Haiku. The very word evokes the beauty of nature and the simple elegance of zen. It fascinates many poets. But for all its simplicity and beauty, haiku is often misunderstood. Misconceptions about haiku by many well-meaning poets result in “haiku” that are, in fact, three-line poems–often of a specific syllabic count, and in a familiar 5-7-5 pattern. Often these short poems include multiple images that seem pleasant but often confuse the reader. Fortunately, these misconceptions can easily be cleared up.
To do so, we must first examine what a haiku is not. Ironically, we need to look at dictionary definitions to do that! Dictionary.com, for example, defines haiku as:
The Oxford English dictionary offers a similar definition:
A Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world.
The problem with these definitions is that they perpetuate a distorted understanding of haiku. Compare them to the Haiku Society of America’s definition:
A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.
The HSA elaborates further:
Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today’s poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements. In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen “sounds” (on) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximates the duration of seventeen Japanese on.)
Notice the HSA’s emphasis? Not syllables or line-structure, but the use of imagery to evoke the connected experience of nature and and the human condition in a given moment. While a haiku may have three lines, seventeen syllables, and adhere to the five-seven-five distribution, it does not have to in order to be a haiku. In fact, haiku poet, scholar, translator and host of NaHaiWriMo Michael Dylan Welch has much to say about the why syllabication is not the be-all, end-all of haiku.
Counting syllables, however, is not the only misconception. Many “haiku” jam at least three images into three lines. An authentic haiku, on the other hand, juxtaposes two discrete images. Think of the Tai Chi symbol–the yin-yang. Each side of the symbol complements each other when joined together. It is the juxtaposition of complementary images in haiku that produce the “a-ha” moment that some haiku poets call “haiku mind.” Gemma Bristow describes this process in her essay “Toward a description of haiku”:
A haiku expresses a moment of vivid awareness/perception sparked by observation of the world. It shares this experience with the reader through concrete imagery and uncluttered language; that is, it presents directly the object(s) that moved the poet – birds flying, dew on a leaf, a woman’s bright gown on a grey day, etc. The poem does
not make overt, rhetorical statements explaining the significance of the scene thus presented. Rather, by juxtaposing images and by playing on existing cultural associations, it invites the reader to make their own connections and to pursue
the ramifications of the experience. (emphasis mine)
To achieve this juxtaposition, traditional haiku depends on two techniques. The first is the inclusion of a season word (kigo). This grounds the poem in the natural world and the immediacy of the moment, its particular season. The second is the cutting word (kireji). Many haiku in English use punctuation, such as elipses ( …) or dashes ( — ) to insert a “cut” between images, as English does not have cut words like Japanese does. Again, Bristow:
By convention, the poem includes a so called ‘season word’ (kigo) that situates it within a particular phase of the year ñ either the explicit name of a season, or certain plants/animals/weather traditionally associated with one. It also includes a ‘cutting word’ (kireji), a meaningless sound inserted to provide a pause. Usually, this ‘cutting word’ is used to break the poem into two parts – two images, or a specific image and a more general setting ñ which strike off associations by their juxtaposition.
Likewise, the HSA:
Traditional Japanese haiku include a “season word” (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a “cutting word” (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem.
A haiku, then, is a short poem that juxtaposes two distinct images that evoke a connection between the essence of the natural world and the human condition in a given moment. With that in mind, look at the two poems, and see which one is the real haiku:
Wind-teased maple leaves
A sea of sun descending
green on cracked pavement
It’s written in three lines, and it follows the 5-7-5 patterns of seventeen syllables. But it uses a metaphoric image in line 2, instead of a natural image. Line 3 introduces a third image. There is no seasonal reference, no cut, and no juxtaposition between the images. Therefore, this poem is simply a three-line poem, not a haiku.
The next one:
maple leaf pile
one more ride-through
This one is also written in three lines. However, it has a total of thirteen syllables, in a 5-4-4 pattern. The first line presents an image of a leaf pile, suggesting a season–Autumn. The next line presents an implied image of a ride that runs through the aforementioned pile. The last line expands the second image with an implied image of a coming sunset. While there is no “cutting word” punctuation, there is a clear combination of two discreet images: a maple leaf pile, and a “ride-through before sunset.” The images together evoke the connection of Autumn and fall-cleanup. Therefore, this poem is a haiku.
The sublime power of haiku lay not in syllabication or image-piling, but in conveying those moments when nature and the human condition connect in a given moment. A poet that can juxtapose two images in a short poem to evoke such an “a ha” experience in a reader has written an authentic haiku. That is the haiku that continue to fascinate with simplicity and beauty. That is the haiku we need.