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VERA MARKOVA'S TEN HAIKU LESSONS by Anatoly Kudryavitsky

(Poetry Ireland News, November/ December 2006)

Vera Markova, Russian poet and academic, was renowned for her translations from classical Japanese poetry. She began translating tanka and haiku at the end of the 1960s, and less than ten years later published her translations from thirty poets, from Saigyo to Basho to Kobayashi Issa, in the anthology Classical Japanese Poetry, which has since been regularly reprinted in Russia. A very interesting poet in her own right (and a life-long friend of the famous Marina Tsvetayeva) Markova was a fluent Japanese speaker and travelled to Japan twice, on one occasion to receive from Emperor Hirohito an honorary medal commemorating her efforts in promoting Japanese culture abroad.
In her essay entitled ‘Hokku’, published in the afore-mentioned anthology, Prof. Markova analysed Basho’s work, and in the following years used some of the topics highlighted in that essay in her lectures to university students. She taught them to appreciate Japanese tanka and haiku, but also tried to stir up their creativity.
Later, Prof. Markova wrote a short text offering a few suggestions for aspiring haiku writers. She added a few of her favourite quotations from Basho, and at a later stage even included and opinion I gave while discussing the ‘Hokku’ essay with her, making me the third partner in that imaginary conversation, which was most flattering. She rearranged parts of the text, belonging to its three authors, in a manner resembling that of the old Japanese masters of renga, linked verse. Her students used to call the text ‘Vera Markova’s Ten Haiku Lessons’. These ‘Haiku Lessons’ are reprinted here. I should mention that, as some readers may already have guessed, Vera Markova was the person who first introduced me to haiku, and so started me on an exciting and unpredictable journey…

MB – Matsuo Basho / VM – Vera Markova / AK – Anatoly Kudryavitsky

1) Allow your reader to think his way into your haiku. A revelation occurs when your and his thoughts meet at a halfway point. (VM)
2) Watch the River Sunagawa flow: it is not trying to be deep. (MB)
3) Basho enjoyed reading and re-reading classical Chinese poetry, especially Tu Fu. There’s still plenty of water left in that well. (VM)
4) Don’t follow good dead poets but search for what they searched for. (MB)
5) The underlying theme of Basho’s work is compassion. He avoided the grotesque and mockery, and rightly so. (VM)
6) Colour is important in haiku writing, however a ‘monochrome’ haiku can sometimes have even a stronger effect on the reader. (AK)
7) Don’t try to be witty every time you write haiku: numerous ‘comic’ haikai-renga, written over the course of several centuries, are remembered merely because Shiki used the ‘hai’ syllable for the word ‘haiku’ that he invented. And bear in mind that ‘hai’ means ‘joke’ but also ‘surprise, an unusual thing’. (VM)
8) Hokku can’t be assembled from component parts. Poet’s work is similar to that of a goldsmith. (MB)
9) Basho became the great poet Basho only when his hokku reached the state of karumi (a Japanese word meaning ‘lightness, simple beauty’. (VM)
10) Haiku are always set in the present moment. Nevertheless, listen out for history breathing behind our contemporaries’ backs. (VM)

Anatoly Kudryavitsky’s recent titles include Shadow of Time (Goldsmith) and, as editor, A Night in the Nabokov Hotel: 20 Contemporary Poets from Russia (Dedalus press)

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