It isn't microwave poetry. It's not quite as simple as popping in seventeen syllables and pressing the "5-7-5" setting. These days, depending upon where you live and how you've lived, haiku could mean alot of very different things.

Literally, haiku is a Japanese word that means "playful verse". In ancient Japan, a "hokku" (literally "starting verse") represented the first three lines, or "link", of a much larger work, called a "renku" (literally "linked verse"), which would alternate between three lines of seventeen syllables and two lines of fourteen syllables - going on for 36, 72 or 100 "links". Prior to the 17th Century, a renku was an integral part of an all-night party among the upper class. The links were usually humorous, romantic or political, not exactly works of literary merit.

All of this changed with Matsuo Bashô (1644-1694), who brought a serious, Zen Buddhist discipline to the practise, transforming it from a party game into an art form. Bashô lived a wanderer's life, developing a reputation, as well as a significant following of dedicated disciples, in many Japanese cities. While Bashô usually adhered to the 5-7-5 syllable format of ancient hokku, he also instituted other principles. Most of his haiku could be seen as brief snapshots of nature - like momentary entries in a journal of wandering. They also included another ingredient: the poet himself, but usually as an object surrounded by nature instead of the main subject of the poem. This Zen paradox of being completely empty of self while being ultimately self-aware remains an important ingredient in many haiku.

About 200 years after Bashô died, haiku was little more than an historical artifact until Masaoka Shiki recognized the potential of such a terse literary form and single-handedly revived the practise in Japan. A few years later, American poets such as Ezra Pound took an active interest in haiku, sparking the birth of English-language haiku as a legitimate poetic form.

While many English haiku poets try to stick to seventeen syllables, incompatibilities between the English and Japanese languages render this restriction less important than the science of capturing a momentary image in words. Most "haijin" will agree that the haiku should be no longer than the duration of a breath, and that its subject matter should represent an event or an observation that was experienced directly by the author. So on the one hand the subject of a haiku should be very much literal, while the effect of the subject on the author, more subtle but equally important to the haiku, could be literal, symbolic or even imagined. Probably a good time for an example. Consider one of Bashô's later works (1689):

autumn wind --
a graveyard in Ise
even more lonely
(tr. - Makoto Ueda)

The apparent subject of the haiku is the autumn wind. But what does Bashô do? He sneaks himself into the haiku, alluding to his loneliness, by introducing a second subject, the graveyard.

This technique of introducing a second subject into a haiku for the purpose of contrast or complement is called "juxtaposition". After brevity, it is the most distinctive attribute of modern haiku. Here is a haiku by Kikaku, one of Bashô's prized disciples:

now the dragonflies
cease their mad gyrations...
a thin crescent moon
(tr. - Peter Beilenson)

Two seemingly irrelevant subjects are brought together - the dragonflies and the moon, in order to draw the reader into the scene. The technique of juxtapositioning the two images causes us to stop to look at the moon, at which point we realize that the frisky dragonflies have done the same thing. The effect is an unexpected identification with the insects - at least for that moment.

My favorite haiku of all demonstrates this technique beautifully. Issa wrote this haiku in the early 19th century, after the death of his infant daughter:

dew evaporates --
and all our life is dew:
so dear, so fresh, so fleeting
(tr. - Peter Beilenson)

The apparent subject of the haiku is dew, but Issa is not writing about dew at all, but rather his identification with dew as a symbol of our short lives.

Okay, I've given a few definitions and examples. Why do *I* like haiku? It is immediate - there is no need to dig into the words and ask "what did that mean"? More often than not, you'll read a haiku and say "ouch!" or "ooooh..." or words to that effect. I also appreciate the discipline of stripping words to the bare essential needed to make the connection between the author and the reader. Haiku doesn't tell a story - it takes a still photograph of a flash of lightning, in all its beauty, terror and suddenness. It takes the time to notice a dead bird but doesn't speculate on cause and effect. It celebrates a kiss, a smile or a fragrance, by simply allowing it to have its moment, usually when it is least expected...

first date --
under the streetlights
our shadows hold hands



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