From Hardy to Haiku: A Friendly Exchange

Stephen (Tito) and I lately had an exchange via e-mail that may be of interest to readers of the Icebox. I sent him a favorite short poem of mine by his countryman Thomas Hardy. Hardy is better known in Japan as a novelist. But in fact he wrote some of the best poetry we have in English from the early part of the 20th century. (Hardy died in 1928.) In this poem, Hardy “updates,” or echoes, a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible (Job 14:14): “If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.” I say that Hardy “updates” the Old Testament text because he alludes to it in full awareness of what modern science had revealed: that even the stars have life cycles and die; in short, that everything is mortal––in heaven as on earth. Stephen then rewrote Hardy’s poem as a haiku, reproduced here below the original. I especially like the way Stephen catches the nuance of Hardy’s “For all I know” in the second line of his haiku: “we shrug our shoulders.” One final point of interest: the noun “change” used to mean (among other things) “The passing from life; death.” That sense of the word itself passed out of use––or met its own “change”––in the mid 19th century. Thomas Hardy is reviving its older sense, if I may put it that way with mild irony.

Waiting Both”  (Thomas Hardy)

A star looks down at me,
And says: “Here I and you
Stand each in our degree:
What do you mean to do,—
Mean to do?”

I say: “For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come.”—”Just so,
The star says: “So mean I:—
So mean I.”

Tito’s fine rendition of the poem in haiku:

the star & I ––
we shrug our shoulders,
let time go by

3 responses to “From Hardy to Haiku: A Friendly Exchange

  1. Thanks for this, Mark. It’s important to bring poetry and haiku together whenever we can. Haiku has indeed a home in the supercontinent of poetry and is not an island unto itself. As if to bear this out, did you know that Thomas Hardy himself (along with W.B. Yeats and haiku poet Yone Noguchi) was a founding member of the ‘Ayame Society’ (ayame is a Japanese word for iris), formed in London “to establish a garden where the poetic flowers of East and West compete in their fragrances”? Noguchi was said to have “brought silence to the West.” He said himself: “I think the crusade of Western poetry should begin with the first act of leaving ‘words’ behind.” That, I suppose, is what I tried to do with Hardy’s poem. Perhaps this could be the first of a series in which you post relatively short gems of Western poetry soliciting haiku versions as comments?! Whatever …

  2. Thanks, Stephen. I didn’t know Hardy was a member of the Ayame Society (I didn’t even know of the society). But I’m not surprised. Hardy, after all, drew the right conclusions from Darwin about human brotherhood, East, West, South, & North–notwithstanding that these conclusions undermined certain assumptions upon which the British & other European Empires were based. Here Hardy is in a late poem:

    The wind blew words along the skies,
    And these it blew to me
    Through the wide dusk: “Lift up your eyes,
    Behold this troubled tree,
    Complaining as it sways and plies;
    It is a limb of thee.

    “Yea, too, the creatures sheltering round––
    Dumb figures, wild and tame,
    Yea, too, thy fellows who abound––
    Either of speech the same
    Or far and strange––black, dwarfed, and browned,
    They are stuff of thy own frame.”

    I like your idea, by the way, about occasionally posting short Western poems for what inspiration they may offer to the haiku poets here assembled. And wouldn’t that be in the spirit of the Ayame Society anyway?

    I already have a few short poems in mind (by Dickinson & Frost) w/ a view toward our autumn leaf-viewing season here in Kyoto. I think they may provoke us; they always do me. –Mark

  3. I am also very fond of Hardy as a poet because he is always very honest, avoiding garnishment. He is also very precise in his desciptions, a feature a haiku poet should also possess. I am not so sure, though, whether I like his philosophy, the so-called Darwminism. I understand his effort to be honest in his philosophy, questioning the traditonal Christian beliefs. However, any kind of philosphy is artificial in the sense that it cannot be formulated without curtailoing some aspects of reality. Therefore, I should like to leave a margin of mystery in my own thinking, favouring what Coleridge called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’. I think this habit of mind is also necessary for a haiku poet.
    Hardy has a poem called ‘Drawing Details in an Old Chruch’, in which hearing the funeral bell, he says ‘I ask not whom it tolls for’, suggestion that he and the dead man has little in common. This line should be read against the famous words of John Donne in his Devotions; ‘I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.’ If you say, Donne’s belief in the unity of Mankind is an illusion, you will have to say that by the same token, Hardy’s Darwinism is also an illusion. I believe, therefore, whatever philosophy a haiku poet may have, he should not state it, but only hint at it, leaving a margin of mystery. Here is my haiku baed on Hardy’s poem and Donne’s words:
    Copying church details,
    I hear a sudden toll which sinks
    Slowly into my soul.