encouragement without encouragement

   bald and white-haired hills
     lie in utter peace to watch
       our umbrellas dance

The example above is not held out as perfect haiku, but it did win a competition. Why? The task set was to draw inspiration from a situation described by someone looking out from a town window, two or three storeys up, during a localised rainstorm. In the distance were two hills, one of which was topped in snow, one of which was bare but caught in a shaft of sunlight. Below the window the hurrying crowd reacted to this mobile weather by unfurling umbrellas and dodging round each other.

This haiku was the only one in the competition to reverse the point of observation and make the hills the onlookers. Simple anthropomorphism? Maybe, and you could argue that haiku does not make use of poetic devices. But in using this device the haijin instantly created a little moment of surprise and in doing so expressed the ‘real’ onlooker’s reaction to the transient scene. The English of the piece is, perhaps, wordy; it adheres strictly to seventeen syllables in lines arranged 5-7-5 but does so with a flow. How many readings of this haiku does it take before the reader is aware that its metrical structure is precise? Each line has exactly the same rhythm (apart from an extra iamb in the middle line) suggesting a natural balance, an order within the flow, a choreography within the dance. Yet there is a deliberate grammatical ambiguity in the way that the second line moves into the third which mists the observation in contrast to the structural regularity; are the hills simply watching and the umbrellas coincidentally dancing or are the hills specifically watching the umbrellas? The whole has discipline and spontaneity, and thus illustrates the tension that exists between permanence and transience.


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