I've written a couple of posts about short forms of Japanese poetry (most recently Why I hate haiku) but I've always been acutely aware that I've been out of my depth. To that end a while back I asked my very knowledgeable friend Art Durkee to see if he could rattle together something and, lo and behold, he has. So, without further ado, let me leave you in Art's capable hands.
Preface: This is an essay written and re-written periodically over about 6 years. It’s a topic, or rather a set of topics, that is continually expanding. The subject is endless and ever-growing. So, this particular version of this essay may become obsolete again, before I can ever add to it. What I’ve tried to do is assemble an overview, a possibly over-simplified summary view, overlooking a vast literary landscape that is still being explored and colonized. At minimum, I hope to have provided a few ideas which interested poets can take and run with, to begin their own journeys into this rich and rewarding poetic territory. As for myself, I continue to write in haiku and haibun more than in any other poetic form; even when I am not really writing any poems at all, a few haiku will turn up, based on moments of experience that one wishes to distill from memory into poems.
When working with haiku in English, there are several good reference books to start from; I’ll list a few of those later. Meanwhile, here are some basic ideas to get any interested haijin (writer of haiku) started. A tremendous amount of material about haiku is available online, from critical articles to full-fledged journals, so I’ll post some links later.
Before we dig in, though, here’s an important caveat: most beginning haijin get stuck on the “rules” of haiku. The most important thing that needs to be said is this: the rules are neither as rigid nor as deterministic as most people think they are. If you think of them as guidelines, or tendencies based on long tradition, rather than purely as rules, you will have a lot more fun—and probably make better haiku. Haiku is an art form, after all, a way of poetry; it’s not engineering, and it’s not a purely intellectual game.
Most beginning haijin think that the most important feature to haiku is the form and syllable structure of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. This is understandable, as we’re used to thinking of poetic forms in this way, as well as in other purely formal terms such as meter and rhyme. While this 17-syllable count is traditional, it is not as set in stone as you might think. It is the original form as developed in imperial Japan, but there are haiku by the classical masters that use a 16, 15, and 18 syllable count. In Japanese, in fact, haiku are most often written out in one long line, rather than broken into three lines; the line-breaks are pauses that are understood, and pauses are marked by placer-words and syllables that are understood in common practice.
While the syllable count matters in Japanese, there are several reasons why it doesn’t need to be strictly followed in English. Japanese is an uninflected language relative to English. In English, which is usually inflected in units of stressed-unstressed tones, it makes sense to use a syllable count of even numbers, for example, 4-6-4 rather than 5-7-5; and indeed, many English-language haijin do just that. There is much merit in the 4-6-4 argument, but again, don’t adhere to it too blindly. Many good haiku in English use both these and other syllable counts. Many good haiku in English pursue the spirit of haiku rather than the strict syllabic form, as well; this will be discussed in more detail below.
So, the 5-7-5 syllable count is relevant in Japanese but not always relevant, or replicable, in English. That's why many translators of Japanese haiku go for sense, or feel, rather than strict adherence to the 5-7-5 form in English. Similarly, meter and rhyme, while considered by many in English poetry to be essential to poetry, are not present in Japanese haiku at all. Some early translators tried to force their haiku translations into rhymed couplets, sometimes using four lines, and this led to some seriously bad renditions. Nowadays, again, many translators strive to bring the meaning across, and not force their translations into expectations about poetry in English.
A very good essay, about why this should be so, by a bilingual Japanese scholar, can be read here.
Note that this is a fairly technical article that may be most interesting to poets who want to go deeper into the issues of syllabics and line-breaks. Nonetheless, the essayist’s concluding statement is one I think all haijin would do well to keep in mind, when writing haiku in English:
By concerning ourselves too much with the outward form of haiku, we can lose sight of its essence.
Sentence fragments in Japanese can be considered poetic, in that they can be images that within context take on meaning. Japanese syntax is quite different from English syntax, and context rather than linear grammar can be very important. Verbs can be entirely absent, in some Japanese haiku. A really big mistake is to try to apply English ideas about grammar and syntax to Japanese haiku, either when translating or when writing new haiku in English. The mark of a good translation is to create a new poem in English that gets the sense across while making grammatical sense in English; not all translators are good at this. Similarly, when creating a new haiku in English, pay attention to tone and style as much as to form, but don’t feel locked into English rules of grammar and syntax. Haiku are meant to evoke, and as in painting, sometimes what it left out is what matters most.
Many of the "rules," or expected common practices, of haiku are aesthetic rather than technically formal. Traditional haiku typically include all of the following: the use of two contrasting images; the use of a kigo, or seasonal indicator word (cicadas in autumn, cherry blossoms in spring, etc.) that indicate what time of year the haiku is set in; the turn, or hinge, between the two images, which in English is usually represented in English by a dash or colon, can entirely change the meaning of the first image, after you've experienced the second; the preference in haiku is for capturing a pure “haiku moment.”
deer move in the woods,
stepping high, noses down—
snow falling hard, now
(one of my own haiku by way of example)
Haiku tend to be concrete, “of the moment,” rather than abstract or allusional; metaphor or simile is atypical. The aesthetic is to take a small moment of insight into the world, and write it out immediately, spontaneously: light and quick. Of course, the great haiku poets did revise and rework their poems; often just changing one word, in so compressed and concise a poetic form, can make all the difference.
Another important aspect of the haiku aesthetic is that the reader is expected to “complete” the poem, by bringing their own life-experience to it, which enhances its meaning and creates resonance. The reader is not a passive recipient, but a participant in the poem. Readers bring their own emotions and experiences to the poems they read. Haiku can be very deeply felt, very moving—but emotion is usually expressed in a restrained manner, sometimes quasi-symbolically. Many haiku are glimpses of nature, with no apparent human content: but humans are also part of nature, and the reader brings the human element to the poem, and is in relationship to the nature images and events of the poem. The poem is a reflection of the human encounter with the world.
Thus, many haiku are about “aha!” moments: moments of revelation; of sudden deep understanding; of contemplation. They connect the universal to the particular: the cosmos expressed in the chirp of a cricket.
Haiku can also be gently ironic, for example this famous haiku of Matsuo Bashō’s about sleeping in a barn while traveling:
nomi shirami | uma no bari suru | makuramoto
fleas and lice—
next to my pillow,
a horse pisses
Bashō, Issa, and Buson are considered the three great classical Japanese haiku masters. They each have characteristic topics, and a familiar poetic “voice.” I strongly recommend that any beginning haijin read these poets extensively, especially Bashō, who was the originator of the form. Over 1000 can be found here.
An oft-quoted haiku definition (from Poets.org) includes some comments that get it mostly right about the aesthetic aspects of haiku:
Haiku was traditionally written in the present tense and focused on associations between images. There was a pause at the end of the first or second line, and a "season word," or kigo, specified the time of year.
As the form has evolved, many of these rules--including the 5-7-5 practice--have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.
The pause (often represented in English haiku by punctuation) mentioned is really more of a hinge or turn. Haiku often consist of two apparently contrasting images, with a turn in between them. For example:
out the window
wild turkeys on the lawn—
lone rabbit watches
The images might seem unconnected, but they are connected on a deeper level because they are placed in association, in contrast or in relationship, and they comment upon one another, so that the poem synergizes into something bigger than just two images.
The aesthetic in haiku is often based in the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the impermanence of existence, and the roughness of natural things. The moment of illumination (the haiku moment) is very central to this aesthetic, no matter how the poem is structured technically. It's difficult to call a poem a haiku without that "aha!" Although many haiku are about small things, many also open up into the wider universe of existence, and expand the mind.
Issa's haiku are often very small and simple, and even humorous. But one of his most sublime haiku, written soon after his infant daughter had died:
this world of dew
is just a world of dew—
and yet . . . and yet . . .
“The world of dew” is a classic Japanese Buddhist image of impermanence: the world is a reflection in a dewdrop, soon to evaporate. In this haiku, Issa affirms how impermanent life is—but then he equivocates, he wonders, he questions. Life is fleeting—and yet, so compelling, so attractive; we cling to it, even knowing it must end.
I write a lot in haiku and its related forms; most notably, haibun, which can be thought of as densely poetic prose sections, or prose-poems, interspersed with haiku. Many of Bashō’s most famous writings are actually haibun, even though their associated haiku are sometimes excerpted as stand-along poems. His masterpiece of travel writing is composed in haibun form: Oku no hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Interior.
When writing haiku, my personal preference is to keep to the “rules” that make the most sense to me, and be looser about the rest. This can be subjective, of course, and haijin and haiku critics will argue indeed about it. One of the things that attracts me to haiku is non-linearity, that sense of being in the moment yet the moment is eternal. I almost always follow the aesthetic aspects of haiku—tone and subject matter and “haiku moment”—because these are what attract me to haiku; but I am looser about following a strict syllable count. Some short-form poems I’ve written use the haiku moment as root-moment for making a poem, but I suppose are not strictly haiku, formally or structurally. At other times, I like to sometimes strictly follow a strict syllable count, because it can be a challenge to make a good haiku in English doing just that. At yet other times, I stretch the form pretty far, in terms of content, subject matter, and style. I recognize and honor the Japanese tradition, and I view myself as a serious student of Bashō and Issa in particular, and I also like to experiment.
Here is a brief list of words and concepts related to haiku forms (with gratitude to fellow haijin Beth Vieira for the initial list, which I have expanded upon). Most of these are terms that refer to aesthetic or technical aspects of haiku and its related forms:
aware – grief, pity. This term is complex, referring to what has been called the "touchingness of things," that is, being moved to feel pathos for this floating world. (This floating world, the dewdrop world—both refer to the impermanence of existence.)
fuga – the poetic spirit. A combination of wind and elegance, this term refers to the aesthetic vitality and sensitivity found in haiku poetry as well as associated arts such as landscape painting, architecture, and the tea ceremony.
haibun – haiku prose-poems. Normally structured as a brief prose text that exhibits haiku aesthetics, followed by a poem. Often described as dense poetic prose interspersed with haiku. Probably the most similar form from European poetics is the prose-poem as developed by Lautréamont, Baudelaire, and the Symbolists. An important aspect of haibun writing is that the haiku that follows the prose section does not merely repeat what has already been said, but reflects upon it from a different angle, or is a poetic response, or a poetic observation that moves the narrative forward by expressing the poet’s feelings about the actions or events in the prose section.
senryū – comic, unorthodox, a senryu is a poem in haiku form that evokes both comic playfulness, or lightness, and spiritual depth, plus it may comment on the "floating world" of human society. In essence, a senryu uses the traditional haiku form but its subject is human nature, and is often humorous or ironic in tone. Most English-language haijin who write humorous haiku, or wry commentaries on human foibles, are, strictly speaking, writing senryu rather than haiku; not all of them realize this distinction, however. Western poetry is very human-centric, and so when a beginning Western haijin starts to work within the haiku form, they transport their familiar subject matter to the new form; this produces senryu than haiku, typically.
haiga – traditionally, the visual art form of a painting that includes a poem written out in calligraphy as part of the painting. Traditionally, the poem and painting are about the same subject matter, but do not merely repeat each other; rather, they present different aspects, different responses. In approaching a subject from two directions, there is a parallel to haiku’s traditional of two images placed in juxtaposition to create a greater whole, a greater meaning. Haiga is not, therefore, merely a poem illustrated. It relies on the synergy between the two forms of art to make a greater work of art. Also, the calligraphy of the poem has its own aesthetic rules and traditions, and its placement as part of the artwork must be neither casual nor random. Calligraphy is its own way, its own aesthetic tradition, known as shodo.
hokku – opening stanza or first stanza of a renga (linked poem), with a 5-7-5 syllabic rhythm. This stanza was considered the most important and was usually offered by the master poet at a linked-verse gathering, or renga party. A season word was required. Renga consist of alternating stanzas of 5-7-5 and 7-7, composed collaboratively, each poet composing the next stanza as the poem goes around the circle. Each stanza completes the thought of the previous stanza, then presents something new; so the subject of the poem can veer off from where it began, and circle around, or keep going in new directions.
kigo – season word. A word that in the classical literary tradition suggests a particular season, or possibly a specific moment of a season, even if the object may be seen in other seasons (a type of bird for instance). Traditionally, every haiku should contain a kigo. There are numerous published season-word dictionaries, called saijiki or kigo jiten. In English haiku season-words are more problematic, as there is less of a tradition of associating specific words and images with specific seasons; some obvious examples, however, are pumpkin = autumn, snow = winter, etc. Traditionally, many kigo were names of birds or flowers associated with the time of year in which they were most prevalent. Thus, one went to view cherry blossoms in spring; one listened to cicadas in autumn; and so forth; and so these activities and images become the sources for kigo.
kiko bungaku – travel literature. Accounts of travel in prose often accompanied by haiku or tanka. Similar to and overlapping with nikki bungaku, or diary literature. Also overlaps with zuihitsu (see below). Many of Bashō’s most famous haibun sequences, such as The Narrow Road to the Interior, are formally structured as travel literature.
mujo – impermanence. A prominent and complex concept in Japanese literature as well as in Buddhism and Taoism. One of the most fundamental aspects of life is its changeability, which can take the forms of cycles of the seasons, creative transformations in nature, the inescapable degeneration of aging, the inconstancy of lovers, and the inevitability of death.
renga – classical linked verse. A sequenced poem with multiple, alternating stanzas. The first stanza is 5-7-5 then followed by 7-7 making a poetic unit of 5-7-5-7-7. Then another 5-7-5 etc. Usually this is a poem composed by a group, with poets alternating stanzas. Typically, renga are made from 36 to 100 individual stanzas.
sabi – loneliness. The word suggests both sorrowful and tranquil, a response to the realization and acceptance of the essential and shared loneliness of things. It can refer to an aspect of the fundamental nature of reality, a quality of a particular moment, or the state of mind that apprehends this loneliness.
tanka – the older form of classical Japanese poetry, closely related to both renga and haiku. Tanka are structurally composed of two stanzas, one 5-7-5 followed by a 7-7 stanza. The first section is very much like a haiku in form and aesthetic, while the second section adds to the first, and also can turn it in a new direction. Classically, tanka are very much associated with passionate love poetry, even explicitly erotic poetry.
wabi – aesthetic rusticity. A complex word that suggests simplicity and poverty, unadorned natural beauty, the elegant patina of age, especially in terms of weathered natural materials, asymmetry, and dynamic balance. Wabi is often combined with sabi to describe the haiku aesthetic. Wabi-sabi is also an important aesthetic in other arts such as architecture, and the tea ceremony.
zuihitsu – "Following the brush"—a traditional form of apparently random composition in Japanese literature, where the writer roams widely in subject matter and attention. Often very poetic, there's overlap here with diary-literature, travel-literature, and haibun. Some of the great classics of Japanese literature are combinations of following the brush, travel writing, and haibun poetry.
See also this Haikai Glossary at Terebess Asia Online.
One note about contemporary haiga: the idea of combining poetry, typography or calligraphy, and imagery, has gone digital. This is a fascinating modern trend that combines poetry and both traditionally-made art from hand-made materials, such as woodcut prints on paper, and digital art, Photoshop art, digital photography, fractal art, and combinations of all of these.
Here is a link to Bashō's Narrow Road to the Deep North, one which is interactive and has multiple translations as well as the Japanese:
Here is a link to a rather exhaustive list of haiku reference materials, including journals and online sites:
Examples of haibun:
Bashō: Narrow Road to the Interior (trans. Sam Hamill)
Examples of zuihitsu:
Both the zuihitsu and travel-diary-writing forms continue to be used in modern Japan, and are gradually working their way in to English. The rules of no-rules, following the brush, brush-mind, random jottings.
Two modern published versions of zuihitsu in English that I’ve enjoyed reading:
Game-Texts: A Guatemalan Journey – Erskine Lane
Landscape With Traveler: The Pillow Book of Francis Reeves – Barry Gifford (this is a short novel written in pillow book form)
Book resources which I recommend to both beginning haijin and those who have which to pursue the Way of Poetry (kado as Bashō called it) more deeply:
Kobayashi Issa: The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku – trans. Sam Hamill
The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology – Faubion Bowers, ed.
The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Issa, and Buson – Robert Hass, ed.
The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share and Teach Haiku – William J. Higginson (contains an anthology)
The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World – William J. Higginson
The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu Women of the Ancient Court of Japan – trans. Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani
Autumn Wind Haiku: Selected Poems by Kobayashi Issa – trans. Lewis MacKenzie
The literary biography of Bashō by Makoto Ueda, titled Matsuo Bashō, is excellent. Ueda authored another very excellent book that I highly recommend: Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics. Ueda is one of the most readable of serious haiku scholars.
These are some general anthologies, and a few specific anthologies of the three poets who are considered the great haiku masters: Bashō, Buson, Issa. I can recommend most of these as having read them personally, and having them in my haiku library:
Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku – Bruce Ross, ed.
An Introduction to Haiku: An anthology of poems and poets from Bashō to Shiki – Harold Gould Henderson
Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death – Yoel Hoffman, ed.
The Haiku Anthology – Cor van den Heuvel, ed.
Haiku: The Poetry of Nature – David Cobb
Zen Poems of China and Japan: The Crane's Bill – Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, eds.
Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter – Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, eds.
Zen Poems Prayers: Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews – Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto (mostly on Zen, with some poetry)
Afterimages: Zen poems of Shinkichi Takahashi – trans. Lucien Stryk
A Net of Fireflies: Japanese Haiku and Haiku Paintings – trans. Harold Stewart
Classic Haiku: An Anthology by Bashō and his Followers – trans. Asataro Miyamori
For Bashō's seminal haibun, Oku no hosomichi, usually translated as Narrow Road to the Deep North or Narrow Road to the Interior, I recommend:
Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings – trans. Sam Hamill This also contains the haibun Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, and The Knapsack Notebook, and selected haiku. My edition is bilingual.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches – trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa