11. Haiku (expanded)
by Wild Iris
Haiku, the shortest of all forms, is a 'people's poetry'
that records the visionary moments of everyday life. It developed in Japan during the 16th-17th centuries CE, as an offshoot of the linked verse form renga. The essential characteristics of the form are thus.style="mso-spacerun: yes"> A haiku expresses a moment of vivid
awareness/perception sparked by observation of the world. It
shares that experience with the reader by way of concrete imagery; that is, it
presents directly the object(s) that moved the poet - birds flying, dew on a
leaf, a woman's bright gown on a grey day, etc. The poem does not state why the poet's 'moment' was
significant. By juxtaposing images and
by playing on existing cultural associations, it invites the reader to make
their own connections and to pursue the ramifications of the experience.style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Haiku have been described as starting points
for thought. They focus on a specific,
local object that suggests a more universal theme. Readers bring their own perceptions to bear in order to draw out
the wider picture.
Haiku commonly take their subjects from nature, although
they can also focus on the human world.
The tone of haiku is one of openness to experience; the haiku poet never
ceases to be surprised by the world.
Haiku use clean, everyday language, few adjectives (and no simply
'decorative' adjectives), and no internal metaphors or similes (though the
entire poem may stand as an implicit metaphor). Haiku are not declamatory; they do not make general, abstract
statements, and in fact rarely make direct statements of any kind.style="mso-spacerun: yes"> To borrow a couple of well-known maxims,
haiku are pure 'show, don't tell', and they render 'the thing as it is'.
A traditional Japanese haiku typically comprises four to ten
words, arranged in three lines of respectively five, seven, and five
syllables. (These syllabic patterns
have a long history in Japanese poetry.)
By convention, the poem includes a so-called 'season word' (kigo)
that situates it within a particular phase of the year – either the explicit
name of a season, or certain plants/animals/weather traditionally associated
with one. It also includes a 'cutting
word' (kireji), a meaningless sound inserted to provide a pause.style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Usually, this 'cutting word' is used to
break the poem into two parts - two images, or a specific image and a more
general setting – which strike off associations by their juxtaposition.
In English poetry, the essential scope, approach, and tone
of the haiku are retained, but the physical structure is more flexible.style="mso-spacerun: yes"> The traditional Japanese seventeen-syllable form does not map into English, for several reasons:
- The rhythms of the languages differ. While Japanese falls naturally into patterns of odd syllables, English falls naturally into pairs of syllables. English is also less polysyllabic overall (and thus replicating Japanese syllabics involves a greater number of words).
- Japanese poetry is traditionally syllabic in structure. English poetry, on the other hand, is traditionally structured by stress patterns.
- Syllable counts are calculated differently in Japanese and in English poetry. E.g. in Japanese, a long vowel is counted as two syllables.
- The seventeen syllables of a traditional Japanese haiku includes its punctuation - the 'cutting word', which in English is replaced by normal punctuation marks.
English-language haiku poets
make a more 'real' approximation of the Japanese form by following its word
count rather than its syllable count.
Some common misunderstandings about haiku: first, that the
form is defined by a certain syllable count.
Not so, as I've already suggested.
Haiku is characterized by its subject and approach.style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Many amateur pieces written to a plan of seventeen
syllables are not haiku at all, but squibs, abstract statements, or collapsed
narratives. Which leads to the second
common misunderstanding: that haiku is a condensed or 'potted' form, 'Hamlet
in seventeen syllables'. Only in joke
poems. A haiku is not the big picture,
squashed; it is a selected part of the big picture, drawn life-size.
And a few actual examples (two translations from Japanese
masters, two contemporary English-language poems):
this lone iris
in spring twilight
pale moon before dawn;
in the wooden bowl
(honesty is a European plant popular in flower arrangements; when dried, it has flat, oval, filmy white seed-pods)
he says a word,
and I say a word – autumn
intensive care –
out there snow
cut off by
- Bowers, Faubion, ed. The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An
Anthology. Dover: Mineola, NY, 1996.
- Cobb, David, ed. The British Museum Haiku. The
British Museum: London, 2002.
- Cobb, David, and Martin Lucas, eds. The Iron Book of
British Haiku. Iron Press: North Shields, 1998.
- Presence (magazine)
Thanks to Elvenesse for introducing haiku discussion to HASA.
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