Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Haiku, or not?

April 11, 2013

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


Haikus are easy
but sometimes they don’t make sense

What is a haiku, really? Haiku is a very short form of poetry (originally Japanese) that aims to convey the essence of a moment. It uses simple, direct, concrete (often sensory) language to describe what is observed and experienced in that moment (present tense), while at the same time, a haiku can also imply something more. Haiku are often associated with nature, but they can be inspired by other types of experience as well. 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 (in this case, by William J. Higginson):

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 (undoubtedly, there are also other references that we, as 21st century English-speaking poets, will not get) .

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

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


Things are looking up

February 1, 2013

It’s been a grey rainy week here in Vancouver, but downtown today, I had an unexpected glimpse of cherry blossoms and sunshine ─appropriate for the start of National Haiku Writing Month (February, the shortest month for the shortest poetic form).

early blossoms─
a new spring
in my step

Click here for more info on National Haiku Writing Month (NaHaiWriMo).

A shared experience with Stephanie Meyer (?)

February 22, 2010

I recently finished reading Host, Stephanie Meyer’s science fiction novel for adults. (In a nutshell, the story is about what happens when an alien parasite species takes over Earth, but the occupation doesn’t quite go as expected, nor does the resistance.) I found the writing much tighter than in her Twilight books, and the story riveted me from beginning to end (interesting characters and situation, unpredictable plot, entertained and also made me think). I finished the book and immediately wanted to read more. Since, Stephanie Meyer has yet to write a sequel or any other novels in the genre, I had to satisfy myself by looking up interviews with the author. For example, this one behind the scenes at Oprah:

I was intrigued to discover that Stephanie Meyer feels Host is her best novel so far (she wrote it after the learning process of creating the Twilight series) and that she plans to write more in the series or at least in the speculative fiction genre. This is good news!

In a different interview I came across, Stephanie Meyer talked about her first novel, the highly successful Twilight, being inspired by a dream. She said she woke up with the story fully formed in her head. As an author who has been struggling with writing lately, I thought to myself how great it would be to have this kind of dream-powered inspiration. Then I remembered that this actually did happen to me once. My very first piece of published fiction was inspired by a dream that remained vivid in my mind after I awoke. By coincidence, my dream had something in common with Host, as it involved meeting an alien. Unfortunately, the story that emerged from the dream did not turn out to be an amazingly popular novel that spawned a series of hugely successful books and movies. In fact, it wasn’t anything as long as a novel. If, as Stephanie Meyer speculates, a story emerging fully formed out of a dream only happens to an author once in a life time, it’s rather unfortunate that my once-in-a-life-time inspiration turned out to be a short poem. In any case, here it is:

First Contact

in our greeting
centuries of preparation,
rehearsal, speculation
become meaningless

face to face
yet still light years apart
I, hidden by layers
of more than clothing

he, wearing a naked openness
I do not know how
to read

until his eyes
honest and sharp
as stars

cut away my surface skins
of history, culture, gender,
misplaced identity

exposing me to
my self
naked and clear
for the first time

and only then
do we have
a common language

Published in Tesseracts6, the Anthology of New Canadian Speculative Fiction, edited by Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink (Tesseract Books 1997).

April is poetry month!

March 31, 2009

I just discovered that April is National Poetry Month in Canada and the United States. Great timing for me, a lover of haiku, as in April I will be journeying to the birthplace of Basho, the 17th c. Japanese poet known as the “saint of haiku.”

Here are two spring haiku by Basho (and a photo I took at Vancouver’s English Bay this morning):



many things

they bring to mind —

cherry blossoms!


patter patter

petals of of tiny flowers drop

a waterfall of sound


Check out GottaBook blog for a new poem every day in April by various authors who write for children.

June haiku

June 25, 2007

mock orange bushHaiku traditionally begins with a seasonal reference. This goes back to old Japan when haiku was part of a party game. The host often started off the game by poviding the opening stanza (called hokku), and the guests took turns adding stanzas to create a longer linked poem (known as renga). The seasonal reference in the opening line was a way of dating the poem (or at least letting people know in which season it was written). The party poets took their renga seriously, and eventually a book of rules was created, which included lists of objects (mostly plants and animals) associated with each season. The opening hokku written at parties was often more popular and better remembered than the rest of the renga, and eventually it became an independant poetry form called haiku.

My list of seasonal objects for June would have to include cottonwood seed fluffs (first one or two, then hundreds float through the air and collect like snow along roadside curbs), mock orange blossoms (the bush in the photo above started as an unidentifiable bare stick that I almost pulled out of the ground), and shedding dog hair (our dog, Dylan, sheds so much that we’d be knee-deep in dog hair if I didn’t vacuume every day).


first cottonwood fluff

drifting over my backyard

summer I was twelve


white dome of flowers

as tall as the neighbour’s house

began as a weed


white flower beacons

glow as the evening light fades

calling out with scent


fur falls to the floor

as I scratch my dog’s backside

it doesn’t matter

Haiku happens

February 11, 2007

I wasn’t sure if I should post this one, but here’s a haiku on how I came upon the first snow drops last year:

snowdrops in the grass

if not for scooping dog poop

would have gone unseen


(I like the way life can surprise us with beauty even in the most mundane and unpleasant moments — and throw those moments into new light.)

Note: I just realized this haiku sounds very similar to the raven haiku of a few posts ago. So much for originality (I guess it’s a repeating pattern in my life: constantly being surprised by the unexpected within the ordinary and marvelling at how easy it would have been to miss). . . . Did that make any sense?

a flurry of haiku

December 7, 2006

Until recently, I hadn’t written any poetry for quite awhile. Then we got this sudden cold and snow, which I am totally not used to, and almost every time I looked out the window or stepped out the door, I was struck by a haiku moment.

On one of the coldest nights, my dog went outside for a quick visit to the backyard. When I opened the door to let him back in, I stood for a moment, caught by the smell of the cold, the closeness of the sky, the breath of the house billowing out into the night…. lines of haiku began to form and reform in my mind, so that I had a hard time getting to sleep after that.

sharp scent of cold air

clouds drift out the open door

absorbed by stillness


gathering close

pale sky touches white trees

hushed in snow


And from the next day:

icicles drip

decorating eaves troughs

warmed by house breath


during the cold snap

rats take refuge in my attic

the cat’s ears twitch


Haiku is supposed to contain 17 syllables in lines of 5-7-5, but I don’t think it matters if you follow that exactly. What matters is the moment shared. Anyone else care to share a moment?

In my November 29 post, “haiku snapshot,” I included a poem about a crow:


black shape on white snow

fathomless as a deep hole

until the crow caws


In the comments, my friend Jean-Pierre, who has lived in Japan for over 15 years, translated my haiku into Japanese:

Yuki ni yurei

 Fukai ana soko nashi

 Karasu naku


When he translated it back to English again, it came out:

Ghost in the snow

Deep hole no bottom

Crow cries


creating a totally different poem. Check out Jean-Pierre’s comment for more details about the translation process.

Haiku snapshot

November 29, 2006

I was hoping to post a photo that combined the two themes I have going so far (crows and snow), but the crows weren’t cooperating. Here is a haiku image instead:

black shape on white snow

fathomless as a deep hole

until the crow kaws