What Is Haiku?

January 26, 2009

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.


The E-Tower

September 24, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973

One thing I packed for my first (and so far only) international trip was my new camera, a Minolta 35 mm SLR (single lens reflex). The whole business of doing photography with such a sophisticated instrument, rather than my old Kodak Instamatic, was so strange to me at the time I had to refer to the manual whenever I attempted to use it. So I was careful to bring along the little white instructional booklet, too.

It was August, 1973, and I was on my way to Paris to meet my new girlfriend, having been introduced to her at a party the previous May. She was a schoolteacher out of class for the summer and living with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend (an Italian waiter the sibling had met in Rome), in a one-room apartment on the Left Bank. It was all very romantic, and the sisters’ were old hands at international travel, having made the European scene for several summers running. My girlfriend, with her knowledge of the country and her high school French would be my guide, or so I assumed. The tip-off that perhaps she wasn’t “in the know” so much herself was the fact that August was the month when well-off Paris residents abandoned the hot city, leaving it to hordes of low-end tourists. Actually, August was the only time most schoolteachers could afford to vacation in Paris. That was my situation, too, being a low-grade (in every sense) Visual Information Specialist at the Social Security Administration, one with child support payments to make.

As I boarded the Paris flight I promised myself that at no time during the eighteen days in France would I make a single “touristy” photograph of a famous monument, such as, for instance, the Eiffel Tower. If I did choose to photograph a popular site, I would figure out how to do it in a fresh way—as an abstraction, perhaps, or from a great distance framed by trees, or with something completely unexpected in the foreground, something ugly, like a wall plastered with handbills. The goal was to produce what on the surface appeared to be “bad” snapshots, but which in fact had required a lot of thought and would provoke an unexpected response in the viewer, a response at once intellectual and emotional. It wasn’t that (in “postmodern” lingo) I wanted so much to “deconstruct” the tourist snapshot—I doubt I knew the term back then—but I was determined to avoid committing that photographic sin of sins, the visual cliché. Of course all this was a tall order for an amateur photographer. Looking back, I now realize that rather than being a photographic trail-blazer I was simply a visual snob.

I was very young, though, and in love with love and at the same time passionately trying to master a new craft while in a new country where I didn’t speak the language and was completely dependent on my new girlfriend for even the basics, like food and lodging and where to find a bathroom. And after little more than two weeks of walking the streets of Paris, motoring through town after small town in Southern France and “making images” not “taking pictures” of cathedrals, castles rooftops and markets, I was homesick and more than ready to board the flight back to the U. S. I was also mildly depressed, having convinced myself even before I saw the processed slides that I had failed in my quest for a series of perfect “anti-travel” images.

It’s appropriate that this tale of misguided youth (but not misspent, since in retrospect I loved the experience) ends in irony. When my girlfriend asked me to pose for one last snapshot, I agreed, and of course she wanted the Eiffel Tower in the background. I’m too ashamed to show the resulting image, but at least that’s one creative sin which will be forever on her head, not mine.

“The E-Tower” is the first in a series of short travel-photo essays which will post on this site from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.