Why Write Haiku?


It is bit strange, when you think of it, that a verse form developed in feudal Japan is so popular throughout the world today. Maybe it's partly because a lot of us secretly like 'nature poems'. This is doubtless true, but I happen to think that the reasons are a bit more complicated than that. Bear with me.

Haiku may be said to have begun in the seventeenth century. The first of the Four Great Masters of Haiku was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) who was the oriental equivalent of a wandering minstrel, going from town to town writing in the ancient form called renga, or linked poems.

Renga could be fifty or a hundred, or even many more, stanzas (or what approximates to stanzas) long. There were and are complicated rules for linking the stanzas. I don't want to spend a lot of time on the renga, but the 'rules' for linking the stanzas may be summarised in this way: stanza two should follow stanza one, but approach the subject in an alternative way; stanza three should follow stanza two similarly, but be quite different from stanza one; and so on. Renga were normally written by two or more poets alternating stanzas, often in some form of competition.

Basho was not known for haiku in his day. In fact the haiku did not exist as such then - Basho was interested in the first verse of a renga, called the hokku or 'starting verse'. This became the haiku.

In the eighteenth century Basho's influence was taken up by Yosa Buson, as well known in Japan for his painting as for his haiku. He was followed by Kobayashi Issa, a man of rural origin, and finally came the last of the Great Masters of haiku, Masaoki Shiki (1867-1902). Shiki was the first poet to use the term haiku ('play verse') although the independent form of the hokku was established before he was even born.

In the twentieth century, the haiku continued to be very popular in Japan, and early in that century it was taken to France. In 1913 Ezra Pound's In a Station of the Metro was published in Poetry magazine:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

This is quite possibly the first example of the form in the English language (the poem has been revised several times since its first appearance) and it hasn't looked back from there. In the twenty-first century, Haiku are written in most languages of the world. There are examples in Arabic, Greek, and other European languages. In the 1990s my friend Petru Iamandi, then a secondary teacher in Galatz, Romania (where he is now a university lecturer) used haiku in his English language classes, as part of what he called An Experiment in Creativity. This example is from one of his pupils at the time:

A white question mark

Bent over anxiety -

A swan on the lake.

So, what is this form that has so transcended national boundaries? It's basic 'rules' as they are usually understood in English can be summarised quickly enough: seventeen syllabus, unrhymed, arranged in a five-seven-five syllable pattern of lines. No title should be used.

There is a little more to it than that. In a 'pure' haiku, there should be a seasonal reference. The season may be suggested indirectly, and in fact there are specified lists of 'seasonal' words - kigo - that should be used. There is normally a kireji, or 'cutting word', which breaks the haiku into two rhythmic units, usually one of twelve sounds and one of five - the approximation of the kireji in the west is the caesura, which incidentally was an important metrical device in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English verse.

Even the five-seven-five syllable pattern so beloved in the west is really no more than a convention. This is because there is no equivalent of 'syllable' in Japanese: don't forget we are dealing with a language originally written in pictograms, derived from the even older Chinese. The Japanese deal instead with onji or 'sound symbols'. On average these are shorter than syllables. For example, most of us would say that 'through' represents only one syllable in English; most Japanese would count three onji. There are some western students of haiku who say that the English form should be only twelve syllables long. This too would be a convention: it seems that we are in danger of proving how right Robert Frost was when he said that 'poetry is what gets lost in translation'.

A serious student will tell you many haiku written in the west are really senryu, because they don't contain a kigo or kireji. The Romanian example I have quoted above is really a senryu. These have their origin in the 'middle stanzas' of a renga. They are less restrictive than haiku, because they don't need a seasonal reference, and often range into humour. Or these same students may mutter something sagely about tanka, the (conventionally) 5 - 7 - 5 - 7 - 7 syllable verse form that hasn't captured the western imagination quite so well.

My advice when you hear such things is to nod wisely, smile, and go back to your writing. It really doesn't matter whether you write haiku as they appeal to you or whether you are determined to try to prove that Robert Frost was wrong, as long as you enjoy what you are doing.

A few years ago I was arriving at my mother's house. Suddenly, flying quite fast towards me, no more than three or four feet from the ground, came a butterfly. As it got nearer to me it arced upwards, and was soon flying quite high. I stopped and looked. It was an unusual sight for an early November morning when, although the sun was shining weakly, the first mists of winter were gathering. I had plenty of time to see that it was a Red Admiral with its distinctive wings and large size, and assumed from its direction and speed that it was migrating southwards for the winter. This sight very much impressed me, and soon after I wrote this haiku:

Through mists to the south,

Lilting high on woven wings;

Fly, Red Admiral.

It may not be the greatest haiku ever written. But it does contain a kireji or at least a caesura after the second line. And, if you might scour the traditional lists in vain to find a kigo, it is certainly about nature and the seasons. Most importantly, it is a record of a moment of communion with nature, which is the most helpful definition that I've read for the haiku (unfortunately I forget where).

This then, is the answer to the question 'why write haiku?' It is an ideal way to record your own 'moments of communion'. The form is at once short and yet at the same time demanding - very demanding if you try to replicate the Japanese. I personally would hope that you don't go too far down this route - Robert Frost probably knew something when he said what he did. But, no matter how far you take this form - which may have started life in Japan but is now truly international - enjoy your haiku.

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