Bangla haiku: The phonetic hurdles

Abid Anwar

Originating in Japan in the late nineteenth century, haiku is the smallest form of poem comprising only three lines but is capable of stirring the emotions and cognition of readers to the extent that a full-length poem can. The basic power of attraction of a haiku lies in the image or imagery that it presents.

Before haiku could gain its own identity as an independent form of poem with a discrete pattern of prosody in the works of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), haiku-like small pieces of verse known as hokku were being used at the starting of long poems called haika in Japanese language. This implies that a hokku was only a part of (better to say a prelude to) a long piece of poem and summarized the central theme depicted in the long piece (haika) whereas haiku emerged as a self-contained independent piece of poem. More importantly, the three lines of a haiku are arranged in the order of 5-7-5 metres while hokkus had varying prosodic patterns. However, hokkus that strictly maintained the 5-7-5 metrical arrangement are now considered the oldest form of haiku and, in that connection, some predecessors and contemporaries of Masaoka Shiki are also recognized as the founding fathers of haiku. They are: Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), Yosa Buson (1716-1783), Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), Nakatsuka Ippekiro (1887-1946), and Hara Sekitei (1889-1951).

Although haiku has undergone, over time, a major change in thematic considerations, the prosodic pattern of 5-7-5 metres became the key indicator for identifying a real haiku. During the early period of its inception, it was mandatory for a haiku to present an image that must contain a seasonal flavour or scenario. Winter, summer, autumn, spring, or any other seasons of the year come with some accompanying changes in the nature. These changes may relate to the appearance of specific birds, blooming of specific flowers, water-flow in rivers, and variation in temperature characteristic of any particular season of the year. In its early days, a haiku had to present an image that relates to a season. Moreover, use of simile, metaphor, symbol, or allegory in the image was restricted. This implies that the figurative expression in a haiku would just present an 'image' in the truest sense of the term and it must not be an 'imagery' by attributing simile, metaphor, symbol, or an allegory. In course of time, these restrictions are not only gone, a modern haiku is given rather a high score for quality if the image is converted to an imagery by attributing simile, metaphor, symbol or an allegory. However, the 5-7-5 metre arrangement of the three lines of a haiku is still mandatory, and a 'no-compromise' policy is strictly followed in terms of its prosodic pattern.

Readers of Bangla literature were first exposed to haiku through a travelogue titled 'Japan Jaatri' by the 1913 Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore who translated two pieces of haiku by Matsuo Basho and included those in his travelogue. Tagore did not maintain this metrical arrangement which is now mandatory since the time of Masaoka Shiki. After Tagore, Surendranath Moitra and a few others tried and are still trying to compose haiku in Bangla language. This write-up is an attempt to explore the reasons for failure of our poets in maintaining the 5-7-5 metre rule in the prosody of a real haiku. It also intends to propose a solution to crossing the phonetic hurdles encountered in Bangla prosody for a composition adhering to 5-7-5 metres. Before that, it seems interesting to look into how Anglo-American poets and scholars have adopted haiku as a form of poem in their own literature because it has become almost a tradition for us in the modern era to visit the world of literature with Anglo-American tickets.

Poets and readers in the English-speaking world could know about the existence of this smallest form of poemhaikuthrough French literature. A collection of the French translation of Japanese haiku was published in 1905. Five years later in 1910, these French pieces were translated into English without any attention to the prosodic purity of the original Japanese haiku. The imagism movement led by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell coincided with the event, and many imagist poets and literary scholars showed interest in haiku because of its basic inclination toward images and imageries. Those who attempted to write original haiku in English included Ezra Pound, Carl Sandberg, Marian Moore, Amy Lowell, and William Carlos Williams. Although all were delighted with their exposure to a new field of exercise, nobody could write a haiku successfully with prosodic purity. In that pursuit, a piece by Ezra Pound read:

The petals fall in the fountain
The orange-colored rose leaves
Their ochre clings to the stone.

The piece attracted attention of many but all opined that albeit very close to a haiku it was not a real one because it ignored the rules of prosody in a haiku. Many, including Ezra Pound himself, argued that every language has its own rules of prosody and it is never possible to adhere to the Japanese metrical arrangement of 5-7-5 metres in English compositions because phonetics of Japanese language cannot be applied in English language compositions! Amidst these chaos and confusions, an American poet and literary scholar Richard Wright, much junior to Pound, startled the Anglo-American arena by writing the first piece of a real haiku with a strict prosodic purity of the original Japanese haiku thus:

Coming from the woods
A bull has a lilac sprig
Dangling from a horn.

Several scholars and poets, including Ezra Pound (known to be a bit stubborn), congratulated Richard Wright for this success. Pound withdrew his argument that it is not possible in English prosody to compose something in 5-7-5 metrical arrangement and, thus, haiku found its own firm root in the English poetry too. Hundreds (if not thousands) of haikus are now being composed every month in English with the prosodic purity of 5-7-5 metres.

With this background, we may now have a closer look into the scenario of our exercise on haiku in Bangla. The two pieces of Basho as translated by Rabindranath Tagore sounded: “Purono pukur/Baynger laaf/Joler shobdo” and “Pocha daal/Ekta kaak/Sorotkal.” Those who are familiar with the rules of Bangla prosody may note that Tagore himself did not try to maintain the 5-7-5 metrical arrangement of the three lines in these haikus probably because his whole intention was just to give our readers a general idea about Japanese haiku.

The three rules of Bangla prosody: Sworobritto, Matrabritto, and Okhhorbritto have their own discrete arrangements of words in a line of a poem. A 5-7-5 metrical arrangement is only possible in Matrabritto since the other two have no provision for this. Sworobritto is essentially governed by a rule of 4-metres or the multiple of 4 and occasionally segments of 4 at the end of a line. Okhhorbritto is controlled by a principle that allows a line to be of 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 14, 18, 22, 26, and 30 metres only. All these are even numbers, and no odd-numbered metrical pattern, as in 5-7-5, is available in Okhhorbritto.

With the above reality, if we subject Tagore's Bangla translation to the scanning principles of Matrabritto, the first piece yields a result of 6-5-6 metres, and second one a 4-5-5 metrical arrangement. Even if we count 4 metres in 'bayng-ger' with an unusual, distorted pronunciation by our rural people, the result is 6-6-6 metrical arrangement.

After Tagore's translation in his said travelogue, Surendranath Moitra was the first poet who tried haiku in Bangla and published a book titled 'Japanee Jhinuk' (Japanese Cockles). Others who joined the race so far are: Begum Razia Hussein, Hasnat Abdul Hye, and Nirmalendu Goon after his tour to Japan. No one could, however, compose a real haiku in a sense that the metrical arrangements of the three lines had not followed the 5-7-5 metrical pattern in any of their compositions.

With the above background, I wrote an essay on the subject, which was published in the Sangbad Supplement in 2004 and later included in my book 'Chitrokolpo O Bichitro Goddya' published by Agamee Prakashani in 2005. My analysis in that write-up accompanied a self-composed piece of haiku with an arrangement of 5-7-5 metres. The piece was: “Biraan beel/hotash maasranga/vaabuk chil” [A desolate lake/disgusted king-fisher/and a pensive kite.” Influenced by my concept, a young poet Dulal Biswas did a marvelous job of writing and publishing a book with 210 haikus strictly maintaining the prosodic pattern that I proposed. In an introduction, Dulal Biswas mentioned his exposure to my analytical essay on haiku. Some of his pieces, as I rate, are so appealing that these opened an avenue for us to exercise writing haiku in Bangla with 5-7-5 metrical arrangement as is done in both Japanese and English language today. I like to share two of Dulal's haikus with the readers: “Shingel shanrh/Singhaasonay Bosay/Folaye gharh” which, in my English translation with 5-7-5 metres, may sound like: “A horny bullock/Seated on a royal throne/Inflating its neck.” The piece presents a highly-appealing imagery that rightly depicts a powerful and lawless dictator in any nation. Although all of Dulal's haikus are commendable, I like to mention another piece: “Jomir chaasha/Borno noy, chaynay maatir vaasha” which, in my own translation in 5-7-5 metres, reads: “Farmer of a land/Knowing not an alphabet/Can read the soil.” One additional unique feature of Dulal's works is the rhyming that is neither mandatory nor practised with care in any language. This, I opine, added an extra beauty to his works since our readers are traditionally inclined to having a taste of rhymes in figurative expressions.

It's time for our literary gurus and leading poets to walk on the right track now made open without any ambiguity and confusions that it's possible to compose haiku with the phonetic purity of 5-7-5 metres. Early failures of a poet like Ezra Pound and the success of the junior Richard Wright in English literature may be the guiding values in reshaping our conceptual framework in this regard.

Abid Anwar is a poet, critic and historical researcher.

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