Essay on writing tanka on truth & lies
A chapter in a fanfiction reminded me of an old philosophical point about contradictions and tautologies—that they imply everything else. Lawful systems stand and fall as a whole; you cannot magically suppress fire without suppressing cellular respiration and human life. And so, in some sense, all our actions result in consequences that could one day by examined and tracked back to their unique sources (chaos be damned).
Thinking this, and looking into the falling snow, I thought through a haiku (5-7-5):
Every lie or truth remains under all snow---if we can but find it
"Every shrub, every tree - if one has not forgotten where they were planted - has beneath the fallen snow some vestige of its form."
A very nice waka; truly conveying a sad mood but with appreciation of the beauty of winter and the hope of spring. If one must copy, copy the best.
But the haiku needs work. The first line is solid: the rhythm of ‘lie and truth’ works better than ‘truth or lie’, and it meets its 5-syllable count with aplomb. The second line is awkward, even if you ignore the enjambment. ‘All snow’ may convey a sense that nothing is irretrievable, which is an appropriate sentiment, but sounds odd enough that it breaks the flow. Expanding it would let us be less gnomic and keep each line separate, but we daren’t touch the perfect first line. Let’s try this expanded waka (5-7-5-7-6):
Every lie or truth, that we humans ever say, remains for to find under time's covering and silent embraces
In line 3, the intention is ‘remains for us to find’, but that blows the 5-syllable count; ‘for to find’ is actually valid English, but it’s archaic or British dialectical (if one looks in Google Books, Edmund Spenser comes up as a user of that phrase lo those many centuries ago). It’s curious, but such linguistic oddities are par for the course in poetry, so perhaps it’s not a flaw. The more I read it, the more charm it has for me in a sort of wabi-sabi way, which is appropriate for the verse-form. (It was suggested that it be rewritten as ‘remains here to find’ or ‘remains there to find’, but in a way, no ‘here’ or ‘there’ has been specified for the lies & truths to reside within, and we do want to keep a distinction between the speaker/addressed and the snowbanks of time—“the past is a foreign country”2, after all.)
‘human’ is fairly rare in poems, because usually you can come up with a better phrase. In this case, we’re stuck. We could switch to ‘man’ or ‘men’ and that would let us stick in a short adjective like ‘warm’:
Every lie or truth, that we warm men ever say, remains for to find under time's covering and silent embraces
But to me, that seems like a narrowing of scope that isn’t in line with the universal sentiments. Why men? Are women grown honest? The synonym ‘people’ sounds even worse than ‘humans’:
Every lie or truth, that we people ever say, remains for to find under time's covering and silent embraces
Pronouns aside, there are two problems here.
The metaphor for time is not clear. We know that the idea is the past is cold, and the further in the past, the colder and more frozen the lies & truths (this is not a new metaphor; consider the phrase cold case). It’s a good metaphor, since you can still dig things out of the snow, and things return when the snow melts (this is why Shōtetsu, a Zen Buddhist, uses the imagery after all). But time doesn’t instantly suggest it—the ‘covering’ could just be a blanket or something.
We lost our most important line—the punchline, if you will. It’s a double-edged sword, one that can reassure or disquiet: the truth is out there. Darst you find it?3 We try again (5-7-5-7-7):
Every lie or truth that we humans ever say remains for to find in Time's snowy embraces - if we will but look for them
A little more explicit about the metaphor: ‘snowy’ is pretty much a winter word if ever there was one, and we capitalize Time to make the hypostatization clearer.
Sometimes you have to give up; I have a nice haiku which I have thought a great deal about but have been entirely unable to make it a full 5-7-5 haiku4. But fortunately, we’re not done. Around here, it occurred to me that line 2 did have a redundant word: ‘that’. It makes as much sense to write ‘Every lie or truth / we humans ever say’ as it did to write ‘Every lie or truth / that we humans ever say’; freeing up a syllable then suggests we spend it on more interesting pronouns, which leads to:
Every lie or truth you or I will ever say remains for to find in Time's snowy embraces - if we will but look for them
This is a very nice change, because it eliminates the whole debate over ‘we humans’, makes the poem simultaneously intimate (it’s just you and me, buckaroo) and universal (the speaker could be anyone, and likewise the addressed), renders the poem less harshly judgmental of its readers (I too am guilty of not seeking all truths and destroying all lies), and smuggles in variety.
The meaning is still somewhat obscure overall thanks to the last line. Perhaps we ought to go with a more conventional visual description: ‘darksome’? ‘cloudy’? ‘obscure’? Or perhaps the last line is too limp and abstract—‘if we will but dig for them’? ‘If we scratch the dirt’? Perhaps that is too concrete. ‘If we exhume them’ smacks of the grave and doesn’t go well with the ice/snow imagery. There aren’t many verbs that deal specifically with ice & snow; ‘melt’ is a good one, but ‘if we will but melt them’? No no, perhaps ‘if we will melt the ice’, and then tweak the ‘snowy’ to another 2-syllable word like ‘icy’ or ‘freezing’:
Every lie or truth you or I will ever say remain for to find in Time's icy embrace - if we will but melt the ice
The repetition of ‘icy’/‘ice’ doesn’t work for me. Even if we move ‘icy’ even further away, it still sounds odd:
Every lie or truth you or I will ever say remain for to find in icy Time's embrace - if we will but melt the ice
(And no, the old poetic standby ‘rimy’ is even worse. We must give up on ‘snowy’ and ‘icy’.)
Every lie or truth you or I will ever say remain for to find in Time's freezing embraces - if we will but melt the ice
#123 in Unforgotten Dreams: Poems by the Zen monk Shōtetsu; trans. Steven D. Carter, ISBN 0-231-10576-2↩︎
From Learning History in America by Lloyd S. Kramer, Donald Reid, William L. Barney; pg 145:
"For we can always see and feel much that the people in old photos and newsreels could not: that their clothing and automobiles were old-fashioned, that their landscape lacked skyscrapers and other contemporary buildings, that their world was black and white and haunting and gone."
from “Producing the Superknowledges”, Christine Hartzler:
"The lake steams as if its floor is furious coal. Dredge it and see. But who is brave enough to know a difficult thing? To look for ghosts?"
The poem uses the stock phrase ‘floating world’ as a reference to the ephemeral transitory real world of mujo which evokes the feeling of mono no aware; often this general concept is linked with the idea that one ought to cut all ties with worldly things, take holy orders, and pursue Buddhist salvation. The best version of my haiku runs:
I know this world is only the floating world, but even so, even so...
The 5-7-6 count can be fixed with an English trick like e’en:
I know that this world is only the floating world but e'en so, e'en so...
This strikes me as unnatural and appalling. The problem is that “even so” has 3 syllables and the phrase has to be used twice, the entire wistful affect of the poem depends on this repetition. So what can one do? I suppose one could try to write it in waka form instead and use the line “but even so, even so” as one of the 7-syllable lines—but then how does one fill the spare 5-syllable and 7-syllable lines? The poem is not a ‘big’ thought which needs an entire waka. There must be some construction which works; the final line would be fine as ‘and yet, and yet…’, but then we have the opposite problem of too few syllables (4 rather than 5).
Patrick Stevens suggests biting the bullet of asymmetry and using a final line like “and yet I… and yet…” The rhythm strikes me as a bit off, and it might work better reversed: “and yet… and yet I…” (The asymmetry itself is actually a bit helpful here, as it heightens the sense of uncertainty as the speaker struggles for the right wording and varies the phrase—ironically, just as I struggle for the right wording!) Maybe a combination like “and yet… even so…”?
Possibly we should abandon “even so”; it may not be the uniquely ideal phrase, and there may be other ways to get the sense of disagreement & contradiction, for example, “still”: “and yet I… still, still!”
The frustrating thing is that this haiku apparently works fine in other languages: Papermachine translates it into Japanese as “kono sekai wa / ukiyo, wakaru ne / mata, dattara…”, and adds that while it really needs a fourth line, it sort of works in Mandarin as well: “这是浮世／尽管知道／不能逃脱”.↩︎