Haiku, or not?

What is haiku? Many people think it is simply a short three-line poem of 5-7-5 syllables. But please forget this definition! It leads to things like:

that song was poppinhaiku
hari ini tdr gk ya?
Sorting the bedroom
-Haiku Robot

or

Haikus are easy
but sometimes they don’t make sense
Refrigerator
-anonymous

What is a haiku, really? Haiku is a very short form of poetry (originally Japanese) that aims to capture the essence of something. It uses simple, direct language to point to a thing or moment (usually in nature), while at the same time implying something more. Traditional haiku contains three main elements:

- a kigo (seasonal reference)

- a kireji (cutting word, symbol, or pause, that divides the haiku into two juxtaposed parts)

- 17 on (17 Japanese sound units), with the poem usually broken into three phrases of 5-7-5 on (written in Japanese as one or two vertical lines)

Today, haiku are written all over the world in many different languages, including English (the word “haiku” is both singular and plural).

The 17 Japanese on sounds do not actually correspond to English syllables (for example, the word “on” itself, which English-speakers would view as a single syllable, comprises two on). Translating a Japanese haiku into 17 English syllables actually makes the haiku longer than it was meant to be. For example, a famous haiku by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho was originally written using 17 on, but it is translated:

old pond…
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

To translate it into 17 English syllables would make it too cumbersome, moving away from the original intent of the poem. Here’s an example (from the Wikipedia haiku page):

at the age old pond
a frog leaps into water
a deep resonance

It’s the simplicity and directness of the first translation (and the original haiku) that catches the reader’s attention and leaves the reader room to see the moment for him or herself. In fact, it’s haiku’s simplicity ─its ability to focus the reader in on a precise, concrete “a-ha” moment─ that makes it so appealing to many haiku-lovers. Simplicity keeps the moment fresh. Any added decoration, metaphor or explanation entangles the reader; gives you so much that there is nothing to stop and think about. The simple wording engages your imagination. You pause and hear the sound of the water as the frog’s body breaks the surface. But the simply written haiku can also imply emotion and allude to deeper meaning. The “old pond,” for example, can be read as a reference to Basho, himself, an old poet still moved by the world around him.

So, the idea that English haiku should be written in 17 syllables is not actually correct, and throwing a bunch of words together into three lines of 5-7-5 syllables (even if they are poetically written, rather than generated by a robot) does not make those lines a haiku. To be a real haiku, a poem has to have some or all of the elements mentioned above (seasonal reference, simplicity, and also a juxtaposition or a space between images that suggests something deeper). In other words, “That song was poppin” is not a haiku.

Here are a few haiku I’ve come across recently that I really like (my favorite haiku are always changing):

evening walkblossoms_crop
the faded leash
I can’t throw out
-John Soules

abandoned farm
still there, the scents
in the barn
-George Swede

graveside
forming one shadow
with my sister
-Tom Painting

solo hike─
slowly catching up
with myself
-Annette Makino

You’ll notice that none of them have 5-7-5 syllables. But yes, all of them are haiku.

I hope this post doesn’t sound like an anti-5-7-5 rant. Like many people, I grew up thinking English haiku had to be written as three lines of 5-7-5 syllables (you’ll find many haiku written this way in my earlier blog posts), and I wasn’t really conscious of the other elements of good haiku, other than the seasonal reference. I wrote and read haiku intuitively, I guess (with mixed results). I still write this way, but I’ve also been making an effort to think more about haiku, how it works, and what makes a good haiku (which leads to more re-writing), and I’ve come across an awful lot of writing that calls itself haiku, but is not. This pseudo-haiku is sometimes interesting writing forced to fit the 5-7-5 format (often with the first sentence ending in the middle of the second line), or even good poetry with intriguing metaphors, but it’s not haiku. The main point I want to make here is that haiku is about more than syllable count (I’m talking to you, Haiku Robot, children’s book publishers of stories written in so-called “haiku” format, companies that hold “haiku” slogan contests to advertise new products, and anyone who leaves comments on haiku blogs complaining that the haiku is not real haiku because the syllable count isn’t right).

Okay, maybe this is an anti-5-7-5 rant.

Anyway, if you want to learn more about haiku, here are some good websites and blog posts to check out:

Haiku on Wikipedia (good explanation of haiku and the issues around syllable count)

Graceguts, the website of haiku poet, Michael Dylan Welch (contains examples of haiku, articles, and links to other resources)

Haiku checklist (helpful for thinking about and revising your own haiku)

Essential elements of haiku

Haiku journey of poet Ferris Gilli (many good insights into how to write haiku)

How to write bad haiku (a fun post that looks at what makes a haiku “bad” or “good”)

Why No 5-7-5

Kireji and kigo (cutting word & seasonal reference)

More on juxtaposition and seasonal references

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10 Responses to “Haiku, or not?”

  1. Jean-Pierre Antonio Says:

    threadbare my thoughts
    words torn and tattered
    patched together with haiku

  2. metalandmettle Says:

    I love this post, Jacqueline! I really enjoyed the impromptu workshop on haikus you gave us last week-end at Van Dusen. I like what you say about keeping it simple, fresh to engage the imagination. I never liked that 5-7-5 business anyway, and it makes so much more sense to focus on the meaning. Now that I feel less intimidated, I might even try one or two. I hope you post more of yours soon; I look forward to that.

  3. Yousei Hime Says:

    Do I count as interesting? ;) I’ve been haiku dry for a spell. I believe it’s time to get back into shape, whether it’s 5-7-5 or otherwise. Thanks for visiting. :)

    • Jacqueline Pearce Says:

      I don’t think I’ve ever counted your syllables, Yousei, which is a sign that you’re writing good haiku (the reader is conscious of the moment you’re communicating, not your word count etc). :) I look forward to reading more of your haiku!

  4. craftygreenpoet Says:

    excellent post, counting the syllables is the least interesting part of haiku!

  5. Richard Stevenson Says:

    HI!

    I’m a poet and haijin from Victoria, finishing up a career in teaching at Lethbridge College. Hope to get back to my beloved Vancouver Island in the next 2 -5 years. I’ve published 26 full -length books, 10 chapbooks, and lots of individual poems, essays, reviews, etc. in the usual places. Currently looking for a home for a collection of dog haiku for children called Action Dachshund! and a picture book duologue between Action Dachshund and Sly Magpie over the rights to the slops in the compost written in haiku stanzas of hip hop vernacular. Know of any kidlit/ literary publishers in Canada that might countenance such things?

    Richard Stevenson

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