] of the war") and cutting a phrase in the middle of a line. Although English does not have a choice of scripts such as is available to the haiku poet working in Japanese, in Japanese haiku, the poems are usually written in only one line and with no punctuation. In English, we can use the three-line form and punctuation to our advantage. Perhaps a poet will surface who writes of "Aprille shouers" in the future as the forms matures?

    Selected, translated and commented on by Dhugal J. Lindsay

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