December 2003, Volume 1, Number 6

Towards a Description of Haiku
by Gemma Bristow

gauze curtains:
on the far tree
scatter of blossom

The Japanese haiku is one of the most popular poetic forms to have been imported into English, and also one of the most misunderstood among readers and writers at large. Haiku has inspired many English-language poets to observe their surroundings more closely, to write in a simple, uncluttered style, and to appreciate the weight and purpose of each word in a poetic line. On the other hand, much of the popular image of haiku is derived not from poems, whether Japanese or the contemporary offerings of English-language haiku magazines, but from schoolbook definitions of 'what haiku is'. I am sure that anyone can recite the typical definition: seventeen syllables, arranged in three lines of five, seven and five syllables. 'Seventeen syllables of what, and in which language?' are questions more rarely addressed by schoolbooks, resulting in numerous 'first haiku' that exhibit a diligent syllable count but otherwise bear no relation to the Japanese form. This essay is an attempt to outline the key substance of haiku as well as the more flexible issue of its metrical architecture.

The essence of haiku

While every haiku fan has their personal sense of the form's core nature, I hope the following will be uncontroversial. The shortest of all forms, haiku is a 'people's poetry' that records the visionary moments of everyday life. A haiku expresses a moment of vivid awareness/perception sparked by observation of the world. It shares this experience with the reader through concrete imagery and uncluttered language; that is, it presents directly the object(s) that moved the poet - birds flying, dew on a leaf, a woman's bright gown on a grey day, etc. The poem does not make overt, rhetorical statements explaining the significance of the scene thus presented. Rather, by juxtaposing images and by playing on existing cultural associations, it invites the reader to make their own connections and to pursue the ramifications of the experience. Haiku have been described as starting points for thought. They focus on a specific, local object that suggests a more universal theme. This scope and approach is haiku's most characteristic feature, common to serious interpreters of the form across countries and languages.

Japanese syllabics, English stress

A traditional Japanese haiku typically comprises four to ten words, arranged in three lines of respectively five, seven, and five syllables. These syllabic patterns have a long history in Japanese poetry. By convention, the poem includes a so-called 'season word' (kigo) that situates it within a particular phase of the year ˝ either the explicit name of a season, or certain plants/animals/weather traditionally associated with one. It also includes a 'cutting word' (kireji), a meaningless sound inserted to provide a pause. Usually, this 'cutting word' is used to break the poem into two parts - two images, or a specific image and a more general setting ˝ which strike off associations by their juxtaposition.

The most common misconception about English-language haiku involves importing the 5-7-5 structure as the sole definition of the form, neglecting haiku's more vital qualities of tone, diction and scope. Schoolbook definitions aside, a poem that employs a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, yet shows none of the thematic essence of haiku, is not haiku ˝ a fact that doubtless needs little stressing to the readers of this journal.

For your amusement, a brief spotter's guide to three known species of 5-7-5 non-haiku:


I went on the bus
to Oxford Street and purchased
two shirts and a tie.


Amidst boiling space,
the mystery we call God,
I felt very smallÍ


The maid stray'd abroad
'neath the periwinkle sky
until bears ate her.

Even among writers more familiar with the haiku tradition, a literal interpretation of the Japanese form may prove problematic. The 5-7-5 syllabic structure does not map meaningfully into English, for several reasons. First, the rhythms of the languages differ. While Japanese falls naturally into patterns of odd syllables, English falls naturally into pairs of syllables. English is also less polysyllabic overall, and thus replicating Japanese syllabics requires a greater number of words. To take a striking illustration: there are few English equivalents for one of the favourite subjects of classic Japanese haiku, the five-syllable bird hototogisu (usually translated as 'cuckoo'). Furthermore, syllabic poetry in general has been rare in English, a language shaped by stresses rather than length counts, and whose verse forms have been organized accordingly. Lastly, syllable counts are differently calculated in Japanese poetry. Seventeen syllables in a Japanese haiku do not equal seventeen syllables in an English poem. For example, a long vowel is considered to be two syllables, and the punctuating 'cutting word' ˝ which in English is replaced by regular punctuation marks ˝ is included in the syllable count.

Some poets choose nonetheless to adopt a 5-7-5 syllable count in English, but as this is more verbose than its Japanese equivalent, and forces the language into an uncommon pattern, it can have a detrimental effect among inexperienced writers. A beginning haiku poet may feel obliged to fulfil the count at the expense of the poem. They may add unnecessary verbal phrases; for example, to take the equivalent of hototogisu, write such a strained line as 'Hearken the cuckoo!' to obtain the 'correct' syllable count, not trusting that the more direct 'Cuckoo!' could stand alone. The resulting haiku will have lost an essential quality of simplicity. Perhaps a better guideline than counting syllables ˝ and one followed by many contemporary haiku poets - is to follow the word count of a Japanese haiku, which gives a more real approximation of the form's length. Translations are ideal models for this.

Structure and style

Without relying on a set syllable count to define the form, there remain several characteristics that English-language haiku share recognizably with their Japanese cousins. First, they more commonly than not have a two-part structure. The 'cutting word' that provides the break in a Japanese haiku may be replaced in English by a comma, colon, dash, special line indentation, or no specific punctuation at all. The two parts of the haiku are an important factor in its effect; their juxtaposition kicks off the poem's chain of meaning. They may consist of a specific image and a more general setting, for example:

on a black twig:
autumn dusk

Or two specific images that are compared or contrasted in some way:

the whirling leaf
lands on the ground ˝

The diction of haiku, allowing of course for variants in environment and personality, also shows a common quality across languages. It is concise, direct and concrete, whether the poet is writing of camellia blossoms or of drain covers. The only adjectives used are those essential to defining their object. Colours are a prime example: a brown leaf carries associations very different to a green leaf. Haiku avoid adjectives that are merely decorative, that are 'poeticisms' rather than common speech, or that impose value-judgements on the object. (Forlorn, dainty and cerulean, for example.)

Stringency in adjectives helps realize the ultimate object of a haiku: for the reader directly to experience the 'moment' as the author did. Using unnecessary adjectives imposes authorial analysis (and reduces the scope of the reader's own), making the poem an interpretation rather than a presentation of experience. For example, take the word 'sky'. The sky is a huge object, a huge concept. If a haiku wishes to convey the enormity of the sky, it can do no better than simply to call it 'the sky'. There is no adjective that would not minimize the noun; a 'blue sky' is only one kind of sky, not 'the sky', which is greater than any adjective could make it. 'The sky', unqualified by the poet, gives full scope for the reader to imagine the vastness of the sky and to remember awe-inspiring skies that they have seen.

above the city

In the interest of clear and direct presentation, haiku generally do not include metaphors ˝ although the entire poem may stand as a metaphor for the author's state of mind, or for some political or philosophical theme. The objects in the poem are described as nothing other than themselves. The moon, for instance, is always 'the moon', and not the 'mistress of the night sky' or a 'frozen pearl' or 'Diana in her orb'. Comparison between one thing and another is usually made implicitly rather than explicitly. The poet juxtaposes two images and leaves the reader to draw the comparison. Sometimes the message may be obvious; autumnal scenes, for example, might have obvious subtexts about the passing of life or the waning of relationships. In other poems, the presentation of images may be highly subjective. I recently read a six-word haiku juxtaposing lovemaking and washing machines, for which there were three or four possible interpretations!

One result of popular confusion over the form is that its potential force, as imagistic poetry, is not always explored. Since haiku relies not on rhetoric or argument but on selective, recognisable detail, its scope for commentary is as broad as the writer's perceptions, and its images cannot be argued away ˝ they simply are. Philosophers have called the literary image potent because it reflects the way the mind perceives experience, without going through a crust of analytical language. The key to haiku's compression and concentrated impact is not a fixed syllable count, but its layered superposition of images and associations.

blossom ˝
I tear off
twelve or thirteen haiku


Copyright 2003 Simply Haiku

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