Musings on Haiku


Haiku HandbookI can’t recall just when I first encountered haiku, that subtle, concise and often baffling Japanese poetry, but I suspect it was sometime in the late 1960s, not long after I was first introduced to Buddhism. I recall having the four-volume set of seasonal haiku by Blyth back in those days, but long since gone from my library for reasons I can no longer fathom.

I’ve had several other books of haiku on my shelves since then, and turn to them to read now and then, as I do other forms of poetry. I quite enjoy poetry for many reasons, not least its concision (being a verbose man, I admire those who affect brevity to make their point). Few other forms, however, offer that “aha!” moment one often finds in haiku.

Around the time I first encountered haiku, I was also reading the Beat poets and writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom wrote haiku. Although better known for his novels, Kerouac was more attentive to the form, and practiced it more often, quite seriously for a while, although his Book of Haikus was not published until 2003, long after his death in 1969. I wrote about that book and a bit about haiku itself back in March, 2022 and I wrote about translating poetry (haiku in particular) in March, 2021. (Yes, Kerouac wrote the plural as haikus, although that’s not standard use these days).

Kerouac’s book (read some excerpts here) is just one of those containing poems and about haiku I’ve been reading and re-reading of late, going back to translations of the original Japanese masters like Basho, Buson, and Issa, as well as reading more modern attempts by English-language writers since the turn of the 20th century to now. And, as you might expect, since I have been reading books and online essays about how to write haiku, I have also been trying my hand at crafting a few haiku. It’s tough, and my mind is not always focused solely on the attempt. Other things occupy me.*

I am reminded, as I read these how-to books and articles, of similar comments about the game of Go: that it is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master. Haiku is similar. As Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the opening lines of his poem, The Parlement of Foules, some things take a lifetime to master:

The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.
Th’ assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
The dredful joye, alwey that slit so yerne;
(The life so short, the craft so long to learn,
The assay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
The fearful joy that slips away in turn…)

You might think that poetry is the pursuit of mild intellectual milquetoasts, but it is a craft riddled with controversy and confrontation, with raging arguments over form and style, punctuated with verbal brickbats cast in journals and blogs. It’s actually quite entertaining, although at times worrisome to someone trying to understand all the aspects of these internecine squabbles. Some of these (many, it seems) are fusty, academic feuds couched in scholarly language; others are from less restrained poets who challenge the formality of the classic forms. Haiku is no stranger to these debates.

For example, the late Jane Reichold published an essay about Haiku Rules That Have Come and Gone, listing 65 “rules” that have been in and out of use, in and out of popularity, fought over for the past century. Many of these rules have been the source of great animosity and very vocal quarrels among poets and editors. Not that these rules are bad; any poet should know the rules of the form they choose to work in: you cannot work outside the fences unless you know what and where they are. Some scholars still demand adherence to them — or at least some of them — and consider any poetic trespass against them invalidates the label “haiku.” But, as William Carlos Williams once wrote, “I have never been one to write by rule, even my own rules.” (letter to Richard Eberhart, 1954).

Yet consider this poem, titled Strategy:

Fox knows many,
Hedgehog just one
Solid trick.

It’s not a haiku, but it sure reads like one. A stiffly proper haiku wouldn’t have capitalization or punctuation, but remove them and it would seem to fit most of the other rules. However, it’s from an ancient Greek author, Archilochus, written circa 650 BCE, more than 2,500 years before the term haiku was even invented (poem translated by Guy Davenport, from World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse From Antiquity to Our Time, Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998).

Writing short poems is not constrained to Japan, nor to later millennia. If you read the Song of Songs in the Kethuvim as a series of short, interconnected poems, you can easily pull out verses that read, if not quite as haiku, as brief standalone poems with the same sort of pointed focus. For example, these lines from 2:8:

Hark! My beloved! There he comes,
Leaping over mountains,
Bounding over hills.

Or from 3:3:

I met the watchmen
Who patrol the town.
“Have you seen the one I love?”

Or 5:3:

I had taken off my robe—
Was I to don it again?
I had bathed my feet—
Was I to soil them again?

However, for overall poetic brevity, few cultures can even come close to haiku.

There are a few good examples in English of taut writing, albeit not nearly as many. William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow is a famous example, but also his lesser-known Nantucket. Perhaps the closest to haiku is Ezra Pound’s 1912 poem, In a Station of the Metro. This is sometimes referred to as the first English-language haiku, but that’s not correct: the first haiku-writing contest in England was held in 1899, and received dozens of entries; in America, the writer Yone Noguchi published several of his own haiku in English in 1904 (see Wikipedia).

Pound himself warned would-be poets to “use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.” (A Retrospect, from his Pavannes and Divisions, 1918). And Wallace Stevens perhaps said it best when he claimed that, “To give a sense of the freshness or vividness of life is a valid purpose for poetry.” (from Opus Posthumous, 1957). Certainly, both apply to haiku.

In the book, Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W.W. Norton, 2013), the editors compiled a collection of more than 800 poems written in English (not translations), many of which violate one or more of the rules Reichold lists. Some were written as haiku, others clearly were not, but share at least the spirit, if not the exact form (two verses from a longer Wallace Stevens poem, for example). Some, frankly, don’t even look like haiku (ee cummings, for example). But most appear to adhere — at least to my layperson’s senses — to the spirit of what I (and evidently the editors) believe haiku is about.

What Robert Frost wrote about poetry can also be applied to haiku: “It begins in delight and ends in wisdom… No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows.” (from The Figure a Poem Makes, 1939).

Reichold was the author of one of the books I’ve been reading of late, Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-On Guide (Kodansha International, 2002). It contains versions of many of the articles she wrote for her own website. Delightful, insightful book. On her website, Reichold has an article that opens with,

The fact that the smallest literary form – haiku – has the most rules never ceases to amaze and astound. The only real comfort one can find in this situation is the concept that this affords a wider range of rules  from which a writer can pick and choose. You cannot follow all of the rules and several of them are so contradictory that there is no way to honor them both at once. You must always choose. In order to make a choice, you have to understand the reasons and methods. To write about one or two ‘rules’ as if these are the ‘real rules’ could  (and should!) easily offend those of the society membership who have chosen to follow opposite or other guidelines.

All of this delights and fascinates me because I am drawn to both poetry and controversy. I am not very good at the former but have some practice in the latter.

And on top of everything, there is in the art of translation: another controversy over how words and form should be rendered into another language. Translation has always fascinated me (and I’ve written about it often, like in this post and on my Machiavelli site). Japanese has its own special challenges, but it’s mostly outside my education and learning to comment on it beyond what I have read about it in articles by others. I might occasionally make a layperson’s comments on translating some Western languages, but Asian languages are beyond my ken (you can read some of my musings on translating haiku into English here).

Poetry poses even greater challenges than prose when translating; haiku, because of its concision and structure, as well as its avoidance of metaphor and simile, added to which the nature of the Japanese language compared to English makes it even more fascinating. Not to mention that, while we tend to break haiku into visible, horizontal lines in English (usually three), in Japanese, they are often written as a single (vertical) line.

Let’s start with the usual definition of what a haiku is, this formal one from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

…unrhymed poetic form consisting of 17 syllables arranged in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively.

Are these rules? Or guidelines? And if the latter, how far can one go from them and still be in the same playground?

Well, the three-line rule is pretty shaky because traditional Japanese haiku are written in a single vertical line. Only in translation are they broken into the familiar lines for Western consumption. Haiku is sometimes translated into one, two, three or even four lines. The latter is evident in Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Penguin Classics, 1970; an edition I’ve carried with me since then). He justifies his approach by saying, “the closest approximation of natural conversational rhythm can be achieved in English by a four-line stanza rather than a constrained three-line stanza… a three-line stanza does not carry adequate dignity and weight to compare with hokku.”

Pardon me for assuming that constraint was part of the point of haiku…

In his two collections, One Hundred Poems From the Japanese, and One Hundred More Poems From the Japanese (New Directions Books, 1964 and 1974), Kenneth Rexroth translates haiku into both two and three lines. Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years has examples in both two and three lines.

Even translating or writing in the 17-syllable 5-7-5 form has been questioned. Many poets have experimented with alternate rhythmic structures. In The Haiku Handbook (25th-anniversary edition, Kodansha USA, 2013), it notes (p.100):

Many Western authors have fallen into the simplistic trap of saying that the haiku is a seventeen-syllable poem in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. This has led to whole classrooms of teachers and children counting English syllables as they attempt to write haiku. But Japanese… is quite different from English or other Western languages. In fact, Japanese poets do not count “syllables” at all. Rather, they count onji… it means “sound symbol,” and refers to one of the phonetic characters used in writing Japanese phonetic script.

R. H. Blyth, one of the early translators of haiku, preferred to use a three-line form with two-three-two accented beats, rather than count syllables. But to complicate things, most Japanese haiku is divided into two parts; one five and one twelve sound units (onji), through the use of a “cutting word” or kireji. This is described in The Haiku Handbook as “sounded, rather than a merely written, punctuation.” The closest thing we have in English to a kireji is to use some sort of written caesura, defined as “…a pause that occurs within a line of poetry, usually marked by some form of punctuation such as a period, comma, ellipsis, or dash.” Jane Reichold adds:

The Japanese, because of their longer history of reading haiku, understand that there are two parts to the poem. In English these are called the phrase and fragment. One line is the fragment and the other two lines combine grammatically to become the phrase. Without this combining the two lines together the haiku will sound ‘choppy’ as the voice drops at the end of each line.

What Reichold calls the phrase and fragment portions roughly correspond to those twelve-and-five onji units, but not exactly in counting sounds or syllables. It’s more in the spirit of things that one part stands separate from the other and contains something that (as Betty Drevniok defined it) is either used in comparison, association, or contrast to the other part (three of the techniques used in writing haiku; see Writing and Enjoying Haiku, pages 52-56). Reichold expands on her comment about fragments and phrases in an online essay in which she points out,

… haiku should not be a run-on sentence. There needs to be a syntactical break dividing the ku into two parts… The need for distinguishing between the two parts of the ku takes on importance when one begins to discuss the use of articles (a, an, & the) because it is possible to have different rules concerning the different parts. Before getting into that, let me state that the fragment can be (or usually is) either line # one or line # three.

Towards the end of that rather dry definition in Britannica, it adds, “A poem written in the haiku form or a modification of it in a language other than Japanese is also called a haiku.” And as noted on the Academy of American Poets’ site, “A poem written in the haiku form or a modification of it in a language other than Japanese is also called a haiku.” So there’s a formal and an informal definition? It may be a strict structure or it may be something else? Who decides?

On the ahapoetry website, you can read this description:

The Japanese haiku and the English language haiku have several critical differences. In Japanese the haiku is composed of 17 sound units divided into three parts – one with 5 units, one with 7 units and another with 5 units. Since sound units are much shorter than English syllables, it has been found that following the Japanese example results in a much longer poem often filled up to make the count with unnecessary words.
The Japanese write their haiku in one line, in order to see clearly the parts of the haiku. In English each part is given a line. This allows the reader time to form an image in the mind before the eyes go back to the left margin for more words. The line breaks also act as a type of punctuation.

Or it may be senryu. But wait… what is senryu? It looks like a haiku, it’s structured like haiku, but… looks can be deceiving. Senryu is basically a personal reaction or intellectual response while haiku is observational. As Wikipedia defines it, senryu is:

…about human foibles while haiku tend to be about nature, and senryu are often cynical or darkly humorous while haiku are more serious. Unlike haiku, senryu do not include a kireji (cutting word), and do not generally include a kigo, or season word.

Got that? Well, I had to read more about it, too so I could understand the difference. I would categorize a lot of the poems in Haiku in English as senryu, even a lot of the traditional poems by the masters, but what do I know?

Jane Riechold wrote this on her website:

The kigo, or season word, is a vital part of the Japanese haiku, but in English it is often ignored and not well understood. Therefore, a great number of English haiku do not have a season word and yet are considered to be haiku.

And thus it seems more than a few American and Canadian haiku are really senryu. Haiku are, formally, about nature and the poet’s immediate experience of it. Senryu are more personal and often the result of more intellectual effort after the fact (also sometimes called “desk haiku” which Jane Reichold defines as a haiku “written from an idea or from simply playing around with words…” which basically defines how I write). The Haiku Society of America defines senryu as “…a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.” Satire is something I can appreciate.

Some haiku publications and contests will reject a poem as senryu when something submitted does not adhere to formal structures such as seasonal words, syllables, or dispassionate views. A bit shirty, methinks. Haiku pioneer and co-founder of Haiku Canada, and later its president, Betty Drevniok, author of the book, Aware – A Haiku Primer (Portals Publications, 1981) wrote:

“In haiku the SOMETHING and the SOMETHING ELSE are set down together in clearly stated images. Together they complete and fulfill each other as ONE PARTICULAR EVENT.”

Do you really need to know any of this in order to appreciate the poetry? No, but… it helps to deepen your appreciation if you know a bit about the culture, the history, and the formal structure.

Haiku often has that “Aha!” moment anyone can find in it regardless of what you know of the form or its history. That’s in part why it is often associated with Zen. Even a cursory knowledge of the Zen koan will expose the similarities in insight both can bring.

But, shades of Freud’s cigar, sometimes a haiku is just a word picture. Tightly packed, sharply defined, craftily assembled, but still just a word picture. And sometimes that “Aha!” moment is just like any other flash of inspiration, as in “Aha! A teaspoon of curry powder can really make my scrambled eggs sing!” As this piece by Jane Reichold on the New Zealand Poetry Society’s website notes:

…many of us recognised that “haiku moments” were very much like other flashes of inspiration which, when transported into other media, became paintings, stories, dreams or even new colour schemes or recipes. And many others shared the frustration of having a truly life-altering moment of insight and then never being able to write a decent haiku that expressed the wonder and majesty of that moment. They would ask, what was wrong with me? Was I not spiritually prepared enough? Was I too common? Too inattentive? Too word-numb? Maybe too many of my Christian beliefs kept me from the Zen nirvana of haiku?

I am prone to be a desk-haiku writer if for no other reason than I cannot always maintain the sort of mindfulness that seems required to live a haiku life. The cats need feeding, the dog needs walking, the dishwasher needs emptying, we’re out of milk, and it’s my turn to make dinner. I am seldom alone in a place where I can stop and write of an immediate experience. Basho never had a dog’s leash in his hands.

It’s usually easier to sit down with a cup of tea in front of the keyboard and think about words than try to capture the moment and scribble it down as it happens. Too many years as an editor and desktop wordsmith make me to write, then to rewrite and tinker sometimes endlessly with the form. Still… sometimes I can manage spontaneity. For what it’s worth:

pictures on the wall
one crooked
my eyes linger

* To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. I have not been writing much online these past months, I admit, but for, as I see it, good reason. I eschewed political commentary after the recent municipal election because I wanted to give the new council the opportunity to learn the basics before I criticized them. Given the many debacles and flounders in town hall since they took office, that hiatus will end, shortly. A tax increase during accelerating inflation? Really? How bloody tone-deaf can a council be? I’ll take that on in an upcoming post, along with the budget that has the administration getting more money in it than infrastructure even though our streets are crumbling, and the ongoing, puerile fascination staff and council have to resurrect the $10-million-waste of taxpayers’ money called the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry. And after a decade, of not finding anything wrong but spending millions of taxpayer dollars doing so, the OPP investigation finally closed and guess what: NO ONE BROKE ANY LAWS. But our mealy-mouthed mayor had to chime in with her comments to local media about how disappointed she was to learn the truth.
But these past few months I’ve also been busy at home, exploring my new bread machine and baking bread in and out of it.  I’ve been making jams, marmalades, and pickles as well as cooking up new recipes. Plus I’ve been reading a lot, as is ever my wont. I was working part-time during the month of December at a local retail outlet, which focused my attention for a bit. And, of course, I am a volunteer on a non-profit board, which occupies me at times. But, in those immortal words, I’ll be back

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