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Hate Verbosity? Try Haikus

Monday 18 December 2017 at 10:14 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 14, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Nobody ever really liked verbosity! Not even in the past, when more flowery writing and speaking were in vogue. “Verbosity” means “long-winded,” or “wordy,” but English teachers preferred telling you your writing was “verbose,” rather than “inflated with hot air.” To be sure, this dislike of verbosity went beyond the classroom.

            The famous Reformation leader, Martin Luther, who himself could get a little verbose, was particularly annoyed by the long-windedness of one of the pastors in Wittenberg; so when he was asked for good advice for preaching a sermon, he said: “State your thesis. Prove your thesis. Restate your thesis. Sit down and shut up.” He was probably criticizing hour-long sermons, filled with repetitions.

            Less talented playwrights during the time of Shakespeare didn’t know when to quit when writing speeches for the characters in their plays, and, as the play was performed, the restless groundlings would practically hound the actor speaking the lines off the stage. Folks today may think that Shakespeare himself was a little verbose, but by the standards of the era, he was terse.

            “Terse” is where you want to be when writing, or at least that’s what my English teachers taught me. “Terse” means free of unnecessary words. “Unnecessary” is the key idea here, because it is not good, “terse” writing if your sentences are so word-skimpy, the reader can’t understand what you are trying to say. Writing with terseness is a strong balance between long-winded repetitiveness and thoughts so understated even a wordsmith genius can’t figure out what you’re saying. It is a lot easier to be verbose than to be terse.

            The Japanese verse form known as the “haiku” has come back in vogue in recent years, and you not only see them in modern poetry journals but also there are now about a half dozen poetry magazines, print and online, that publish only haikus. This fact has made me very happy, because my favorite verse form to use has long been the haiku. I have been writing haikus since college days, when Japanese poetry forms were the “in” thing, -- including kanshi, tanka, sedoka, as well as haikus.

            Steffey Morrow says that the deep truths of human life can never be told plainly. They are glanced at out of the corner of the eye when one smells the air full of honeysuckle on a June morning, or when one hears the birdsong music in San Felipe park, or watches the butterflies and hummingbirds in my backyard. The haiku was the Japanese poet’s way of doing this.

            The haiku is a three-line poem, with the first and third lines being 5 syllables long and the middle line, seven syllables. There is no attempt at rhyme. For the Japanese, the themes were birds, frogs, butterflies, dragonflies, bright summer days, the moon, etc., but contemporary American haikus have expanded way beyond such themes, and are written on almost any subject. The name of the haiku writing game is to say a great deal in 17 syllables, thus you have to suggest more than is explicitly stated, and that’s the hard part. That is not the same thing as being vague or totally unclear.

            When I was engaged to the young woman who became my wife, I was sponsoring a campus poetry magazine, writing a lot of poetry myself, including haikus, and reading poetry together with several poet-friends, older than me. One of those friends said, “Now that you are engaged to Peggy, you are like a little boy who has caught a beautiful butterfly.” The friend who said that was also a poet, and I was very touched by her poetic simile.

            That summer, I went to see my bride-to-be in Medford, Massachusetts, where she was taking a graduate course at Tufts University, and bought a book of Haikus at the nearby Harvard Bookstore. It was entitled The Four Seasons: Japanese Haiku. In the book, which I still have, I found this haiku (translated of course into English):

            But if I held it . . .

            Could I touch the lightness of this

            Flutter-butterfly?

                        Buson

As you can see the haiku is 5-8-5 rather than 5-7-5, but it’s impossible to keep the exact syllable count when you translate Japanese into English. I often think about this image, especially when my wife flutters around the house like a butterfly, meeting herself coming and going.

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Ray Spitzenberger is a free-lance writer and artist who lives in East Bernard with his beautiful wife Peggy and spoiled cat Gatsby.

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