Writing a haiku in German - often a tight squeeze

Cologne, Germany  - The ladies who meet regularly in a museum cafe in Cologne skip the gossip and get straight down to haiku, an ultra-brief poetry style that has spread from Japan around the globe.

Cologne's haiku workshop, held at the Museum of East Asian Art, often has up to 10 amateurs eager to read their latest poetry in German, a language of long words where it can often be a squeeze to distill an idea into such brief poem.

Traditional Japanese haikus are supposed to be composed of just 17 syllables, "as short as a single breath," arranged in three lines and including a "kigo:" some word suggesting a season of the year.

A haiku does not rhyme or have a special intonation pattern like poetry in other traditions.

A typical haiku by classic author Issa is rendered in English as: my dear old village / every memory of home / pierces like a thorn.

Every child in Japan knows the centuries-old syllable pattern of 5-7-5, and writing haikus is a popular pastime.

In other languages which have caught the haiku bug, the rules are often looser but the spirit remains.

"A haiku is a seasonal poem that does not describe the poet's own feelings but a mood, based on something seen in nature," explains Martin Berner, chairman of the Frankfurt-based German Haiku Society.

"In German, you can't get as much content into 17 syllables as you might in English," he said, referring to the many multi-syllabic words of German.

German haiku poets were split as to whether to preserve the strict 17-syllable pattern or give themselves greater artistic licence.

Berner supports a liberal approach to both content and form, so as give German haiku poets the maximum creative scope.

"Spoken German has a strong intonation pattern that is not found in Japanese at all. But despite all that, German suits haiku-writing very well," he affirmed. Berner's group aims to establish a native haiku tradition in the German-speaking world.

"Interest is growing fast in Germany, because the haiku suits the times we live in: it's brief and looks for meaning in small things."

A haiku often suggests how things fade away like the seasons, drawing attention to fleeting moments like insects flying over ponds or a rose petal falling on snow. But making up oriental touches for German haikus is a practice that Berner frowns on.

There are now haiku circles in several German cities, and a multitude have been published in German on the internet along with mutual criticism and advice on how to write a good haiku.

Lore Tomalla, 76, who founded the circle that meets in Cologne, has published several books of the little poems and sells them through the museum shop or at small, owner-operated bookstores.

She says several of her members are enthusiastic orientalists. Some even wanted the group to wear kimonos at the meetings.

"Sometimes were all arrive full of enthusiasm, make up joint haikus and spend hours together," said Tomalla.

"And there are other times when we just don't get on: we're glad to see the backs of one another.

"Some of them fiddle around for ages over a couple of words, other spout new haikus in quick succession."

Tomalla, whose recent haiku work includes a description of the sun behind a spire of Cologne's great cathedral, is keen to attract more Germans to the art of the haiku.

"You can say an enormous amount in three lines," she said. "You don't have to be Japanese to be skilled with the haiku form. There have been some wonderful German-language haikus which were subsequently translated into Japanese."

According to Berner, there are haiku societies in more than 50 nations round the world. (dpa)

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