Haiku has taken up permanent residence in the West, so it’s time we figured out how to make it our own. From an ancient and venerable culture, haiku has flourished through many centuries to become the most popular verse form written in any language today. In its native Japan haiku is serious literature, a classroom assignment, a relaxing pastime, a widely appreciated art, a highly competitive skill. But what is haiku in North America?
Haiku: hai implies “playful,” and ku is the Japanese word for “turning” or “verse.” A spirit of playfulness is a good way to start making our haiku:
taking shape through the fog
The playfulness here is in the sun and the plum blossoms both slowly becoming visible as the morning fog dissipates. The poet juxtaposes each component to show, rather than tell. The small phenomenon being shown in three short phrases invites readers in and gives them time to absorb what is happening. Both images piercing the fog at once where formerly nothing was visible is an “ah!” experience, a “haiku moment.”
Originally an oral art, then a one-line poem when it was written down, haiku has generally been adapted in the Western world to three lines that may be thought to represent the poem’s three anchors (where, what, when) and only approximates the Japanese 17 “syllable” poem length. Within the last decade, more Western poets have come to express these components in one to four lines and in varying patterns. Contemporary haiku journals publish a variety of styles with interesting use of white space, and sometimes concrete poems. The Japanese write vertically in characters, but this one-liner recalls the traditional form:
standofvirginpine lovers’ initials in hearts grown apart
Haiku verbalizes the poet’s relationship and interaction with his or her surroundings, using the unique rhythm and sounds of the poet’s language rather than the original tongue, of course. Few languages contrast more than English and Japanese, so we must adapt our language to their poetry forms or adapt their poetry forms to our language. Haiku in Japanese presents asymmetry within symmetry in the traditional 5-7-5 cadence of the poem. Our syllables, however, are far more complicated to spell and pronounce than the staccato polysyllables we hear in Japanese speech. Their onji [the correct term is actually on] are not exactly like our syllables, but are comparable. It is the syllable count that differs in English.
Instead of the punctuation mark, Japanese uses a character that is pronounced. For example, ka indicates a question, and kana often appears at the end of a haiku for an emotional effect like a soft sigh. The typical Japanese syllable/onji is short, and may be only two or three letters when spelled out in romaji, the Roman-letter transliteration that helps Westerners to pronounce Japanese. An English syllable may contain consonant or vowel clusters such as “cl,” “str,” or “ai,” taking up more space on the page and more time to say than the typical Japanese measure of speech. Whereas in English a diphthong such as “ai” has one sound, the Japanese give each vowel a sound, though often too rapidly for the Western ear to catch. Also, their order of thought as expressed in a sentence is almost directly opposite to ours—the verb always ends the sentence, which has no relative pronouns, no articles, and no plurals. The word “haiku,” for example, is both singular and plural. Linguists remind us that language is spoken, not spelled, so the issue in adapting a foreign poetry form hinges on sound more than on the appearance on the page. The following haiku is composed of 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 cadence just as Americans have been taught during these 40 years of haiku in the West. Read the poem aloud. Does it take more than one breath? Or do the number of syllables naturally make you inhale?
York River summer—
gleaming white at water’s edge
Images are contrasted here, we have the three elements juxtaposed and concisely worded, and even the playfulness of oyster shells as skeletons is thrown in. What could make an English-language haiku more like its Japanese counterpart? It must be shorter! What better way to reflect the “ah!” moment than to state it in one breath!
one more ride
with the top down—
Speech in the spirited staccato Japanese language is made up of more than 300 syllables a minute, whereas English is typically spoken at about 220 syllables a minute. Japanese is spoken with half again more syllables in one breath. Therefore, English speakers usually limit the one-breath haiku to no more than 10 to 12 syllables to approximate the Japanese 17-onji haiku. Haiku is a one-breath poem, not just a “syllabic” form, as first perceived by Westerners.
the old man pitches
Among the words composing a traditional haiku in any language is one that indicates or symbolizes the season of the year in which an “ah!” moment is experienced. Such a season-symbol, kigo in Japanese, may be a natural or cultural reference ranging from “kite” or “Labor Day” to “horseshoes” (the game) to “peony” or “goldenrod.” Kigo usage is a kind of shorthand to project in one or two words the ambience of a whole season, especially in the north temperate zone where both Japan and the United States are located on the globe. Haiku is a poem of few parts, so each part must be worded for maximum impact.
the rusted tracks turning
The image of goldenrod indicates autumn, a colorful time of harvest, a signal for dormancy and longer nights. The abandoned railroad tracks disappearing into the weeds is an image juxtaposed with “up ahead,” which helps us accept the inevitable. But as valuable as the season word can be in some poems, the convention is not considered an essential part of haiku by many haiku poets, especially in the West. Haiku published internationally cannot depend on season words so localized.
only his bald spot
Although “beach” is a summer season word, this poem seems more a senryu, which requires no season word and is about the vagaries of human nature. Western poets have come to consider haiku-like poems satirizing human foibles and frailties, whether sad or humorous, more senryu than haiku. Not all haiku writers recognize this separation, an issue they raise and discuss from time to time. Senryu, a word that in Japan today implies “joke” or “bawdy humor,” was named after 18th century “poem selector” (a kind of editor) Karai Senryu, who particularly enjoyed collecting humorous poems about human nature. Some haiku journals such as Modern Haiku publish senryu separately, and the Haiku Society of America separates haiku and senryu in its annual competitions. Other well-respected journals and organizations either do not acknowledge a difference, or may group them together under both names. Haiku is, after all, “playful verse.”
the old man neatly pairing
As long ago as the time of the Crusades in the Western world, the Japanese were referring to some of their poetry as “ancient.” They were speaking of haikai-no-renga, or renga, a long poem of many linked verses by a number of participants; the beginning verse is called a hokku. Then, in the 17th century, along came Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) who was a master, teacher, and proponent of renga. He made his living traveling around the country writing renga with various partners. Bashō taught that poems should be created out of a deep unity and interpenetration of the poet with the experience, not mere observation and description, and certainly without comment or conclusion by the poet.
It was a century ago that Masaoka Shiki, last of the four great masters of haiku, first applied the term “haiku” to the short verse previously called hokku, the traditional starting verse of renga. Shiki is called the first poet of modern haiku because he led the “revolt” against artificial limitations; he taught his followers to be natural in their writing, and to keep wording tight. But it had been Bashō 200 years earlier who first rejected rigidities of speech and content in his poetry. He is considered the first great master of haiku even though his hokku were not the standalone haiku as Shiki used the term at the turn of the century, and as we think of the haiku form today.
end of summer
someone across the lake
slams a screen door
A good haiku should put you there, perhaps by appealing directly to the senses. The preceding poem uses primarily sound (the door slamming) and the absence of sound (no more boats on the water to obscure a small sound across the lake). In addition, the poem itself is a series of sibilant sounds that project a hesitancy to let go of summer.
Could this experience, however, shown in these words with these sounds, be translated into another language without something being lost? And would it still be a poem? For instance, we should read more than just one translation of Bashō’s or Shiki’s poems to fully appreciate their genius. Harold G. Henderson, one of the two American pillars of the Western haiku movement, translated many of the masters’ haiku with the first and third lines rhyming, even though Japanese haiku do not rhyme formally and seldom even incidentally. Henderson never claimed to be a poet, but did admit to liking rhyme, apparently his only reason for using it in his English versions of these classic haiku. Over the years others have come up with translations closer to the spirit of the original poems, though it is doubtful that any version exactly duplicates the poet’s original intent.
It is, after all, the spirit of the poem that must be translated, more than the mere translation of words. A poet is the best poetry translator—one who is fluent in both languages. As Henderson grew as a poet, he outgrew his penchant for rhyme. To him and to the other haiku “pillar,” R. H. Blyth, we owe a great debt for bringing to the Western world a deeper understanding of Japanese arts, literature, language, and culture, and for making haiku poetry accessible to the West. Henderson was one of many men and women who guided haiku’s birth in North America. With them [actually just Leroy Kanterman, as the following book makes clear] he formed the prestigious Haiku Society of America, which recently published A Haiku Path, a history of the society’s first 20 years, 1968–1988.
night of the eclipse—
resting my eyes from looking
at the moon
“To rest from looking at the moon” is a quotation from one of Bashō’s famous hokku. This haiku example does not plagiarize, but honors the master by alluding to his poem—one of many conventions in Japanese poetry not often observed in North America. We should strive to write haiku combining what we can of traditional Japanese with what we already know of poetry in the West. Write American haiku in our language for our age!
As the three basics of music are melody, harmony, and rhythm, so poetry is composed of basic elements too. American Pulitzer prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, in writing about poetry in general says, “every part of a poem works in conjunction with every other part-the content, the pace, the diction, the rhythm, the tone,” thereby putting forth a poem’s basic elements. Oliver then speaks of the power of the short line in poems of irregular lines. Applying this concept to haiku brings us to the importance of the third line, which ideally is the most powerful and often the shortest in the short-long-short design. The brief 2-3-2 beat rhythm of the following haiku emphasizes the contrast of last night and tonight, empty and full, even the parallel of the empty pool and waning moon.
only last night
it floated a full moon
the empty pool
The strength of a haiku’s third line can lie in irony, contrast, humor, brevity, surprise, the twist of a double meaning, or a poetic device such as alliteration. Whatever the choice, a haiku is best crafted with its power in the parting shot. The first two lines want concrete images, disparity within unity, directness within intentional and suggestive ambiguity, line breaks with a reason, tension between the parts. Haiku are immediate, sincere, unique, the world in microcosm, a momentary suspension of time, immutable mystery.
catalpa leaf drifting by
folded on itself
To craft a good poem in any genre is a tall order, and word for word the haiku is a great challenge. Create a tension between two images, use the present tense for immediacy, depend on little or no punctuation. Keep the brevity and rhythm of ordinary speech, show power with a light touch. Reduce to no more than 10 to 12 syllables. Recall why your “ah!” moment gave you pause, and how it became a haiku. Review the work of haiku masters past and present. Study. Practice. Find your own distinctive voice. The accessible phrasing of haiku can represent you-in-your-world to the reader with insight and grace.
only after the parade
Suddenly, seeing an ordinary daylit moon is a new experience when looking up after worldly distractions subside. It is the unifying moment, the “ah!” that brings you to haiku.
Excerpted and adapted by the author from her chapter on haiku in The Study and Writing of Poetry: American Women Poets Discuss Their Craft, edited by Wauneta Hackleman, second edition revised by Amy Jo Zook. Troy, New York: Whitston, 1995.
Grateful acknowledgment to Catherine A. Callaghan, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, Ohio State University, Columbus, for valuable assistance in the field of linguistics.
The haiku in this article first appeared in the following publications: Amelia, Black Bough, Brussels Sprout, Cicada, Geppo, Haiku Quarterly, Japan Air Lines Contest Anthology, 1988 (Tokyo: Japan Air Lines, 1988), Modern Haiku, Peace Poetry Across the Pacific (Honolulu: Matsunaga Institute for Peace, forthcoming, 1996), Raw Nervz Haiku, Saying Enough (Bakersfield, California: Amelia Press, 1989), The Old Moon and So On (New Zealand International Haiku Contest, 1994), and Woodnotes.
Blyth, R. H. Haiku. 4 vols. Tokyo, Japan: Hokuseido, 1949–1952.
Gross, Larry. How to Write and Publish Poetry (Chapter 18, “Japanese Ku”). Tallahassee, Florida: The Wordshop, 1990.
Haiku Society of America 20th Anniversary Book Committee, eds. A Haiku Path: The Haiku Society of America, 1968–1988. New York: Haiku Society of America, Inc., 1994.
Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1958.
Higginson, William J. with Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1985.
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.
Reichhold, Jane. A Dictionary of Haiku. Gualala, California: AHA Books, 1992.
van den Heuvel, Cor, ed. The Haiku Anthology. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1986.
Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku. Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan: Charles Tuttle Company, 1957.