Well most of it. In elementary school you probably learned about some guy named Basho writing three lined poems about nature, with the first line containing five syllables, the second seven, and the third five. Damn this is easy, you thought, as you were forced to write your own in-class. And your teacher dutifully checked for the syllable count and gave you and A+. Why? Because you can count to seven. If I’m assaulting the last glimmer of light in an otherwise dismal academic career, then my apologies. You were misled by an oversimplification and ignorance on the part of your teachers on what haiku is.
Let’s start with the big one: just like a sonnet can fulfill all the form requirements and suck, so too can a haiku (and suck). But this quality of all poetry is somehow dropped for haiku, and the syllable count, not what the syllables say, are what determines a poem’s success.
But before we go on it’s necessary to examine what haiku was in Japan. I won’t bore you with history, but there are a few names you should know. The primary haiku authors from Japanese literature are Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. As haiku grew into its own independent form of poetry, it acquired certain characteristics. Classically speaking, a “season word” was always included, that is, something that denotes or implies the haiku’s season. For example, this haiku by Saimaro:
leaves of the plum
the color of cold wind
The season word is rather obvious in this, but I put it in green anyway, as I don’t exactly trust the same school system that taught us syllables = poem. Regardless, a season word is directly included. Sometimes, however, it is implied, like in this poem by Kaiga:
running errands right and left
The clue-in to the season is fireflies. Since fireflies only come in the summer months, we can assume the season is summer. When this is utilized in English however, the result is usually a choppy, one-of-four word approach that distracts from the true nature of haiku (see below). This is due in no small part to the more stress Japan places on the season, through a combination of Shintoism‘s kami in them and the susceptibility, shall we call it, to seasonal natural disasters. As a result of this emphasis, many words and animals in the Japanese language have significant seasonal associations, a characteristic English lacks. As we’ll see, this is far from the only language difference leading to a misunderstanding of English haiku.
Brief Interjection: The plural of haiku is haiku. Not haikus, no matter what anyone says. Japanese doesn’t have plurals the same way that English does. The movie wasn’t Seven Samurais, was it?
When composing your own haiku so many years ago, you may recall how it felt awkward, fulfilling that syllable count, and in a different way that writing to a rhymed rhythm. It just didn’t sound right. While there are ways to do it (see some in The Haiku Anthology), this awkwardness is due to the linguistic differences between Japanese and English. The Haiku grew up in Japan — naturally it adopted a form that intertwined nicely with the language. English and Japan are about as far apart linguistically as a language can get it, and to maintain the same elegant simplicity of Japanese haiku, an English author is incapacitated by the long syllabic requirements. The equivalent of a haiku’s worth ofJapanese syllables to English is about 3-5-3, a number that fits more naturally into the length and structure of English phrases.
The Nature of Haiku
At its core, a good haiku is a single moment in time, taken from the time stream by capturing the most base elements of it, and then preserving it as the written word. Moments are not very long–haiku’s sparse form and Zen-like qualities reflect that. So what constitutes a moment? Essentially haiku is a juxtaposition between the human self and nature, or a revealing of the self through a reflection in nature. The oft-quoted Santoka poem is a perfect example:
Dragonfly on a rock–
The introduction of Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems by Stephen Addiss, Fumiko Yamamoto and Akira Yamamoto, uses the above haiku (10) and adds for commentary:
The observation of an insect leads to a deeper consideration of our own
perceptions. We may well ask…who is daydreaming?
I can’t remember learning that in school.
So is it even possible to write good English haiku? Of course. The magazines Modern Haiku and Acorn carry quality selections, and I highly recommend you subscribe. An example of a delightful poem from issue No. 28 Acorn:
Apple orchard scents–
of the abbot’s hello
– Rebecca Lilly
Well it’s definitely possible. I understand that most schools don’t have the luxury of spending several weeks or even a few days on haiku, but this didn’t take more than ten minutes now.
For further reading:
Haiku: A Poet’s Guide
The Haiku Anthology (contains modern English haiku)
Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems
The Narrow Road to the Deep North