What is haiku?

Do we know any artists today who are so revered and respected that they could rename an entire art form and everyone would agree? Probably not. But maybe! Some more modern writers, like Lewis Caroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), have managed to invent words that are commonly used today. But this is a far cry from renaming an art form as deeply rooted as haiku. But that's exactly what happened to haiku. It used to be called hokku. At the end of the 19th century, a poet named Masaoka Shiki was so influential that when he dubbed the poetry form haiku, the name stuck! I mention this because you may research older sources or come across references that refer to hokku, and it's important that you know it's the same poetry form.

There are many different ideas about what a haiku is today. This lesson is about traditional haiku, and that makes it much easier to explain. Haiku is the plural of haiku – the word is both singular and plural. Although Prolific Press’s journal, 50 Haikus, is a showcase for beautiful haiku, it’s definitely spelled wrong (see their website for the reason) – not that it bothers anyone.

Traditional haiku doesn’t rhyme. When it does, it isn’t haiku anymore; it’s simply a short poem, or maybe some kind of nontraditional haiku. But, back in the day, if someone wrote a haiku that rhymed, they would be run out of town, or at least ridiculed. In Japan, the birthplace of haiku, people weren’t very tolerant of poets who didn’t follow the rules. Haiku was serious business, and poets who mastered the technique were the rock stars of their day. They even had fanclubs, and it wasn’t uncommon for fights to break out over who the better poet was. There was no shortage of people willing to give up everything to become a pupil.

The Japanese language and haiku seem to be a match made in heaven. The language itself has clear syllables that resound when spoken. What we call a syllable in English is probably more interesting in Japanese. Each Japanese syllable is composed of mora(e), similar to how English is composed of both short and long syllables, a phonology that determines syllabic weight (for lack of a better word). A monomoraic syllable consists of one mora, bimoraic syllables have two morae (the plural of mora), etc.

This weight of each syllable is embedded deeply into the Japanese language, resulting in a particular timing, a mixture of rhythm and moments of staccato punches of sound. This timing means some words naturally crash together, while others linger beautifully in ways that listeners can truly appreciate, even when they don’t speak the language.

Because of the Japanese language structure, the experience of reading a haiku is never far removed from the tone and intention of the poet who wrote it. In English, two people might approach the same poem with different personal mechanics. One reader might speed over a line, while another might read it very slowly and sound it out. Not so with traditional haiku. In fact, historically the art form was taken so seriously that it’s unlikely people would ever ignore the natural mechanics of the language. If anything, they would take extra care to read it as it was intended to be read–with a natural and respectful cadence.

Here we introduce an audio recording of haiku read in Japanese and then translated into English. The poet, Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644 – 1694), born 松尾 金作, then Matsuo Chūemon Munefusa (松尾 忠右衛門 宗房), is considered one of the most famous haiku poets of all time. His poems can still be found as icons in pop culture, and on monuments displayed throughout Japan.

As you listen to this recording, take a few brief notes. Pay attention to (1) how these poems offer some insight into time – maybe the time of day, the season of the year, or the age of the subject. Also, note the inclusion of nature. We will discuss these points later, so try to pick out the time and nature-symbol in these epigraphs (haiku) now, so that the rest of the lesson will be unforgettable and more rewarding. (If you are interested, more of this recording can be found here.)

Listen (Takes about 10 minutes)

Did you notice that all the poems have a similar length? This is because traditional haiku consist of a limited number of syllables (morae - traditionally 17). While Japanese haiku are written top to bottom, often as one long line, in English they are represented in three brief lines. I urge you to imagine the lines in a haiku as separate phrases. While three phrases can make a sentence, they can also be very disparate. A phrase need not be a sentence in and of itself. In this way, you are imagining haiku as it was originally intended. That said, this convention, while still beautifully desirable, is not some kind of hard-rule that must be followed. Indeed, modern haiku, particularly American haiku, is often brash and non-conformist, allowing rule-breakers to jump right in and blaze a new trail. Haiku has thus evolved, dulling the bright line that once defined what is and is not haiku. With this in mind, particularly for poets in English, it becomes less important that poets indulge in all the historical subtleties of haiku composition. I urge poets to continue to keep the beautiful complexity of haiku in mind while composing poems, even tip the hat by including a kigo and kiregi when possible, but I also remind poets that a strong haiku need not conform rigidly to historic conventions, and that haiku in English cannot, due to fundamental differences of language. 

As a writer, you know that the unit of measurement for a story is the sentence, while in poetry it is the line. A line doesn’t need to be a full sentence. In fact, many haiku are one sentence long (one sentence carefully divided between three lines). 

This makes sense when you consider that early on, haikai (hokku/haiku in lofty literary works) served a function – it introduced the first verse in a longer work. As such, it needed to be very meaningful, highly compressed, and brief. More sentences would conflict with the verse it was introducing. As such, dividing a single sentence into several lines is commonplace. This isn’t the only reason, but it is one important contributing factor to the evolution of haiku. While one sentence is still common, it is not a rule. Some haiku contain more than one sentence, or even several sentence fragments that create an image.

At first, haiku were limited to nature themes. Its only constraint was that of nature and the evocation of a palpable emotional response from the reader. The form gained western distinction in the 17th century (Tokugawa period) when Bashō became popular for elevating the form into a stand-alone art. After haiku became hugely popular, the constraints broadened, and continue to broaden today. What remains most important is that the form is constrained, compressed by limited size, and that it strives to convey as much meaning as possible in very few words.

If you want to write good haiku, you should remember that each line should have some meaning, and not rely entirely on some other line to make sense. The poem (as a whole) should create a meaning or image that is somehow greater than any single line. 

Time is an important element of a traditional haiku. In much the same way that a good work of fiction requires a setting, it was once believed that a good haiku must immerse the audience in the time of the poem's image. Time is marked by the poetical inclusion of the kigo (季語 'seasonal word'). Sometimes the kigo was an obvious declaration, like "snow atop the temple bell." Obviously, the inclusion of 'snow' sets the poem firmly in the wintry season. But the kigo is not always so obvious. The seasonal word in a poem might refer to a plant or animal that is short lived, like a tulip or tadpole. Certain natural elements mark the time of a poems imagery because the reader knows, for example, that tadpoles exist in Japan for a few weeks in early summer. In English, a word that marks the time of a poem may be anything of the poet's invention. But historically, haiku derived its kigo from a book called Saijiki, something like an encyclopedia of kigo, containing all the seasonal words, cross referenced and explained for poets and readers. 

Are you beginning to understand the complexity of this poetry form? Its rich history and the deep reverence of its early practitioners? 

I wish I could say that's all there is to haiku, but there are more levels of complexity to this poetry form. For example, in much the same way that a sonnet contains an envoi (or "envoy" if you like), many haiku generate a gentle epiphany (often a moral lesson - hence my reference to the envoi, for lack of a better example) in the mind of the reader at the kiregi (切れ字 'cutting word').  In English, you might say, "We are going to the movies?" or "We are going to the movies." and when spoken aloud, the difference is in the lilt of the voice on the word "movies" that indicates whether the speaker is asking a question or making a statement. These mechanics are not present in Japanese, at least not as recognizably and interchangeably (written / spoken). Due to language differences, the kiregi might be thought of as presenting in one of two ways. It may be a kind of punctuation, as with kana, that may closely align with an extended dash, ellipses, or even an airy exclamation that creates a sense of meditation or deeper thought (bewilderment or wonderment usually) in the reader. Some say this usage creates a circular poem, one that brings the reader back around for a second read with deeper insights but I disagree. It can, and perhaps does in anecdotal examples, but when considering the many thousands of haiku I have read, I cannot say I recognize this circular pattern as a standard convention (or school) of methodology. Instead, I urge you to imagine this kind of usage as something more like a punctuation of language, as noted earlier. The kiregi may also be imagined as a word that functions as a pivot in the poem, in much the same way a tanka (see "What is tanka") turns on the third line, a haiku can turn at any of the three phrases (lines) that encompass the poem. In English, a gross example might include coming across a word like "however...", but more generally presents when a soft poem suddenly contains a violent word (or vice versa), thus noticeably changing the tone, often setting the reader up for a resonant epiphany of some type. 

All this talk of the kigo and kiregi can seem daunting to readers working to familiarize themselves with haiku, and especially to poets interested in learning to compose poetry in this form. After all, the kigo and kiregi are just two elements in a more complex form. Fear not friends and lovers of the written word, there is good news ahead.

You don't need to know all the complexities of haiku to enjoy the form. That would be like saying that you must take a literature class before you can enjoy The Great Gatsby. Surely, the green light will take on some hotly contested symbolic meanings if you do - then again, maybe it's just a green light - but, I digress. American haiku is very approachable, with very few constraints. It really comes down to compression, brevity, and hopefully, resonance. There seems to be a great deal of debate as to what American haiku is. Indeed, if you study haiku, it becomes immediately obvious that even some journal editors struggle to understand what defines American haiku. 

One of the most popular forms of American haiku in English is called the 5/7/5 form. Put simply, there are 5 syllables in line one, 7 in line two, and 5 in line three. Given these constraints, writers strive to create three lines that form a haiku poem. There exists plenty of room for some complex compositions, with traditional elements if desired. This type of poetry form is taught in schools across America and just about anywhere English is spoken. Even so, there are ignorant naysayers that look down their misguided literary noses at this form of haiku. (Hey! That's some tough talk there buddy!) Some people seem to mistake the acceptance of this form with some sort of claim that this form (and only this form) is haiku. That seems to be the rub. But, I assure you, there is a vacuum of scholars that hold this view. 5/7/5 poems are merely one constrained form of haiku, in the same way that a Spenserian sonnet and a petrarchan sonnet are both sonnets. 

Haiku Journal, for example, is a popular literary journal that only publishes the 5/7/5 form. There is no claim that other types of haiku are better or worse. Any search for other journals online will undoubtedly reveal many different examples. Some require a certain number of morae (syllables) but have no structure. Some require three lines, others may allow other configurations. Some want other specific kinds of haiku, like Senryū (川柳, 'river willow' - a kind of haiku that usually contains dark humor). I personally find the constrained forms to be very enjoyable. I urge you to read and/or write what you enjoy. 

I hope you appreciate haiku as much as I do, and I am thankful that you took the time to read this short introduction to haiku. If you have something to share, send me a note and I'll work with you to get it posted.

Best regards,
Glenn Lyvers

Last modified: Friday, 6 July 2018, 5:16 PM