Tagore and Haiku

Tagore and Haiku

Partha Desikan

Susumu Takiguchi is Chairman, The World Haiku Club. Presented below is an interesting excerpt from his Keynote Address delivered at World Haiku Festival 2008 on 23 February 2008, in Bangalore, India. Proceedings of the festival, including major excerpts from Mr. Takiguchi&#

39;s address have appeared in the most recent issue (May-June 2008) of the literary e-Journal, Muse India.


This should interest us even if we are not into haiku sessions yet!

'I wish to start with a special poet who is a national hero and pride in India but who is also a father of, inter alia, all modern poets in the world, Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861-7 August 1941).

Tagore wrote a brief account in his travelogue of his first visit of Japan in 1916. Brief, but in it every word is a jewel and the whole prose reads more like free-flowing poetry even in Japanese translation. It is one of the most exhilarating readings, at least to me.

Exhilarating, not because it is full of praise of Japan but because every observation is told not in isolation but as a representation of deeper realities or broader universality; this seems to me to be a characteristic of this first Nobel laureate of Asia. It is also exhilarating because it teaches that one can say so much in so brief a writing. Who needs a volume like War And Peace to say what it is that is to be said? All we need is the best words, in the best place and in the best order. And the more one knows what one wants to say the fewer the words needed. The fewest words of all are silence. It seems as if we may be talking about haiku here, doesn't it?

However, the greatest exhilaration comes to me because Tagore sought to promote a new world culture which was based on ‘multi-culturalism, diversity and tolerance', according to a study. I might hasten to add that the phrase ‘multi culturalism' Tagore used had no pejorative or debased meaning which it has sadly acquired in modern Britain. This remark of Tagore is almost identical with the aim of the World Haiku Club. With such a fortunate coincidence, I am emboldened to appeal to my friends in India to take part in the world haiku movement which was started by us in 1998 but which needs to be passed continuously to new haiku poets in all corners of the world and to continue to be pursued and developed in earnest by them. Tagore showed us the way how that could be done. World Haiku Festival 2008 in which we rejoice at taking part here in India marks a high point of following in the footsteps of Tagore, in our case in the field of haiku literature.

In his travelogue, Tagore introduced two haiku by Basho, one about the old pond and a frog and the other about the withered branch and a crow. About the former, Tagore comments after citing it, "That is all. And that is sufficient". This is because, according to him, there are many eyes in the Japanese reader's mind, which can see that which is not mentioned in the haiku but only implied in the most succinct and beautiful way. Nothing more is necessary. Tagore, it seems, got straightaway to the essence of haiku, and without reading any of today's haiku textbooks or frivolous explanation about haiku at that.

About the second poem of the withered branch and the crow by Basho, Tagore made a similar comment but this time emphasised the importance of the power of intuitive understanding of the Japanese reader. Because of this, the author of haiku not only has no need to put himself or herself forward into the poem but also must indeed withdraw and step aside. This, by the way, has nothing to do with the popular assertion that ego must not come into haiku, which is all too often admonished wrongly by so many.

The reason why Tagore could get to the heart of the matter in appreciating the essence of haiku so easily is not just that he was an exceptional Renaissance man. It is because he approached haiku with unadulterated and open heart. Quoting another Japanese poem (heaven and earth are flowers/kami-god and Buddha are flowers/man's heart is the essence of flowers), Tagore introduces an almost identical Indian verse (heaven and earth/god and Buddha/these two flowers blossom from the same stalk) and points out that the beauty of things beautiful stems from human heart.

This is an important point for haiku-writing in the present circumstances where what could be termed as the ‘author's right' is ignored in preference for the ‘reader's right' with the former made to worry far too much about what the latter might or might not think about his or her haiku of originality and newness. It is also important because we should really leave most things to our human heart when writing haiku and not to irksome rules and regulations.

Then Tagore goes on to explore the sensibility unique to the Japanese, which he calls ‘restraint of the soul'. By this he means that it is possible to increase the feeling and expression of beauty by restraining the feeling and expression of the emotion. Less is better than more. This strikes me as one of the best explanation about the essence of haiku. 

If the same blood runs through all Indian poets and the same sensibility is found in them as that of Tagore, they will have already made a good start with haiku.'

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