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Friday, 4 April 2008
One man's meat is another man's Haiku...
The accompanying image is from an fM.R.I. scan (the f stands for functional). It shows a human brain. The fM.R.I's. rather remarkable ability to highlight active areas of the brain so that they are clearly differentiated from the more quiescent ones derives from the fact that oxygenated haemoglobin is diamagnetic - i.e, it slightly repels a magnetic force - while deoxygenated blood is paramagnetic - i.e. itself becomes slightly magnetic. Looking at an M.R.I. image, it can clearly be seen which areas stand out as active and which are the quiescent ones. By scanning a subject while he or she is reading a book, for example, the scan will reveal which specific areas of the brain were involved in that process.
A few weeks ago I came across the results of some studies which set me thinking and have resulted in this post. The studies compared the brain activity in Asian (Chinese) and Western (Canadian) subjects when reading. The two groups were scanned as they read and the two sets of scans produced very different results: those areas of the brain that were shown to be active when the Asian subjects were reading were not the same as those involved when the Canadians read. This has been attributed to the fact that in the West, language is alphabetic (or ideophonic), while Asian languages are ideographic. In the case of the Western reader, the activity is a sequential one, the letters must be read and then broken down into phonemes which then have to be matched to a known meaning. The reading (or recognizing) of the letters is a visual activity, whilst the matching of the phonemes must be done to a meaning that has been learnt by listening to the speech of others. In other words, the matching is from a visual area of the brain to an aural one. Initially there is nothing in the structure of the brain that would allow this to happen, so when a (western) child is learning to read, physical connections must be laid down between the two areas. In the case of the Asian child learning to read, however, the activity is more akin to the parallel processing of a computer, for the brain must grab meaning from a pictogram, and almost simultaneously determine the sound of it.
It will be seen that something happens in the first case, i.e. when a Western person is learning to read, that does not happen in the second: the structure of the brain is significantly modified - or if it is happening in both instances (likely) it is happening in different ways. And as in the case of reading, so it is with other speech and language skills: their acquisition permanently modifies, subtly or distinctly, the way in which the brain is structured, and that modification predisposes us to favour - to be able to fully comprehend or be moved by - certain forms and patterns of the spoken and written word.
I have long had this fanciful image of two archipeligoes; the islands in one are composed of words, those in the other are meanings. Between the words on the one hand and the meanings on the other there exists a network of narrow shipping lanes in which we writers, would-be writers,. lovers of poetry and others, move and have our being. Truth and beauty - and therefore poetry - inhabit the shallows between the lanes, visible, touchable at times, but ultimately elusive. They make their ways to and from the islands under their own steam and by their own routes. For us the connections between the islands are real, but never fixed or certain - and certainly never exclusive, never one-to-one and never immutable.
I have, I say, long held that image, but reading the results of these studies, I begin to get the notion - and here I risk exposing my ignorance - that this image of mine applies only - or mainly - to those of us in the western world for whom reading involves mastering an alphabet. It would seem that for the Chinese subjects of these studies the connections between my two archipeligoes are less fluid by far; the shallows play no part in the analogy, the lanes are firm, dry paths, the word-islands are mirror images of their meanings, the ideogram incorporates the visual experience to which it relates.
Having possibly exposed my ignorance, I am now going to risk my head above the parapet by daring to compare a triplet of my poor attempts at Haiku with three from recognised masters - or rather, two masters and a mistress. I have chosen Haiku as being both a convenient form of Japanese poetry and the one most familiar to most western people, though my interest is not in its brevity, but in what might lie behind it. I am hooked on the idea that something is going on in oriental poetry (and in Japanese poetry particularly) that we cannot fully comprehend. I am tempted to make the analogy of a colourblind person looking at a Matisse painting - but the thought raises the analogy with Chinese and Japanese painting, and that is a whole new subject that I will not get into now. Many poetry lovers will say they miss the the compression, the musicality of the rhythms and the assonance when confronted with a Haiku. To me they have often seemed little more than acute observations - and, indeed, Buson, a pupil of Basho, criticised the master for favouring unusual observations. But I slightly digress, I think, so here goes... my Haiku first:
Silent woodlands. Silent homes.
Even in the fields
the city street is sounding like
a noisy neighbour
Wind and rain all day
hitting the magnolia.
That day it flowered.
And now a Haiku from the pen of Suzuki Masajo, a twentieth century poet:
Spring loneliness -
it falls short of the surf
this stone I toss
From Basho, seventeenth century, and probably the best known of all haiku writers:
The temple bell dies away
The scent of flowers in the evening
Is still tolling the bell.
And from Buson Yosa, eighteenth century:
The air shimmers.
Of an unknown insect.
You will have no difficulty, I warrant, spotting the difference in quality between the first set and the second, but to me there is a deeper, more fundamental difference. I remarked just recently in a comment to a post from Jim Murdoch on minimal poetry, Less is more or less (part one) (24/03/08) that I had embarked upon a cull of my Haiku scripts. Of the three used here, two were the only survivors of that cull. By definition, therefore, they are the two that pleased me most - or perhaps, displeased me least. The third Haiku I have written since, so I have not abandoned the form which Jim brilliantly refers to as a Haiku approximation. That, surely, is exactly what it is. The clue is, I think, that when I come to compare my efforts with, say the Basho, I do not just see a great gap yawning between them; I see two different animals, a familiar life form and a very unfamiliar one. It would be no different were I to take another Japanese form; say tanka (rendered in English as a 35-syllable form) or Senryu (like Haiku, but using irony instead of a seasonal word). What would be different would be taking the example, say, of a sonnet. I might reasonably expect to be able to write a sonnet of sorts. It might not prove to be a very good sonnet, but it should still qualify as a sonnet.
Visiting Sorlil's Blog recently (thoroughly recommended, by the way) I was reminded that April (the cruelest month) is poetry month, for the duration of which, some unwise souls take on the challenge of writing a poem day. I, impetuous as always, laid a promise that I would try - no more than that! - but said it would probably be Haiku (approximations, of course) all the way. I do not think I could find the time for more than that - I know, I know, three lines take twice as long as thirty! But this, for me, is just the discipline of getting something down that perhaps I might be able to work on later.
In Less is more or less (part one), Jim also suggests that maybe Haiku is impossible for the Western (he says "English") mind, but goes on: That doesn’t mean some very nice poetry can't be produced using that structure and adds, I think realistically, but perhaps haiku is not the best name for it. By all means let us borrow the structure. If someone finds it will work for them they would be foolish not to, but to my mind Haiku is not about 5-7-5 or any other format or formula. It is about experiencing. It is about experiencing the walk between the islands along paths that may not even exist in our western world - or in our western minds, perhaps. It is about sights and smells, about sounds and feelings and about an intangible that belongs somewhere in Eastern philosophy.