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


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


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


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


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.

On Culture, Food, Games

Today, I realized I have lived abroad most of my adult life. Yet, I feel as much Italian as I always did.

Culture, in the sense of one’s heritage, language, customs and so on, is such a weird thing. For example, some things we just consider old, or passé, while some others are traditions.

Nobody gives a damn about last year’s clothes, but people will happily wear traditional clothing for special occasions, even tho there’s nothing that makes them particularly different from the clothes of a hundred year before or after.

But some things get frozen in time, and become a paradigm of something, and then people start considering them as the real thing, and deviations are bad.

As an Italian, I see this all the time with food. As most of my countrymen I will be annoyed if I order a carbonara and you put cream and dill in it§. I will cringe at some of the ready-made “italian” monstrosities sold in foreign supermarkets, and of course there’s the Japanese spaghetti napolitana (with ketchup and wurstel) which could make people from Naples punch you§.

But beyond the immediate disapproval, I’m open minded enough to understand that it does not matter. Sure, I would prefer if people named things differently to avoid confusion, but I also understand that our strictness with food is a very modern development. Until a few years ago nobody would give a shit if you made carbonara using pancetta rather than guanciale, for example. The modern pizza napoletana has as little to do with the pizza from 100 years ago as an american deep dish thing, but now the recipe has been written down, and it can’t be changed anymore.

So I see this crystallization process happen in real time, and I find it so, so interesting. But change will happen, anyway.

My kids are italo-hungarian, and mostly I like to think of them as european but it is clear their culture will be mostly magyar. They’ll think it’s normal to take off shoes when you enter someone else’s house§, or that it’s reasonable to have only sweets for a meal§. At the same time they also expect latte e biscotti for breakfast rather than eggs and sausage. And hungarians have decent pizza and coffee these days. The kids will be their own culture and will be alright.

Food is a clear story of homogenization and globalization too: every big city has access to decent curry or sushi these days, if not khinkali and injera§. Yet a bunch of older hyperlocal recipes are disappearing. I have never seen any Italian pastry place make sweet ricotta ravioli as my grandma made them.

And the rest of culture is the same. Probably these days a youngster in Brazil has more shared culture with one in Norway than 20 years ago. They played similar videogames, watched the same blockbusters, have similar comics and books available, hanged around in the same online communities. They may have enjoyed different porn, tho.

But I would guess, when they were little, they played different games, cause children games are not as heavily internationalized yet. But careful, those are being homogenized too. I remember my dad teaching some of the games they played as kids, such as Lippa. I have never seen anyone else play it.

Hungarians kids play a shitty version of hide and seek where you hide and someone finds you and that’s it, you just take turns counting. Italian kids play a hyper-competitive version where once you spot the other person you have to race them to a base point and that captures them, but then the last one to be found still has a chance to free all the others, forcing the counting person to go again. You also have cheats and counter-cheats, such as standing behind a person to touch the base as soon as they are done counting, or having special rhymes that preventively capture those standing behind you. It’s an arms race. It’s a much more entertaining game, and I hope it survives for the sake of future children.

Anyway, culture is drifting, and becoming less diverse overall by becoming more diverse in every single place. Which begs the question: should we care? Should we make an effort to preserve some of our ancestors’ culture, and pass it on to the newest generations? Should we reject novelty? I am pretty sure the last question’s answer is a resounding no, but I think the others are tricky.

For example, should I teach my kids the sort of games my father thought me? What for? Some them made sense in a place when urbanization was mild and dirt roads where more common than asphalt, what would my kids do with them?

I think in a sense it’s always worth preserving something. But we all have limited learning capacity, teaching my kids the child rhymes I knew as a kid would come at the expense of not teaching them something else, and I mean, why would I chose 70 year old italian children rhymes?

When you are physically detached from your parent culture, you feel some need to stick to it, I think. This might be why the USA has this thing of saying “I’m Italian/Irish/Whatever!” meaning “some of my ancestors ended up on these shores coming from there!“. Immigrants felt nostalgia, and passed it on.

It’s also worth considering what is the culture you want to keep or ditch. Italy has a traditionally macho culture, which probably we should not keep in the next century. But it also used to have a very welcoming culture, which we should strive to keep. Hungarians are not particularly friendly and extrovert, we should probably change that. But they also are not very inclined to damage public property, which is good. At the same time, everytime we harmonize the behaviour towards some average expectation of “good” we’re losing something. But I still I hope we won’t have infibulation and the death penalty anywhere in the future. I am not sure what we should do with holy mountains forbidden to women but I have to say, I personally hope they stick around, because I like weird things.

Finally, it’s probably worth thinking about what happens when a culture buds off another one, and becomes separate, and you should stop evaluating it in the same terms. Italian poetry is not read in terms of Latin forms. Espresso should not be considered a bad arab coffee, nor italians should complain about third generation coffee being hipster bait. When does that the split happen? Does it even matter? I have a whole different post to write on english language haiku vs japanese haiku.

I am not sure there’s an answer to any of the questions here, I’ll just keep doing what I feel is best, every day, cause that’s the best I can do. Maybe everyone.

I did build my kids a rubber band gun, as my father did for me. Because it was fun, and because I loved my father and I miss him a lot. Maybe that’s why people stick to their culture, because they loved their parents, and grandparents, and wish they were with them.

Go tell your parents you love them, and your children too. That is some culture all mankind seem to share. And humbly, I think we should keep it.