Haiku Is What?

by L. A. Davidson

Reprinted with permission from Feelings Magazine, Volume 7, No. 3, Spring 1996

Many of the thousands of poets outside Japan studying and writing this brief form in English and other languages know what haiku was: that it originated in Japan, had a set form of 5-7-5 Japanese symbol-sounds, and was related to nature.

And most are becoming aware that it will be an accepted form of poetry for time to come, as long as people react to their environment with the perception of what is occurring at the moment, concisely without embellishment.

But to state in simple terms what haiku is will cause a hail of cliches and a fog of often contradictory or confusing opinions, rules, and lists of "do" and "don't." It very succinctly is a moment recorded of an observation, usually of nature, in which human nature is revealed however subtly.

A few things are generally accepted, such as that the observer does only half the process and the reader the other half, or as pointed out in Makoto Ueda's Modern Japanese Haiku, An Anthology, 1976, "Haiku, by its very nature asks each reader to be a poet." In its brevity, haiku does not attempt narrative, in fact avoids stating the poets reaction. It is an art of evocation, and if the result is successful, something of the moment recorded by the writer will trigger an emotion in the reader that may or may not be similar, depending on the reader's own experiences or interests. Haiku may be a simple note on nature:

                  The falling leaves
                  fall and pile up; the rain
                  beats on the rain

     (Gyodai, 1732-93, tr. H.G. Henderson, Haiku in English, 1967)

Even here, R.H. Blyth, who wrote the six volumes that are the bible for the world of haiku-in-English (Haiku, Vol. 1 in 1949, Vols. 2,3,4 in 1952; and A History of Haiku, 1953 and 1954) presents Basho's view that "One thing is not used to imply another thing." However, the quality of growth, of the expansion of the writer's moment into another's perception, is the kernel that makes haiku an ongoing vital form of poetry after many centuries.

One great difference between haiku and other poetry is that there is no anthropomorphism in it, no giving human attributes to non-human things. Each thing, whether animal, bird, insect, plant, even a physical form such as a rock, is viewed as it is in its own right. Other forms of Japanese writing and myth use personification extensively, but not haiku. Western poetry has revelled in portraying other forms of life and nature with human characteristics. With rare exceptions metaphor and simile are not used, nor is rhyming. Epigrams and prose bits are not acceptable.

Everything else that follows here has been or will be hotly debated not only in Japan, but throughout the haiku world by different "schools." Japanese haiku writers have a sense of humor others have not yet developed so fully. Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) wrote almost a century ago:

                  On how to sing
                  the frog school and the skylark school
                  are arguing.

                  (tr. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku)

A few say that haiku is not really poetry. This is no place to get into a discussion of what constitutes poetry. When asked at a seminar to define poetry, Marianne Moore said it is something that is not prose. Or as Kamijima Onitsura (1660-1738) said in a translation by Amataro Miyamori: "The nightingale, ceasing to sing, is nothing, alas, but a green bird."

There are those who prefer a very truncated form of haiku, and also translations done word for word instead of capturing the inherent poetry in a necessary rearrangement of words in the new language. Cor van den Heuvel is credited with a successful one-word haiku:


                 (The Window-Washer's Pail, 1963)

His two anthologies of contemporary haiku are now out-of-print but well worth looking up in a library: The Haiku Anthology (Anchor Press/Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1974) and The Haiku Anthology (Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1986). William J. Higginson is a strong proponent of brief haiku and one who holds that everything on earth is derived from nature. Often this philosophy emphasizes a strong impact of a single image. Such as his memorable:

                  This Alamo
                  too small a place
                  for dying

                  (Haiku West, 1970)

Two examples from the movie theatre marquee displays Haiku on Forth-Second Street, 1994 are Evan Mahls:

                  with his clippers
                  the florist prunes
                  his cigar

and Alan Pizzarelli's:

                  the shoeshine boy
                  snaps his rag

Briefly, haiku came about from a verse form of 5-7-5, 7-7 symbol-sounds, written by the upper class of Japan in the eighth century and known as tanka. By the end of the twelfth century a longer linked poem of alternating 5-7-5 and 7-7 verses was written as a party game and became what is known as renga. In Matsuo Basho's time (1644-1694), it was still the leading form, but his hokku, as the first 5-7-5 link was known, were gathered separately and sometimes written individually. He also wrote them interspersed at key points in essays known as haibun, recording his travels. Hiroaki Sato, noted translator of Japanese to English and English to Japanese, wrote One Hundred Frogs From Renga to Haiku to English in 1983, when interest of American writers surged. Now that a new abbreviated One Hundred Frogs dealing only with numberous translations of Basho's famous frog jumping into a pond, has come out, one may have to look in a library for the former. Senryu, the same form as haiku but dealing with human foibles instead of nature and often satirical or even erotic, has been written for as long as haiku.

With their penchant for rules, Japanese helped Western writers who were not well-versed in that language to establish misinformation by insisting that one write in 5-7-5 English syllables. They are only now conceding that the differences in language often make this too long. There are no particles, such as 'a' or 'the' in Japanese, and their cutting words, which are akin to our puctuation, are not counted. Each vowel is a separate sound.

Several outstanding haiku writers in English like O. Southard, the late Foster Jewell, and the very much alive Zen poet J.W. Hackett held to the 5-7-5 syllables. A translation The Essence of Modern Haiku, 300 Poems by Seishi Yamaguchi, done by Takashi Kodaira and Afred H. Marks (Mangajin, Inc., 1993, and distributed by Weatherhill Press in the U.S.) adheres strictly to 5-7-5. One American haiku group, the Yuki Teikei Society in California, was, until recently, adamant about that form, though they have now bent slightly. The late Nicholas Virgilio frequently wrote 5-7-5, though one of his early brief haiku gave impetus to the shorter work:

                  out of the water...
                  out of itself.

                  (American Haiku, Issue 1, 1963)

Juxtaposition, the use of two images to enhance the effect of the observation, tends towrads a longer haiku, whereas the current tendency of one-image haiku lends itself to shorter ones. Too much such impact dulls the reader's growth interest, one reading being sufficient. Because haiku are not intellectual exercises, a rereading is often based on the emotion aroused.

                  It isn't the cold
                  nor the dying leaves, just
                  that the birds have flown.

                  (Virginia Brady Young, Circle of Thaw, 1972)

                  My father's silence...
                  remembering how he turned
                  bread crumbs into birds

                  (Rob Simbeck, Mayfly, No.8, 1989)

                  lilacs in bloom
                  but no one now to decorate
                  the family graves

                  (Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Santa Fe, NM, 1988)

Aside from form, the second test of a haiku for the Japanese is the use of a season word (kigo). There has usually been seasonal reference in non-Japanese haiku, although there are many who insist that everything on earth is some form of nature even if not human nature. Some call it "psychological" haiku; others just go for an image impact. In recent years, haiku-in-English has begun to study more seriously the use of season words, but it is conceded even by the Japanese, that North America is never likely to agree to using the seasons of say Cincinnati for season words for the entire continent as once Kyoto seasons were for Japan. In fact, seasons vary so much for different areas that one assumes such a reference is to the season applicable to the area where the author lives. In Japan, there are volumes of lists, known as saijiki, of acceptable season words.

A few attempts have been made for lists in English haiku, notably a pioneer effort by American Haiku (1963-1968), the first haiku magazine in the U.S. Jane Reichhold brought out A Dictionary of Haiku Classified by Season Words with Traditional and Modern Methods, 1992. Currently Kodansha has published the first of two volumes of a project by William J. Higginson, The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World. The second volume Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac is planned for the fall of 1996.

Haiku may be as brief as possible but not to exceed 17 syllables. The arrangement of syllables on each of usually 3 lines may vary. Reference may be nature oriented although humankind-based, or psychological references have become accepted. Image, however, with some revelation of human nature or emotion remains the hallmark of haiku without the use of metaphor or simile.

If all this makes writing haiku sound difficult, it is not. One has only to be observant and follow the "qualities that distinguish the haiku form of poetry-simplicity, heightened focus, suggestibility." (Cal French in The Poet-Painters: Buson and His Followers, The University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1974). Read haiku at every chance for pleasure, classic and contemporary. Libraries, schools, bookstores and friends cut costs.

One comes to see as Foster Jewell did in his Passing Moments, 1974:

                  How a brook so small
                  becomes in its wanderings
                  a pathway for stars


L.A. Davidson is a charter member of the Haiku Society of America, Inc. (1968) and has been active in both that and the haiku world in general. She has done judging, won prizes, and has been widely published in magazines, anthologies and in articles. A chapbook of her haiku was published in 1982, reprinted in 1991, The Shape of the Tree. (Available from the author, L.A. Davidson, 2 Washington Square Village, New York, NY 10012 for $6.00 postpaid/$9.00 overseas).

                  flower arrangement:
                  just two yellow daffodils,
                  the first to bloom

                  old people
                  in the locked park
                  bench sitting

                  a song sparrow
                  on the locked garden gate,
                  grass in its beak

                  on the subway stairs
                  an old shopping-bag woman
                  shrinks into her rags

                  snow predicted:
                  on the coffee table
                  white narcissus

                  between wax paper
                  a leaf for winter

                  buffeted by wind,
                  the great oak tree dissolving
                  into swirling leaves

                  - L.A. Davidson

Reprinted from FEELINGS, A Journal of Poetic Thought and Verse, published quarterly by Anderie Poetry Press, Carole J. Heffley, editor/publisher. Single copy: $6.50 U.S./Annual Subscription: $24.00 U.S., postpaid. All inquiries: FEELINGS, P.O. Box 85, Easton, PA 18044-0085.



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