Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
About Simply Haiku
Haiku: Origins and New Directions
Originally Published in Perihelion
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
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).
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
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.
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.
||- 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.
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:
a frog jumps in
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:
the old pond!
jumps into the pond,
it jumps a frog
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
Contemporary Haiku excerpted from the following sources:
1996 & 1997 Red Moon Anthologies, Jim Kacian, ed. (Red Moon Press, Winchester,
Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American haiku, Bruce Ross, ed.
(Charles Tuttle Inc; Boston, MA; 1993)
a journal of contemporary haiku, A.C.Missias, ed. (redfox press; Philadelphia,
PA; Issue #1)
Translations of Basho taken from:
Hundred Frogs by Hiroaki Sato (Weatherhill; NYC; 1995)
For further information, see these web sites: