Haiku is one of the best-known poetic forms on earth. The Japanese seventeen syllable haiku has been around since the 1600s, today there are about 780 haiku magazines in Japan, and Japanese schoolchildren learn early on how to use as few words as possible when describing events – the task of minimizing a narrative to just a few keywords becomes a game with signs that captivates the young.
In 2011, the society that is in charge of the Nobel Prize in literature – for the first time ever – brought up the presence of haiku in an author’s output when announcing the winner of the award. Unsurprisingly, the poet, Tomas Tranströmer, was not Japanese but Swedish, for haiku poems are today written all over the world.
Tomas Tranströmer was attracted to haiku early on in his career, but it wasn’t until after his stroke in 1990 that he once again embraced the form. And the majority of Tranströmer’s work is not haiku – in the world of poetry he is known as a master of metaphor, and metaphor has no place in traditional haiku. However, Tranströmer’s poetry has always been bare, elegant, precise, and serene, and when he returned to haiku it was as if the poet had come home again.
And just like in the poetry of the Japanese haiku masters, nature plays a major part in Tranströmer’s poetry. Nature, of course, uses many different dresses, but to Tranströmer it is always holy and divine: “The darkening leaves/ in autumn are as precious/ as the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
The Japanese term “mono no aware” is often (lamely) translated as “sadness,” but it is more correct to understand it as an awareness of impermanence, or the transient nature of all things. This is a recurring theme in Tranströmer’s verse. In “Snow Is Falling,” he says, “The funerals keep coming/ more and more of them/ like the traffic signs/ as we approach a town./ Thousands of people gazing/ in the land of long shadows.” Which may seem bleak, but Tranströmer is too sophisticated to be categorized as either gloomy or bright, and the poem reaches this conclusion, “A bridge builds itself/ slowly/ straight out into space.”
Death itself may be the end. Then again, it may not. In the prose poem “Answers to Letters,” the poet speaks of a place, possibly New York City, which is beyond death, “One day I will answer. One day when I am dead and can finally concentrate. Or at least as far away from here that I can find myself again. When I’m walking, newly arrived, in the big city, on 125th Street, in the wind on the street of dancing garbage. I who love to stray off and vanish in the crowd, a letter T in the endless mass of text.”