Friday, February 6, 2009

Poetry Friday--Wabi Sabi--Say What?

Wabi sabi is a concept or a philosophy that comes to us from Japan. It is also the name of a picture book by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young. The term wabi sabi is explained by Reibstein as
a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious....

Wabi Sabi, the book (Little, Brown, 2008), is the story of a little cat whose name is Wabi Sabi. At the beginning, a visitor asks the meaning of the cat's name. The cat, who had never thought about her name having a meaning, seeks an answer for herself. She asks the animals around her--a cat and a dog. Both provide Wabi Sabi with portions of a answer that she does not understand, so she leaves her familiar surroundings to go in search of the answer.

In her travels both the cat, and the reader, come to a gradual realization of the meaning of Wabi Sabi.

The book is in haibun form, that is, it is a prose description of a travel adventure accented with haiku. Author's notes at the end explain haiku, haibun, and the history of wabi sabi. Scattered throughout the book are haiku written in Japanese characters. The poems, by the haiku masters Basho and Shiki, are translated into English at the end.

With all its parts, Wabi Sabi is quite a complex book despite its being about simplicity!

I think it is well done, except that all the haiku by Reibstein are in the 5-7-5 syllable format taught in elementary school. I've been reading English language haiku for a number of years, and find that it is mostly written in less than 17 syllables. I'm a great proponent of using only as many words as is needed to get to the "essence" of the moment, not to inflate the essence to make it fit into a 5-7-5 format.

I had the good fortune to speak with the editor of Sabi Wabi recently, and I told her how I was disappointed that all the poems are in the 5-7-5 form. She told me that the author had submitted the poems in their essential form and that she had requested that they be rewritten to conform to the way they are taught in school. Aaaaah!

Learning that made me feel better about the author, but it also made me feel that we're doing a disservice to our kids by teaching them form is of the upmost importance! It may be true in teaching the sonnet or pantoum, but it goes against what I think is the very nature of haiku. Ah, well! I was happy to note that the traditional Japanese haiku throughout Wabi Sabi were translated into non-5-7-5 English poems at the end.

The mixed media illustrations by Ed Young complement the text, and I found the spread with "the damp autumn leaves" particularly pleasing.

Overall, I declare Wabi Sabi a success! And I look forward to the publication of more haiku books for kids.

Here's a haiku of mine that was inspired by a little cat who mostly tolerates my presence in her house:
a squeal!
the cat finally
catches her tail

Go to Wild Rose Reader for today's Poetry Friday Round-Up.



Yat-Yee said...

I am the result of the stick-to-the-format-in-haiku teaching. This is the first time I have come to know that 5-7-5 isn't the end all and be all.

Thank you for my continuing education.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Diane I am with you 100% on Haiku! I find it maddening that schools continue to do such a poor job of teaching what it truly is - and to hear the editor perpetuate the misunderstanding in very frustrating. We need to give kids more credit and give them the real complexity and beauty of Haiku in all its shades and variations. Thanks for this excellent review. I am going to look for this book for sure and I expect to enjoy it!

Diane said...

Thanks for your comments Yat-Yee and Cloudscome! Yat-Yee, go to your local public library and look for a copy of The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English edited by Cor van den Heuvel. I'm sure you'll be delighted by the variety of haiku being written in English. The last edition of the anthology came out in 1999, so I'm hoping there will a new one before too long.


Kelly Polark said...

I'm with Yat Yee! 5-7-5 was all I knew, too! I shall certainly explore this further!

Diane said...

I hope you will explore, Kelly!

Let me show you an example of how less is more. I wrote this haiku many years ago:

Two old, white horses
Grazing the field, side by side,
Tails switching at odds.

It was actually published in the Christian Science Monitor I had recently "rediscovered" haiku after being out of school for many years. After reading more haiku, I looked at the poem and was embarrassed by it for several reasons, not the least being it is completely punctuated with capitals at the beginnings of the lines, and, more importantly, it was simply overwritten to conform to 5-7-5. In the second line, "the field" could easily be eliminated--where else would horses be grazing? I rewrote the poem:

two old white horses
graze side by side
tails switching at odds

This is the essence of what I had seen. There WERE two horses, both white, both old, standing next to each other with their tails switching out and in, but not in unison. I could have pared it down more by eliminating "white," but to me, it was important to let my reader know they were white.

Haiku is an excellent exercise in terseness!


Yat-Yee said...

Thanks for the recommendation. Will check it out.

Michael Dylan Welch said...

Interesting that you were able to talk with this book's editor. So we have the editor to blame for the problem of 5-7-5 in this book, do we? That editor needs a serious education in haiku. And schools and curriculum guides are in serious need of correction. It's such a shame that misunderstandings of haiku are so deep and wide.