Haiku poetry collection documents corona blues

Haiflu: The 17th-Century Japanese art form updated for life in 2020 lockdown Britain.

Can a single haiku be great art? It is a simple poem in just 17 syllables – and has proved a surprisingly effective way of expressing intense feelings. But can something so slight be art?

When the world plunged into quarantine conditions three months ago, writers and artists rejoiced that they would finally have more time to create great art. After all, Shakespeare wrote his masterpiece King Lear during an outbreak of plague in 1606.

But poet Liv Torc noticed that the “madness and silence” of empty streets, pandemic news, and absent friends was making it very difficult for writers to concentrate. So, she suggested on her Facebook page that people send her a simple haiku about how they were feeling. “Sustained work is hard,” she wrote, “but a haiku […] – that’s manageable. We can all do one of those.”

A haiku is three lines with five, seven, and five syllables respectively, expressing an image and a mood. Over 12 weeks, Liv Torc received an incredible 8,000 poems, which she called ‘haiflus’. Torc turned them into weekly videos that were watched by over 25,000 people.

Together they take an “emotional snapshot” of lockdown Britain, from the humour and boredom of: “It’s now 2:00 am / and I’m eating hula hoops / who cares anymore” to the sadness of: “Empty carriages / it’s been Sunday for weeks now / no commuters wave.”

But can something so short really be considered art? Some of the greatest artistic achievements in history are of staggering scale and awesome genius. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a weighty 1,225 pages long. Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Família, is still being built 138 years after construction began. The world’s longest epic poem, the Mahabharata, has over 200,000 verses.

However, in Japan – the home of the haiku – size isn’t everything. The great master of the art form, Matsuo Bashō, believed the greatness of a haiku was what it left unsaid. His most famous poem is simply: “The old pond: / a frog jumps in,— / the sound of the water.” Another is: “Quietly, quietly, / yellow mountain roses fall – / sound of the rapids.” They conjure up a vivid beautiful scene and let the imagination explore its hidden depths.

You might not always notice the deeper meaning because you already take it for granted. But think how much you would have to explain to a time-traveller from 2019 to understand: “Popping down the shop, / I don’t feel safe to breathe, but / two for one on beans.”

Some may protest: a Japanese haiku is written in decorative calligraphy about cherry blossoms and snowcapped mountains. Not hula hoops and baked beans on Facebook. But, in fact, haiku were originally composed at parties and formed part of longer collaborative poems called haikai no renga. They began as playful word games that later developed into high art. In a similar way, we study Shakespeare’s plays today but, in 1608, they were crowd-pleasing money-spinners.

Some think the haiku is ideally suited to our instant, impatient age, where anything longer than a 280 character tweet or a 15-second TikTok feels like a major commitment. But Liv Torc also believes they can help our mental health by helping us notice the small moments and enjoy the little pleasures, in a world that feels scary and out of control.

But can a haiku really be great art?

Small is (more) beautiful?

Some say, no, great art must be challenging and complex. It should be something substantial that takes a great amount of time and skill to create. Years of thought may go into a timeless piece of art, and it will leave a lasting impression on the reader or viewer.

Others say, yes, there is power, truth, and beauty in the fewest of words. Unlike a tweet, the haiku has a strict structure that allows the poet to be creative. And finding the right word is not as easy as it looks. Bashō said only a master of haiku could write as many as 10 in a lifetime. Learning what NOT to say – that was the real skill.

You Decide

  1. Is the ‘haiflu’ art?
  2. When it comes to art, the bigger the greater. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Write your own lockdown haiku and draw a picture to accompany it.
  2. Watch the haiflu video, choose your favourite poem, and then write a short paragraph explaining why you chose it.

Some People Say...

“Haiku is not a shriek, a howl, a sigh, or a yawn: rather, it is the deep breath of life.”

Santoka Taneda (1882-1940), Japanese poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that poetry is one of the oldest forms of art. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem written in ancient Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC, is the oldest piece of literature. Throughout history, poets have held prestigious positions and been commissioned to document important and historic events. Although poems often appear simple, they use rhythm, rhyme, and metre to create an emotional impact and a lasting impression.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how to tell the difference between bad, good, and great art. Philosophers and artists have debated this question for thousands of years, with no sign of coming to any agreement. Some argue that art embodies ideals of truth and beauty, which only raises more questions about what is truth and what is beauty. Others take a practical approach and argue that art is anything you can put in a museum. And great art is art people will pay good money to see and own.

Word Watch

King Lear
As William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was penning his great tragedy, the plague spread across London and reached his own house, killing his landlady, Marie Mountjoy.
Liv Torc
The British spoken word poet asked for a haiku and a photo to be included in her video compilations. Two contrasting artistic images is an important element of a traditional haiku.
Haiku
The Japanese word derives from hokku which literally means “starting verse”. Although Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) is the most famous haiku poet, the form did not become known by that name until the 19th Century.
War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy’s (1828-1910) epic portrayal of the Napoleonic Wars contains 559 characters and the opening chapter alone took him a year to write.
Sagrada Família
The architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) began work on his basilica in Barcelona in 1882. Famously saying “my client is not in a hurry”, less than a quarter of his building was finished when he died in 1926.
Mahabharata
One of the key Hindu sacred texts, the Mahabharata runs to 1.8 million words.
Matsuo Bashō
Although his poetry is reproduced on monuments around Japan and he is renowned around the world, Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) did not think himself a great writer of haiku, saying, “Many of my followers can write hokku (haiku) as well as I can.”
Haikai no renga
This popular form of comic poetry was regarded as vulgar and a radical break for stale and older forms of poetry. Only later did it develop into the legitimate art form of the haiku.
TikTok
The 15-second video social media platform has surged in popularity during lockdown, gaining 800 million followers worldwide in search of some lighthearted instant entertainment.

Subjects

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