Haiku is a Japanese poetry form that many Americans admire. However, I have found very few adult Americans attempting to write it. Many of us learned about haiku in grade school English classes. We were taught the proper haiku form:
- Three lines
- Seventeen syllables
- Broken into 5-7-5 syllable lines
- Has to contain a ‘season’ element, indicating spring, summer, winter, or fall
Writers who do tackle haiku are challenged by the constraints of the form, like those who enjoy writing sonnets, or quatrains. Many other writers don’t like the constraints, and therefore, prefer to admire haiku from afar.
I recently read two books about writing haiku by experts in the field: The Heart of Haiku, by Jane Hirshfield, and Write Like Issa: A Haiku How-To, by David G. Lanoue. They have each translated thousands of haiku from Japanese to English.
I read Hirshfield’s book first. She focuses mainly on using the work of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), the poet who developed the haiku form in the late 1600s. He gave it the 5-7-5 form. Hirshfield says that Bashō elevated the form from simple playful verse into something more substantial. Hirshfield says that “he wanted to renovate human vision by putting what he saw into a bare handful of mostly ordinary words, and he wanted to renovate language by what he asked it to see.”
Interestingly, I noticed that very few haiku translations from Japanese to English seem to follow the 5-7-5 pattern. This Bashō haiku on aging is a great example:
teeth hitting sand
The line pattern in this translation is 3-4-4. However, how could one change this without changing the conciseness of the piece? Without disrupting the elegance?
Later in the book, Hirshfield quotes Bashō as saying, “If you have three or four, or even five or seven extra syllables but the poem still sounds good, don’t worry about it. But if one syllable stops the tongue, look at it hard.”
Even the guy who created the form tells us not to stress over the precise form, but to go for the poetry of the language.
Lanoue’s book focuses on the work of Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), who built upon the artistic base that Bashō had started. Lanoue also includes many contemporary haiku written in the Issa style. Another important part of the haiku style is that “the most important part of the poem isn’t stated outright but gently implied,” as in this contemporary example by Greg Longenecker:
the dandelions make
their own wishes
The elegance in this piece is in what is implied, not in what is directly stated. At the abandoned farm, there is nobody around to pick the dandelions and blow the seeds into the air and make wishes on them. The tone seems melancholy to me, and is implied rather than stated.
I realized that there is far more going on with haiku than I had ever been led to believe.
I discovered that Lanoue has a haiku website. At this website, I think Lanoue gives us the best definition of haiku for English speakers based upon what Bashō and Issa wrote in their haiku, and what they wrote about haiku. Lanoue defines haiku as “a one-breath poem that discovers connection.” When he discusses the 17 syllable, 5-7-5 form, he says,
“Japanese words for the most part are polysyllabic, consisting of multiple syllables. English, in contrast, has loads of one syllable words (“spring,” “rain” and “duck” for instance). For this reason, most haiku poets writing in English don’t follow the 5-7-5 syllable rule. Seventeen syllables of English could potentially add up to seventeen separate words, making the “haiku” too long, lessening its intensity.”
Lanoue also says that the reason haiku is taught in the 5-7-5 form so emphatically in our grade schools is because at that stage of learning, they are used in English-speaking schools to teach the concept of syllables to children. For some reason, I believe that our knowledge and appreciation of haiku never advances beyond that understanding, and so haiku is very misunderstood and underappreciated in America today.
I think I have a better understanding of the potential of haiku after reading these two books. Much thanks to Jane Hirshfield and David G. Lanoue for showing us the way.
And now that we have been shown the way, why don’t we all take a shot at using the loosened haiku guidelines suggested by Lanoue? Work on three concise lines. Remember the goal is “a one-breath poem that discovers connection.” Focus on that. If some of the lines have five, or seven, or five syllables, great…but don’t force it.
Feel free to post your haiku in the comments, or you can send them to me at email@example.com for compiling into another post in a month or so.
I’ll start. Here is a haiku I wrote one cold morning after seeing some dead oak leaves trapped in ice in a puddle.
fallen brown leaves
entombed this morning
Let’s see what you can do!
George T. Parker
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