Memorial Lecture by Yves Bonnefoy

Haiku, Short Verse and French Poets

(Original,French version: PDF)

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I would first like to express my sincere gratitude to your assembly for the honor of being invited to today's gathering, and of being considered worthy to take part in its reflection on haiku and the short verse form in general. However, I would like you to be aware of the fact that it is not without a feeling of inadequacy that I thus approach the poetic experience of which your civilization and its great poets are the undisputed masters. No people in
the world has ever equaled the Japanese in making the whole of reality, both social and cosmic, echo in the consonance and dissonance of a fewwords. You have married the infinite to the word in a way that fascinates people far beyond your borders, and certainly in France for a long time many of us have listened to your poets, beginning with Basho, who, as I shall explain shortly, has counted for much in my own life.

French poets like haiku, and it is with this observation and a few reflections on its meaning that I would like to begin my modest contribution to your investigation. French poets love the haiku, and for
about fifty years they even have devoted particular attention to it, making serious efforts to understand its spirit and draw lessons from it for their own relation to the world, which means that to a certain extent they are capable of penetrating at least some of its major aspects.

However - and this is my first observation - it is, needless to say, only through the medium of translations that we are acquainted with these poems, and one would therefore be tempted to think that what is most essential to haiku is thereby denied to us, for a number of reasons that cannot be
lightly dismissed. First of all, there is the difference of language between your poets and us, as a result of which major categories of thought and many other less important notions, often present in the poems, do not hold the same position within the whole network of relations that our words
maintain with the world as they have constructed it. There may be disparity between the connotations and the denotations that characterize the Japanese and the French words that one wishes to bring together, but it also happens, I imagine, that what in your language may be expressed immediately and intuitively in one single notion, can only be understood in French at the cost of a process of analysis that is difficult of accomplishment, and leading, in any case, to a number of ideas that we feel to be distinct and whose hitherto unnoticed relationship we will in any event have to try and understand. What a great problem this becomes when this kind of situation occurs in the translation of a short poem, where unfolding reflection is inconceivable! Above all when these unfamiliar notions bear on fundamental aspects of your poetic thought or your most basic perception of the world.

Closely related to this problem of the disparity of the vocabulary, there is the disparity of the respective syntaxes, which are further removed from one another than anything one can imagine. What a distance separates the syntax of the Indo-European languages and the way Japanese produces meaning from notions and specific data! Now, it is through these relations between words that the intuition which enables you to connect initially very distinct impressions, can open up a path to haiku, leading, I imagine more smoothly and more rapidly than our analytical phrases, to the feeling of unity or nothingness which lies at the heart of all real poetry. Perhaps it requires all the stanzas of Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, perhaps it takes all the stanzas of Le cimetiere marin by Paul Valery, to achieve the impression of a melodious song in the night or of the deserted sea in the sun, which a Basho or a Shiki could have evoked in seventeen syllables. All this augurs ill for any attempt at translating these seventeen syllables into French or English.

Moreover, in Japanese the graphic representation of words is based on ideograms, on signs that often have preserved in their appearance something of the shape of things, and the haiku itself is short, which allows the reader to take in all its characters at a glance, so that the poet is able to impart through his words a vibration of their visible shape that will assist his discernment of the most immediate, the most intimate in the situation that he is evoking. That kind of poet is therefore a painter. He is able to add to the actual knowledge of words the knowledge of what lies beyond words, a knowledge that grants the painter a regard deepened by silent meditation of the great aspects of natural space. What will remain of that intuition in the words of our translations, separated as they are from the sentient aspect of the very things they denote by the fundamentally arbitrary and abstract nature of alphabetical notation? The Western writing system eliminates direct relations with the world, and it is that which comprises its particular suitability for the physical sciences, but which at the same time makes poetry so difficult, and I confess that I envy you your ideograms. All the more so because they seem to me to keep open, in the center of the lines which make up each of them, a void signifying nothingness, the experience of nothingness which is, as I have already said, a major concern of all poetic thought, even when that thought seeks out in lived existence whatever can provide us with a reason to exist on earth. There is a mental clarity in the signs that your writing
system uses, and that clarity is at the forefront of your poetic works, while in the West it only comes in at the end, at least if the poet has not lost his way in the process.

It is indeed very hard to translate haiku into our Western languages. I even think that we have to resign ourselves to the idea that it is impossible to translate them.


And yet, in France, for a long time, there has been and there continues to be a great interest in haiku: why is that?

It may be, simply, because the translations of haiku, however poor reflections of the original they may be, remain superb examples of short verse, which, in the situation in which we find ourselves in Europe, itself has tremendous value, both as an example and an encouragement.

What is it in fact that typifies a short text? It is a heightened capacity to open oneself up to a specifically poetic experience.

Let us for a while not limit our discussion to poems of only seventeen syllables, as rich in graphic features as they are in meaning, but let us consider all kinds of writings that have endeavored to express in few words, either in French or in Japanese, an emotion, an intuition, a feeling, a perception. It goes without saying that in this narrow verbal space, that must perforce be self-sufficient, there is no room for narrative, except by way of allusions, that can only suggest indirectly and in a single stroke. And the immediate consequence is that the words of the short poem are freed from one particular approach to events and things, meaning that approach which in stories links these events and things in a sequence of causes and effects, with the danger that one no longer knows these situations in life, except through the kind of thinking that analyzes and generalizes: the kind that only knows particular reality from the outside. The short poem is preserved from the temptation to hold one aloof from the immediate impression. Thus more than any other form it is capable of coinciding with a lived moment.

And within that moment we are bound to consider only very few things, since the poem contains only very few words: as a result, in this moment of our existence, certain relations between those things of the world may have formed within us, and they will be enabled to unfold freely, with all their
vibrations, all the more audible as one is no longer a prisoner of conceptual thinking. We are drawn back into that feeling of unity of which a long discourse would deprive us. This experience of unity, of unity lived and not simply thought, is clearly poetry. We tend to forget this, in the West, because our religious traditions, those of a personal God who transcends the world, have separated the absolute from natural reality, yet even so, this drawing near of the One in every single thing remains nonetheless the principal feeling to which all poets are instinctively drawn.

Thus, more than any other form, the short verse form is capable of being the threshold of a specifically poetical experience. When a poem adopts a short form, by this simple fact it directs itself toward that which may be poetry in our relation to the world.


However, I have to point out that the short poetic form has not often been present in the history of Western poetry. Precisely because for a long time reality has been conceived of as the mere creation of God rather than the divine itself, theological and philosophical thought has occupied the
European mind to a much greater extent than listening to the sound of thewind, or gazing at falling leaves, and our poems therefore have to berather long for a thought to unfold. That is true even for poems that seem to be comparatively short, like the sonnet, which for centuries has played a major role in Western history. The sonnet, though it has much more than seventeen syllables, has only fourteen lines and in the West it is considered a short poem, which does not mean that its effect is that of a short verse form. It begins with two stanzas of a particular formal structure, namely two groups of four lines, followed and concluded by two other stanzas of three lines each, so that odd numbers follow even numbers, and between the two parts there is something like a rupture, which seems to signify and has often been used to signify something, so much so that the sonnet, however restricted, is a thought that unfolds, and is in that somehow akin to a syllogism, with its premises and conclusion. Of course it is perfectly possible to have a genuine poetic experience in a sonnet, just as much as in any other form. One may even experience in one's mind, at the transition from even numbers to odd ones in the ninth line, a sort of awakening to the sense of passing time, which is to say of existence, which is to say of the moment, which is a potential experience of the immediate. But it is no accident that the sonnet has for such a long time in its history been associated with the current of Platonism, for it is at least as much a discourse as a poem.

Let us not dwell on those decidedly short forms that have been found in Western literature, such as the epigram. For in this case the aim is simply to highlight a brilliant idea, and we do not find ourselves in a relation to the reality outside ourselves, with nature, but within the margins of a
conversation, among talkers who are only interested in ideas and the beautiful language in which these ideas take form. Here, brevity is used to create surprise, to show off clever wit, but for this variety of brevity real poets can only feel repulsion, and rightly consider it futile, for in these cases they have not encountered an authentic short form.

The unfortunate outcome of all this has been that poets who, in the nineteenth century, wrote short verses for no other purpose than to express a fleeting impression, have been themselves considered as worthless poets, or at least as minor poets, inferior to those who wrote much longer works. All the more so since the poets who were labeled minor, allowed themselves be persuaded that that indeed was what they seemed to be. A case in point is the poet Toulet, certainly not a great poet, yet in whose Contre-rimes sounds of great subtlety vibrate. Borges, who knew what poetry is about, had a
great admiration for Toulet, but in France he has not so far been accorded much importance. Almost the same thing could be said of Verlaine. In his case nobody would deny that he is indeed a great poet, yet most readings of his work reduce it to the reckless moments of his darkest days, instead of
recognizing that his poetry is capable of the greatest perceptiveness or even, as in Crimen Amoris, of posing, this time with great force, the problems of being-in-the-world in a most eloquent discourse. Speaking of Verlaine, I might observe in passing that, if I was asked to cite a few poems in French that are akin to haiku, I would immediately think of several of his. Is there not something recognizable to you in a fragment like:

The shadow of trees on the surface of the foggy river
Fades like smoke,
While up in the air among the real boughs
Turtledoves coo plaintively.

I have to add, however, that these lines by Verlaine do not in themselves constitute a poem, but are part of a longer text, and that if we are to find brevity in the history of French poetry, we have to plunge into long works, like a cormorant into a lake, to discover moments where the poet has briefly paused, raising his eyes from his discourse to look about him. In those instances brevity was for him an unforeseen happening, not something planned beforehand. Surely, however, this did not prevent him from feeling often that these were the very moments when his poetic project was at its best.

In the age of Romanticism, French society and religious belief had begun to change in a way that was favorable to the poetic understanding of reality. Together with a certain decline in the Christian conception of the world, the idea of a nature brimming with mysterious life stimulated poets to cling to the impressions they drew from it, so that the essentially poetic experience could assert itself against the more discursive elements in poems, and this created the conditions for a better understanding of the value and potential of poetic brevity, and even for making conscious use of
it, by considering that it could be the very heart of poetic exploration. That is precisely what happened in the case of Rimbaud, who started by writing long poems brimming with ideas, and who quite rapidly turned to the incandescent notations of his 1872 poems and his Illuminations. One can say that these poems of Rimbaud's are the first great creations of the short form in French, in the work of a poet whom one might compare, it seems to me, to certain poets of Japan on account of his way of life. While Rimbaud's poems offered a great model for the modern age, they remained
nonetheless an exception, and, for those among us in France who know better today than yesterday that the perception of the sentient world lies at the heart of poetry, more and other poetic testimonies were needed.

That is why the interest in haiku spread in France in the second half of the twentieth century, and remains strong today. This interest took root when both texts and a certain idea about Japanese poets began to circulate, thanks to translations or commentaries, and that is how Blyth's book Haiku came to play a major role for some among us. In order to interest the French reader the translations did not need to preserve the richness of the original, because the simple fact of being concise, of being limited to a single glance, concentrating a few great realities of the natural or social world into one impression, had by now become something that people could understand as of specifically poetic value. And nothing, moreover, prevented the reader of these poems from studying their authors, taking cognizance of the Zen monks, and from imbuing themselves with a spirituality that answers powerfully to the spiritual needs of modern society, which has come to understand that many of its religious or metaphysical beliefs are mere myths. The idea that there is nothing behind the phenomena, that the human individual must not consider himself superior to nature: that is what we must henceforth accept, and what enables us to listen to the voice of haiku. I have no hesitation in saying that the best French poets since the fifties have given thought to this form of poetry. It is not a kind of "haiku fashion" that we have witnessed, but an awakening to a necessary and fundamental reference, which can only remain at the center of Western poetic thought.


Now I must tell you what specific form this influence has assumed. It goes without saying that we do not need to imitate haiku, to write poems that are as short as possible, and correspond more or less to the number of words in a haiku when it is translated into French. A few poets have attempted this, in a naive way, but that is to be misled. Unlike Japanese, the French language does not have the visible aspect of signs to carry over the intuition of the poet, and the conceptual aspects of vocabulary continue to predominate in the words we use, even when their number is restricted, so that, if we are to reach the depth and limpidity of writing by the haiku masters, we will have to fight a long battle in our reliance on adjectives and nouns, and the signs of this struggle will have to be
sufficiently present in the poem for the reader to recognize it, relive it, and thus learn and observe how the poet managed to compose the poem. As it was in the past in French poetry, so it is still today, that brevity is a passing state that one occasionally happens to attain, but nothing more. The only thing that we can do is to move gradually towards this state, within texts that remain long, and which are in the end a record of our search, the arduous and never ending attempt to reach transparency in our relationship to ourselves and the world.

Here I want to add that the French poet still has a strong sense of himself as an individual, despite the quality of evidence offered by the lessons in non-individuality, in self-detachment, that he encounters in a Japanese poetry deeply imbued with Buddhism. In the West, it is hard to forget the
teachings of Christianity, which used to claim that the human individual has a reality of his own and absolute value. For us, poetic sensibility remains absorbed in the reflection of the poet upon himself, and the great poems therefore remain caught in a kind of ambiguity, divided between the concern for individual destiny and a need to plunge into the depths of the natural and cosmic world, where this destiny no longer has any meaning. Representative of this ambiguity is the frequently admirable work of Pierre-Albert Jourdan, who died prematurely about ten years ago. Works such as l'Entree dans le jardin (Entry into the Garden), or les Sandales de paille (Straw Sandals) - in the latter title you will no doubt recognize an allusion to the life of wandering poet-priests in Japan - embody simultaneously the heritage of St. Francis of Assissi and of the great travelogues of Basho.

But perhaps you expect a more personal testimony from me. I can tell you that this interest in the short verse, and especially in haiku, is something I have experienced myself. First, it was a way of reading the authors of our French past. I remember my emotion when, in a collection of mediaeval texts, I came across what was nothing more than a fragment, the only remainder of a manuscript that was lost forever, but for me that fragment embodied in a single stroke poetry as such. It was these simple words: "Helas, Olivier Bachelin". Just three words, and two out of the three constituting a single proper name, that of Olivier Bachelin. But what a flash of intensity in an utterance so short! On the one hand, one man called Olivier Bachelin, someone who has lived, perhaps has loved, who has
known pleasure and pain, but about whom nothing is known, yet who, precisely for this reason, may represent the condition of each and every one of us in its most fundamental meaning. And on the other hand, this "alas", which suggests that some misfortune had befallen him, which reminds us of the vicissitudes of life, of the risk inherent in it, and of the void that gapes beneath it, the two poles of our concern on earth, with this abrupt reconciliation between them that reveals the identity of being and of nothingness. Then one turns back upon the world a gaze freed of illusions, a gaze without recoil, a gaze which takes in everything which is, or rather which is not, with a silent immediacy. That "Helas, Olivier Bachelin", in its extreme laconism, embodied poetry for me in a much more direct and powerful way than many long poems, and I would be tempted to compare these words to a haiku if I were not aware that they are still haunted by that Western dream that the individual as such is an
absolute reality.

That dream existed likewise in me, and when I began writing seriously myself, writing from the outset short, very short verses, the ones that make up the first part of my first book Du mouvement et de l'immobilite de Douve (On the movement and immobility of Douve), published in 1953, I was forced to admit that these texts too were burdened by that preoccupation with individual destiny, and this prevented them from genuinely encountering reality in its unity, and prompted me, in short, to embark upon a long work of inner clarification, where the ego that stubbornly clings to its illusions would be forced to disperse in the evidence of the world. Obviously an impossible task, or at any rate a never ending one, at least for me, but it opened up a path that I believe to be of specific relevance for modern poetry in the West, and it showed how from our own perspectives we may encounter haiku, encounter that teaching where poetry and wisdom are combined. That encounter will take place at moments whenever, in the midst of our writing, where the ego continues its soliloquy, we should succeed, because of something that happens in our lives, in seeing silent reality raise itself before us, a reality which is quite alien to our concerns and at the same time mysteriously hospitable.
One of these moments appears in the book I have already cited, at least that is how I understand it, and so it is for me the first thing I ever wrote that is sufficiently akin to haiku for me to allow myself to quote it. It consists simply of two lines, but in my view they constitute a whole poem, which I have presented separately from others, on a page by itself. It runs:

Tu as pris une lampe et tu ouvres la porte.
Que faire d'une lampe, il pleut, le jour se leve.

(You have taken a lamp and you open the door.
What use is a lamp, it's raining, the day breaks.)

You will see what is at issue here: the discovery in the morning of the rain that veils the countryside, the ego which in that great silent manifestation suddenly detaches itself from the self, so that there is no longer any need for the lamp which would have served the pursuit of one of his ordinary activities, and a new light appears, or rather the light of every day appears in a new way. In that moment on the threshold of the house, perhaps after a tormented night, conciseness was necessary if I was to remain true to my experience. Adding anything to these few words would only have had the effect of making me forget the experience.

Since that time I have found myself very often far away from that clarity, from that quality of evidence, but at least I could no longer deny what poetry was, and this prepared me better than before for the reading of haiku, and so I was ready to appreciate Basho when, in the sixties, a French translation of The Narrow Road to the Interior was published. I still remember my excitement when I read the first lines of the book. "The months and days are eternal travellers ... In which year it was I do not recall, but, like a wisp of cloud borne upon the wind, I too have been carried away by wanderlust." With this translation of Basho, with the anthology of haiku compiled later by Roger Munier, it was the great Japanese poetry that took the stage in France. I have no doubt that it will continue to speak to our most intimate preoccupations. I even dare to think that there will be in French poetry a spate of experimentation with short verse forms which will be the direct result of haiku, of what they have of universal, of international value: not a precise form, but a spirit, an immense capacity for spiritual experience.

Thank you once again. I also owe it to the attention you have so graciously accorded me that I have become better acquainted with the work of the poets of Matsuyama, in particular Masaoka Shiki. It is desirable that these poets become better known in France, and I am happy that, thanks to you, I am in a position to talk about them in my country. It is also to be hoped that your project for an international reflection on haiku and short verse will develop particularly with the European nations, and I hope that I will be able to take back home from these days spent among you, precise programs
that will allow for new exchanges, for the greater good of poetry, which is our common good and one of the few means that remain for preserving society from the dangers that beset it.

Yves Bonnefoy

(translated from the French by W. F. Vande Walle with D. Burleigh)

Ehime Culture Foundation
Dougo-cho 2-5-1, Matsuyama city,
Ehime prefecture, Japan