Shaftoe's haiku

Today I am going to look at the haiku written by Bobby Shaftoe in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, in the original English and in the Japanese translation by Nakahara Naoya 中原尚哉, volume one of which I happened to get hold of the other day.

(Brief note on terminology: It is of course perfectly acceptable for there to be a genre of poetry in English called "haiku" defined "5/7/5 syllable count, no other rules." I have no beef with this idea, but I'm going to discuss Shaftoe's haiku with reference to the classical Japanese conception of a haiku, as this makes for a more interesting and meaningful blog post.)

The first haiku in the novel appears right at the beginning, after epigraphs from Alan Turing and the New York Times, kicking off the action as follows:

Two tires fly. Two wail.
A bamboo grove, all chopped down
From it, warring songs

First, the good. Everything in this haiku is happening right before the author at the time of composition. Strict reliance on immediate perception is often cited as a key rule for haiku, although of course it's not hard to find examples of its having been profitably broken. The "bamboo grove" might be too metaphor-y for some, in this context; me, I'm okay with it.

Next, the bad. This haiku exemplifies the Two Great Evils of English haiku: strict adherence to 5/7/5 syllable structure, and too much information. The two are related: because there is more information, on average, in an English syllable than a Japanese mora, if you insist on 5/7/5 syllables, you end up with more information than can fit in 5/7/5 morae. The result here is that Shaftoe's haiku overflows with imagery. It is a riotous collage rather than a careful juxtaposition. The lingering impression it leaves is not "Ah! How poignant!" but rather "What the hell just happened?"

In Shaftoe's defense, he wrote this haiku "standing on the running board [of a truck teetering on two wheels], gripping his Springfield with one hand and the rearview mirror with the other," but since his main aesthetic concern is syllable-counting ("Is 'tires' one syllable or two? How about 'wail?'") it seems fair to assume that this haiku's flaws derive from Shaftoe's 11-month-old understanding of the art rather than his circumstances, however extenuating the latter. And, indeed, in chapter 3 we learn that although Shaftoe learned about haiku from a real-live Japanese person, Goto Dengo, "as far as he could tell" it was about counting syllables and nothing else.

Anyway. How does Nakahara translate Shaftoe's book-opening haiku?

片輪泣く 竹林倒れ競う歌
Katawa naku/ chikurin taore/ kisou uta
Half of the wheels cry/ The bamboo grove fallen/ Competing songs

Notice how much has been shaved off getting it into 17 morae — and it's still too busy. Those three images should be whittled back to two. I would remove the katawa naku bit, since it superimposes the author too vividly into the scene. The jostling forest of bamboo sticks and singing money-porters is more than enough.

(Brief note on katawa: Normally, this would mean "one wheel," because it dates from the age when kuruma meant "rickshaw" rather than "automobile." Back then, one wheel was half of the wheels. I've translated it more abstractly here because we are talking about a four-wheeled truck. Also note that the word is also used metaphorically to describe a person with a physical disability, roughly equivalent to "crippled" and considered quite offensive now.)

Enough of this novel-opening haiku. Let us return to the beginning of Shaftoe's haiku-writing career, December 1940, when he composed "a quick and dirty adaptation of the Marine Creed":

This is my rifle
There are many like it but
This rifle is mine.

Nakahara sez:

おれの銃 似たものあれど おれの銃
Ore no jū/ nita mono aredo/ ore no jū
My gun/ Others like it though there be/ My gun

This is so far outside standard haiku aesthetics that it's almost in again, like Eric Dolphy. I mean, talk about immediacy of perception. I feel that Nakahara could have tried more to capture the subtle shift from "this is my rifle" to "this rifle is mine," but a good solution eludes me. (Again, I blame this on syllables-vs-morae.)

Shaftoe's second haiku was more ambitious, although he himself "cringes" when he remembers it:

Antenna searches
Retriever's nose in the wind
Ether's far secrets

Too many ideas stuffed in here, too, but the comparison of an antenna to a snuffling dog is interesting, if more senryū than haiku. Nakahara renders it thus:

アンテナや 秘密かぎとる犬の鼻
Antena ya/ himitsu kagitoru/ inu no hana
The antenna!/ A secret-sniffing/ dog's nose

"Wind," "ether," and "searches" all had to go, but the core image is retained. Note that Nakahara indulges in ya, a traditional "cutting word" used to delineate intra-haiku structure.

One more, this from much later in Shaftoe's career.

Manila's perfume
Fanned by the coconut palms
The thighs of Glory

(Glory is Shaftoe's lover.) Obviously traditional haiku criticism would have very harsh things to say about the sudden dip into vulgarity at the end. Even for a senryū this would be pretty edgy. Glory's thighs are also problematic because they represent an intrusion from Shaftoe's imagination on what is actually there. I do like the interlocking processions of ideas, although the coconuts-and-perfume imagery for Manila is cliched.

I was curious to see if Nakahara would retain her name, because it would take up a whole line transliterated into Japanese, but no:

椰子から吹く女の匂い マニラの香
Yashi kara fuku/ onna no nioi/ Manira no ka
Blown from the palm trees/ the smell of women/ Manila's perfume

Shaftoe's thighs of Glory have become much more generic though no less crude. This is a net loss, although probably unavoidable.

tl;dr: Shaftoe's haiku are carefully crafted to stuff in maximum information. This increases their vividness and therefore their utility as storytelling tools, but affects their quality qua classical, Japanese-style haiku. It also presents intriguing and difficult challenges to the translator, which depending on your point of view might actually be a benefit.

Popularity factor: 20


I am a firm believer that the best way to see haiku is as a setup and a punchline (or vice versa) with a cutting word thrown in for good measure.

Let's see what kind of butchery we can make of this case…

Stephenson's haiku
Surely doomed to go astray:
Heroic attempt.



Hmm. Not enough seasoning and the connection of 英雄 to 英国の男 to Hiro is too weak. Then again "Hiro Protagonist" is pretty exquisitely awful itself.


Carl, that was truly awful.






I really like this critique. Usually your posts like this are pretty far over my head and, while I still get some of it, my very shallow knowledge of the Japanese language and culture keeps me in the dark.

I've always had the curiosity concerning the ease at which haiku come to native Japanese. The two "structures" I've been given for haiku stress either the strict syllable count or the spontaneity. While I'll work with wording a bit, I never bother to count syllables and just go with what seems balanced, but I never try to contrive haiku, I just kinda let the moment speak to me.

Do you have any suggested references in English (about Japanese) that discuss the formal aesthetics/rules of haiku along the lines of your "good" and "bad"? Your points coincide with my sense of what's what, but it would be nice to explore what traditionally makes for good haiku.


p.s. although I can't find it any more, I really enjoyed your post about Taneda Santoka.


ぐろりの匂い should have worked?


Kevin: Don't worry, good haiku don't come easy to native Japanese speakers either. I guess "The Haiku Handbook" (Higginson et al) is the standard intro text nowadays. Henderson and Blyth are also interesting.

There are a lot of essays online, too: Donna Ferrel's, Jane Reichhold's on technique, George Swede's short and opinionated piece on why the imagists were doing it wrong, the British Haiku Society's two pence... "2/3/2 stressed syllables, content 'rules' basically in Japanese, but with less emphasis on seasonal words because we don't have that tradition in English" has always felt like a good compromise to me.

Carl: Setup and punchline works for me too, except they're supposed to be poignant instead of funny.

Amida: Interesting! I was toying with "kore wa ore" (or vice versa).

minus273: Shouldn't it be グローリー or at least グローリ though? (I guess lengthened vowels would be admissable jiamari.)


Hey, when did using katakana for foreign words happen anyway? Is that another blame it on Fukuzawa thing?


Official Japanese-language documents of Imperial Japan (from the Meiji era) were written in kanji and katakana, so Fukuzawa was too early to restrict katakana to foreign words. I think that must be a postwar development.

This reminds me of a stirring poem I learned in basic training:

This is my rifle,
This is my gun.
This is for fighting,
This is for fun.

Each instance of This was alternately accompanied by motion of one hand holding one's weapon and the other holding one's crotch. ABCB rhyme scheme, 5-4-5-4 syllable counts, sorta dactylic-trochaic meter.


I seem to remember the volume of haiku by Richard Wright included in the back essay matter some formal critique in the Japanese vein--the idea being that he was close enough to the tradition that you could hit it for how close or far it was from the standard ideals.

language hat:

That Swede piece is... bizarre. He's looking at the history of modern English poetry through the lens of haiku, which is fine, except that he acts as if everybody were trying to write haiku and failing.

"However, this haiku has the same problem as Pound's Ts'ai Chi'h -- it is too wordy. In sum, while the Imagists saw the haiku as a model for their aspirations, they wrote pieces that were either too metaphorical or too wordy and usually both."

Too metaphorical or too wordy for haiku, which they were not trying to write!


Thanks for the links. I'll explore them slowly. The only book I have is "The Haiku Anthology" edted by Cor van den Heuvel which I literally had to wipe the dust off to read the title.

I wasn't sure if a comparable analogue would be the ease at which English speakers can rhyme words.

Also, I'm under the impression that you don't mix readings of kanji inside of a sentence (on vs. kun). Do these get played with to fit the 17 morae issue, or is this something different?


LH: But he's not attacking the imagists themselves, just (possibly fictional) critics who labeled their poetry "haiku" after the fact. e.g. "Pound's famous In A Station Of The Metro is often described as a haiku by persons with only a tenuous knowledge of the form..."

The talk about poems "failing" and having "problems" is relatively meant, and I think this is clear enough. He says in a couple of places, in effect, "this is a good short English poem, but a failure if considered as a haiku."

Kevin: Rhyming is actually a good analogy. Most English speakers could whack out some ballad-form verse rhyming "moon" and "June," but it takes much more practice and effort to transcend the doggerel stage. Same with haiku, mutatis mutandis.

And no, you can mix on and kun inside a sentence. You can mix them inside a word! Kanzume (缶詰, "canned"), Ichizuke (位置づけ, "positioning"), etc... I suspect though that if you found yourself using the Chinese reading of a character to save some morae, you'd probably already be straining too hard.

Carl: I've been trying to figure that out myself, with limited success.

Joel: I never got that rhyme. Who calls their penis their "gun"?!

MMS: Something like this? Actually, that's a great link either way, thanks for the search-impetus.


The purpose of the rifle/gun doggerel was to break the civilian habit of referring to rifles as guns, which latter term is reserved for larger crew-served weapons. (Perhaps on a Navy aircraft carrier, "Top Gun" could refer to a larger, crew-served dick!)


Haiku the News

language hat:

"Who calls their penis their 'gun'?!"

From the Historical Dictionary of American Slang:

gun n. 1. the penis. See also get (one's) gun off, below.

*1675 in Duffett Burlesque Plays 83: [She] storms the Fort in private with a Leathern Gun [i.e., masturbates with a dildo]. *1699 in Burford Bawdy Verse 196: Poor Whores may be Nuns/Since Men turn their Guns/And vent on each other their passion. 1907 S.E. White Ariz. Nights 201: For that gun it shoots high,/And that gun it shoots low,/And it wabbles about/Like a bucking bronco! 1916 Cary Venery I 119: Gun—The penis. [...] 1938 in Randolph Pissing in Snow 11: She give several loud yells too, but the fellow stayed right in there until his gun went off. [...] 1962-63 in Giallombardo Soc. of Women 204: Gun. The penis; to have sexual intercourse. [...] 1992 Jernigan Tin Can Men 91: His gun was showing.

(Many cites omitted, but you get the idea.)


No, I want more cites! Preferably from Green's new dictionary.

Joel: I see, that does actually make sense.


Forgive me for jumping in again, but you keep hitting my sweet spots, Matt --

'Haiku' as an English language (or non-Japanese) genre is in itself a highly derivative semblance of the classical form. (So is true for a lot of contemporary Japanese haiku that isn't trying to get onto a bottle of Itoen). I think the very same questions come up as, re:, Western zen. Since we're discussing a genre, rather than a more adaptable belief system, I think I can be a little more hardnosed about the rules.
But I think some similar processes of trivialisation and misinformation are at work.

I'm sure you've seen Kawamoto Kôji's 'Nihon shiika to dentô' which is now in an English version. Haven't read it yet, but a book just came out on 'American haiku' by . . . name escapes me . . . I'm not sure how much he deals with genre-in-translation or 'american haiku' as a distinctive stylistic in its own right.

I wasn't fond of Abigail's 'Haiku Apprentice' autobiography, although it did a lot to show Western readers that haiku require more complex mechanics than usually assumed.

I'm a rude interloper--excuse me.


Brilliant post.

"but with less emphasis on seasonal words because we don't have that tradition in English"

I'm bringing this up the next time the infamous 'four seasons' debate comes up on the blogs.

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