f/k/a . . . the archives

December 7, 2003

dagosan’s Haiku Primer

Filed under: — David Giacalone @ 3:45 pm

crows neg flip MEMO


to: the f/k/a. . . Haiku Circle
“My schoolteachers meant well, but often presented only a superficial and sometimes misguided notion of haiku. If you’re new to haiku, you may be in the same situation–without knowing it. While too much information can also impede the poetic impulse, with haiku, as with other genres of poetry, it’s worthwhile to move beyond superficialities to gain a more substantial knowledge of the genre.”   . . . . . Michael Dylan Welch, from Becoming a Haiku Poet
Despite what the dictionaries and the grammar school teachers say, the definition of Haiku — its form and its content — is far from clearcut, in either the Japanese or English language. The definition is (and has always been) evolving; haiku will be or become whatever the poets, editors, critics and readers of haiku accept as haiku.  If the “experts” can’t agree, it would be silly to think that we could or even should come up with a definitive standard for haiku poetry.  Nonetheless, it seems helpful to know what the debate is about, as we attempt to appreciate the genre and create our own haiku poetry.
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This Memo is, therefore, my attempt to find a broad, working definition of English-language haiku for our “Haiku Circle”.  Without at least a rough standard, we’ll end up merely sharing a handful of words that we hope are artful and interesting.  That’s not totally bad, but then we’d be a “really-short-poem, free-verse circle,” or maybe just a bumper-sticker club. My current preference is to work within the discipline and evolving traditions of the haiku genre, rather than being a poetry generalist.  For that we need a working definition (if only to measure our disagreement).  I have only a small headstart thinking about these issues, so your thoughts and opinions will be much appreciated.
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MISREAD & MISLED
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Most of the Western public and many Western poets have spent decades caught in the “simplistic trap” of saying that the haiku is a 17-syllable poem, consisting of three verses of five, seven, and five syllables.  This “myth-understanding” has become gospel for many, even though it is based on a misinterpretation of the form and structure of Japanese haiku and language.    The result was a focus on syllable-counting that has made most haiku in English, whether translations or originals, “awkwardly padded with unnecessary words” and ineffective compared to their Japanese counterparts. Furthermore, the emphasis on syllables and form has detracted from the content of haiku.  Unlike English sonnets or couplets, which can have any content within their prescribed form, haiku are not haiku if they are not concerned with nature (including human nature).
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In his “Haiku Handbook” (at p. 100), William S. Higginson states the obvious, “Japanese haiku are written in Japanese, which is quite different than English or other Western languages.”  Arthur Waley, an early Western translator of Japanese literature, said that the rest of the world will never know the importance of Janpanese poetry, “because of all poetries it is the most completely untranslatable.”  Editor Faubion Bowers added that “To our way of thinking, Japanese poetry lacks sentence structure.  It is imprecise in articles, particles, plurals and gender, and uses neither capital letters nor punctuation.”  As a result, unsophisticated Westerner editors and translators gave their unsuspecting readers poorly translated Japanese haiku AND passed on an unworkable definition of haiku poetry, focusing on an erroneous syllable count and artifical arrangement of lines.
  • Author David G. Lanoue, haiku poet-translator (and professor of English Literature at Xavier University N.O.), asksWhy is haiku taught in elementary school as a 17-syllable poem? The reason is simple: in many school curricula haiku is used to give students practice in recognizing syllables and manipulating language. Sadly, teachers often ignore the most important formal requirement of haiku: two images separated by a pause. They treat haiku as if it were merely a closed poetic form: any combination of words in a 5-7-5 combination.
In fact, Japanese poets do not count “syllables” at all.  Rather, they count “onji.” The Japanese word onji does not mean “syllable,” it means “sound symbol,” and refers to one of the phonetic characters used in writing Japanese phonetic script. Onji are very uniform in length and duration (unlike English syllables — compare “on” and “wrought”).  Onji are also, on average, quite a bit shorter than English syllables, as onji can have no more than one consonant, and long vowels count for two onji.  In addition, traditional Japanese haiku contain “cutting-words” or kireji that divide a stanza and indicate a pause; they are like sounded punctuation and are counted as onji.  Therefore, the fact that virtually all classical Japanese haiku consist of 17 onji in three parts of 5-7-5 onji each does not easily “translate” into an analogous English form 17 using syllables.
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Nor does it necessarily translate into three lines.  Haiku in Japanese have almost always been written in one line — actually, a vertical column.  The custom of using three lines in translating Japanese haiku to English is a Western convention.  Because they are so short, 17 onji can fit on one line or column, but the much-longer 17-syllable haiku in English usually does not fit on one line of print.  So, Western translators had to figure out a way to present the poem that would be accepted by the Western public.  Three lines “worked” better than two, because it was more symmetrical for fitting in 17 syllables.
SUMMARY & GROWING CONSENSUS approx
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After perusing the thoughts of a number of “authorities” on haiku,  I tend to agree with the conclusions of Canadian poet and anthologist George Swede, the editor of Global Haiku: Twenty-Five Poets World-Wide (published in 2000).  Swede concluded that, out of eight classical criteria (and a number of corollaries) for haiku, only five still remain crucial today. They are:
1.  BREVITY. The haiku must be BRIEF, that is, when read aloud it should be one breath-length long.  [A healthy, young person's breath, I guess.]   There is no requirement that English-language haiku be 17 syllables, nor that they be written on three lines.
The current consensus seems to be that English versions of haiku (whether translations or original) should be fewer than the 17 syllables that result from the classical 5-7-5 form.  A number of experts have suggested that using approximately 12 English syllables (10 to 14) best duplicates the length of classsic Japanese haiku. [See Forms in English Haiku - Keiko Imaoka.]
For example, in his Introduction to the 3rd edition (1999) of The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English, Cor van den Heuvel says:
“The form of haiku that has continued most in favor in English is the otherwise free-form three liner, often written with the second line slightly longer than the first and third.  These haiku are usually written in less than seventeen syllables.  Though a few poets will write in the 5-7-5 syllable form, this form is now mostly written by schoolchildren as an exercise to learn how to count syllables, by beginners who know little about the true essence of haiku, or by those who just like to have a strict form with which to practice.
“The one-line and two-line haiku, popular in the early and mid-eighties, are now a more occasional phenomenon.  The one-line is very hard to write successfully, though some of the most outstanding haiku in English have been in one line.”
2.  AWE.  The haiku must express a sense of AWE or transcendent insight.  This is (apparently) a difficult concept to put in words. And it probably sounds a bit more high-faluting than it really is, since awe can come in small doses; and transcendence doesn’t necessarily mean brilliance.  Harold Henderson called haiku “a record of a moment of emotion in which human nature is somehow linked to all nature.”  (That link is often unstated in the poem, with the human as the implied observer.)  Poet/editor Cor Van Den Heuvel said “haiku means seeing things as they are, realizing reality as it is — seeing one thing so clearly, we see the oneness of all things.”  In his anthology, “The Classic Tradition of Haiku,” Faubion Bowers points out that there is “a hidden dualism” in each haiku (near/far, sound/silence, etc.); that comparison can be an element that creates the necessary transcendence.
On a more modest scale, in his Haiku Handbook, Wm. Higgenson said “Most haiku present dramatic moments the authors found in common, everyday occurrences” and they answer the question “what?” — what made you feel this joy or pain or sadness?
3. NATURE.  The haiku must invovle some aspect of Nature other than merely human nature.  (That aspect, of course, being the linkage between nature and humans).   As Cor Van den Heuvel has stated in his “Haiku Anthology”):
“Nature in some sense must be present, and in some particular object — not generalized or allegorized.  Haiku poets may find it in some unlikely places, however.  Nature can be found on city streets as well as in the woods.  It is wherever there is light or darkness, sound or silence, heat or cold — in whatever can be seen, heard, smelled, or touched. Haiku relates us to nature through the senses.”
4.  SENSORY IMAGES.  The haiku must contain SENSE IMAGES, not generalizations — it must express in words something physical that is being seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled.
5.  NOWNESS.  The haiku must present an event as happening NOW, not in the past or the future.  [Haiku is about immediacy, not reminiscing or projecting.]
Reader’s and author’s CHOICE:  George Swede’s study and writing caused him to produce his own informed definition of haiku, but to acknowledge that following particular rules is a personal choice.  Thus, he rejects the notion that there must be 17 syllables and that they be arranged in three lines of 5-7-5.
  • Swede found that, starting in the 1960s, 80% of the English haiku found in the best anthologies and periodicals had fewer than 17 syllables. Swede notes (at 17) that a haiku with 17 onji in Japanese will have less than half that number of syllables in English. Swede also states that the average 17-onji haiku has five or six words, but that the typical 17-syllable English haiku has twelve or thirteen words, omitting articles.  Faubion Bowers says that classic Japanese haiku consist of as few as three and as many as 10 words.  Also, in his popular book “The Haiku Anthology,” poet/editor Cor Van Den Heuvel suggests that 10 to 14 English syllables better approximate the spoken length of haiku written in the classic Japanese form of 17 onji.  Wm. Higginson, the author of “The Haiku Handbook,” wrote in 1985 that using approximately 12 English syllables best duplicates the original Japanese length.
Swede also rejects the notions that (a) haiku must use so-called season-words or refer to a specific season, as was done in classical Japanese haiku; (b) haiku must always be “objective” and express as little as possible of the poet’s personality; and (c) haiku should avoid all “poetic devices” such as metaphor, hyperbole, and rhyme.  Swede points out that neither the presence nor absence of the rejected criteria and corollaries “create or destroy a haiku. Whether or not they are followed becomes a matter of personal choice.”
ART without ARTIFICE: Of course, using or not using Swede’s rejected criteria might affect the quality of the haiku — too many or too few syllables or lines, too much subjectiveness, or too much poetic artifice, can all detract from the immediacy and direct emotion of the poem.    In van den Heuvel’s opinion, “the greatest haiku are those that take me directly to the haiku moment without calling attention to themselves.”  Alan Watts called haiku “the wordless poem,” and for van den Heuvel that phrase means that “Haiku, for the reader, is wordless because those few words are invisible.  We as readers look right through them.  There is nothing between us and the moment.”
Higginson explains the personal choice issue well in his Handbook:
“While American haiku poets warred over ‘traditional’ versus free-form haiku throughout the 1960s, in the 1970s each camp acknowledged that there were poems of outstanding worth in both styles.  Now anyone can write a haiku in the style that fits the needs of the particular poet, moment, and perception.  And write another in a different style the next time.”
In her Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands on Guide, Jane Reichhold, takes a similar, informed, personal, open-ended approach to adopting criteria or a definition for haiku.  She does remind us, however (at p. 49), that “Because haiku is a form of genre . . . one must adopt some rules in order to write it,” and she insists that making the choice should involve considering many of the rules and styles adopted over the decades in which English-language haiku has evolved.   Reichhold believes that there is no single style or technique that is absolutely the best, but (at 51):
“Usually writers stay with a rule until a new one is found to replace it.  Because there are so many rules, we all have to make the decision: are those rules, goals, or guidelines soume I want for myself.  This thought is much more gentle to the Universe than saying some haiku are good and others are bad”
Content Questions:
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The basic questions about the content of Haiku ask whether haiku must be about nature (other than human nature) and whether it must contain a “season-word” (called “kigo” in Japanese) — a word that indicates a particular season of the year.  Two other issues are whether haiku must involve sense images/descriptions (rather than generalizations) and whether they must involve a moment occuring in the present, rather than the past or future.
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All classical Japanese haiku and most modern Japanese haiku contain a season-word, many of which are highly stylized (e.g., mentioning a frog refers to spring; mentioning lightning refers to summer).  Because all classical Japanese haiku contain a season-word, all classical Japanese haiku have a reference to nature in the poem.  Without the season-word and reference to nature, a poem is not haiku in the Japanese tradition, even if it has the exact form as classical haiku. (A Japanese poem with haiku form that refers only to human nature or relationships is called “senryu,” not haiku.)
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For a few decades, there was a debate over whether English language haiku must also use a translation of one of the Japanese season-words (kigo).  There are thousands of them in the Japanese haiku tradition, many of which have no useful point of reference for non-Japanese people.  Using English translations of Japanese kigo would obscure the meaning of the poems for speakers of other languages and those living in other climates, with other flora and fauna and geography.   Therefore, except for a few English haikuists who feel rabid about needing season-words, it is clear that there is no season-word tradition or rule in English language haiku.
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Although Van den Heuvel believes haiku must have a reference to nature other than human nature, he notes that it can be hard to draw the line between haiku and senryu, which have the same form as haiku, but focus on human nature — usually using irony, satire and humor.   Our haiku circle might also want to include senryu in its scope, since we can surely appreciate “a moment of awareness about one’s own inner feelings or one’s relationships with other human beings,” as much as we appreciate a moment of awareness of our link to nature.  Indeed, for some of us it is far easier to get in touch with the irony and humor of the human condition than with our link to nature.  Attempting to write haiku can help restore that link to nature.  [see the Senryu webpages compiled by Ray Rasmussen, and the f/k/a posting on senryu]
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I’m going to stop here — this primer, like good haiku, should be open-ended and keep the reader thinking.   If you have comments or suggestions, please send them in.  In addition to the books mentioned above, see our Haiku Resources Page for further materials about the nature of English-language haiku.  And, see my essay “is it or ain’t it haiku?“.and linked resources. As Jane Reichhold advises, reading good haiku and finding authors you admire is one very good way to move toward your own definition of haiku.
  • Here’s a quick guide to writing haiku:

    Ten tips for writing haiku By permission of the author Michael Dylan Welch (all rights reserved), from the haiku begin page of haiku world (April, 2003).,

    [Ed. Note: It helps to have rules when you write haiku -- you can pick your own rules, but should do so after informing yourself of traditions, issues and options.  See Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands on Guide by Jane Reichhold, which has good suggestions on approaching and selecting your own haiku rules and improving your writing skills.]

    1. Write in three lines of about 10 to 17 syllables (some writers use a short-long-short format, but sometimes it’s better to just say what you need to say and not worry about form); haiku are usually not 17 syllables long in English.
    2. Try to include some reference to the season or time of year.
    3. To make your haiku more immediate, write in the present tense.
    4. Write about common, everyday events in nature and in human life; choose events that give you a moment of understanding or realization about the truth of things around you—but don’t explain them.
    5. Write from personal experience (memories are okay) rather than from imagination to produce haiku that are authentic and believable.
    6. Create an emotional response in the reader by presenting what caused your emotion rather than the emotion itself.
    7. Put two images together in the poem to create harmony or contrast, using words that are specific, common, and natural (avoid long or conceptual sorts of words).
    8. One image of the haiku can appear in one of the poem’s three lines; the other image can be described in two lines (either the first two or the last two); avoid creating haiku with three images (or three grammatical parts) because this weakens the energy created by the gap between just two parts.
    9. Avoid titles and rhyme (haiku virtually never have either) as well as metaphor, simile, and most other rhetorical devices (they are often too abstract or detours around the directness exhibited in most good haiku).
    10. Avoid awkward or unnatural line breaks and avoid dropping or adding words just to fit a syllable count (the poem should come across as perfectly natural and easy; anything that is choppy or unnatural will detract from the reader’s perception and enjoyment—make the words come across as so natural and easy-going that the reader doesn’t even notice them). And of course, don’t forget to have fun and enjoy experiencing life through your five senses!
  • George Swede has a thoughtful discussion “Towards a Definition of English Haiku” in the  anthology Global Haiku: Twenty-Five Poets World-Wide.  The following summary of Swede’s “guidelines” appear in a Writer’s Profile at the Millikin University Haiku website:

    • Swede’s Guidelines for haiku:
      In the Global Haiku intro, [Swede] outlines eight commonly used haiku guidelines, then eliminates a few to come up with his five ultimate rules of good haiku.

      1. haiku must be brief: one breath long

      2. haiku must express sense of awe or insight

      3. haiku must involve some aspect of nature other than human nature

      4. haiku must possess sense images, not generalizations

      5. haiku must present an event as happening presently, not past or future

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