Eitemal, the first haiku poet in Afrikaans


It seems to have taken a long time before the centuries-old Japanese haiku form found its way into Afrikaans literature. Hélène Kesting’s twenty-one haikus in Ship to the sun of 1975 was the first collected haiku in our language. In 1983, a selection from it was included in DJ Opperman’s Great verse book.

But in reality the first Afrikaans haikus were already published in 1931 in Eitemal – the author’s name of WJ du P. Erlank (1901-1984) -‘s collection Phaeton and other poems. So far no one has pointed it out. Eitemal calls his three-line poems not haikus, but “Sommer-so-tjies”. This is probably one of the reasons why it has been overlooked by the literati.

The only exception was his fellow poet Uys Krige who included six of Eitemal’s eleven haikus in his anthology, African collectionfrom 1937. Just like Eitemal, Krige was a translator and therefore better informed about foreign poets and poetic forms than their contemporaries.

The haiku is an exceptional form of poetry. On the one hand, it is the version of a fleeting, even irrational experience. On the other hand, it is pure mathematics.

It is a form of poetry that is eminently suitable for articulating subjective impressions of nature. But the inspired poet must at the same time remain sober enough to be able to count. Namely, the haiku consists of three lines containing only seventeen syllables, arranged as 5-7-5 syllables per line. It should be able to be pronounced in one breath, as it were.

The haiku has its origins in the Zen Buddhist view of life, but the much more rational West has embraced it with great enthusiasm.

There are Western creators of haiku who use atypical and even “heretical” elements such as rhyme, titles and explicit imagery in a verse form that essentially has to do with fleeting association and even surreal leaps. The “leap” is perhaps the best metaphor to illustrate the true nature of the haiku. As in the following famous haiku by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

forgotten pond
a frog jumps from the shore
the sound of water

In the best examples, the haiku is always a leap into the unknown, with a resounding result.

The Westerners don’t always stick to the syllable count either – like Eitemal, who also makes the first two lines of his haiku rhyme. This is what one of his haikus sounds like:

A Hartbees hut,
A swing pit,
And wood pigeon flutter!

According to the HAT, a swing is: “An arm with which something is set in motion, e.g. a hand pump on a well or borehole”. In only fourteen syllables, the poet sketches an idyllic rural scene in which culture – the well and the hut – is equated with nature, the wood pigeon. It creates a soothing and comforting atmosphere. It is a world in which man and nature coexist in harmony.

But Eitemal does not only draw from his own experience, he also adapts classic Japanese haikus – without indicating it as such. The following one is, for example, a “translation” of Arakida Moritake’s (1473-1549) most famous haiku:

Fallen blossom rises
Fluttering to the mother-twig –
Ah! A butterfly!

Here is an English translation of the original Japanese poem:

fallen blossom
returning to the branch?
ah, no – a butterfly

Commentators on this haiku relate it to the Japanese philosopher Zhuangzi’s (369 BC-286 BC) speculation following a lucid dream he had: “Am I a man who dreams I am a butterfly or am I a butterfly who dream I am a man.” In the following haiku, Eitemal seems to have had exactly this statement in mind:

A butterfly dream
His colorful dream –
I know and cry!

The Afrikaans poet knows he is too rational to think of himself as a butterfly, and regrets it. He cannot help but make a strict distinction between dream and reality.

The seventh of Eitemal’s “Sommer-so-tjies” is indeed a translation of the most famous Japanese haiku – the one from Basho that I quoted above:

In puddle,
as smooth as glass,
Plumes a frog!

There is at least one more of Eitemal’s haikus that he can be considered a translation or adaptation:

Death rules
But mourn it
Not the crickets!

The source is again Basho. MM Walters’ Afrikaans version is in his Aki no kure. Autumn twilightan anthology of Japanese poems published in 2006:

Soon he will die
but no sign of it
not in the scream of the sun bug.

I suspect that the following two haikus also have a Japanese origin, but could not locate the source texts:

Eyes, sorrow-dull,
Search the mortuary –
One cosmos!

Trembling sunlight,
Golden yellow wheat –
And the reapers!

It is a pity that Eitemal did not acknowledge that he went to harvest his pointed poems on the Japanese wheat field. This would not only have informed and educated the literati, but also provided an early impulse for the writing of Afrikaans haikus.

In his eleventh and last haiku, Eitemal – after his clandestine visit to the Far East – is fully back in the Western Transvaal area where he grew up. In fact, he also wants to return there posthumously:

Oh Wonder Sister Moon,
Let me stand reborn
Like eucalyptus on the hump!