Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 1

Now that I’ve got your attention, I’ll state that if you think you’re writing haiku, you probably are, of a sort. On the other hand, there is a spectrum of beliefs on what constitutes true haiku. At one end of the spectrum, we have those who consider haiku genuine only if they are Japanese haiku. At the other end, some believe that any compilation of 17 syllables broken into three lines of five, seven, and five syllables is a haiku.

The result looks like
This, without much more art than
counting seventeen.
–Sosumi

Basics: UPDATE 5/11/2013: Added an example from Beilenson.*

The haiku is a Japanese poetic form. (Haiku are like fish or sheep in that the plural form of haiku is still haiku.) With some exceptions, haiku consist of seventeen syllables, usually divided into three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. Note that this division into three horizontal lines is more Western than Japanese.

There was an early form of Japanese poetry called hokku. These were intended as introductory verses for a longer type of poem, but the format is essentially the same as for haiku. I will use the term haiku to encompass both forms. Be aware that any haiku written before 1890 is likely to be a hokku.

Haiku could be thought of as the written counterpart of sumié, the Chinese painting style in which a human figure, animal, plant, or scene is represented by a few strokes of the brush or pen. Precise, photographic representation is not the objective of either sumié or haiku. Rather, an impression is to be evoked in the viewer’s mind through strokes (or words, in the case of haiku) that convey the essence of the subject.

Twilight whippoorwill:
Whistle on, sweet deepener
of dark loneliness
–Basho*

Format:

The rhythm of the haiku is said to parallel breathing: The first line is an exhalation, a statement of general scene or subject. The second is an imaginary inhalation as a particular detail or nuance is introduced. The last line is a large exhalation as the most powerful part of the image is expressed, the focal point of the poem. This is an ideal, not an infallible rule for writing acceptable haiku.

The three lines are always broken into two parts. Either the first line or the last line is constructed to stand by itself. The other two lines are connected into a single thought. A break between the two parts is sometimes indicated (in English) by a semicolon. Thus the first two lines may be thought of as one thought and the last line as a capper (Type A). Alternatively, the first line may be an opening subject line and the bulk of the imagery contained in the final two lines (Type B).

Type A:

One fallen flower
returning to the branch? Oh no!
A white butterfly
–Moritake

Type B:

Yellow evening sun:
long shadow of the scarecrow
reaches to the road
–Shoha

Do your haiku contain a firecracker at the end? Or are they more like ordinary free verse in 5 / 7 / 5 syllables? Read on in Part 2.

* Japanese Haiku, by Peter Beilenson, [1955]. Scanned at sacred-texts.com, April 2007. Proofed and formatted by John Bruno Hare. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was not renewed in a timely fashion as required by law at the time. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice of attribution is left intact in all copies.

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3 Responses to Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 1

  1. eskopoet says:

    Full moons and night skies,
    Madrid became our backdrop,
    Love became whispers.

    Picasso painted,
    Clouds over heavy moonlight,
    Heavy breaths and sighs,

    Bed covers and thighs,
    Lip stick stains leave love letters,
    On skin I still read…

    The moon cried sorrow.
    Two lovers with early flights,
    That night was goodbye…

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