pebbles
taken from the creek
leave their songs behind

Ross Clark

blue-sky

One of the most notable things lost in the translation of Japanese haiku is their musicality. Not only is the use of the 5-7-5 syllable pattern still a stipulation for most haiku circles in Japan, but onomatopoeia, more sophisticated and abundant in Japanese than in the English language, is a key device lost. Sound chimes (alliterative and rhyming) are also deliberately and widely used. Some English language haiku gatekeepers have proscribed the use of traditional poetic techniques of all kinds in haiku. And it is true that if they are put to effect with a heavy hand, they can overbalance a tiny poem. However, I believe that musicality is an important resource for haiku poets.

I have chosen this haiku by Ross Clark which enters a dialogue with the one by Lorin Ford (featured in the previous instalment of our journey through the first twenty years of the Australian Haiku Society, by Rob Scott), partly for their use of the word “song” and, in both cases, in the context of water. I was also struck by how both gained more depth as I thought more about the sounds used by each poet.

On a quick reading, Clark’s poem has a proverbial quality: if you take something out of its natural context it loses its life and attractiveness. Here Clark mentions songs, but I’m sure many people would also be reminded of having brought shiny gem-like stones home in their pocket only to find that they dull as they dry. Clark’s poem has a certain charm taken as a proverb.

A slower reading, one line at a time, allowing each to have its own separate life and to accumulate and modify what follows, and the imagery of the haiku sharpens. First, the image of pebbles. This word has an onomatopoeic force. The plosive of the /p/, followed by the plosive of the /b/ causes the lips to round and expel little rounded, pebble-like puffs of air.  It’s a word that is fun to say again and again.  Then the image of (a hand) removing them from the water. Again, this line has a faint musicality. The stress on the first syllable and the last with three unstressed syllables in between gives it a lilting, liquid quality and in the three /k/ sounds you can hear the click of pebble on pebble. The last line is less persuasively musical, but perhaps the long vowels in “leave”, “songs” and “(be)hind” have something of the keening of regret.

Phonetics and musicality aside, it is the unexpected use of “songs” that in large part gives this haiku its poetry. The notion of pebbles having songs and songs being something that can be left behind (not lost or forgotten but left behind as concrete objects can be) has a wise-fool quality to it. It draws on more primitive categories than our conventional adult ones. It returns us to a childhood world where everything was alive, had agency and substance. This is to return us to something of ourselves. But it is to do so at a new level. We enjoy the sound of running water and we tend to think that this is a water sound. But the sound of a pebbly creek is not just a water sound. The pebbles – so easily overlooked – are also contributing. By its use of “songs” here, this haiku asks us to remember that the song goes on elsewhere, where the creek runs oblivious to the handful of pebbles stolen from it.

Ford’s haiku:

clear water
a magpie’s song drops
into the pond

is also the statement of a wise fool. It pivots around the word “drops”. But songs are not like pebbles. They can’t be dropped into a pond. Indeed, “drops” in this haiku refers, primarily, to the sudden descending pitches of magpie song. But, especially in the context of water, (“clear water”; “pond”) the verb “drops” carries the shadow of “drops”, the noun. The word subliminally conjures water drops, specifically the droplets that shower upward when something is dropped into water. This fountaining too is characteristic of the magpie’s song. Like the “clear water” of the first line, that song also has high notes of exceptional clarity.

As with Clark’s poem, this effect is reinforced at the level of sound. Here, it is significantly the word “drop” that is highlighted. “Drop” and “pond” share three sounds /d/, /p/ and /ɒ/ (the vowel); “song” and “drops” share /s/ and /ɒ/ and “pond” and “song” the vowel followed by a nasal, making them half-rhymes. It is this unusual tightness of musical focus that transforms a plausibly naturalistic moment – listening to magpies singing by a pond – into a whole in which all the elements (including the reader) are fully interpenetrated.

Music, then, is not just the theme of these haiku. Musicality is essential to their impact.

Selection and commentary by Alice Wanderer

Haiku previously published: Second Australian Haiku Anthology/ edited by Janice M. Bostok, Katherine Samuelowicz and Vanessa Proctor, Haiku Association of Australia and Paper Wasp, 2006