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Thursday 2 December 2010

What's in a Haiku?

Spring loneliness -
it falls short of the surf
this stone I toss.

Soon it will be a year since I began my (almost) daily "Haiku" on current affairs and "newsy" items. From the beginning I had a nagging anxiety: that I might be misleading friends who are not yet au fait with the nature and mysteries of the Haiku. They are not, never have been, were not intended to be, the real thing, to engender in their readers the unique experience which is the Haiku moment. They are no more than its skeleton, its structural form. Many will know better than I what the haiku is about, but for those who do not, I have worried that I might be doing them a mis-service. When I began these Haiku, and on a couple of occasions since, I have gone to some pains to explain the true haiku and to make clear that mine were not of that ilk, but were merely wearing a Haiku dress. However, that was long ago now - or seems it - and many new friends have happened along since then. So time to put the record straight, I think. Here, then, are the essentials of a Haiku as I have come to understand them.

The overriding characteristic of a Haiku is that it should encapsulate the Haiku moment. By this is meant a moment of genuine awareness, perception or enlightenment. A moment of Epiphany, in fact. The moment will be one of intuition and feeling, and the poem will engender these in the reader or listener. It is important to note that what is first felt and then conveyed in the poem is not something amenable to logic and will normally be ambiguous to a degree. Unsurprisingly, therefore, ambiguity is much prized in the Haiku. It is a poem of genuine feeling, not a mere tinkering with ideas - as many of mine have been!

The aspect which may be said to be next in terms of importance - though many there are who (mistakenly) will place it first - is the form. Structure is important, but is secondary to cadence. In English the accepted structure has become three lines of 5 - 7 - 5 syllables. This is a rule of thumb. Nothing more than that. Haiku translated from the Japanese hardly ever conform to this formula. Mostly, 5 - 7 - 5 does what is asked of it, but the important thing is for the poet to find an equivalent that suits the natural cadence. In Japanese the long vowel counts 2, so right away a dogmatic adherence to the strict 5 - 7 - 5 rule becomes untenable.

The poet's secondary job is to come up with an array of words that cuts the Haiku into two opposing sections, rather as the turn does in a sonnet. Usually in the Haiku it is 12 syllables pitched against 5.

Punctuation is most decidedly not prized. The less there is of it, the better. In most cases it will be verbalised or the line breaks will serve in its place. Often the dash (-) is used instead.

The Haiku will give hints of emotion or attitude (again I stress, not logic) which ideally should grab all five senses - though this must be seen as a counsel of perfection.

The third most important characteristic is one I have already mentioned: ambiguity. It is highly prized, and is often obtained by the use of juxtaposition rather than by the use of conjunctions. Along with ambiguity I should mention open-endedness and a very sparing use of adjectives.

That, I hope, gives a broad view of what the Haiku is all about, but now we need to consider the techniques commonly used to bring all these requirements together - no small task, I think you will agree.

The first of these to spring to mind is the concrete image. These, when juxtaposed without syntactical links as mentioned above, create the emotional tension or atmosphere for which the Haiku is rightly prized. Used in this way, they are considered to be stronger than simile.

Most Haiku are written in the present tense and report simple observations or occurrences. They do not deal in generalisations or habitual happenings, and there are no explicit statements of feelings.

The mood is usually light and not ostentatiously poetic - but definitely not flippant.

The haiku deals in all aspects of contemporary life in what has been described as an interesting but disinterested way.

Vocabulary consists of ordinary, everyday words rather than poetic or ornamental ones.

Normal poetic techniques - e.g. alliteration, assonance, rhyme, melody, rhythm, enjambment, etc - may all be used, but they must not glare i.e. they must not draw too much attention to themselves.

Finally, titles are avoided.

Which just leaves us with the small matter of content! You will have gathered from the above that comprehension is of the essence, that only the absolute essentials are included. But there is more: in a traditional form of Haiku it should be possible to tell from the script in which of the five seasons the poem is located. (Five, because for the Japanese the New Year is a separate season.) This is often done with a key word. Mention of the moon for example, will give a Japanese reader to understand that the poet means the harvest moon - i.e. it is Autumn. However, there has been some extension of the Haiku beyond traditional limits, due mainly to the fact that people do not live as close to nature as they once did. Now there is a category for social concerns such as homelessness and illness. Even so, the effort is towards placing it in the now - example: the last haiku given below.

I have mentioned the turn which should occur somewhere in the poem, normally at the end of one of the lines, that also is most often managed by a key word called a kireji. Sometimes this is a meaningless word added to create a pause before the turn. The kireji can create a lacuna or a ligature to the poem's next unequal half.

The haiku at the head of this post and the first one below are the work of the modern master Suzuki Masajo

no escaping it -
I must step on the fallen leaves
to take this path

The next is by the eighteenth century poet, Buson

plumes of pampas grass -
the helpless tremblings
of a lonely heart

Finishing with one by Inahata Teiko and one by Kaneko Tota

running down inside

buckling in the heat
where the A bomb burst
a marathon

I may not be around tomorrow, may not be replying to comments until the weekend. I have a family funeral to attend - if I can get out!


Richard Theodore Beck said...

Thanks for the info on Haiku. I'm starting our poetry unit. I can use it.

Tabor said...

I have read many explanations of haiku but yours has to be one of the best. Maybe I will be motivated to write one again...but for me it is like aerobic exercise.

Jim Murdoch said...

This is why I don’t write haiku. Not that I haven’t tried but I would want to get it right if I was going to do it at all. I do have a fair number of ultra short poems but only one that I call a haiku. Didn’t know about the five seasons. You learn something new every day.

Titus said...

What a post, Dave! I'm actually going to print it off for future reference. A big thanks.
Sorry to hear about the funeral, my thoughts to you.

Rachel Green said...

What a tremendous post. I try to write haiku every day (mostly rubbish) and this is one of the best posts I've seen for their description (as opposed to senryu)

bard said...

An excellent summary David! I've always known that you were aware that you were taking "liberties" with your haiku, but unfortunately I'm afraid that most people who write them do not. It doesn't necessarily affect the enjoyment of reading them, but it is nice to know the real history and art to the form.

Dick said...

With 'haikus' popping up more and more frequently on blogs claiming to be platforms for original verse, this cogent and clear profile is timely. They're damnably difficult to do well, but so many writers fall back on them when inspiration for full-scale poems fails them. Which debases the coinage greatly. May this guide be inscribed on samplers by an army of seamstresses (and seamsters) to be dangled above these poets' keyboards!

And in spite of the self-outing at the beginning of the post, Dave, please keep your haikus coming!

Momo Luna S!gnals said...

Tnx for the explanation David. Your explanation is very clear. I just love Haiku's and all the ones you post here for us are wonderful.

I love your Haiku's also a lot!

Dave King said...

Good luck, hope it goes well for you.

Remember: it's not cerebral; it's the feelings you're giving rein to.

I understand that: I've never written a haiku I'm completely happy with, b ut then I've never written any poem I'm completely happy with. And then form is flexibly - think of the modern sonnets. But I di distinguish between verses which I'm trying to turn out as Haiku and those where I am just borrowing the form.

Thanks for your good wishes. It all went as well as these things can go. Our twentieth funeral, my wife tells me. Certainly our coldest! hope you find the print-out useful.

Thanks for that. Hope it helps.

Welcome to you. I have felt a bit guilty, I must confess, not making it quite clear when I was trying to write a haku and when not - hence the recent introduction of inverted commas.

Thanks Dick. That comment is much appreciated. It means a lot.

Momo Luna
Many thanks for the vote.