Letter from NYC -2

On my way to NYC today, I was reading a book of haikus. Someone corrected me and said that the plural of haiku is still haiku. But I persist in saying ‘haikus’. Since haiku isn’t an English word it is as easy to say that the plural demands an ‘s’ as it is to say it doesn’t. Who makes the rules about plural forms of words that aren’t English?

But I have digressed. I was reading this book that I purchased at the British Museum. That itself sounds strange and irrational enough, in retrospect. Why would one buy such a book at a museum? Perhaps because the museum suggested “Shop and Exit”? I took that as a command, I always obey the shopping god’s commands.

So now I am idly browsing through this book of haiku(s), to learn about this form of poetry and to understand why it captivates the imagination so. Why are poets so taken by this form? The authors of the book suggest that a haiku conveys a profound sentiment in as few words as possible using nature and the seasons as useful tropes. The idea being that our wants and desires are often effectively mirrored in nature. Nature encapsulates our wistfulness, sadness, joy, anger perfectly. A harvest moon, a new leaf, the clouds, a bend in the river, sunset, sunrise, dewdrops, they all have a story to tell in a haiku. That is indeed fascinating. But, in that context, how sincere are these modern day efforts?

Or am I the only one, who is so far removed from anything natural, who finds it insincere? I don’t remember the last time I saw a dewdrop on a blade of grass, or a river bend, or glanced up at the stars or stared at the moon. Instead I am eating food laced with additives, breathing toxic fumes and generally functioning like a wound up toy. And let’s not be too glib about the word ‘natural’. What is natural? Isn’t man a part of nature and therefore aren’t the things man makes natural as well? Or as someone suggested, isn’t synthetic as natural as authentic? Well then, why don’t we see more haiku works that use synthetic elements – skyscrapers, industrial waste, processed foods, Blackberries, cell phones, Web 2.0, Hummers?

Well, back to the book and a haiku within – about an angler and the intensity of his effort in the evening rain:

The angler –
His dreadful intensity
In the evening rain!
– Buson

That’s all the haiku essentially says but it has the power of sending ones thoughts scampering toward the angler, his dreadful intensity, is it simply a single-minded dedication to this pastime? What brings him to the river on a rainy evening? Why the dreadful intensity? So much more is left unsaid here than is actually said, what was said simply underscores that which was left unsaid. The ‘evening rain’ and the ‘dreadful intensity’ in this case seem to have done all the talking. Conveying to the reader that which needed to be conveyed with the barest minimum of words. It is subtle, delicate and satisfying.

However, the thing that satisfies the most here is also the thing that makes one yearn for simpler times for fewer discordant notes, less din, a grounded feeling, a richness of existence. I am indifferent to most haiku because they seem incongruous in a world where I rouse myself from bed exactly at 5:17 AM, check my emails at 5:48 PM and then turn the computer off and leave for work at 6:00 AM. I take the same bus everyday, see the same people, do exactly the same inconsequential things: taking off my iPod headphones, wrapping the cord around the gadget, walking 10 steps to the office kitchen where I add an inch of half-and-half, one Sweet N Low and one packet of sugar in a Styrofoam cup before pouring my Columbian coffee in it. Then taking measured steps back to my desk so the coffee doesn’t spill and turning the computer on to begin the day of work. Any missed step in the morning’s choreography feels like a grain of sand would in contact lens wearing eyes (like on Fridays when the half-and-half carton is empty and one has to make do with skim milk coffee).

Apparently I am not the only one who feels this way either. The paper had an article about the pre-work rituals of most people. There are certain things that need to happen in exactly the same sequence from the time one wakes up to the time one settles in to an eight hour stretch of work. The article (WSJ of 8/14/06 – “Cubicle Culture”) suggested (heavily paraphrasing) that sticking to this routine, however meaningless it may seem, gave us a sense of victory or control before we gave in to a day where the opportunities for us to be ourselves would be close to non-existent and laced with minor, albeit soul-destroying, defeats.

Sad commentary on what we’ve become; pathetic facsimiles of what we dreamt we would be. There is no magic in the full moon peeking in through the skylight, the sunrise only serves to blind us as we navigate our way through a crowded six-lane highway, dewdrops on blades of grass or leaves? Perhaps a stray drop on the leaf of the office ficus that the Brazilian plant-waterer just watered, a plant-waterer whose job would be the first to go during the next cost-cutting initiative, not worthy of a haiku. The expressionless faces that often make me wonder what they could possibly have streaming into their ears, through those ubiquitous white headphones to cause such a stone-faced reaction. Can we write delicate haiku as fine as lace and as richly satisfying as the smile on our sleeping child’s face when all we live for are the couple of hours every morning when we are in control and can choreograph our existence to a tee?

3 Comments

  1. By far the most eloquent reflection on the haiku I've seen. It digresses from the subject into subsidiary themes as in music, only to return to it most pleasingly at the end. Can't help thinking of Bach!

  2. I will name my little snippets of what i see while riding in my Bike..as "Baiku"!I think the cold faces with ipods just need an invitation to come out of their self-induced-self-absorbed-scared-could-not-care-less-world-as-no-one-loves-them world!But that's a lot work since we are too-busy-why-spend-time-with-non-smiling-moron!Enjoyable Read!

  3. Pragya,this is possibly the most interesting and arresting mini-essay of yours I've read to date. The Buson haiku too is rare, superb. The angler is presented as a model of the artist's quest, no? The cubicle dweller too may at times sit with her fishing rod — striving to fish out a true word from amid the mist of thought and the white noise of the requisite circadian . . .cheers,d.i.


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