Overheard Haiku


On Translation

The rhythms of overheard speech.


Photo: NARA

In Martin Walser’s 1987 book Brandung, about a German professor teaching abroad at the very un-German University of California, Berkeley—a novel really not worth reading unless you are interested in German-English translation and able to read it in the Berkeley sun, to a whiff of eucalyptus or a glimpse of Mount Tamalpais, and even then I didn’t finish it—the professor overhears a bit of dialogue. A student steps into an elevator and says “Going up?”; the one in the elevator says “Trying to.” The professor, “who did after all teach English back home, was crushed to realize, yet again, that he would never master this language.” Not long afterward, he sees a campus newspaper headline, “Sex Blind Admission,” and tries and fails to reconstruct the line in German. “English is a language for headlines,” he thinks.

I saw a headline myself in Berkeley, on the unbelievably trashy San Francisco Examiner: “Cops Fear Pimp Turf War.” Five punchy syllables, each pretty much any part of speech—it took me a moment to understand what it meant, then I knew I had witnessed greatness. (I’m not the only one who noticed: a weekly DJ night called “Cops Fear Pimp Turf War!” sprang up a few months later in San Francisco.)

It was walking in downtown Manhattan, on the other hand, past the new construction of, according to the slogan around the scaffolding, TWENTY INDIVIDUALLY-CURATED FINELY-CRAFTED CONDOMINIUM RESIDENCES, that a couple hurried past and we heard the man say, “The problem is in this country people believe they deserve something … ” Whether his complaint targeted the members of the 1 percent who were building or planning to live in these super-creative residences, or the passersby resenting that they couldn’t, or other groups altogether, it was also a classic example of American speech:

The problem is in
this country people believe
they deserve something

It’s not a haiku—the haiku form has demands besides 5-7-5 syllables: seasonal key words (kigo), one image, two moments with a turn or jump cut between them indicated by a “cutting word” (kireji). It’s the serendipitous, spoken, American form: the overheard haiku.

I’d heard about it from the poet Robert Hass, teaching a survey of American poetry course back at UC Berkeley and talking one day about speech rhythms. He mentioned something he’d overheard while in D.C. as Poet Laureate: a man in not a $1,200 overcoat but an $800 overcoat (midnineties dollars)—that means a lot, perhaps everything, in Washington—had said,

Well if he’d just been
focused he wouldn’t even
have considered it

After paying attention and counting syllables for not very long at all, you can hear this form everywhere. The length of a thought—in English? Or with average walking speeds? Or that you can remember when you’re not really listening?—seems naturally to fall into 5-7-5 syllables:

It’s just, right now I
don’t feel very much respect
for myself is all

She has a home phone.
Who has home phones?… Yeah different
lifestyle … Totally.

Or for that matter:

Curated Finely-Crafted
Residences”? Please.

Around half a tweet, but again, a very different form. “Cops Fear Pimp Turf War,” well less than a semi-demi-tweet, comes closer, because it is written: Twitter can share #overheardhaiku, but is not the medium for creating them.

English is a great language for writing headlines, and tweets, but also for hearing haiku. You can’t plan a phrase like this, craft it, present yourself to the world with it; it’s something you run across, something the facts of the world and of language fall into. As though by chance. It’s something you’ve trained your ear to notice, a way of paying attention.

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.