By G. M. H. Thompson

The Japanese-inspired haiku is perhaps the most well-known and often used form of poetry today. Schoolchildren the English-speaking-world over know that a haiku is five syllables in the first line followed by seven syllables in the second line followed by a final five syllables in the third and final line. It’s as simple as counting, right? Well, if that was right, this essay would end right here.

For, although the haiku is perhaps the most well-known form of poetry, it is also probably the least well-understood. The contents of a legitimate and interesting haiku must do about five different things all at once in a very tight space.

Perhaps it will be easiest to start out with what a haiku is not. Many English-speaking would-be haiku poets concentrate solely on the 5-7-5 syllable count and the fact that what they are writing is a haiku, ever so often chucking in superficial Japan-esque imagery, such as lanterns, cherry blossoms, willow trees, Mt. Fuji, or anything out of Cowboy Bebop or Miyazaki (and that’s if you’re lucky—if you’re unlucky, it’s from Dragon Ball Z, Full Metal Alchemist, or Yu-Gi-Oh!). This leads to glib, epigramic syllabic poems that go something like this:

 

A Bad Haiku                                        

Archipelago:
There are perhaps a million
Haiku with that word

 

What makes a good haiku? Fundamentally, the art of haiku is the art of saying by not saying but by suggesting allusively.

 

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-41OFmEzFrrQ/UKIWt2ONhqI/AAAAAAAAAGc/Iar7RCCfsMc/s1600/BashoByBuson.jpg

Bashō

1. Firstly, the haiku is a statement on humanity’s relationship with nature. The master haiku poet Bashō (1644-1694) wrote this often repeated haiku:

 

At the ancient pond,
A frog leaps and plunges in
The sound of water

 

Here the poem is ostensibly about a frog but this all changes with “the sound of water” since it is something perceived presumably by the poet. Thus, the connection or relationship may be very subtle. Here is a haiku I wrote:

 

Harem

Water lilies bloom
Beside a crystal fountain
In the Sultan’s court

 

If the poem were about lilies alone it would not be a haiku. The relationship comes alive through the Sultan, although he may not necessarily be there, and the fact that this is a harem and the lilies may not be lilies at all but beautiful women devoted to the Sultan.

 

2. The second vital element of haiku is that it be in the present, which is to say, each haiku is focused on a moment and the moment, like a very short film. This can at times be hard to convey or pick up on as a reader, but it helps to write in the present tense exclusively and to focus on action with things doing things. Using gerunds (-ing words) is also pretty handy with grounding the poem in the present. Another Bashō poem that would clearly be less effective if the first line said flew:

 

A flash of lightning
The screech of a night heron
Flying in darkness

 

The lightning’s menace is elegantly complemented by the night heron’s plight in the darkly storm to create a mood of lost hopelessness, perhaps reflecting the poet’s psychological state at the precise moment of the haiku’s composition, which appears to be quite desperate.

 

3. The third key thing a haiku must do is twist in the third line: traditional Japanese poetry does this through the use of a “cutting word.” Unfortunately, there is no real equivalent for that in the way the English language works. The closest parallel to this twist in other forms of English poetics is the final two lines of a Shakespearean sonnet, or the final couplet of an Elizabethan soliloquy. The cut creates a curious and very non-Western disruption, or twist, to the flow of idea developed so far in the poem, yet one that forms a new flow of the idea. Observe the below Bashō haiku, his death poem:

 

Sick on my journey
Only my dreams will wander
The desolate moors

 

Here, we do not know if it is the traveler on the desolate moors or the dreams somehow on them, or both on them. The third line disrupts the traditional Western disconnection between mind and matter. This is my haiku:

 

Honey Bee

ebony & gold
newsprung flowers kissed to life:
the earth reborn sweet

 

In the final line, we see that the earth is in fact alive and the perspective has gone from tiny, to normal, to large beyond our view.

 

4. The fourth tenant of haiku is image. Specifically, two images. That is the ideal number of images a haiku should have—with only one image, there is little room for action and little room for change; with more than two images, things often get said that don’t need to be said and the haiku quickly becomes slack and lost within itself. Juxtaposing two images with a colon, dash, or comma, without doing anything else, can be enough to make a great haiku. See this example by Haiku master Yosa Buson (1716-1783):

 

A pear flower blooms,
A woman reads a letter—
Beneath the moon’s light

 

The tight juxtaposition of the images of the pear flower blossoming and the woman reading a (probably amorous) letter beneath the moonlight suggests that there is some deep, mysterious, almost mythical connection between them.

 

5. The fifth element of a traditional, proper haiku is the seasonal word. This can be as obvious as “spring,” “autumnal,” or “March,” but it can also be a lot more subtle and interesting. For instance, mentioning plum blossoms is a reference to very early spring/very late winter (depending on where one is in Japan). Mentioning the cuckoo’s song alludes to summer and also to death, as another baby bird has to die for a cuckoo to survive and thus sing. The cicada also refers to summer. There are many other veiled seasonal references like that, many of which I do not actually have knowledge of, but nonetheless, here is an example of a Buson haiku with a seasonal word:

 

The white plum blossoms
Almost through yesterday’s night
A new day coming

 

Here, the white plum blossoms refer to early spring/late winter and the poem itself is about the changing of one year into the next, the image of yesterday’s residual darkness turning into the new day’s nascent light serving as a metaphor for this transformation. On a deeper and more important level, this poem is about passing from the world of the living, “yesterday’s night,” into some world beyond, “a new day coming,” as it is Buson’s death poem, that is, his last poem before he died.

 

Rhyming?

Regarding rhyming, traditional Japanese haiku is unrhymed because every Japanese word ends in a vowel sounds, so there are really only about six rhymes in the entire language, effectively ruling rhyming right out as being almost comically simple and stupid (the opposite of English’s rhyming troubles, funnily). That being said, there is no real reason why haiku should not rhyme in English. Here is my rhymed haiku:

 

Antioch

who knows and who cares
& who goes where roses wear
the pale face of death

 

Here, the rhyme serves to link the first two lines, and the third line is nicely set apart from them by its lack of rhyme, this absence in and of itself serving as the haiku’s twist or “cutting word”. If all three lines rhymed (a tempting choice, admittedly, but one that is best avoided), this haiku would not succeed in what little way it does.

 

A Final Note Regarding Inspiration

Regarding how to obtain the tangible inspiration necessary to actually sit down and write a haiku, it is best to focus on specific moments of nature observed personally by the haiku-poet, and to think about how these instances were moments of transformation or change or revelation. For while haiku can be constructed using the imagination, it is far easier to rely upon lived experience. Let reality and memory do the work and don’t feel beat up if it’s difficult to dream up great haiku using pure imagination (it is tremendously difficult to do that). Go to a park, or to the zoo, or to a nature preserve, or to a forest, or to a jungle, or to an aquarium, and notice. Notice and notice more wherever you go and wherever you are and whatever you are doing, for it is observation above all else that will lead to writing good haiku. And notice the little things, for those are the things that no one seems to notice, and those are also the things whose noticings often make the best haiku.

 

The History of Haiku

The composition of poetry in Japan in several different forms constructed of lines five and seven syllables in length has occurred since at least the eighth century A.D., and probably long before that; that date simply being the century in which the first book of Japanese poems was composed. From at least this time, such poetry was pursued by members of every island in the archipelago of Japanese society, no matter how low or high, although the considerably greater amount of free time and education the nobility possessed has always led to an over-representation of their social order within the ocean that is Japanese verse.  Note that although Japanese does not technically have “syllables” like English does, it can be said to have de facto syllables, provided, of course, that one is not a slave to pedantry. One of these forms was the tanka, a form that can be thought of as a tercet (three lines) of five-seven-five syllables followed by what can be thought of as a couplet (two lines) of seven-seven syllables. (Traditional Japanese poetry does not use line breaks as a strong, active element of poetic structure as traditional European poetry does, but it is best to think of things as they have been stated outside this parenthesis.) Additionally, Japanese is not a language of stresses as is English or German, nor does it have any equivalents thereof such as the longs and shorts of Latin and Greek. Every syllable is given nearly equal weight when pronounced in Japanese, like in French, so traditional Japanese poetry is strictly, and it really is very strict on this its only metrical point, syllabic.

Another of these five-seven forms was what would come to be called renga, which is best to think of as a series of tanka stacked on top of one another. Note that the plural of renga is renga; the plural of tanka is tanka; the plural of haiku is haiku, and so forth. Formally, renga go  5-7-5  7-7  5-7-5  7-7  5-7-5  7-7 . . . , ending on a couplet traditionally. The renga is a collaborative poem that by the seventeenth century had established itself as the dominant long-form of poetic expression in the Japanese literary tradition. One poet would begin a renga with a hokku, which is a tercet of five syllables followed by seven syllables followed by five syllables (coincidence—I think not!). Another poet would add to this a couplet of seven syllables followed by seven syllables. Then, a third poet would add a tercet structurally identical to the first stanza (i.e. 5-7-5), but the key here was that the poem formed by the hokku and the couplet alone had to be different in content and character than the poem formed by the couplet and the third stanza when looked at alone. In other words, the third stanza introduced a curious and very non-Western disruption, or twist, to the flow of idea developed so far in the poem, yet one that formed a new flow of the idea with the second stanza when considered without the first hokku. A couplet structurally identical to the second stanza was then added, often by yet another poet, and like the third stanza, this fourth stanza had to disrupt the flow of idea by forming a new flow of idea with the third stanza that was different than the flow of idea between the third and second stanzas, or the flow of idea between the second and first stanzas. This often went on for exactly 36 stanzas (forming a kasan), and there were many rules as to the content that the participants were to write. The themes were almost invariably humanity’s relationship with nature or humanity’s relationship with humanity, the same two themes of traditional haiku, and similarly, seasonal imagery was employed heavily.

Yet, by far the most vital element of the renga was the hokku, the opening tercet of 5-7-5, as this set the overall tone and mood of the entire series. Owing to this special status, poets would study and practice the construction of hokku with especial fervor and concentration. Groups of hokku began, by the mid-seventeenth century, to be collected and displayed independent of the renga that spawned them, and the acclaimed Japanese poet Bashō (1644-1694) interspersed hokku in his prose travel journals, inventing a new form of prose-poetry: the haibun. Later, as you might have guessed, the hokku was renamed haiku. Thus concludes a not so short synopsis of the history of haiku.

 

Haiku Published by the Society of Classical Poets:

Fall Haiku by Reid McGrath
Haiku by Ibe Ware Desu, LC
Haiku on the Persecution of Falun Gong
Spring Haiku by Reid McGrath

 

G. M. H. Thompson’s publication credits: ScifaikuestShemomBear Creek HaikuHaikuistAnti-Heroin Chic (formerly Heroin Chic), Old Red KimonoRoad Not Taken: The Journal of Formal Poetry. Let Us Go, a poem by G. M. H. Thompson, won the Winter 2016 Heart & Mind Zine Judge’s Choice award in the category of poetry.  Four of G. M. H. Thompson’s as-yet-unpublished poems will appear in the forthcoming 2016 anthology of Scurfpea Publishing.

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9 Responses

    • G. M. H. Thompson

      Thank you for your kind words, Poet Boquet. And I report my impressions of “The Haiku Room”, but it is a closed group so I had to request to become a part of it before I see anything about it, and that request is pending as of yet.

      Reply
  1. Lew Icarus Bede

    G. M. H. Thompson,

    You have written a nice essay on haiku (and more). I like that you included present tense as one of the important components of a haiku. As you pointed out with your examples, Bashō was a master of the haiku (then colled hokku). And though he thought many wrote haiku as well as he did, and felt that he was at his best in renga (renku), I have felt for some time that, after him, the quality of the haiku dropped in figures, such as Buson, Issa, and Shiki; however, I can think of hardly one English-language haiku that has stirred me as much as those many authored haiku from the late 17th century through the 19th century. I know Postmodernist American poets, like Rexroth, Wilbur, and Snyder, have been influenced by haiku, but they have left no single haiku that has touched me; nor I daresay has any other English-language poet. The only reason I even dare indulge in haiku, like the following:

    A paper kite dips
    in a sunlit, steamy pond:
    the teabag simmers.

    is that it is good practice in microscopic writing. I also like the oddness in its structure (3-5-7), a rarety in the English tradition.

    I remember when I was younger, being thrilled to such haiku, as the following by Bashō:

    Shizukasa | ya | iwa | ni | shimi iru | semi-no-koe
    Stillness | : | rocks | to | pierce-in | cicadas-voices

    Yagate | shinu | keshiki | wa | mie-zu | semi no koe
    Soon | die | indication | as-for | appear-not | cicadas-voices

    Blyth puts it prosaically as, “‘Nothing intimates, in the voice of the cicada, how soon it will die,’ and goes on to say, it can be taken in two ways. First, there is the nothing in the singing of the cicada which shows that it will not sing forever. Its singing quality of ‘pure present’, the eternal now. Second, the cicada sings oblivious of and indifferent to its approaching death. It sings without fear or hope, without rhyme or reason; it sings because it sings.”

    Can you think of an English-language haiku, whose poetic force has been an inspiration to you?

    Reply
    • G. M. H. Thompson

      And I especially liked that haiku you included in your comment:

      A paper kite dips
      in a sunlit, steamy pond:
      the teabag simmers.

      It took me a while to realize that a paper kite is a kind of butterfly (I’m assuming that is the intended meaning, not a human-manufactured toy sort of paper kite, as the butterfly serves as both a season word and a nature image, and allows the haiku to make sense), which is why I did not comment on it in the original reply to your comment (that paper kite means a kind of butterfly should perhaps be footnoted– I would not at all be surprised if others were as unfamiliar with types of butterflies as I am). Did you write that haiku? It’s very beautiful.

      Also, for some reason spaces don’t register in the comments, so the Pound haiku came out all rushed and unaesthetic. I will attempt to use underscores to show how Mr. Pound intended to use blank spaces in that poem (it is often printed incorrectly without these very important blank spaces in anthologies):

      In a Station of the Metro

      The apparition
      of these faces____in the crowd____:
      Petals____on a wet, black____bough____.

      Reply
  2. G. M. H. Thompson

    Seleucid Web Ra,
    Thank you for your kind words and for your cogent analysis. And thank you for the translations of haiku; they were very nice and it’s always fascinating to look at the original (phonetically spelled with Latin characters) text. You raise many points that I agree with, some of which I wanted to address in the article itself (but opted not to as it was intended as an introductory guide, so some of the finer points had to be sacrificed in the interest of clarity). To wit, haiku do not actually have to be written in the 5-7-5 straightjacket most people think of when they think “Haiku”. In Japanese haiku tradition, there is a sub-form called “Hachou”, or ‘Broken Rhythm’, that uses irregular counts like 3-7-5, 6-8-7, etc. Here is an example of that in Japanese by the poet Hakyō:

    yuki wa shizukani | yutakani hayashi | kabaneshitsu

    Here, the first section of the poem has seven syllables, not 5. Many of the masters of the form including Bashō wrote hachou. In fact, the way that haiku are constructed in Japanese is deeper than most English speaking people suspect. For, the haiku is fundamentally a musical form of poetry, meant to be heard, and the musical phrase is largely lost when it is subjected to the printed page’s sequence of the metronome. This article outlines the deeper elements of Japanese haiku metrics far better than I could (I’m not entirely sure, but I think it might be a groundbreaking article in the field of English haiku): http://terebess.hu/english/haiku/total2.html

    And that’s just the historical, tradition-based argument for not feeling compelled to write haiku to fit the rigid, 5-7-5 formula English teachers shriek at you in the sixth grade; perhaps the more important reason is that English is a different language than Japanese, and what works perfectly in Japanese will probably not work quite as well in English. 5-7-5 is a count that works great in Japanese, but I have personally found it to be somewhat unwieldy in English, in no small way because English, unlike Japanese, has stress patterns that have the nasty habit of getting in the way all over the place (yet there are reasons beyond that). And that’s not to say that it can’t be done in English— just that it shouldn’t be thought of as the only option.

    As for the search for good haiku in English, I must admit, they are often difficult to find. Most of the establishment haiku magazines, such as Acorn or Modern Haiku are conspicuously lacking in taste. These magazines, and others like them, don’t know the first thing about what makes a good haiku or what makes a good poem, and they frequently cause me to question my sanity in raging fits of bitter despair. I do like many of the haiku Jack Kerouac wrote, but I will not post any here (I don’t have an opinion on his other poetry, as I have read very little of it). Haiku anthologies can be a good place to hunt for readable English-language haiku. I discovered this one, by Lorraine Ellis Harr, in the pages of the third (1999) edition of The Haiku Anthology (“Over 800 of the best English language haiku and related works”, its cover claims):

    on the old scarecrow
    a crow sits for a while—
    suddenly flies off

    I don’t think I know of a more eloquent description of death. And here’s another by the same poet that I found in the same source:

    after the snowfall
    deep in the pine forest
    the sound of an axe

    The axe’s industry defies the seemingly universal deadness of the recent snowfall, suggesting that it is best to resort to action when all things seem lost and not to resort to despair (that seems obvious, but many people resort to despair anyway, and I myself am often guilty on that count).

    One haiku I have always personally adored is one that I don’t think many people here will greet warmly. Thus, I hesitate to summon it. It is perhaps overrated. And it does not fit into the 5-7-5 straightjacket that Mrs. Pelker would approve of. And its author is highly controversial for some reason (he recanted his antisemitism in the 60s, and when he said those things on Mussolini’s radio, he was losing his mind; besides, no one was listening besides allied spies). Nevertheless, it is a true haiku and I have always been moved by it, so I will summon it nonetheless and with the full expectation of opposition (I will print it as if it were written with the most up-to-date and fashionable modern-day haiku sensibilities):

    In a Station of the Metro

    The apparition
    of these faces in the crowd :
    Petals on a wet, black bough .

    This haiku illustrates the power of juxtaposing two seemingly unrelated images better than any I know. Cherry blossom petals are compared to London commuters, suggesting that human beauty is going to waste in the dank city, which itself can be seen as a symbol of the modern age for Pound.

    Reply

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