Friday, March 6, 2015

To the Lighthouse: A Rhetorical Device, Wordplay

Haiku has humor and there is a delight in word-play and puns and the comic of life.
-- Jane Reichhold,"Another Attempt To Define Haiku," Shiki International Haiku Salon, April 16, 1996

Wordplay is very much in the spirit of haiku, and its purpose is often to alert us to the metaphors implicit in our conversational language, to make familiar phrases seem fresh and new again
 -- Ian Marshall, Walden by Haiku, pp. 153-4

Wordplay (or word play) is a literary technique and a form of wit in which the words that are used become the main subject of the work, primarily for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect.

Take my haiku below for example:

winter fog ...
the dripping faucet
my sole companion

In L3, a play on sole/soul (wordplay in the form of a pun). the dripping faucet/ my “sole companion” not only indicates that the speaker is all alone, but also implies something about the speaker's mood state, which is indicated by the concluding word, “companion.” And evaluated in the thematic and emotional context of Ls 1&2, “sole companion” asks attentive readers, with its pun (soul companion), to ponder what’s behind the speaker’s “foggy” feelings/state of mind.

Selected Haiku:

a sign
at the fork in the road
"fine dining"

moon set
now it's right – how it fits
Half Moon Bay

Jane Reichhold

a new face on TV --
the regular weatherman
under the weather

Michael Dylan Welch


 John Stevenson
(Editor’s Comment: The form (visual one-liner) John adopted goes hand in hand with the play on words, jam-packed/"jampacked")

the rosebushes
up to their hips

Francine Banwarth

(Judge’s Comment: “I like the way the second place poem asks us, with its pun, to look for real intention. Only seven words to suggest that the rosebush is to us, so to speak: we too can get physically and metaphorically “up to our hips”. A rosebush could be in trouble if there is not enough, or too much snow. Too much or too little of anything can be dangerous for us too. Again, so few words to say something perfect”)

Note: Below is a relevant excerpt taken from Robert D. Wilson's "An Interview with Jane Reichhold," which was first published in Simply Haiku, 6:2, Summer 2008:

RW: You write about the Japanese use of "wordplay, hidden meanings, euphemisms and cultural hot words," in the writing of haiku. How do these tools help a reader to achieve a deeper, more enriched understanding of Bashô's poetry?

JR: One of the tests of a haiku is how many levels of meaning it can contain. When the author has such a limited number of words and images, it is a real gift to find a word that conveys several meanings. The writing skill then is needed to make all of them work for the reader. The trick is to take a simple idea and state it simply but yet to have over- and under-tones that release other images in the readers' minds. I am sure, that no matter how much I study Japanese, Japanese culture, and read other's commentary on Bashô's poems, there are levels in his poems that I have not yet understood. It was one of my goals with the book to reveal the hidden levels that I know with both the choice of English words and with the notes. At one point my editor did not want to include the word-for-word translations, but I insisted because I felt that some readers, simply by reading the words not yet put into a poem, could find new connections and leaps that I might have missed. In no way is one person's translation "the best." I feel we need to keep trying to find the most apt English words and this is best done when many people are searching their own inner vocabularies and experiences.

RW: Can an English language haiku poet utilize these tools as well?

JR: Some want to and others do not. Persons who admire Shiki often believe they need only express the haiku in the simplest most common way. Like him they reject all word plays, double meanings and euphemisms. For some poems, and for some time, this works very well. If this is the complete bag of techniques the author has, he or she, and their readers will soon be faced with some boring poems. One of the reasons I am eager for writers to understand the many techniques Bashô used, is so that they have a wide range of methods and ways of expressing their moment of inspiration.

Persons who admire Shiki often believe they need only express the haiku in the simplest most common way. Like him they reject all word plays, double meanings and euphemisms.

Shiki would be increasingly dissatisfied with the haiku composed in his day, but he found it equally difficult to assent to Soseki's insistence on plain and straightforward expression.  A haiku or a tanka without "rhetoric" was likely to be no more  than a brief observation without poetic tension or illumination.

Donald Keene, The Winter Sun Shines in: A Life of Masaoka Shiki, p 57.

For more info., see Shiki's letter to Soseki (dated on Jan. 18, 1890)

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