On the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing
Contributor: Sean Morrissey
Additionally, the traditional haiku should incorporate elements of the natural world, and culminate with an unexpected turn or action in the final line. Consider the haiku of Matsu Basho, one of Japan’s most celebrated and influential poets, as he contemplates the cherry blossom:
How many, many things
They call to mind
It is difficult to overstate the juxtaposition of scale, from the pastoral tranquillity of haiku to the enormity of the atomic bomb. However, one could argue that is exactly what makes the Japanese haiku of Hiroshima so incredibly powerful. Take, for example, the following haiku by Yasuhiko Shigemoto:
Hiroshima Day -
I believe there must be bones
Under the paved street
There is nothing ephemeral about Shigemoto’s work, or in most haiku generally. It is a poetry rooted in the real, reflecting the simple joys (and enormous tragedies) of our lived experience. And what metaphor could rival the surreality of the atomic bomb?
Given the structural rigidity of haiku, with its strict adherence to form and syllable count, there is little room for haphazard language. The poet writes with great deliberation, as in the following, again by Shigemoto:
The sunset glow -
as if still burning
Shigemoto’s matter-of-fact diction is fairly characteristic, but here this plain spoken verse takes on greater democratic value. This poem, like all those featured, can be easily read and understood by everyone. There is nothing unattainable in Shigemoto’s language, thus ensuring maximum readership and exposure. It also speaks to a sense of urgency.
That so much is contained within these short poems is not only a testament to Japanese aesthetic, but also to the universality of experience. Our empathetic instincts are born of the fact that we have all known tragedy and lived to carry that weight. These poems serve to bring us closer, as after any seismic event, to share the writer’s grief in mourning what all was lost 75 years ago.
The Tanka, or “short song”, is another classical Japanese form that relies on a similar syllabic structure to haiku. However, where the haiku is comprised of 17 syllables, the tanka is extended to 31 syllables and often appears as a single line (though English translations will often depict the tanka in five-line stanzas). While it may be the lesser known of the two traditions, at least among western readers, the tanka dates back some 1,000 years before haiku, making it one of the oldest poetic styles in Japanese history.
As its name suggests, the tanka provides just enough length and stylistic freedom to make for a short song, even a complete scene. These poems feel even more deeply rooted in the world, replete with characters and speech, setting and dramatic turns of phrase. As readers we may be disarmed by their size and, with guards down, are all the more vulnerable to the impact of the poem. Take the following by Imai Tokusaburo:
Alas, my wife still hopes
Though setting his plate already for a month in vain.
In two short lines, Tokusaburo has distilled the entirety of Hiroshima and its enduring impact on survivors. The poem offers a glimpse into the bomb’s aftermath which, far from the visceral extremes of that fateful day, are now filled with a more muted, lingering grief. The scene is private and domestic and otherwise unknown to the world were it not for Tokusaburo’s writing. Or consider the spectral voice in the following tanka by Haruka Tanimura
Hiroshima said to me every day:
"If you neglect to treasure those around you, you will surely regret it.”
Again, we are brought into the world of the ever after, what that which stays long after the military offences and media reporting and eventual peace treaties. The prevailing narratives of history are often criticised for telling the victor’s story, or perpetuating those on either side of power. Here the poet provides an essential people’s history of events, that which might otherwise be overlooked and lost to time. That so much is contained within these short poems is not only a testament to Japanese aesthetic, but also to the universality of experience. Our empathetic instincts are born of the fact that we have all known tragedy and lived to carry that weight. These poems serve to bring us closer, as after any seismic event, to share the writer’s grief in mourning all that was lost 75 years ago.
Read about the 75th Anniversary of Hiroshima here