What’s an haiku anyway?

Some time ago, I discovered speculative fiction poetry exists, and there’s a huge and varied world of poets, magazines, awards, associations and so on.

This is poetry that plays with the what if scenarios typical of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, et cetera. As a long time reader of that genre, I thought I should read some. Heck, I thought, I should try writing some myself!

But actually, I never loved poetry much. I think it’s because of with my upbringing.

In Italian schools you are mainly exposed to three kinds of poetry

  • Dante Alighieri, and his Commedia. The thing is insanely good. It has a strict form, the terza rima, which means every line rhymes with two others in an endless chain. It also has incredibly moving passages, beautiful characters, great allegories, and imagery so strong that it has inspired basically half of the creative works that refer to the after life in the last 700 years§ . Movies, music, comics, videogames, programming languages. Another giant, T.S. Eliot, wrote

Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.

Thomas Stearns Eliot 
  • “standard” poetry such as Leopardi, Foscolo, Pascoli, Manzoni etc. Each great in their own way, and of course there is infinite variety, but you know, it’s poetry as you imagine it should be.
  • “special effects” poetry. Ungaretti and Montale with their 1-4 lines poems are the chief examples here. And for the sake of example, this is one of Montale’s most famous works§

Everyone stands alone on the heart of the world

pierced by a ray of sunlight:

and it’s quickly the evening.

“Ed è subito sera” (and it’s quickly the evening) – Eugenio Montale

Students love and hate these. They love them, because they do get something out of them, without putting too much effort into it. At the same time, they hate them because they see little effort from the poets§.

Anyway, you see, I grew up not caring much about “standard” poetry, and liking strict forms. But give me special effects and an a-ha! moment and that works for me. Convey something great in less than 20 lines, and I’m with you. Otherwise I’ll let someone else read you. Which brings me to haikus.

In folk knowledge, haikus are a form that is traditionally Japanese, a three line poem with a structure of 5-7-5 syllables§ . The chief example is usually from  Matsuo Basho:

An old pond!

A frog jumps in

the sound of water.

Matsuo Basho

I like this! it’s a great image, it’s short, it has an a-ha moment, it resonates with minimalist me.

The chief counterpoint from modern English language haikus is§

Haikus are easy

but sometimes they don’t make sense

refrigerator

anonymous internet person

I like this one more! The form is there, the a-ha moment too, it’s self-referential and fun.

But turns out, no it’s not an haiku, really.

Haiku, senryu, hokku

You see, a traditional Japanese haiku is not a poem with 5-7-5 syllables. Japanese poetry does not count syllables, it uses something called on, which are close to morae in Latin.

The difference is mainly that you can have multiple morae in a syllable. A word like “strength” is a single syllable in English, but would be multiple morae.

So, you have a verse like

long cat is long

which can be 4 syllables, but possibly 7 morae. I don’t know how many! There’s no official way to count morae in English! Plus, it depends on where you put the stress, the same word may have more or less morae depending on pronunciation. But 17 morae are generally shorter than 17 syllables, an English haiku would sound longer than a Japanese one.

It’s not enough to have the 5-7-5 structure anyway, traditional haikus are expected to include a kigo, or seasonal reference. Our refrigerator joke-ku should be

haikus are easy

sometimes they don’t make sense

air conditioner

me

Now you know it’s about summer so we’re closer. But there’s more! The classical Japanese haiku is expected to have a kireji, or cutting word, which splits the poem in two. In our example this could be the em-dash (“—”), but in the original form it can be a suffix, part of a verb conjugation or any from a set of 18 very specific things, used anywhere in the poem.

The final detail is that an haiku should have a juxtaposition, it should have two things next to each other, to reflect or give meaning. This is our a-ha moment, I would say.

But you see, people like short poems and get bored with rules, so modern Japanese haikus don’t respect these rules. And ancient people didn’t either, and got bored talking of seasons!

So we have senryus, which have the same metric form, but are about people, and are typically satirical or darkly humorous. The chief example is from Senryū who launched this genre and got it its name

the robber

when I catch him

my own son

Karai Senryū

Finally, what is a 5-7-5 stanza which is neither haiku nor senryu? It’s usually called an hokku.

English language haiku

For all intents and purposes, I am now an english writer, so how does english use haikus?

Well, some consider the first english language standalone hokku or haiku the following one

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound

Yep, it’s not 17 syllables, nor is it three lines. I invite you to peruse the winners of the Haiku Society of America Awards and look for a 5-7-5 pattern. There is none! There’s even a single line micro-poem!

Winning writers did a survey of Haiku publications some years ago and discovered that none required the 5-7-5 pattern.

So, english language haikus do not need a precise form, nor have a specific topic. They are, by most rules, not haikus.

And yet.. they are? Beyond the formalities, there seem to be something shared there. The Academy of American Poets says something similar:

As the form has evolved, many of its regular traits—including its famous syllabic pattern—have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment.

Academy of American Poets

I like this, I like it a lot. I think there’s more tho. The haiku, classical or modern, requires effort from the reader. The Modern Haiku journal has this definition

Haiku is a brief verse that epitomizes a single moment. It uses the juxtaposition of two concrete images, often a universal condition of nature and a particular aspect of human experience, in a way that prompts the reader to make an insightful connection between the two. 

Modern Haiku

They also mention they stopped separating haikus and senryus because it was too hard to distinguish them, which I think deserves a short satiric poem on human nature on its own.§.

I think a takeaway is that we cannot judge modern english language haikus by the rules of classical Japanese haikus. They share something, what Wittgenstein may have called family resemblance, but they are not the same thing.

The 5 pillars of an haiku

I think we can have 5 rules.

  • an haiku is short, generally 3 lines
  • an haiku shows a clear picture or focus
  • an haiku has a minimalist aestethic
  • an haiku has an a-ha moment
  • an haiku relies on the Reader’s effort

I recall reading once a list of rules on how to make an horror movie, by Dario Argento§. The last rule was “you can break the rules“, and I think the same applies here. But I still like the 5-7-5 form. It may not work in english, but I like the challenge of sticking to a format, so if I wrote haikus I may try to follow it.

Back to school

You know what’s fun? We have stretched the definition so much that a bunch of random lyrical musings are now valid haikus. Montale’s poem for example, matches some of the rules (especially in the original). One of Ungaretti’s most famous poems would work too, if I re-format it

soldiers

we stand as in Fall

on branches, leaves

“Soldati” (Soldiers) – Giuseppe Ungaretti

I like this. It makes me feel like I was enjoying Japanese literature all along.

And you know what else sounds good, with a bit of rephrasing

halfway down life’s path

in a dark wood

I got lost

“Commedia” – Dante Alighieri, more or less

PS

there’s also something called an haibun, which is a mix of prose and haiku. This blog post does not probably classify, but it would be cool if it did.

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