Haiku. This small two-syllable word conjures up a multitude of others: Japan. Nature. Short. Funny?
You probably know that haiku originated as a stand-alone form in seventeenth century Japan. It was largely nature-based and often written by practitioners of Zen Buddhism, of whom Matsao Basho, ‘The Shakespeare of Haiku’, is the best-known. It remains hugely popular in Japan today, and that has been spreading worldwide since around a century ago when Ezra Pound and other Imagists were exploring eastern forms. Pound’s poem, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, published in 1913 in the journal Poetry, is regarded as something of a precursor of haiku in English: ‘
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Basho himself has a famous haiku about a crow on a tree, one with which Pound may well have been familiar:
has settled on a bare branch
But how do you go about writing haiku? Is it easier to write shorter poems than longer ones? The answer to the second question is: not necessarily, though it does depend on the writer as well.
Let’s get the syllable thing out of the way first, as it’s usually the first question that arises. In Japanese, haiku are generally arranged in a pattern of 5-7-5, i.e. 5 syllables (or word sections, to be more precise) in line one, seven in line two and five in line three. Easy, right? I’m afraid not! Since a syllable in English packs more in than a Japanese word-section, or so I’m told - I don’t speak Japanese – many writers of haiku in English prefer to use fewer than a total of seventeen syllables in their verses.
Somewhere between 10-14 is often considered to be the equivalent of the Japanese 5-7-5 system, although one is free to stick to the conventional 5-7-5 in English if one so chooses. In my experience of teaching haiku, I am very wary of anyone being slavish to the 5-7-5, especially when it results in a haiku that has been contrived for the sake of adding in extra syllables.
hung up on syllable count
catching the moment.
Of course all haiku from the Japanese masters are read by us in English translation, so that can make the insistence on 5-7-5 even more forced. Some of these work okay, such as this translation of one by Issa:
in early spring rain
the ducks that were not eaten
are quacking happily.
Others work better without the constraint of the 5-7-5 in translation, such as this one by fellow haiku master Buson:
separating from the bell,
the bell’s voice.
That’s the syllables out of the way. What else do we need to know? We need to know that haiku (haiku and not haikus is the plural of haiku) are not ditties, jokes or aphorisms. Haiku do not spring from ideas or
concepts, they should ideally come through the senses. This is the part that many regular poets struggle with. Some writers feel that their witty ideas and fertile imaginations need to be poured into this short form, but they’re the talents that actually need to be set aside.
However, once the first draft has been written down, the editing skills that are applied to all forms of poetry come into play in a similar way, albeit to a much reduced number of lines. To give an example of my own, the following haiku went from this first draft:
day of his death
soft autumn rain
after several phone calls
to this final one:
father’s death day
after hours of phone calls
soft November rain
The approach to writing haiku, therefore, is very different to that when writing poetry. I think I can say this because I have written and published both for fifteen years now, so it’s certainly true for me. It’s more important to be aware and mindful of your surroundings, be they urban or rural, indoor or outdoor, than to have clever concepts. Basho advised that one should become the pine while observing the pine, and so we as poets need to put our egos aside and take our cues from nature – both bucolic and human, by being in the moment and allowing sensations from all five senses in.
Traditional season words can be used, but are not de rigeur. Simple language should be used. James W. Hackett said ‘Remember that haiku is a finger pointing at the moon, and if the hand is bejewelled, we no longer see that to which it points,’ which is as good a guideline as any other.
Generally speaking, there are no similes, few metaphors, no rhymes, no titles and little punctuation. That’s a lot of ‘nos’, you might say, but do give it a try. You never know, you might also get the bug. Be warned, it’s very hard to shake off!