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A Hundred Gourds 5:3 June 2016

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The President's Haiku: A Commentary on a Haiku by U.S. President Barack Obama


by David McMurray


Although poets have composed haiku about several presidents, U.S. President Barack Obama declared, “I am sure that I am the first President ever to recite a haiku at a state dinner.” In a toast to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from an eagle-shaped lectern at the East Room of the White House April 28, 2015 in Washington, DC he said: “Today I’m going to attempt a haiku” (AP, 2015) and uttered:

Spring green in friendship
United States and Japan
Nagoyaka ni

Strikingly, this mixed-language haiku contains vocabulary borrowed from the Japanese language meaning a harmonious feeling. The author diplomatically chose to share the foreign language and a season word over 3 lines in 17-syllable form to not only welcome but to accord with his guest’s expectations. The third line could have been rendered in English as “harmony feeling” to maintain its desired 5-7-5 syllables and the reference to spring green is a seasonal reference, an acceptable kigo in Japan.

In Japan the president’s haiku has been praised and republished in various media but at a Haiku North America conference, Kolodji (2015) spoke on ‘Understanding the Larger Pond: Haiku in the Mainstream Poetry Community’, noting in her abstract, “Haiku has been appearing more frequently in the mainstream, from President Obama’s ‘haiku’ . . . ” (her emphasis with single quotation marks served to qualify his haiku as not being a real haiku, according to the standards of the attendees, perhaps) and she raised a doubt in the mind with the queries, “How is haiku perceived outside of the haiku community? What can we do to change it?”

Two thoughts arise about this: first, since haiku are now published in 56 languages, with some flexibility in thinking by language mavens who abhor borrowing terms, perhaps international haiku can begin exploring how to embed words from other languages; second, since haiku is a genre of communication which diverse peoples can understand and use to welcome each other even via haiku that mix languages, perhaps such international haiku could be useful for building world peace?






References:

Associated Press. (2016, April 28). State dinner fare: Haiku, R&B and chopsticks. CBS News.

Koloji, D. (2015, September). Understanding the Larger Pond: Haiku in the Mainstream Poetry Community. Haiku North America Blog. Retrieved from haikunorthamerica.com.

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