Whether you’re already writing haiku or not, you may learn a little from these posts. But maybe it would be better to unlearn a few things.
Misconceptions about haiku
The following misstatements concerning haiku may be found in various sources:
1. “They always have three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.”
2. “They are not titled.”
3. “They don’t rhyme.”
4. “They are easy to write.”
5. “They have no punctuation.”
6. “They are nature poems.”
Let’s look at each of these “rules.”
“They always have three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.” There are exceptions to the three line pattern. See Part 1. Usually American haiku follow that arrangement, but some early haiku by famed Japanese poets deviate from it. For example, see these poems by Basho (Translation by Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Bashó, Kodansha International, 1982):
Mushi wa gekka no
Kuru o ugatsu
At night, in silence
A worm in the moonlight
Eats into a chestnut1.
Kaso o te ni sagete
Where was the winter shower?
With his umbrella in his hand
The monk returns2.
The poems above consist of 6/6/6 and 6/8/4 triplets, respectively, in the original Japanese. (In the above examples, each bolded final ‘u’ (above) is “de-voiced” or whispered. Whether a de-voiced syllable counts is debatable, but not here.)
Feel free to use any number of syllables that works for you. (Be prepared, however, for the haiku police to catch you at it and wring their hands.) Translations of haiku are another necessary exception to this “rule.” See the section on translations, below.
“They are not titled.” Not only are many haiku titled, like the chestnut poem above (see footnote), some have prefaces of anywhere from a sentence to several pages. I recommend that American haiku be titled to clearly identify the setting or subject for the reader. This usually can save several syllables, almost always a good idea if you want to stay “under budget.” (See below regarding syllable budgets.) I’d forget the prefaces, however.
3. “They don’t rhyme.” There are so many rhyming syllables in Japanese that rhyme is as easy as assonance or alliteration in English. It’s hard not to rhyme, in Japanese. Therefore, Japanese haiku often contain internal rhymes, sometimes accidental, sometimes not. Unlike American poems, rhyme is probably used in haiku more for phonetic balance than for its own sake. Regarding rhyme in American translations of haiku, see below under Twenty Syllable Translations.
More next time in Part 3.
1This poem is titled “The Moon on the Thirteenth of the Ninth Month.” The ninth month was called “The Chestnut Month” by the Japanese of that time. The image here is supposed to include “eating away” of almost half of the moon by an imaginary worm, based on the use of a lunar calendar.
2This is a bit of irony. The monk has prepared for rain, but comes back with his umbrella closed and dry.