The Identity of Haiku

The following was not written as an essay so much as a response to questions posted on The Haiku Foundation’s blog, in response to a blog entry in which I was invited to suggest some of my hopes for American haiku in the year 2012. The blog posting first appeared on 19 December 2011, and the following essay response appeared on 22 December 2011.

What is haiku? Haiku is what you make it. Haiku is what I make it. It’s collectively what each one of us makes it. However, the idea that it’s a nature poem is among one of the possible misunderstandings. Haiku poets in Japan do not carry around almanacs of nature words. Instead, a saijiki collects season words—because haiku is really after seasonality, not strictly just nature. Obviously, nature comes along for the ride most of the time, and thank goodness for that, but I think it helps to remember that haiku focuses on seasons—which includes human activities (about a quarter of each saijiki that I’ve investigated or been told about, or have a copy of myself, is actually NON nature). If it’s good for haiku to return to nature, fine, but the point of doing so is for the sake of seasonal reference. So I would say a genuine connection to seasons is valuable, together with a genuine connection to one’s emotions, as implied by the carefully juxtaposed images of each haiku. I also have no problem with inner-city poets writing urban haiku with very limited nature content, provided that they still value the seasons (Ebba Story has always come to mind as an excellent example of this sort of poet). And what is nature, anyway? Is a four-bedroom house any less natural for humans to build than is a nest built by a bird? Whatever our surroundings, the point of haiku is to pay attention, to simply notice, and to share ordinary experiences with extraordinarily direct and simple language.

        And should haiku have just one identity? I think haiku has many identities. And I’m grateful for it. As Jim Kacian has written, it’s the wrong question to ask “Is it a good haiku?” The right question to ask, he has said, is “What kind of haiku is it?” This relates to the idea that I see haiku as having many possible targets rather than rules, and any given haiku may choose (on purpose or by accident) to aim at particular targets and miss others—and be perfectly fine as haiku, provided that it doesn’t miss too many of the targets. To give haiku just one identity strikes me as being like trying to nail a jellyfish to a wall.

        As for targets, the general public typically thinks that 5-7-5 syllables is the only target, and such poems, as you know, often fail miserably because they miss all the other valuable targets. But of course one can hit that target (5-7-5) and still write a good haiku if the poem also hits a preponderance of other valuable targets. One could even consider “nature” as being one of the targets, but again, I would suggest that the real target is seasonality, not nature.

        Basically, I think haiku has many identities, and it is better off for it. This is true not only in North America and elsewhere (pick your language), but especially true in Japan itself. What I’m most concerned about is that some identities for haiku (the public sense that 5-7-5 is all there is to it) is not really an identity but a misunderstanding. Beyond that distinction, I think the various identities of literary haiku are welcome (which are much broader than gendai or traditional, for example). And I like to write various kinds of haiku too—as I know many other people do. I do not see this as a weakening of haiku, but a sign of its maturity (in whatever language, but increasingly so in English)—fracturing and becoming more specialized is a sign that this poetry is maturing.

        Above all, though, as Higginson wrote in the first paragraph of The Haiku Handbook, the point of haiku is to share it, and by writing and reading haiku, what we’re sharing is not just experience but a little bit of vulnerability, taking a sort of risk with another person by saying “this matters to me . . . and I hope it matters to you.” When a writer and a reader find common ground in a poem, and share a common vulnerability, that, to me, is haiku’s deepest reward.