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Egret/or Heron


Yesterday as I walked alongside Lake Champlain, I came upon a Great Blue Heron, fishing in a tidal pool near the shoreline. I stopped and watched for a while, and then walked on. Walking on, I thought to compose a simple haiku-type poem to memorialize the incident -- dwelling inland now, I sometimes long for Salt-meadow; Ocean. The heron took me back. This is what I came up with at first:


Great Blue Heron in a tidal pool
Hunter or fisher
Which are you?


That's 17 syllables, as in traditional Japanese haiku, though my poem does not reflect the pattern of 5-7-5-syllable lines. But my first thought, walking along, was to strengthen "in a tidal pool", and quickly came up with "stalking a tidal pool". I'm not sure I finally like that substitution, but it works for the moment:


Great Blue Heron stalking tidal pool
Hunter or fisher
Which are you?


All the while as I walked, I was counting syllables on my fingers, to make the traditional 17 syllables of the Japanese haiku. And as I counted syllables, it occurred to me that the Japanese pattern doesn't always translate very well into English. Even so, I decided to try shaping my poem to the traditional Japanese form, thinking that might impart a measure of clarity via line or word breaks that my original poem was lacking. One version based on the 5-7-5 pattern might then be:


Great Blue Heron stalk
-ing tidal pool hunter
or fisher which are you?


I liked this version a little better. Heading back to my office along Pine Street, I walked by a print shop, Queen City Printers Inc., and I thought - there's a good title for my haiku, but changing "inc" to the homophone "ink" I came up with, Queen City Printers Ink! With that, I thought of a book I have on my shelf called Ink on Paper, a set of lovely poems by John Wilson, college instructor, and member of the creative writing faculty at UC Santa Barbara. It occurred to me that there might be a "heron" poem in Wilson's book, so when I got back to my office I pulled the book off the shelf. And indeed there was such a poem. Here is the relevant verse, though Wilson's bird is an egret (a bird very much alike to a heron):


directness, vigilance —

An egret
Cocked in the reeds

Absorbed in its own stillness,
A straight line of soaring geese.


In fact, Wilson is reacting to a drawing of a heron by the Chinese artist Tan-an, which is in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. I couldn't locate that particular image online, so I've provided an alternate image above which closely resembles the one that's reproduced in Wilson's book.

I like Wilson's poem better than I do mine, but mine is just a note taken while walking, in order to capture the Great Blue Heron experience; Wilson's is a well-crafted poem that conveys something of the manner and spirit of the bird. It is not haiku.


But there's more, of course, on this subject of syllables in Japanese haiku, versus syllables in American or English-language haiku. David F. Schultz characterized this difference in a blog post several years ago. Here's an excerpt from that post, which can be found at https://davidfshultz.com/2017/12/17/5-7-5-haiku-form-strengths-and-weaknesses:


After discussing the differences in Japanese and English sound systems and the rhythm of haiku, Higginson makes a compelling case that the best phonetic English equivalent of the haiku form is successive lines of 2, 3, and 2 accented syllables, for a total of 7 accented syllables (and roughly 12 syllables overall, including the unaccented syllables). This would "approximate the duration of Japanese haiku", establish similar rhythmical proportions, and yield a similar "sense of rhythmical incompleteness" that is characteristic of Japanese haiku. (This latter point recognizes that the English poetic tradition, with deep roots in iambic verse, and in particular iambic pentameter, creates a sensation that the poem should continue after the final line in a 2/3/2 accented pattern, leading to a feeling of openness.) ["Higginson" refers to William J. Higginson, The Haiku Handbook]

Schultz glosses Higginson by noting that traditionalists among English language composers of haiku may nevertheless cling to the 5-7-5 form, producing perfectly fine haiku. But Higginson offers another approach to my poem, so that the question arises, how would I shape my poem to fit the English-language format of haiku, according to Higginson's criteria? — keeping in mind that Higginson's formula pertains to stressed rather than unstressed syllables. Schultz provides an example of a basic 2-3-2 form, all stressed syllables:


bus stop

cold dark night



So how would I re-do my heron poem according to Higginson's formula? Here's one possibility:


Blue Heron
Hunter or fisher
One or two


I like this version too!


Note that the second syllable of "heron" in line one is unstressed so that what is ostensibly a three-syllable line doesn't offend the 2-3-2 stressed-syllable format; the second syllable in "hunter" and "fisher" is also unstressed, adding up to three stressed syllables for line 2 (but is "or" stressed or unstressed?). All of which is to say by way of conclusion that the formula is a guide, not a rule!


One more thing, by way of memory. Way back in the late 1980s I had a gig teaching public speaking and writing to MBA students enrolled in the Communication Program at the Wharton School. In one class I had a number of students from Japan, some of whom were reluctant to speak in front of the class. Thinking to make it easier for them I asked them to read haiku from a book of Japanese haiku, with the poems transliterated, then translated into English. Here's an example of what I mean, taken from Bashō's Ghost by Sam Hamill:


Ki no moto ni

shiru mo namasu mo

sakura kana


As it happens this poem was written by Bashō himself. Notice that the syllables of the transliterated Japanese conform to the 5-7-5 pattern. (Note too that the English translation given below does not.) In case of interest, here's the translation of Bashō's poem as rendered by Hamill:


From all these trees--

in salads, soups,


cherry blossooms fall


The students proved themselves good sports; they all got through the exercise, some of them even coming up with their own English translation of the assigned poem. And their audience was enthusiastic and supportive. It was only later that I realized I'd posed a daunting challenge — the transliterations were confusing, and weren't much easier for them than just reading the English version! With benefit of hindsight, I understood that I might have offered the poems in the original kanji!


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