What Is Haiku?

A comment I received in response to my post of 1/19/09 (to read it, scroll down a bit to “Today’s Haiku,” the one with the fly) essentially asks the question that I’ve used as the title of this post. Here’s the reader’s comment: “I thought a haiku was . . . a major form of Japanese verse, written in 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, and employing highly evocative allusions and comparisons, often on the subject of nature or one of the seasons. I like the poem though.”

My reply was: “I think you’re right . . . the 5-7-5, 17 syllable style is classic Japanese haiku. But I also seem to remember that the American version(s) is (or can be) more lax when it comes to structure. (It took a lot of effort for me to just get the 17 syllable part.) I’d be interested to know what others have to say.”

I am interested in the thoughts of others about haiku form, Japanese or English, which is why I decided to cobble together an expanded version of my comment. My hope is that this post will provoke even more discussion of the ancient, profound—and often humorous—Japanese art form. My knowledge of haiku, haikubk16such as it is, comes from these two books: “The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa,” Edited by Robert Hass; and “Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku,” Edited by Bruce Ross. I quote from both in this post. By reproducing some of my under-linings from the books, I attempt to share my understanding of what, in its various forms, haiku is. First up, from the introduction to “The Essential Haiku,” a book that has as its focus the classic Japanese haiku of three masters, Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa, which begins:

“It is a truism of Japanese literary criticism that the three men represent three types of the poet—Basho the ascetic and seeker, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist—and their differences are clear at a glance when you read them. “Here is a fall poem that has Basho’s poignant calm and spiritual restlessness:

Deep autumn—
my neighbor,
how does he live, I wonder?

“And this winter poem was Buson’s painterly mix of precision and strangeness:

Tethered horse;
snow
in both stirrups.

“And here is a summer poem of Issa’s, with its pathos and humor:

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
Casually.”

Note that in translation not one of these poems retain the suggested five-seven-five, seventeen syllable form. Even so, all still manage to express their observations of life and nature beautifully. Also note the use of humor, as in the Issa haiku where he speaks to his resident house spiders. As a cartoonist, I find the use of humor especially appealing. I’m also impressed by the skillful economy of expression inherent in haiku generally. Here’s an edited quote from the book about haiku form:

“The hokku, as it was called in Basho’s time, emerged almost accidentally, from the practice of linked verse. It was, from the beginning, very attentive to time and place. It tended to begin with a theme from classical poetry . . . that was associated with a season of the year. It then added an image that seemed to penetrate to the essence of the classical theme. The spirit of haiku required that the language be kept plain. . . . It also demanded accurate and original images, drawn mostly from common life.”

Classic haiku also has as a crucial element the insistence of a specific time, place—and, especially—a season, without which a haiku was thought to be incomplete: “In Basho’s poem . . . the phrase . . . ‘deep autumn’ or ‘autumn deepens’ is traditional and had accumulated resonance’s and associations from earlier poetry as well as from the Japanese way of thinking about time and change. So does the reference to snow . . . which can also mean ‘snowfall’ in Buson’s poems . . . The practice was sufficiently codified and there was even a rule that the seasonal reference should always appear either in the first or third unit of the three phrase poem.”

The Robert Hass introduction also offers insight into the ways Japanese and English poetry spring from their respective cultures, especially from the very different religious points of view:

“If the first level of haiku is its location in nature, its second is almost always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature. One of the striking differences between Christian and Buddhist thought is that in the Christian sense of things, nature is fallen, and in the Buddhist sense it isn’t. Another is that, because there is no creator-being in Buddhist cosmology, there is no higher plan of meaning to which nature refers. At the core of Buddhist metaphysics are three ideas about natural things: that they are transient; that they are contingent; and that they suffer. Though the melancholy of autumn is as traditional an experience in European poetry as it is Japanese, it is not fundamentally assimilated into the European system of thought. English poets had a word for these feelings, they called them ‘moods.’ When Wordsworth or Keats writes about being ‘in pensive or in wayward mood,’ you know that they’re doing one of the jobs of the artist, trying to assimilate psychological states for which the official culture didn’t have a language. Basho’s Japan did. The old Japanese phrase that sums up the transience of things, ‘swirling petals, falling leaves,’ was a religious thought . . . the silence of haiku, its wordlessness, also has its roots in Buddhist culture, especially in Zen. . . . Zen provided people training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices.”

His purpose in editing the book, Robert Hass says, was to give a fuller sense of the haiku form to readers in English, as well as some sense of the variety and intensity of the experience this art can deliver. He ends his introduction with these words: “Perhaps the best way to get into (haiku), after one has familiarized oneself with the symbolism of the seasons and the Japanese habit of mind, is to read them as plainly and literally as possible.”

I’ve selected the following quotations from Bruce Ross’ introduction to “Haiku Moment” to contrast classic Japanese haiku and the adaptations of the form we English speakers have attempted. haikubk21I’ll begin and end with structural differences:

“A haiku in Japanese is extremely short so that it is recited in one breath. Since an average syllable in English is much shorter . . . modern haiku in English generally range from twelve to fourteen syllables, although many haiku poets try to maintain a five-seven-five syllable count. Some Modern English haiku use the three-liner vertical column arrangement, but horizontal one-liners, two-liners, and four-liners occur, with the horizontal three-liner short-long-short construction the most common one. English haiku tends also to lack some of the sound color of their Japanese counterparts because the prevalence of vowels in Japanese words and the frequent use of assonance, alliteration, and other sound values in Japanese haiku have not been sufficiently recognized by the non-Japanese world as indigenous to the haiku form.

“Japanese haiku also uses kireji (‘cutting words’), particles of language that indicated a pause or a stop. Kireji usually separate discrete image clusters and often coincide with the short-long-short line breaks in haiku. English haiku normally uses punctuation marks in much the same way. Traditional Japanese haiku also includes either a kigo (‘season word’) or a kidai (‘seasonal topic’). These words as one, two, or even three images provide the emotional focus in a haiku . . . . Modern English haiku is . . . not formally dependent upon a standardized season word . . . . The Japanese nature image conveys real experience . . . The Japanese image also occurs in the present tense, highlighting haiku’s emphasis upon real lived experience.”

In my own attempts to write haiku I like to adhere, as much as possible, to the use of nature images and the structural devices of the Japanese tradition, but without being locked into them, or blocked by the formal rigidity. Based on the English haiku I’ve read, as well as many comments in “Haiku Moment,” it seems that when it comes to composing haiku, almost anything goes.

This essay has been a very limited examination of the haiku form. If you’d like a more detailed answer to the question “What Is Haiku?” please read the suggested books. In the meantime, you may also want to type “haiku” into the little search window at the top right of this page.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

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2 Responses to What Is Haiku?

  1. Constance Pohl says:

    I love haiku. I first came across it in Ezra Pound translations. Thanks for this, also notice of the McCallum Smith book.

  2. Jacquie Roland says:

    I coo… you coo… we all coo for Haiku.
    Very interesting, Jim… I’ve always enjoyed reading Haiku… (yours as well) but never tried to write the little devils. This will give me incentive. Thanks .

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