So What Is A Haiku Anyway

“The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.” – Matsuo Bashō

 The haiku has evolved into many forms, but in my haiku writing, I try to adhere as closely as I can to the original Japanese concept as perfected by the master Basho. In this way, it is part of a spiritual tradition, in which we gradually awaken to the world and ourselves, discovering hidden meaning and living more fully in the moment. It also enables us to see the same things every day through fresh eyes, like an infant, filling us with awe and joy for life. In my haiku, the image described in that moment is also the state of mind in the observer. The two are not separate; the observer and observed are one. This is why I avoid any philosophical or intellectual, ‘flowery’ language, similes, metaphors etc. There is no individual mind jumping in to analyse the experience. Instead, it is experienced directly and described in a simple and spontaneous way.

1. Origin and history:

The haiku emerged as a stand-alone form of verse in 17th century Japan. It had previously been the opening stanza of a longer form of collaborative poetry known as ‘renga’ and later ‘renku’. Each participant would add a verse in turn and attempt to outwit the others with the skill of their verbal sparring, not unlike some modern day rappers! In the 17th Century, the haiku (previously known as ‘hokku’) was developed by the acknowledged master, Matsuo Bashō into a highly respected form of sublime poetry. Bashō also combined his haiku with short prose and travel diaries (a form known as a ‘haibun’), the most famous of which is ‘Narrow Road Towards The Interior’. During the 18th century, the haiku became more strongly influenced by Buddhism especially through the writings of Kobayashi Issa.

2. Main features:

The haiku consists of three distinct, stand-alone lines, five, seven and five syllables, respectively, making a total of seventeen syllables.

It must reflect the time or most commonly, the season in which it was written. This is achieved through a ‘kigo’, which is a word or phrase symbolising or implying the season. It is often a natural feature such as cherry blossom or frogs in a pond, but sometimes a cultural festival or other human seasonal marker.

In Japanese, there is usually a ‘kireji’, or cutting word, which suggests a parallel between two phrases or emphasises the conclusion. However, these are unique to the Japanese language, and very difficult to create in English. Many writers use punctuation, such as a dash or exclamation mark.

The image should be described exactly as it is, without the use of metaphor or simile, although these are usually implied, often with great subtlety.

The haiku must stand alone independent of context, as a complete work.

The writer is not present, or at least not the main subject. There is a sense of objective truth.

There must be an apparent simplicity and spontaneity, without obvious intellectuality.

Rhyming is discouraged.

A deeper meaning or truth is revealed or hinted at through a simple observation. For example: change and impermanence, the condition of the human mind or a state of mind, or the contrast of loneliness and beauty often present in imperfection, asymmetry, decay and ageing (this is part of a Japanese aesthetic called ‘wabi-sabi’). Japanese writers also often used puns or references to earlier poems, haikus or literary works to add meaning.

3. Examples:

The most famous and oft cited haiku is Bashō’s ‘Old Pond’.

Furuike ya                                       Old pond –

kawazu tobikomu                         A frog jumps in

mizu no oto                                  water’s sound

From Kobayashi Issa:

Hana saku ya                     Cherry flowers bloom –       This refers to a secret Buddha

to aru kokage mo                   under every tree             statue displayed to the public

kaichobutsu                        a Buddha on display          on one particular day each year.

4. Inspiration

Use all your senses. Notice when something evokes an emotional reaction in you. Observe it closely until you experience it’s hidden meaning, beyond the initial sensory experience. Capture its essence (not your feelings) and take your snapshot in words, to preserve it for all eternity.

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One Response to So What Is A Haiku Anyway

  1. Pingback: So What Is A Haiku Anyway | teasawilliams

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