“My schoolteachers meant well, but often presented only a superficial and sometimes misguided notion of haiku. If you’re new to haiku, you may be in the same situation–without knowing it. While too much information can also impede the poetic impulse, with haiku, as with other genres of poetry, it’s worthwhile to move beyond superficialities to gain a more substantial knowledge of the genre.” . . . . . Michael Dylan Welch, from Becoming a Haiku Poet
- Author David G. Lanoue, haiku poet-translator (and professor of English Literature at Xavier University N.O.), asks: Why is haiku taught in elementary school as a 17-syllable poem? The reason is simple: in many school curricula haiku is used to give students practice in recognizing syllables and manipulating language. Sadly, teachers often ignore the most important formal requirement of haiku: two images separated by a pause. They treat haiku as if it were merely a closed poetic form: any combination of words in a 5-7-5 combination.
1. BREVITY. The haiku must be BRIEF, that is, when read aloud it should be one breath-length long. [A healthy, young person’s breath, I guess.] There is no requirement that English-language haiku be 17 syllables, nor that they be written on three lines.The current consensus seems to be that English versions of haiku (whether translations or original) should be fewer than the 17 syllables that result from the classical 5-7-5 form. A number of experts have suggested that using approximately 12 English syllables (10 to 14) best duplicates the length of classsic Japanese haiku. [See Forms in English Haiku – Keiko Imaoka.]For example, in his Introduction to the 3rd edition (1999) of The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English, Cor van den Heuvel says:“The form of haiku that has continued most in favor in English is the otherwise free-form three liner, often written with the second line slightly longer than the first and third. These haiku are usually written in less than seventeen syllables. Though a few poets will write in the 5-7-5 syllable form, this form is now mostly written by schoolchildren as an exercise to learn how to count syllables, by beginners who know little about the true essence of haiku, or by those who just like to have a strict form with which to practice.“The one-line and two-line haiku, popular in the early and mid-eighties, are now a more occasional phenomenon. The one-line is very hard to write successfully, though some of the most outstanding haiku in English have been in one line.”2. AWE. The haiku must express a sense of AWE or transcendent insight. This is (apparently) a difficult concept to put in words. And it probably sounds a bit more high-faluting than it really is, since awe can come in small doses; and transcendence doesn’t necessarily mean brilliance. Harold Henderson called haiku “a record of a moment of emotion in which human nature is somehow linked to all nature.” (That link is often unstated in the poem, with the human as the implied observer.) Poet/editor Cor Van Den Heuvel said “haiku means seeing things as they are, realizing reality as it is — seeing one thing so clearly, we see the oneness of all things.” In his anthology, “The Classic Tradition of Haiku,” Faubion Bowers points out that there is “a hidden dualism” in each haiku (near/far, sound/silence, etc.); that comparison can be an element that creates the necessary transcendence.On a more modest scale, in his Haiku Handbook, Wm. Higgenson said “Most haiku present dramatic moments the authors found in common, everyday occurrences” and they answer the question “what?” — what made you feel this joy or pain or sadness?
3. NATURE. The haiku must invovle some aspect of Nature other than merely human nature. (That aspect, of course, being the linkage between nature and humans). As Cor Van den Heuvel has stated in his “Haiku Anthology”):“Nature in some sense must be present, and in some particular object — not generalized or allegorized. Haiku poets may find it in some unlikely places, however. Nature can be found on city streets as well as in the woods. It is wherever there is light or darkness, sound or silence, heat or cold — in whatever can be seen, heard, smelled, or touched. Haiku relates us to nature through the senses.”4. SENSORY IMAGES. The haiku must contain SENSE IMAGES, not generalizations — it must express in words something physical that is being seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled.5. NOWNESS. The haiku must present an event as happening NOW, not in the past or the future. [Haiku is about immediacy, not reminiscing or projecting.]
- Swede found that, starting in the 1960s, 80% of the English haiku found in the best anthologies and periodicals had fewer than 17 syllables. Swede notes (at 17) that a haiku with 17 onji in Japanese will have less than half that number of syllables in English. Swede also states that the average 17-onji haiku has five or six words, but that the typical 17-syllable English haiku has twelve or thirteen words, omitting articles. Faubion Bowers says that classic Japanese haiku consist of as few as three and as many as 10 words. Also, in his popular book “The Haiku Anthology,” poet/editor Cor Van Den Heuvel suggests that 10 to 14 English syllables better approximate the spoken length of haiku written in the classic Japanese form of 17 onji. Wm. Higginson, the author of “The Haiku Handbook,” wrote in 1985 that using approximately 12 English syllables best duplicates the original Japanese length.
ART without ARTIFICE: Of course, using or not using Swede’s rejected criteria might affect the quality of the haiku — too many or too few syllables or lines, too much subjectiveness, or too much poetic artifice, can all detract from the immediacy and direct emotion of the poem. In van den Heuvel’s opinion, “the greatest haiku are those that take me directly to the haiku moment without calling attention to themselves.” Alan Watts called haiku “the wordless poem,” and for van den Heuvel that phrase means that “Haiku, for the reader, is wordless because those few words are invisible. We as readers look right through them. There is nothing between us and the moment.”
“While American haiku poets warred over ‘traditional’ versus free-form haiku throughout the 1960s, in the 1970s each camp acknowledged that there were poems of outstanding worth in both styles. Now anyone can write a haiku in the style that fits the needs of the particular poet, moment, and perception. And write another in a different style the next time.”
“Usually writers stay with a rule until a new one is found to replace it. Because there are so many rules, we all have to make the decision: are those rules, goals, or guidelines soume I want for myself. This thought is much more gentle to the Universe than saying some haiku are good and others are bad”
- Here’s a quick guide to writing haiku:
[Ed. Note: It helps to have rules when you write haiku — you can pick your own rules, but should do so after informing yourself of traditions, issues and options. See Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands on Guide by Jane Reichhold, which has good suggestions on approaching and selecting your own haiku rules and improving your writing skills.]
- Write in three lines of about 10 to 17 syllables (some writers use a short-long-short format, but sometimes it’s better to just say what you need to say and not worry about form); haiku are usually not 17 syllables long in English.
- Try to include some reference to the season or time of year.
- To make your haiku more immediate, write in the present tense.
- Write about common, everyday events in nature and in human life; choose events that give you a moment of understanding or realization about the truth of things around you—but don’t explain them.
- Write from personal experience (memories are okay) rather than from imagination to produce haiku that are authentic and believable.
- Create an emotional response in the reader by presenting what caused your emotion rather than the emotion itself.
- Put two images together in the poem to create harmony or contrast, using words that are specific, common, and natural (avoid long or conceptual sorts of words).
- One image of the haiku can appear in one of the poem’s three lines; the other image can be described in two lines (either the first two or the last two); avoid creating haiku with three images (or three grammatical parts) because this weakens the energy created by the gap between just two parts.
- Avoid titles and rhyme (haiku virtually never have either) as well as metaphor, simile, and most other rhetorical devices (they are often too abstract or detours around the directness exhibited in most good haiku).
- Avoid awkward or unnatural line breaks and avoid dropping or adding words just to fit a syllable count (the poem should come across as perfectly natural and easy; anything that is choppy or unnatural will detract from the reader’s perception and enjoyment—make the words come across as so natural and easy-going that the reader doesn’t even notice them). And of course, don’t forget to have fun and enjoy experiencing life through your five senses!
- George Swede has a thoughtful discussion “Towards a Definition of English Haiku” in the anthology Global Haiku: Twenty-Five Poets World-Wide. The following summary of Swede’s “guidelines” appear in a Writer’s Profile at the Millikin University Haiku website:
- Swede’s Guidelines for haiku:
In the Global Haiku intro, [Swede] outlines eight commonly used haiku guidelines, then eliminates a few to come up with his five ultimate rules of good haiku.
1. haiku must be brief: one breath long
2. haiku must express sense of awe or insight
3. haiku must involve some aspect of nature other than human nature
4. haiku must possess sense images, not generalizations
5. haiku must present an event as happening presently, not past or future
- Swede’s Guidelines for haiku: