The Shapes of our Singing
By Robin Skelton
A Review: Part 2
In Part 1 I gave a general overview and briefly discussed Skelton’s take on the syllabic verse forms of China. In Part 2 I want to touch on Skelton’s view of another country whose approach to verse is syllabic: Japan.
Skelton’s discussion of Japanese forms runs from page 218 to 226. It is unusually thorough; he discusses 14 different Japanese forms, most of which are obscure or of historical interest only. With the single exception of the ‘Iroha Mojigusari’, Skelton gives us an example, which is followed by the number of lines for the form and the syllable count for each line.
Skelton’s discussion of haiku is typical. First he offers his example:
Gently on my cheek
the light kiss of my lover;
snowflakes in April.
Skelton then describes the haiku form:
“The Haiku is composed of three unrhymed non-metrical lines with the syllable count 5-7-5. Haiku, traditionally, allude to the season of the year or to nature.” (Page 219)
Notice that Skelton defines haiku syllabically and simply maps the Japanese count onto the English syllable. Skelton does this in a straightforward way, without alluding to any alleged linguistic differences between Japanese and English which would make such a mapping procedure problematic. In other words, Skelton views the Japanese syllable and the English syllable as commensurable and comparable. That is refreshing. And, in my opinion, this is an accurate assessment of the two languages. I am aware, though, that many ELH haijin, particularly those affiliated with what I refer to as ‘official haiku’, would find this approach to be deficient.
This is another good example of how a particular poet’s views will shape how that poet handles the transmission of a poetic form from one linguistic context to another. The majority of haiku written in English follow Skelton’s procedure; they simply map the syllable count of the Japanese onto the English syllable. A significant minority diverges from this procedure, arguing that the Japanese syllable and the English syllable are too different from each other to make such a direct mapping work. Instead of the count, this group focuses on brevity and, often, juxtaposition, or the two-part structure of Japanese haiku, as the elements that need to be mapped onto an effective English version of haiku.
Interestingly, Skelton’s haiku is in two parts. The second part is line 3, ‘snowflakes in April’. I think it is a nicely ambiguous seasonal reference. It is rare to have snow in April, but it does happen. Because ‘April’ is a spring word, and ‘snow’ is a winter word, the third line dances a little bit with the seasonal parameter of traditional haiku. Line 3 is a mild juxtaposition; it can be read as the seasonal context for lines 1 and 2, or as a metaphor for lines 1 and 2, or both.
But notice that Skelton does not list the two-part structure as a defining element of haiku; it just happens that his haiku has these two parts. Skelton defines haiku as having three lines of 5 7 5 with a seasonal reference. This leaves open the possibility of single sentence haiku and list haiku as embodiments of the form.
Is the two-part structure an essential element for haiku, or is it an element that can be put aside? It depends on the individual poet’s view. As in the previous discussion on Chinese syllabics, what an individual poet absorbs and finds attractive will determine the parameters of the form as it appears in the new linguistic context. Official haiku has focused on the two factors of brevity and juxtaposition, but opted to abandon counting. Most haiku poets outside of those involved in official haiku organizations, in contrast, have defined haiku syllabically and have no difficulty doing so, but have opted to consider the two-part structure as a non-essential element of the form.
As in the discussion on the monosyllabic nature of Chinese forms, there is no objective way to determine which approach is correct. And there is no reason why one group should be dismissive of the other group(s).
For the syllabic poet Skelton’s chapter on Japanese poetry is rewarding. Skelton discusses forms that are not well known in the west, as well as the more popular forms such as haiku and tanka (which Skelton refers to as waka). Again, tanka is defined syllabically; as a five-line form with a count of 5-7-5-7-7. For some reason Skelton’s further observations on waka are a little sketchy, or incoherent. I’m not sure if that is due to faulty editing or Skelton’s own lack of acquaintance with the form.
But overall, the syllabic poet writing in English will find Skelton’s chapter on Japanese syllabic forms to be a useful addition to the growing body of works on syllabic prosody in English.