It is difficult to write good haiku. Especially a volume of it. Nonetheless, the poet Béla Markó has published three haiku collections—the latest, Grass Blade on the Rock, consists of ninety-nine poems—in addition to numerous other works of poetry and prose. In one of his personal dedications, he refers to haiku’s three lines as morsels of verse. Today, in an era of clipped writings, when newspaper editors and internet authors opt for brevity, citing readers’ limited attention spans, we might say that Markó has discovered a modern genre: that through haiku, which can be quickly written, quickly read, digested, and forgotten, he tries to reach the masses. Yet such a judgment would be hasty and faulty—and it is not the first association that people draw between haiku writing and reading.
Granted, Japanese haiku, with its seventeen-syllable, 5-7-5 line pattern, is one of the shortest forms of bound verse—often called “formal verse” in English—in use over the past thousand years.i But such information does not suffice for the study and assessment of haiku as a form and genre, by either the author or the reader. The form stands out both for its constraint and for the possibility, through its compression, of nearly infinite expansion of interpretability. “Infinite” in this case refers to the manifoldness of readers’ associations, which the author cannot always know. If there are creations that quickly break off from their maker, then those within haiku exist as entities unto themselves, independent of the moment of their birth. Their arrangement within a volume opens up yet another terrain of interpretation. That is, the poems have an effect on each other. Some fortify, others negate or contradict each other. The systems of relationships within a volume grow rigid when viewed through a particular moment of the author’s intention, but as soon as the verses are rearranged by the reader’s caprice (through reading), new associations and interpretations are born.
Markó—a writer of Hungarian origin living in Romania, and one of today’s most highly respected Hungarian writers—often chooses bound verse over free verse. He is at home as he moves through the forms. It seems that he does not identify the constraint with head-to-foot binding; rather, he sees it as a challenge with which the master has to wrestle if he knows his craft well. In his 2014 haiku volume, which evokes said literary form even in appearance—two alternating colors, black-and-white photographs at the start of each chapter—each of its poems follows the 5-7-5 syllable layout, while at the same time filling the traditional Japanese haiku themes with new, personal substance.
The volume’s subject matter is organized around the four ancient elements. The chapter titles are, in order, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. According to Aristotelian science, the world was built of mixtures of these elements, in varying proportions. Even today the poet evokes them with pleasure, because true knowledge and experience of the world can be universally expressed and described in terms of their attributes and interactions. The Japanese haiku of olden times could be decoded only by those who knew the culture and religion well. These poems, with their tightly ordered symbol system, could be approached only by a reader with proper education and a sharp ear. Poets often quoted each other in haiku, altering only one word, through which they not only twisted the substance of the original, but also gave it a new interpretation, which only the “connoisseurs” truly appreciated. In contrast, Markó’s ancient allusions open the poems to all readers and listeners. At the same time, just as in classical Japanese haiku, these allusions grow in meaning over the course of the volume, as the reader comes to know them.
In his striving for true universality, Markó alludes to antiquity, a world before monotheism, when many divinities coexisted in one faith. In our multicultural world, the four primary elements and the qualities they represent can be understood by everyone, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, or atheist. To some degree the chapters, from the gaseous Air to the more compressed Earth, arrange the elements in a gradated sequence, according to which the haikus’ colors and moods take shape, moving from the bright into the gloomy and morose. One could even regard the seasons, rather than the elements, as the author’s organizing principle, as one finds in classical Japanese haiku calendars. The haikus with the lightest tone, in the Air cycle, make reference to the spring: “moving-rising, all / sap: in secret conference / hell and paradise” (“Flower Blooming”); “far away the rocks / or rather grey clouds but well, / it is all the same” (“Air”). The Fire poems depict glowing-hot summer: “left without water / a riverbed in the light / lies unprotected” (“The Deep”); “sunlight pours on it / still the shadow keeps a hold / on the falling tree” (“Pillars”). Meanwhile, in the midst of this same haiku cycle, we find hints of autumn: “richer and richer / the foliage: from the tree / a smile has been mined” (“Colors”); or the final one: “girl in a sweater / wind sweeps all the garden through / as the plum ripens” (“Everything”). Markó associates the fall with water: “still more cautiously / the morning sun lifts itself / clouds follow behind” (“Autumn Light”). Like the poems with a sea theme, the ones with an autumn background can make a deep impression with their nuanced shades: “shredded into bits / paper flies over water / seagulls made of white” (“L’art pour l’art”). And the last chapter, Earth, the hardest in substance and theme, reveals its essence in the bare, dead region of winter: “the soul flies above / and in complete beauty the / body can be seen” (“Mist”).
In Markó’s haiku, the title is an integral part of the poetic image. Without it, the suggested content would change. In the latter poem, from the word mist alone, one can know that a dead body, showing its purely material aspect, projects onto a winter region. This poem is the seed of the volume, the weighty reason for its birth. In the twilight of life, visions of images representing a true encounter with death accumulate unnoticed, like the number of haiku poems on this theme in the last chapter: “amid yesterday’s / foliage a sparrow flies / easy death awaits” (“Comfort”); “the laburnum bush / will reopen by and by / but does not know this” (“Earth”).
The four chapters guide the reader through the four elements and four seasons, and, in parallel with these, through adjustable, gradient human life. Béla Markó’s terse lyric summary lets us glimpse the essence of human existence in its limitless depth, while articulating moments of existential fear. Each verse is a sigh released toward the heavens, as though spoken only in private. These series of poems do not seek to hammer their own truth. They line up airily on the white paper, on the pages of ever-increasing number, and thus together, in black and white, they confront us with their ever-increasing days, which, like the pages themselves, are numbered.
At the same time, other themes return, always altering slightly, to the picture that the first haiku sketches. Allowing momentary feelings, this relationship gives shades, for instance, to the love felt for a beloved. The first message speaks only generally of love; the feeling itself is defined in a metaphysical manner: “by means of our mouths / God will taste what he has brought / forth into the world” (“On Love”). In the next one, the feeling has already found an object, and it reports on this newborn connection: “we clasp each other / if a shadow follows me / you beware of it” (“Agreement”), and later the sketch of bodily love, cast down on paper, appears: “first I flow across / then contract and then again / the body itself” (“Still Not”). But the facing page speaks with a voice of passion that has accommodated itself to the weekday: “flour or sugar / bath salt clippers or polish / and me now and then” (“Hand”). One of the last haikus, which also broods over death, projects the possible end of the relationship: “we just came here hand / in hand but the place is tight / i must go ahead” (“Order”).
Another ambivalent love relationship, this time with the homeland, is reflected in a series of tiny splinter-verses. The first one echoes the most characteristic line of Szózat: “kestrel on a branch / cameras watch all the field / you must live-and-die” (“On Homeland”). Three lines illustrating a grammatical twist discuss logical reasons for the impossibility of arrival: “my homeland always / anywhere but where i am / has to ask: which way?” (“Grammar”).
The question of creation, of art also arises as a subject of the poems (a haiku definition within haiku), if one takes the lyric play metaphorically: “minuscule black seed / on a sheet of paper; this / might be a haiku” (“Poetics”). According to a possible interpretation, the poems, like seeds, can find in the reader a proper breeding ground, where, starting as sprouts, they shoot up into stalks, so that the host can taste and enjoy their fruits. This interpretation seems to be supported by the haiku titled “Book,” according to which “out of being read / a story begins to grow / out of rainfall, grass.” So it becomes clear that the blade of grass featured in the book’s title symbolizes the essence of creation. The sight of a fragile, ephemeral blade in a crack in a rock is such an elemental, joyous experience that it appears as the poet’s imprint, the opening of the volume: “grass blade on the rock / all the same is there a crack / in eternity?” (“Crack”). This is a keynote speech. The divine act will find followers among mortals; the poet’s task is to repeat the miracle. To bring something into existence, with the power of art, in such a way that it shows others (alongside many uncertainties, fallibilities, sufferings) the magnificence of life.
In this Béla Markó has succeeded.
The original essay, “Repedés az örökléten?” (Markó Béla: Fűszál a sziklán) was published in the Spring 2015 issue of the literary magazine ESŐ. The haiku poems quoted in this essay appear in Béla Markó’s collection Fűszal a sziklán: 99 haiku (Csíkszereda/Miercurea Ciuc, Romania: Bookart, 2014).
Marianna Fekete (born 1968 in Nyíregyháza, Hungary) is a literary critic, educator, and member of the editorial committee of the literary magazine ESŐ. Over the past ten years, her writings on Hungarian contemporary writers’ works have appeared in literary magazines such as ESŐ, Bárka, Tiszatáj, Spanyolnátha, and Kortárs.
i# Although the more common term in English is “formal verse,” the author and translator chose to preserve the Hungarian sense of “bound verse,” since it conveys the intended meaning more clearly: bound verse is not necessarily more formal than other verse, but it is confined to a particular form.
Diana Senechal (pictured) is the author of Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies (2018) and Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (2012). Her translations of the poetry of Tomas Venclova are featured in his books Winter Dialogue (1997) and The Junction (2008). A member of the ALSCW Council and a Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, she teaches at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. In addition to teaching, writing, and translating, she serves in a cantorial role at the synagogue Szim Salom in Budapest, plays the cello, memorizes poems in various languages, and takes long bike rides through the Hungarian plains and hills.