is the shortest month, and I thought it might be a good time to revisit a very short
form of poetry (one that we’ve worked with before)—haiku. Haiku, despite its brevity, always has a freshness and a richness that we can come back to.
Haiku’s origins have been traced to a form of Japanese poetry known as haikai no renga, a kind of linked poetry that was practiced widely by Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) and his contemporaries. Over time, the first link in a renga, the hokku, evolved into the haiku as we understand it today. A minimalist form of poetry, haiku has been popular among modern poets since the 1960s, when a western-world haiku movement generated increased interest in the form. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Billy Collins, John Ashbery, and Paul Muldoon have written haiku, and haiku-like poems are found in the works of such literary greats as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Richard Wright. Although something other than “mainstream” poetry and very much its own genre, haiku is a unique and demanding form to master.
In traditional Japanese, the haiku is typically written vertically on the page (from top to bottom). Each haiku contains seventeen sound symbols. However, early translators were mistaken when they assumed that Japanese sound symbols were equivalent to syllables in the English language and that haiku should be written in three lines containing 5,7, and 5 syllables respectively. Although incorrect, these “defining” qualities of haiku are still regarded as “haiku format” by many. A more acceptable standard for English-language haiku is 10-20 syllables in 3 lines with a longer second line and shorter first and third lines. That said, the parameters are often stretched depending on content and meaning. Three lines have become the norm, but haiku of one and two lines are also seen, and syllable count varies
Traditional haiku contain a kigo (season word) to indicate the season or time of year in which the haiku takes place, along with two phrases (or images) that are inherently unrelated but are juxtaposed to show some commonality within a particular experience. Normally, one idea is presented in the first two lines and then a switch occurs in the third. Alternatively, a single idea is presented in the first line and a switch occurs in the second and third lines. Nearly every haiku has this kind of two-part, juxtapositional structure. The shift is achieved with what is called a kireji or cutting word, which “cuts” the poem into two parts. The kireji is a kind of caesura (and similar in theory to the volta in a sonnet) that signals a pause in the poem’s “thought” and suggests a parallel to the preceding phrase, the following phrase, or provides a “dismount for the poem that offers a finely tuned sense of closure.
Haiku is, in a sense, an art of detachment in which the poet is removed enough from the subject to write without self-interest or self-absorption but, rather, with a sense of both inward and outward direction. The best haiku are life-affirming and eternity-conscious, spontaneous and unpretentious but entirely focused and either gently or startlingly profound.
Note: The word haiku forms its own plural – haikus is incorrect.
1. Haiku describe things in a very few words – they never tell, intellectualize, or state feelings outrightly. They never use figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.) and should not rhyme.
2. Haiku is more than a simple genre or form of poetry—haiku is a way of seeing, a way of capturing experience, a kind of “aha” moment or instant when something in the ordinary captures our attention and leads us to a closer, more concentrated look at its connection to nature, and human nature.
3. Haiku don’t have titles, although haiku sequences do.
4. Brevity is key, along with a sense of immediacy (written in the present tense) and often a sense of relationship between nature and human nature. Some haiku poets feel that one measure of a haiku’s success is its ability to be read in a single breath. Most will agree that a successful haiku is characterized by crystal-cutting clarity and in-the-moment presence.
5. Haiku are about spiritual realities, the realities of our every-day lives, and the realities of human- and natural-world relationships. Most importantly, haiku honor the inside of an experience through attention to the outside.
6. Compact and direct, haiku appear to be light and spontaneous, but their writing requires careful reflection and discipline—haiku may even be considered a kind of meditation. Finely-tuned powers of observation reveal the haiku moments that happen continually in the world around us.
7. Don’t be bound by any notions of 5,7,5 syllable structure—focus instead on use of season words, two-part juxtapositions, and objective sensory imagery.
1. Bashō said that each haiku should be “a thousand times on the tongue.” Before writing anything, read many haiku from a range of sources to get a “feel” for the form. Be sure to read some haiku that have been translated from the Japanese, but spend more time on good haiku written in English. Read some of the haiku aloud, and listen deeply.
2. After you’ve read many haiku and have a sense of what they’re about, think about an experience you’ve had.
3. Remember the season in which you had the experience, and then think of a word or phrase that suggests that season. For example, peonies is a season word for spring; snow and ice are season words for winter. A simple phrase like “autumn leaves” can evoke feelings of loneliness and the coming of darkness (shorted days, longer nights) in winter. While many haiku appear to have a nature focus, they are more-specifically based on a seasonal reference that as much about nature as it is within nature.
4. Organize your thoughts into approximately three lines. First, set the scene, then suggest a feeling and, finally, make an observation or record an action. Write in the present tense, don’t use figures of speech (similes, metaphors), and keep things simple.
5. Be sure to include a contrast or a comparison. Remember that haiku often present one idea in the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else in the third. One of your goals is to create a “leap” between the two parts of your haiku without making too obvious a connection between the parts or leaping to a distance that’s unclear or obscure. At the same time, you must reveal the emotions (not ideas) that you want to communicate without stating them overtly.
6. Try to think of haiku in terms of your five senses—things you experience directly, not ideas or your interpretation or analysis of “things.” Think in terms of sensory description and avoid subjective terms.
7. Spend time working on punctuation. In poems so brief, punctuation is important. Read some of the examples and see how other haiku poets make punctuation work for them in their haiku.
Questions to Consider When Editing and Refining Your Haiku
How many lines have you written? It’s easy to over-write a haiku. Longer than 3 lines isn’t really a haiku. Haiku can be 1, 2, or 3 lines, but not more.
Is your writing simple and clear?
How long are your lines? Sometimes, we write too much in each line. Think about what you can take out if your lines seem long. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but good haiku usually contain about 20 syllables or less.
Did you focus on a single moment (detach from everything else) and recreate that moment in as few words as possible?
Did any figures of speech creep into your haiku (similes, metaphors, etc.)? If so, remove them along with anything that seems forced or contrived.
Did you include a season word (kigo)?
Did you include a shift between the two parts of your haiku (did you create a two-part juxtapositional structure)?
Have you taken out take out any words that aren’t essential to the haiku; for example, there are many times when you can delete words such as “a,” “and,” and “the.”
Have you worked toward economy of language? Very few, if any, adjectives?
Have you avoided prepositional phrases?
Instead of writing “the brightness of the starts,” take out the prepositional phrase and write, “the stars’ brightness.”
Another example: “the depth of the water” can become “the water’s depth.’
And another: “the vastness of the ocean” can become “the ocean’s vastness.”
From the Japanese Masters
Winter seclusion –
Listening, that evening,
To the rain in the mountain.
My life, –
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.
No one travels
Along this way but I,
This autumn evening.
Contemporary Haiku From Modern Haiku magazine
Contemporary Haiku from Frogpond (Journal of the Haiku Society of America)
And, by way of sharing, a few of my own:
migrating geese –
once there was so much
(1st Place Henderson Award, 1984, http://www.hsa-haiku.org/hendersonawards/henderson.htm#1984)
between the moon
and the billboard,
a jet liner rising
(42nd Street Art Project, displayed on the Rialto West Theater Marquee, NYC, 1994.)
a flurry of bats
the Milky way
(Haiku Quarterly, First Prize, Autumn 1989)
at the edge of the words,
(From Castles and Dragons, 1990)
churchbells on the cusp
of the hill
(From Questi Momenti, 1990)