First Thoughts — A Haiku Primer
(© draft; 2005; title subject to change; all rights reserved)
by Jim Kacian: poet; editor/publisher of Red Moon Press;
co-founder of the World Haiku Society; past editor
of Frogpond, journal of the Haiku Society of America
- see jim’s Haiku Glossary, also found at the foot of this page
freshly fallen snow–
opening a new package
of typing paper
It has happened to all of us: in the course of our ordinary day, doing something we have done a hundred times before, we are arrested by something we see, or smell, or feel. For whatever reason, this time it strikes us in a way that it has never done before, and yet it seems as if we have always known it to be this way. It may be deep, it may be transitory, but regardless, we are changed: we can never feel the same about this experience again. We have had a moment of insight, a seeing deeper into the workings of the world.
Sometimes these moments are private in nature, springing from deep within us, and so might resist our attempts to verbalize them. But often they are so persuasive, so attractive, that we want to share them, and so we do our utmost to find a way to make them communicable. When we make this attempt, we enter the realm of poetry; and the poetic form we most often find meets our needs in such a situation is haiku.
Haiku have been around for hundreds of years, and, like other poetic forms, have been written for contests and greeting cards, parties and recreation, therapy and instruction; they have been floated down streams, hung from trees, and sung. From the beginning, however, the primary reasons for writing haiku have been to record our insights about the world, and to communicate them to others.
These reasons suggest that haiku take for granted a common ground, a tacit agreement between poet and reader that there is a real world out there, and that we share it. Haiku generally are not about exotic locales and unusual circumstances: haiku are the records of revelations we have about our ordinary lives. All poems, like prose, record information about our universe and ourselves. But poems are concerned with more than just information: they contain ways of linking this information together within the poem, and also to other poems, other stories, other ways of knowing which help us to understand more deeply, more broadly, and with more integration.
The more a poem compels us to imagine its reality, the more we may fill in gaps our personal experiences have not brought us directly. A poem can be as full and evocative as the direct experience, and often is the only kind of experience we might have concerning persons, places or things outside our normal lives.
Haiku have long exploited this truth. Typically, a poet who chooses haiku to express his moment strives to place his reader directly at the scene, not so that he may tell of the experience, but so that the reader may experience it directly for himself. The attentive reader will find all the input to recreate the moment–a setting, the conditions of the moment, the senses fired, the action, the entire packet of information–so that, through the act of close imagining, the reader may actually relive the moment, and arrive at the realization himself. The poet’s reality is mapped onto the reader’s, like an overlay, and when there is a sufficient overlap, the experience is shared.
Haiku is a poetic form, and does hold some things in common with other poetry. However, it has developed, over its 400 and more years of practice, techniques specific to itself, a sense of how language best works within it, and several theories of poetics. We will examine these elements which make haiku unique among all the poetic forms of the world.
But haiku is changing, too, and what has characterized it in classical times in the country of its origins, Japan, is not necessarily what has been preserved or considered most valuable in its adoption by the west. So we will also want to acquire an understanding of what haiku has been, but also what it is becoming, and what it might look like in the future as it is shaped to meet the needs of people whose realities must be very different from agricultural, feudal Japan.
And it is this flexibility, this ability to be shaped to the needs of its practitioners which will determine how well haiku fares in the future, and for how long. Just now it appears to be thriving in its many adopted lands around the globe. It has adapted to a variety of languages, cultures and circumstances, and appears to have gained energy from these transformations. Haiku, it would appear, has not only a wonderful classical history, but an adventurous future before it.
So what is this form, practiced for hundreds of years, and giving promise of hundreds more, in dozens of lands and languages around the world? One of the greatest of haiku masters, Basho, the son of a samurai and a wandering poet, once said it this way: haiku is what is happening, right here, right now.
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Chapter One – What is a Haiku?
So let’s begin right here –
and right now–
these few seconds
What is going on right now, right where you are? Is the sun shining or has it clouded over? Is the wind blowing or has the day gone still? Is that bird singing, or has it just left off? In the house, has your furnace just clicked on, or the air conditioner? Is water gurgling through the pipes? As for yourself, can you feel your blood coursing, lungs expanding or contracting? Are you aware of your emotions rising, your thoughts racing?
And we should ask at this point, is this haiku? Or is it merely a catalogue? To take Basho’s statement literally, everything–every action, feeling, thought–is a haiku, provided it is what is happening right here and right now. If this were true, then this book would end here–and haiku would be endlessly clogged by the minutiae of life.
John Cage, the 20th century composer, once said, in the same vein: “Everything you hear is music.” And he composed music designed to prove his point, including his famous “silent” compositions wherein the ambient noise of the environment was featured: we might hear the creaking of the chairs in the auditorium, or an airplane passing overhead, a cough (or several), and increasingly, whispers.
The fact is, we distinguish between music and noise. Even granting Cage a great deal of latitude, not all music is of similar interest: some works you want to hear again and again, some are exhausted in a single playing. The ambient noise which Cage wished us to focus upon, while occasionally capable of capturing our attention, generally does not interest us because it goes on from moment to moment into more of itself, and is not organized into areas of greater interest in the way we consider music to be.
It is the organization of sound that we appreciate as the art of music. In just this way haiku which is only a list of the objects and processes of “right here, right now,” would soon weary us, and we would quickly lose interest. And so to Basho’s famous dictum, we must append “and also something more than that.”
these few seconds
In this example we can find the here and now of the poem easily enough, but it is the something more which brings the here and now home to us. In haiku, most of all it is this something more that we will seek. We will attempt a working definition of haiku at this point. Definitions are made not to burden us with restrictions, but to make it possible to have at the ready information which will help us know what to look for when considering haiku.
Bear in mind that a definition may be slippery, and especially so for so lively and active a process as poetry. All definitions are retrospective rather than predictive. They comment on what has been the case in the past, and may be less useful when encountering something new. It is even possible for a definition to interfere with our understanding of what haiku is and may be, if we make it too restrictive or inflexible.
On the other hand, a definition can be useful and inspiring. It is an arrow, aiming us towards a target, indicating a direction that we may follow. It can be vital. It can inspire. It can open more than it closes. Haiku, as a still-vital entity, defies any sort of comprehensive definition. It is still engaged in the process of fulfilling its destiny, and what that will be no one can say. What we can say is that haiku has undergone dramatic change on several occasions, most recently in the last half of the twentieth century. At any moment when things are in flux, as now, we need to choose our definitions with care, and with a little bit of skepticism.
So to begin, let us say a haiku is
. . . a brief poem . . .
There are two parts to this opening phrase–let’s look at them in order. “brief”: nothing characterizes haiku, at least superficially, so much as this point: haiku are the shortest poems in the world.
on the driftwood
There have been some forms–the epigram, the couplet, the monostich — which also produce short poems. But all haiku are short, and this is part of their distinctiveness on paper, to the ear and in the mind. How brief is brief? We will consider this in detail later, but for now consider the examples in this chapter. All have two images laid out over two or three lines, and vary between 6 and 15 syllables, with the average being around 12. Haiku usually are somewhere close to these numbers; we might think of 17 syllables as an upper limit, only occasionally approached.
And then: “poem.” A haiku is a poem, which means it is a literary work using metrical, rhythmical and other poetical means to achieve an aesthetic point or moment. When published, it is a public sharing, and subject to the same kinds of scrutiny, criticism and appreciation that other art forms are. Throughout its history haiku has been used as many things: as meditation –
I pee on my shoe
… Michael Ketchek
only wanting to read seed catalogs
…. Pamela Miller Ness
the village at dawn;
a bird’s song is part of the silence
… Larry Gates
the weight of my new shoes
… R. A. Stefanac
while she counts syllables,
the haiku slips away
… Mildred Rose
talking of people no longer here
.. Jack Barry
to name but a few. And it succeeds in each of these contexts. But only when considered as poetry, as literature, does haiku realize its highest potential and fullest range. R. H. Blyth, in considering this very issue, writes, “. . . if there is ever imagined to be any conflict between Zen and the poetry in haiku, the Zen goes overboard; poetry is the ultimate standard.”
Blyth was a believer that Zen was the proper attitude from which to consider haiku, and we may in fact substitute, for his use of Zen, what he would say in the larger context: if there is conflict between the poetry in haiku and “anything else”, the “anything else” is jettisoned. His final phrase–poetry is the ultimate standard–is ours as well. Of courses, what we mean by “poetry” will need to be defined, and it may be that we will have to dispose of some of the notions of poetry we inherit from our culture to come completely to a realization of what it means in haiku.
In fact, it is only when we understand haiku in this way that its other uses become available to us to full effect. Only at this point does haiku become what poetry must be for all poets: a way of life. Of course, there is more to consider in how haiku realizes itself as poetry: and we will examine issues of form, content, language and qualities best served by the haiku form. But it is important to establish that we mean to consider haiku first and foremost as literature. Everything else will devolve from this principle point.
. . . which records an experience . . .
Haiku always begin with an experience. This experience can take many forms: it can be something actually witnessed or participated in–
talking to each other
back to back
. . . Dimitar Anakiev
or something from memory–
cat gone for years
. . . Edward Beatty
even something imaginary –
from the other world . . .
the Milky Way
. . . Yatsuka Ishihara
Throughout the history of haiku, the first of these kinds of experience has been preferred by poets, editors and readers, and because of this haiku is often referred to as the poetry of the real. Many of the most revered and quoted haiku that have been of this sort. But memory and imagination are powerful providers of experience, too, and many poems fulminated from them achieve a resonance within us, since they reach the truth of a situation and of a feeling.
Walking with you again
in the snow . . .
only my footprints
. . . Frances Bradford Neighbors
While experience, of whatever sort, is primary to the creation of haiku, it is the radical step of recording the experience which opens it from a private experience into a work of art.
Moments of insight are usually actual rather than verbal, so the act of “translating” the moment into words is the artistic leap, the act in which the catalog of “what’s happening right here, right now” is selected, organized, alchemized into poetry.
. . . of a moment of revelation . . .
What moments are so compelling that they are worth this exacting artistic treatment? It is not enough that the moment be beautiful, or touching, or closely observed, although all of these are elements which the best haiku evince. Haiku are about something more than these things: they are about those moments when we see the world clearly, as it is, and not as we have become habituated to see it.
the room is white
until that red apple
. . . Anita Virgil
Insight may be profound –
as the grape next to it
. . . Dhugal Lindsay
it may be slight–
In the wake
of a gliding swan
. . . Gustave Keyser
but once we have had it, we cannot ever see the world in quite the same way again.
. . . into the nature of the world . . .
But this is not to say that haiku is merely close observation. Neither is it simply the statement of discovered significance. Haiku is the poetry we make of our experiences of significance and close observation. The revelation that is inherent in haiku is tied closely to the way we regard the world. It is alternately dependent upon the newness of our observation, as if we are seeing something for the first time, but at the same time it hinges upon our feeling that, once seen, we know this observation to be true, as though we’ve known it before and all along.
So a sense of familiarity is critical to our sense of revelation: revelation, and therefore haiku, is not novelty, but renewal.
we turn out all the lights
to hear the rain
. . . Peggy Willis Lyles
This insight may relate to the natural world–
suddenly from the heart
the field takes wing
… James Tipton
One of the reasons for this is that the natural world is the common ground between all poets and readers of haiku. There is virtually no one who has not experienced a wide array of natural phenomenon, and stood in awe of its incidents and effects. This common ground helps situate the poem, and therefore the poet and the reader, quickly and usefully in much haiku. Our attention therefore may be given to the rest of the experience; and, at the same time, the background of natural phenomenon serves to broaden our response to the experience, giving us a natural sounding-board for our feelings and responses.
Or again, it may take a more human face–
painting the fence
the same green
. . . Carol Montgomery
However, while haiku may explore interior space, they are not by nature personal. Haiku are not poems we write about ourselves, not another form of confessional poetry; in fact, they are moments when the poet loses his own self-consciousness because of an identification with his subject –
I look for something
very blue to wear
. . . David Cobb
Haiku attempt to objectify reality, and look outward upon it, rather than inward.
. . . in an effort to share it with others . . .
The child sharpens
the green pencil
. . . Elena Manta Ciubotariu
to its most obscure recesses–
inside the bloody
rain of the month
. . . Kaye E. Bache
As the body of poetry grows, so too does our picture of the world, and not merely by the accumulation of facts. Instead, we have the means to see directly into the nature of reality, untinged by personal considerations, moment to moment.
Haiku create a reality. Like all good art, they persuade. In the sense that our map of the cosmos is changed by reading and entering haiku — that is, in the sense that haiku have power — they have, they are, reality.
Chapter Two: Form
Poetry, like music, unfolds over time. The manner in which we present a poem has an impact on the way it is read, heard and received.
We unconsciously acknowledge a series of conventions every time we read a poem in English: we begin at the top left of the page; we read from left to right; we pause a bit after each line (unlike prose where we simply continue on); and most of all, we read and listen with a different attention than when we’re reading something like the newspaper.
Everything within the presentation of a haiku matters: where one line ends and another begins; where we place our words; where we insert pauses. This is because we know that poetry, being heightened and compressed, requires different tools to read it well. Poetry is performance. And if poetry is performance, then poetic form is its stage. When we look upon the stage we willingly suspend our disbelief, if only for a moment, and accept the conventions which permit its magic and truth to become available to us.
Presenting our poems well, with a clearly identifiable stage, allows the reader to prepare himself for what comes next, to know what role he is to play in the communication which is to follow. At the same time, once we acknowledge the stage, we want it to disappear, so it doesn’t interfere with our direct interaction and enjoyment of what is presented.
So, too, with haiku: ideally, we would like the vehicle of the moment (the poem) to interfere as little as possible with the transmission of the moment itself. Form is the transparent scaffolding which supports the poem by which we transmit the moment. There have been a variety of forms which have been utilized in haiku in English. All of them have some historical claim to authenticity, and good poems have been written in each.
It might be useful here to consider the classical Japanese form, since it has been the model for all the English-language varieties. Classical Japanese haiku were most often written in single vertical lines (contemporary publication of Japanese haiku still utilizes this layout) in 17 “on” (an on is a sound unit, like ga, wa, tsu or no, which, combined, form the words of the Japanese language). Although line breaks were not physically apparent, it was apparent from internal considerations (and from the voiced punctuation available in the Japanese language) that most poems were divided into 3 divisions, the first of 5, the second of 7, and the third of 5 on, with a grammatical pause after either the first or second “line” (and less often in the middle of the second “line”).
This tripartite form, with its asymmetrical grouping of either 5-12 or 12-5 on can be considered the standard format of Japanese haiku, and when the poem was being assimilated into English, attempts were made to emulate this form in different ways.
At the same time, concessions were made to accommodate the vast differences between the Japanese and English languages. Differing emphases result in the proliferation of forms in English, and each of them brings something unique with it. Let’s consider each of them.
dragged through lily pads–
. . . Burnell Lippy
We may consider the three-line, short-long-short form to be standard in English. One recent study suggests that over 90% of all haiku published in English in the past three decades has appeared in this format, and there is no evidence to suggest that this is changing. In imitating the classical Japanese poem, the divisions of the pattern were accepted by early translators as justification for line breaks. What this offers in English which is less apparent in the Japanese is an interesting use of enjambment as a sort of corollary for the Japanese kireji, or cutting word. Overall, this form has satisfied the needs for most poets in English for the principal time of its practice.
Besides the form shown here, with all three lines flush left, variations of indentation of any of the lines is often noted, especially as modeled by Blyth in his copious work.
after the fall moon shadows under my eyes
. . . Alexis Rotella
a purple evening in the window she folds her underwear
. . . chris gordon
This form is usually called a one-line haiku, or a one-liner, and is clearly an imitation of the Japanese practice of writing the poem as a single vertical line. Also, the customary display of a poem’s transliteration into romaji (the English syllabary rendering of the sounds of a Japanese poem) is today conventionally laid out in a single horizontal line, as is the transcription of the poem in its original katakana or hiragana syllabaries. This can be cited as further evidence that haiku are intended to be one-line poems. What this does not take into account is that in Japanese the one-line is composed of three distinct metrical lines, and is perceived as such. Sometimes in English additional space is used to signify slight pauses, as in the second example. The one-line form is the second most practiced form of haiku today in English.
in the woodpile
the broken ax handle
. . . Michael Facherty
Our next example is correspondingly called a two-line haiku. While two-line haiku are relatively rare in classical Japanese practice, many examples, especially from translation, may be found in English to justify this choice. An early and important collection of translated classical haiku by Asataro Miyamora in 1932 employed the two-line form. It was also the form of choice by such early important personages in the haiku world as Lafcadio Hearn and Harold Stewart. A large measure of the transmission of haiku understanding is due to the work of translators, and we cannot dismiss the considerable influence these people have had on not only the content and ethos of haiku, but also its form.
As we shall examine in the chapter on technique later in this book, haiku is most often the juxtaposition of two elements, and on the surface the two-line form might seem ideally suited to the haiku. What it loses,
however, is the sudden shift, the “surprise” element which English haiku may have in their third line. They also lose the asymmetry inherent in the Japanese original, where the 5 on of the first line is poised against 7 and 5 on in the second phrase, or else 5-7 posited against the final 5. The English 1 line against 2 lines, or 2 lines against 1, is the closest approximation we have of this effect. Most often, two-liners seem more like epigrams (which one early translator, Basil Chamberlain, called them in his most influential study of the form) or couplets than haiku as we have come to know them. They remain a relative rarity.
we step back
to make room
for her perfume
. . . Nancy S. Young
Further down the cobble beach
The face of another
Loses its copper glow.
. . . Tito
The four-line form is another rarity, but has been seen a bit more often recently in the work of poets from the United Kingdom. Though the first example (a senryu) uses the fourth line as a means of surprising the reader, most often the material of a 4-liner might have fit into three, as in the second example, and so is a style choice. Occasionally it may indicate the poet has need for additional words and/or ideas; this sort of packing is at least a debatable issue within this form.
Additional considerations must take into account by the poet when deciding on the right form for his or her poem. The next 3 models all emphasize different aspects available within the form.
The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the autumn leaves
. . . Eric Amann
The first of these is a three-line poem with an emphasis on syllable count. As mentioned before, classical Japanese haiku were usually written in 5-7-5 on. The intent of the form of this poem is to mimic this count pattern in English syllables. The syllable and the on are not equivalent, and so to treat them as equivalent is simply an aesthetic decision. This may be considered a sort of maximum format for haiku, and the poet needs to take care that the language does not become padded to accommodate the count, and that extraneous information is not brought into play, as often happens. When caution is taken, this form has been used to create many beautiful and lasting haiku, though it is not seen as any more essential to the form today than these other formats by a large majority of practitioners.
on the padlock
. . . Penny Harter
Next is the converse of the 5-7-5, the minimal haiku. Here emphasis is placed on the greatest compression possible. The dangers here is that not enough information or detail is offered by the poet, and the poem
therefore becomes hermetic or overly private. Minimalist poems seem, by their very nature, to be experimental, and few have shown great lasting power, unless they have also employed other elements, such as a visual appeal, as well. Nevertheless, some excellent examples, as the one shown, indicate that in the hands of the best poets, very much can be done with very little.
“HONK TO SHOW
. . . LeRoy Gorman
Our next example is a visual poem. The intent is to convey the experience of the moment in a visual as well as verbal and/or auditory fashion. These have proven to be very difficult to do, at least in part because maintaining a just balance between verbal and visual surface is an extremely challenging task.
Sometimes these formal choices are combined, as, for example, in one-word haiku such as “tundra” by Cor van den Heuvel, and “shark ” by Alexis Rotella. In both of these examples, a single word is arrayed against the solid whiteness of a whole page. Both are dependent upon context (or lack of context) for their impact, and so are more visual than one-line in function.
on this cold
2 night 3 4
. .. Marlene Mountain
Finally, we have the organic form. This form owes least, perhaps, to the Japanese models, and arises instead out of the free-verse tradition, while still maintaining the way of functioning which haiku affords. Space and arrangement of the example poem reminds one more of William Carlos Williams than Basho, and yet the import of the poem is decided by the revelation of a moment through the juxtaposition of images. This technique has not been explored to any great degree yet in western haiku, but seems to be a natural amalgamation of traditions, and holds much promise for the future.
Content aside, all of these poems fall into an acceptable form of the haiku as it is practiced today. Further, all of them have historical precedents which date back for, and have been refined over, several centuries. All, therefore, have at least some claim to being authentic forms of haiku, and not merely innovations brought about in adapting the form to modern practice or modalities.
What can we conclude from such varied practice within the single form of haiku? And how do we make choices as to which of these formats, or another, best fits our poem?
A haiku should be as long as it needs to be, and as short as it can be. Its arrangement should depend upon the needs of the poem, not the needs of the tradition.
While there are arguments for each of the various forms illustrated, no one form is best for all poems. An organic approach is more flexible than any formula can be, and permits us to shape the poem according to the needs of mood and content, rather than to the demands of something as extraneous as the number of syllables in a line.
Choosing the form best suited to the material at hand is one of the challenges to mastering form. We will give further consideration to this in the chapter on technique.
Chapter Three: Content
Is it too much to presume that all writers have something to say? We’ve all read things where we have wondered what the writer might possibly have in mind. Or else we might see why the author has an interest in his topic, but it is not apparent why anyone else would consider it. Nevertheless, it is useful to assume that there is a purpose to all writing, although we should also be aware that the purpose a reader might think a piece of writing has, and that which the author intends, are not necessarily the same
If we begin with this presumption, then it follows that the writer knows what it is he or she is trying to convey, and has adopted a strategy designed to do just that. This is true for all communications, whether we are aware of it or not. Whether or not the author succeeds in realizing his goals is a separate issue. In virtually all cases, what we mean when we say someone is a good writer is that he has something of interest to say, and says it interestingly; that is, he succeeds in realizing his goals. We may, as aspiring writers, even adopt this as our motto.
Take, for example, the following :
where: a pasture
what: frog sounds; a bucket
These raw materials are not promising, and yet in the hands of a master were used to create one of the great poems of the haiku form.
voices of frogs fill
the forgotten bucket
This brings us to another important consideration. When we choose a form we think will help us succeed in reaching our goals, we are doing more than simply selecting what is best for the material: we are also announcing a specific relationship to that material. No one attempts to squeeze the material of an epic into haiku form. There are conventions which must be present for a poem to be considered an epic: the calling down of the Muses, a loftiness of language and subject matter, a thoroughness of treatment, to name but three. It is possible to write other large-scale poems, but in order for it to be an epic, it must contain these elements.
Haiku is exactly the same. It is possible to write short poems that look like haiku, but unless they contain the elements which make a poem a haiku, then they are just another short poem.
These, then, are the two issues we will seek to address in this chapter. What may a haiku contain? What is its range of expression? Is it capable of expressing all the truths of our times? And in this vein, what is it most, and least, effective in expressing?
And, what must a haiku contain? What are the particulars which mark a poem as a haiku?
Let us begin by saying that anything we experience may be the subject of a haiku. When the Japanese masters were writing, they wrote about their environment, which was pastoral and feudalistic. Some contemporary editors have considered that these elements are the only appropriate subjects for haiku. But if BashÙ were alive today, would he choose not to capture a moment of significance because it was occasioned by his use of a computer, or his location in a skyscraper? Of course it is impossible to know for sure, but it seems evident that he was an innovator in every way, and would not shrink before the realities of his time. And so, should your moment include computers and skyscrapers, or any of the myriad other elements which constitute our contemporary life, do not feel that you may not include them in your haiku. To insist only on a view of life which is centuries out of date is a certain way for haiku to become moribund, and even worse, dull. Writers may choose many things, but they may not choose to be dull.
Of course, some things may seem to recommend themselves more readily to haiku, but this is due to at least two biases that we may have already formed. The first is, we already know a certain number of haiku, and if we think our haiku must be similar to those we know, we may find ourselves taking on the same kinds of subjects. Hence there is a proliferation of haiku about cherry blossoms and frogs, and while these are laudable subjects, they are not by any means exhaustive of the options we have. In fact, they may not even be part of your personal environment, and more than anything else, your haiku ought to reflect the space and time in which you live.
The second bias is a bit subtler, but perhaps even more pervasive for that. Since BashÙ helped redefine the form four hundred years ago, certain qualities have been favored in haiku over others-things like sabi, wabi, aware and yugen (see the glossary at the back of this book)-and as a result poems which favor other qualities are not so readily published and therefore found. Again, these are laudable qualities, but they do not compose the entire range of what is admirable in haiku, nor of what haiku is capable of expressing.
And let us append one other idea here, suggested by R. H. Blyth and no doubt true for all the very best haiku: He once noted “. . .the true subject of a haiku is never mentioned in the haiku. It is what a haiku implies that makes it a great or worthless haiku.” And so it is:
rain-swept parking lot
headlights of a locked car
. . . Charles B. Dickson
What is left unexpressed is the true expression.
So it may be surprising to hear, but haiku is capable of containing every subject in the world, and conveying every quality and emotion. And isn’t this what we would expect of a form that has lasted so long and been so vital to so many people? A form which limits what things we can consider and what they might mean and feel like would be certain to lose its vigor and die out. Haiku show no indications of doing that.
On the other hand, haiku is a small form, a vial rather than a vat. It is designed, like a vial, to hold essences, small and concentrated amounts of pure poetry. It is pointless to try to pour material which requires great elucidation, or narrative, or development, into such a form. And, since there is so little room within the constraints of a haiku, we wish also to find ways to communicate as much material as possible in the fewest words. So it is immediately useful to recognize that haiku lend themselves to the small, the momentary, the intimate. Haiku are most effective when they are used to express what is, rather than what should be. At their best, they do not put forth ideas or concepts-which may help us to define and articulate a truth, but do nothing to help us experience it directly and personally-but rather images which seek to embody intuitions. Intuition can be defined as the direct apprehension of reality without the intermediary of our logical minds-a direct knowing. Haiku seek not to explain reality, but to connect us with it.
the metallic taste
in my mouth
. . . Charles Easter
Haiku are less well equipped to convey duration or process (although you may find poems where the insight of a moment is the result of prolonged observation or action). Traditionally haiku has been considered to be the poetry of the ordinary, the small, the un- or ill-observed. Blyth ascribes this tendency to a characteristic of the Japanese people and culture, and argues that geography may well be responsible for at least some part of this. And yet, if we look at classical Japanese haiku we will find such a magnificent poem as
are blown along-
the autumn storm
. . . Basho
Rather than a proclivity towards the minute, it is perhaps more useful to think of the content of haiku in the way Shiki, the Japanese master who revolutionized haiku into a modern genre, describes it: Remember perspective, he advises us: larger things are large, but so are small things when viewed up close. It isn’t the nature of revelation to rank importance-all insights are equally valuable to the perceiver (if not necessarily so to the reader). Large or small makes no difference to the truth of the poem, provided it is truth. It is all a matter of perspective.
If we are free to call on any subject, and to convey any emotion, within a haiku, what must it contain to still be considered a haiku?
Haiku must contain a moment of insight. Haiku is not the only form in which such moments are essential-it might even be argued that all poetry is essentially the recording of such insights, and that this is the characteristic which unites haiku with these other forms-but without such a moment, there is no haiku. And what constitutes such a moment?
The moment of insight-termed the “ah-moment” by haiku translator and anthologist Kenneth Yasuda and a “seeing into the life of things” by Blyth-is that moment when the poet and his subject unite in a fundamental way, and he realizes that he is not just part of the universe, but one and the same with it. It takes place outside of time-that is, time seems to stop in such moments-and the poet loses his sense of self into a larger sense of belonging. It is this feeling which informs the moment to make it fresh and sincere, and quite beyond ego.
After it flew
feeling the butterfly
still on my finger
. . . Nelle Fertig
BashÙ expressed it this way: “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one-when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural-if the object and yourself are separate-then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”
Besides the moment of insight, what other elements are essential to the creation of a haiku? Haiku often has been called “nature poetry.” In a basic sense, haiku have had as their content the close observation of and revelation about nature, in the broadest sense including the range of elements, weather events, flora and fauna, and human behavior as observed in the context of nature. In some instances the entire poem is infused with nature content, and in other cases only part of the poem evinces natural reference. In the latter instances, a kind of shorthand has been evolved which suggests, beyond its actual phrasing, the entirety of the natural phenomenon it evokes (for instance, “spring breeze” evokes the whole of spring, its tastes and smells and mists and sun). This system of shorthand is called season words, or kigo in the Japanese.
In the classical tradition it has been considered essential for a poem to include a season word to be a haiku. This tradition arises out of haiku’s historic origins in renga, when it was called the hokku. The function of the hokku is to indicate the time and place of composition of the renga. It was imperative, then, that the season be indicated somewhere in the body of the poem. Over time, a set of words which indicated not only the time of the year, but an apotheosis of certain natural events, came to be established and utilized for this purpose. For example, “full moon” indicates, unless expressed otherwise, the full moon of the harvest-that is, the finest example of full moon to be had each year. And so, “full moon” is a season word for autumn, even though full moons certainly occur other times during the year. When the hokku evolved into the contemporary haiku, this element had already been incorporated within it, and so it has remained an essential part of haiku into the twentieth century.
The seasons have been the underpinning subject of haiku-indeed, of all traditional Japanese poetry-for several centuries. And season words have evolved naturally from this need to include nature, with positive benefit. Their availability and codification of the natural cycle, their compression and common usage, have made their usage not just a rule to follow, but a shorthand which permits greater ease and breadth of expression and resonance, as well as association, throughout the corpus of haiku.
Additionally, in a volatile geophysical locale in a premodern agricultural culture, such a deliberate consideration of the natural cycles was essential, not only for literary purposes, but for survival. This close association made the literature of Japan an extension of its deepest needs, and it should be no surprise that such lore would support its most basic cultural presumptions.
However, even in traditional circles haiku have long been written on certain subjects, imported from earlier traditional topics of poetry, which are considered to lie outside the structure provided by the natural cycle-poems primarily concerned with human behavior such as love, religious belief, travel and so on. These are regarded no less as haiku, but because haiku are generally preserved by their appearance in anthologies and saijiki (listings of topics and words, with (often copious) illustrative examples, indicating the topics for use in haiku composition), which are arranged by season, such works are more difficult to find and retain. In fact, since such poems are difficult to place in saijiki, it was at first merely a matter of inconvenience for the editors, but over time, since examples of non-season word haiku were essentially neglected, it came to regarded that such poems belonged outside the tradition, and finally that they were evidence of poor crafting. And so what was an editorial difficulty became a traditional mandate.
Things have changed over the past one hundred years. For one thing, the life of the average Japanese (and many others as well) is far less rural and agricultural than it was when haiku was finding its classical form. And despite an “official” policy which still advocates their use, and the fact that the great preponderance of haiku being written today still use them, season words are no longer considered essential to haiku, in Japan or elsewhere. Likewise, haiku still take nature as their primary content, but the definition of nature is much broader than was the case even fifty years ago. Today we might discover Japanese haiku to include work such as this:
From the turquoise
milk wells up
. . . Ban’ya Natsuishi
This sort of poem, widely recognized as haiku, makes us reconsider what must truly be considered essential for a poem to be a haiku. And we might well ask: can we write a haiku without a season word?
The answer, as is the case so often, is that we are always free to do whatever we wish to do. The real issue is more a matter of what do we get, and what do we lose, from choosing one way or another. And this goes back to our original consideration: what is the purpose of our writing? And what is the best strategy to realizing our goals? And so the proper question is, does the use of a season word in my haiku help better convey the experience I wish to share? Or is the nature of my experience a moment of insight which is not focused within the natural cycle? And if this is the case, what alternatives do I have?
Season words will continue to matter in haiku in all cultures. The preponderance of our “haiku moments” will continue to be discovered within the parameters of the natural cycle, if for no other reason than that is where we look for them. And so in many instances a season word will prove a useful strategy in conveying these experiences.
But increasingly we will find that the traditional significances of season words will not embody all the moments we discover, especially as haiku is written in cultures whose climates are widely divergent from that of Japan, and as our increasingly urbanized environments become the locus for more and more of our insights. We will discover, then, that we want a system of words which function as season words do-that is, codify our experiences, provide a shorthand for expressing them, and unify our writings through association with other expressions in the form-but which more fully embraces the range of experiences which haiku may convey. This larger system we call keywords.
A keyword is a near kin to a season word. In fact, it may be a season word. But it may be other things as well.
The most useful way of thinking of the idea of keywords is not as a one-to-one replacement for season words but rather as an overarching system of correspondences available to the haiku poet which incorporates season words within its bounds. Consider, for example
river divides the forest
into two nights
. . . Nikola Nilic
What we would have done in the past is to call this a non-seasonal haiku, or else assign it a season. It certainly could have been written in any season, and to place it in the “Winter” season, for example, would be arbitrary at best. This is the way we have worked within the mindset of season words.
In the new way of reckoning, however, a season word is not an assumed part of a haiku, but a keyword is. A word or phrase which opens up the poem is employed, in this case “moonlight”. There are thousands of others, including all the known season words. The poem is a haiku employing a keyword, with a seasonal feeling (since it is a natural event being described) but not a definite seasonal attribution. Season words operate as one large and important subset of all keywords, but are not the only words which a haiku may employ to the same effect.
Keywords can replace the notion of season words completely, and successfully, without radically altering the nature of haiku as we know it. This process is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Through such a development haiku will continue to be grounded in a universal system of value which is communicable to its practitioners and readership; there will be a smooth transition since none of the “classics” of haiku need be thrown out due to the adoption of this different orientation; and new work which speaks to a far larger and perhaps more contemporary audience will find acceptance within the canon of haiku because of the enlarged understanding of how such poems function.
Some examples of keywords:
tide covers the sandspit
evening snow falling
on open sea
. . . Randal Johnson
The keyword here, snow, is a season word. It grounds the poem in the specific, provides context, and promotes resonance: a great deal to expect from one little word.
This huge ocean-
I could stand here forever
it would still come to me
. . . Proxade Davis
The second haiku contains a non-seasonal keyword, ocean. It would be possible to imagine the season here-we might even be tempted to guess at it-but no matter our conclusion, it remains speculation. And rather than this being a problem for this poem, this ambiguity actually helps it. The poem is not dependent upon the season for its power, but rather upon the image itself. The ocean is powerful in its own right and commanding in all seasons.
i brush back
my son’s hair
. . . Charles D. Nethaway
The third example also contains the keyword funeral which suggests a human and personal context to the poem. Of course all poets, all people, have their private universes, and a poem is an attempt to describe one’s personal universe in hopes that others might recognize a similarity. The important point is not that the poet mentions himself. What matters is that the poet treats himself objectively-another image in the nexus of images which constitutes the poem. The poem is not about the self as ego, but about pointing to something objective about the self, something that might be shared.
This is an important point: haiku which refer to the self can be very tricky to manage in a way that is appropriate to the haiku form. Many poets, coming to haiku from contemporary western poetry, mistake the form as another type of confessional poetry. This could not be further from the case. Haiku is not a form for self-expression, or about interior states of mind.
Haiku are, instead, a means of sharing perceptions of the world outside us, an interaction with the exterior reality, a looking out rather than a looking in. This distinction cannot be stressed firmly enough: haiku are expressions of intuitive insights we experience from our encounter with the objective world.
the old woman gathers
her unsold flowers
. . . Ion Codrescu
The final example shows another orientation of the keyword, this time as a religious association. The keyword Easter allows the reader to recognize that a special understanding is being brought to this moment. The reader may or may not be able to enter this apprehension, and for this reason haiku with religious orientation can occasionally be seen as closed, or intended only for the “enlightened.” Often, too, such poems come across as dry and didactic.
Nevertheless it is worth considering the legacy of such an orientation in the transmission of haiku to western poets. Many of the first students of the form outside Japan came to haiku directly or indirectly through their interest in Zen. A substantial number of books and papers have been written espousing Zen as the true way of haiku. It is often noted that Basho was a Zen priest. Even the great R. H. Blyth goes so far as to state categorically that Zen is the correct state of mind for understanding haiku. All this and more have perhaps led us to overvalue the role of Zen in haiku, both classical Japanese haiku and that of today.
There is no denying that Zen has been an important element in the transmission of haiku understanding in the west. And there is no doubt that there are some poems, in Japanese as well as in English, that have been accorded value by readers and critics that nevertheless remain closed to us in some way. But the fact is that the vast majority of writers of haiku, Japanese and English alike, attempt as the fundamental concern to communicate a moment of insight to all their possible readers, not just the cognoscenti. While discovering the revelatory in the ordinary may sound like Zen, it also sounds like any other exhortation toward heightened perception: slow down, pay attention to what’s before you, write clearly and accurately. This might just as well be a step-by-step procedure in scientific enquiry as Zen understanding.
What may be more accurately said, then, is that Zen is one of several orientations of mind which holds in common many of the valued precepts of haiku. When two bodies of knowledge overlap to a great extent, it is perhaps inevitable that analogies be made about their separate practices. Here it seems almost inevitable that the “haiku moment” and the “moment of satori” (the attainment of enlightenment, according to Zen Scholar D. T. Suzuki) be conflated, and even seen by some as identical. Was the frog’s plop into the pond a moment of satori for Basho? I don’t know. Does it need to have been for us to appreciate his achievement in this poem? Emphatically, no.
The third element which we may consider to be essential to haiku is “presentness.” The moment of insight in haiku exists, as we have said, outside of time-or said another way, time stops when we realize our moment. And because of this experience of timelessness, we do not conceive of things happening during such a realization in the past or future, but only in an eternal present.
The practical effect of such a sensation is that we write haiku in the present tense. This is more than simply an affectation or aesthetic decision: this is the poetic analog to the ongoingness of our revelation. It has the further effect of allowing the reader to enter more directly into the poem: it is seen as vital and current, rather than reportage of an event once glorious but now gone. Consider how differently we feel about this poem:
the shell i took
the shell it took
and its present version:
the shell i take
the shell it takes
Another effect of locating haiku in the present is that this provides every poem with a sense of endlessness-it is the psychological truth that, given literary form, we can experience only the present moment. Any memory or dreams I can imagine, can only happen right now. Since this is true, it is true, too, that dreams and memories have a place in haiku. The present is the time of poetic truth, the time of the possibility of sharing, and the time of haiku.
So, finally, what is the content of haiku? Haiku are about all the things we encounter in the world each day, and what they tell us about the world, and ourselves. They contain some reference to nature, but nature in the broadest sense. And they are about the present moment, the moment in which we are capable of experiencing new revelations.
But there are some things which do not constitute haiku content: they are not about the poet, what the poet feels about or how he interprets the content of his poem. These are the greatest dangers to writing good haiku, the urge to interpret, to think logically, to draw conclusions: to interpose our selves and our words between the experience and the reader. It takes faith to let the images of our moment stand on their own, and to let the reader come to these images and intuit his own understanding. But this is exactly what we must do. Because, at the last resort, it is not the content of haiku which is essential to us: it is the growth in feeling, perception and connectedness which the content permits us to experience. And so we must not interfere with the things which allow us this growth. In the end, we are best advised to let things speak for themselves, and they will speak well for us.
Chapter Four: Technique
Haiku are always about relationship. Sometimes this relationship is obvious, sometimes implied, but haiku always are positing image against image, and allowing the energy contained in these images, and in the way we phrase them, to charge the whole of the poem. We might consider the images to be the two poles of an electrical element, like a Tesla coil, and the relationship between them to be the spark which shoots the gap. The more powerful, clear and certain the choice of images, the brighter and surer the spark, the more easily seen and shared. And the stronger the spark, the more likely we will find secondary sparks as well, which in haiku we term resonance. Our goal in haiku is to find the correct images to serve as poles, and to allow the energy in the things themselves, the images and the language, to provide the spark inherent in them.
Once we have had our “haiku moment,” and have decided to verbalize it in order to share it, we begin to be confronted with a plethora of choices: how do we help the reader to come to the same moment as we did? What should be the order of things? How do we make the things speak with each other, to create the gap? How do we charge the language to make the energy contained shoot that gap? How do we balance the whole of the poem to maintain the same relative feel as the experience? And so on.
In this section, we will consider the many ways in which the materials of haiku may be handled to best recreate the experience we have felt, so that we might communicate it as best as it might be.
Don’t insist on writing the moment right away — let it breathe and have its own life. Let it tell you if it is a haiku, or some other form, or something inexpressible. Don’t force.
If, after having allowed the moment to resonate in you, you find that it seems to demand a haiku treatment, then considerations of technique come into play. It is best to begin by taking our moment of insight very seriously, and literally. Review the experience: when did you have your insight — was the time of day (or year), or the timing within your routine significant in coming to your realization? Where were you at the time? How did this play a role in your coming to your insight? Who or what were the elements that insinuated themselves into your moment? How did they come to be there — are they usual to your experience, or was this “exotic” in some way? Why is this understanding new to you — how is it different than the understanding you had just before the experience?
A good rule of thumb is to present the moment exactly as it has come to you. Most often, an exact recreation of this order proves to be most effective in communicating the poem to others. And so an exact recalling of the event often enhances one’s ability to make the moment come alive for others.
In general, there are three different kinds of haiku we will encounter and write: implied context; context and action, and juxtaposition. Let’s consider each of these at this point.
Context and Action Haiku
Usually the context of the poem provides basic material necessary for the reader to visualize and comprehend the range of possibilities which the poem is presenting. In fact, it is just this expected range of possibilities which the poet is exploiting. If the poet provides, by way of context, this:
On the first day of spring
it is with the expectation that the reader will imagine snow as usual, without benefit of the insight which the rest of the poem provides:
from one bough to another.
. . . Virginia Brady Young
If we saw into the lives of all things all the time, then haiku would not be possible; or rather, we would live a life of haiku, and never notice. Our lives of mundane perception, with their relative impoverishment of revelation, make haiku notable and prized.
In the majority of haiku, two images are presented to the reader. This is in order to create the poles of the coil we have suggested earlier, and permits the sparking across the gap.
Occasionally three or more images are encountered, but this creates a very complex moment which our minds may have difficulty ordering, or understanding.
Haiku of context and action are just what they sound like: one of the images of the haiku establishes the setting where the haiku moment is experienced; the other suggests the activity which caught the notice of the poet’s imagination. Consider these examples:
in the teeth
of Theodore Roosevelt
a raven nesting
. . . S. W. Finn
Winter morning –
Dressing for work by light
from the next room
. . . David Priebe
sucking at her feet
the outgoing tide
. . . Carolyn Rohrig
The first of these is a very clever poem. It uses paradox to gain the reader’s attention, and only permits the moment to come clear in the last line. So it is charged with energy, and humor, a very fine combination. It is clear that “Theodore Roosevelt’s teeth” is the locale! It is doubtful that many readers immediately identify the place as Mount Rushmore. But once the action is expressed, all is clear: it is the action of the raven nesting, in the context of these “teeth”, which brings us to a moment of realization.
In the second example, we are given a seasonal context first. Only later do we recognize that we are inside a house, occupied with the mundane, and it is a further surprise that even the light which makes this homely task possible is provided artificially — a tribute to the dark powers of winter, neatly sustained by the poet until the very end of the poem.
In the third example, the exact technique is used. The context begins as an interior space, as expressed by pregnant. The second line, odd as it is, prepares us for more of the same, but to our surprise it’s a natural context after all, and the relationship between inner and outer context is well matched.
Implied Context Haiku
Very occasionally, a haiku which contains only a single image still seems to contain sufficient interest to find lasting resonance in us. Consider this famous poem by Buson:
falling atop each other
two or three
In haiku such as this, there is the first, strong image of peony petals having fallen. But haiku are always about relationship, as we have stated: to what are these petals related?
In this instance, as in the other instances where we find a single image sufficient, it is the unstated but implied context which serves as the point of comparison. It is easy to imagine that we are in a garden, a garden which contains other peonies. Or else we are in a living room, and the peony in this case has been cut. This peony is seen in the context of other peonies in the garden, whole as yet; but more, it is seen against all peonies, and our very image of peonies. And in its expression of the blossom’s decline, the poem changes the way in which we see the flower, insisting that the energy and value of our view of peonies must include this image as well.
One of the reasons such a treatment is rare is because the poet must create the whole of the sense of context out of the image in question. It is only an occasional image powerful enough to sustain the whole of this responsibility. And on those instances, it is a master’s stroke to realize the context is unnecessary. Imagine, for instance, that Buson had written:
dining room table:
peony petals fall
atop each other
A fine poem, but would it be as memorable as the poet’s starker version? Probably not. In this case, the context serves to limit the expressive range of the image chosen.
Haiku of Juxtaposition
The other type of haiku we encounter is haiku of juxtaposition. In these, two images not obviously related by context or action are paired. The energy which results from the pairing is the measure of its success. These haiku range from the hermetic:
a lump in her breast –
my mother shows me
how to fry eggs
. . . Frank Higgins
to the lucid:
music two centuries old
the color flows
out of the teabag
. . . Gary Hotham
In the first example, it might not be readily apparent how a lump in the breast is related to frying eggs. It may be possible to explain this relationship, but explanation is the death of haiku: when it is necessary to move outside of the images at hand to understand what is going on in the poem, the moment is lost, and the haiku fails. It is essential that the images speak clearly for themselves, and not require this sort of intellective discursion to be understood. In this poem, what may not be apparent at first gradually comes into focus, and the resonance of the poem is all the greater for the delay in coming to experience the moment.
This is, in some ways, similar to the difficulties which haiku face when they are translated from one language or culture to another. What is apparent to one reader might be completely lost upon another. Poetry in general, and haiku in particular, are especially fragile in the fashion, and many do not travel well.
In the second instance, however, the moments chosen seem less cryptic: they are more universal, or at least accessible to our culture, and as a result there is not a remove from the images themselves, and therefore the moment of insight. We can find, once the poet has placed them before us, a relationship between music of the distant past and the gathering of color from the steeping tea, and this relationship deepens with subsequent readings.
Haiku of juxtaposition are riskier than haiku of context and action: they are more difficult to gauge, to be certain that they will communicate. They are more dependent upon cultural cues and understandings for their meaning. But just as the risk is greater, so, too, can be the reward. Many of the very best haiku in any time are haiku of juxtaposition, a proportion higher than would be expected given the relative scarcity of them. But they are to be approached carefully, with full awareness that when they fail, they fail utterly.
Chapter Five: Language
Haiku is not about language, but experience. The nature of this experience may be such that it defies language, that it informs us wordlessly, or at least before we try to fit words to it. It has a language of its own, an emotive and sensuous language, and there is no very good correspondence between it and the spoken and written languages of the world. It might be said that the very best haiku, then, are wordless, that they don’t require words to achieve their goals. This is true of the private experience of a moment of revelation, but it is not true of the shared experience of haiku. All haiku is, in this sense, translation.
Poetry, on the other hand, is about language, and we have said that poetry is the ultimate standard for haiku. So it is a measure of how we succeed with language that will determine how well we are seen to be successful with haiku. Does this matter? Chances are good that you would not be reading a book on how to write haiku if the private experience was sufficient to you. And this is not a bad thing-it is human to wish to share one’s experiences with others. Haiku is one way to share some of our deepest moments, perhaps even our wordless moments, in the most immediate fashion possible.
The way this is achieved is, as we have mentioned, to be as direct as possible in our treatment of the images and syntax of the words we use to convey our moment. In other words, it is the language which creates content. It is easy to forget that the moment is not the words, but that the words are only pointing to something beyond themselves. Getting the words right is essential to helping others get the experience right. In this chapter we will spend some time considering what it might mean to get the words right, and how we might try to achieve this.
The Poetry of the Real
Haiku is the poetry of the real. That is, it is the poetry which seeks to convey as clearly as possible the actual events of an experience so that the reader may come to find the same experience in himself, and therefore share the insight which the experience prompted. Anything which diverts the reader from that moment works against the purpose of the poem. So it follows that the language in haiku should be chosen with an eye toward making the expression of the experience, the haiku moment, as clear as it possibly can be.
As a result, haiku employs a diction which is often very different from other western forms of poetry. In fact, it is not far wrong to suggest that haiku is poetry written without what many people consider to be poetic language. However, there is a tradition of poetry in the West, beginning with the Imagists and carrying through William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost, up to the present with Ted Kooner and Alice Notley and many others, which advocates similar qualities of diction. Pound said it this way: “Direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective” and “. . . use absolutely no word that [does] not contribute to the presentation” and “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” It is no surprise that Imagism, of which Pound was founder and theorist, is the poetry most like haiku in our tradition.
All language carries its packet of energy, and all writers seek to encapsulate as much of this energy as possible into their work. It is the ability of certain combinations of words to maintain their energy over time that gives a poem durability. Take, as an example, the following collection: [about, fire, her, she, stirs, stirs, that, the, when]. As a list, nothing special. But arrange it so: “. . . the fire that stirs about her, when she stirs . . .” It has lost nothing in the hundred years since its author discovered it. It holds weight beyond the assemblage of its constituent words. The words come together in a specific pattern which holds the energy in. We may liken it to a knot. If the knot is untied-that is, if we take the words out of their order, as in the list above-the energy drains away.
There are thousands of such knots into which we pour our truths, our lies, our culture, and which we recognize as retaining some portion of the original energy which forged them. “Let us go then, you and I”-how seductive beyond its simplicity of phrasing; but then, its author tells us, “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
- “so much depends/upon//a red wheel/barrow//glazed with rain/water//beside the white/chickens.”
- “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.”
- “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
- “The pure products of America go crazy.”
- “the hills/release the summer clouds/one by one by one.”
Effects perhaps “too subtle for the intellect,” but powerful to the intuition. What these phrases have in common is worth noting: simple language suggestive of much more complex interior states of being. Phanopoeia-Pound again-meaning the throwing of the image on to the visual imagination. Certainly these phrases cannot be divorced from their context for their full significance, but even apart they convey some of the weight of the larger works in which they appear: the question of being, the valuing of life and death, the purposeful passage between.
Haiku strive for similar knottings of language. They do not seek to poeticize, which is to enhance or alter an object or event. Instead, they seek this same phanopeoia. A rose is a rose is a rose in haiku-it may also be a symbol of love, or beauty, or decay, or the royal houses of England, but first and foremost it must be a rose, with all that a real rose brings with it-thorn and petal, scent and color, earth and rain and sun.
deeper and deeper
into the evening
the damask rose
Here we have nouns-a rose, a [summer] evening-and an action-deepening [as in the fading of light]. Haiku is a poetry of nouns-things-and not just things, but the essence of things, and the unexpected but imminent consequences of those essences.
A haiku is the essential sketch of a single moment. But more than this, it practically is a moment. This is not to underestimate its significance: a life may be changed in a moment. But it is fitting that the form of haiku imitate its duration: it is what it does, and does what it is.
And so the intent is not to be exhaustive, but to offer sufficient information that the reader might imagine the moment for himself, and in so doing, share the insight of the poet. A haiku, then, is a joint creation between the poet who offers the situation in sufficiency, and the reader who imaginatively recreates the moment. This is an important aspect of all poetry, but never more important than in haiku.
As a result, the haiku poet is compelled to use his few words as a good artist sketches with a minimum of strokes. What results is a clarity of expression, and a compression of language-only the words needed to convey the moment, nothing more:
. . . John S. O’Connor
Another way in which compression is achieved is through the avoidance of self-reference in haiku. This may be reflective of the scarcity of use of the first person pronoun in the Japanese language, but even in English it makes good sense, not only in tightening the poem, but also broadening its meaning and impact. This is not simply a philosophical point: consider the following example.
Icy April night
I see my ah-breath rising
toward the comet
With a little revision, this becomes:
Icy April night
my ah-breath rising
toward the comet
. . . Phyllis Walsh
The poem opens up when the personal reference is removed, and the reader as a result may enter more directly into the experience himself. There are times when self-reference is important to a haiku, as when the poet uses his presence in an objective way to humanize a moment. But in most cases where such reference is reflex, this extra element which the reader must consider is best discarded.
Yet another way in which compression of language has been achieved has been through the use of keywords, notably season words, as we have mentioned in the chapter on content. Keywords function as a kind of shorthand, giving us important cues about the environment in which the haiku moment took place, and invoking directly our sensory response to them. We can hardly read a haiku such as
edge of the marsh-
the wind from rising geese
in our hair
. .. Ebba Story
without involving ourselves directly: the smell of the marsh, the taste of it upon the wind, the sounds within it, and so on. We need not write all this directly into the poem, since it is all implicit. It’s a common experience for most of us, and it is the keyword which unlocks this shared experience and permits the reader to find his personal response to it, shared with the poet.
Brevity is also achieved as a matter of style. Writing with concision, but also with an eye and ear toward the rhythm and music of the phrase, contributes to a smoothness which permits a poem to flow more readily and occupy less time. Brevity is not always achieved simply by reduction, but sometimes by the quality of the elements included. See how this 5 – 7 – 5 haiku reads more quickly and lightly than many much shorter poems:
Water going through water
As the bucket fills.
. . . Peter Meister
Finally, haiku are kept brief syntactically-that is, by eliminating words and usage that might otherwise turn them into complete sentences. What constitutes completeness in a grammatical structure is not the same as what constitutes completeness of comprehension. In many cases we may remove most articles, some or all punctuation, the occasional preposition of a poem without destroying its meaning. We would also seek to rid the poem of all “padding”-repeated words or phrases, or words which add nothing to the recollecting of the moment by the reader-so that all that remains is what is required to convey the truth of the moment.
looking to the vanishing point
we hear the lark’s song
even beyond it
This becomes, with a little excision:
the lark song
. . . Ernest J. Berry
Be careful, though, not to chop away so much that your language becomes stilted, especially by removing articles and adjectives that are essential to a naturalness of phrasing and a clarity of image. To do so usually results in “Tarzan English,” which is distracting and will mar the effect of your poem. What we seek is the same as the sculptor seeks: to carve a tiger from stone, remove all the parts of stone that are not tiger. The very best haiku are so contrived that to subtract anything more would be to begin to lose meaning. Paradoxically, anything more added would have the same effect.
the river makes
of the moon
. . . Jim Kacian
When we seek the essence of things, and let these things speak for themselves, we discover the power inherent in the naming process. English is particularly rich in specific nouns, and this gives us great potential for our haiku. Each bird differs from every other bird, each tree varies from all other trees, and each carries within it its own habits, context, understandings. To name is to conjure whole.
Consider for a moment how indistinct we can be using apparently clear English. We just wrote “Each bird differs from every other bird . . .” Consider the many ways in which it is possible to respond: did you broadly conceptualize some general form of bird? Then a poem where “bird” occurs will have available to it only the most general sorts of information such as is true for all birds, or at least of the type that you envisioned. Some, for example, don’t fly, and some swim, but you might not have included these attributes in your generalized bird. How much more clearly you can recreate the moment of the poem if instead of “bird” I write “sparrow.” And how much clearer yet if I write “sitting sparrow.” This descriptive addition may tell me other pertinent facts concerning, say, the time of year (and so we can consider this a keyphrase). In fact, this last is a terrific first or last line for a haiku (provided it corresponds somehow with your moment): it suggests a clear image, as well as a context. How different this is from, simply, “bird.”
. . . James W. Hackett
Of course, while this specificity is a powerful tool, it can also be a misleading one. It is not always in the best interest of the poem, or its poetic truth, that such a specified image be employed, and when it is beside the point, it can actually clutter up the mind with details that are not important to realizing the moment. It is critical that the poet know what it is he is trying to achieve, and use the appropriate tool.
after he goes
the birds go
. . . Raymond Roseliep
Here the specific term would delay the reader with information not needed to share the moment, whereas the more general “bird” allows the reader to move on with ease. What is given up is a precision wholly outside the needs of the moment, or the moment recollecting it, and what is gained is the immediacy needed for the moment to be shared.
Besides words that are technically specific, such as species names, it is important to use words that are appropriate to the action or meaning of a haiku, especially when such action is critical to the precise way in which a moment comes about.
through broken slats
of the garden fence
. . . John Wills
Here, cushaw is exactly right-to try to get by with a synonym would diminish the power of the poem. Consider the poem with “melon” or “squash” instead of the word selected. Notice the difference in power, tone and impact selecting the precise word has made. Sometimes choosing precisely will mean that you must opt for a word that is less common. This might mean that some readers will not grasp the poem immediately since they don’t have the requisite vocabulary. There is a temptation at times to settle for a simpler but less evocative or exact word. This is, however, a mistake: your moment deserves its integrity, and should get exact treatment. If your work is sufficiently interesting, the reader will look up the unfamiliar word. However, once the poem is exposed in a less precise fashion, its integrity has been compromised, and one cannot expect the reader to come to it as clearly as if he had been offered its best version. A good rule of thumb, then, is to treat the poem, and your reader, with the greatest respect, by choosing exactly the words you need to convey the moment in its best form.
This is not license, of course, to be intentionally obscure. Anything so delicate as a moment of revelation will not suffer repeated disengagements from the poem in order to allow the reader to rifle through a dictionary in order to discover the meaning of a word. Worse still is when the word which interrupts the flow of the moment, yet once comprehended does not add in some significant way to the way the poem works, and might easily have been replaced by a more familiar and equally effective one. Precision is one thing, opacity quite another.
Punctuation and Grammar
Haiku are not sentences, and since they are not, they need not embody the trappings of sentences. Specifically, there is no need to capitalize the first letter of the poem, nor to append a period at the end. These formal elements in a haiku serve to isolate a haiku moment from the flow of the rest of its context, as though we had put brackets around the experience. It makes us think that the moment functioned as the sentence does: with a beginning, a movement through, and a final stop, with some sort of logical grammar holding the whole of it together. But haiku are not logical, nor do they exist over time, but rather in a moment, or outside of it. Logical sentence structure is at odds with the reality of how the moment actually and psychologically functions.
Poem shaped as sentences are usually simple to rectify.
a wren follows
the sunshine into
the morning meadow
a wren follows
the sunshine in
. . . Jeff Witkin
More integral to the way in which a haiku functions are the stops within the poem, known generally as caesura. Classical Japanese haiku poets have employed a kind of verbalized punctuation called kireji, which indicates a variety of stops and related moods. English lacks an exact analog, but has instead a flexible and subtle system of punctuation which is capable of producing the range of caesura needed in haiku.
The most basic and important of these stops is the line break. Line breaks often account for the entirety of the stops and pauses required in a given haiku. We generally read any particular line of poetry straight through (minding the punctuation within it, of course), but then observe a pause before proceeding to the next line, usually of the duration slightly longer than a comma. This brief pause usually is arranged around the natural grouping of phrases and figures in English. As a result we generally do not break lines after prepositions or articles. This leaves the reader unsure of what it is that ought to be carried over. Also, if the end of the line is obviously part of a phrase, there is a greater inclination in the reader to proceed directly on to the next line. Again, clarity is the goal of haiku, and our pauses ought to be used to help the reader achieve the clearest picture possible.
the butterfly lands
on what’s left
. . . Alexius Burgess
The various punctuation marks carry the same function in haiku as they do in general usage. The most commonly used marks are the dash, the ellipsis, the comma, the colon, and the semi-colon. Each functions a bit differently from the others, and these subtle differences provide a great range of possibilities in nuance and mood.
A dash indicates a full stop, and implies the introduction of unexpected material. This seems to suit the function of haiku perfectly, since haiku relies upon this unexpected turn for its effect. This is perhaps why it has become the most used of the punctuation marks.
a curlew’s cry
lengthens the hill
. . . Caroline Gourlay
Occasionally a dash will be used to precede a line rather than follow one. This makes the reader stop, and then stop again. This is very effective when this is desirable, but should be avoided except when that is exactly what you wish the reader to do. Since the reader’s intention is to read further when proceeding to the next line, being stopped a second time can be exasperating unless handled very well, and to a point.
-sound of someone
. . . Matthew LouviËre
The ellipsis indicates a stop, and also suggests the passage of time. Hence, haiku of reminiscence often employ this mark. Also, ellipses are used to indicate the omission of a word or words which might be essential to grammatical completeness, but are unnecessary to the completeness of its sense.
The old man
Comes too soon to gaze at
Plum blossoms . . .
. . . David Lloyd
A colon is another complete stop, but its particular effect is to cause the phrase which follows it to be taken as an equivalent of the phrase which preceded it: a kind of grammatical equal sign. This can suggest metaphor, and since metaphor is generally eschewed in haiku, the colon is not so often used as the preceding marks.
warm rain before dawn:
my milk flows into her
. . . Ruth Yarrow
The semi-colon suggests an equal weight to the phrases on either side of it, but does not imply equality as the colon does. It is most often employed to divide equal but different quantities in a long sentence. In haiku it is used more for its sense of duration: longer that a comma, but not so final as a period.
Dusk over the lake;
a turtle’s head emerges
then silently sinks
. . . Virgil Hutton
The comma is used to create pauses within lines, and to direct emphasis.
Deepening the red
of late December roses
snowflakes, as they melt
. . . William Scott Galasso
It is only occasionally used to end a line, since a line break would carry its own pause.
In deep wilderness,
a solitary signpost-
the words worn away
. . . Hina
Very occasionally we encounter haiku which ask questions, and of course in that case a question mark is definitely called for:
a cloud of blossoms-
that bell: is it Ueno?
is it Asakusa?
. . . Basho
And at one time it was the fashion to write or translate haiku with a great many exclamation marks, though they are generally eschewed today. There are appropriate times to use such punctuation, as below, but in general such usage indicates, at the least, a lack of subtlety. Since most haiku contain something of a surprise element, it is overkill to draw attention to it in such a broad fashion: if the writing doesn’t do this on its own, no amount of exclamation on the part of the poet will make up for it.
an empty coke bottle
left on a half-painted fence-
. . . Sharon Lee Shafii
Rhyme is a powerful poetic device in English. It derives its power in part from the fact that English has relatively few rhymes compared with, for example, Italian. There is as a result a relative scarcity of synchronous sounds, and when these occur they tend to be all the more memorable for it. The other side of this, of course, is that since there are fewer rhymes available in general, the usual patterns of rhyme have been exhaustively mined and much of the original energy to be gained by such a device has been dissipated.
Nevertheless, rhyme remains such a compelling device that its presence in this fragile form is often overpowering. End rhyme in particular tends to overshadow the other elements in a haiku, since there are relatively few other words besides those which rhyme, and therefore an insufficient variety of sound. Also, the finality of end rhyme in haiku works against seeing it within the context of the flow of time, just as the period does. As a result, end rhyme has not been a featured element since very early in the history of English-language haiku.
Internal and off-rhyme is a bit easier to accommodate, it being less powerful and final, and a good rule of thumb is to allow rhyme or off-rhyme to stand in a poem if it comes to the poem unbidden, and does not overpower the other elements in the poem.
. . . David Gershator
Music is a significant attribute of all poetry, specifically the elements of rhythm, timbre and melody of composition. The language of poetry is essentially different from the language of music, so there is not an exactness of relationship. Every language prizes different musical elements. This makes the music of poetry infinitely varied and interesting, and a challenge to each poet to find the music that best suits his work.
The most basic musical consideration, and also the one most intrinsically bound up with poetry, is rhythm. In English, which is a stressed language, the syllable is the basic unit. A syllable may be stressed or unstressed, but it is rare to consider a single syllable by itself. More usually we group syllables into metric feet (for example, iambs or anapests) which in turn are gathered into the poetic line. As we have discussed, haiku generally utilizes three poetic lines, although this varies between one and four in some cases. And within each of the lines of a haiku there is a rhythm determined by the kinds of stresses present within the metric feet.
When creating a long poem designed to impart information, as was the practice in, say, the Augustan age, a uniformity of line and regularity of rhythm was greatly desired. However, in such a brief poem as a haiku, what matters much more is that the rhythm be suggestive of the experience, that it contain the energy of the moment and attract the reader to it. In the haiku it is unusual to have fewer than one or more than three stresses per line, and therefore the range of stresses would be somewhere between three and nine in any given poem. The average would be six or seven, divided more or less evenly into the three lines available, two or three stresses per line.
that trickling of moonlight
crossing the meadow
. . . Foster Jewell
Notice how the stresses occupy the center of attention in each line, and how the unstressed syllables serve to bridge the time between these stressed moments, creating a rhythm specific to the poem. A sensitivity to this rhythm permits the poet to shape the poem with movement and pauses which are part of the intuitive experience of the poem.
Timbre is the tonal quality of sound: some syllables are sussurant, some percussive, some nasal. The combination of sound qualities across the duration of the haiku account for its timbre.
If we were to write a poem about the fluid motion of a river, then we would probably choose sounds which slide easily across each other; if, on the other hand, we want to emphasize the constriction of that flow by the rocks jutting out of its surface, we might choose hard and arresting sounds. Or we might opt for sibilant sounds to capture the rush of the turbulence. In each case, we are choosing words not just for meaning, but for tonal quality.
. . . Herb Barrett
We may also consider the differences in all the various sounds within a language as contributing to its timbre. Sometimes we choose words which “sound better” because of assonance or alliteration, but sometimes it is for the quality inherent in the arrangement of sounds within them.
in afternoon heat-
a blue of bee wings
stirs the columbine
. . . Richard Crist
Melody is the movement of language in two directions: horizontally through time (rhythm) and vertically across inflection (timbre). This combination of musical elements accounts for the sound of a poem, for which one trains one’s ear. Compare the very different melodies of these poems, and how the precise wording of each captures the music of the moment as well as the sense:
along the veranda
. . . Dee Evetts
in a glass paperweight
snow slowly settles
. .. Anna Holley
In my ordinary clothes
thinking ordinary thoughts-
. . . Ayaki Hosomi
When we are writing, we are attentive to the content of the moment and try to incorporate this into the poem. But often we are attempting to give voice to the wordless, and it is only through mastery of the musical elements of a poem that we can approximate the effect of the experience upon us. Ezra Pound, once again: “. . . compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” This advice has never been bettered.
In addition, the control of music in a poem identifies a poet’s voice as no other single aspect of haiku.
Down to dark leaf-mold
the falling dogwood-petal
carries its moonlight
. . . O. Mabson Southard
It is usually the music of the treatment that we mean when we say we recognize a poet’s style. We may all have had the same experience, and may all have attempted to find the right words to express it. And in many common experiences, such poems can be remarkably similar. But when handled in a musically distinctive fashion, this moment becomes unmistakably Southard’s poem.
Chapter Six: How to Write Haiku
This chapter, unlike the others, will be a set of suggested practices. It is not intended that you follow all, or even any, of them, but simply that you get an idea of some of the ways in which poets go about writing haiku. By now you’ll already have a working familiarity with many of them, since we’ve talked about them on the way here already. Some may be obvious, some obscure. Some will work for you and some won’t. It’s more important that you find your own way ultimately. Perhaps this will get you started.
1. Don’t Think-Be
The very first thing is perhaps the hardest thing of all: you don’t write haiku-they are written through you.
Archibald MacLeish famously wrote “A haiku should not mean, but be.” There is a great deal of substance to this very brief poetic, but central to it is the idea that the poem should be an entity unto itself, not a soapbox from which to orate, not an object to be manipulated by our whims or political positions. A poem has its own integrity, its own life, and the poet’s job is to bring this poem to life by letting it mature, then refining it so it is as good as it can be before releasing it to the world. A haiku is a poem, and all this is true for haiku as it is for other poems.
So the first thing to do when preparing to write haiku is to decide against knowing best. The poem must know best, must speak for itself, must have its own logic and emotion and essence. Let go, let yourself be as objective as you possibly can be-that’s already subjective enough-and take in impressions directly, without the usual filtering of the rational mind. This is not easily achieved, and requires constant practice, or the reasoning part of the mind, accustomed to controlling things, will indeed insist that it have the last word, and that will prove to be the death of poetry. Reason is important, but it must know its place, just as other elements must.
Don’t have a goal that you must write a haiku: the real goal, after all, is not to write haiku, but to see more clearly, be in touch more deeply with where you live. You have not achieved the goal if you fill a notebook full of poems but none of them is deeply lived, if you are not changed by being part of the process. But if you are determined to write, a haiku will find you, if there is one to be found and if you are ready and open for it. Remember, too, that not all poems are haiku. Let yourself be open to whatever comes along. You just may find you’ve got a free verse poem, or a sonnet, or perhaps a sketch, a piece of music, welling up from your openness. Take the creative moment for what it is.
2. Find a Working Routine
I find walking stimulates my writing, or rather, when I walk, I can’t help but write. This is not so convenient as if I wrote while seated, say, but one takes what one can get. I find it’s useful to me, when hiking along the Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I live, to carry a small pad and pencil. I try not to get too hung up about writing everything down, because often a word or phrase will be enough to make me recall the whole train of thought. I try to allow myself to flow, physically as well as mentally, which results in ease and variety and new places to go every time, even as my body is traveling through the ever new and changing panorama of the mountains season after season.
Find a place where you can relax and let this flow happen. And then, write.
3. Keep the Tools Sharp
Write everything down. Don’t edit or judge-just write. I find it particularly useful to focus on some one object, large or small. Perhaps it’s the new growth on the rhododendrons growing on the mountain ridge, as it was today. Or maybe it’s the color of the rocks greening up after rain. Or the sound a snake makes moving through fallen leaves. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, it only matters that you pay close attention to it, and record it. It may not make a great haiku (and it may, but you won’t know this for quite a while), but it will make a great warm-up exercise. And that’s all we’re doing, limbering up.
And paying attention. We will need to repeat this exercise-a lot. The more you do it, the more facile will become your use of language, and language is your stock in trade. If you can have the language, and its tools and techniques, at your disposal for these exercises, then you’ll have them ready when you are visited with inspiration. The better you get, the better your poems will be, and the more likely you will be able to find the right word and the right means of expressions for those moments when you most need them.
the moon coming up
through new buds
the river shows through the still (mostly) naked branches
and picks up the light
something about this . . .
4. Invite the Muse
There is a saying in Japan: “The first line is from heaven.” This is a fancy way of saying that inspiration plays a role in every successful haiku (or other poem). So already you’re a third of the way done . . .
You’ll know it when inspiration strikes. Something moves you in a way that it hasn’t before, or you see something in a light you’ve never before considered. It sticks in your mind’s eye, and insists that you look at it. It’s knotting, clotting, taking shape. All you have to do is attend to it.
Then comes the hard part: what is it about that moment that made it different? This is a really difficult and deep question, since the answer resides somewhere deep within the very nature of who you are. Why have you been predisposed to see something one way, and today, another? Being clear and honest about these things is difficult, especially since habit often keeps us from seeing the way we actually are. But a poet is committed to making this search, and the reward of such a search often is self-knowledge, and an ability to see more clearly.
If we are able to come to terms with our moment, literally, we have probably written a haiku. But what we are most likely to have written so far is a first (or last, or middle) line, the gift from our personal muse, and some notes about some relationship found there.
It is useful to remember that this is a joint effort between you and your inspiration. We don’t get Muse’s block, but writer’s block. We are the ones who need to remain open and searching-and grateful. That first line is a lot.
The remainder of the poem is the poet’s business.
5. Relate [to] the Experience
Now comes the work.
A very good rule of thumb is, whenever you’re not sure about how to proceed, go back to the source, the moment of revelation and inspiration. Imagine again what happened. Remember the order of events. Remember every detail, where you were standing, the angle of the sun, the scent of the air, the feel of your clothes, the glimpse of the plane passing overhead. Everything combined to make your moment cohere. Re-imagining it will help you remember what about it made it matter so.
Write down all these events, in the order they happened. This is often really important, since a change in order can undo the sense which made the moment a revelation. Be as specific as you can be. Don’t skip anything.
Once it’s all down, put it away and forget about it. The content in haiku is timeless-there’s no hurry. And the only thing that matters is that you get it absolutely right. So rather than rush it along, let it trickle through your subconscious for a while. This will help the moment to crystallize further, and also give you perspective on whether it really was the mind-shattering event you think it might be.
coming back to the way the moon is shining on the river
there is something at play between the flow of the water and the shining upon it
i’m walking down the deer path, just coming over the oak ridge
it’s just gloaming, and getting hard to see
when i clear the ridge, the river comes into view
i can see it because it is dark and smooth against the bushiness of the shore
but also because the moon moves across it, longitudinally as i approach
and the moonlight follows the sinuous course of the river
white on the whitewater, almost can see (can see!) the flow pattern in the river
white on the rocks, too, and on the leaves
a jet high up catches the last of the sunlight, glints, is gone
When you’ve laid it aside long enough to have forgotten about it (2 days? 2 weeks? 2 months?), get out your notes and take a look. This is why you want to write down all the details, so you can go back over it in your mind’s eye. What is truly essential to the moment? Perhaps that airplane was passing overhead, and you heard it, but the essence of the moment was the way the light of the moon played off the movement of the river. The plane was present, but incidental. So you will probably omit it from the final poem. It would only serve to distract the reader toward something which does not ultimately enter into the moment of insight.
When you’ve reconsidered the whole event, eliminated everything that feels extraneous, found the words that allow you to recreate the moment, write it down in its new, poem-shaped form, and-forget it all again.
the way the moon moves on the moving of the river
the white path following the path the water follows
the moon . . . the river . . .
6. Rediscovering your Moment
Go on with your life. Visit again and again with the muse. Enjoy your routine. Keep your tools sharp. Experience many more moments, rattle them around inside, write them down. Do this again and again. Fill lots of notebooks. This is what a poet does-writes and writes and writes.
And then, sometime later, perhaps much later, perhaps years later-open up that old notebook.
What do you see? Probably lots of sketches-those warm-up exercises-and maybe the occasional note to yourself to look up a word, or learn the name of a certain kind of tree, or a drawing of the rock formation at the summit of one of your favorite hikes. You read through, and remember the day on which you wrote this, what it was like, what you felt, what you were wearing.
Then you come to one particular poem, and it stops you in your tracks-this is a truly interesting poem. It has an energy so vivid that it brings the moment back to you as though you were experiencing it again afresh. It’s just the way you remembered-well, not exactly as you remembered. Actually, it was a little more “coming down the ridge” than “topping” it. And maybe the emphasis here is not exactly right-perhaps it would be better to lead with the river itself. Yes, that’s it exactly-the moment, in words.
the white path the river makes
out of the moon
coming clear of the ridge
Editing is the most onerous (for most) part of writing. But you’ve already done it, changed a word here or there, altered the emphasis, reconsidered it, made it whole. Good editing is not intended to destroy the moment, but rather to expose it as clearly and truthfully as it is possible to do. It is not always easy to recognize exactitudes when we are close to an experience. But a little distance from the event usually makes us better judges of just how things went, and what their significance was. It usually helps us make better decisions about the exact word, the exact order, the exact shade of meaning. In such a subtle form and sensibility as haiku, exactitude is extremely important, and waiting for the moment when the poem is far enough removed from us that we can make a clean decision about it is a very wise idea. This will keep you from releasing a poem before it is ready, and so keep your reputation as a poet at its highest level. You will be judged as a poet by what you publish, what you are willing to release with your name affixed. Why settle for anything less than your best?
And there is really no hurry-the content of haiku is such that it doesn’t really age or go out of style. A moment of insight is a moment of insight-this cannot change. And, the longer you let a poem mature, the longer your exposure to haiku, the greater your knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, the more mature your taste.
The muse visits all indiscriminately-editing is where great writers are made.
the river makes
of the moon
Once the demands of the moment are met, then other demands, such as literary demands, can be met. You have captured what was distinctive about your moment. Now you need to pay some attention to what is distinctive about the way you convey your moment.
There are many ways of displaying your personal voice: word choices, subject matter, visual aspects of the poem, grammar/syntax; but ultimately it will be a combination of all these elements which puts your stamp on your work. Is it possible to look at a poem so short and seemingly formulaic and know who’s poem it is? It is possible to share similar experiences-the fact that we recognize them inside ourselves is an indication we have met this moment somewhere before. But the recording of these experiences belong distinctively to each of these poets. And so should yours.
9. To Sum Up
Simplify; get yourself into the right frame of mind; sharpen your tools; pay attention; write it down hot; let it cool; look over your work dispassionately; let it cool some more; revise the poems that seem worth the trouble; lay them aside again; see if the moment recreates your experience. You’ll know it when you’ve got a “keeper.”
Your name is your credit in poetry. You don’t want to identify it with anything less than your best, most distinctive work. So it makes sense that you will want to publish only the very best of your work. Quantity is not an issue: we have perhaps half a dozen complete poems and a few fragments of Sappho’s, and yet we consider her one of the greatest lyric poets of all time. If you’re good, it will be recognized.
Choose your company well, too. Identify the magazines and journals you admire, and submit there. There are some publications which will be extremely difficult to get accepted into, and others which accept everything that comes across its desk. Once a poem is published, that is, is made public, it is out of your hands: it takes on a life of its own, and you cannot protect it any more. It has to be ready to stand up on its own merits. If you’ve done the job well, it will be able to handle this.
Choose a few-say 5 or 6-of your very best poems, send them, with a stamped, self-adddressed envelope and a very brief note, to the editors of your favored journals, and wait for a reply. Contrary to what is often expressed, editors do not wish to play favorites or squelch new talent: on the contrary, they are delighted when good things come to them. It makes their lives much easier, since they are going to fill their pages anyway. It is always a pleasure for an editor to “discover” a new talent, or to publish the best work of someone who is already “established.” That’s what an editor most desires: good work. And you have already complimented his taste: you chose his publication to submit to.
The editor who does not publish your weaker work is doing you a favor. He is preserving your reputation. Over time you may come to see why he did not care for a certain poem which was a personal favorite of yours. Or you may think he made a mistake. The important thing is to realize that we make informed choices through exposure to haiku, and no one sees more haiku than the editors of its magazines.
In time, you will be published, perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. Congratulations! Keep in mind that we are all learning all the time, that haiku does not stand still and permit a formula to be used to write it. We will have to keep trying new things, and being honest with ourselves about the results. And in time you will publish many or most of the poems that have meant the most to you: a permanent record of your accomplishment within the form of haiku.
11. Your Own Book
You’ve published scores of poems in the most reputable places, your name is known by lots of other poets and readers of poetry, you have produced poems which have or might have won competitions with your peers. You have a mastery of the steps listed above, so much so that you never think about them any more. You have a style, a voice. You feel you know something about the form. When a poet publishes a book, he is saying “theses are my findings, and I think I have something to say.” Your standing will be measured against the findings of other poets. How do you feel you stack up? Is this an objective opinion, or are you just enamored of your own work?
What will tempt a publisher to consider publishing your book? There are only a few things: the poems are outstanding examples of the form and simply need to be shared; the poems are innovative and distinctive and show a new direction; there is a chance the book will be a commercial success; you’re willing to pay for it. Sometimes this last condition obtains even though any or all of the first three are also true. Publishing haiku is not a lucrative business, and cannot often be done on the expectation that the general market will support it.
Chapter Seven: A (Very) Brief History of Haiku
There are many books which provide an in-depth account of the origins of haiku, from its roots in the prehistoric mind of the Japanese people up to its current formulations. For those of you who seek a more complete understanding, I refer you to these excellent sources (you will find them in the bibliography for this chapter at the back of the book). For our purposes here, we will merely touch upon a few of the high points of this history, with an eye to what the past of haiku might teach us of the present and future of the form.
It is useful to know that haiku is not a created form-that is, no one person or group of persons devised the rules and format of haiku arbitrarily. Instead, haiku is an evolved form, based on other and previously existing forms of Japanese poetry. Much of what made up its form and content in its classical period was determined by those forms of poetry from which it had arisen. These considerations still have a great deal of weight even today, when haiku is considerably freer than it has been in the past, and a large part of how we judge the value of haiku comes from a knowledge of what the form has been throughout its history.
The origins of haiku, and indeed of all Japanese poetry, are lost to us: we cannot say with any certainty when, in the murk of prehistory, the poets of those times happened upon, and embraced, the rhythm peculiar to and underlying all classical Japanese forms. But since this unrecorded time the alternation of 5- and 7-on phrases has been pleasing to the Japanese ear and sensibility. Its short forms are simply this rhythm, iterated once, capped or uncapped; longer forms are made by stacking multiples of this basic building block together. So we have haiku, which is in the 5-, 7-, 5-on pattern; tanka (literally, short poem) in the 5-, 7-, 5-, 7-, 7-on pattern; sedÙka (head-repeated poem) in the 5-, 7-, 7-, 5-, 7-, 7-on pattern; and chÙka (long poem) in the 5-, 7-, 5-, 7- [. . .] 5-, 7-, 7-on pattern. There is something inescapable to this rhythm to the Japanese sensibility, and so it has been utilized and endorsed as the basis for its poetic for all these years.
It does not end here. All the above forms are written by individuals. But the Japanese hold poetry to be a communal activity as well, and it is no surprise that the form utilized for this communal poetry should incorporate this 5-, 7- rhythm as well. Renga (literally linked poetry) is an alternation of kami no ku (5-, 7-, 5-on) and shimo no ku (7-, 7-on) stanzas.
All these forms have their own properties and poetics, differing from haiku in significant ways. Yet all are related by holding this rhythmic impulse in common. We shall consider some of these forms in the next chapter.
Haiku arose from the practice of renga. Renga was a serious art form in Japan from about the 12th century until Shiki’s time, that is to say, the beginning of the 20th century. Shiki denounced renga as artificial, and it fell into disuse. It has made something of a comeback in contemporary times, and is now more usually termed renku to indicate the modern form of this ancient practice.
Renga had many, and complicated, rules governing what might be included in a sequence of linked stanzas, as well as rules concerning what seasons ought to be included in what number and order, what topics were allowed, and many other considerations. What concerns us primarily is that renga always began with a kami no ku stanza, that is, a 5-, 7-, 5-on stanza, created by the rengashi, or renga master, supposedly at the time and place of the occasion during which the renga was to be composed. This stanza was termed the hokku (literally opening stanza). It was often written on the spot, but since it was not easy to create excellent hokku on demand (any more than it is to produce excellent haiku), rengashi began to create them in advance and stockpile them for use at an appropriate time. In so doing they could more carefully craft each hokku, and be certain that each poem contained not only its topical material but also a depth, or resonance, so that the poem (and its possible links) could open outward. In this way, hokku are the true predecessors of haiku, since they were created independently, and needed to incorporate a seasonal aspect, as well as a sense of the place in which they were created: all aspects which came to be integral to haiku.
The great early figures of haiku (Basho, for example) were not haiku poets: they were, instead, rengashi who wrote hokku. It is only in retrospect that we have claimed them for haiku. This is not unfair, since what they wrote were poems which undoubtedly could have been and sometimes were used as hokku, but which also held sufficient interest, integrity and resonance that they could stand alone, without the remainder of the renga necessary to justify their creation. It is this tradition we follow when we write haiku: a poem based on a kami no ku rhythm, incorporating seasonal and place aspects that locate us in the here and now, which contrast (usually) a pair of images which, when juxtaposed, illuminates them in a moment of insight, creating resonance which deepens the moment and connects the writer and the reader.
Like any longstanding literary form, haiku has experienced times during which it was extremely popular, and times when it was all but ignored; times when it was understood by many, and times when it was ridiculed. It has undergone many conceptions of what it must be and what it is for: all the great writers of haiku have imbued it with their own personal conceptions of what makes haiku matter. And, of course, the energy of their genius makes it seem so during their time, and for some time after. But in retrospect, it is possible, perhaps, to see that haiku is really a very flexible knot of energy, to use the analogy we used in our introduction: it is capable of sustaining many quite disparate theories of poetics, and produce fine work in all of them. In the course of haiku’s history, poets as diverse as Basho and Issa have worked within this same form and produced their own distinctive masterworks, but all identifiably haiku. In our contemporary world, there are many schools of thought as to the correct poetics for haiku, but in the long run it will be the form which survives them all, while permitting each the opportunity to create telling poems within the form.
The Great Four in Japan includes Basho, who could write
along this way
no one travels-
I wonder how it goes
with my neighbors?
Buson, a famous painter as well as poet, brings a visual sensibility to bear, as in the peony poem mentioned before, and this:
That’s all there is:
the path comes to an end
Issa is arguably the most popular poet of Japan, even now, almost two centuries after his death. The tragedy of his life did not overcome his basic compassion for his fellow creatures:
don’t give up
Issa is here
It was people he mistrusted:
long gone from here
I know nothing of them
but the scarecrows askew
The most recent of those accorded greatness in the Japanese pantheon is Shiki, whose theories about haiku were as integral to his fame as his poems. He favored an objective style, and stated a preference for Buson over Basho:
the length of summer
the Mogami River
but later in his brief life wrote many poems of a personal nature:
two thousand haiku
and two persimmons
As is shown even in these brief selections, they were all very different artists, and each has indelibly marked the form, helping it to expand to its present shape. It is because of their contributions that we can even begin to consider the issues that currently engage us: are kigo necessary? are there topics inappropriate to haiku? is the counting of syllables requisite in any way to the practice of haiku? and so on.
The twentieth century was one of great change throughout the world, and no less in Japan. After Japan’s brief infatuation with things western in the first couple of decades of the century, much of what was traditionally considered valuable in the culture came under question for the first time in Japan. Mid-century, Japan’s involvement in the Second World War was a culturally shattering experience which created a serious rift between those who upheld traditional culture and those who felt the need to speak more directly to the contemporary situation. After a difficult rebuilding period was rewarded with financial success, Japan again late in the century felt a decline in prestige with a loss of economic stature and a series of government failures and scandals. All these things have weighed on the artists of Japan, and are reflected in the kinds of poems which they have produced.
At the beginning of the century, the imposing figure of Shiki shadowed the many who came immediately after. His disciples continued to dominate the literary activities of the haiku community, editing magazines and adjudicating contests. The work of the best of them, such as Hekigoto
scattered maple leaves-
now the garden
is left unswept
the scarecrow’s hat
can be seen as continuations of Shiki’s own work. Some, however, turned a different way, such as Seisensui,
late night in winter
my shadow and I write down
deeper and deeper yet the green mountains
beginning to be cold
with a chipped nose
the depths of the blue world
In recent times Japanese haiku has been divided more along political lines than aesthetic ones, although considerable difference can be found between various poets as to what constitutes a modern haiku.
Here is a brief sampling of the variety to be found today:
beneath dead leaves
the snow sinks down
. . . Suju Takano
for a cold instant
a huge broken pendulum
in the river’s delta
. . . Sei Imai
obviously green leeks
in the field
. . . Tae Kakimoto
the death of a gull
plunged into the sea
. . . Kaneko Tohta
the pulsing waves
felt this moment
. . . Yatsuka Ishihara
a dragon has sunk
into the Atlantic Ocean
. . . Ban’ya Natsuishi
This sampling gives only the slightest indications of how varied and rich the practice of haiku remains in Japan, but it is only lately that translations of contemporary masters have become available in English. As we come to know the work of our contemporaries in Japan, we will find that they have moved far from the classical models of Basho and Buson-every bit as far, in fact, as we have in the west.
Haiku, then, has a longstanding, uninterrupted history and lineage in Japanese, but is a relative newcomer here. How exactly did haiku come to the west?
Interest in haiku began outside Japan during a time of relatively free cultural exchange between east and west around the turn of the nineteenth century. Interest was particularly keen in France,Spain, Serbia, England and the United States, fueled by the efforts of pioneer translators. Compare their translation of this haiku by Basho:
yagate shinu keshiki wa miezu semi no koe
Never an intimation in all those voices of semi . . . how quickly
the hush will come . . . how speedily all must die
. . . Translation by Lafcadio Hearn
Qu’elle doit bientÙt mourir,
A son aspect il ne parait pas,
La voix de la cigale!
. . . Translation by Michel Revon
These early attempts, on the whole, failed to encompass the entirety of the form and content of haiku, but some, especially Revon’s, were extremely good work considering the paucity of available literature on the subject. English translations lagged behind, notably Basil Hall Chamberlains’s work, which identified haiku with the epigram, and so misdirected understanding of the form for some while.
Shortly after these first attempts, Ezra Pound, H.D., Amy Lowell and others founded the literary movement called Imagism, which held many of the same tenets as haiku, such as using direct language, emphasizing intuition rather than logic, and above all, brevity. Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is often cited as an early example of western haiku:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals, on a wet, black bough.
Other important modernist poets provided their own take on this Imagist directive, leading to such poems as Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and many poems by William Carlos Williams. Poets from Spain, Mexico, France, Germany, Greece, Serbia and elsewhere followed this lead, and slowly over the next 4 decades footholds of understanding were made in each of these countries.
While these strides were being taken, Harold G. Henderson was making his first translations, gathered together in his book The Bamboo Broom (1933). This collection was to form the basis for his later An Introduction to Haiku (1958) which was one of the most influential books in bringing awareness of classical haiku, and more importantly, haiku sensibility, to the west. It is true that in these translations Henderson makes use of rhyme, which later he regretted. Still, the selection and quality of the poems available marked this book as a major leap in understanding the form.
So soon to die,
and no sign of it is showing-
In the aftermath of World War II, another important work appeared, in this case by the British expatriate R. H. Blyth, whose 4-volume Haiku is equally a landmark in our coming to terms with haiku. Blyth’s quirky but often inspired translations, and more, his erudite and Zen-flavored explications of his translations, probably has provided understanding to more English-speaking haiku novices than any other single source. Blyth went on to write more than a dozen other books on haiku, senryu and Japanese culture.
These two seminal works, An Introduction to Haiku and Haiku, can be seen as the poles of the two traditions which have since emerged in western haiku. Henderson’s work is concerned primarily with the poetic form itself, while Blyth’s work is heavily steeped in Zen, and in fact insists that Zen is the proper state of mind for understanding haiku. This position has colored the way in which haiku has been transmitted in the west ever since.
What made’s position more tenable was the readiness of western culture to consider and absorb the secrets of eastern mysticism in the 1950s. Writers like Alan Watts and Daisetz Suzuki expounded the mysteries of Zen, and many westerners were enthralled by the exotic and esoteric aspects of this new import. Among those who found significance in this new way of looking at things were Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other writers of the Beat Movement. Kerouac mentions Blyth’s 4-volume Haiku, in his novel The Dharma Bums, and later authored more than 800 haiku himself, including some of the best early poems in the form in English.
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway
Snyder and Ginsburg also wrote in the form, albeit less successfully.
It was in the 1960s that haiku began to be recognized as a legitimate western poetic form. Several magazines dedicated to the form in English, notably Haiku, American Haiku, Haiku West, and Modern Haiku emerged from this decade. A first anthology of haiku to be written entirely by western authors, Borrowed Water, appeared from a writing group in California. Most of the work in these early efforts can be seen to be derivative of Japanese models, or else poorly conceived by contemporary standards. But they were important transitional works moving us beyond mere imitation to an aesthetic specifically derived for western content, language and poetics.
The first collection of haiku in English illustrating a thoroughgoing understanding of the form and its posssibilities in its transplanted home is Sun in Skull, a short collection by Cor van den Heuvel.
in the rain wet globe
of a penny gum-ball machine
van den Heuvel has gone on to edit The Haiku Anthology, now in its third printing, but first appearing in 1974. The growth of this anthology from 200 to 800 poems, and the tone of the book from tentative first efforts to established resource, is one indication of how far haiku has come in the past 35 years.
Abroad, expatriate American Richard Wright began experimenting with haiku late in his life, but still managing to leave behind more than 4000 poems. Many of these show imitation of Japanese originals, but some few are original and striking, and show promise that he would have been an excellent writer of haiku had he had time to pursue the art further. And Dag Hammerskjold, the Secretary General to the United Nations and a leading international diplomat, published Vagmarking (translated Markings by W. H. Auden), which contained over a hundred haiku-like poems, although they are more aphoristic than our contemporary understanding of the haiku form would allow.
In the 1970s many new magazines emerged, and the first generation of haiku masters writing in English appeared. A sampling of their work:
dry snowflakes fall
against the headlights
. . . Jack Cain
Holding the water,
held by it-
the dark mud.
. . . William J. Higginson
A Hallowe’en mask,
floating face up in the ditch,
slowly shakes its head.
. . . Clement Hoyt
halfway up the stairs-
. .. Elizabeth Searle Lamb
a poppy . . .
a field of poppies!
the hills blowing with poppies!
. . . Michael McClintock
out of the car wash
across the hood
. . . Alan Pizzarelli
tide’s far sound . . .
the stars have come in again
to lie among the stones
. . . Martin Shea
and many others. During this time a specifically non-Japanese diction and content began to emerge, more in keeping with the western lineage of haiku as emerging from free verse and imagism than the specifics of classical Japanese haiku.
In addition, a group of poets gathered around Harold G. Henderson in New York to further study the form, and out of this alliance emerged the Haiku Society of America (1973), the first organization of poets dedicated to the form outside Japan. HSA has grown from its initial membership of fewer than 20 poets to an international organization of nearly 1000 members today. In addition, it publishes Frogpond, one of the two most important haiku magazines, along with Modern Haiku, of haiku outside Japan in the world.
Internationally, Jan Bostok created Tweed magazine in 1972 in Australia, Eric Amann founded Cicada in Canada in 1977, and the first European magazine, Haiku, appeared in Yugoslavia under the direction of Dusan Doderovic in 1978.
In the 1980s further growth was evidenced by several more magazines emerging, and also the creation of the first haiku presses in the west. Wind Chimes Press, From Here Press, HighCoo Press and others began publishing and distributing collections of haiku as part of the small press revolution that was taking hold throughout the west. In addition, the second edition of van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology was released in 1986.
Many poets emerged as leading practitioners in the 1980s, including
the silence a droplet of water trickles down a stone
. . . R. Clarence Matsuo-Allard
leaves blowing into a sentence
. . . Robert Boldman
Pregnant again . . .
the fluttering of moths
against the window
. . . Jan Bostok
a dog looks up at each person
passing on the street
. . . Chuck Brickley
in the dark lobby
of the residential hotel
a feeling of autumn
. . . A. Davidson
Snow at dusk:
our pot of tea
steeps slowly darker
. . . Betty Drevniok
Among the white bones
of the whale’s ribcage-
the drifting sand
. . . Lorraine Ellis Harr
between church bells
the gentle ringing
. . . Adele Kenny
she runs to greet me-
so many shades
of april green
. . . Hal Roth
a child is born a new shadow
. . . Ruby Sprigg
One by one to the floor all of her shadows
. . . George Swede
This hot summer sun-
looking for a little give
in the honeydew
. . . Tom Tico
shadows in the grass
our feet grow cool
as we talk of lost friends
. . . Rod Willmot
and many more.
In the 1990s, haiku became even more accessible, as the small press revolution was overtaken by the internet revolution. More people than ever before were exposed to haiku via electronic means. Of course, not all the information available was of the soundest quality, but in terms of sheer numbers, haiku was made available in an unprecedented way to more people in more places than ever before.
Other events brought to practitioners a greater sense of community as well. The Haiku North America series of conferences was inaugurated by Garry Gay and Michael Dylan Welch. These biannual meetings have now been held in San Francisco, Toronto, Portland, Evanston, Boston and New York. They are the largest gatherings of aficionados of haiku anywhere outside Japan.
In addition, significant new haiku presses were established, including Press Here and Red Moon Press. This latter inaugurated the Red Moon Anthology series, annual anthologies of the best haiku and related works published in English each year from around the world; and also the New Resonance series, which recognizes promising newcomers to the world of English-language haiku. Increasingly it is possible to discover what the best poets in the form are doing on a regular basis, meet and discuss with them the present and future of the form, and engage fully in the literary community in a way that was impossible only a few years ago.
Many new voices emerged in the 90s, including:
I try another combination
on the shed lock
. . . Randy Brooks
biting into a melon
full of seeds
. . . Yu Chang
a woman reading braille
on the porch
. . . David Elliott
. . . Sandra Fuhringer
Hole in the ozone
my bald spot . . .
. . . Garry Gay
his side of it.
her side of it.
. . . Lee Gurga
in the fire
a log shifts
the flow of thought
. . . Christopher Herold
on top of the sheets
we lie without touching
. . . A. C. Missias
a snowy daybreak-
everything’s just different
shades of violet
. . . Brent Partridge
. . . Jane Reichhold
the men on both sides
. . . Karen Sohne
checking the driver
as I pass a car
just like mine
. . . John Stevenson
after the quake
adding I love you
to a letter
. . . Michael Dylan Welch
Many others from all these decades have been quoted elsewhere in this book, and there are many others besides these worthy of mentioning as well.
New magazines and sites for haiku emerge annually; new anthologies and collections of individual authors are regularly released, and contests held virtually every week. There is increasing notice in the mainstream media (including Newsweek citing Basho as one of the 100 most important cultural figures of the preceding millennium in 1999), and many more outlets for sharing haiku than ever before.
This is true around the world. The first European haiku anthology, edited by the Dutch Haiku Society, featuring over 150 poets, was published in 1990. And today the Balkans now host over a dozen haiku journals, ranging from a simple newsletter format to an annual, multilingual, 300 page anthology. Haiku is now written in over 20 languages, and there are Haiku Associations in more than a dozen countries, including the United States (which hosts several regional organizations as well), Canada, France, Italy, Sweden, Great Britain, Croatia, Serbia, Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and shortly in South Africa, China, Brazil and Spain.
This proliferation of haiku from so many cultures and so many languages has created a need to share this common form amongst the many, and so, at the turn of the millennium, the World Haiku Association has been created to establish international standards and a common language for haiku around the globe. This organization has adopted English as the international language of haiku, and seeks to elevate the dialogue about the form and practice of haiku beyond nationalistic and regional concerns to an international standard. At last, after centuries of insularity, haiku is finding a common meeting place where all who participate can find equal footing and communications with the many others from around the world who seek a similar dialogue.
Haiku, like any viable art, is shifting continuously, and what will emerge in the future of haiku can only be guessed at. But it is safe to say that it has become a viable, popular form of literature throughout the world, capable of being written, shared and appreciated by many cultures, in their different ways, in all parts of the world.
Chapter Eight: Related Forms
Haiku, though it may seem to have come from practically nowhere, is part of a varied and long-standing poetic tradition in Japan. It is useful to know something of this tradition, especially in light of how this tradition comments directly upon our own experiences. Also, this provides for us a background against which we can see how the haiku impulse has been redirected in many ways over the centuries of its existence.
It is particularly valuable to recognize that haiku is part of a larger poetic tradition which incorporates all sorts of short poems in Japan. The Japanese term is haikai, which today has the connotation of nonstandard or incorrect, but which may be seen to be the umbrella term for all this sort of poetry. Within its confines there is, of course, haiku, but also other sorts of poems which more or less fulfill the major formal requirements of haiku, which nevertheless have some other aim than the kinds of intuitive insights which are a necessity for success in that form. These similar and yet different forms include senryu, which has become as common in the west as haiku, and also zappai, which might be called miscellaneous short poems and would include what we see most commonly in the mainstream media, things like spam-ku, corporate or technological haiku, sci-fiku and the like. In addition, we find haikai refers to other kinds of short verse such as tanka, and also to renga, along with its contemporary counterpart, renku. We will here consider briefly each of these forms.
Haiku, as we have discussed, evolved from renga, specifically the opening verse, the hokku, and has adopted and more or less maintained its refined tone, its concern with nature and its poetic/nonpoetic language. But if we consider renga as a whole, it is obvious that the topical material covered is far greater than merely natural phenomena. In fact, in typical renga, consideration of human circumstances occupies over half the links of the poem.
It is not surprising, then, that haiku is not the only form to emerge from renga. It has a close cousin in the form of senryu. Senryu shares an outward similarity of format with haiku, but its content and tone are very different. As haiku have come to embody the most important characteristics of the nature elements of renga, senryu have done likewise with the human elements.
This is perhaps an artificial dichotomy: human nature is as much a part of nature as anything else, and so to differentiate it can be seen as self-interested, perhaps even self-serving. But this is a most human response, and that is what senryu are: human responses, often humorous, aiming not to be elevated but ironic, not pastoral but urban, not spiritual but earthy.
Senryu is named after Karai Hachiemon (penname Senry˚, 1718-1790) who, along with many others, collected these little verses of humor and irony into anthologies that were extremely popular in their day. Senryu and the other editors of the eighteenth century recognized a disaffection amongst their readers for classical haiku subjects and treatment, reflective as they were of an outdated feudal society, and a growing predilection for humorous verse, often on subjects more reflective of their urban environs and business-filled days. What these editors looked for in these verses reads like a list of taboos of haiku writing: word-play, especially puns; cleverness and intellectuality; emphasis on ironic and overtly humorous circumstances, especially subject matter which concerned itself with human affairs; eschewal of season words; and a lack of interest in the virtues sought in haiku as exemplified by the works of Basho, particularly sabi, wabi and yugen.
It is no different today: in fact, we might say that senryu is having a rebirth by virtue of the haiku having become popular in the west. In many ways the tone and content of what is available to westerners immediately is the stuff of senryu. Increasingly we live in urban environments, and it is irony which strikes us more immediately than the profundities of nature. Also, we remain our own favorite subjects, and poems which feature human circumstances, especially those which recognize and gently ridicule our all-too-human peccadilloes have an immediate appeal to most. Such are these:
meeting her boyfriend
out of sync
. . . Tom Clausen
facing the mirror
. . . Don Foster
out in the hallway
her lawyer and his
. . . Cindy Guentherman
her fish-net stockings catch my eye
. . . Jim Handlin
his ashes scattered
what to do
with the box
. . . Paul Watsky
The British punk poet John Parker Moore wrote, as a means of illustrating his understanding of the form, the following “haiku”:
Writing a haiku
in seventeen syllables
is very diffic.
And virtually all of us who have been on-line for any length of time are familiar with these poems, and many more like them:
Writing a haiku
in seventeen syllables
is very diffic.
Sniff your hand. You’ve been petting
A strange cat. Traitor!
. . . Deborah Coates
Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.
. . . Anonymous
These are examples of zappai, a miscellaneous group of poems whose main point of contact with haiku is its outwardly similar formal aspect. Usually written in 3 lines of 5 – 7 – 5 syllables (far more often than contemporary haiku, for instance), these purport to be haiku but lack most of the internal components we have come to recognize which distinguish haiku. Nevertheless, these can be fun, and so long as we recognize the differences between the various forms, harmless enough to the appreciation and achievement of genuine art. Other kinds of zappai include sci-fiku:
Earth-Tansen treaty talks
the alien ambassador lying
out of each mouth
. . . John Dunphy
Truly, the Wise One
is creative: he invents
his own statistics.
. . . William Warriner
The Brujah have no
concept of society.
Come Kiss My Ra, fool!
. . . Kristian Priisholm
This is a partial sampling–there are hundreds of different kinds of zappai. Enjoy them, but recognize that there is little accomplishment here in terms of art, and that they are, for the most part, ephemera intended to evoke a chuckle (or strike terror!) and then move on.
Tanka, which literally means “short poem,” is related to haiku be means of its common origin in renga, and from its similar structure (of its first three lines) of a short-long-short arrangement of lines, mirroring the original Japanese structure of 5-7-5 on, which are then completed by a 7-7 cap: so the whole of the poem is arranged 5-7-5-7-7, or short-long-short-long-long.
on the high places,
of my calling voice
comes back cold
. . . Anna Holley
The subject matter of tanka is very different from haiku. In fact, it is a poetry of self-expression where haiku is rather one of subsuming self while identifying with the rest of the universe.
What prompts its appearance and consideration here is the similarity of structure, especially if we consider the poem as being comprised of two parts. The opening three lines is an exact replica of the haiku form, and owes its form to the same origin in renga. And the capping pair of lines are an exact replication of the following link in renga. In fact, we ought to think of the tanka as changing directions at exactly this moment of pivot: three lines to set up one scenario or situation, two lines following to twist the situation into a surprise of realization. Most commonly subject matter is personal in nature, such as love, sadness, and desire.
Renga, Renku & Rengay
Linked verse has a long and honorable history in Japan, and it is not possible to do justice to it in such a brief overview as this. We have already seen how renga has been the source of inspiration for haiku and senryu, as well as zappai and tanka.
The general principles are quite complex and can take years to master. In brief, the goal is to link to the preceding verse in such a fashion that the link seems inevitable and yet was unexpected; also, to carry the poem forward in a non-narrative way, but still maintaining the momentum of the flow of it. Ideally, the link should also shift the poem toward a new subject or season, depending on the needs of the poem at the moment. The ensemble effect is to be inclusive of all the seasons in a proportionate way, and to observe a balance between natural and human elements. No topic may be repeated, and seasons are repeated in a prescribed manner. It is a highly artificial (in the sense of being decorative) form, social in its effect and mannered in its execution.
It fell out of favor in Japa at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Shiki denounced it, but has staged something of a comeback, especially in the west. Its social and public elements appeal to many.
1. Renga: The Seahawk’s Feathers
An Interpretation of Classical Renga
This is the first kasen of Saru-mino-shu, written in Kyoto in early winter, 1690, published 3 July, 1691. This translation was begun 24 April, 2003 and was completed 4 June, 2003.
1 Kyorai (1651-1704) also known as Rakushisha, one of Basho’s most devoted discliples
2 Basho (1644-1694)
3 Boncho (?-1714) a physician in Kyoto, who, along with Kyorai played a leading role in editing Sarumino.
4 Fumikuni (?-?) well-educated doctor who moved toKyoto and later Edo to follow Basho.
the seahawk’s feathers
preened just so,
the first of the cold drizzle1
a gust of wind and then
the leaves are hushed2
traversing the river
my breeks wet through3
a dainty bamboo bow
to scare raccoons4
vines of ivy creeping
over the slatted door
the evening moon2
not for the giving:
these pears of such repute1
as autumn fades
his wild strokes yield
a unique sumi-e 4
so wonderful . . .
the feel of knitted footwear3
in everything while
not a word is uttered1
sighting a village
the noontide conch is blown2
the plaited grass
of last year’s sleep mat
fraying at the edges3
one petal falls
then another: a lotus4
a bowl of broth
wins the highest praise,
graced with suizenji!2
the road ahead
above three miles or more1
this spring also
Rodo’s man stands ready
in the same employ4
a cutting has taken root3
though bound in moss
the old stone basin sits well
with the blossom2
anger in the morning
finds its own resolve1
two day’s worth
of foodstuffs consumed
at a single sitting3
a snowy chill:
the north wind over the isle4
to light the fire
on sundown he sets off
for the peak temple1
done with all their singing2
a gaunt man
still not strong enough
to sit up in his bed4
with next door’s help
the ox cart is pulled in3
he, obnoxious lover,
shall be guided through
the Hedge of Thorns2
his swords just now returned
in sign of parting1
a desperate haste
this way and that
the head stroked with a comb3
“Look then here’s a madman
firmly fixed on death”4
the daybreak moon still lingers
in morning light1
first frost on Mt. Hira:
the autumnal lake2
a door of twigs,
a waka to proclaim
the theft of buckwheat4
wrapped in a soft kilt
these windy evenings3
jostling for pillows
one snatches a little sleep,
then off again2
Tatara’s skies still red
the ragged clouds1
a tack shop frontage
from the crupper maker’s
young buds burst aflame
amongst old loquat leaves4
Suizenji: special nori-seaweed rich in minerals from Suizenji pond in Kumamoto, Kyushu where the Mukai family originated
Rodo: (?-811) a Chinese poet/tea master during T’ang Dynasty
Tatara: the name of a beach near Hakata, <st1:place>Kyushu</st1:place>, where a crucial battle was fought
Translation by Eiko Yachimoto & John E. Carley
2. Renku: “New Coolness“
Ninjuin Renku at Maine, September 6-7 2002, by Yu Chang, Paul MacNeil, John Stevenson, and Hilary Tann. Rotation by Paul MacNeil.
a perfect day
for climbing js
red maple leaves
line most of the bootprints pwm
mother’s pancake recipe
by moonlight ht
the usual suspects
of a murder mystery yc
in three-piece suits
and handcuffs pwm
I offer you my name
with a hyphen js
at Las Vegas
our best man
hits the jackpot yc
frame the herb garden ht
frozen shut js
on a subway vent yc
eye to eye
with an eagle js
on their golf course
under a pool umbrella pwm
on the rocks
and slivers of moon yc
adjusts his lens ht
the silent prayer
is about to end js
yields to the harrow pwm
on the classroom wall
of magnolia blossoms ht
for the smelt run yc
Recently Garry Gay, an American poet, refined a form of linked verse he felt would be more accessible to western sensibilities. Entitled rengay, this form has taken off in popularity. It is quite different than renku in that it seeks rather to build a cumulative effect through its links, and usually does not regard season as an important element unless it is the actual subject of the shared poem. Here is an example in which the inventor participates:
3. Rengay: “Snapshot“
leaving my shadow
on the darkroom floor
from the bottom of the tray
your smile slowly develops
pulling me closer
in front of the camera . . .
on the bulletin board
a roll of negatives . . .
the brightness of your dark eyes
I join you
in the photograph
. . . Cherie Hunter Day/Garry Gay
Sequences are relatively rare in contemporary haiku, but occasionally they will be found in one of the journals dedicated to the genre. Usually the intention is to produce several poems on the same theme, but occasionally the poet will attempt to use the same image, or even a repeated line. Here are two short in English:
1. Sequence: “Torque“
the stubborn top
of the jelly jar
the stubborn top
of the jelly jar
the stubborn top
of the jelly jar
mind zooms in
the stubborn top
of the jelly jar
glaciers in Greenland
the stubborn top
of the jelly jar
. . . Michael Ketchek
2. Sequence: “Only“
the path along the river
home from my travels
my dark house
for the last time
looking at the mountain
that is only a hill
by her sick bed
sprig of pussywillow
in a stone vase
with one shadow
. . . Leatrice Lifshitz
Haibun, literally “haiku prose,” is another form which has nearly disappeared in Japan, but which is burgeoning in the west. A prose section, usually telegraphic in style and specific to the context of the poem, precedes or incorporates a haiku, which may be seen as a culminative element to the work as a whole, but which should not reiterate the substance of the prose. There are several styles, including the explanatory (which essentially describes how the haiku came to be):
1. Haibun: “Thunder Season“
In the desert the days are usually blue-skyed. But in summer months the monsoon winds curve up from the Gulf of Mexico, rise over the dry mountains, curl into dark clouds, obscure the sun, and pound thunder down the arroyos. Sometimes it rains. Usually it doesn’t. When clouds build and rumble, but dissipate without raining, the Tohono O’odham Indians of southern Arizona say “as t-iatogi.” That is, “they just lied to us.” Every summer afternoon my dog looks worried, her ears pricked, anticipating the first rumble. Even when it doesn’t come, thunder defines the rhythms of these days.
night’s dark sleep-
flutters the curtains
. . . Tom Lynch
the essay (which discusses some subject, often nature, and uses the haiku as illustration or enhancement):
2. Haibun: “Fields of Rape“
All afternoon it takes to move by train from Akita to Niigata, following the northwest coast of the Sea of Japan. Each of the modest-sized towns in which we stop, drenched in the soporific spring sunlight, drones with its small commerce. We exchange a group of lunching rotarians from Ugo-Honjo for a gathering of farmers’ wives going shopping in Sakata, and later collect children making their way from school to their homes in outlying Amarume. All regard us with a pleasant enough curiosity, but none is willing to sit next to us.
We pass by dams and alongside highways, under bridges and over ditches, coming slowly to a first-hand knowledge of the challenges of this terrain, and of the many strategies by which people here have sought control over it. Geography does much to inform character, and character, Thomas Hardy tells us, is fate. The land here is resplendent with personality. Primal force manifests not in abstractions, but pure being: the perfect cone of Fuji, the catarract that is Yonjusanman. One of the earliest creation myths of Japan involves the periodic awakenings of a giant koi whose struggles deep beneath the sea shiver the land into seismic activ-ity. Animism has been the popular religion for a millen-ium and longer, and still figures extensively in the emotive, if not the literal, lives of the inhabitants. Interestingly, in the years following upon the ex-ploding of the Atomic Bomb, the koi and other creatures buried within racial memory re-emerged but in a sig-nificantly different fashion. Godzilla, Mothra and others, whose movements in their earlier guise as dragons once created the lay of this land, now moved directly into the provenance of man, walking his roads, destroying his cities. Completely oblivious to the resistance of man, they are subsumed only through combat with forces of equal magnitude as themselves. And we humans escape destruction only through their purblind indifference to us.
It is understandable that a culture whose environment is so fraught with unpredictable and dire events seeks control as a guiding principal. But there are cracks in such reasonings, just as there are cracks threading the tunnels of the Tokyo subway. Control is an illusion we grant ourselves, and it is relative. Taken as a basis of a cultural Zeitgeist, it subverts the wild and actual world in favor of a manufactured and manageable one. This may be said of all art, all culture, but it must be admitted that bonsai, ikebana, and the related arts do not represent a love of nature as it is (as is popularly believed), but rather as it may be shaped by hand. But while our reason may be fooled, we are not so easily misled at the level of myth. There we hold the apprehension that we are ever powerless before the most potent of nature’s forces; that our engineering of the environment is never without incalculable, if not always apparent or imme-diate, expense; and that in the end, we have no other place in which to abide. An esthetic which counsels management of the unmanageable will ultimately fail; it can succeed only as idea, and there must atrophy, devoid of primal force. The landscape rolls on. The fields are largely empty just now, since only within the month has the cold Siberian wind ceased to blow across the Northern Sea. However, rape is in bloom, and vast fields of it stretch in all directions. I recall Buson:
A field of rape:
The sun in the west,
The moon in the east.
It is the same for us, two hundred fifty years after the poet described it, and it is possible to believe that nothing has changed here in all that time.
This train, passing as it does through city, suburb and field, provides us a glimpse into the back yards and private spaces of peoples’ lives. Everywhere we find neatly tended plots, tools ordered on benches, sculpted pines, and only an occasional display of extravagance; here are the revelatory works of spirit, and seem characteristic of these people: apt, artful, sincere. Occasionally there might be found a lawn-chair become fixed by the growth of garden about it; or a man’s washing hung in the sun. But everywhere tiny revelations of these lives are manifest, some of which seem easy to read, some less so, and all are suggestive of a life beyond interior space, or rather, an interiority mannered and easily translatable to a life spent out of doors, under the sun.
backyard fish pond-
a nibbling koi
shatters the moon
. . . Jim Kacian
3. Haibun: “Losing Private Sutherland“
Steven Spielberg’s searing indictment of war-the bloody and horrendous carnage at Normandy Beach-was difficult to watch as I sat in the dark theater during a weekday matinee. Then, unexpectedly, the 506th was mentioned and I found myself on the verge of breaking down; that number identifying our basic training regiment triggered the old and unassuaged grief at Sutherland’s death. A magnificent human being wasted in a forgotten war; the youth and promise of a good friend forfeited. I can still see him standing in combat boots smudged with Kentucky mud . a residue of cold rain dripping from his helmet and poncho . a cigarette in his mouth that he lights for me . and then another he lights for himself. Pentimentoed under this memory, carried for almost 50 years, is a body riddled with bullets as it is washed away in the flashing rampage of a Korean river, and there follows a scene long and relentlessly willed to stave off madness . sediment settles gently on my friend’s handsome face . peacefully . softly . quietly .. Yes, the soldier can no longer hear gunfire; the young soldier can no longer hear the river thundering into his throat. He is quiet . as I soon will be quiet .
the flag folded
something of myself is lowered
with his coffin
. . . Jerry Kilbride
the dream or journal report,
4. Haibun: “Pantry Shelf“
Pottery shops were a weakness of yours. When we came upon one your eyes would lock on it. You’d glance at me with the words, sometimes unspoken: “Do we have time?-Yes, let’s have a look.” Usually, not looking for anything in particular-just the delight of seeing, touching and holding useful things crafted with care. When you just had to buy, we went for coffee mugs-you can never have too many! And so we had a shelf of them in our pantry-most were ‘yours’ and a few were ‘mine.’
six weeks after-
her coffee mugs
at the back of the shelf
. . . Cyril Childs
and the travelogue,
5. Haibun: “Key West“
Key West, the veritable end of the road and southernmost point in the continental United States. Cayo Hueso, as the Spanish explorers originally named it-Isle of Bones, because of the Native American remains they found strewn across its tropical desolation. Now, the living far outnumber the dead, as thousands of tourists drag their tired bones down the narrow palm-lined streets, determined to see everything the tiny island has to offer.
The most celebrated daily activity is watching the sunset, when hundreds of people gather on the waterfront dock at Mallory Square, where buskers entertain before and after the sun drops into the ocean, as nature provides a stunning light show.
The orange sun drops
below the horizon-
the crowd applauds
The main event over, the crowd thins as many head back to the famed bars of Duval Street. Sloppy Joe’s Bar, one of Hemingway’s haunts, is open-sided and brimming with tourists, eager to soak up some of the seedy ambiance (as well as rum) that supposedly inspired Papa. But in Hemingway’s day, there were fishermen and sailors at his sides, no ATM in the cornerfor drinkers in need of cash, and no kiosk selling t-shirts with his visage, which, somewhat fittingly, looks rather sad.
Sloppy Joe’s Bar-
packed with Hemingway
At the visit’s end I reflect on what Dos Passos wrote in a letter to Hemingway, that his trip over the Keys by train was a “dream-like journey.” By 1935, 23 years after it was completed, the railroad was gone, destroyed by a hurricane.
I slide behind the wheel of the car and head north, the only way to go. Aquamarine water stretches as far as the eye can see on both sides of the narrow road, the bright sunlight reflecting off of it to produce a variety of hues. What lies ahead brings to mind Basho’s final haiku, which inspires a final haiku of my own about this enchanting place.
Keys journey . . .
over sun-baked bridges
dreams wander on
. . . Brett Peruzzi
Haiku began in Japan as a pictorial as well as literary art: even when there is no sumi-e or other illustration attached, the presentation of the poem itself, in its calligraphed form with use of visual elements and space, was as much a visual treat as a poetic one. Haiga is the natural extension of this inclination: the combination of haiku with illustration.
Many of the haiku masters illustrated their own work, often with great skill. Buson, for instance, was a professional artist. Even those without great proficiency in the skills of painting show an appropriate aptitude to render their own work, and occasionally others’, with a charming simplicity.
There are three major traditions of haiga: the rendering of the subject of the poem in the illustration:
[sorry, the illustrations mentioned below are not yet available]
Haiku: Bruce Ross
Painting: David Murray Ross
illustrating something not present in the poem which obliquely opens the poem in another or deeper direction:
Haiku & Painting: Stephen Addiss
and a portrait or self-portrait of the poet who composed the haiku:
Haiku & Painting: Jim Kacian
All of these schools are still in practice, and haiga, though a relative newcomer to the west, is finding a rebirth here. Besides adopting these kinds of haiga, there have already emerged schools of haiga which are endemic to the west, and which promise to revivify the art. These include abstract haiga, which works suggestively around the haiku:
Haiku: Raffael de Gruttola
Painting: Wilfred Croteau
and a hybrid east/west painting style which seeks to capture the best of both traditions:
Haiku & Painting: Jeanne Emrich
There are other trends as well, and it will be particularly interesting to watch to see how this art unfolds as it gathers momentum here outside its homeland.
Haiku & Other Arts
Besides the obvious relationship available between haiku and art, there are traditions of haiku in other arts as well. Although we will be unable to reproduce these forms here, you might easily imagine some aspects of these for yourselves, and you might find this inspires you to consider your own artistic response to the haiku sensibility in another medium.
Besides the performance aspects of haiku accompanied by music, there have been serious attempts to set haiku to western art music. These have ranged from impressionistic renderings of single haiku to choral settings of groups of poems to symphonic music which incorporated haiku into the fabric of the musical context. Accompanying forces have varied from guitars and recorders to piano, string quartet, and small orchestra. Many of the same problems of presentation inherent in haiku reading are encountered in setting haiku, and it is interesting to see how various composers meet these challenges. There is no dedicated disc of haiku music yet released, but a useful discography does exist.
In addition, interpretive dance has been employed to interpret haiku often of late. It is interesting to compare the achieved forms with haiga for poems which have received both treatments. A concert of haiku dance was given in Boston in April of 2000, and another was held at Haiku North America in 2001 in the same city. Many others have followed.
Besides these, the traditional Japanese arts of ikebana, calligraphy and sumi-e painting lend themselves well to haiku interpretation, and have often been employed to do so.
As usual, the goal of all these artistic visions is to find means through which the vision of the poet can be shared intimately with the perceiver. It is quite difficult to judge all these efforts, but what matters most is the transmission of the haiku moment: did the artist communicate clearly to you the moment of revelation? Whenever this has been achieved, no matter the medium, an enhancement of poetic mode is apparent. This is perhaps not the last word, but might serve as a means to enter the newly hybridized form, and therefore might at least stand as something of a beginning.
Chapter NINE: Performance
Haiku is meant to be shared; it has no other purpose. There may be things which result from this sharing–poetry is powerful magic, and in the past has been used to heal, incite, recall and dispatch, among other things–but all results come forth from this first intent.
There are many ways in which to share haiku. We have already considered publication, and this is the most common way to go about it, and has the advantage of having the greatest potential audience. But while it has some virtues, it lacks the immediacy of interpersonal contact, for example, or the nuance of voice. In this chapter we’ll consider some of the ways in which haiku have been offered in person and out loud in the past, and suggest some other ways which might be tried.
It is true that haiku are difficult to read, particularly individual poems. It is difficult to generate momentum within the course of a single haiku: by the time the reader is finding his rhythm, or the listener has fully attuned herself to the speaker’s pitch and intonation, the poem is over. Also, haiku are very densely filled with images, and after a short while any listener might experience an input overload. We could compare it with a box of chocolates: everything in the box is tempting, but eating them all at a sitting will produce not satiation but a heavy dullness. There is a limit which finds a balance between these states, and it is not always easy to predict or recognize. A standard practice has grown up in English-language haiku circles to read a haiku, pause, and read it a second time, before moving on to the next poem. This has the advantage of allowing the images to be fixed a second time in the listener’s mind, and for the resonances to well up. On the other hand, the stop-and-start action prevents the building up of momentum. Nevertheless, this must be considered the norm for reading practices at this point, especially useful for single poems.
The key element here is the creation of useful time for the listener to imagine himself into the situation, and to experience it for himself. Many other devices have been employed to achieve this same effect. One such practice has been the sounding of a gong or bell following the reading of a poem, with the subsequent poem not read until the vibrations from the bell have totally died away. Another imaginative method for outdoor readings has been the releasing of helium balloons, with the next poem read when the balloon fades from sight.
These techniques are especially useful, as before, with single poems, or with groups of poems by several authors. On the other hand, there is the danger that the resonances of the poem may be lost to the inherent interest in the sounds or sights generated as spacers to the poems. There is also the consideration that the last-mentioned technique is not perhaps ideally attuned with contemporary ecological and conservationist practice.
A different approach to gathering time and resonance to the poem is the use of another medium, such as music or art, in collaboration with the readings. Often individual instrumentalists are employed to accompany the reader, very commonly a shakuhachi or samisen player, but increasingly musicians who play western instruments such as oboe, clarinet or flute. Stringed instruments are often used as well, especially guitar or violin. Here, because of the development of the musical line (ideally related in affect to the poem read), a musical pause is developed, which can be especially moving when there is good connection between the two performers. Of course the music may prove distracting when the players do not match each other well.
In the case of art, or photographs, or dance, or physical re-enactment, these same sorts of values come into play, with the same potential advantages and difficulties.
For longer readings, the aim is usually to attain a balance between the individual poem and the movement of the whole. These last few performance styles lend themselves to longer performances as well as the one-poem-at-a-time format. In addition, the reading style can vary considerably as well. One particularly effective means, if losing individual resonances of particular poems is not a concern, is the jazz reading, where streams of poems in which cascades of images wash over the listener are read close upon each other, with particular emphasis given to the rhythmic element in the poems. This too can be enhanced by musical accompaniment, and reinforces the historical connection English-language haiku holds with the Beats.
Then there is the cyclic reading, where poems are read two or more times at different intervals over the course of the reading. This has the effect of introducing the listener to a poem the first time, and allowing a resonance to grow from repeated exposures, while at the same time permitting a certain amount of momentum to be generated over the course of the whole performance. This works particularly well with poems which are related by thematic, seasonal or emotive links.
Rare, but not unheard of, is the sung reading, wherein all the poems are performed by the reader with pitch and often melody. This is a truly creative mode which goes beyond the simple considerations of performance and enters the realm of new form. It can be inspiring, but obviously depends upon gifts which not every haiku poet may have at his command. It is useful to consider the differences between the traditions in this matter as well. The Japanese rarely employ any of these methods, preferring straightforward readings, although there is perhaps a higher incidence of sung readings there. One of the reasons for this may lie in the fact that the Japanese are utilizing a more specific rhythmic underpinning than we in the west, who are more comfortable with a free verse tradition.
In the Japanese haiku, especially those which seek to employ traditional concepts of format, there is an understood rhythmic form which gives shape to the reading of every poem. We may think of it as though it were a grid of eight beats per line, times three lines, so an overall pattern of twenty four beats. I don’t mean beats to suggest stresses as they would in English: we might better conceive of them as the ticks of a metronome, unstressed but marking a specific passage of time in a specific tempo.
Within this grid, there is a great deal of latitude for performance, and one may speak on or off the beat, or syncopate with partial beats, or employ silence for a beat or beats. In other words, the grid is extremely flexible, while still providing structure. And it is within this structure that the reading of a haiku is heard by a Japanese listener, although he or she may not consciously refer to it. It operates somewhat as cadence does for us in the west: once the pattern of tonal closure has been evoked, we will hear it automatically, or else feel discomfiture if it is withheld (so, too, a haiku without rhythmic closure).
This may suggest why haiku performance with music can be so powerful, and also provides ideas for future performances. It might be possible to create a similar rhythmic expectation in an audience in the west by providing some sort of rhythmic accompaniment–something as simple as a clicktrack or as complex as a full-blown musical composition–and then operating within the rules of this rhythmic device, or else breaking them, to gain the desired effect appropriate to each poem.
The most important consideration, no matter what the technique, is to remember that communication with the intended listener is paramount. All effects ought to be aimed at permitting the listener a closer experience in keeping with the reality of the poem.Where this is successful, a powerful enhancement of the text is possible. Where the listener can enter more entirely into the moment of each poem, there will we find the greatest connection possible, the primary purpose of haiku.
Endnote — Haiku: The World’s Longest Poem
You have now begun the journey of haiku. You will help maintain its lineage by knowing what it is, how it works, and what has been valued in it for centuries. You will help make it new by bringing to it your own vitality and sensibility, and the new experiences and values which only you and the future can supply. This is what is necessary for haiku to matter: a sense of its past, a relevance to the present, a growing into the future.
It will also help you to see haiku, and your place in it, in larger terms. Haiku is, as we have seen, the world’s shortest poetic form. Properly considered, it is also the world’s longest poem. The goal of every haiku is to see the world aright, see it whole, see it true. Every haiku contributes some small piece to this seeing. Every haiku aims, then, at a common goal, and as such can be seen as a piece of a whole. When considered in this way, haiku becomes the agglomeration of thousands, even millions, of small moments, from nearly the same number of poets over several centuries, shared by way of a common form. We are a part of this far-ranging community, and as such can feel the power which community can bring to such an enterprise. BashÙ once wrote that a life in which even a single perfect haiku was written was not lived in vain. It was in this context that such a statement means something. And we, too, will make our contributions, which others today and in future generations will appreciate and make part of their view of the universe.
I once wrote, in another context, that another poet had wondered aloud what I might hope to accomplish by working in such a brief form as haiku. I answered, quite spontaneously, that such a question was similar to pondering what God might have done with the universe if he hadn’t had to work moment by moment. The cumulative effect is rather magnificent, despite the modesty of the building blocks. I believe haiku is precisely what we need in our lives today. Its brevity permits us access in as short a time as we might have to spare, and for the same reason makes further consideration often and at odd moments much easier. But we need not spend hours to know the intuitive sense of any of the best haiku. A few moments, deeply considered, are enough.
At the same time, haiku are deep. They move past the surface of things as we are accustomed to seeing them, and connect us with those things that lie beneath the surface: the way things really are, the way we really feel. There is a great need in our time of glossy surfaces to find resonance beneath the slickness. Haiku help us do this. At bottom, haiku connect us with ourselves, with the earth, with our time and place on earth. They are about the real, the here and now, the truth. We need this now more than ever, in our time of provisional truths and circumstantial ethics, and yes, of quantum physics and virtual time. Haiku ground us in ways which are undeniable to our ways of being. They make us see what is right in front of us, right now, and when we can see what is right here, we are better able to manage what has been and still might be. Haiku is a gift, from one to another, from our generations to those which will come, and ultimately to ourselves.
while the gift
is being opened
. . . Myra Scovel
caesura – a pause or breathing place, usually in the middle of a line, and indicating a pause in the sense or meaning of the line.
choka — long poem (also nagauta) in contradistinction to waka (short poem, which includes haiku and tanka).
haibun — haikai writing of many sorts; contemporaneously, a combination of (often poetic) prose and haiku (or senryu or zappai).
haiga — haiku painting; the combination of image and text, often simple and sketch-like, where each element enhances the character of the other.
haiku — a brief poem in 1 to 4 lines, often concerned with nature or the human experience, and usually juxtaposing a pair of images; at its best, it fosters a resonance which deepens over time
haikai — as contemporarily used, haiku and related forms, such as renku, sequences, etc. Classically, suggesting irregular and/or comic poetic forms.
hiragana — one of the two syllabaries, along with katakana, and collectively called kana, used in writing the Japanese language. Hiragana is the more traditional, and was originated, according to popular legend, by the Buddhist bhodisattva (enlightened being) Kobo Daishi in the 9th century A.D.
hokku — the opening verse of a renga or haikai sequence, sometimes composed independent of its linked usage; the forerunner of haiku.
ikebana – flower arrangement in one of many Japanese styles.
Jizo — the Japanese name for the Mahayana Buddhist bhodisattva Kshitigarbha. He is especially concerned with the welfare of the dead, and is the special protector of dead children, as well as being concerned with roads and mountains. Shrines to Jizo are found throughout Japan, especially in places where children have died, and at rural crossroads.
kami no ku — the first three lines of a tanka (literally, “upper stanza”), opposed to shimo no ku, the final two lines.
kasen — a pattern of renga or renku comprising thirty-six links.
katakana — the other of two syllabaries, along with hiragana, collectively called kana, used in writing the Japanese language. All foreign words are written in katakana.
kigo — a seasonal word or phrase, through which haiku may call upon associations of nature which might not be available within the short compass of the verse itself. Traditional haiku must contain a kigo, though contemporary practice, both in Japan and elsewhere, shows less insistence upon its use.
kireji – cutting word(s) (in Japanese such words as kana, -keri, ya, etc.) which initially were employed in renga in certain verses, and later were adapted to use in haiku as a kind of caesura or terminus.
nijuin — a pattern of renga or renku comprising twenty links.
on[ji] — a sound; for haiku purposes, a Japanese linguistic entity closest to an English syllable.
renga — linked poetry, essentially a linking of alternating 3-line and 2-line verses, usually with strict rules for linking; the opening verse became known as the hokku, which later developed into the contemporary haiku.
rengashi — renga masters, such as Basho.
renku — the contemporary name for renga; it suggests less stringency to classical rules of composition, though this is not necessarily true.
resonance — the secondary significance which the words of a poem elicit beyond the first, literal, meaning.
romaji — a system of romanized spelling for the Japanese language.
sabi — the appreciation of solitude and quiet apprehension; an aesthetic virtue espoused by many of the poets throughout the classical age of haiku in Japan, and in general in Japanese art.
samisen — a Japanese (originally Chinese) musical instrument of three strings and played with a plectrum, not unlike a guitar.
satori — enlightenment as conceived by Zen Buddhism; more colloquially, a moment of insight into the nature of reality.
seasonal reference — see kigo.
sedoka — one kind of waka, or short poem, consisting of six lines in the (classical) pattern of 5-7-7 5-7-7 on.
senryu — a short poem similar in structure to haiku but featuring ironic, humorous and/or coarse observations on human nature.
shakuhachi — the Japanese wooden flute.
shasei – literally, “sketch”; the school of composition founded and championed by Shiki which states that haiku must be taken from Nature and rendered with an incompleteness which permits the reader to finish the poem; though only one of many competing theories, this scheme has had inordinate impact on haiku practice in the West.
shimo no ku — the concluding (two) lines of a tanka.
sumi-e — ink painting.
tanka — along with choka, one of the two principle types of waka, or short poem, consisting of five lines containing an upper stanza (three lines) and lower stanza (two lines), though of course variants are common.
wabi — the beauty inherent in poverty, and the impoverished; an aesthetic virtue espoused by many of the poets throughout the classical age of haiku in Japan, and in general in Japanese art.
yugen — mystery and depth; an aesthetic virtue espoused by many of the poets throughout the classical age of haiku in Japan, and in general in Japanese art.
zappai — irregular poems of many types, including senryu and those similar which do not attempt the same aesthetic goals of haiku.
First Thoughts — A Haiku Primer
by Jim Kacian
(© draft; 2005; title subject to change; all rights reserved)