A Quick Haiku Guide A traditional haiku should... 1. Be three lines. The first line should have five syllables, the second seven syllables, the third five syllables. Seventeen syllables total. 2. Contain a nature or seasonal reference: the crumbling leaves, the cold air, the smell of manure, the taste of fresh black berries, the cicadas' buzzing. 3. Be in the present tense (swims rather than swam). 4. Be subtle and observational. 5. Contain some sort of twist in the third line: a shift in perspective or mood, a surprise, a new interpretation of the first or second line. 6. Not worry about rhyming, although it can be a bonus. An In-depth Haiku Guide 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. 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 Bashō 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: Scifaikuest, Shemom, Bear Creek Haiku, Haikuist, Anti-Heroin Chic (formerly Heroin Chic), Old Red Kimono, Road 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.