Allen Ginsberg didn't write haiku. Like many he recognised that the seventeen characters of this Japanese form do not automatically correspond to seventeen syllables of English or for that matter any other language. Besides that, divvying them up into 5-7-5 syllable lines turns the whole thing into an exercise in counting, not feeling, which is too arbitrary to be poetry. Ginsberg’s solutions, which first appear in his book Cosmopolitan Greetings, are his American Sentences: one sentence, seventeen syllables, end of story. I'll be honest I wish I'd come across these before I read Howl when I was nineteen and I might have had a bit more time for him. Here are a couple of examples:
Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.
Rainy night on Union square, full moon. Want more poems? Wait till I'm dead.
Wait a sec, wasn't that last one three sentences? I think Ginsberg's 'solution' is a fairly arbitrary one. Why choose seventeen syllables? It's an odd number – literally. I can see where he's coming from though. In the west we've become so used to a haiku being presented over three lines that we assume that's it, no rhythm to cope with, no rhyme – what could be easier? And for many that's it, that's a haiku. They're everywhere. Every time I log into Zoetrope there will always be one or two lying around waiting for me to pass judgment on them and occasionally I do.
Okay, so what is a haiku really? Let's start out with a definition:
Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry, consisting of 17 morae (or on), in three metrical phrases of 5, 7 and 5 morae respectively. Haiku typically contain a kigo, or seasonal reference, and a kireji or verbal caesura. In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line, while haiku in English usually appear in three lines, to parallel the three metrical phrases of Japanese haiku. – Wikipedia
It's obviously not as straightforward a definition as we might have hoped for. On (or onji) are the phonetic units that are counted in Japanese haiku. In linguistics these are called morae. Morae is plural; the singular is mora and a syllable can contain more than one mora. There are three kinds of syllables, light, heavy and superheavy. Most linguists believe that no language uses syllables containing four or more morae.
All new to you? Well, it's pretty new to me so don't start asking me a lot of awkward questions. The simple fact is that I've always felt breaking up words into syllables was a bit on the sloppy side.
So, the point I'm getting at here is that the 5-7-5 syllabic structure that we're all familiar with is really a bastardisation of what goes on in Japanese – syllables we get, morae we don't.
Now we move onto content. What is a haiku supposed to be about? A lot of people scribble down cryptic statements that resemble Zen kōans but is that sufficient? The Wikipedia entry mentions a kigo, or seasonal reference. That really restricts the topics you can pick from doesn't it? Japanese haiku poets often use a book called a saijiki, which is like a dictionary or almanac for kigo. You can get the idea what this might be like if you have a look at The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words. The author has this to say about it:
Each of the more important seasonal themes--such as those listed here--has a long history of not just physical associations, but emotional tone as well. The more skilled the haiku poet, the more the poem works with or plays against these associations. A good haikai saijiki (almanac of seasonal topics and season words used in haiku and linked-poetry composition) explains these traditional associations, but that is beyond the scope of this list. For the haiku poet, this list simply represents those few seasonal topics that have deeply engaged Japanese poets for centuries, and, in some cases, for a millennium or more. Such a list can also help poets to know what to look for when they want to write a seasonal poem. In a saijiki, the systematic seasonal ordering of topics serves mainly to collect related phenomena together, and to arrange finished poems in a rational and aesthetically pleasing order. The part of the season in itself is not particularly crucial for the haiku poet, and many saijiki and kiyose (simple season word lists or guides, such as this one) omit this information.
You get the idea. There is clearly a great deal of precision needed to get a haiku right, if you're going to do it right. And this is just one aspect of haiku writing.
Let's have a look at a traditional Japanese haiku by Masaoka Shiki:
Ka-ki ku-e-ba / ka-ne ga na-ru-nari / ho-u-ry-u-ji
The slashes are there simply to identify the three groups for our benefit. Remember in Japanese this would be written in a single line:
If you go to this site you'll find an entire article devoted to this single haiku. There are a number of translations but here are three to give you some idea:
whenever I bite a persimmon a bell tolls Hōryū-ji Temple
(version by Debra Woolard Bender)
the temple bell rings
as I eat a persimmon--
(version by Paul Conneally)
taste of persimmon
as sharp as the bells
(version by Laurene Post)
The article explains exactly when Masaoka Shiki wrote the haiku (25-26/10/1895) and under what circumstances and a number of translators have a crack at not simply transliterating the poem but interpreting it while they translate it. I love how the article ends:
In order to understand Shiki's "persimmon/Horyuji" haiku really well, one must visit Hōryū-ji around 25 October, take a rest at the tea house, eat persimmons and wait for the "tsuri-gane" bell to toll. Short of that, one should at least eat persimmons.
I would imagine it would help if you were 28 and terminally ill. And Japanese. I wonder too if he'd read John Donne although I suspect the sound of a tolling bell could mean much the same in all cultures.
I hate this haiku for a different reason from which I hate English haiku. I hate it because I can't read Japanese and I don't have a Japanese head. Okay, I could get a dictionary and give it a go myself. Here's what Google Translate came up with:
If the bell rings to Horyu or persimmon
I then tried each individual word and found it interesting that 鳴 was translated as 'crying' as opposed to ringing or tolling. The bottom line is that much can be lost in translation. And I hate that. Google lost the 'ji' too which is another one of the characters.
But if I can return to English 'haiku' and accept that it will have its own standards, can I let it go and accept that it's its own thing?
Yes and no.
I do accept that there are people out there who subscribe to the spirit of the Japanese form. Take this example by Jack Kerouac:
Snow in my shoe
The whole 5-7-5 thing has gone out of the window and yet I think most people reading this would go, "Aha! That's a haiku," and then they'd count all the syllables and go, "Er, wait a sec, it's not really a haiku, is it?" Here's what Jack had to say:
The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don't think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again...bursting to pop.
Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella [a chamber concerto]. - American Haiku
You can read a load of his haiku here.
It's as good a statement of intent as anything else. Later Kerouac expanded on this opening concept. He developed a new definition for American haiku in his journal Some of the Dharma which he termed 'American haiku pop', a three-line poem of Buddhist connotation, like a small meditation that may or may not rhyme, leading to enlightenment. Pop is onomatopoeic – a quick, abrupt noise that snaps you to attention. I suppose it corresponds to what many call the 'Aha! Moment'.
There are modern poets who say unless your poem has this 'Aha! Moment' you're not writing haiku. Others emphasise the experience. And, of course, there will be those who say that as long as your poem has three lines containing 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively then it's a haiku.
This is why I hate haiku. It has moved so far away from its roots that a good haiku is more a matter or fluke than anything else and how is a wee Scottish laddie like me going to recognise it? This is not to suggest that short poems cannot be excellent but they're just not haiku. Actually, in his article, Poems, Stories, Plays in the Scots Language, David Purves suggests that Scots is the prefect vehicle for haiku:
Unfortunately, contemporary English may not now be a satisfactory register for haiku, since English has become detached from its social roots in any particular community, as a result of globalisation. It has been argued by some poets that English has now become spiritually exhausted as a poetic language, as a result of its adaptation for utilitarian purposes. Comparisons between renderings in Scots and English of haiku by Japanese masters suggest that versions in literary Scots have an energy and frisson that harmonise well with the true spirit of haiku.
It's an opinion. I'm not sure I agree with him but here are a few of his examples:
The laiverok lilts
The lark sings on
Keep the last one in mind. I'll come back to it.
I've only ever written one haiku and there are those who would argue it's not a proper haiku. Even I would argue it's not a proper haiku so I'm not going to include it. Instead I want to talk about two other poems.
When I wrote my poem 'Reflections' I was looking to create the kind of image that I'd come across in haiku. If you count the syllables you'll find there are eighteen and I did consider dropping the 'No' in the first line and calling it a haiku but the simple fact is that seventeen syllables does not a haiku make. Here's the poem:
we are not ready
go skinny dipping
one another's souls.
29 August 1989
Of course, as with all my poems, it is about people. The nature setting – I mean, what does your mind conjure up when you think about skinny dipping? – is just a metaphor and that's it. Would
We are not ready
to go skinny dipping in
one another's souls.
work? I seriously thought about it but that initial 'No' is the plop that starts the whole poem off. Notice how the lines get longer – okay, not much longer – but I was aiming to suggest the rippling effect that that initial 'No' would cause in the hearer's life. No is a response. We are not privy to what went on before this but whatever it was it has led up to a request whether stated outright or implied that the couple strip off more than their clothes. Seeing someone naked is one thing, seeing them naked on the inside is another thing completely.
Traditional haiku don't have titles and yet I felt this poem needed one and one with several layers of meaning. Before the plop that starts off the rippling effect the couple would be able to see themselves reflected in the 'water' – make of that what you will – but afterwards all each of them is left with is an internal reflection of the moment.
In traditional haiku there are examples of slightly breaking the rules (hacho). These are called jiamari (excessive syllables) and jitarazu (insufficient syllables) and have been seen since before Basho's time. I could have argued with myself and tried to justify calling the poem a haiku but it's not and I'm not sure what was going though my head thinking it would be a better poem if it was a haiku. It has form – I'm not against form – but it has the form that naturally came to it. Some time later I wrote a sequel to this poem:
Being with you
swimming in the sun
warm Summer's day.
June 23, 1996
Okay, it's a sappy poem for a girl but try and put that aside for the moment. Now, this poem does have 17 syllables (4-2, 5-2, 4) but I would still argue that it is not a haiku. The palindromic structure is deliberate by the way.
Being with you is
like swimming in the sun on
a warm Summer's day.
just doesn't work. Again, the title is an integral part of the poem and certainly an awareness of the first poem would give it significantly more meaning. On its own it's not very exciting and having to explain it to Jeanette really didn't help but it did get me Brownie points. One can never have too many Brownie points with a lady.
The biggest problem with both 'skinny-dipping' poems is that they rely heavily on metaphor and one of the fundamental 'rules' of haiku is: No metaphor. But for every rule there is an exception. Let's take Basho's famous 'frog' haiku:
old pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water
In her essay Metaphor in Basho's Haiku Jane Reichhold has this to say:
To begin, let us take the Japanese literally in the last line so it reads "water of sound." Let that roll around a few minutes in your imagination. The water of sound. Sound as water. Sound moving as water does. Sound rippling outward as water does when disturbed.
Heretofore, all poetical Japanese frogs made sounds -- croaking, songs, calls. What if water was used as a metaphor for the invisible sound? Instead of making a sound with its voice, what if the frog leaps into the water of sound?
We can never know if Basho was having thoughts like these before he wrote (or spoke) the lines "a frog jumps in / the water of sound" but we do know he was aware enough of the gift of his inspiration that he didn't allow Kikaku to tack on a beginning phrase of yellow roses but stayed with his metaphor of water as sound / sound as water to say "old pond" to emphasize that sound is the oldest pond.
It could be, as it has been reported, that Basho simply heard a frog plunging into water (a rather probable occurrence as he lived in a marsh where two rivers joined) just at the moment a Zen master asked him a question on his progress in his meditations. Yet he didn't begin his poem with his reality of "in the marsh" or "by the river" but used "old pond" because in a quiet pond a disturbance most closely resembles the way sound moves and is most accurate. Again the third image is the tie for his metaphor of water for sound. Bodies (get that one?) of water have sometimes stood as metaphors for ears because of the way water reflects and distorts sound.
In another essay she goes on to list sixty-five 'rules' that have been applied to haiku at one time or another. It's laughable when you think how short the form is.
In all honesty I can't say, "I hate haiku," because Haiku's response would be, "But, you don't know me," and that's why I hate it, it won't stay still long enough to be known. Maybe once back in the day the Japanese might have come up with a short list but somehow I think the argument about what a haiku can or cannot be has raged since Masaoka Shiki coined the expression at the end of the 19th century.
There are loads of sites out there that have something to say about what haiku is or ought to be. There are links to some in the article but a nice clean and not too wordy site can be found here.
I think there's a lot newbie poets can learn from working with a short form like the haiku. Whether what they produce is haiku is neither here nor there. I've never deliberately avoided writing them perhaps because I've always written in a condensed way. I think the problem is that they're just a tad too short for the thoughts I want to express and that's all.