Chen-ou Liu's Translation Project: First English-Chinese Haiku and Tanka Blog

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Selected Haiku: Carpe Diem Haiku

Carpe Diem
on his gravestone
winter light

Editor’s First Choice, Cemetery Haiku Thread
Sketchbook, Sep / Oct 2011

Editor's Comment by John Daleiden: The brevity of this 4 4 3 constructed haiku is a fitting format for the sentiments expressed in the opening line "Carpe Diem"—seize the day. Indeed, life is fleeting and those who terry will soon be left behind to perish—for life is temporary, limited to a short span compared to the environment in which it is lived, both here on earth and in the wider reaches of the ever expanding universe, in the galaxies beyond which we have only started to explore. The expression, "carpe diem", seize the day, was originally expressed by Horace in the Odes 1.11.

The Odes (Latin Carmina) are a collection in four books of Latin lyric poems by Horace. The Horatian ode format and style has been emulated since by other poets. Books 1 to 3 were published in 23 BC. According to the journal Quadrant, they were "unparalleled by any collection of lyric poetry produced before or after in Latin literature. ...The Odes have been considered traditionally by English-speaking scholars as purely literary works. Recent evidence by a Horatian scholar suggests they were intended as performance art, a Latin re-interpretation of Greek lyric song.

I.11, Tu ne quaesieris, is a short rebuke to a woman worrying about the future; it closes with the famous line carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero (pluck the day, trusting tomorrow as little as possible).

Chen-ou Liu has effectively made a literary connection to the ancient world—a connection echoed and re-echoed in various literary forms across the ages. This echo encourages humans to enjoy life before it is too late: "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May from To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time. It resounds as an invocation on transience and a meditation on death. It brings to mind the film / literary character John Keating portrayed by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society (1989) who says, "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary." The classical phrase has risen to the stature of an epithet—carpe diem—and it immediately evokes many literary references. For example, think of Steve Martin who also employs the phrase in the 1987 film Roxanne (a modern retelling of the 1897 verse play Cyrano de Bergerac, written by French author Edmond Rostand). "Carpe diem" has become a modern day epithet.

In Chen-ou Liu's haiku, the middle line—"on his gravestone" acts as a pivot; it effectively connects the third line--"winter light" to the first line. The seasonal shortness of winter days emphasizes the need to take charge of life—seize the day—for life is short compared to the ages and ages of history available for us to read.

Although the latin poets did not not directly compose haiku, I am unable to resist the temptation to reconstruct this closing verse in their language as a Found Poem:

carpe diem
gaudeamus igitur
momento mori

*seize the day / let us rejoice / remember that you are mortal

Long ago, I silently, and sometimes verbally, questioned why I was expected / required to read the ancients in their own largely dead languages...and now I know...