On Haiku

Haiku, 17 syllables, 5–7–5. Simple.

No?

Not quite. A haiku isn’t just a syllabic form. There are style and meter requirements as well, and as with translating the poems from Japanese to English, translating the form has its own issues, and there are nuances lost.

So what pieces are needed to make a haiku? There are 17 syllables[1], in a 5–7–5 pattern. The theme of the poem is an observation of nature, with no commentary. There is a seasonal word, and a pause.

The seasonal word is to designate time, but doesn’t have to be ‘spring’ or ‘winter.’ It can be something like ‘snow’ or ‘pumpkins.’ Known as kigo, these words invoke a season.

The pause is a slight shift in the lines. It is usually something like:

5-(pause)–7–5 or 5–7-(pause)–5

The pause is not as dramatic as a stanza break, but rather a slight separation from one line to the other two.

Here, a poem by Master Basho[2]. In this we have all the things above: the seasonal word, frogs for the spring; the concise observation; and the pause between the second and third line:

Old pond
frogs jumped in
sound of water

Now, in modern poets, the seasonal word has become optional; however, the comparison, and the change are still fundamental to the form. As is the length.

So you probably didn’t write a Haiku

That’s cool. First off, you still wrote something, so, that’s awesome. Let me suggest what it might be. You see, there is another 17 syllable form called the senryu.

The senryu is more of a slice of life type of art piece than a haiku is. It is witty, humorous, and is often satirical or sarcastic as well.

Sound more like something you’ve written?

I want to read more!

Don’t we all? Here are some books I’ve been reading.

The best one I suggest is this one:

  • Japanese Haiku; Its Essential Nature and History by Kenneth Yasuda

It contains a breakdown of the haiku, a lineage history through Japanese poetry, AND some great haiku. If you get one book on this list, make it this one.

  • Far Beyond The Field, Makoto Ueda
  • Basho and his Interpreters, Makoto Ueda
  • The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Faubion Bowers

And one on senryu

  • Light Verse from the Floating World, Makoto Ueda

(ok ok, I totally bought almost all of Ueda’s books. I got the one on modern tanka as well, which will be a different post…)

Online Resources

Here are some more resources on haiku:

Wikipedia

Poetry Foundation

Poets.org


  1. Another translation issue, as in Japanese they are not syllables, per se. For this reason, there was significant discussion early on as to whether the form should be shorter in English.  ↩
  2. Translation, Hearn.  ↩

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