by J. Zimmerman
The Haiku is a Japanese verse form, and its name is generally translated as “good words.”
A haiku is just a tiny poem, the size of your breath. They are good for you.
- The Haiku originated in Japan.
Historically, it derives from the haikai (a linked-verse poem) which was created by a group of poets as a long series of small stanzas (or links).
The first stanza, which was called the hokku (“starting verse”), set the tone for the subsequent poem. Usually it set the scene by including a reference to the location and season. Often the most honored poet of the group was invited to compose the hokku.
Poets would practice writing hokku, many of which were never used as opening links.
The creation of the Haiku as a form in its own right occurred in the seventeenth century, when feudalism was weakening in Japan while merchants and trade were strengthening.
The term haiku arose in the 1890’s, largely through Masaoka Shiki. The haiku retained the “5-7-5” form of the hokku, and retained its inclusion of a reference to the season.
In Japan intense study is made of what are acceptable kigo (season words) and kidai (seasonal topics). Some English-language poets incorporate translated kigo (such as “snow”) and some create new ones (such as “Christmas”).
In Japanese Haiku, Kenneth Yashuda asserts that a haiku is a poem that:
- Arises from “the haiku attitude [which] is a readiness for an experience for its own sake.”
- Expresses “a haiku moment” whose “quality is eternal, for in this state, man and his environment are one unified whole, in which there is no sense of time.”
- Among the most beautiful and powerful haiku are those written by the Japanese poets
- Matsuo Bashō (1644-94), the ascetic and seeker,
- Yosa Buson (1716-83), the artist, and
- Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), the humanist.
Some of the best translations of their work are in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa, edited by Robert Hass.
The author of this essay is delighted to report that some of her haiku have been voted “Best of Issue” by readers of the haiku magazine Geppo.
- There is great variation and discussion within Japan on “how to write a haiku” and even more argument outside of Japan on how to write non-Japanese haiku.
I advise you to try each feature of the haiku form, in order to learn from the inside what those attributes help you bring to your poems.
Those interested in 65 different “rules” for haiku can search the web for Jane Reichhold’s essay Haiku Rules that have Come and Gone. As Reichhold comments: “Haiku, which seem so light, free and spontaneous, are built on discipline. … Bashō had his motto: ‘Learn the rules; and then forget them.’ … here are some old and new rules.” Reichhold suggests that you decide on some rules from essays and haiku and other poems you admire. And that after you have used those for a while, and become skilled with them, you pick and explore other rules.
Here is a small set of rules to start with:
- Write the poem short, perhaps short enough that it can be said in a breath.
- Write the poem in three lines, with the second line slightly longer than the first and last.
- Divide the haiku into two parts, using a syntactical break to divide the poem after the first or second line. This can be done by grammar or by punctuation. In Japanese, appropriate punctuation is a kireji (“cutting word”) which is a sounded word, such as if we said “semi-colon”.
- If the “traditional” syllable count is used for the haiku, use this form:
5 syllables 7 syllables 5 syllables
Writers in the USA often use fewer syllables in their haiku, either from personal preference or from a belief that this approximates better the time taken to speak such lines in Japanese, giving a form such as:
3 syllables 5 syllables 3 syllables
- In English it may be useful to count stresses rather than syllables, such as:
2 stresses 3 stresses 2 stresses
- Create internal “links” between lines by:
- Association, where something in the one line shares something (perhaps in appearance, or in use, or in situation) with something in the line it follows. For example, North Americans associate pumpkin pie with Thanksgiving.
- Contrast, where something in the new link (e.g., quickness, darkness, arrival) is in opposition to something in the link it follows (e.g., sloth, brightness, departure).
- Comparison, which (like the European use of simile and metaphor) causes one thing to bring another subject to mind. Write two different images that are in some way similar and that complete each other.
- Haiku is not just the form; it is a way of experiencing in the world around us.
Here are some steps to take in creating a Haiku:
- Look around you, where you are.Write phrases of what you see. The phrases don’t need to be connected. Make at least one phrase for each sense.Write some more phrases, each with some words that reflect location. E.g., “on a withered branch.”Then write some more phrases, reflecting the season or the time of year. E.g., “oak leaves budding.”
- Some haiku doctrines require that you “compose on the spot,” writing the haiku when and where you experience it. Some poets claim that this is the only way for a haiku to have true and fresh originality.Other poets “compose from recollection” hours, days, or years later. Some poets claim that this deepens the associations in the haiku, though letting your subconscious and conscious mind mull over the images.And other poets “compose from imagination.” Some poets believe that the greatest creativity is shown in this method, provided that the result “feels” honest.We suggest that you try each method.
- As with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not “drive” your poem. If the form begins to feel forced, then the poem’s content must be asserted.
- Traditionally, you only break the form’s rules because you choose to, not because you lack the skills and devotion to make your poem work in the traditional form.
- Some favorite construction techniques for haiku:
- Ambiguity; double meaning.
- Divine in the common.
- Focus narrowing.
- Linkage: close.
- Linkage: leaping.
- Sabi (loneliness, solitude, beauty).
- Shasei (nature sketch) or shajutsu (reality).
- Synesthesia (sense switching).
- Wabi (beauty of the worn, aged, and simple).
- Yûgen (mystery and sacredness of the ordinary).