Something different for June: a two part seminar on a poetic genre that’s not that popular in the UK, and is often dismissed as rather lightweight. My own interest in haiku writing began a few years ago and I hope to share some of my enthusiasm with you.
Most people think of haiku as: a short poem arranged in three lines of five, seven and five syllables that has something to do with nature.
These perceptions of haiku come from certain characteristics of classical Japanese haiku that were translated into English during the 19th century. Let’s take a look at those elements:
The three lines echo the structure of traditional Japanese haiku that were written in three parts, although in Japanese these tended to be written in one vertical line. This was obviously impractical in English… so the three horizontal lines served, and still serve, as an alternative. However, there are contemporary haiku writers who write one, two and four line haiku, although let’s not step too far ahead of ourselves at this point.
The Japanese language does not have syllables that compare to English language syllables. They have ‘on’, which are closer to our idea of sounds. For example, the word haiku in Japanese has three sounds: ha/i/ku, all of which have an equal amount of weight. So when English translators took Japanese haiku, they counted the ‘sounds’ in a haiku, (some of which were not even words as we know them, but the equivalent ‘sound’ for English punctuation, like a dash or a pause or an exclamation), realised they were composed of 17 sounds, and they subsequently made the translated haiku extend to 17 English syllables. Because of this imposed syllable count, and the 19th style of language, quite a lot of these translated haiku, can feel overstated and too wordy.
A poem, regardless of its form, is a piece of writing where every word has to earn its place. In such an economic form as haiku surplus words really do draw attention to themselves and contemporary practitioners have adopted the idea of ‘free verse’ haiku that will more often than not be less than 17 syllables, sometimes as few as 6. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good haiku around that do have 17 syllables. But that’s because they need that amount of syllables to effectively say what they’re saying and not because of an insistence on the syllable count regardless of content.
More specifically, traditional haiku contain a ‘seasonal’ reference or a kigo. In Japan where haiku is still written and read by millions of people, haiku are still expected to contain ‘seasonal’ references. These references are often multi-layered and contain suggestions of Japanese life, customs and history.
No such expectation is required of English language haiku, although you will find seasonal references in many as a matter of course. Some haiku poets do insist that it isn’t a haiku without a seasonal reference, however, if haiku are written out of our life experience, (the present moment or from memory), then reflections of the season, from icicles to lambs, from barbecues to autumn leaves, will inevitably find their way in.
Martin Lucas, in his book Stepping Stones, an anthology of haiku with commentaries, talks about English language haiku being a completely different animal to Japanese haiku. And I’m inclined to agree with him. And while it is obviously beneficial to study the history of any form, I do feel that reading and examining contemporary English language haiku is more helpful if that’s what you want to write.
The art of writing haiku is centred on simplicity:
+ Saying no more than is absolutely necessary.
+ Using language that does not rely on special effects.
+ Not imposing judgement but letting the reader come to their own conclusion.
The best way to learn about haiku is to read them. And then to write them. And one of the most accessible approaches with which to begin writing haiku is ‘phrase and fragment’ structure – or more simply put, a short bit and a longer bit.
sometimes you can’t be
In this haiku the first line contains the fragment and the last two lines contain the phrase. The fragment is an image, and a seasonal reference to winter. The phrase is a statement.
I find it difficult to write really effective haiku that juxtapose image and statement as there’s always the danger that the statement will be too didactic, or that it will direct the reader too much towards the poet’s way of ‘seeing’ things rather than letting the reader come to his/her own conclusions and insights. The use of the 2nd person here is a good choice, I think, as it encapsulates both the poet speaking to himself, and the ‘universal’ you. In addition, the poet has captured a moment that many of us will be able to respond to. This haiku, for me, produces the ‘ah!’ of recognition, but it took this poet’s articulation of the moment to make my response fully conscious.
the lawyer’s tie lolls
against his gut
Again, the fragment precedes the phrase, yet this haiku has no seasonal reference in it and focuses on a particular aspect of the human experience. It would be easy to dismiss this haiku as purely ‘description’ but a slow and careful reading reveals its subtlety.
The expression in the first line – family court – is very familiar, but it is only when it’s isolated in a piece of art, like this, that we ‘see’ it clearly and begin to think about the conflict it contains. Family should be about love and nurture, shouldn’t it? But a court is a place of battle and dispute. With these ideas in our minds the juxtaposed image of the lawyer becomes even more distasteful: the lolling tie, combined with the soft consonants in lawyer, suggests inactivity, ineffectualness, and the further idea that the only real winners in situations like this are the lawyers.
sprinkling her ashes
on rocks at low tide
the long walk back
This is one of mine, written for my mother-in-law. This begins with the phrase in the first two lines and ends with the fragment. There’s no strong seasonal reference but, for me, ‘low tide’ connects the human and natural worlds here, both physically and emotionally, and gives the haiku a sense of place for the reader to experience. And I consciously chose the three long syllables in the last line to underpin the emotion of the haiku.
And finally, a few other things to consider when writing haiku:
+ No titles - the haiku shouldn’t need any kind of introduction.
+ A very light touch with any ‘effects’, e.g. line break, figurative language.
+ The suggestiveness of your language – work with concrete images that are significant not just descriptive.
So, how about attempting a few haiku of your own using the phrase and fragment construction, and juxtaposing either two images, or an image and a statement? I’ll choose a selection to comment on, although if you’d rather nor receive any feedback on anything you post then please let me know.
The second part of writing haiku will appear later in the month.