I got interested in haiku as a college student in the 1950’s. We fancied ourselves members of the beat generation and read a lot of Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg, both of whom wrote haiku poetry. Kerouac, in particular, was a serious student of Buddhism and introduced haiku to American readers in his novel, The Dharma Bums. He reportedly always carried a small notebook in his shirt pocket in which he recorded his everyday experiences in haiku form. He wrote, “a real haiku’s got to be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing.” His poems have recently been collected and published in Book of Haikus, edited by Regina Weinreich.
Here’s what I know about haiku. It’s a form of Japanese lyric poetry that combines three unrhymed short lines which include a noticeable grammatical break (termed a kireji). Haiku is one of the oldest written forms of poetry, originating inn the 16th century. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and Yosa Buson (1715-83) are the best known traditional poets. Haiku employs sensory descriptions and objective words instead of interpretation or analysis. Thus, feelings are suggested by natural images rather than being stated directly. James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, and many other prominent Western writers produced haiku. Here are a couple of examples of classic haiku by Basho, translated into English:
an old pond –
the sound of a frog jumping
the first cold shower;
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw.
In traditional Japanese haiku the first line has five sound units (akin to syllables), the second has seven, and the third again has five. Modern haiku, however, commonly departs from this rule. Most English haiku have between 10 and 14 syllables with the second line slightly longer than the first or third, e.g., 3-5-3. Some haiku depart from the three-line rule, using 2, 4, or even 5 lines.
In English haiku the grammatical break after the first or second line may be signified with a comma, semi-colon, hyphen, or dash. The implied break, as if the author said “semi-colon”, divides the three-line haiku into two separate segments. The shorter part, whether line 1 or line 3, is called the “fragment” and provides a contextual overview of the poem’s topic as a whole. “An old pond” in the first haiku above is the fragment. The other two lines are called the “phrase” and depict a specific detail, e.g., “the sound of a frog jumping/ into water.” Likewise, in the second example above, “the first cold shower” is the fragment; the other two lines, the phrase.
The purpose of the break is to create a juxtaposition, leading the reader to implicitly contrast, compare, or associate two events, images, or situations. A good haiku creates a little “click” or insight for the reader at its end. Traditional Japanese haiku typically denote a season, contain a topic dealing with nature or humans’ place in nature, and convey the essence of a given moment. Kenneth Yashuda in Japanese Haiku describes haiku as a poem that expresses a “haiku moment” whose “quality is eternal, for in this state, man and his environment are one unified whole, in which there is no sense of time.” Contempory haiku have been expanded to deal with virtually any topic, e.g., urban experiences, romance, technology.
I got sort of burned out and took a break from haiku in my junior year of college. Now fifty years have gone by. That seems like a long enough break, so I’ve gotten interested in haiku again. This has been both enjoyable and difficult. Here are some of my products this week, prompted by recalling experiences of swimming in the Menominee River:
Trudging out through murky mud,
Seaweed tickles our legs.
Hurry, hurry, dive soon!
Stroking on my side,
Flipping to my back.
No Muskellunge can do this.
Eyes opened wide --
Watch for snapping turtles.
We sidestroke with all our strength,
Push push against the current.
Pig Island, still far in the distance.
Kids swimming over their heads;
Mothers drink beer in lawn chairs
And watch erratically.
We tip the green rowboat
Where are the children now?
Take a deep breath,
Breast strokes to the river's floor,
Scan the brown sand, find lost treasures.
The pine log raft anchored deep --
Children play underwater tag,
Dodging a dead catfish.
We wade cautiously
Up the long shoreline.
Deadly quicksand looms ahead.
Swimming all done,
I bring my new friends ashore.
So that’s fun to do. I’d like to invite readers to compose some haiku of your own. If you e-mail them to me, I’ll post them here for virtual people to come and see.
Composing haiku –
It strains our weary brains,
But, voila, our brains don’t mind!
Vicki L. (10-11): Loved your haiku. Seems to me your writing was very much influenced by this tradition.