The Art of Haiku


Koson, A scops owl flying past a flowering cherry tree; the full moon behind, ca.1910

Haiku is a Japanese art-form born from Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. It can be traced back to the seventeenth century in Japan, where it evolved from the clever linked poetry called renga as well as the slightly longer form of tanka. First known as hokku, haiku was only given its current name in the nineteenth century by a Japanese writer named Masaoka Shiki.

Although there were many great Haiku poets, it is generally acknowledged that there were four great masters: Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayasshi Issa, and Masaoka Shiki. Basho’s frog poem is perhaps the most well-known haiku and he is somewhat credited with bringing the form to life. Basho also wrote journals about his travels in the longer form of haibun, a form which punctuates prose with haiku. But unlike Basho, Issa came from humble origins and an extremely difficult and impoverished childhood, and he applied this experience to his writing. This gave Issa’s poetry the common touch of the people and caused haiku to once again spread and gain in popularity.

Haiku is indeed a short poem, but it is written without most of the typical poetic devices such as rhyme and simile. Instead, haiku should be written using concrete images without poetic flourishes and overly-descriptive words. In keeping with the humble and simplistic nature of haiku, the poem does not have a title and the first word in each line should not be capitalized. It should always be written in the present tense in order to convey the sense of being present and living in that particular haiku moment. And finally, haiku is both the singular and the plural of the word.

The most common fallacy about haiku is the long-standing notion of a 5/7/5 syllable count. Most contemporary haiku poets dismiss this out of hand for a simple reason; the Japanese language does not have any equivalency to English syllables. In the book Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku, Bruce Ross states:

Traditional Japanese poetry is based on combinations of lines of five and seven onji, a syllable-like pattern unit of a vowel or a consonant and vowel. Haiku uses a pattern of five-seven-five onji, originally arranged in vertical columns. A haiku in Japanese is extremely short so that it is recited in one breath.

An onji is at best like a syllable, but it is not possible to translate one onji to one syllable. This is why there is no way to write haiku in English using the same rules as you would in Japanese. A syllable and an onji are two different things. By focusing on syllable count above all else, the poet often pads or limits a line, or otherwise edits words and phrases that are perfect in spirit, simply to have the right count. For example, this is one of my haiku which was published in Modern Haiku Magazine:

rain drops
together
one sound

It only has seven syllables, yet it honors the tradition of Japanese haiku. It can be said in one breath, and there are absolutely no extra or unneeded words. And here is a haiku written by Jack Kerouac, someone not typically associated with the form:

one flower
on the cliffside
nodding at the canyon

Most Japanese haiku also have what are called “cutting words” or kiergi. This serves as a caesura or a pause in the haiku. As William Higginson writes in Haiku Handbook, “The kirergi is a special grammar word or verb ending that indicates the completion of a phrase or clause. In effect, the kireji is a sort of sounded, rather than merely written, punctuation. It indicates a pause, both rhythmically and grammatically.” In English haiku this is often accomplished with the use of punctuation such as the dash, or even with simple spacing.

It is also helpful to think of haiku as having a pivot in the middle of the poem. The pivot line should logically follow the first line and logically precede the last line. Technically, this means the haiku may hold two separate thoughts. Take this haiku for example:

August morning
      --dying leaves
reveal a pumpkin

It can be read as “August morning–dying leaves” or “dying leaves, reveal a pumpkin.” Both sentiments make logical sense. Yet when the two parts are joined, it forms one fluid thought, and one particular haiku moment.

It is also important to think of Haiku as being built with images. Solid, concrete, images as opposed to abstractions. For instance “teardrop” is concrete, as opposed to the word “sad” which is abstract. The image should call the intent of the poet into the imagination of the reader, who should then be able to feel it and experience it for themselves. To use the often over-used maxim; haiku should show not tell.

For the beginning haiku student, it may help to think about using two images in one of three techniques. The first technique involves comparing, or showing the similarities and the traits two images may share. The second involves contrasting, which is quite simply contrasting two images. And the third involves associating or showing how images are interconnected or relate to one another. In other words, one image should illuminate the other in some way, and the images should be made vivid to the reader, and be brought to life with a clarity particular to that haiku moment. In her essay “Haiku Techniques,” Jane Reichhold gives the following examples for these three techniques:

Comparison

a spring nap
downstream cherry trees
in bud

Contrast

long hard rain
hanging in the willows
tender new leaves

Association

ancestors
the wild plum
blooms again

These are also examples of how the deep complexities of haiku can be misread as being overly simplistic. They illustrate the Zen Buddhist influence on both the writers and the readers of haiku.

Another important factor related to the essence of haiku is a reference to season. If the poem does not involve nature and season, it probably involves human nature or human emotion and is technically known as senryu. Every haiku may not have a seasonal reference or season word (kigo), but if you do use it, the kigo should tell the reader what season the haiku represents. It can be overt, such as the actual season, spring or autumn, or the month, such as April or October. But it can also be a particular thing associated with the season such as pumpkin, cicada, cherry blossom, or snowflake.I wrote the following haiku using the traditional season word “ants”.

peach juice
down my fingers
ants swarm

The references can also be extraordinarily subtle with the application of a seasonal topic known as kidai. In order to illustrate this, William J. Higginson uses the following haiku in his book, The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share and Teach Haiku:

fresh washed hair
everywhere I go
making trickles

Higginson says about this haiku, “I doubt if any season-word list contains Takako’s ‘fresh-washed hair’ . . . But does not /the poem seem filled with spring sunlight” (92).

From Sono Uchida, one time President of the International Haiku Association:

Haiku has also developed as a poem which expresses deep feelings for nature, including human beings. This follows the traditional Japanese idea that man is part of the natural world, and should live in harmony with it. This differs considerably from the Western way of thinking, in which man is regarded as being independent of, and perhaps superior to, the rest of nature.

Uchida mentions the harmonic balance which brings to mind Eastern philosophies and religions. And he notes how these things often run counter to our Western sensibilities. Understanding haiku is one way of changing and broadening the way the West views harmony with nature.

The art of haiku can fundamentally change your perception of the world. It can offer connections in modern societies which move more and more toward a fragmented, abstracted, and isolated existence. It can teach patience in a society moving faster each day. And it can teach humility and respect for our natural world. Every day is full of haiku moments; the only question is whether we are able to slow down long enough to catch them before they vanish.

Lou Freshwater loves literature (American in particular) and Existential philosophy, but not as much as she loves spicy food and the Delta Blues. She considers herself to be a life-long student of these and other things. She wrote a screenplay long ago, and she writes poetry and fiction at her blog and at Fictionaut. Her creative work has been published in numerous journals, and she has also published an essay on the Existentialism of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the Arthur Miller Journal.




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  • Super and concise essay on the haiku. I remember reading Jane Reichhold's essay about three years ago when I was struggling with a 'four stanza' haiku, with each stanza representing a season. It helped me immeasurably, but I wish I'd read yours :^)

    I appreciate the debates between the factions I call the 'syllabists' and the 'onjists', but either approach works for me if the spirit of haiku is present in the form. Peace…

  • yay lou
    for haiku
    it is so you

  • Thanks, this is a nice introduction to the subject of haiku. I may write a post about it on my haiku blog some day soon …

  • Tree

    This is a great piece and this site is amazing. I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of this site relative to giving artists of all mediums, exposure while offering a wonderful resource for those of us fans with limited time for surfing and exploring cyberspace and all it's artistic glory. Hat's off to Escape Into Life, may you continue to flourish!

  • wow, thank you . . . it's all worth it when we hear things like that. thank you

  • Babylyn G.

    Thank you for this valuable information about Haiku. Since I now know that the 5-7-5 is just a fallacy 🙂 Haiku is very simple 🙂 

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