UNDERSTANDING ENGLISH HAIKU

I didn’t intend to post again today, but I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about what is, and what isn’t haiku.  For what it is worth, here is my understanding…

Just as the Japanese painters highlight each line with quick brush strokes, and Japanese music rests on each note as individual, Japanese poetry creates the frame for both the poet and the reader.  Robert Wilson writes ‘Western music is more concerned with how groups of notes function together – while Japanese music, on the other hand, focuses on each note’s tone colour…’ (Ref.) and ‘Ma is a principal experienced by many cultures and by most babies and toddlers, Occidental or Eastern. It is stepping outside of oneself as Buson would do in the forest, an emptied mind without preconception in touch with the unsaid. It is not a moment where a poet says, “I’ll write a haiku about a duck.” The poet thinks about a duck she saw once, seeing the duck through her eyes instead of through the duck’s eyes, and somehow, joining together with the duck in a symbiotic oneness. Writing the haiku thus becomes an artistic process where one follows prescribed rules, precepts, and hell, even bends the rules, relying more on formula than aesthetics, saying nothing memorable, or stimulating; what Professor Hasegawa calls “junk haiku. “

First of all, what is haiku?

  • Haiku (plural and singular spelling) is a short poem usually made up of three short lines in a short, long, short line shape. They can be read out loud in about six seconds.
  • They’re written in the present tense, in ordinary language, and work well as two different images that spark off each other.
  • Pretty much any subject can be caught by haiku.
  • Haiku are not sayings, aphorisms or any other type of outright statement about how life is.
  • Haiku don’t tell the reader what to think or feel; a haiku states facts that the writer has observed, and then allows the reader to reach conclusions about what the poem is describing in their own way. The reader is an equal partner to the writer. (from Alan Summers)

A haiku is the smallest language construct that can generate complexity to create tension and resonance between its parts (George Marsh)

How do you see haiku?  For many people it is a three line unrhymed poem with a strict syllable count of 5-7-5.  However, this is a long way from the real heart of this form.  Far from being concerned with construction rules, an early  and revered Japanese poet wrote ‘However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.  I believe this statement highlights the concept of ma within Japanese poetry.  This word encompasses a space within the poetry that is more eloquent than words – a sensory space that allows the reader to bring his participation to the poem.

fishing boat
below the cliff
carrying voices    Owen Bullock

At the edge of a storm
someone is heard
sweeping leaves    Richard von Sturmer

Haiku began in seventeenth century Japan as renga, a kind of linked verse composed by two persons, that was enjoyed by many different kinds of people.  Matsuo Bashō was a master of renga and travelled the country writing and teaching.  The main challenge was the art of making each verse connect with another.  Out of these came the solitary verses of haiku.  Bashō’s most famous and well-known haiku:

old pond…
a frog leaps in
water’s sound.

Because of the huge difficulties in translation of this poetic form, haiku in its western form has always been a bit of a challenge.  In Japanese there was a traditional syllable count for the three lines of 5-7-5.  But the syllable tonal length in the English language differs from that used in the Japanese language (their syllables aren’t syllables as Westerners know and understand syllables. They are shorter in intonation, and often contain more than one beat, whereas in an English syllable, each syllable is one beat, thus, when a Westerner taught in public or private school to write a haiku using a 5/7/5 meter, composes a haiku, the result is often an awkward sounding haiku. So it is generally accepted now in western haiku, that the syllable count can be variable.

However, we don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water, and for haiku to be genuine, they must retain the value of using Japanese aesthetics.  Otherwise they are just another form of Western poetry.  You’ll notice that there are usually two parts to each haiku, creating a tension in the poetry.  And that is where the concept of ma comes in.  Each haiku contains a sentence and a phrase that are linked in some way, allowing us to see more than one picture.

drifting evensong
pine needles cloistered
in fresh snow                                     Kirsten Cliff

Monet’s pain
the shadows of hay-bales
lengthening the sunset                 Alan Summers

The attribution of haiku used above is given, and they were used with permission as part of a beginners course that I ran some time ago.  Other phrases have been learned as I study.  I am still learning, and my haiku often don’t reach the mark.

19 thoughts on “UNDERSTANDING ENGLISH HAIKU

  1. I admit to writing what I call “haiku” – and it’s associated senryu and tanka forms – according to my own lights – without strict regard for established rules of form & syntax – poetic license, so to speak

  2. Great post. I like to write what I call Haiku style. I stick to the main rule with syllable count but technically not pure and perfect Haiku. Thanks for your guidelines.

  3. Good post. Haiku seem to be taught to kids (and adults) on the theory that they’re the easiest form of poetry to write, when in fact they’re the easiest to write badly.

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