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The Trembling of the Moment: The Haiku of Federico García Lorca - Paul Chambers

Hai-kais de Felicitación a Mamá


May my heart

be yours.

The moon on the water

and the cherry tree

in flower.


There is a star,

over your house

there is a star


Oh infinite night!


When I was a boy

you would come and go.

When I grew older

you would come and go.


Some day...

you will leap from one star

to another.


Save me

all the laughter you can

in the drawer

of the carving table.



May my tears

be yours,

the ones I cried as a boy

–when I left for Almería.


Save me

those bell strokes

of dawn


These are for you:

rose, carnation

and sesame seed.


Tell Isabelita

to remove these hai-kais

from their lyrical shells.


Enclosed in this hai-kai

is a kiss, freshly


& 10 (ritornello)

May my heart

be yours,

the moon on the water

and the cherry tree

in flower.

Images by permission of the Fundación Federico García Lorca, Madrid

As a student in Madrid during the early 1920s, Federico García Lorca discovered the Japanese haiku, a genre then enjoying growing prominence in Hispanic literary circles. At the same time Lorca discovered the haiku, he was also deeply immersed in his study of the copla, the rural Andalusian folk lyric: a form which “belongs to no one”, which “floats in the wind like golden thistledown”, as he wrote. For Lorca, the catalogue of these primitive lyrics held “the deepest, most moving songs of our mysterious soul”; it was in the voices of the poor, gypsy communities of Andalusia that he traced the roots of this cante jondo, or 'deep song'. It was the lyrical channel through which “all the pain, all the ritual gestures of the race, can escape”.


For Lorca, the appeal of both the haiku and the copla was their power of poetic concentration. In a reaction to what he described as the “overluxuriant lyrical tree” inherited from Romanticism, Lorca developed an appreciation for the ways in which the authors of these forms could “condense all the highest emotional moments of life into a three- or four-line stanza”. New Songs, a poem from Lorca’s first collection, provides an insight into the aspirations he had for his poetry at this time. In the poem, Lorca longs for “a luminous and tranquil song”, “a song to go to the soul of things”, “a song without lyrical flesh”, “a flock of blind doves tossed into mystery.”


The power of the traditional folk lyric also resonated deeply with Matsuo Basho (1644–94), the haiku master. On his journey to the far north of Japan, Basho encountered a rice planting ritual, in which the women of the remote village through which he was travelling began to sing songs as they worked; songs that, Basho observed, had all but been forgotten throughout the rest of the country. Sensing in these songs (much as Lorca did in the songs that poured out of the Gypsy blacksmith forges of Andalusia) a purity of lyric expression, Basho composed the following haiku:


the beginning of art –

a rice planting song

in the backcountry


Several commentators of the 1920s and 30s drew comparisons between the haiku and the copla. In an article published in España in 1920, the poet and critic Enrique Diez-Canedo highlighted similarities in the technical composition of short Japanese poems (the tanka as well as the haiku) and a form of flamenco song known as a seguidilla. Diez-Canedo suggested that “the alternating five- and seven-syllable verses of the seguidilla make the song of our people greatly resemble both classical genres of Japanese poetry”. In his La Copla Andaluza (1936) the Seville-based poet Rafael Cansinos-Asséns argued that “the little Japanese poem called ‘hai-kai’ which is written on a cherry leaf . . . has vivified our copla, which fits nicely onto a cigarette paper”. In this essay, Cansinos-Asséns even went as far as to suggest that the efforts of contemporary Spanish poets in the field of haiku were simply “coplas baptised with an exotic name”, describing their works as “true coplas, light and simple, with no rhetorical ballast, ready to fly away in a flock at the lightest breath of the Zephyr”.


Alongside the aesthetic and lyric potential of an individual poem, Lorca also saw in the haiku the possibilities of the poetic sequence. Haiku has its roots in the allied Japanese tradition of renga, in which groups of poets work collaboratively, each poet alternately contributing an individual verse, to compose a poem on a specific theme. Lorca perceived in the poetic sequence the chance of capturing a particular phenomenon through a series of moments, vignettes, or “etchings” – a technique relatively unexplored in Spanish poetry up until that point. In 1921 he composed this ten-poem haiku sequence, which he dedicated to his mother and sent her as a gift for her birthday.


In a letter to his brother Francisco, in which the haiku sequence was enclosed, Lorca declared that a haiku should “deliver its emotion in two or three verses that sum up the entire emotional state”. However, in his profession in the same letter that “I have a different style of hai-kai”, he allowed for himself a more personal approach to the form, distinct from that he would have encountered in the translations of the Japanese masters. This “little box of lyrical chocolates” was composed to celebrate his mother’s birthday in “the most modern and most exquisite way”, with Lorca describing the poems to his brother as “undoubtedly humoristic-lyrical and exquisitely incomprehensible for lots of people”. Though these haiku contain many stylistic features that may seem out of place today, it is important to remember that, for Lorca, it was not the distinctive compositional techniques of the haiku poem that he sought to harness, but the power of its lyric concentration. As with his experimentation in other literary forms, such as the flamenco lyric and the Arabic ghazal, Lorca’s approach to haiku composition was that of assimilation, rather than duplication. Pertinent to his philosophy on the imitation of traditional verse forms are his comments in a 1922 lecture on cante jondo, in which he declared that the “ineffable modulations” of the copla should not be copied, as “we can do nothing but muddy them”, adding that “only the very essence” could be drawn from these works, along with “this or that trill for colouristic effect”. What he sought was an equivalence of the effect of a haiku poem, rather than a direct imitation of the form itself.


The most vivid connection between Lorca’s haiku and the copla is, fittingly, the image of the mother; a strong theme throughout flamenco song, owing to the closeness of the family structure within rural Gypsy communities. Throughout Lorca’s haiku there is a longing for his mother, to whom he devotes both his “heart” and his “tears”. There is also reference to a previous physical parting, when the poet “left for Almería” to attend school as a boy. The longing here is echoed in the following Gypsy siguiriya, the four-line verse form that embodies the most profound and emotional expression of Andalusian deep song:


Por una ventana

que al campo salía,

yo daba voces a la mare de mi alma

y no me respondía

(Through a window / that was facing the fields, / I was calling to the mother of my soul / and she didn’t answer me.)


It is less common to find examples of such subjective longings in haiku, traditionally a more objective form of poetic expression. The discipline of the haiku poet is to offer the moment that causes him or her to feel, and not to state overtly the emotion it inspires – a successful haiku allows readers to experience the emotion for themselves. But there are more emotive examples of haiku in the work of Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828), whose life was beset by personal tragedy, and whose mother died when he was two years old. Throughout Issa’s poetry, we feel the ache of a childhood wound:


mother I never knew,

every time I see the ocean,

every time –


In Lorca’s haiku sequence, alongside imagery that abounds in traditional Japanese verse, such as “the moon on the water”, and “the cherry tree in flower”, we also encounter the natural imagery of the “rose, carnation / and sesame seed”. In an assertion that embodies much of the sentiment of the Japanese haiku masters, Lorca once wrote that “The poet is the medium / of Nature”. Yet, as well as evoking the glancing encounters with the natural world that are so highly valued in the haiku form, we can also sense in this imagery an echo of the Gypsy lullabies and cradle songs, sung by the mothers of rural Andalusia to their babies (a form of song which Lorca would also go on to study in great detail):


Clavelito encarnado,

rosa en capullo,

duérmete, vida mía,

mientras te arroyo.

(Little pink carnation, / rose yet to bud, / sleep now, my treasure, / while I rock you.)


In the verses of Issa, we find a poetry of similar maternal tenderness; a yearning for the embrace of a parent he never knew, filled with a sensitivity for the poverty of rural families:


nursing her child

the mother

counts its fleabites


As well as expressing his devotion to his mother, Lorca’s haiku also contain recollections of his family home; in the imagery of “una estrella, / sobre tu casa” (a star / over your house), and in references to “el cajón / del trinchero” (the drawer / of the carving table) in the family dining room, and to his little sister, “Isabelita”. The family lived in Granada – a city which is “fit for dream and daydream”, which “borders everywhere on the ineffable”. Throughout Lorca’s poetry we experience Granada as more than simply a geographical setting; it is an intensely aesthetic reflection of the poet’s own image and personality. A strong theme found throughout lighter forms of flamenco song is one which praises certain towns and cities, especially Granada. In one of the haiku in this sequence, Lorca implores his mother to save him “esas campanadas / del amanecer” (those bell strokes / of dawn), reminiscent of this media granaína, a form of song native to the city:


Quiero vivir en Graná

porque me gusta el oír

la campana de la Vela

cuando me voy a dormir

(I want to live in Granada / because it pleases me to hear / the bell of the Vela / when I go to sleep.)


There is also an echo of this lyric, and of the bell of the Vela (rang from a watchtower in the Alhambra to signal the opening and closing of the irrigation canals below), in Lorca’s “Gacela del amor que no se deja ver” (Ghazal of the Love that Hides from Sight) from Diván Del Tamarit (1941; Tamarit Divan):


Solamente por oír

la campana de la Vela

te puse una corona de verbena.


Granada era una luna

ahogada entre las yedras.

(Just to hear / the bell of the Vela / I made you a crown of verbena. // Granada was a moon / drowned in the ivy.)


There are many examples of this longing for home in the masterpieces of traditional haiku, whose authors were very often wanderers, monks and beggars. In moments when the world of non-attachment was pierced by melancholic yearnings for home, family, lovers, or friends, we find examples of poetry such as this, from Basho . . .


even in Kyoto –

hearing the cuckoo’s cry –

I long for Kyoto 


The work of Lorca most permeated by the haiku spirit is the Suites (1983). Though not published until long after his death, the wistful poems of this collection were written around the same time he produced his haiku. Compared to the birthday haiku, the wistful poems of Suites contain passages that much more closely resemble haiku as we recognise it today, suggestive of a development of compositional awareness of the form:


El buey

cierra sus ojos


(Calor de establo.)


(The bullock / slowly / shuts his eyes. / Heat in the stable.)


Un pájaro tan sólo


El aire multiplica.

(Only a single bird / is singing. / The air multiplies it.)


A lo lejos,

garzas color de rosa

y un volcán marchito


(In this distance, / pink coloured herons / and the spent volcano.)


The poetic sequences in Suites are composed with a concision and structural simplicity that is true to both the tradition of the haiku and that of the “miniature” he thought characteristic of Granada. Critical to an appreciation of Lorca’s haiku, and of his experimentation with the short verse form, is the aesthetic of the diminutive in the art, music and poetry of his city; a diminutive “without rhythm, almost without grace and charm”, a diminutive which “opens secret chambers of feeling”, and whose mission is to “place in our hands objects and ideas which seem too large: time and space, the sea, the moon, distances”. For it is the poetic concentration of the diminutive verse, where the lyrical tremor reaches “a point that is inaccessible to any but a few poets”, that gives so much of Lorca’s early work (and the finest examples of haiku and copla) its power.


In 1932, Lorca would deliver a lecture on the duende, the elemental, demonic earth spirit, embodying irrationality, darkness and an awareness of death. For Lorca, the appearance of the duende in literature, art and performance was not a question of technical ability, but of “true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation”. And it is this profound authenticity which resonates in the finest examples of both the haiku and the copla. For both forms are, at their purest, “a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive . . . the trembling of the moment and then a long silence”.

The translations of the haiku and the original version of this essay were first published in The Times Literary Supplement in October 2017.

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