Haiku · Poetry

Exploring Haiku

BusonWhen I say “haiku,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Did you think 5-7-5? Most Americans do, me included.

I first learned of haiku in about 3rd grade. It’s a useful tool for teaching both syllable count and poetry, a double win. Most of us go on, then, thinking about haiku on rare occasion. Maybe some of us even write them, a clever revisiting of 5-7-5. Fast, short, done. These are honorable traits.

Perhaps a few of us, being writers, have explored haiku a little further and know its depths. I came to take another look at haiku about six years ago, when I began studying Chadō, the “Way of Tea” known in this part of the world as the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tea is a portal into many of the Japanese traditional arts, including poetry. A pastime from long ago, friends would gather to sip tea and write poetry.  What could be better? In addition, in the tea ceremony, the host gives poetic names to many of the utensils used. Haiku are a wonderful source of inspiration for these names, and also serve as a tool to help deepen my understanding of the Japanese aesthetic.

I was eager to explore haiku. Japanese friends seemed to view it with a dedication that intrigued and inspired me. I began to read haiku, and read about haiku. I attempted writing haiku. I became snarled in the rules, and which rules apply to Japanese haiku, but not English haiku. I quit reading and writing haiku.

I started again, sharing my haiku, cautiously. A few kind souls took me seriously and encouraged me (showers of blessings upon them!). Most people didn’t understand my attraction to the poetic form, but indulged me. I don’t begrudge them; I didn’t appreciate haiku until recently.  One good sport even wrote a haiku for me:

I write haiku too (5)
Let’s see, how many more do (7)
I need to finish (5)

I decided it was time to find fellowship with like-minded folks and I joined the Haiku Society of America.

I am a beginner – I know nothing compared to people who have been with haiku for decades. And so, with the fervor of a new convert, I proceed in that righteous spirit of seeking to defend my faith and convert others to haiku. Indulge me a little longer as I share a bit of what I’ve learned.

Haiku is much more substantive, nuanced, disciplined and meaningful than most Westerners understand.

Yes, haiku are short.
No, they are not straightforward.

This Moment: A classic haiku will be about one moment, an observation that captures the present experience. Notice how that plays out in the two examples below by Bashō, a 17th-century master of haiku:

The winter sun –
on the horse’s back
my frozen shadow

A monk sips morning tea,
it’s quiet
the chrysanthemum’s flowering

I had the chance to learn about Japanese poetic forms recently from respected poet Margaret Chula. She explained haiku as a “one breath poem.” An example from her book of poems about the tea ceremony, This Moment:

rain-soaked moss
on the tea house wall
a blush of rust

Note: Margaret was very generous to provide input on this article, and I extend to her my sincerest thanks! I find that within this community, there is a genuine eagerness to welcome and nurture new haiku writers.

Seasonality: A classic haiku will offer an oblique reference to seasonality. In Japan there are many compendia of seasonal words (example here). If I use hana, flower, Japanese readers know I mean spring. Likewise, if I include tsuki, moon, it’s an understood reference to autumn. It’s like saying popsicle and conjuring thoughts of summer, or mittens, evoking scenes of winter. You don’t have to say the season, but in a classic Japanese haiku the season will be shown.

Let’s revisit this poem by Bashō:

A monk sips morning tea,
it’s quiet
the chrysanthemum’s flowering

What season is represented here? Most of us equate chrysanthemums with autumn.

Modern haiku may forego the seasonality reference, but to fully understand a haiku in its traditional form, one must pay attention to seasonality. I love this aspect of haiku. It brings us deeply into our surroundings. In this modern life, how many of us know what phase the moon is in, or what’s blooming out our front door?

5-7-5, or not: Now let’s consider the stalwart 5-7-5 syllabic structure. This pattern is a fluid speaking rhythm in the Japanese language. It’s natural, not forced. To introduce a bit of cognitive dissonance: English haiku writers often choose to work outside the 5-7-5 form. The haiku rhythm should feel familiar, not labored or manipulated. The strict 5-7-5 form is not what makes something a haiku. In fact, you’ll find many English poems even shorter. What matters is the heart of the poem.

The shift: Perhaps the hardest part of writing haiku, for me, is the subtle shift, or surprise. Something unexpected is often offered to the reader. Let’s look at another example, this one by Buson:

People visiting all day —
in between
the quiet of the peony

Our seasonal anchor point is the peony (early summer). The scene is set with the busyness of the day, and then juxtaposed with the quiet of the peony. I want to curl up inside this poem.

Adaptions: Like all art forms, haiku evolves over time. Modern writers of haiku sometimes choose to eschew the tie to seasonality. There are categories of haiku that focus more on the human experience. A  form of haiku growing in popularity is a pairing of haiku with graphics.

A Few of My Own: Here are two of my own haiku, tender buds of attempt.  I’ll let you form your own critiques, based on the concepts just shared.

Old tree creeks
back beat to
bees in the mint

Red lanterns
hide the plum blossom
— Macao

 Learn More:

To continue your exploration in Haiku, consider these resources:

Haiku Society of America Education Page

Margaret Chula’s website

Poet Billy Collins on Haiku’s history in the USA

2 thoughts on “Exploring Haiku

  1. First, this post is beautiful. This is a new blog, yes? I’m also sorry I even made fun of Haiku. You are right, it is beautiful. A real treat. For awhile, whenever we did soul cards at WW–I would simply leave a Haiku on my card. I stuck strictly to the 5-7-5 form. I must master 5-7-5 before I can break the mold and stray outside the form. Feels important to me to understand the form before I can break it. Happy Day!


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