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Contemporary Haiku: Origins and New Directions
by A.C. Missias
Originally Published in Perihelion (ca 1998)

Most Americans have heard of haiku, if ever, during their elementary school years, when they were introduced to a short nature poem with arcane rules of construction. Perhaps they later happened across examples of Japanese haiku, or the ubiquitous humorous derivative forms such as "spam-ku" that dot the Internet. But what is this strange little poetry form, and how does it come to be popular here hundreds of years after it came into existence on the far side of the world?

Haiku originally derived from an earlier form of court poetry, called wakka or tanka, in vogue in Japan during the 9th-12th centuries. Tanka were formed in a pattern equivalent to five lines with syllable counts of 5-7-5-7-7, and often had religious or courtly themes. From competitions in writing tanka gradually evolved a game of writing linked multipart poems, with one person contributing a 5-7-5 verse, followed by a related 7-7 verse by a different author, often adding up to poems of hundreds or thousands of verses. As this new form, called renga, evolved, ever greater emphasis was placed on skill in writing the important starting verses, or hokku. Poets began to write these verses in advance of renga parties, so that they would always have an impressive offering on hand if called upon to begin the game. Gradually these single verses began to be recognized as a poetry form in themselves, and were collected into anthologies of great popularity. It was only in the late 19th-early 20th century that the most modern of the Japanese haiku masters, Masaoka Shiki, combined the formal name "haikai no renga" with the starting verse name "hokku" to yield the familiar name "haiku". In the decades since, haiku have been absorbed into many languages and cultures, and are now being written and published all around the world.

So, what characterizes a haiku today? This is not an easy question to answer. Certainly, the majority of haiku currently written in English do not conform to the 5-7-5 syllable pattern typical in Japanese, nor do they always concern nature topics; however, all of these divergences are matters of ongoing debate within the haiku community. I will attempt to touch on some of those issues here, but even more I will try to give you a sense of the "haiku aesthetic" which unifies the form across time, language, and culture.

Haiku is more than a form of poetry; it is a way of seeing the world. Each haiku captures a moment of experience; an instant when the ordinary suddenly reveals its inner nature and makes us take a second look at the event, at human nature, at life. It can be as elevated as the ringing of a temple bell, or as simple as sunlight catching a bit of silverware on your table; as isolated as a mountain top, or as crowded as a subway car; revelling in beauty or acknowledging the ugly. What unifies these moments is the way they make us pause and take notice, the way we are still recalling them hours later, the feeling of having had a momentary insight transcending the ordinary, or a glimpse into the very essence of ordinariness itself.

Such an experience, referred to as the "aha moment," is the central root of a haiku. The act of writing a haiku is an attempt to capture that moment so that others (or we ourselves) can re-experience it and its associated insight. This means picking out of memory the elements of the scene that made it vivid, and expressing them as directly as possible--that is, the goal is to recreate the moment for the reader, not explain it to them (this is sometimes called the "show, don't tell" rule).

sunflowers: sudden shower
one facing in the empty park
the other way a swing still swinging
 - Kenneth Leibman - Margaret Chula

In haiku, unlike in many Western poetic forms, the writer tries to maintain an invisible hand, avoiding overt "poetic" phrasing, use of metaphors, etc., in favor of simple, direct language. The writer's reaction to the scene is not stated, but comes across in the choice of images and juxtapositions, the exact wording used.

edge of the marsh --
the wind from rising geese
in our hair

- Ebba Story

You have perhaps noted that haiku are generally broken into two asymmetrical parts, often corresponding to one and two of the (common) 3 lines. Indeed, good haiku are seldom written in a single sentence, but tend to take the form of either "setting and action" or a juxtaposition of two images. It is at the interface of these elements that resonances arise.

november nightfall
the shadow of the headstone
longer than the grave

- Nick Avis

So, what other features characterize haiku? Traditionally haiku makes use of a seasonal setting word or phrase, which serves as a shorthand for a range of emotional connotations. For example, "spring rain" might be cleansing, while "autumn rain" is more nostalgic or grim; "hot nights" conjures the agitation of summer, while "bare branches" may give a feeling of loneliness to a winter scene. Such seasonal elements are considered critical in the writing of Japanese haiku, a defining feature. In English, too, they are a desirable way to convey a lot of meaning in a few words.

spring morning -- his side of it
a goose feather floats her side of it.
in the quiet room winter silence
 - Bruce Ross - Lee Gurga

However, most Western cultures do not have the wealth of seasonal references that are commonly recognizable in Japan, where every insect and animal is assigned a typical seasonal association. Thus, judgement of English-language haiku often makes allowance for other elements that may play a comparable role in setting context or evoking connotations.

Monday morning sunset rays --
traffic jam -- shadows of mountains
slow steady rain beyond the horizon
- Paul Mena - Paul MacNeil

So, back to form. What ever happened to the 5-7-5 structure that characterized the original hokku? There is a strong tradition of 17-syllable haiku in English, particularly dating from the spurt of haiku appreciation in the 1960s. Many authors wished to respect the Japanese structure, seeing that as one of the key defining aspects of the historical form, and thus aimed their own efforts into a 5-7-5 mold. However, the English and Japanese languages are very different in their grammar and syllabic rhythms (this has been wonderfully addressed by Keiko Iamoka in her essay Form in Haiku), such that the typical Japanese haiku is generally translated most directly into around 12 English syllables, with variable line lengths. For example, probably the most famous haiku of all time is Basho's "old pond," which can be translated as:

Old pond...
a frog jumps in
water's sound.

(William Higginson)

To bring this up to 17 syllables would require the interpolation of much additional information, or a more overtly poetic wording. Several translators have tried to do exactly that, yielding such versions as:

An old silent pond... There is the old pond!
A frog jumps into the pond, Lo, into it jumps a frog
splash! Silence again hark, water's music!
(Harry Behn) (John Bryan)

But even beyond translation, an aspiring haiku poet will often find that striving for 17 syllables leads to the addition of extra words or images; such "padding" can hinder the direct expression of an experience, by tempting one to include too many components of a scene and thus distract from the central observation. Thus many authors prefer to use an unstructured approach to haiku form, taking 17 syllables as a sort of maximum-length guideline. Other authors have attempted to define an alternative form which would more closely approximate the length of a Japanese haiku while demanding the discipline of a set structure. Advocates of this approach often recommend guidelines of 3-5-3 syllables or 2-3-2 accented beats, as closest approximations to that goal.

autumn rain --
the weathered tire swing


However, the variable word length and unforgiving grammatical structure inherent to English can make such a narrow definition prohibitive, and thus the unstructured form is likely to continue to play an important part in the future of modern haiku.

So where does this leave us? Haiku is a flexible form for brief, vivid capture of single moments of time, the writing of which allows one to both share those "aha moments" with others and to become more open to them oneself. So jump on in, give it a try! Read good translations of the haiku masters, compilations of contemporary writers, and journals offering a range of tiny gems. Open yourself to the world around you, to the inputs from all five senses, to the details of existence. Try to write poems which are simple and direct; which appear to portray an objective scene, but which have unspoken depths of insight and meaning. It's not an easy task, but one which offers a wealth of satisfaction in both the striving and the accomplishment. I wish you much great pleasure in reading and writing haiku, and many moments of insight to alter your way of looking at the everyday world.


Contemporary Haiku excerpted from the following sources:

The 1996 & 1997 Red Moon Anthologies, Jim Kacian, ed. (Red Moon Press, Winchester, VA; 1997/8).

Haiku Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American haiku, Bruce Ross, ed. (Charles Tuttle Inc; Boston, MA; 1993)

Acorn; a journal of contemporary haiku, A.C.Missias, ed. (redfox press; Philadelphia, PA; Issue #1)

Translations of Basho taken from:

One Hundred Frogs by Hiroaki Sato (Weatherhill; NYC; 1995)

For further information, see these web sites:

A.C. Missias lives in Philadelphia. She edits academic articles in applied math for SIAM (, the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematic and has a PhD in neuroscience, but is no longer doing research.

She one of the editors of the Red Moon Anthology series.

She occasionally is seen sipping coffee, tasting wines and scotches, playing bridge and is known to have been walked on by cats.

Perhaps most important, in the last year she got engaged to her long-lost college sweetheart and bought a house.

She says that it's hard to imagine when she used to have free time.

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