Monday, July 9, 2007

Poem of the Week

The Piercing Chill I Feel

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife's comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel . . .

--Taniguchi Buson,
Translated by Harold G. Henderson

This poem was written around 1760 and has been anthologized all over the place. Whenever I am trying to find good examples of haiku, I always return to it. This poem is proof that a small poem can capture as much, if not more, emotion than a terribly long one.

The imagery and word choices do most of the work here. Words like "piercing" and the last phrase "under my heel", help ground the reader in the speaker's space. Just for argument's sake, I have to acknowledge the fact that this is a translation and the words here might be more Mr. Henderson's than Buson's, as I've seen other translations that have slightly different word choices and aren't as compelling. Henderson was an avid haiku reader and translator and spent years in Japan studying the works of poets like Basho and Buson, so I'm hoping he's a reliable source. This is always the trouble with translation, the fear that 'the poetry' will be what's lost when the words are taken out of their native tongue.

"The Piercing Chill I Feel" is a death poem, but we are not forced to look at death in it's entirety, at least it doesn't seem that way. However, each dissection of a line brings us closer to the speaker's realization: his wife is gone, he is lonely and there is nothing left of her but the remnants of things he finds in their home. This is the death poem that most of us are trying to write. The fact that Buson got it right in three lines is remarkable.

Punctuation is also used superbly here. This is what I try to get across to my students when they ask if punctuation (or any grammatical tool) is necessary in poetry. I think they ask these kinds of questions because they see good poets using little to no punctuation and wonder why they can't do it too. The key words here, however, are "good poets", meaning, of course, seasoned poets who already know what they are doing. Sure Lucille Clifton can write a poem with no title, six lines with no periods or capital letters and still say anything she wants to say better than you. But she's Lucille Clifton; it took her time to get there. Buson (and Henderson, as I'm sure some of the grammatical adaptation had to be indicative of the language the poem was being translated into) made use of each aspect of language, including good syntax, to make this poem sharp. I am especially impressed with the colon in the first line, which separates that all inclusive phrase and lets the reader know that the definition of it is coming, and the ellipsis that ends the poem, which indicates that much has been said, but much more has been left unsaid.

I know that many contemporary poets are interested in short forms like haiku, tanka, even sonku, but I'm not sure which venues are showcasing them. If anyone has suggestions on where to find some good contemporary haiku, please send them along...